Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Alternate Win Conditions in D&D

After playing D&D for nearly four decades I have developed some habits as a Dungeon Master. One of them is using alternate win conditions for battles with boss level monsters and villains. Some while back I really became numb to the concept of hit points, especially in high level play. Far to often the battles felt like the players were just chopping down a tree...with a dull axe. Before going any further, I understand that style of play still appeals to some people. I’m not saying there's anything wrong with it. I just do not prefer it any longer.

I used the chess image to the right on purpose. There are countless possible games which eventually lead to a victory in chess. With that foundation in mind, let's explore how alternate win conditions can be used in D&D.

Hit points are not cinematic. Hit points are something the players can meta game as damage is dealt. Hit points are just a piece of the puzzle for me, not the whole thing. A well placed critical hit could potentially one shot an important story boss. The rest of the players are left with dice in hand, bummed how anti-climatic the battle was. Sure, sometimes as a DM you NEED to let that happen. Especially if everyone is cheering and excited at the result. After all, you’re the casino with endless resources to throw against the players. Those are game day calls and only you can decide what is best for your group and story.

So what are alternate win conditions? Well if you’ve ever played a video game you have seen them. They are best defined as a series of tasks which must be completed BEFORE you can defeat the boss. This defeat could be directly or indirectly, the latter being my favorite. I think the best way to show this is by example:

Alternate Win Condition (Direct)

For this scenario I will detail what a boss fight typically looks like versus one updated with alternate win conditions.

Final Room A: When the PCs enter this chamber the Goblin King will be seated on his throne comprised of yellowed bone. To his left and right are two Hobgoblin Guards. He will yell out in the blackened tongue, “Destroy the interlopers!” Note: The Goblin King counts as a hobgoblin with maximum hit points. In addition, he has two attacks per round.

Final Room B: When the PCs enter this chamber the Goblin King will be seated on his throne comprised of yellowed bone. Upon seeing the PCs he will cackle evilly and vanish into wispy smoke. If the PCs advance on the throne they hear a series of clicks. Two pieces of rune covered obsidian rise from the floor on either side of the room.

These stones will summon 1d4+1 Goblin Skeletons every round until disarmed (DC15 Sleight of Hand), disenchanted (DC15 Arcana), or destroyed (DC15 Athletics check). Any summoned goblin skeletons will defend the stones if necessary, using their reaction to impose disadvantage on a PC rolls.

In addition, the Goblin King is considered ethereal while the stones remain active. A DC15 Arcana check will reveal creatures that aren't on the Ethereal Plane can't interact with him, unless they have an ability or magic that allows this. That said, his awful cackle somehow reverberates throughout the chamber. Once the stones are deactivated the cowardly Goblin King will reappear, groveling for his life.

Goblin King - Aradia Miniatures

In the above example the players have to work more as a team to defeat this boss. The Goblin King is not just a bag of Hit Points. Since the stones work as monster generators, there is still a combat aspect to the encounter. This keeps the players who enjoy that style of play happy. Finally, the Goblin King could escape to menace the players another day if you so choose. Either way, the PCs have defeated him this time!

Alternate Win Condition (Indirect)

This style of win condition works better in campaigns that are more story based. It’s usually a gradual thing as the PCs slowly chip away at the villain and foil plans. In one of my current campaigns the main villain doesn't even have stats written to a character sheet. He has carefully worked his machinations throughout the realm causing all sorts of chaos. NO, this villain is far too intelligent to risk direct confrontation! The players have been defeating his plans and lieutenants along the way. With each of their victories his power lessons and his plots and allies are exposed. That said, the constant threat of this villain hangs like a dark cloud over them. He strikes back whenever he can...but may be weakening.

I encourage you to find ways to incorporate alternate win conditions into your sessions when dealing with boss level encounters. Even though D&D finds its foundation in war games not every battle needs to be decided with hit points. I think by mixing it up once in a while you will keep the sessions fresh for your players and have them thinking of new ways to use their character abilities. Even better, occasionally a player will dream up an alternate win condition on the spot. This is the stuff of legends! Embrace it and create a story your group will talk about for years to come.