Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
The value of trash mobs

My pen & paper role-playing campaign uses Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition rules. 4E rules are excellent for creating epic combat encounters. As I wrote in our campaign journal yesterday, this week we had an encounter which involved an evil cleric, a vampire, a basilisk, and five minor vampire spawns. So the players need to assess the relative danger that those 4 different types of enemy pose to them, and make tactical decisions which enemy to take out first. And the rules system gives them daily powers, powers they can use once per encounter, and powers they can use every round to select from. So as long as players enjoy that sort of tactical games, 4E makes for really great epic fights.

What 4E does much less well is trash mobs. "Classic", that is earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, had more, but smaller encounters. For example the Keep on the Borderlands (Caves of Chaos) classic D&D module from 1979 has 64 encounters, but most of them are small and with just one type of monsters. So you meet 9 kobolds in one room, and then 3 orcs in the next, while 4E would rather do fewer encounters, but each having several monster types. In earlier editions of D&D all spells are "daily" powers, so if you use your magic missile in one fight, you can't use it in the next. Thus a series of small encounters works as a challenge of resource management. In 4E players would just use at-will and encounter powers if they met 3 orcs, and thus spend at best a healing surge here or there in a series of small encounters.

Thus my 4E campaign looks a bit like a MMORPG raid dungeon without trash mobs: There are only epic boss fights. Or rather, there are boss fights, and non-boss fights which aren't any less epic. No need to grind through trash mobs which pose no real challenge to the players. Or is there?

A reader commented yesterday that my players were frequently rather timid, and not very heroic. And I began to wonder in how far that is my fault: If every single fight they enter is a life or death epic struggle, no wonder that they are rather careful. Maybe I need more trash mob encounters, where my players without much effort dispatch 3 orcs. Maybe there is a psychological value to trash mob encounters in making the players feel strong and heroic, and then less afraid of the epic boss fights. After all, there must be a reason those trash mobs are in every MMORPG raid dungeon.

I thought those one-hit mobs were supposed to be the 4e version of trash mobs?

Alternatively a occational fight where the npcs are standing under conveniently placed chandeliers can be fun.
There's lots of reasons for MMO trash mobs, though confidence-building is certainly one of them. Others would be:

* Pacing (you want the players to gradually work their way to the end boss rather than just run straight there)
* Relatedly, if the level designers made a big cool dungeon, you need to fill it with guys so it doesn't seem empty and deserted
* Lore. A spider-queen boss would logically have a ton of spider minions, for example. Or perhaps to introduce questions: why are there so many orcs in the vampire lair? Did one of the local tribes join forces with the vampire lord? Are there further implications? Etc.
* Since fighting is the main system in an MMO, you want to make sure there are lots of fights, and they can't all be bosses because those are expected to be big and take a lot of dev time to design
* Constant infusions of xp/gold/drops
* Warnings/tutorials for tactics that you will need in the boss fight

Probably I'm forgetting something.
Additionally to all the valid point Rifflesby mentioned, in MMOs trash fights (especially up to the fist boss) are there to calibrate and gel the party - especially in LFG/LFR situations where you play with people you don't know, where they may be undergeared and underexperienced. Hell, sometimes the first boss is a 'you must so much DPS to proceed' fight.

Arguably, this doesn't apply to PnP, as you'll be playing with the same team, and the DM can adjust difficulty..
In old WoW dungeons or raids, there was always one or two "trash" fight which were actually more challenging and useful as a "check if the group has the right equip or organization".
In the very early days of WoW vanilla, that would have been the 2 stone giants pulling together at the beginning of MC. If the group could survive those 2 giants, you knew the tank/healing/dps was more or less there to bring down a couple of bosses. If the tank died 2 or 3 times at the 2 giants, it was a sign the group was not at the right level.

Trash fights have value, but as you say, 4e is really bad at handling them. To have proper trash you have to modify the 4e rules quite a bit, otherwise you'll spend 30 to 45 minutes setting up the battlemat, having the players move around and then use at-will powers and maybe an encounter on the three orcs that are neither capable nor meant to provide an interesting fight. If you print out maps it's even worse, all that ink for a throw-away fight!

One version I've seen is to modify the "encounter" format to apply to a bigger area, and provide various ways to regain some resources along the way (typically letting the character spend a healing surge or regain a single encounter power) without letting them have all the benefits of a short rest. I read somebody who made up proper rules for it on ENWorld or RPGnet, but didn't find it with a quick google. Might be worth some research.

Other ideas:
- Have the party face only minions or maybe some minions and a single normal enemy, but don't use the battlemat.
- Introduce 13th Age-style positioning ("nearby", "far away", "engaged") and use that for trash fights. Minis can still be helpful here, but you don't have to painstakingly draw up a correct map.
- Use monsters that are somewhere between minions and normals (plenty of rules for that out on the net), which have about 25% normal hit points and simple attacks. The PCs will sometimes one-shot them, which is cooler than simply ignoring the damage roll and removing a minion.
The downside of all my suggestions is that you telegraph that it's an easy fight when you change the rules. It's hard to avoid, but on the other hand your players would become extra-specially careful the first time they started what they thought was an easy fight and after a round or two it changes into a boss fight as the big bad springs his ambush and takes down an ususpecting PC.
While the numerous trash mobs in a typical MMO dungeon is more than is needed in tabletop, there really is a nice thrill in getting to easily stomp some minions into the ground once in a while at the table. It reminds the players that their characters are tough and let's them feel like "heroes".

Try things like having a few guards out front of the main "dungeon", a small hunting party of enemies during travels, or even having the clues that lead to the big-bad be given partially by taking out a few minions that are hassling the locals. If you prepare ahead of time, these can all be set up quick, put in an area where people are close to each other so the fight goes fast, and can start your players getting used to the idea that there are minions out there that just don't hold up to the caliber of the big-bad.

It can also be a good chance for some roleplaying, either with hostages or with rescued innocents.
Woah! Thanks for the call out, Tobold.

Continuing on from the previous thread and this one, you said the following in your reply:

I don't think the characters are very fragile, we only had one death in the whole campaign. They are just *feeling* fragile.

Just from memory, these guys are level 8, aren't they?

I play Pathfinders and my Paladin just dinged level 6. In my, admittedly brief, experience fragility isn't about how quickly you can kill baddies, but rather, how likely you are to die-die (as opposed to unconscious-die).

In Pathfinders, once your HP is 0 or negative, you are unconscious and dying unless you win fortitude saves. If you lose the saves, you are bleeding per round. If your negative HP gets to your CON score, you're dead-dead. Therefore, it takes a bit of really bad luck for somebody to die in Pathfinders. And basically, your teammates have got to hate you as well, as one heal stabilises the bleed.

Is this not the way it works in D&D4E? I did notice in the Acquisitions Inc. play through that they died-died very, very, suspiciously easily.

I did call your players out a bit, but I do have some sympathy for them. My big spell is Smite Evil - it increases my AC, increases my +hit and uber-increases my damage (against evil creatures). I can play it against 3 evildoers in any given day. If I had burnt all those in the vampire battle (I wouldn't have, but just for argument's sake) I probably would feel vulnerable from a damage sense when fighting the rivals, but I would still be feeling strong in terms of not dying-dying.

I'm not sure if there is a solution to this dilemma. Should a wizard really be scared of dying? Usually it is the melee players that die first, isn't it? Perhaps the warrior needs to role play as a sort of squishy-guardian?
Is this not the way it works in D&D4E?

In 4E, if you are at negative hitpoints, you still need to fail 3 death saves before you are actually dead. So on average it takes you 6 rounds to die. You could die earlier if you still take damage, but unless it is an area effect, that doesn't happen all that often. So as you said, your team mates need to really hate you to let you die.

Furthermore compared to 3.5 or Pathfinder, in 4E the characters have more hit points. That is it takes more standard arrows to kill a level 1 mage in 4th edition than it takes in Pathfinder or earlier D&D editions (where in some editions a single arrow would suffice).

Acquisitions Inc. is a bastardized version of D&D designed for show-play and has very little to do how a typical group would play D&D.
Hmmm, I got nothing then.

My level 6 paladin has AC of 24, HP of 66 and CON of 15 - so I feel very confident that I will not be dying easily. Especially with a cleric, bard, two rogues, sharpshooter and wizard to back me up. The one downside of having so high an AC is that inevitably any hit is a crit.

If your guys are tougher to kill than that, I don't know why they aren't going all Leeroy on everything.
Pretty much exactly what trash mobs are for: so players have an idea of just how tough they are relative to the larger world.I once mentioned after a big fight in which the PCs wiped the floor with the opposition that it was necessary that I included easy fights every now and then so players could "see" just how tough they were. Ever since then, whenever a fight is extremely easy my players call those battles "feel good fights" and joke about how I'm trying to boost their morale....!
The highly regarded PS2 game Shadow of the Colossus has no trash mobs. The time between each boss encounter is filled with a bit of story and a lot of searching the desolate landscape for the next boss. This searching is tedious at times but also very atmospheric. If the devs had chosen to populate the landscape with easy to kill trash mobs it might have made the game more approachable because there would always be "something to do". However I think it would have diluted the impact of the bosses and made the game less memorable overall.

Of course SotC is a highly unusual single player game but I do think it shows that not having trash mobs can be a good idea. With no trash mobs every encounter is a special experience. You probably still want to limit the number of boss level encounters but perhaps you can use non combat role play stuff to fill in between boss fights?
It seems you are very slowly coming to similar conclusions reached by those who played 4E and then switched to Pathfinder.
>The highly regarded PS2 game Shadow of the Colossus has no trash mobs. The time between each boss encounter is filled with a bit of story and a lot of searching the desolate landscape for the next boss. This searching is tedious at times but also very atmospheric.

Yeah, that is a good counter-example. Note though that SotC had no xp or gold, the main verbs (climbing, gripping, horse-riding, stabbing the "ground") wouldn't translate well to trash mob fights (and trash mobs wouldn't prepare you for climbing on Colossi), and the devs very much wanted an extremely lonely world.
It seems you are very slowly coming to similar conclusions reached by those who played 4E and then switched to Pathfinder.

Certainly not. As I said, the epic combat encounters are far, far superior in 4E than they were in any previous edition of D&D or in Pathfinder. I just need to add trash mobs to 4E, not go back to an inferior combat system.
Regarding how vulnerable PCs feel, my experience is that 4e feels a lot deadlier than it is. Part of that is how efficient it is to heal a party member who has been reduced below 0 hp* (as healing brings him back to 0 before applying the healing).

It really hit home when I started Zeitgeist, I had two players who had already played 4e for a couple of years and a new (to 4e) player. After the finale to the first act of the first adventure, the new guy was floored by how close they seemingly had come to a TPK in the very first session, but the other two were completely blasé. "Eh. It's like that every fight."

(*Exceptions: Mind Flayers instantly kill you at 0 hp, which the dwarven fighter sadly had to learn through experience.)
This was noticed very early on in development of SWTOR, if you were keeping track of the Alpha/Beta leaks.

There must be some sort of developer-bible law that insists that any MMO combat pull 'at level' needs to last at least thirty to sixty seconds or so and involve more than two buttons.

The initial leaked footage of SWTOR combat looked less like a scene out of of the more recent movies, being a jedi slicing through a horde of enemies, and more like a kebab-store owner shaving some lamb off the hock. The deadliest weapon in the galaxy was relegated to being less effective than a barely-sharpened length of metal. It was decidedly unempowering.

What we noticed in later builds was the addition of weak 'no star' mobs. You have silver star 'strong', gold star 'elites' and platinum-gold star 'champion' mobs, with the silvers being about the same as any regular MMO mob, and usually a cluster of weak no-stars to make you feel powerful.

It was a good idea, and the game is better for their presence. There's nothing intimidating about your 'epic' move-sets if all they do is increment a health bar down a notch. The cinematic feel was totally enhanced by the presence of enemies who were utterly overwhelmed by your smashes and explosions and abilities which tossed them around like rag-dolls.


Something I saw when researching DMing for my own friends (who were frankly just way too unenthusiastic to make trying it worth the hassle) was a sort of meat-grinder battle against waves of lower-level enemies, trying to fight your way through in an actual battle defending some castle walls, rather than your typical D&D dungeon-delving series of small-scale skirmishes. Success would mean inspiring other defenders to match their example and holding the castle, failure meant falling back to the keep and the story options there about dealing with being under siege. It looked pretty damn epic.
I do not know why you would be surprised by this, or consider it a problem. I think your players are acting rationally given the game system. They might die. Forever. The chance is there with every encounter they face. Acting "heroically" means taking greater chances. Your players would be dead by now.

Ask yourself how you would act in real life. Would you do something every day that had a 10% chance of killing you? What about 5%, or even 1%? I assume the answer is absolutely NOT. You would likely be dead within a year.
Ask yourself how you would act in real life.

Pen & paper role-playing games are not designed to simulate real life. Because "death" means just writing a new sheet of paper with a new character, a character in such a game is supposed to be far more heroic and risk-taking than a real person. Otherwise all D&D characters would retire as soon as they found the first treasure, buy a farm, and hang up their swords.
Your players grow attached to their characters, invested in them, and act with a more realistic level of self-preservation. It's part of the immersion. Are you sure you would want them to do things like intentionally suicide to help pass some encounter, knowing they could simply re-roll?
I am sure that I want my players to take risks. Nobody ever said anything about suicide. But playing it completely safe makes for a rather boring game.

Imagine a raiding guild in World of Warcraft which is determined to play the game in a way that they are absolutely sure that they will never ever wipe. I'm sure that is possible, but it would make for an extremely boring game and slow progress.
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