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RPT Newsletter #1,157 | How To Handle Hack & Slash and Plot-Breaking Character Powers

What are your most dominant game pillars?

  • Bookkeeping and improvement (e.g. for houses, fortresses, retainers)

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Planning (a heist etc.)

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Using minis and battlemaps

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Casual eating, drinking, small talk, humor

    Votes: 0 0.0%

  • Total voters

Stephan Hornick

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Wizard of Story
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How To Handle Hack & Slash and Plot-Breaking Character Powers
From JohnnFour | Published June 24, 2021

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1,157

How can you make travel and exploration more interesting?
And what can we do about players who like to kill everything and ignore roleplay?
I’ll share a couple of tips on these topics, triggered by recent emails, with you today.

Too Hack & Slash Focused
Roleplaying Tips GM JG emailed me yesterday:

Recently, I was running a campaign. It’s been mostly amazing for me and the players.

However, this one session a few weeks ago, I just couldn’t anymore. The players see something and instantly attack. [We] slog through a fight and I’m trying to have them learn something important.

So I try again in a different way. Nope. Hack and slash.

Johnn's response:

Hey JG!
For a group that liked to kill stuff and speak with dead later, I asked them why they attacked everything in sight.

They said:
  1. Monsters give them XP
  2. D&D is all about combat
  3. Combat is fun
My solutions:
For #1 I switched to milestone XP and saw an improvement.​
For #2, touché.​
For #3 I asked why.​

Answers to #3 I received:
  1. Rolling dice is fun
  2. It’s tangible (counting health, playing with minis, using a battlemap)
  3. It’s easy and clear what to do
My solutions:

For #3.1 I added more dice challenges to other encounter types.​
For #3.2 I made roleplay encounters more tangible via maps, minis, and better descriptions.​
For #3.3 I helped provide clarity leading up to roleplay encounters about the players’ options.​

Another big win for me was Combat Missions. After a few of those, players got used to the idea of early “outs” or alternative ways to end combat without dragging it out to the last hit point.

These steps helped a lot. Maybe some would be of help to you?

Better Travels
RPT GM Teagan P. emailed me this last Friday:

One thing I find about my games is that a lot of focus gets put on combat (so it really should be great), while the supposed other 2 pillars of the [D&D] game, social and exploration, feel like “things between combat.”

I’d love to see a tip in the future on better integrating them with equal spotlight, especially exploration, which has always felt like the emptiness between stuff happening.

Additionally, I’ve been struggling with keeping it present at high levels, when the party can teleport nearly anywhere practically at their whim.

Just something I’d love to hear your thoughts on in the future.

Thanks for the tip request Teagan.

I feel exploration is about discovery.
It’s exciting to learn or experience something for the first time. And if discovery comes with a reward payload, your table might forget all about combat.
Something I learned from a former GM, Django, was how to build things up before a battle encounter.

Say you’ve got a creature in its cave lair.
What mark would such a creature leave on the countryside? A dearth of ungulates? Ordure swarming with parasites, vermin, and disease? Terrified locals with imaginations running wild?
And then the party finds the cave. What portents there? Dead skin or broken scales? Deep gouges raked into stone walls? A pile of carcasses with no skins or eyeballs?

You eke these details out as the party draws nearer during the exploration phase.
Each discovery provides clues to the creature’s identity and qualities.
Layer these discoveries into roleplay and travel encounters that sometimes need a boost.

By sowing details in exploration and social encounters before the climactic monster encounter and combat, you build up tension, provide additional cool stuff for players to discover and fret about, and give details to help players get tactical if they choose.

With regards to plot-breaking qualities of the party, like a teleport ability, there must be a reason in your adventure plotline why the characters can’t waltz up and solve the problem.

If I recall correctly, teleport has risk. Without a first-person sighting of the destination, the odds of teleporting safely get worse.
So I’d use this in my 5 Room Dungeon or adventure structure.

For example, the Where is the last detail the players should find.

Or once location is revealed, the players learn about terrible defenses or threats they must now get more resources to overcome before teleporting in. I hope this helps!
Last edited:

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Spruce Encounters Up This Way
From RPT GM Razor Chuckles

Excellent tips, Johnn!
One thing I do sometimes if I want to encourage exploration is to add a scavenger hunt element to an encounter.
I may have a cleric request specific religious artifacts that could be found at the location in order to craft a magical item for the party.
Or I may have someone hire the PCs to find rare magical components that are believed to be in the location.
Having the players check off each item and have a purpose for searching every crate, drawer, etc. adds a sense of excitement whenever they get closer to completing the objective.

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Keeping Talkers & Smashers Engaged
From RPT GM Bronson

Hey Johnn,

I enjoyed your email today that spoke a little bit on the Hack and Slash and thought I might have a couple of opinions and methods that could be useful.
The first thing that I would encourage any DM who is facing this situation to do is to take stock of their players.
Is Hack and Slash all that they want out of their time with you?
For some players, this opportunity to vent without the threat of reprisal may be exactly what they are after and that's OK.
There are plenty of things that we can do to make combat unique and engaging for these players.

But I think the problem comes to the table when we have a couple of players that "split the party" in this preference.
A couple just want to hack n slash through the nights entertaining combat sequences, while a couple are looking to flex their creativity through engaging roleplay and plot development without the threat of the murder hobo edgelord killing that prisoner the roleplayers want to interrogate.

So the real question I think becomes, "How do we engage our Roleplayers during combat and how do we engage or Hack-n-Slashers during roleplay?"

Here are a couple of things I do to help each of these groups.

Roleplayers During Combat
My favorite thing to do for these players is have roleplay "voice lines" ready and waiting for them.
This gives roleplayers something to grasp onto if they do want to take any non-combat actions.
Voice lines can take the form of special bonus actions or reactions that I have programmed for the villain of the moment.

As an example, the evil Paladin Nu'min has led his henchman against the party. But during combat we want to do things that help develop Nu'min's character more than "he hits you for 15 slashing damage".

But if we say, "Nu'min the evil Paladin gazes upon you in righteous fury. 'My blade will devour your blood in holy sacrament to Rakal!' He hits you for 15 slashing damage."

This instantly ramped up the roleplaying potential a counter quip about false righteousness.

Having 4-5 voice lines ready to roll will make it easier for you to accommodate the roleplayer and maybe even progress the plot, all during that hack n slash combat.

Hack-n-Slasher Out Of Initiative
This player just wants to "DO SOMETHING! TOO MUCH TALK!"
So allow them opportunities to be heroic without drawing their blade.
Before you know it they will be LOOKING for ways to be heroic without drawing their blade.

For example, I had a party meeting with their local fence, and the Barbarian was getting bored as the high charisma players bantered with the shopkeeper.

Out of nowhere, "Barbarian what's your passive perception?!..."
"Uh um uh 13."
"You see an unattended baby carriage rolling down the hill past the shop window! What do you do?!"

The quick and simple series of checks led to the Barbarian finding a long and fulfilling side plot with the single mother whose darling child he rescued.
Cheesy? perhaps.
Did it work? Dang straight it did.

As a DM, we have to facilitate opportunities for all players to enjoy what they like most about the game that you play.
Wanna Roleplay?
Give them dynamic dialog and drama-filled combat.
Wanna smash?
Give them the opportunity to be the hero in ways that don't involve them rolling initiative.

Comment from Johnn:
Thanks for the tip, Bronson!
RPT GMs, for encounter ideas to entertain the smashers you might mine my free 650 Fantasy City Encounters PDF, and 1,372 Roadside Encounters PDF.

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
re Bronson: I think this is good, but over-simplistic. There are all shades of fun, not only hacking&slashing vs. roleplaying. But you're right. If you know what they like, you can address it even in scenes that are different. But although I also use the side-by-side scenes of other players, most of the time I find it more fulfilling for all players and GM alike, if I can make an aspect of the current scene interesting for the player that is not yet part of it, so that they contribute and it is a joint experience.

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
XP For Solving Problems
From RPT GM Colubris

For me, it wasn't milestone XP, it was problem-based XP that disincentivised shoot-first encounters.
The most important part: We had a talk first.
I wasn't having fun with the murder-hobo style, but I needed to make sure I wouldn't be destroying their fun by changing it.
I wanted slightly more nuanced & creative play. They thought that would be fun, but wanted to keep fairly simple morality with very clear bad guys they didn't have to feel bad about killing.
We settled on a system where not all XP could be reached by killing.
Instead, I award full XP for solving a problem.
If killing things solves the problem, so be it. If not, they get partial award:

50% for bypassing a problem
10% for failing to address the problem

The rest of the XP is available if they successfully solve the problem.
I also award double XP for creative solutions, like killing nobody and negotiating a peace between the uplifted wolves and the local shepherding community.

10% is also used for random encounters where there is no problem to solve:

"You see a bear in the distance."
"We kill it"
"You now have a bear carcass & 120 XP. That's 30 each."

With this method, it's important to tell them what they're getting and why.
It feels good to get double reward for hard work.
It feels bad to get partial reward for shoddy work.
The incentives match the style of play.

Hope this helps!