“Prepare to Face my Final Form! RAY OF FROST!”

Fighting the big evil lich midboss in Chapter 2 of Neverwinter Nights got me thinking about some of the differences in magic/super/whatever-powered heroes and villain in eastern and western media.

In many eastern fiction and game properties, a villainous big bad is going to start with his cheap tricks and low energy attacks to deal with whatever threat is facing him. I’m reminded of one of the minor good-guys from Fist of the North Star’s shocked exclamation after facing Raoh for the first time: “He’s killed me with a single punch!” It’s only when those initial one-hit kills don’t do the job that the bad-guy will bring out the heavier guns. Whether it’s calling forth the powers of darkness, going bankai, releasing control art restrictions, or undergoing some other lengthy transformation, these guys incrementally step their game up to whatever level it needs to be to meet the immediate threat.

In D&D derived games, however, most fights are going to start with the biggest guns blazing first – you typically can’t afford the slow build-up of testing this or that weakness and saying “ho-ho, you’ve resisted my cantrips? Well, see how you like this incrementally more powerful attack!” Once the buffs have gone up, you typically start at the top of the spell list, knowing the other guy is gonna do the same, in hopes that you kill him with your big damage effects, working your from your high-level instant kills, to your beefed up AOEs, to spamming mid-level direct damage. If someone is able to survive that? Well, there’s always Magic Missile, but what next?

The fight with Brother Toras, even at level 15, was incredibly tough, but, unlike what one might expect from a boss fight in a JRPG, it got progressively easier as it went along. I didn’t have to beat him quickly, I just had to outlast him. It took a few teleports out, and I lost my henchman a couple of times, but I beat him without having to respawn. Though he did waste a bit of time on debuffs, Tomas went all out from the very start with some really nasty stuff, a lot of it big-damage and AOE (and I’ll admit, I did have to reload a few times once I figured out it was Evards Black Tentacles that kept one-hit killing me), but after the initial big explosions and masses of writhing tentacles coming up from the floor of the tombs, he just started spamming fireballs. When these hit, they hit freaking hard, but I spent a lot of time running in circles around the tomb and with my stupid high dex bonus, was able to soak most of the hit. Then something funny happened: the lich started using things like Flame and Acid Arrow, most of which just sort of bounced off me. His last true hurrahs were a couple of magic missiles which, as a level 19 wizard, did come dangerously close to putting me in real peril.

By the time Tomas was down to casting Negative Energy Ray and Ray of Frost, I was actually feeling kind of bad for him. At that point, I was able to more or less stand my ground, shooting him with acid arrows, slowly burning my way through his hundreds of points of damage reduction. Eventually he was reduced to trying to poke me with a stick to very little effect (29 Dex, yo).

This is something I’ve seen happen in tabletop to a degree, as well. It was probably worst in Exalted, in which everyone is constantly operating at 11 and it’s a contest to see who runs out of need stuff first (hint: it’s always the person who’s not a Solar). In my own most recent game, the boss-fight involving a magic user was beyond a disappointment, since his one spell got interrupted and he was promptly hacked to pieces. The boss fights that were tough and the players seemed to enjoy the most were ones in the royal tombs and the Rug-Bear(Polymar)-the wight had potential long-term negative effects (level drain), the Banshee was a puzzle that did damage, and the Rug-Bear was a huge damage-dealing machine firing on all cylinders until the very end.

Probably my best-paced boss-fight involving a magic user was awhile back with the 4th level elf; then again, he didn’t use any attack spells – he just mage-armored then mirror imaged before proceding to go to work with his long-sword.

I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to run a game again, but with the players expressing a desire for some mid-to-upper-level play, I might get the opportunity to experiment with some set-piece battles with magic users in an attempt to avert the diminishing battle intensity typical to wizards.

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4 responses to ““Prepare to Face my Final Form! RAY OF FROST!”

  1. I’ll be frank, I can’t stand Japanese RPGs. I don’t like the aesthetics, the battle systems, the rules, the HP and level bloat, the… well, I don’t like anything about them. However, from what I have seen, in Japanese games that “problem” (starting with weak attacks) happens because combat is scripted, with formalized sequences, phases, and so on. It’s not impossible for a Western RPG to do something like that, I guess. In fact, high or epic level (and I guess manga/anime are basically that) adventures would be the ideal place for that kind of scripted battles.

    For example, a lich: An Azererak-like villain (ref. Tomb of Horrors) that starts as a lich, then becomes a demi-lich, and finally a demi-god casting Whishes and Time Stops like they are candy.

    The inverse problem (starting with the most powerful stuff) is mostly a problem of settings with level inflation and non-scripted battles. I don’t think I have ever seen it before the level 6-8 barrier. Coincidently, that’s also the barrier when some sense of realism stops and superheroes start appearing. I think the problem is this:

    When 15-20th level creatures and players exist in a fictional universe, a lot of low-level magic is useless against them and, because the Rules of High-Level Worlds say that Everything Scales To Your Level (if you get powerful, so does everything around you,) if you stumble upon an enemy it WILL be one of similar power. Therefore, the rational thing to do is to spend and use your most powerful stuff at the beginning because you can’t be sure the enemy is not a random 14th level adventurer even though statistically speaking almost anyone you met should be low-level rabble.

    Wow, I almost wrote a blog post there.

    • I guess a part of me would like to see it play out like the Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam bit where they keep drawing and firing bigger guns at each other until they’re shooting little trench cannons at each other (in a train car from less than 20 feet away from each other, no less).

      Also, I feel like if you threw out metagaming, it would make more sense even in western RPGs to start small, in part because of what you point out about how most randos you’d be encountering at high levels theoretically ought to be significantly lower level than you, but also because, if you’re actually using things like time to memorize spells and spell components, using your top shelf stuff will not only cost you a fortune but could put you out of commission for months as you rememorize everything, so there would be real-world pressure (in the game-world, that is) to start small. Of course, if you’re not using spell components and you can rememorize a dozen spells overnight, there’s little incentive not to go all out from round one.

  2. Here I kind of have to give 5e credit for the scaling damage of cantrips. I mean sure, your spells of levels 1st-3rd might be significantly less useful in the epic tier, but you’ll be doing dice and dice of damage with. Ray of Frost for example.

    Now, if only the rest of the spells didn’t mostly suck.

    –Dither

    • Y’know, I think I would actually enjoy 5e if it were reskinned to to bottom as a supers game. It doesn’t feel like DND but it would be fun for something like Outsiders or Runaways.

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