Don't Forget Your Boots

Meandering aimlessly around the GURPS landscape

Tag: stocking

Player Feedback Means Changes

There was a certain amount of restlessness in the player feedback, this past time. They’ve just gotten into yet another fight on the Great Bridge, which is turning out to be quite the bottleneck. They’re finally strong enough, well-equipped enough, to want to spend more than an hour or two in the dungeon. The players expressed frustration at the idea of turning around and letting the dungeon off the hook for the week, just when they’ve finally got a good grip on it. There were worries that monsters would return to fill the space they had cleared, forcing them to re-clear it next week, greatly slowing their progress. There was at least one question about the availability of “town portal” scrolls.

I plan to address all these concerns with a mix of structural changes and revealed secrets. Well, not so much secrets, as stuff that the characters won’t know, but might make the players feel better.

First, the obvious change:  I’ve stopped pushing for the party to return to town between sessions. More hours in the dungeon for the PCs means more hours at the gaming table for the players, and we’re exceeding the number of hours at the table that we can afford. So, the delving day will be broken across multiple sessions. The benefit is, we can pick up next time with the party already in the dungeon. We won’t use any time, next session, on spending experience or buying gear, both of which only happen in town. We won’t use any time retracing their steps from the main entrance to the area they want to explore.

The price of this is, we lose on flexibility. The original idea was that PCs could come and go easily between sessions, since the party for any particular trip is just the group of PCs who show up on that Saturn’s-Day. If we end on a cliffhanger, though, it’s hard to explain folks coming and going. If we quit on one day with the party facing off against a bunch of angry barbarians, then pick up the next session with the entire front line of PCs missing, that’s going to cause suffering among the squishies in the second rank who wouldn’t have bitten off that particular bite to chew.

(Yeah, I could run the missing PCs as NPCs, but… no, wait, strike that, I’m full of crap, there’s no way I could handle that.  I’ve got my hands full, and then some, just with the monsters. Maybe we could hand off the PCs to be run by other players, but… no, I can’t see that working. “Of course the knight would taste the mysterious potion!”  They’re pretty good about treating their henchmen ok — hirelings, somewhat less so — but there’s no mercy when it comes to PC-on-PC….)

Second, the change I had already made through laziness.  It’s been a long while since I’ve done any serious re-stocking. That’s why the first part of the dungeon was a long list of “empty, empty, nothing exciting”.  They’ve already cleared those areas. I’ve been putting my energy into stocking new areas, and neglecting the old. By pure accident, this much seems to have worked out well. The first level of the dungeon was a simple question of navigation; if the party hadn’t taken the time to fill out some blank areas on their map, they would have been able to make it from the front door to the stairs up to the Bridge in a matter of minutes. They’re not wasting any time wading through goblins and reeks.

I had done a little re-stocking in the rooms overlooking the Great Bridge, but that was a while back. That’s why the party found the trapped room, and the goblin-ghouls. They found the ghost when they explored new territory. He has been there since I first stocked the area.

“But,” the Gentle Reader protests, “what about the Treadmill Of Doom that you keep calling a bridge?  Every time they set foot on that thing, they get into another fight!  Surely you’re restocking it?”

Yes and no. I haven’t been re-stocking it, but I have been causing the locals to respond to PC action.

Let’s review. When the party first saw the Great Bridge, they met the gang of goblinoids who held the overlooking rooms, and fought them until making peace through diplomacy.  The next visit, they started with diplomacy and ended up with a small massacre, leaving the formerly-enslaved goblins in charge and dropping Mongo down the Pit of Darkness. This riled up the demons in the pit (judging from the noises, anyway). The next time they visited the Great Bridge, they met Zombie-Mongo, so clearly, he managed to climb out of the Pit somehow. That same trip, they also saw goblins jumping out of arrow slits to their doom, apparently in fear of whatever was going on inside. It was on this trip that they first noticed the tower.

On the last couple of trips, they’ve been going out of their way to draw trouble. Time before last, they came out loud. Posy tested the echo. This drew the attention of [REDACTED] in the tower, which led to Alric getting gut-shot. The occupant(s) of the tower responded to these events by… um… doing some stuff that caused a chain of events that ended up with eight ghouls hiding in the hallway, waiting for people to try to cross the bridge. This last time, FuBar went out his way to draw fire from the tower, and discovered the guarding ghouls.

So, it’s not that I’m re-stocking, particularly, it’s that the party keeps thumbing their nose at the tower. There’s something up there. It has a crossbow, some mad crossbow sniper skills, and a burning hatred for loud adventurers. It kept to itself, to begin with… but if folks keep showing up to moon it, it’s going to keep taking shots at them.

The skeletons were just wandering monsters. Bad luck that they showed up there.

Thirdly, WOW, did I miscalculate the pace of everything. In general. I knew there would come a point where the walk back home would get oppressive, and I’ve got some features in the dungeon to help address that… but my guess as to where that point would come was way, way off. In vague terms, there are other entrances and exits to the dungeon, later on. I was taking a cue from the Diablo series, where every so often, you open up a new shortcut back to town. The problem is, the next one is way too deep in the dungeon to do any good right now…. so, I need to do some renovations.

I think the biggest impact is going to be from staying in the dungeon for longer.  Every trip, they’ve spent more in-game hours in-dungeon. The first few visits were the classic fifteen-minute adventurer’s workday.  Now, everybody’s “leveled up” enough, they can stay down there so long, it takes more than one session to play it out. That means longer between experience awards, and longer between paydays, but both should be larger for it. That might even give more of a “gained a level” vibe when experience gets spent, who knows…


Numbers: the good, the bad, and the too darn many

I’m prone to over-thinking and over-complicating things. This isn’t news. Sometimes, it backfires on me worse than others.

For example, my grand plan of using wandering monster rolls to help re-stock the dungeon has fallen apart. My plan was, I would keep track of which areas the party has explored, and make a wandering monster check for each area, between sessions. If the check came up, I would roll the usual “empty/monster/trap/special” stocking roll; if not, the room would remain in play for the next round of checks. As it worked out, it was just too troublesome to keep track of the list of rooms needing rolls. Too much overhead, too much laziness, not enough return for the investment. And, in hindsight, not enough flexibility.

The way it has turned out, in actual play, the party is moving a lot slower than I had anticipated. Don’t take this the wrong way! I’m not trying to say that the PCs or the players are in any way performing poorly. Quite the opposite. I think it’s a question of dungeon design, more than anything. I feel that the first level, especially, is too tightly constrained. The party keeps passing by that same pit trap. I can’t say why, for sure, but I suspect it might simply be because it’s the only entrance they know. (They actually know of at least five, that I can think of, but a couple of those are just alternate ways on to the same highway.)

My fear is, if I mindlessly apply a simple rule for re-stocking, they’ll have to slog through a never-ending horde of reeks, rust monsters, and half-crazed goblins. Maybe they’ll grow in power and proficiency, until they can just brush off such things without breaking stride, but maybe not. More likely, it seems to me, they’ll just get bogged down.

Therefore, I’m chucking the entirely-random re-stocking idea. Rather than faithfully rolling lots and lots of dice between every session — or, more honestly, rather than coming up with excuses not to roll lots of dice — I’m going to go to an “as seems appropriate” basis. Every couple of sessions, as opportunity and motivation allows, I’ll go through the dungeon and make updates as needed. If the party doesn’t turn over some rock for a while, something might grow under it. If there’s a lot of traffic on a certain hall, it’s unlikely that anyone will set up camp in the middle of it. I’ll still be depending on the dice for decisions, I’ll just be doing it on a more forgiving schedule and with an eye towards plausibility, rather than unseen objective consistency.

On the other hand, my grand plan for hundreds of rumors seems to be working well. Before the last session, I put together a huge master list of 120 rumors:  thirty rumors for each of four information-gathering skills. I made the task easier on myself by having several rumors all based on the same root piece of information, but it was still a steep slope to climb. It’s like stocking the dungeon, though: lots of upfront work, then a comparatively small amount of maintenance.

But was it worth it? I think so. One of the goals of this campaign is to take me, the GM, out of the story as much as possible. When I overheard “I can’t wait to see how the GM is going to get us out of this one” remarks, in a previous campaign, I knew I had drank entirely too much of the story-driven Kool-Aid. This game is meant to be a sandbox. The hand of the GM shouldn’t be apparent. If I’m caught for a rumor, if I have to make up something on the spot, there’s a temptation to influence the story, to put my hands directly on the plot. I want to set up systems to avoid that. To keep me at arm’s length, you might say.

In my story-driven games, if the party heard about something twice, they could bet it was going to impact their lives before too long. The rumors were foreshadowing. I chose them for their influence on the story. With the Big Book O’ Rumors, it’s the other way around. If the party hears about something twice, it’s because the dice handed it to them that way. If they follow up on those rumors, they turn into foreshadowing. If the party decides to ignore them, they’re just background noise that improves the simulation of reality. The story comes out of the players’ choices and the PCs’ actions, rather than the action coming from the GM-driven story.

Finally, while I was stocking some of the lower levels, I came to the realization that I had entirely too many numbered areas. For example, I had one area about the size of my living room, surrounded by many smaller spaces, perhaps the size of a walk-in closet. In that one tiny area, for some reason, I had numbered all the individual rooms. By the averages, the “empty/monster/trap/special” rolls would have populated a couple of monsters, and a couple of traps, in a space about the size of a decent apartment. It’s a Dungeon Fantasy sit-com. Visions of the otyugh (literally) hogging the bathroom. The troll and the umber hulk arguing over the bill for the crystal ball.

Really, the whole little knot of rooms should be considered a single location. By crowding my numbered locations, I’ve lost the necessary buffer of empty space between spots of interest. The levels on Diablo 3 are pretty tightly packed, but even so, you find some quiet space between encounters. So, I need to go back and do some erasing. Thankfully, these are all areas far from anywhere the party is likely to reach anytime soon.


Knocking Down Doors

I get the feeling that last session was when the players finally got sick of all these doors getting in their way. They’ve knocked ’em down before, but now they’re lighting them on fire and talking about adding a ram to their party supplies. So, I reckon now’s the time to talk about them.

In previous games, when somebody wanted to shoulder open a door, we used what I like to call the “Starsky & Hutch” method:  a roll against Forced Entry, at whatever modifier seemed appropriate. Now, by “previous games”, I’m thinking of a couple of modern-day supers games, a supernatural Old West campaign, and the two “seasons” of the Space Cowboys thing. For the most part, when a door got in the way in those games, either somebody blew it off its hinges with overwhelming force, or the door itself was some kind of wimpy internal privacy door kind of thing, and didn’t represent much of a real barrier. Getting past the door was simplified, so we could get on to the scenery-chewing on the far side of that door.

This, however, is Dungeon Fantasy. If the party was supposed to have unlimited freedom of movement, it would be called Big Flat Plain Fantasy. The doors are as much as part of that as the narrow stairways and twisty corridors. They deserve a little more attention than we’ve given them in the past.

You shall not pass!

You shall not pass!

The original dungeon doors are built for security. Take this pic, for example. I would consider this a pretty typical door, coming off a main hallway. Within a group of rooms, you might find lighter doors… but more likely, you’ll find a curtain. Or, rather, the furniture to hang one. Big hallways, though, tend to have been the equivalent of streets. They get the heavy doors, the kind that are meant to keep out invading goblinoid armies.

Clearly, breaking this thing down by force isn’t just a question of hitting it with your shoulder. At least, not for a party without a barbarian. Alric might have been able to force some of those doors, but without him, the party just didn’t have enough gristle to get the job done. They had to fall back on crowbars. Bashing down a door is a question of Damage Resistance and Hit Points, and doors like this have a decent amount of both. The longer it takes to knock it down, the more of a racket the party is making, and the more wandering monsters they’re attracting. Not to mention, that first blow costs the element of surprise.

Burning the door isn’t all that much better. It’s no sure thing. Back in the day, Gygax assumed that any dungeon door would likely be so swollen with moisture as to be stuck in its frame, requiring a roll just to open. Entirely separate from the roll to pick the lock, if any. Areas that aren’t so dry, might not have doors that are so easily ignited.

Fire loses on stealth, too. It might not be as loud as beating the thing down with brute force, but a roaring bonfire like you’d get from a four-inch thick wooden door is still something to draw attention. It makes noise, it sheds light and heat, and perhaps worst of all, the smell of smoke carries. When somebody down the street lights their barbecue in the spring or lights a fire in their fireplace in the fall, I know it. If I can smell it, you can bet that Argh The Killer Orc from three doors down can, too… not to mention whatever Big Ugly just had its front door lit on fire.

Finally, when it comes to fire, you’ve got to ask yourself:  how far do I trust these dwarven ventilation systems that haven’t been systematically maintained in about a hundred years? One of the oldest questions in my “to do and post about” list is “How big of a fire, for how long, would it take to suck up enough oxygen to cause problems for adventurers?”  Mines and the like are notorious for bad air and explosive fumes. Deeper down in the dwarven mines, this might start to become a bigger factor…


Corrections, News, and Scenes of Pastoral Charm

As PeterD pointed out, when I was troubled by Gabby’s apparent ability to skewer anybody grabbing her rapiers, I overlooked B391, which says it’s impossible to use such a long weapon in Close Combat, and the expanded rules in GURPS Martial Arts, which would allow it, but at a daunting -12. I tend towards using the latter rules, just because I’d rather see ’em roll than not. That means Gabby would be rolling at (if I remember correctly) an effective 7. That’s the land of wild swings and the gun going off accidentally during the struggle, so all’s well.

Remember, though, Gabby has a decent pile of accumulated XP and no particular project to spend ’em on. If she decides to chase pure, raw skill with her weapon of choice, she’ll rapidly achieve the high 20’s. At that point, she can eat a -12 and keep on coming. That, too, is entirely cool.  You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, and you don’t try to grab the swords off Miyamoto Musashi.

Word is that the players that animate Alric and Gabby won’t be able to make the next session, though. Luckily, the party managed to extract themselves from the dungeon last session, so it’s easy to sideline them for a bit. In-game, the two of them decided to take a week off to rest and recuperate from their respective injuries. Gabby is waiting for the power of prayer to mend all the bones in her arm, of course, while Alric took a hit to the groin that wasn’t mortal, wasn’t crippling, but was deeply demoralizing. They’re going to spend some time at the inn, drinking heavily in between lessons in fighting more like the jumping flea than the raging bull.

Thus, the next session is going to be the classic Fighter-Thief-Magic-user team of The Knight of the Blood Oath, Needles, and Mississippi Jed. Last I heard, they were plotting to perform an exorcism and shut down the evil temple they found last session. That’s after checking in with Strang, to give him the bad news. I’ve been discussing the situation with the remote player behind Strang, and he’s come up with an interesting response, something a lot more fun that I would have come up with, alone.

In the meantime, I’m splitting my gaming attention between setting up for the debut of (a stripped-down version of) the GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling rules, and working through the long-delayed restocking. I expect that the next session will start with a flurry of paperwork as we look up everyone’s Grip ST and training bonuses (boni? bonusim? bonoxen?) and favorite techniques and such-like. I’m a little surprised to report, looking over the character sheets, that 3/5th of the PCs already have points devoted to some form of grappling skill. The highest skill level is DX+0, though, which makes sense: none of these guys are meant to be dedicated wrasslers. The one who put any points towards it at all are the more front-line folks, who surely did it for defensive purposes. I guess that’ll save looking up those training bonuses, after all…


The Balance Of Terror In The Dwarven Ruins

I’ve gone on record as saying that generally, the deeper one goes in the dungeon in my campaign, the worse it gets. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that everything near the entrance is easy pickings, though.

There might be a dragon lurking just a few doors down from the front door*, but if it’s all mellow and laid-back if treated with respect, if it wants to talk more than eat knights, it’s not going to be an unreasonable threat. If there’s plenty of warning of what’s up ahead, then the players have to choose to put their characters in danger. If it’s clear that the fight is beyond them, it’s their own fault if they pick it anyway.

One example that the PCs have already bumped into was the pair of fiery guys near the stairs up to the Great Bridge. One look, and the PCs knew that was one fight they weren’t equipped for. They wisely backed off.

Another thing that makes the areas near the entrance less lethal than those farther in is access to escape. More than once, the party has sent one or more runners back along the path they had traveled on the way in, figuring that the way was clear. Many of the monsters in the dungeon like it there precisely because it’s proof against sunlight. If the party can take to their heels and make it to the light of day, many pursuers will let them go. Even if they’re not that lucky, they’re still better off fighting in the light, without darkness penalties. Once they’re deeper than a quick sprint, though, they won’t have a (relatively) safe place to run to.

A lot of the creatures on the first level aren’t much for the chase, anyway. Zombies, oozes, and reeks aren’t known for their speed. The areas near the entrance have a lot of lurkers and scavengers. I was just noticing this morning that some of the higher forms of undead can be fast. The party wasn’t impressed with zombies the first time around, because they had an experienced cleric. They haven’t been impressed since because zombies are dumb and slow. I wonder how they’ll react when they get deeper in and find “zombies” that can outrun half the party.

Things are pretty simple towards the entrance. If there’s a monster, there’s usually just one kind; if there’s a trap, it’s the only threat.** Deeper in, things get more complex. In the depths, you’ll find boss monsters with minions and intelligent enemies with organized defenses.

Finally, the dungeon scales. One of the great effects of GURPS’ point-based system is that you can always throw another 50 points of “ninja training” on any critter… or another template or three. (“It’s a Carnivorous Mutated Giant Space Hamster. From Hell.”) Near the entrance, the goblins you find are sad, cringing types.  Deeper in, the goblins get more competent, like Gort the artillery wizard. I like to think one of the baddest of the boss monsters on the very deepest level is a 1200 point goblin Barbarian-Druid-Ninja with a Gelatinous Cube for a mount…

* There isn’t. But there could be!

** Usually. Remember, there was something lurking at the bottom of the infamous pit. Trap and monster. But, still, that was only after the party had encountered the trap alone.


Grappling With Re-Stocking The Dungeon

It’s less than a week ’til the next session of the Dungeon Fantasy game, and so the lazy GM’s thoughts turn toward re-stocking the dungeon after the damage wrought last time around.

As I tried to explain a while back, I’ve got a system that I’m comfortable with for randomizing the contents of rooms and hallways in the dungeon. I’ve considered complicating things, but so far, I’m satisfied enough with the results that I don’t want to fiddle with it. The question remains, though: What about re-stocking, after the murder hobos have come through like the plague of locusts that they are? (And I mean all that in the fondest of ways, of course. I love the characters. I just wouldn’t invite them back to my house.)

The first part of the question, of course, is “Why bother?” Why not let the PCs clear the dungeon?  The best answer I can think of, is because it’ll increase the challenge. It puts pressure on the PCs to keep going, when they might otherwise withdraw to recharge and regroup. There’s a pull towards taking it slow — the proverbial “ten minute adventuring day”, in which the adventurer’s life is going into the dungeon, blowing out all the stops and going nova on the first monster you meet, then going home for a good night’s sleep. One of the things that helps counterbalance that pull is the realization that if you withdraw after a successful battle, something else will move in, and you’ll be fighting over that same group again next week.

(Another force at work here is the much-maligned wandering monster, but that’s a story for another time.)

This psychological pull isn’t just theory, either. One of the bits of player-to-player conversation that I overheard, last time (maybe time before last?), was a discussion over withdrawing or pressing on before a power vacuum was filled.

So, there you go. I’ve got vacuum. Can’t have that!

Thus far, I’ve used a couple of different approaches to re-stocking.

At first, when the PCs were just beginning to engage with Ghorbash’s goblins, I just eyeballed it. I put myself in the place of Ghorbash and his advisers, and asked myself, “If I had these forces arrayed like this, and suddenly I got word that those guard posts had been wiped out, and eye-witness reports like thus-and-so, what would I do?” When you’re dealing with an organized faction, with intelligent leadership, I think this is really the best way. The dice are great for giving a direction, but they aren’t going to come up with a reasoned plan of response.

At the time, I looked at how many members of the tribe were still standing. I gave them a few additional recruits, proportional to the size of the surviving group.  My thinking is that the bands of humanoids that we’ve met so far aren’t actually native to the area. They’re raiding groups, under the leadership of one or more warlords. There’s a trickle of goblins, orcs, and such who travel from the barren wastes of Goblinistan to seek their fortunes in the ruins. Some of those goblinoids end up joining with existing, successful bands.

In short, they’re parties of adventurers, with their hirelings, henchmen, and hangers-on… just like the PCs’ party.  Perhaps with slightly inferior hygiene, in some cases. The way I see it, if the Delving Band With No Name can lose Rho and then return with Jed, then it’s just as fair for the goblins to put Foo and Bar in the still-warm seats of the late Argle and Bargle.

And that worked well enough, until the PCs broke the back of the goblins’ power in that part of the dwarven ruins. Since they killed Ghorbash and routed the shaman’s vengeful counter-attack, the party hasn’t heard much from the goblins. I figure two defeats like that are enough to force the goblins to fall back. Their recruiting ability is damaged, just when they need to fill empty slots in their lineup.

This left me with a section of the dungeon, once held by the goblins, that they could no longer control. Since logic could no longer answer, I turned back to the dice.

Of course, this led to extended dithering and the wringing of hands. If I just re-stocked the area, as if it were fresh, never-explored dungeon, I would be putting the party on a bit of a never-ending treadmill, where every week, the dungeon denizens spring back to full strength. I’m not sure I care for that result. What I’m thinking is more… Whack-a-Mole. Critters aren’t going to set up shop right in the middle of a highly-traveled area. They’ll get a foothold somewhere out of the way. It’s in the dark corners, after all, where evil breeds.

If the PCs make an effort to keep an area clear, they should be able to do so. This might mean nothing more than tromping down the same hallway every trip, disabling traps, or it might mean barricading a room and going native. If they don’t check out an area after they clear it, over time, the usual dungeon dwellers will come trickling in, bringing their traps and locks and poison needles.

What I finally, in fact, did, was re-roll as if I were stocking the area for the first time. 😉  I’ll admit it, I used the system that I knew wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. It was something far more magical than “perfect”:  it was right there and it would work. The number of rooms in play was small enough, I don’t think one could tell one random-roll system apart from another. If all you know is, it came up “heads”, you don’t know if you’re flipping a coin or rolling a d1000 against a really thorough hit location chart for an ettin. (“781 – Left throat. 782 – Right throat. 783 – Throats. 784 – Left chin….”)

When I interpreted the results, I looked at it from the point of view of what had gone before. It’s less of a stretch to find vermin infesting previously-cleared lairs, than it would be to find an army of crazed cultists.  (If I was headed towards cultists, I would start off with just a couple. The roadies, you might say, with the advance luggage. You think the high priest is going to want to rough it in the dungeon? Oh, no, that’s not how evil temples work. You know the evil management will come oozing in after all the hard work is done, pressing the demon-flesh and taking all the credit, when it’s really the minions that do the back-breaking work. Do you have any idea how much a ten-foot tall demon idol with bronze brazier and fist-sized jeweled eyes weighs? And when they ship evil altars, it’s always “some assembly required” and then they leave out the instructions….)

As I worked through the re-stocking process, I pondered on the situation, and I think I’ve got a better system to try next time.

Every area in the dungeon has a chance of wandering monsters, which is loosely based on the amount of “action” that area receives.* I’m thinking, I’ll take that same roll and apply it once a week, as a chance of something passing by that might make a change to the room’s status quo. If that check comes up, then I’ll roll a stocking roll. If not, I’ll continue rolling for that room on the following week, and so on until that room gets its roll. This will take a certain amount of bookkeeping between sessions, but I don’t think maintaining one more list is going to overwhelm me.

Of course, when deciding what the rolls mean, I’ll have to keep an eye towards the logic of the dungeon. If the rolls say a monster moves in next to a group that has already been placed, it’s likely that the group has expanded into new territory.

My hope is that the end result will be a lag between when an area is cleared, and when it is repopulated. The more dangerous an area is, the more quickly it will fill with dangerous things. If the PCs regularly patrol an area, they can keep the infestations down, defeating newcomers while they’re still establishing themselves. The flip side of that coin is, if the PCs ignore an area, those infestations will take root and grow stronger, more consolidated, and harder to remove.

* While watching Walking Dead a while back, I realized that one of the keys to surviving a zombie apocalypse was to reduce one’s wandering monster roll as much as possible. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure a way to quantify the wandering monster chance and the ways PC could affect it, one way or the other. Clearly, barring the door behind you has an effect.

How bad can it get for the PCs?

I’ve seen a couple of threads on the SJ Games forums (here and here) that got me thinking. One is talking about the maximum damage one should use against PCs. The other is discussing the assumptions behind Dungeon Fantasy, including how often a GM should do things like nerf the wizard with an anti-magic zone or use flying enemies against parties limited to ground movement. The question is, how bad can (or should) the GM make life for the PCs?

My answer always seems to be: “Pretty darn bad.”

Is it OK for an adversary monster to do enough damage to drop the party’s squishies to where they’re making death checks?  Sure thing. Particularly if that monster is some sort of berserk, slobbering, ten-foot-tall monstrosity with nigh-inappropriate piercings. It’s just false advertising to field something that ugly and have it hit like a feather. Is it OK for a gnome to punch like that? Probably not… unless there’s been some mention of how this gnome wears a Girdle of Giant Strength, or some other clue that this gnome is unusual.

Is it OK to throw flying adversaries at the party, even if they don’t carry missile weapons and will be generally helpless?  Absolutely! It shouldn’t come as a shock to encounter flying enemies in a fantasy world. The game that made dungeon crawls a thing to do was named after a monster that can fly, after all. The movie Jason and the Argonauts had a harpy fight, and it came out in 1963.

Is it OK to sprinkle around things like anti-magic areas, monsters with magic resistance, and meteoric iron locks to offset the power of magic to solve problems? Yup. If the PCs can do it, so can others. There’s a spell to remove mana from an area, and there’s another to provide magic resistance. Meteoric iron is available to anybody who’s willing to pay the markup. It’s a sure bet, if your PCs were worried about being ripped off by wizards, they would quickly pursue all three.

If you’re going into the dungeon, you should be prepared to meet (like the song says) “things that crawl, and things that fly, and things that creep around on the ground”, things “that’d make a strong man cry with fright”. You should know that it’s a hostile environment, chock full of creatures that want nothing more than to eat your braaaaiiiiiiins…. and some are surprisingly clever and go in for things like setting traps and laying ambushes. If the monsters aren’t that smart, your fellow adventurers are. Anything your party comes up with is fair game as a tactic for their rivals and enemies to use.

For verisimilitude, and for the challenge, the GM has to include things that the party can’t easily handle. If the PCs can waltz in and make off with the MacGuffin without any trouble, you’re faced with the dual problem of explaining why somebody hasn’t already done so, and figuring out what to do to fill the rest of the evening.

Furthermore, there has to be a real risk. If the party pushes too hard, goes too far, overextends themselves… they’ve got to pay the price. If they refuse to believe that there are things out there that are too much for them, they need to learn. Education is often painful.

I’ve seen a lot of talk about how consequences aren’t fun. You can even see it in the evolution of monsters over time: the first rust monster would just outright destroy metal items with a touch, then it was updated to destroy some items eventually, and ended up performing some sort of alchemical transformation so the PCs can reclaim their lost items. Or something of that nature, anyway; I lost interest after hearing how it’s no fun to have to risk your character’s precious magic items. Sometimes you hear it about game mechanics. I saw something in passing, the other day, about how it’s no fun to be knocked out of combat, so monsters shouldn’t have special attacks like paralysis, or stunning, or whatever.

Of course, if you follow that line of logic to its tragic end, you realize that it’s no fun at all to have to sit out half the combat because the dragon killed your character… and you end up standing up cardboard cut-outs of dragons to hold the place of the real thing until they’re knocked down by a band of hooligans with duct-tape-and-rattan swords. Nobody misses out on the fun, then, you see. All the risk is sucked out. Seems to me, the fun gets sucked out, at the same time.

It’s no fun for anybody at the table to have the PCs roll over all opposition.  (Maybe on occasion, but not a steady diet.)  If the bad guys can’t touch ’em, they won’t be effective and the PCs will own them. The players will get bored and you end up with PC-on-PC violence.

Likewise, it’s no fun to watch the PCs die helplessly, either. I might joke about wanting to kill PCs, but there’s no enjoyment to be had in watching someone’s PC introduce himself shortly before slitting his wrists. (Seriously, if your character is suicidal, at least gear up for some sort of epic last stand. Distract the dragon while the other PCs sneak in to steal its treasure. Do something interesting. Think of your fellow players!) I’m not going to put a monster in the dungeon with the powers of “takes no damage from PCs” and “kills PCs at will”, because that would be boring for me.

If I, as the GM, wanted the PCs dead, I could just call for a plague to sweep the land.  “You all wake up dead. New characters all around!”  I could have the next random encounter be with a planet-killer asteroid.  “Even with Deflect +3, I don’t think your large shield can parry that.” Neither sounds like fun to me, or anybody else.

The sweet spot, the place where everybody has the most fun, both player and GM, is where the PCs are challenged but not overwhelmed. If there’s something they can’t take, they should be able to gather that information, and avoid it. If they’re walking through opposition with a yawn, they need to face steeper opposition. If they get hit, it should hurt… because that’s what makes it a fight worth having.

Busy reading.

If you haven’t heard, they’re having a sale at Warehouse 23. As a direct consequence, I’m now immersed in reading many PDFs. I’ve already found a couple of Pyramid articles that might have an impact on the game. One, at least, certainly will, though I haven’t figured out exactly where and how to slot it in.

Oh, and prep for the next session. The nature of the prep is evolving. I’ve stocked the dungeon for quite some distance beyond what the party has seen, so now I’m starting to go back and refine what’s already there.

That’s the plan, anyway… just as soon as I’m done with my reading…

Know Your Monsters (Before They Know You!)

Poking around what’s new on the ol’ internet, I see this: It’s mostly about the expectations concerning level of detail in publish products and so forth, but there’s a bit in the middle that got me thinking.

“… For my purposes, I’ll be bold and take his statement the rest of the way:  because real-world monsters have survived as storytelling elements for thousands of years, players already know some things about them.  (30 years of D&D play might have something to do with it too)….
“I’ll generalize and say bloggers have a tendency to overvalue new and unique monsters – perhaps that’s a perception borne of selection bias since that’s what people post on their blogs.  For adventure gaming, those things have to be the exception, not the rule.  Otherwise you rob the players of too much agency, they lose an element of strategy and planning….”

In a way, this is why I’ve been converting classic D&D monsters. It’s certainly why I’ve been posting the results publicly, in a forum that my players can consult.

Let me give you some background. Now, keep in mind, this is just how I understand it, so I might get some details wrong; I haven’t done an actual survey or anything. But, here’s what I’ve gathered: In my group, I have at least one player who has absolutely no experience with any edition of D&D whatsoever. I’ve got at least two who have ran their own D&D games, under some edition or another. (I hear good things about this Pathfinder business.) I believe the earliest edition that any of them are familiar with is 2nd Edition.* I know I ran a fantasy game in HERO System, a long time back, for several of them, so we don’t have anybody who’s entirely new to the genre. Everybody has seen the Lord of the Rings movies, but I don’t know if I would bet on everybody having read the books – they’re aware of the genre but not a bunch of raving fantasy fanboys, is what I’m trying to say. Nobody speaks Elvish, but they all speak GURPS.

With this game, I’m looking to have the players create their own story. To do this, they have to take the reins. They have to make the decisions. They have to pick their targets. They can’t do that, if they don’t know what to expect from the monsters. The various Hidden Lore skills and so forth help out, here, but there’s really no substitute for the vague memories of having read the monster’s stats. 😉

Anyway, there’s a limit to how much info-dump can be tolerated at the table. I know my guys and the limits of their patience. (Remember, 60% took Impulsive!) The name of the game is “go into the dungeon, whack the monster, recover the treasure”, not “listen to a monologue on the ecology of the rust monster”. I like the results of in-game skill rolls to be more on the punchy side: “they’re vulnerable to marshmallows” or “they eat eyeballs”. The important stuff.

Back in my junior high days, everybody read the Monster Manual. We weren’t allowed to consult it at the table, necessarily, but everybody read the thing. And so, we knew what to do when we met a troll, we had an idea of how frightened to be of a dragon, and so forth. We had a shared vocabulary. I’m aiming to re-create that experience.

In game, I figure adventurers tell stories. Early on, there was passing mention of the idea of a school for adventurers, where they could learn the lore of the New World (in the form of Hidden Lore skills, of course) before coming over to make their fortunes. All the party members came over on the same boat. People talk. So, of course, they’re going to share stories of the nasty creatures they’ll all be facing.

I’m okay with the party having an idea of what they’re up against. This gives them an opportunity to reap rewards from good tactics. What’s the point of having the thief go ahead and scout, if all he sees is some unique creature with unknown habits and weaknesses? Much better if the thief can report back “three orcs” or “a couple of trolls” or “the tarrasque**, run!” and have everybody on the same page, able to plot and plan about how to deal with what’s before them.

But doesn’t that give them too much advantage? Absolutely not!

On the one hand, if I want to confuse and dismay them, I still can. Nothing says I can’t have the occasional one-off unique mutant. Much to the contrary; those mutants tend to be the bosses running their levels. Beyond that, there’s plenty of tricky magic, esoteric skills, and unusual complications to throw at ’em. I’m sure I can keep them on their toes without having every monster be a mystery. (I remember one time, as a player, early in my gaming career, being confronted with a gang of troll ninjas. Or possibly ninja trolls. Either way, it was a total rout until the magic-user pulled out a fireball. The old-school kind of fireball with lots of d6’s and a huge area of effect. Ah, the good ol’ days…)

On the other hand, just because they know what they need, doesn’t mean they’ve got it. Take the troll, the classic “monster with a key piece of information”. When the Delving Band With No Name encountered their trolls, they were lucky: they were carrying torches and hanging out with an elementalist who specialized in fire magic and rode a flaming samurai as a mount. Bad day for the trolls, even if the guys didn’t know the trolls’ problem with fire and acid. They might have gotten one good scare, but I bet “cremate the bodies entirely!” would come up, as a plan, shortly after the second time a troll got back up, if not before.

What if they ran into that same encounter today, knowing full well that they’ve got to burn the bodies? They might have difficulties, even with that knowledge. They’ve lost Tobey, the fire elementalist. Their new magic-using support is Mississippi Jed, a bard. While he’s remarkable adept at magic, for a bard, he’s still not any kind of slinger of fiery blasts. They aren’t even carrying lit torches, anymore, having switched to Continual Light. They’ve got the tools to light a fire, at least, but that’s hard enough in the woods with damp wood. Imagine how hard it is to ignite a wet, dead troll who keeps trying to get up, down in the damp dungeon, no firewood better than moist mushrooms, wandering monsters getting interested in the clacking of flint on steel…

This is where oil comes in handy. Not sure if they carry it.

Even if they know what they need, they might not have it. Silver for the werewolf. A cleric and wooden stakes for the vampire. Keg of oil for that dang troll! Skin full of wine for all the nasty gunk that you can only wash off with alcohol. Skin full of water for when the evil wizard lights you on fire. After a while, if nothing else, the encumbrance penalties start to rack up.

Really, I find the problem is coming up with ways to give information to the players. The more knowledge of the world they’ve got, they better prepared they are for taking it on, which makes watching them in action that much more fun for me. I’d get pretty bored watching PCs walk into a meat grinder through ignorance. It’s much more entertaining to see the trouble they get into after you give them plenty of rope…

* Yeah, I feel old. <shakes cane> In my day, if you were an elf, what was your class? ELF! And we liked it! Now get off my lawn!

** See, right there’s an example. If you know the source material, you know that the tarrasque is a one-of-a-kind, unkillable, walking natural disaster. If you don’t, what do you know?  “Huh. Guessing it’s French?”


Successful Delver Problems: Unwieldy treasure

There’s been a remarkable lack of coin taken by my PCs. Literally, they’ve remarked on it: “Goblins only use the barter system?  Didn’t they bother to steal the cash when they raided that boat?”

Partly, it’s because Needles and Gabby are intercepting two-thirds of the coin before it’s tallied. Partly, it’s because they’ve been on Level 1* and everything that lives there is relatively poor. But mainly, it’s because I just don’t believe in it.

Let me tell you about this one time… I ran 3rd Edition D&D once. One time only. I don’t remember much of the details of the campaign, and this was before I started keeping detailed notes. I remember being mildly offended at how effective the one fighter’s scythe was. I remember the level progression slipped out of my grasp almost immediately. But, the thing that surprised me most wasn’t from the game system, it was from the style of the players.

This was a unique group, mind you. The guys I play with now, we’ve been gaming together for years. I like to flatter myself that I know how they think. (And they know how I think, which is one of the reasons I dig the random rolls so much… but that’s a story for another time.) The folks in this 3rd Ed. game, I had known for a long time, and played alongside, but that game was the first time I ran a game for them. They surprised me, quite often.

The surprise I’m thinking of came about when the party went after an enemy in his home. He was a wealthy nobleman of some kind. I couldn’t tell you for certain at this late date, but he was probably some kind of undercover evil. At any rate, they took that place like something out of a caper movie, striking in the wee hours of the morning, using stealth effectively, eliminating the guards, and taking out the target with no alarm being raised. I had planned for them to loot the bodies, and I had even planned for when they grabbed the shiniest of the shiny from the guy’s strongbox.

What I had not planned for, in any way, was when they brought the wagon around back, to the servant’s entrance, and started stripping the house bare.

“He’s got silverware, right? Nice dishes? Pantry stocked?”

“Some classy furniture in a joint like this, wouldn’t you think? Oak? Solid oak? Yeah, Sir Badguy strikes me as an oak kind of guy.”

“I bet Sir Badguy has some fine boots. Better than mine, that’s for certain. Let’s correct that. And I grab any nice paintings I see on the way.”

In the end, they made more from pawning the guy’s household than they did from the initial smash-and-grab. As I recall, they made several trips with that wagon. I think they left the barbarian behind with a crowbar at least once, while the others cached a load.

At the time, this was a pain. I had to improvise pretty hard for a while. But in hindsight, it taught me to cast a wider eye at the entire concept of “treasure”.

Look around your home. Odds are, you don’t have much in the way of cash laying around, compared to the value in your belongings. Most of your net wealth is tied up in stuff. The same should be true of sentient dungeon dwellers and their lairs. With the exception of dragons, most creatures are going to get more enjoyment from a warm, stout blanket than a gold piece. Any being that can’t go into town to spend those coins, or trade them to some other creature that can, is better off turning them into a bead curtain than hording them… or melting them down to make pretty jewelry.

(If you’re looking for piles of money, you want to track down a place of business… and even then, most kinds of business, there’ll be more inventory on hand than cash in the till.)

This means, when the party knocks down a monster and takes all the treasure from its lair, that treasure is likely to be in inconveniently-sized chunks. A rich ogre would have a keg of beer and a side of beef, not a sack of coins. Loot, not treasure, if you will.

The other thing it means is, there are two kinds of looters among the PCs. I grew up playing with the first kind: take the magic items and jewels, then platinum and gold, throw the copper aside, and travel light. That 3rd Ed. group was the second kind: extract all the value possible, down to stripping the lead off the roof, if you can get away with it.

The Dungeon Fantasy line acknowledges the second kind of PC, with the rules for selling dungeon scrap. I can’t say that I can recall any other system addressing the issue. This works well for me. I make note of anything consider treasure by my lights, plus any major pieces of furniture, and after that, I just have to estimate poundage. I don’t have to try to adjudicate a fair selling price for half a bent-up portcullis, PCs who travel light never notice, and PCs who strip the dungeon bare get some extra income for their trouble.

Finally, I learned to always note a price and a weight, even if it’s something that I think they’ll ignore. Guaranteed, as soon as I’m positive I’ll never need a weight for the stone heads, the PCs will drag in some heavy lifting gear and a train of mules.

The current group seems more Type 1. They’ve left a fair amount of value on the ground. I’m not sure if that’s because they’re picking out the best value for the weight, or because they just forget to pick things up. Last session, there was argument about whether or not it would be worth it to drag back half a broken door, though, so it could be that they’re shifting towards Type 2…

* For better or worse, I abandoned the “down is worse” paradigm when drawing up my maps. I’m working more on a “further in is worse” system. The Great Bridge is a boundary between “levels”. The opposition on the other side will (hopefully!) be more powerful, the rewards will be higher… and the party walked up several flights of stairs to get to it. I’m not sure that was the right thing to do, at all, since I fear that I’ve taken a valuable tool for risk estimation away from the players. On the other hand, I figure they’re smart enough to cross a level boundary, notice that the locals are scary, and sneak quietly away, if need be.

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