So since my players complimented me on the encounter from last night, I thought I'd do an analysis of it, if only for my own knowledge. My group uses straight up D&D 3.5e rules, and I'm running a campaign set in, during the time of the last war. It's an evil campaign, and the players are members of the Emerald Claw, a group of elite fascist necromancers. Their previous adventures had taken them deep into enemy territory to recover an eldritch machine that can summon creatures from the plane of Shavarath, the extra-planar plane of war and conflict. It's the place where Eberron places the Blood War in their universe.
Now their villainous patron has some circuitous plot involving demons, which are found on the Shavarath, but Angels and Devils also inhabit that plane. Since this was a small adventure that comes after a really long, multi-session grand adventure where they infiltrated a big city, and since it may have been the last session for one of our players (he's got one more) I wanted to make a straight out brawl. So this became a good time to introduce some new enemies, and throw out some plots for future use. Since I've set the campaign during the time of the "Last War" I had gotten the supplement "The Forge of War", this has been a good book for fluff, but I haven't used that much of its crunch, which is fine; it's paid for itself in terms of generating interesting plot ideas. One of the bits I found interesting was the "Messengers" that joined with the Silver Flame and lead a successful, though inscrutable and self-serving, crusade near the end of the war.
So there we go, we have our hook; the players bring back a machine that accidentally lets in the four horsemen of the apocalypse into their world. It's an enemy type that they hadn't fought before in this campaign, powerful enough that it would present a challenge to them (they are now level 12), and would have someplace to go if they wanted to pursue this plot line, I can make more powerful angels for them to fight as they rise in level.
Now to make up the specific encounter. Their machine was delivered to their patron's evil castle in the mountains, and placed into a big artificer's laboratory. So we have cauldrons of bubbling alchemical components, Kyber shards with bound air elementals sparking electricity, a real mad scientist laboratory. So I drew a rather large room with lots of columns and tables and other equipment, a good mix of total and partial cover. And in the center, the machine that makes a portal to the plane of conflict. What I tend to do is get a general design of what I want, and then draw it out on the battle map live.
Next I need to get a group of enemies. I know it's angels, so I'll use angels and archons as my basic types. The players have just turned level 12, and there are two opponents around that level, an Astral Deva and a trumpet archon, both at CR 14. Now this is close, but it will be a tough fight, since I can have only this fight during the session the players can go all out it should be ok. I fill out the encounter with a bunch of mooks, some hound archons. Lately I've been making an effort to use lots of minions in my encounters, and it's worked out well. The fill up the battlefield and make it look like more of a dire situation, they soak up player's actions from the main opponent, and when the players drop them they can feel like a bad ass. But if they are ignored they tend to cause problems. This time the choice of hound archons was good because the players remembered dog headed angels from a previous campaign, and remembered that they were difficult. Then at the last second, as the PCs were going on a shopping spree (Eberron has lots of magic, so I generally allow them to buy standard magic items so I don't have to dole out the entirety of the magic items) the players started bragging about how awesome they were now, how they had vastly increased their killing power. So I did what any DM in that position would do. I added another Astral Deva to the encounter.
So that brings us to:
- 1 Trumpet Archon - Healer, buffer/debuffer
- 2 Astral Devas - Frontline meelee.
- 6 Hound Archons - Mooks
Then we got into combat. The angels took this general tactic, they laid down a blade barrier in a radius around the gate. This was also (coincidentally, really) the distance that all the players had positioned themselves in the round before combat started. While they all made their saves, they did have to pick a side, in or out, and for the most part they were stuck with that decision lest they face 12d6 of whirling death. This had a nice effect on the battlefield, the ring made two distinct sections, but since most players got to choose which area they would be in, there wasn't any cry of foul. Since the angels could all teleport (note: I seem to have misread the astral deva and given them teleport. oops) they were able to move in and out of this circle of death, while the players were constrained for the most part.
The players were each able to come up with a unique and interesting strategy that contributed to victory. The fighter has a real tank build, with his newly purchased Cape of the Mountebank, his spell resistance, and his naturally high HP, was charging all over the place chasing the teleporting angels, trusting on his defenses to keep him up. The angels tended to stay away from him, but since he was always a charge away, and the teleportation used up their turn, chasing them prevented the angels from doing too much damage to the party. The Wizard lay down the AOE and specialized attacks, when he wasn't being bashed around by the angels, I targeted him since they could teleport and effectively choose their targets hitting him made many of the other characters jump and prioritize the monster tanks that were on him. The ranger had gotten a new bow of seeking, this turned out well for him since it effective negated the blindness he was afflicted with for most of the combat; I'm just glad they didn't have time to bane his arrows. The rogue sat in the back and sniped, until one of the Astral Devas decided to focus on him. He was dropped until near death, fled but then returned to score an amazing series of sneak attack head shots that finished them off later in the fight before they had a chance to use heal. And finally the face character of the group, a beguiller had a very intriguing strategy. After a fantastic roll on an opening bluff where he told them that he and his friends would be willing to fight against the evil Karnathis.
Now I don't have any problem about letting a well placed bluff bypass an encounter. But this was the only fighting encounter I had planned. Plus the angels weren't lawful stupid, so poison arrows and magic spells flying all over the place were kinda a tip off. But I think that a DM should reward inventive uses of skills that players have dumped in. So the archon reached out and gave him a great big loving embrace and grappled him for the duration of the combat. And our beguiler let himself be grappled for the entire combat, and instead tossed around stilled, silent, spells that helped to control the battlefield and debuff the enemies. Nice. I like the beguiler, and that was well played.
So looking back over the encounter why did it work? I think it was the frustration. Just the right amount. The players felt it was a threat from the opening setup, and as the rounds continued the threat manifested itself. But because of the initial fear, the players felt they played well (which they did). The archons could teleport around the battlefield, frustrating attempts to beat them down or control them, but since the players kept the pressure on them, forcing them to use their actions to move to safety. The frustration of a slippery enemy became overturned. And finally each of the players found a time when they overcame the specific foil of the encounter, pushed through it, and suceeded. The blind ranger used the new seeking bow to kill off guys purely by hearing them, the tank brazenly charged through deadly barriers untouched, the rogue ran away after getting his ass kicked only to head shot two of the big brusiers dropping them both in one round. And the beguiler conned an angel into grappling himself. Every player experienced great frustration, and was able to overcome it brilliantly and look like a badass in the process.
And I think that is what makes a good encounter.