I have two specific situations where boring stupid combats happen, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to make them not happen.
Imagine a scenario where the PCs encounter something and they fight it and they’re just the right power level for it. The fight lasts a normal amount of time, they get to use some special abilities on it, they have a chance of dying, random chance matters, they might have to make interesting decisions (use up more spells now and not have them later? Use up consumable magic?), and they get to see the monsters’ gnarly abilities, and they might consider fleeing or roleplaying instead of rolling for initiative. So I’d call that a fulfilling combat encounter.
What happens when the PCs are way too weak? 2nd level PCs fighting some Trolls. I’d say this encounter works just great; it’s clearly too tough, the players can choose to try to parley, flee, or almost certainly roll up new characters.
What happens when the PCs are way too powerful? 6th level PCs fighting 20 Kobolds. I’d call this encounter boring because there’s no risk, no real reward. But at least it’s over very quickly so we can move on to better things, and because the PCs know they outclass the monsters so much they’re more willing to try parleying for information.
What happens when the PCs are just a little too weak? 3rd level PCs fighting 20 1st level pirates. The encounter might be surmountable, or they might fail. But the PCs will probably use up consumables to survive, so they have a fine chance of victory. The outcome is shabby though because the fight takes a long time and they burn up more resources than they could gain from the spoils. I find these encounters to be very dissatisfying mostly because they take up a ton of table time. I hate when a game session boils down to a single combat encounter and limping away to lick your wounds. I’ve seen the big dragon fight take one session and the treasure take another, and players don’t seem to mind – but that’s a pretty epic encounter. Not just 20 dumb sailors or skeletons or whatever.
What happens when the PCs are just a little too strong? 4th level PCs fighting a big pack of wolves. They can’t get out of it by just Fireballing them, and the wolves do chip away at the PCs. The players are loathe to use consumables or even memorized spells because they feel the encounter is going to be easy enough. They may fail to take tactical advantages. So they end up wasting a lot of time and end up getting almost no reward for the investment of table time.
One could argue that skilled play is rewarded with more and better play opportunities. If the players decide to avoid a lengthy fight they can enjoy a better-balanced encounter that they choose later. And a DM carefully balancing fights reduces the incentive to learn those gameplay skills. But then again if you have three or four bad game sessions in a row it could seriously affect player enjoyment (and even attendance). It’s worth thinking about this.
But I don’t have many good answers.
One solution was present in BECMI, where extremely high THAC0 on the table that more than guaranteed a hit, would deal extra damage to that very vulnerable target. So there was still a benefit for a high-level Fighter vs. a low-AC monster. You could say this is like a 3E Power Attack, except automatically applied when it would have a benefit. Which I feel makes Power Attack a better rule because it involves interesting choices. The BECMI rule however could have a houseruled corollary where a very low chance to hit against a very high AC would deal reduced damage even if you hit. Or you could remove the “natural 20 is always a hit” or “nat 20 is counted as 30” that a lot of groups use. The high-AC rule makes it clearer when a fight is out of the PCs’ league, and means a really tough monster will not only deal more damage to weaker PCs but take less from them.
Another solution I’ve used is that subsequent low-level encounters in an area will have heard of the PCs and avoid them, or surrender, etc. These Kobolds found the bloody mess of the last Kobold band the PCs slaughtered. This helps prevent the fight that’s boring because it’s way too easy. Another option is saying the encounter is “played out” and the PCs actually only encountered an empty Kobold village that cleared out because the PCs were in the neighborhood.
You could also use that kind of logic to shift the encounter into a higher or lower level. 0D&D had an encounter table that said larger groups of PCs would draw correspondingly larger groups of monsters. I guess this meant the monsters would pay more attention to a big group of invaders and amass more of a resistance. It also might have been a way to discourage players bringing hordes of NPC hirelings along.
Maybe if you roll a third “Kobold band” encounter, and the PCs dealt with the last two handily, this last encounter is with the rest of the tribe trying desperately to defeat these powerful invaders. That way the encounter shifts into interesting territory, and if the PCs prevail there won’t be anymore Kobolds in the neighborhood to encounter. Either the area becomes more desolate with “empty” encounter results, or something else moves into that encounter space. Perhaps civilized people like merchants or hunters taking advantage of a safer area, which would slowly result in a civilized part of the frontier (and if you roll a multiple encounter result you could end up with some Giant Lizards that encountered some Pilgrims – so what happens next?). Maybe some other monster moves in.
Generally I want the verisimilitude of the world being described by a good set of random tables. So adjusting the roll result after seeing what the dice said feels like I’m not letting the table do its work. But I shouldn’t feel constrained to stick with a basic table regardless of how lame it makes the game. Philosophy that encounters reality either creates a bunch of side rules to cover special cases, or it steadfastly ignores its own terrible outcomes in favor of the simplicity of its basic tenets. I’m happy to use encounter tables and the oracular power of dice to guide the game, and apply reasonable adjustments later. And I feel that adjusting an encounter on the fly in the way I was describing is fine, specifically:
1: To shift encounters out of the “long, drawn-out, boring hell of a game session” either up or down to make the outcome resolve faster.
2: Avoid “waste a ton of time on an encounter without reward” as long as the players had a chance to experience that at least once or twice.
However, I still feel that beefing things up just because the PCs are too effective is outside what I’m comfortable with. Justifying it doesn’t take a lot of effort. “The Orcs were desperate because of your victories and made a pact with an itinerant Necromancer who raises their dead but keeps their souls in his amulet, to their dismay.” Bam, made the area tougher, added some interesting roleplaying opportunities, did good work. Tacking on a couple extra hit dice on those Orcs instead feels like lazy and churlish DMing antagonistic to the players sitting around the table.
As with a lot of things about this game, I bet a lot of people won’t see a big difference between those two. And after a couple years or a couple drinks I could persuade myself there isn’t.
It’s occasionally dismaying to realize I spend a lot of time thinking about D&D and come up with few concrete answers. Everything changes. There are always new things to try. I still love the game, on both sides of the DM screen. But I tell you, if you enjoy sausages, don’t learn to make them.