Time Loops, Battle Strategy, and Lateral Thinking

One thing I’ve learned, watching my players work their way through a time-looped demi-planar prison of some being they haven’t quite grasped yet, is that even knowing that you can just try again should you die in battle doesn’t remove the sting of defeat. Whether because of bad luck, a few difficult choices, or a lack of the proper strategic application of strengths, it still sucks to lose a fight you probably could have won. There were a few lucky natural-20s, a few unlucky natural-20s, a lot of low rolls, a great deal of below-average damage rolls, and the revelation that enemy spellcasters can cast spells to bring their allies back from the brink of death just like the player characters can. Or, well, just like they could before the main healer left the party to do something only his player and I know about, so I’m not going to reveal where he went or why he went, just that he left and now there’s no one whose primary focus is keeping people alive.

Which isn’t to say that the party doesn’t have a ridiculous amount of healing at their disposal. A lot of them have potions that come back at the start of every loop, a few have healing-oriented special abilities, and some of them have magic items that can allow them to do a good deal of healing. Everyone except the rogue and the wizard can heal people, it’s just the age-old issue of whether it is more important to heal your allies or to hit the enemies. For some, like the rogue whose healing ability only restores hit points in a small Area of Effect burst when he’s knocked unconscious, the answer is simple. He can do more damage than most of the party to a single target each turn, so he’d better focus on that. For the druid, on the other hand, it’s less clear since he can do some pretty nasty hits but he also has the most healing power out of everyone in the party, now.

As much as I’d love to poke holes in the party’s strategy, they all roleplayed their characters perfectly. The rogue tried to avoid getting spotted and spent two turns not attacking while he tried to get a clear line of sight on the enemy spellcasters. The Tanky paladin-bard charged in to back up the autopiloted barbarian who immediately went down thanks to an unlucky failed saving throw that left her paralyzed (which meant all strikes against her that landed were automatic critical hits, dealing double damage which negated her resistance) and, since the state of the demi-planar prison shifted recently, the remaining attacks made sure she stayed dead. Without the barbarian to absorb damage, the rest of the party was slowly picked off by single-target high-damage attacks from the spellcaster conducting this dance of death (literally, in this case, since it was a ritual disguised as a dance performance) or the steady weight of numbers from the other dancers and musicians in the show. It was brutal and tapered to a painful end rather than ending quickly.

I think the players all know what to expect for next time. I hope they don’t hold back on their AoE attacks at the beginning and use the time they can take before they start the battle to greater effect. Almost no one was in a good position when the fight started last time, so it took everyone a lot of effort or resources to get onto the field in the first round. A few strategic stealth checks or deception checks to get back stage should put them in a better position for the next time they try this battle. IF they try this again. They might not, and instead focus on trying to learn more about the world. They blundered into the boss battles pretty much right away and have kept up a war of attrition this whole time since the time loops work in their favor. After all, they came back every time the loop restarts but the enemies they’re fighting at the ritual sites don’t seem to.

There’s a huge amount of lore and worldbuilding that’s gotten ignored since they figured things out the hard way and have been recklessly charging forward ever since. If they pause, do some research or investigation, and try to figure out more of what is happening in the world, there’s no telling what effect that could have on the world around them, future battles, or even what they think their goal is. I tend to keep things very open-ended to avoid feeling like I’m stuck with only one way for the story to work, so maybe the players will wind up driving it in a new, fun direction. I certainly wouldn’t mind a bit more roleplaying and a bit less fighting. It might do them some good to take a look at this puzzle they’re trying to solve since the violent resolution is just one way forward.

I’m aware some of them read this blog and might get some hints about what they could do here, but that’s fine. We’ve been doing this part of the game for over a year of our player’s time now, even if we’re at only the sixth loop, so there’s a lot they might have forgotten in that time. Plus, the more they try and explore, the more of this cool thing I built gets to be enjoyed. At this point, I’m fine with any resolution. It’ll be fun to get back to the events of the wider-world, should they emerge victorious. It’ll also be just as much fun to find out what happens if they don’t manage to escape. All the futures are interesting ones.

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