As a gamer, I’m not interested in just the realm of virtual entertainments. Beyond the bountiful fields of modern PC gaming there lays the wild and untamed wilderness of the tabletop RPG. Computer gaming can certainly be more convenient, not requiring you to coordinate the schedules of three or more people for several uninterrupted hours plus commute time. However, the great advantage – okay, one of several advantages, but for my money the most important – that tabletop gaming has over the computer-powered alternatives is the fantastic openness it offers to the players. You can quite literally go anywhere and do anything, with the aid of a robust ruleset and a clever and adaptive GM (Game Master; the one controlling the world around you). You won’t always succeed, but you can try, and that’s the key. As much as computer RPGs may try to advertise open worlds or affecting the course of the story, the experiences are ultimately narrow because the developers just don’t have the time or money to write, voice and code every possible outcome and every outcome of the choices that are born out of the previous outcome and so on and so forth branching out into infinity.
Conversely, this means the GM has a tough job keeping up with story, guiding the players along a path that doesn’t rush them out into the realm of “We’re done for the week so I can fill in the blank part of the map you’ve gone to” and, especially as the players grow in power and skill, providing an interesting and challenging array of opponents for them to face off against. While most game systems (including Pathfinder, my current system of choice) come with a pre-built selection of creatures, these don’t always fit the setting or plotline that the game is currently running through. Pure Gygaxian “The random encounter table has given you a basilisk. Deal with it” solutions only go so far when you’re striving for a particular theme or coherency amongst the opposition, and for my money, crafting a custom-built array of enemies to fit your needs exactly is far more rewarding.
This series, then, is about the art of making more with less; building the right opponent with the right feats and skills to give your players a challenge, without brute-forcing matters through overwhelming stats, levels or gear – especially gear, because if you try to make an array of enemies more dangerous through magical items, you might start inflating the party wealth beyond what’s healthy far too quickly. What your monsters wield, players acquire, so for truly deadly foes as the levels climb, the bestiaries are your best bet – dragons, planar creatures, aberrations and so forth. With the exception of the Big Bad and their lieutenants, humanoids are best kept as low- to mid-level foes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be effective or at the very least exceptionally annoying. Good use of class levels, teamwork feats and combat maneuvers can make even the lowliest mook a thorn in the side of the players.
Next time: Hoplites!