How to Tell When You’re Being Escalated

As part of my preparations for DMing a one-shot, I’m re-reading the DMG and DMG 2. There’s a section in DMG2 describing three different types of adventure pacing: Balanced, Spike, and Escalation. Balanced means the DM has decided to balance action and roleplaying, and balance easy encounters with complex/difficult encounters. Spike pacing concentrates the session/adventure on one major battle, forcing the players to go all-out. Escalation pacing puts the characters through increasingly difficult encounters, forcing them to use up valuable resources before the big final battle.

The DMG2 gives advice to the DM on how to grab the player’s attention so they want to keep moving to battle after battle, instead of stopping to rest. In my group, we’re very conscious of our resources, consumables, and daily powers and we’re hesitant to use them up, perhaps overly cautious. There’s some sneaky things DMs can do to “trick” you in to not stopping or at least not taking extended rests, and it’s important to recognize when you’re in one of those situation. Not in order to fight it, but so you can stop resisting and go along with her plans. The idea here is to trust in the DM and follow where the adventure is going. Fights when you’re low on healing and other resources are scary, but they can also be memorable and rewarding and it’s not fair to short-change yourself from the opportunity just to make sure you easily win each encounter.

So, what are the Escalation warning signs? These are most apparent at the end of an encounter (“what’s that unlocked door marked treasure for?”) or at the start of the next one (“why are all the goblins wearing name tags that say ‘minion’?”). If you run across some monsters that you’ve easily defeated before, or the set-up seems like you could just walk all over an encounter, the DM is probably throwing you a softball to keep things moving. It’s okay to use up some consumables and healing surges here, but save the dailies for the big encounter that sure to come. Keep going on for the big reward.

Another escalation sign is that you’re being baited. Whether there’s treasure around the next corner, a deity offering answers, or a side passage full healing potions: if it feels like you want to push on ahead and not wait, odds are you’re being baited to keep going. Just like I keep watching Lost week after week, after long since forgetting why, it’s important to run the adventure to its conclusion. The upside to being baited is that your characters will be rewarded for their efforts. Railroading is not being given a choice. Baiting is being given a choice, it’s just too attractive to ignore.

The more obvious escalation sign is an external pressure to keep going such a time limit (the dungeon is collapsing around you or your quarry is getting away), or the inability to take an extended rest (the area is too dangerous or too loud to sleep). These can be really frustrating to players, but these limitations also create a sense of drama and tension. While it might feel insane at the time, once you are able to catch your breath and look back on it you’ll have a great D&D memory.

Remember that even if your characters don’t have time to take a deep breath, as player be sure to take that time and call a break to keep things comfortable.