[Editor’s Note: It’s good to be back again! Between an extended Holiday break, post-Holiday ennui, and a bout of illness, there has not been a lot of posting here at Neuroglyph Games blogsite. But now that things are getting better, you can expect to see blogs and reviews again!]
Last Saturday, I once again tested the mettle of my valiant heroes against a terrible foe – a Nightmare Beast from deep in the Shadowfell! I found myself rather pleased that the heroes were primed and ready to take on this elite horror and his undead cohorts by saving their precious daily powers until this climactic encounter. So even though the Beast nearly one-shotted the Defender of the group, the rest of the heroes unleashed their best powers and drove the Beast back, while neutralizing its dangerous companions.
On the drive home, I complimented one of my Players for his foresight in saving back his dailies to use on the Nightmare Beast, but he replied simply that he never wastes his dailies until I let him know it is the “right time”. He said it was more than obvious when they were at the “boss” encounter, and he made sure he was ready to fight the good fight at the right time.
Now at first I was taken aback by this, wondering if I am a bit too transparent in my encounter design. But on further reflection, I think that its less of a case of transparency, and more of using the right dramatic elements to give Players the “adventuring cues” over the course of the gaming session.
In plenty of books, movies, and video games, there are a plethora of cues which let reader, movie-goer, and player know that he or she have reached a climactic moment, and the heroes are now beset with a threat of extraordinary magnitude. In fantasy novels, this is usually accomplished by foreshadowing, but sometimes the author has to literally break off the action to give a dramatic exposition as an aside to build the suspense.
For instance, in The Two Towers, Tolkien breaks from his narrative of the hobbits fumbling through the webbed caves of Cirith Ungol to expound for almost two pages on just what a horrible monster they were faced with in the spidery-form of Shelob. For here we have no mere giant spider – this was a terror left over from the beginning of the world, and nearly every bit as deadly, on her own turf, as was the Balrog of Moria!
Movies and video games have a bit easier time giving audiences dramatic cues when a terrible villain or threat draws near. Cut scenes, special effects, bizarre appearances, flashy costumes, and other enhancements make it plain to even the most casual observer that “boss” encounter is at hand, and the heroes are going to have to pull every stop to win the day. Even the musical score lends itself to bringing out the climactic moment, with many villains in movies and video games having their own special theme music when they finally show up on-screen.
Of course, even Dungeon Masters can utilize theme music for their villains and “boss” encounters, and I have read not a few 4E bloggers accounts of how they use theme music in their D&D campaign sessions!
But for my part, I think I tend to use foreshadowing and special effects to cue my Players that a “boss”, in the form of an elite of solo monster, is likely to be on the way. One of my favorite foreshadowing cues is describing the carnage the Players find along the way to meet their super-villain. Mangled bodies, broken fortifications, burned out buildings, and other signs of wholesale slaughter make it abundantly clear that the heroes are on the trail of some kind of utterly depraved and vicious monster. Sometimes I will call for the use Arcana, Religion, and Nature skills from Wizards,Clerics, Druids, and other devoted practitioners who can sense the residual impressions of the atrocities close at hand – and ever sometimes get flashes of insight as to what caused them! These characters, more attuned to arcane and otherworldly forces, will sometimes be given vague impressions of teeth or claws, or shadowy forms, and even the far-off screams of the victims to build the suspense and what some would call the “rising action”.
Special effects are important too, and I admit I do tend to adorn my “boss” monsters (elites and solos) with grander armor and weapons, or strange and bizarre auras flickering about them. I think it is particularly important to make much-ado with added verbal descriptions and special effects when you create your villain or horrible beast from a more mundane monster. Transforming a mere orc soldier into the mortal avatar of the great Orc Death-God should definitely have a few over-the-top costume changes at the very least!
But the important part of all this is that these cues and extra verbosity at the gaming table create that dramatic element of suspense in the Players, and make them hold back those Daily Powers until the time is right. Just as the heroes in movies and novels always seem to pull out that extra-special maneuver, or amazing spell, or ultra-potent weapon at the right moment to bring down their terrible foe, so should 4E Player-Characters know it is the right time to throw down those Daily Powers to vanquish the villain!
How do you, as a Dungeon Master, let your Players know its time to save those Daily Powers, and when it is time to go in with them blazing? As a Player, what kinds of cues do you look for from your DM to know that the villain you are facing is exceptional, and to level the “big guns”? As always, your feedback and comments are most welcome!