Many times players can end up playing on autopilot. Every encounter, in and out of combat, is like every other. It’s easy to fall into a formula. As GM’s it’s our jobs to try to keep things interesting, to keep the players on their toes.
In combat you have to think very tactically and out of the box. One of the things I like about 4e D&D is that it makes it easy to know the general role of each enemy, making building an encounter much easier. You want enemies that work together well. Tougher people to keep the PC’s away from the weaker enemies, who probably do more damage. Finding enemies that have interesting status effects can be fun also. I try to avoid using the same enemies over and over again so that the PC’s never get used to what to expect. Fortifying the enemies is good also. My PC’s recently raided a local goblin cave. I used enemies much lower level then them, which usually ends up being too easy. But I hid enemies all through the cave with little holes to shoot out of. The party had to run all around and fight through other enemies to get to the people who they could kill with one hit, but did quite a bit of damage. The party walked in thinking it would be easy, but because of how well fortified the enemies were the difficulty was much greater.
There are also a lot of out of the norm things you can do to spice up combat. Having the players fight on ice, or with random falling rocks. Maybe they need to protect something at all cost or there is a time limit. These things add difficulty in interesting and new ways. In one encounter I had about 15 civilians trapped by two slow moving monsters. The civilians ran around in a panic and the party had to throw themselves in between the monsters and the civilians. We had the wizard taking hits just trying to protect the weaker children who would have died in just one hit. This type of thing can make an otherwise easy combat into something that causes the players to really think, both tactically and personally. Some of the PC’s didn’t care about the civilians dying, others cared too much (to the point of nearly dying). Of course, if a combat is harder than normal I try to reward my PC’s. I gave out experience as if there was a third monster in the civilian scenario because having to protect the civilians added quite a bit more difficulty.
Out of combat one of the easiest ways to get players thinking is to bring up morally questionable situations. Things that will not only get the characters to think about their own views, but also get the players to think about their own opinions. This has the benefit of not only keeping the PC’s interest but it also helps define their characters more. For instance, in the goblin cave I mentioned earlier the party members were going in to save some kidnapped children. They run in slaughtering everything in their path and when they get back to the children they find the children wanted to be there and were friends with the goblins. The kidnappings were just to get their friends out of the city. The kids were all poor and most didn’t have actual homes, one didn’t have any parents at all. The kids helped the goblins scavenge and raid caravans more efficiently and with no violence and in return the kids got good friends and money they never would have seen normally. The party was torn. Some encouraged the kids to stay with the goblins, others agreed but just couldn’t get past encouraging kids to lead a life of crime, and yet others just couldn’t get past the fact that goblins are “evil.” At one point a party member even confronted the children with how stealing was wrong, to which they replied “But you just came here and slaughtered our friends, and you don’t have any problem with that.” This floored the party member and they had to deal with the dissonance between their actions and the children’s. I saw a lot of character growth, and the players themselves were thinking personally about what they’d recommend. The players agreed that it was one of the most fun encounters they’d had and it was even easy on my part. I came up with the base idea and most of the entertainment was the party trying to figure out what to do and responding to their actions. The party ended up letting the children stay there.
Whatever you do it’s important to read your players as you play. If they seem bored try to move things on, or if they are really excited make sure to let them go at their own pace and not rush them. I’m sure some players will want things to be more straight forward, but I think most people will enjoy more situations that don’t have clear good or bad choices. And in general getting the players to really think will help with them role play their characters more.
[Tags] Role Playing Games, Dungeons and Dragons, Fantasy[/tags]