This combat is a waste of time. You're just rolling dice until the orcs die.
The encounter is shit because the encounter has no impact.
Impact: the ability to permanently change the game. The opposite of impact is fluff.
Impact correlates with how your players care. If no one's invested in the outcome of this encounter, it's hard to have fun. I think a lot of DMs make the mistake of crafting low-impact encounters.
I'll start by talking about combat encounters, but a lot of this applies to non-combat encounters as well.
|by Jakub Rozalski|
Yes, depleting their spells/HP/potions is a form of impact. It's low impact, almost by definition. We can do better.
In a lot of published adventures, the fights are strongly stacked in favor of the PCs, who usually don't have to spend many resources to win. The only reason to run a combat like this is to make the players feel cool/powerful (not something I recommend designing for--it happens on its own, when it's deserved) or to teach them the rules (and there are better ways to do this than wasting everyone's time with a fluff encounter).
For most players, this is the most impactful thing that can happen. It's also shitty when it happens. We can have a talk about how much lethality is desirable on another post, but the point I want to make is. . .
High risks make people pay attention. For this reason, difficult combats are necessarily high-impact.
Dear non-OSR readers: this is one reason why OSR folks are always advocating for potentially lethal combat. Not because we enjoy rolling new characters, but because the combats are more significant. It's the same reason why lots of sandbox DMs are okay with players deposing kings, burning down cities, and basically just making a mess of things.
I'm not gonna argue that you should make all of you combats brutally difficult. Easy combats have their place. But if you are going to make an easy combat, it needs to be impactful in a different way (see also: the rest of this post).
It's entirely possible for a high-lethality combat have everyone attentive, stressed, and bored. Being trapped in a room with a wight, and no way to hurt it, rolling dice for 20 turns while all of your characters die inevitably. (This is no different from the feather duster orcs, really.)
If you find yourself in a low-impact combat, hand-wave it. Last time I played D&D, my players ambushed three old (non-magical, level 0) priests. Combat took 30 seconds because I just let the player's narrate how they won.
Mutating Your Character Sheet
When I say "attack all parts of the character sheet", this is what I'm talking about.
This is a pretty broad category. Yes, it includes actual mutations. This is me telling you that giving the orcish raiders an Axe of Mutation is a great idea.
You can destroy items (rust monster), drain levels (wight), etc. (PSA: big negative effects like that should be telegraphed and players given a chance to avoid the combat. Don't ambush players with wights.)
You can also mutate items, mutate spells, turn gold coins into copper coins, turn copper coins into silver coins, permanently blind a PC, permanently give a PC the ability to see in the dark, mess with stats, mess with skills, steal an item out of their inventory, burn all the scrolls in their inventory with dragonfire, change their sex, give them curses.
And remember, all of these effects should be telegraphed before you smack the party with them. The idea is to get the party invested in the outcome by raising the stakes, so it doesn't work if the players don't know the stakes.
Angels who can forcibly convert your character to their religion. Since it takes a few "hits" before the PC converts, they have time to run away (which is the point of HP, really).
Nymphs who convince the party to live with her for a two years can also have a pretty big impact on the game. Players should know the risk before they seek out a nymph.
And everyone knows to avoid gurgans. Ew.
"I Search The Body"
Yeah, bread and butter. I know.
PROTIP: Increase player investment by having enemies wield the cool item in combat; don't just leave it in their pocket for them to discover afterwards.
It doesn't even have to be magical. Like, give one of the orcs a whip with an eagle claw on the end of it, and an eagle skull on the handle. Fucking awesome.
Or they have crazy potions. Permanently lose a point of Con to enter a super-rage. Make sure at least one orc drinks the potion during combat, with more vials visible inside his vest, so the players know what they get if they win.
Or like, the next time the players crit on the orc, the orcs coin purse rips open and coins spill out all over the floor (in addition to the regular effects of the crit). Show players what the stakes are.
Yes, this is a thing that exists.
When I used quest XP in my Pathfinder games, I used to give the players a handout with all the available quests on it, and the associated rewards. I kind of roll my eyes at that sort of thing now, but it accomplished the goal of showing what the stakes were.
Relates to Other Parts of the Map
This is what I mean when I say "random encounter doesn't mean unconnected encounter".
Maybe the really well-dressed orc is the chieftain's son, and asks to be ransomed back when he surrenders. (Random encounters need to be connected to things outside of themselves.)
Maybe they're saving the king's life. If they lose this combat, the king will be assassinated.
This is also a chance for your players to show their values. Let them have the ability to change the game map, and make sure they know it.
Maybe the fact that one of the orcs are in the castle at all means that someone probably smuggled them in. . . but why?
Maybe one of the orcs has an incomplete map of the nearby dungeon.
Maybe the orcs promise to give you the password to the Wyvern's Tower if you let them escape.
They can also convey setting information, or useful information about the dungeon.
The orcs have their hands tattooed black, indicating that they've trained in Ungra, specialize in killing mages, and were hired at a steep cost.
One of the orcs is carrying lockpicks and is covered in recent acid burns. (Nearby lock is trapped with acid hoses.)
Fluff is Okay
There's nothing wrong with a fun combat. Fluff has its place.
Respite: Easy combats can be a nice respite after a recent meat-grinder.
Power Trip: Maybe you're playing with ten-year-olds and the birthday boy needs a magic sword.
Ambiance: A corpse being eaten by hungry ghosts can really set the mood. (No useful information was learned, no real interaction except observation).
Personal Goals: There's no benefit to it, but maybe one of the PCs swore an oath to humiliate every bard they came across. Whatever. It's important to their character concept.
Comedy: Fighting drunk goblins in the middle of a pig stampede.
Just remember that you can raise the impact without raising the difficulty. Maybe give one the goblins a red-hot branding iron. Same damage, but now the character has a QQ permanently seared into their rump.
-Doesn't change the game.
-Can still be interesting (e.g. you meet peacock-man being devoured by hungry ghosts; he has nothing interesting to say or give).
-Can be good for an ego trip.
Using Impact Wrong
Impact is not the same thing as fun. Use it in ways that your players react to. Maybe they're scared of dying and despise lethal combat. Maybe they want to be heroes and respond really well to civic heroics, such as king saving.
Just be mindful of impact the next time you throw a random group of 3d6 goblins at your party. Don't let it be just fluff.