image  Sometimes being a Game master feels like being in a five on one bar fight, with every other person in the fight having had time to workout and prepare for it for the last 3 months. Games are often weighted towards the players, providing many more options and possibilities for the players than there are for Game Masters. Most splatbooks and setting books provide new powers and skills for players, and when it comes to new combat options for Game Masters, the scales are fairly often tipped against the Game Master. This all leads up to one important thought:  Players have it good if they want to build a combat haus* character. Characters that are geared totally for combat can sometimes make it hard for GMs to provide adequate challenges, especially when other characters aren’t as combat oriented. Well, to help with this all too common conundrum, here are five tips for dealing with Combat Haus characters.

  1. Attack The Scenery – Big monsters can take out terrain. Certain effects can take out terrain. A high defensive ability or great armor is rarely good against a 500 foot fall or losing your turn and becoming prone because the ground you were standing on has catapulted 20 feet into the air. If you can’t manage to damage a character just from an enemy, try moving the ground around. In one game I was a player in, a Wyvern (with rider) spent its time attacking the train we were on instead of attacking us. It made the combat 10 times worse, trying to deal with constant rolls to maintain balance and take penalties to our rolls. Doing interesting things with terrain also provides some really interesting game options and action scenes. Dynamic terrain means dynamic action scenes.
  2. Most Systems Allow Options For Customizing Enemies, Use Them – If there are highly combat capable creatures or enemies statted up in your game’s enemies section, use them to their fullest advantage. If there aren’t combat capable enemies, roll your own instead of using stock options. The more detailed your enemies the better. Stock enemies are almost always fodder against combat optimized characters. If enemies in your preferred game system can have the same options as characters, you need to find the few feats/focuses/powers/edges/ etc. that provide that a combat edge and implement them. Just a few of these combat cinchers thrown in can increase the challenge in a big way. But wait John, how will I know what ones get best mileage? Look at the characters who are your current combat hauses. If they can do it, likely so can you. Go to the internet and look up NPCs or combat builds for NPCs. The more detailed the characte,r the better.
  3. Multiple Weak Or Medium Attacks Pale In Comparison To One Big Devastating Attack – There comes a point when multiple low level enemies just aren’t a threat anymore. Even using them slows down the game. If you use them, make them the fodder that they are. If you really want to do some damage, include a big bruiser who can make multiple hits AND take the damage. That levels the playing field against a combat haus in a big way. There are two factors to this. The enemy has to stick around long enough to deal enough good hits to feel threatening and their hits need to be felt.
  4. Defense, Defense, Defense, Offense, Offense, Offense & Describe, Describe, Describe – An enemy that can take the damage will definitely be a challenge to take down. As stated above, it needs to be able to dish it out as well in order to challenge the players and not just be hard to take down. Ok, common sense, but you need to make it not boring as well. Whittling down an enemy that constantly "swipes its claws and deals 40 damage" can get boring. Vary up the descriptions of the attacks, or add quick one or two word flavor elements to keep a combat against a tough enemy feeling worthwhile.
  5. Explosives, Bombs, Traps, AOE Attacks, i.e. Dirty Combat – Use them if the game has rules for them. They spice up the combat and take things out of the direct attack/defend/response paradigm that combat straight against enemies has. Razjah mentioned that his homebrew orcs had acid blood. Things like this provide unexpected effects that the PCs have to creatively work around.
  6. Bonus – Target The Haus Most Of The Time, It’s Fair – Arrayed before the Grindy, Nashy, Teeth Of Doom Dragon are a man in a robe, a girl in leather armor, a knight in tough steel armor, and a big barbarian with a huge sword. Even based on mere instinct, the dragon should and would go for the barbarian and the knight, especially when they start dealing damage. Attacking the combat  hauses provides combat challenge for the combat oriented characters AND allows the non-combat characters to feel effective in combat by using their abilities (spells, healing, sneak attacks, etc.) without being knocked out by two overpowered hits. Don’t level all attacks against the combat worthy of course, but it is often ok to level most attacks against them. They would present the biggest threat and would often be the most liable target.

Ok, final thoughts. Creative thinking in combat is the moral of this story. Combat should be fun, not one sided on either end.Victory after a challenge always feels better than realizing there was never any threat. At the same time, just kicking butt against enemies far too weak doesn’t provide any real sense of worthwhileness to a character’s build.

What techniques do you have for dealing with overpowered combat oriented characters? Do you treat them any differently than regular powered characters? How does their presence in a party affect the party balance in your eyes?


*Why do we call it a haus anyways? Doing a bit of basic research, I can only guess that the slang term is derivative from the German Haus, which means house, but I can’t really trace the etymology. Can anyone shed any light on this?

IMG By Makrus Roncke | CC 2.5

16 replies
  1. XonImmortal
    XonImmortal says:

    I believe “haus” is somebody’s idea of getting cute with the old term “hoss”. Urban Dictionary’s fifth entry for this, referencing the old west, would support this. One of the characters on Bonanza was named “Hoss”, .

    As far as overcoming the “combat haus”, just remember: inside every minmax is a 0-level NPC yearning to be free. I have a number of “special” magic items to release the inner 0-level NPC.

    I warn anybody who deliberately tries to minmax their characters that the character is probably not going to live long, and I encourage other GMs to take up the cause of minmax eugenics.

  2. Harald
    Harald says:

    My strategy is usually to forge at least one BBEG that I know will be able to lay some serious hurting on the PCs, then I back that one up with as many generic thugs as needed. The PCs will have to team up on the BBEG, while the minions will distract, disrupt, backstab and take pot-shots on them in the process.

    While reffing the combat, I tend to treat the lesser opponents as extras – a crit or a really good blow takes one out – as that cuts down on book keeping and also makes for a more fast-paced action-sequence. This also leaves me free to fully utilize the killing-machine I’ve fielded.

    I also assume the badguys have been in a fight before, and so they will try to take out key heroes first. When the heroes have reputations, or if they have fought the same faction before, I have the enemy target the characters who are vital for the strategy of the heroes. In my current game, the call “Kill the wizards!” have become feared by the players.

    As for huge foes, I love throwing PCs through the air, stomping on them, slaying their steeds, toppling walls etc.

    Lastly, when using multiple lesser opponents, I have a range of house-rules for various games intended to give an advantage to outnumbering an enemy. If I have a dozen archers firing on a single PC, I’ll divide them into two groups, give each a +1 for every member past one, and roll once for each group. That way I don’t roll twelve times with only a theoretical chance to hit. I also have similar rules for melee.

  3. Redcrow
    Redcrow says:

    A well planned ambush can often turn a group of typically low-threat opponents into deadly enemies. I’ve always played the weaker fantasy races (goblins, kobolds, etc.) as guerilla fighters who have no real interest in a stand-up toe-to-toe fight. They hit, run, and hide; gradually wearing the PCs down through attrition and causing them to exhaust their resources.

    Most ‘Combat Haus’ characters are designed for toe-to-toe combat, but usually aren’t well equipped to deal with a foe that won’t come out and face them directly.

    Hyper specialized min/maxed combat monsters usually don’t last too long in my games. I try to warn new players to play the character and not the numbers, but it usually doesn’t sink in with new players right away that I’m much better at the min/max game than they are and I have an unlimited number of NPCs on which to apply it.

  4. Matthew J. Neagley
    Matthew J. Neagley says:

    I have to disagree about point 3. Often, with combat haus PCs, their defenses are through the roof, and shooting them 40 times with an attack that only hits 10% of the time is the best way to crack that defense. However, that can be an absolute PITA as far as time and trouble. After all, who wants to roll 40 attack rolls?
    But there’s a number of things you can do:
    -You can use the binomial formula (it’s in the primer to probability part 2 article) to figure out the chances there are X hits, and build a mini table showing “if between 1 and 5 of them are alive and they attack AC 35, there’s a 50% one of them hits, 25% chance two of them do” etc… allowing you to simulate the entire squad with a single die roll
    -you can wing the same #s
    -You can make them into a special rule like “the bowmen create a mobile zone in which all targets automatically take X damage, plus Y more if…” They scatter if reduced to half numbers…

  5. TwoShedsJackson
    TwoShedsJackson says:

    @XonImmortal – I applaud your decision to target the min/maxer, so long as you have the wisdom to distinguish him or her from the player who simply wants to a) utilize interesting and effective combat options, b) survive to fulfill a complex and long-planned storyline, or c) be the star of the show after many years of taking a back seat to bolder players.

  6. Harald
    Harald says:

    @TwoShedsJackson – Why should that make a difference? If you are playing the most dangerous character in the group, you should expect to be targeted. It’s a little like insisting on staying in the kitchen even if you can’s stand the heat.

  7. Patrick Benson
    Patrick Benson says:

    For me the problem is that combat often becomes the objective of a game, and not one of several means to an end. Plus most RPG combat is without purpose. Do you really need to attack the goblins guarding that entrance? Or can you scare them away instead with some sort of trickery?

    When combat is unavoidable what is the objective? To secure territory? To secure an item? To foil a plan? If there is an objective can it be achieved without one side having to wipe out the other side?

    If you make combat the only option, then you get the min-maxer as a response. You also get long boring “whittle away at the tank and monster” combat sessions. If you put in alternatives, and if you make “victory” in combat possible without requiring that everything die on one side or the other you can have some really interesting games that avoid the problems associated with a combat focused approach.

  8. TwoShedsJackson
    TwoShedsJackson says:

    @Harald – Targeted, yes. But “probably not going to live long” smacks of the punitive, of “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

    While the subject of character deaths has been much debated with no real consensus, I can explain my own firm opinion in one sentence: If the DM has a problem with how I built my character, he should house rule the parts that he considers problematic, not kill off the character to remove the annoyance.

  9. BishopOfBattle
    BishopOfBattle says:

    I like the “Attack the Scenery” recommendation. I’ll have to try that in some of my upcoming sessions.

    @Harald – Your “good hit or crit takes them out” method is very similar to how 4E D&D treats minions, which I love (and I have also adapted to other systems like Shadowrun)! They let me throw 10-15 enemies at a party of four with one or two strong ring leaders in the mix and really let the party feel like “heroic bad asses”. The minions all go down in one hit while the leaders stick around for a bit longer as the larger threat.

    My biggest problem has been focusing the players on the enemies they’ll be most effective against. The rogue (who works better paired with another player) and wizard (who has crowd control great for dealing with minons) in my group like to go toe to toe solo with the leaders while the heavily armored warriors (who can take the damage and keep the attention of the leaders) of the group like to wade into the minions. Woops. 😛

    @Patrick Benson – I don’t mind that so much, part of the big fun of roleplaying games is the combat (which makes sense as they evolved out of wargames, where combat WAS the objective). Senseless combat that doesn’t fit a story or a game that does nothing besides barely string together combat encounters isn’t that great, but when I am a player if I were to come to a game week after week where all we did was travel, talk, negotiate, travel, sneak, steal, and travel some more without some interesting combat encounters I probably wouldn’t be a player there for long.

    Games shouldn’t be all combat all the time (unless that’s what you AND all your players want) but at the same time, clever thinking and / or roleplaying heavy scene setup shouldn’t mean combat never ever comes up (unless that’s what you AND all your players want).

  10. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    Wow, thanks for the shout-out, John. I must be doing something right.

    I’ve done all of these tricks at one point. Now I make sure to build non-combat encounters into the game. Sure the combat wombat could sit around and do nothing, but now the player is really bored and might pick up a non-combat skill in the next level up. Even being able to use the aid another action means the player contributes.

    I really like Patrick’s point about making the combat have a purpose. Scaring away enemies can be done with tricks from a rogue and mage, while the combat guys get to play the “Dread Pirate Roberts” now the cave entrance is clear and there was a non-combat encounter.

    Even in the Lord of the Rings they scared away the Ring-Wraiths rather than fight them because no one wanted to engage in a pointless fight. You can emphasize this with light house ruling to magical healing: it takes time, needs a full night’s rest to work, it doesn’t exist, can only heal so much then the body needs to do the rest, etc. Doing small changes to magical healing will give a lot to making players less enthused to go looking for a fight. Also it lets smoke tricks be of more effect.

  11. Harald
    Harald says:

    Well said. I agree wholeheartedly with you in that any type of punitive action by the GM is a bad thing, and tantamount to plain bad craft. It would appear we are in agreement, sir.

    I actually got that one from Star Wars d20, I believe… At least the group-fire rule is from there.

    As for the rouges taking on the big ‘uns while the tanks wade through the numbered thugs, I have a similar problem. While my players have no problem focusing on the most dangerous opponent, they tend to favour creative approaches a lot more than things that will actually hurt the enemy.

    I’ve done two things. First I told them plainly that their strategy was rubbish, and that I would stop holding back if they didn’t make some adjustments – this would probably lead to death. Secondly, I’ve introduced a couple of NPCs who have given them advice in-game. They’re still not exactly classified as lethal weapons, but they no longer suck.

    @Patrick Benson & BishopOfBattle:
    I agree with Patrick on the principle, and with BoB in that combat is a vital part of the game. And for some players, it is a deal-breaker.

    I try to make the combat-encounters a part of the narrative (no random tables in any of my games). If there are goblins where there were none last week, that has a plot hook/red herring embedded. Even if the players ignore that lead, I try to weave it in to the underlying story in one way or another.

  12. Patrick Benson
    Patrick Benson says:

    @BishopOfBattle – I understand what you are saying, but I never said that there should be no combat in a game.

    In war games the combat is the sole purpose for playing, and while RPGs evolved out of war games they quickly abandoned the idea of being combat oriented to being plot oriented with combat as part of the story. By the mid-80s there were plenty of games with options well beyond combat.

    My point is that you should not limit a game to be only about combat if min-maxers are a problem for you. You can easily avoid that by making combat just one of many options that might produce the desired results for the players. That way when the group does choose the combat option it is because that is what they wanted, and not because they were forced into it.

    If combat must be the only option then fine, but that should be the exception and not the rule. Of course, some groups just want combat and that is fine too. I wouldn’t be a part of such a group, but that is my personal preference.

  13. lomythica
    lomythica says:

    @John – thanks for the article. This is one of my weaker areas as a story oriented GM. I have trouble creating compelling combat scenes, especially in mechanically daunting systems.

    @Patrick – I try to leave options open for avoiding combat whenever appropriate. Some of that is die to the problem I note above. I tend to like mechanics that have stiff penalties for getting hurt (GURPS, doctor who aitas, savage worlds somewhat). It is a lot more fun than the d&d haus that barely seems to be affected until they reach 0 hit points.

  14. SavageTheDM
    SavageTheDM says:

    In my group I have two min/max characters inside of it and only one of those are able to do anything other then fight and sneak. In my last game my party went into a small dragonborn village and split up after the dragonborn paladin who is a vary talkative character went to see his boss for special orders the other three went exploring two of them went into a shamans hut and got some prophecy while the last one who is one of my min/max players a monk/rogue hybrid who multi classed into a ranger (I have only seen two other people do as much damage as him) used a streetwise check to find a monk from his background quest but he failed epically and this lead to him offending a dragonborn leading to a contest of honer and strength in other words a fight without killing each other. So while I took care of the needs of my role playing players I also took care of my min/maxer’s combat needs at the same time.

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