This is my dirtiest DM secret:
I don’t fudge dice. I fudge entire monsters.
They don’t have an Armor Class (AC) until they’re hit. They don’t have Hit Points (HP) until they take damage. They don’t have weapons until they deal damage.
When you throw a horde of orcs at a party, it’s tough to tell how the tide of battle will flow. A failed saving throw or a critical hit can quickly send the party into a death spiral. On the other hand, a high damage roll on an area of effect (AoE) spell or an item you forgot the party had can quickly make your climactic battle fall flat.
Curb this uncertainty by putting the monster AC, HP, and weapons into a superposition before battle. Only narrow the possibilities as necessary.
The key is having the flexibility to manage your encounter, while keeping things realistic. Don’t just adjust the AC and HP in situ (unless erring on the side of the player). Trying to dial the balance of the game on the fly is not impossible, but very easy to do wrong, which can make the experience artificial. Instead, try this…
Choose a few types of orcs with different power levels and don’t eliminate the possibilities until you need to. If the player rolls and 18 and hits, the enemy could be wearing Hide armor or Full Plate. If the player deals 12 damage, both a standard orc and a war chief can survive the blow. Keep the possibilities alive until you have the pulse for the tide of combat.
When a roll defines something, make a note on your scratch paper. For example, if an attack roll of 13 misses, the enemy is wearing something more formidable than Hide Armor. If it’s soaked 22 damage and remains standing, it’s not your standard orc. Don’t try to create new creatures on the fly. Just narrow down the possibilities you’ve already selected.
Ultimately, your goal is going to be to build tension. You want the players in a tense fight against the BBEG (and/or their lieutenant) at the end of the combat, amongst the carnage left in their wake.
How Does It Work?
If I’m doing a big combat with an orc tribe, there’s going to be some low-level orcs to rush the party for swarm effect. Maybe it’s a swarm of whelps or orcs that have been bloodied by a sacrificial ritual. I’ll also have a shaman to cast buffs. If that shaman isn’t the leader, another beefy BBEG orc will be running things. Most of that stuff is set in stone, otherwise it becomes really hard to manage. In fact, most big combats are structured with these dynamics, whether they’re orcs or not.
You need at least one more gang. These orcs are either going to serve as the second wave behind the swarm, hang back to defend the bosses, or if things go really bad, waylay the party while the BBEG makes their escape.
This is where the magic happens. These are your superposition orcs. Superorcs.
Typically you want the superorcs pretty tough and dial it down from there. If the party nukes the superorcs early, narrate how it’s going to take a lot more than that to take them down. If the party cuts through the initial swarm quickly, you’re going to need that toughness from the superorcs.
If the swarm is rolling hot and takes a decent chunk out of the party, you may want to dial back the superorcs. If the party is rolling dead, maybe the armored superorcs are wearing a Chain Shirt instead of Scale Mail. They still have swords, but no shields.
In some ways you might already be doing this. A classic suggestion for supplementing combats is to send in reinforcements. These are superorcs! Archers pop up on the second round of combat? Superorcs! Cavalry charges in to reinforce the horde? Superorcs!
Sating Player Inquisition
You can give the players little hints about the monster quality by narrative without pinning it down:
- “These orcs are more heavily armored.”
- “These whelps are no more than children.”
- “These orcs look a little beefier.”
- “These orcs have all sacrificed an eye to Gruumsh in the ritual you seek to stop. The wounds are fresh as blood cascades down their faces.”
A lot of times players won’t ask details about a creature until they’re interacting with it. “What is it attacking with?” “What kind of armor is it wearing?” You should have an idea by the time it comes to that.
If the party is aggressively metagaming by asking what kind of armor the bad guys are wearing, lean on flavor. There’s no telling what the specific AC of a patchwork concoction of leather, metal, and bone. Or whether the ornately-adorned plate mail is magical or a brittle artifact scavenged from a ruin. Reveal its true nature in a dramatic moment as the impressive armor is crushed under your player’s blade.
Image source: Blizzard Entertainment