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Dealing with really strong characters

Greetings!

I am curious as to how other GMs are handling really powerful characters. I am talking about brand new warrior PCs that have ~15 vigor, >15 in melee (with 4 or more in expertise/focus), good armor, and ~4 melee talents to begin with. With two or more individuals like that in the group, needless to say not much stands in their way. They are simply momentum-generating, carnage-dealing, machines! … Keeping up with that level of power can be a challenge.

On my end, I’ve tried a few things like sending more fodder (i.e. spending doom for reinforcements), implementing mixed battle tactics (e.g. one squad in melee while another squad uses range weapons), spending doom to attack first or break guard (that one really messes the PCs), ambushing PCs from higher and well protected (i.e. cover) grounds, using nasty spells like ‘enslave’ to have a single PC turn on himself/herself or their allies, or leveraging an unsuspecting NPC (i.e. courtesan) to slip some poison in the PCs’ food or drinks (during carousing / downtime).

Do you have any tips or tricks you would be willing to share with the community to keep powerful players on their toes? Thanks in advance for sharing!

One thing if you want to swarm them: use a Squad (a Toughened plus some Minions) and spend 3 Doom, so that they attack with 9d20. That is a very tough nut to crack even for a pair of “combat monsters” like you described.

And, of course, Threaten attacks. Most PCs maxed out on physical combat are not so maxed out regarding resisting Threaten attacks. And so you can traumatize them out of combat this way.

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Threaten attacks, as FrankF said, are probably deadly for those characters (unless there’s a social-oriented character in the group, too, with Focus 5 and the Do We Fear This? talent).

The other thing that can really hurt them is to put in terrain and environmental features that are hindrances. Poor lighting (+1 Difficulty), slippery terrain (+1 Difficulty), obstructions (+1 Difficulty to movement tests), and combinations of those (a bunch of minor distractions and hindrances that total up to +2 Difficulty).

That doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stop them from murdering your minion mobs, but it slows down their Momentum generation. For example, if they attack and generate 5 successes, spend 1 Momentum on Blood on Steel for Vicious 1, and the environmental difficulty made their base success level Daunting (D3), instead of dropping 3 Momentum into the party pool, they only add 1.

And if they want to perform a second attack (with a different weapon), they add 0, because they spent 1 on Swift Action (which will be Dire (D4) because of the environment).

Don’t overuse this, but it will definitely make a difference. (However, remember that these distractions can also affect the badguys unless they’re non-human and can see in the dark, don’t care about slippery conditions, etc.)

Another possibility is to have some of the badguys use the Create Obstacle Momentum spend, which can also raise the difficulty level (+1 D per 2 Momentum) of the Melee skill test. Expensive in terms of action economy for the badguys, but since the Create Obstacle test isn’t opposed, even minions can succeed at this.

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In addition to all that, scale up the NPCs provided in the RAW. They usually have TN in the range of around 10-12, which is not enough to successfully attack or defend against combat monsters. Which means the PCs just sit there, happily building up the momentum pool while your doom runs dry. Add a few points to their Agility and Brawn. Give them Inhuman Agility and Brawn, if feasible. Give them the effects of combat talents in addition to their normal abilities. Think of abilities that are in keeping with how you want to portray them to your players, for example street gangs that attack in a crowd I’m usually giving a teamork ability that lets them 2d20 on an assist and keep the better one. Or a dangerous Axeman (Intense!) might get the special rule that he gets three successes on a critical role instead of only two… if he has a combat value of 4 and an agility of 13 and is supported by a couple mooks, he should be dangerous. Give him an ability that lets him act first nless the players pay you… in fortune points.
Also, use magic… summoned demons in addition to Enslave commands and a troop of scaled up toughened opponents schould be a challenge :slight_smile:
You can also use tactics. Have the enemy put up a shieldwall manned by toughened opponenets, have the second row use pikes and/or poleaxes and have squads fire on your players from the flanks. Use poisoned arrows, if you want to be nasty. Have alchemists throw burning liquids and lotus dust at your players…
All in all I have found that when my players want to pull out all the stops and play combat monsters, they deserve what they get.

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These responses are great ; many thanks !

Of course, most recommendations were about directly threatening the combat-monster PCs.

But there are some situations, where you simply cannot fight your way through, because that would make you fail the actual objective.

Negotiating a peace treaty while some assassins are set after the involved diplomats. The PCs might be the bodyguards, but they cannot be everywhere. And they might get framed as the actual assassins. - So, how far does a maxed-out Melee skill help in this kind of situation?

You are right, of course, and that is one way of challenging the players.
However, I thought the OP’s question was about dealing with the on a long term basis. The solution for that should not be constantly putting them in situations their characters haven’t trained for. Odds are that if a player creates a combat monster PC, that is what he wants to play and has fun playing.
And from the in-universe perspective, who would hire a bunch of obvious thugs to do stealthy and/or diplomatic work.
While the bodyguard angle might not work from a modern point of view, where bodyguards are meant to be unobtrusive, back then they would be more of an honour guard, which can work.
But after being framed, what happens next? They might get captured and then have no problem fighting their way out. Other means of challenging only work if the players have to concede that violence wouldn’t work. For that you either need players that want to play that way or a credible risk hanging over their head, or so I’ve found.

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How do you feel about the attack values of creatures and foes presented in the books?
My group consists of three out of five “combat monsters” like described above but even Nemesis foes in the books rarely get a value of 11 or more in agility + combat field of expertise. One example is the Forest Dragon in the Core book: Agility 6 and Combat FoE 2. Well, if it hits, it deals 11 CD damage, but with only 8 as the target value, this is a rare event, especially with all the Deflection Talents and stuff for the characters. How make these stats any sense?

I have the impression that most (if not all) NPC stats are set with beginner to low-experienced PCs in mind.
A Forest Dragon has a very low chance to deal high damage, which balances our the threat it poses nicely for a group of low XP PCs. A mid- to high-experienced PC group will eat such a creature before breakfast, without breaking any sweat.

In the early 2d20 RPGs, Mutant Chronicles, Infinity, Conan, where you have a constant rise in ability of the PCs, I think there hasn’t been much high-XP playtesting going on.
You see this very clearly in the four Mutant Chronicles campaigns: while the first one is still challenging to a newly created PC group, at the end, when it is continued in the second and later the third, the PCs are VERY competent - that means the challenges in those campaigns are not that much challenging anymore.
Similarly with The Jewelled Thrones of the Earth. You could play all of those adventures with a single PC group, but the last few scenarios will be quite easy, not much of a challenge - no matter with which you started.
This is the way the PC improvement works in Conan (and MC3 and Infinity). In other 2d20 games, PCs might start even more competent, like in STA, but they don’t rise in competency the same way. Fallout 2d20 is different, as it is a strict level-based XP system, where “from zero to hero” is the way characters are improving. And reading in the Fallout forum and Fallout Discord, there is a similar problem of NPCs not being competent enough to challenge mid-level and above Fallout PCs.

I don’t have a good solution for this. Most of my players in my 2d20 campaigns want to play over an extended time, accumulating lots of experience. That makes it harder to challenge a group of 12.000+ XP Conan characters or 20.000+ MC3 characters. In MC3 there are a lot of nasty creatures available to throw at PCs in combat encounters, but MC3 is not always about combat - and non-combat challenges, especially with human opposition, are often easily dealt with.
Conan is by genre more combat-heavy, but still, having a single or even two “combat monster” characters with Intense weapons and lots of Talents, that means under normal circumstances fight scenes are still very easy for the PCs. As a GM you can - and must - introduce more extraordinary circumstances like “on a sinking ship in a massive storm” or “in a burning collapsing tower of a fortress stormed by invading troops” or such. And even that is hard to top after a while.

But, comparing that to D&D (which Conan is quite different from), in D&D 5E you have a maximum level of 20. A Conan PC starts at about Level 8 or 9. And even in D&D 5E you will run out of challenges when your PCs reach max level.

The most practicable way for me was, starting another campaign with new characters.

Have any of you Conan (or Infinity or MC3) GMs out there had PC groups playing up to 10.000 or 20.000 XP?
What are your experiences with that?

Thank you for thise detailed insights not only into your Conan experience but other 2d20 games as well. Especially the comparison with D&D 5e was helpful as we played that before.

My first experience wit Conan and 5 regularly created characters with no additional XP was already that I would need line dozens of Dragons at once to make them a slight challenge. That drew me to this topic.

I just wonder how low the target values of attacks of even mighty warrior foes actually are.

Don’t forget different types of NPC opponents. A single Nemesis NPC might be a challenge for a small party, but due to the “action economy” this single NPC only has a single turn (maximum of 2 standard actions) per round. The PCs will have more actions available which will result in an early demise of a single, yet powerful opponent.

Drop Mobs of Minions and Squads of Toughened NPCs augmented by a handful of Minions on the PCs. Those do not have any Reactions, but they roll 5d20 or 6d20 even without you having to spend Doom for additional dice on the attack. That makes such groups dangerous on the offense, but weak on the defense.
Don’t use only a single Mob (see action economy), use one per PC for a slightly experienced group. Add some single Toughened to bolster things.

Being aware of the number of actions a PC group can perform in a single round, helps staging a sufficient number of opponents.

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Yes, those are my (imperfect) solutions too — at least one Mob per PC, a few Toughened and/or Nemesis class opponents, Despair, Fatigue, and also the often overlooked drowning rules.

But then it invariably ends up getting silly if every combat has some sort of unusual situation or whatever just in order to make it harder. In a great portion of the Conan stories, he just wades through a sea of enemies without much trouble. I think combat in this system accurately represents that, and that maybe the challenges in the game should (or at least could) come from other sources. Perhaps engaging in combat will be counterproductive for the PCs; perhaps the situation they are in requires a more delicate touch; perhaps there is more focus on investigation and problem solving. That way, the combat in the game might remain an essential component, but just serve to “frame” the meat of the story, rather than provide the main attraction, as it were. As a player, I have no problem with combat being easy while the true challenges come from other sources. As a GM though, I freely admit that I find it difficult to keep coming up with interesting non combat challenges.

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To me the question is: why do combat in Conan at all?
I mean: the rules are not soo easy, it is a lot of bookkeeping. It takes time to prepare and for the GM it is a lot of management during fights. But with combat being no challenge and my 5 Conan-like Larger-than-Life player characters wading easily through armies of foes, I wonder why I do the preparation and administration work at all?
The outcome is basically always the same: no matter if they fight 10 foes or a thousand foes. It just takes longer.
I already thought about just announcing a random target number like “120” and let the players take turns rolling D6s, adding up the results until they reach the target number. It’s as exciting as the combat I experienced in Conan 2d20 so far but takes much less effort on my side and while they role their dices I can spend my time doing laundry or so. “just inform me when you are done rolling your D6s”.
The first time the players were excited about how smooth the fight went for them and how they waded through the blood of their enemies of course. But now combat seems just to be an annoyance for everyone. Presenting only a few enemies they know it’s quickly done: “Really, this cult has only like 50 members? Should we roll dice at all or just agree we slaughtered them all in let’s say 4 combat rounds?”.
Presenting more enemies or increasing difficulty by adding some random penalty imposing environmental circumstances just provokes the reaction: “Darn, now the combat just takes longer”.
With being no challenge and no “micro game” within the overall roleplaying game experience with an outcome that might be losing the fight, fighting has been stripped of all excitement.
Everyone just fears the high amount of administration necessary to figure out how long it takes to reach the obvious end.

Considering the issue regarding your handling of weapon Reach, are you sure you apply the Conan 2d20 combat rules correctly?

It is somewhat hard to challenge a combat-optimized character or a few, but is is possible. The rules allow for lots of tactical approaches, that provide challenges for “one-trick pony” optimized characters.

This is probably better suited to the thread about “bad guys dying too easy”, but I just wanted to throw out a couple adventure design principles I enjoy using for this game, that maybe can help with challenging players for others as well. Just some thoughts/opinions, take with a grain of salt, etc. :slight_smile:

When I am creating a Conan adventure:

-Combat is usually a distraction from the groups real goal in the scene (to get through the area, accomplish some task in the area, etc).

-The purpose of having the combat in the first place is usually not to present a risk of death but to strip resources from the PCs and/or to build the doom pile for later. Complications resulting in loss of resources (medicine, loads, etc) are common in these fights.

-Nemesis or “boss” NPCs frequently have some narrative barrier to clear before defeating them. For example, if the Nemesis is a sorcerer, the players have to find and smash their magic mirror. Until then, attacks simply pass through the sorcerer (thank you, Conan the Destroyer). Alternatively, maybe the horror from the outer dark can only be harmed by the eldritch Dagger of Such and Such, which the party has to first pry from its resting place while under massive attack during the scene.

-Add Doom for specific NPCs or scenes. Usually only the one or two climactic scenes of the adventure, but there needs to be enough Doom on the table to run those scenes.

-Try to grind down the party over the course of the adventure, and don’t worry about any one fight being too strenuous. Just keep chipping away at those resources with Complications, etc, and save Doom for those one or two really big fights. As I understand it, it should be extremely rare for the party to replenish any resources outside Carousing.

-Combat scenes are built with a baseline (maybe minion and toughened Degenerates from the trees), with Doom spends to spice it up. So in that example, there are basically an infinite number of Degenerates, or as many as the GM needs. Every round a few throw rocks and spears from the trees and a few charge with clubs as the party tries to get through the area - those that charge are quickly splattered but maybe get a hit in. Spending a few Doom brings some curious giant lizards to cause trouble, or maybe a rock slide. Similar to the scene with the Picts on the cover of Jeweled Thrones of the Earth! If there is no Doom on the table for any of that and the party does not want to spend any, then it is a relatively quick and easy obstacle and small but hopefully fun part of the adventure, maybe with the loss of a few resources or a bit or armor here and there, and on to the next scene.

-Constant mental assaults - going insane from the sight of some horror from beyond space and time is almost always the bigger risk, as opposed to getting stabbed by a bandit. Increase or decrease as-needed to keep players on their toes.

-Individual threats - each party member is under attack from foes unless they are really taking steps to stay out of the fight, or is in danger in some other way. Almost always more than one attack per round, if the group is fighting a lot of foes.

-Unless the player pulls off some clever maneuver, the difficulty on attacks is usually 3 or higher due to circumstances (uneven ground, blood-slicked weapons, lighting, obstructions - which might also be giving cover!, etc).

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Thank you HattoriHanzo, that are some really good advices. I will try them out.

@FrankF Probably not. Something must be wrong.
For example I wonder, where all this doom comes from I am supposed to spent.
I only got the doom from the start of the session, equal to the total fortune points. During the session I rarely gain any.
The values of the foes in the book are often so low that it is hard to gain more then one success with rolling dice. The values of the players are not below 17, 19 for the important combat skills and rarely fail and they all can parry at least once with out having to generate doom.
Maybe I do something wrong here, but my doom pool is not really a replenishing resource.
I read the rules over and over again but do not understand why.
On the other hand, the players amass such a lot of momentum per scene.
One example: a “deadly” trap uses up 5 doom and deals 5 CD damage. This hardly scratches a player character but uses up half of the doom available to me in the session. For a trap just to be there.
Fights also get boring as at least 30% of the players talk is just about how to apply the rules to avoid generating doom.

Don’t your players have to make Reactions for their characters? That should give you Doom.
Excess Momentum from tests your NPCs perform, gives you Doom, too.
And you could decide to buy off Complications the PCs roll to take 2 Doom instead.

One recommendation: DON’T use the Doom spend for traps and other hazards. Those are way to “overpriced” and simply Doom drains for no reason at all.
A minion, doing 5 CD damage costs 1 Doom, a trap costs 5 Doom. Forget those Doom spends for hazards.
Hazards are part of the location design. You don’t need to pay for “equipping” every location with hazardous elements. Those belong to the location.

The hazard costs are a thing I really recommend ignoring.

If the players are set up for avoiding Doom, you can talk to them directly. Doom is there for making things interesting FOR THEM in the first place.
If they don’t want any challenges, well, then they are not challenged and what is the point in playing then?

On the other hand, start taking Doom if the players start discussing how to avoid spending Doom, as they are obviously wasting game time and stopping the flow of the action.
Start introducing creatures with personal Doom and creatures that generate Doom as soon as they appear in a scene (see to the encounter section for those special abilities any NPC could have).
Then there are environments, where you could declare a boost in Doom as part of the threatening nature of the surroundings - like on the edge of an active volcano, add 1 Doom per combat round the characters are fighting their opponents, as they could be sprayed with lava any time - and then spend this Doom to actually spray them with lava, of course.

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Hahaha of course! :grinning:

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I cannot thank you enough again to investing time to discuss this with me. I am no rpg.newbie, paying it now for over 3 decades, but in terms of Conan I am a total newbie. This helps so much!

Well, they make reactions, but the first is always free (parrying reaction with the Deflection skill). I started to mass all my mobs or squads on one player, to force him to do more than one parrying action, but often this does not make sense as the initial order of battle placed them elsewhere.
They take care a lot to not need another parrying reaction except they wield a weapon with the parrying quality. As the Doom cost malus stacks up, technically those players have 2 free reactions. But most of the time they make use of reach 3 weapons for the defensive advantage.

But: here comes the next problem. Excess Momentum. I find it very hard to gain excess momentum or even hit successfully at all. I am using the unmodified foes from the Core most of the time. Those guys hardly have an attack target value higher than 10, meaning that only every second die scores an success at all with 1s creating two successes. Combined with the excessive use of two-handed swords and halberds even by sneaky thief-characters, the Reach 1 or Reach 2 weapons of the foes need at least two successes to hit at all, 3 or more successes to generate Momentum.
So even with a mob of 5 minions rolling 1d + 4d = 5d in total, it is really tough to hit such a character at all. So obviously the players use their free parrying reactions only when actually hit. With parrying target values of 17 or higher, those parades often generate excess momentum on players end but it leaves me basically with no chance to hit at all or when I do, no momentum to convert into doom.

Regarding the complications: yes, that is the only source for me to generate doom, but the chances for this are really rare as there is only a 5% chance per die to come up with a 20. Or maybe they were just lucky so far.

But this doom I need to use immediately to at least inflict some stress. With no extra momentum and the average damage die pool of 4-5 dies per attack and an average of 0.83 damage per die rolled, a mob or squad attack hardly scores more than 3-5 points of damage. The armor soak mostly compensates that so I tended to use doom to add to damage in the rare occasions I hit a character.

In my experience, every single attack of my npcs needs a lot of doom to bolster it up to be successful at all. This means I often end up spending all my doom for the one lucky hit I got in round one and after it is depleted, my nscs barely hit and just die in a matter of time.

These “save it for the climax” shenanigans I read about in the core book, I wonder how to do it? If my NSCs don’t deal damage in round one, they won’t probably deal any damage at all because the rest of their now short lives they spent in constant “stun” being ripped of their stress- and harm points.

The Steely Glare Optimized character in the party at least stuns if not kills the boss of a mob at once at the beginning of round 1, creating enough momentum for the next player to picking this leader if not stared to death yet as they learned quickly to overcome the stronger foes first as minions are just an annoyance you have to roll dies until they die but do not really any damage.

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