(First published in Game Geek 10)
Let’s eavesdrop on a depressingly common Internet conversation:
First DM: My player’s PC has such-and-such class feature that is broken. What should I do?
Second DM: Just design your scenarios so that he can’t use the class feature. Problem solved.
Sound familiar? If so, and you’re a player, pass this article to the offending DM. If you are the offending DM, then pay careful attention, because the advice below might just keep your players from killing you and taking your stuff.
Favored Enemy, or How to Avoid Encountering Certain Creatures Ever Again
Let’s focus on one specific class feature: the ranger’s favored enemy. This class feature is frequently maligned because its bonuses are situational. Either you’re facing your ranger’s favored enemy and get the bonuses, or else you aren’t and you don’t. The DM gets to decide when your ranger gets to benefit from one of his defining class features.
Too often, a ranger’s favored enemies are much more like a list of creatures that the party won’t ever encounter. Take favored enemy (undead) at 1st-level, and you’ll never encounter an undead monster. Instead, orcs regularly mob the adventurers. Your ranger reaches 5th level and takes favored enemy (orc). From that point on, orcs are scarcer than hen’s teeth. Et cetera, ad nauseum.
“Well,” says the DM, “orcs and undead just aren’t challenging because you get so many bonuses against them. My job as DM is make sure the adventures are challenging.”
The best initial response to this is a sneer. As William Paley asked, “Who can refute a sneer?” After that, you can point out a few uncomfortable truths, starting with the one immediately below.
Class Features Aren’t Broken; You’re DMing Skills Are
This applies almost no matter what the class features. There is almost always no good reason to nix characters’ abilities. If you’re running a murder investigation, it’s bad form to rule that divination spells don’t work. Yes, that single speak with dead could very well bring the investigation to a quick end. So be it. In a similar vein, when the party tracks down the evil murderer, it’d be equally bad form for the paladin’s smite evil power to not work against him.
Characters’ abilities, feats, class features, et cetera, are the tools the players get to use to overcome the challenges the DM presents. Your players chose to play the characters they’re playing because they want to use those tools. That means that you’re not allowed to take those tools away without a very good and rare reason.
Most of the time, your players should count on getting to use those tools. Back to our ranger whose favored enemies are orcs and the undead. If that ranger isn’t encountering orcs and/or undead at least 50% of the time, then you need to stop and examine the adventures your running. Your ranger’s player deserves the opportunity to roleplay his ranger’s orc/undead-hate and to enjoy the bonuses the character gets against orcs and undead.
Letting the Characters Shine
Next time you’re prepping for your game, take stock of your players’ characters. What are those characters’ strengths in terms of feats, class features, skills, and so forth? Jot down at least one strength per character. Then, include some way for each character to revel in their respective strengths during the adventure. Pretend you’ve done what I just advised you to do, and this is what you came up with:
The Ranger: Favored enemy (undead).
The Wizard: Maxed out ranks in Linguistics.
The Cleric: Maxed out ranks in Knowledge (religion).
The Rogue: Just acquired slippers of spider climbing.
Here’re some sample challenges:
The Ranger: The BBEG is protected by a platoon of plague zombies.
The Wizard: The BBEG and its minions communicate via an ancient dialect of the Dark Tongue.
The Cleric: The BBEG and its minions are engaged in a complicated demon-summoning ritual.
The Rogue: The BBEG occupies a floating dais closer to the ceiling than the floor.
During the final battle against the BBEG, the ranger gets to have a field day mowing through the plague zombies. The wizard gets to make Linguistic checks to accurately understand the BBEG’s orders to its minions. The cleric not only gets to channel positive energy, but her keen insights provide the best way to disrupt the demon-summoning ritual. The rogue can most easily get to the floating dais. Everyone gets to use a character feature to contribute to the BBEG’s demise.
But Shouldn’t I Negate Characters’ Abilities at Least Some Time?
Yes, especially when dealing with intelligent enemies who’re expecting the sort of trouble the characters provide. The trick is to make the negation both reasonable and a challenge in itself.
For example, an undead BBEG who knows it’s being hunted by an undead-slaying ranger might recruit non-undead minions. If it’s sufficiently powerful, it might also be worried about enemies who can scry and teleport. There are reasonable defenses against both of these capabilities as well.
What is bad form, however, is to design adventures that negate character abilities in such a way as to railroad the players. Negating character abilities should paradoxically lead to greater variety in player tactics as those players seek ways to overcome the challenges presented by not being able to rely on their full arsenal.
Consider the undead BBEG again. It knows that it’s likely to face adventurers capable of teleporting. Not wanting enemies to show up at will in its lair, it employs an 11th-level cleric to ward key areas with forbiddance. Discovering the area is warded isn’t too difficult. Adventurers just need to try (and fail) to teleport into the lair. After this discovery, what choices do the characters have?
Well, they can just lump it and fight their way in the hard way. Or, better yet, they can discover that the BBEG’s cleric spends time away from the lair. This gives the characters the chance to nab the cleric and discover the password that permits them to enter the warded area without damage. Also, the characters might coerce the cleric into revealing that there is an area not warded against teleport within the lair proper. The BBEG uses this secret area for its own movement via planar means. Thus, after a side adventure, the characters have not only earned more experience, they’ve defeated one of the BBEG’s key minions and discovered a possible means of taking the BBEG by surprise.
Best of all, the ranger still gets to unleash his undead-slaying prowess.