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Players always picking Physical Attacks over Threaten?

As my first Conan campaign continues, I have noticed that my players (who are also new to the system, despite being veteran roleplayers) almost exclusively engage their foes by using physical attacks rather than Threaten and Displays of Power.

There are, I think, two reasons for this, one mechanical and one narrative. Would be good to hear your thoughts on both.

Reason 1: It seems mechanically optimal to physically attack people. In order to activate most Displays of Power, one usually needs to have already done some physical damage, either with a weapon such as when using Dead Man’s Stare, or with a spell such as Sorcerous Might. And once you’ve already lowered the enemy’s Vigor with such an attack, it makes little sense to switch to damaging their Resolve, which is “full”.

Reason 2: From a narrative standpoint, it’s hard to imagine how an entire combat encounter could be resolved solely with Displays. Imagine the following situation: The PCs have just run into a group of evil Nemedian mercenaries who are hunting them for bounty money.

  • PC 1 looks at the evil Nemedian mercenaries and [using A Mighty Name] yells “Do you not know who I am?” dealing resolve damage.

  • Nemedian Mercenary 1 scowls at PC 1 silently [using Steely Glare] dealing resolve damage.

  • PC 2 screams “Don’t screw with us!”, and, after looking around, decides to kick over a random stone column [using Impossible Feat of Might].

  • Nemedian Mercenary 2 waves a torch around [using Flaming Brand] and states “Do that again and I’ll burn you to ashes!”.

  • PC 3… scowls at them.

  • Mercenary 3 yells “Do you know who I am?!”.

You can see how this is getting narratively ridiculous.

Now, I understand that Displays of Power can be used to good effect mid-fight, once you’ve downed some foes, to cull the herd of remaining minions, but that implies that A) Players will always have to do some serious physical fighting, so it makes no sense to specialize only in threats, whereas it can make sense to specialize in physical attacks, B) Encounters with few foes are unlikely to feature Displays, and C) Players will almost always be in a ‘physical combat’ mindset, and remember to use Displays only occasionally.

None of this would be a problem or strike me as odd, if Threaten were some secondary mechanic meant to add flavor and sword-and-sorcery style to combat. But, given that Resolve is put on par with Vigor at a mechanical level, I would have expected Threats to feature almost as prominently as physical attacks. And yet I see no reason why they would.

Am I somehow coming at this wrong?

I find that players tend to use the attacks which yield the highest “damage” output. Characters who specialize in melee or ranged combat usually prefer standard attacks, since they have a high chance to hit and a high amount of combat dice.

Threaten attacks is a nice way for social characters to take part in the fight, so they are not forced into investing in combat skills. And personally, I like the symmetry of physical and mental attacks.

Your example encounter does not seem that ridiculous. If you think about it, it is actually how encounters work in real life. If you meet aggressive people in real life, you essentially exchange Threaten “attacks” until one’s Resolve is depleted and one decides to back off. That is a totally normal thing. You don’t have to slaughter everyone you mouths off to you.

As for other Displays, my players use them if the opportunity presents. I disagree that they “usually” need physical damage as a prerequisite. Of the 7 Displays (excluding Steely Glare), that’s only the case for 3. The 4 other ones can use Athletics, Command/Discipline, Survival or Stealth. So these are another way for creative characters to use their skills.

I don’t see Displays or threats as something characters can specialize in, I see it more as an additional option to give characters that don’t focus on classic combat something cool to do during a fight. I don’t understand your problem that Resolve is in par with Vigor.

I find that the Conan system is incredibly rewarding for creative players, no matter if they are warriors, sorcerers or socialites. And Displays help with that.

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As Minions don’t get any Reaction, Threaten attacks against Minions, especially Mobs of Minions are often more effective than physical attacks. The Minions run away, frightened. That works fine.

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You can make a super effective character with high Personality, Command and Persuade. You can easily get 5D Stun Steely Glare or Threaten (2CD Stun base, Personality 10, Force of Presence Talent). Stun is a very potent Effect and easily sets up opponents for your allies to knock down.

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Try Heed My Words, Force of Presence, and a high Personality Attribute, and just watch those Minions fall. Area attack too, mind you. you could easily clear a room with that. Even Toughened enemies will come out of that with at least one Trauma.

As Grendel said, Stun is very potent and can either lock opponents down or deplete the GM’s Doom pool.

Also, enemy sorcerers will be hampered by accumulated traumas, and need their resolve to cast spells, so mental attacks will slow them down more than physical attacks will.

You could also place the PCs in a setting where they can’t get in a physical fight (perhaps the city guard is watching, or they’ve been disarmed, or they encounter known enemies in the court of a king). Cast it as a staring contest to get the enemies to back down without drawing blood.

I agree with commenters who put in that physical attacks are meant to be the rule and displays the exception. I’m on my fourth session playing my first Personality-based character and I have some observations.

First, it’s a lot easier to add damage dice to weapon attacks. Steely Glare has a base 2 [CD]. You can go to all the lengths that a maul-user does to obtain more dice, and that maul will always have a +4 [CD] advantage over your steely glare. You can jump through the hoops to get more powerful displays in an encounter–assuming you’ve got the skill–or you can just buy a hammer and hit people with it.

Second, killing enemies with a weapon just tends to be more viscerally satisfying. A good GM (like mine) will reward and praise your creative in-character taunts. But there’s nothing like hearing the gory aftermath of a 15-damage maul strike.

Third, since this game essentially has two HP bars–vigor and resolve–there is a huge advantage in parties focusing on one or the other. If your witch/shaman is chipping away at the enemy’s resolve, and the barbarian chips away at the enemy’s vigor, that enemy will die half as quickly as if you had two witches or two barbarians dealing the same damage type.

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Consider that some opponents have stronger Vigor than Resolve.
And especially if you try to Threaten Minions or Mobs of Minions, who usually have 5 or less Resolve and often not much in regard of Courage soak either.

Regarding the damage, creating a character that has Personality 12 gives you +3[CD] Threaten damage bonus to the base of 2[CD] Stun. That is already a good call to take out - send running away - a Minion in one go.
But it gets better.
The “Force of Presence” Persuade Talent adds an additional +1[CD] to that damage.
“Strong Arm Tactics” (could be taken 3 times) gives you +1d20 per rank and Piercing 1 per rank on your intimidation attacks.
And “Intimidator” Talent gives you on intimidation 1 additional success(!).

Such a character build for threatening would roll 5d20 on the Threaten attack, plus 1 automatic success (via Intimidator).
On a success this character would cause 6[CD] damage with Stun and Piercing 3 quality.

Top this off with the Healing Talent tree “Anatomist” giving you +1[CD] damage (not only on Threaten attacks, but on Melee attacks, too) plus the Vicious 1 quality.

So that would amount to 7[CD], Stun, Piercing 3, Vicious 1.

That is impressive and often sufficient to cause 2 Harm to Toughened opponents in one hit, taking them out of the fight.

Only Nemesis NPCs, especially those with high Resolve, are less vulnerable to such a Threaten attack expert.

And as high Personality and good Intelligence is a thing for priests, sorcerers and con-men, this works quite well as an effective character concept.

Consider, in the Conan stories often opponents lose their resolve to fight and simply flee. Those are the ones that survive, but still, they are out of the fight for good.

I find that Conan 2d20 with the Threaten rules and the different types of Displays capture those frightening moments (for the opponents) quite well.

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I find it quite satisfying hearing the lamentation not of the women, but of the grown fighting men, when they are on the receiving end of a vicious, caustic, blood-chilling threat. When a thoughened opponent looses it in the face of a much more ruthless character, that is quite satisfying.

Don’t just “play” the scary guy, BE the scary guy.

So let’s compare a character doing all they can to max melee damage vs. a character doing all they can to max their threaten damage.

Personality 12 gives +3 [CD]. Brawn 12 gives the same benefit. Wash.

Force of presence gives +1 [CD] to threaten. No equivalent exists in Melee tree. 1 point for threaten.

Strong Arm tactics 3 ranks gives +3d20 on threaten actions. No Mercy potentially gives tons of damage rerolls for dedicated melee fighter, and Deft Blade doubles the effectiveness of Momentum/Doom spends. I’d say that’s slightly in favor of Threaten, but at the cost of 4 talents vs. only 2. Not to mention how Killing Strike can decimate tough enemies, and Adaptable combatant can negate common penalties, so I call this one a wash.

Anatomist benefits Melee in all the same ways it benefits Displays. It’s in an intelligence tree, and can be just as accessible to either specialized character. A clear wash.

Killing Strike effectively offers Intense quality (effectively “Intense 2” on a weapon already possessing the quality). No equivalent is available for Threatens.

At the end, your threatener has bought six talents. My maul fighter has also bought six talents. His damage is 9 [CD], Stun, Knockdown, Vicious 1, with added Intense for 2 Momentum, Vicious increased to 2 for an additional Momentum, and the ability to reroll up to 5 [CD].

I’ve seen this in action. It’s easy to generate sufficient Momentum with either skill, given these two builds. Soak values tend to cap at 4-6 except in exceptional cases such as terrain providing soak or custom-build Nemeses. The low range of numbers for soak and vigor/resolve disproportionately favors the attacker who can roll more combat dice and produce higher numbers. It is rare to see a melee fighter with the talents above roll single digits of damage, which easily surpasses armor and deals a Wound without benefit of Piercing.

Now, none of this is to say I don’t enjoy my Witch/Shaman. I made a Personality-based character because all the bashing and slashing of Melee had become monotonous. I don’t think the game provides the same ease of reaching maximum effectiveness to “Threateners” as it does to “Maulers.” I think this is completely intentional, for two reasons:

  1. The “Mauler” is only good for one type of scene–the ones where bad guys need to and can be bashed with a hammer; while the “Threatener” is specialized in a skill that has wide applications outside of combat.

  2. This game is meant to emulate Conan tales. Conan tales rarely feature characters winning fights with words.

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I have such a build amongst my players and I agree with you that it is absolutely powerful.
Especially the Steely Glare basic attack that is not restricted in any way by having to branding something or using stuff in combination.
The question that arose was, how this character can be protected from attackers, as obivously a lot of talents and other resources in the creation process need to be spent to get such a powerful threaten attack.

One solutuon is to always stay in cover:
Technically, the character can peep through a keyhole and as long as he can see his opponent, inflict the massive mental damage and the enemy never even saw it coming.
The advantage here is that the attacker with Steely Glare just needs like a little slit to see through and so gaining the benefit of cover. (Combined with stealth it might even be possible that the enemy never even sees him, while being stared down).

As cover is not always available, the second best option is armor and reach.

Together with heavy armor and holding a Reach 3 weapon, this is in my opinion the most mighty build on the battlefield as threaten attacks have a Range of C. The character does not even need to really spend points for a melee skill, as it is sufficient to hold the reach 3 weapon to gain beneftis in defense.

Our group has easily understood how powerful threaten attacks are and exploit it to the max. This often leaves enemy armies leaderless already in the first round. I guess the other players will soon optimzie their builds to improve their Steely Glare attacks also.

Give the leader NPCs the Command Talent “Inspiring Leader” for 4[CD] Morale soak close to him.
And give the leader NPC the Courageous Talent for own Courage soak plus re-roll ability on Discipline tests.

If you let the NPCs have no defenses, then you get them wiped away - as they should.
That is the same as staging NPCs without Armor soak and armed with fruit knives.

It is not that easy to get Toughened and Nemesis NPCs defeated by Threaten attacks, but against Minions it works as it should - Minions should be made afraid quite easily, they are minions after all.

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