December 18, 2006

Run Away!

Is the act of running away a lost art?

A complaint I’ve heard more than once regarding player behavior in the age of Third Edition is “videogame style play”—more specifically, a style of behavior in which players have their characters fight, rest up, fight, rest up, ad nauseam, plodding straight ahead with little thought of serious problem-solving, alternate routes, or flight (especially the latter).
Now the videogame criticism is over-played by many RPG old-timers and often unfairly directed against many younger players in particular, but I do understand the point. The style of play described works fine in an electronic game such as Call of Duty, of which I happen be a fan, but in D&D the straightforward approach isn’t always the best or only route—and it shouldn’t be.

In this time of Third Edition ELs, CRs, and other alphabet soup game guidelines, it’s easy for players to be lulled into a false sense of security. They know a good GM follows these guidelines, so they trust that an adventure will be balanced with regard to PC levels. Taken at face value, this is fine—players have every right to expect that their characters will be neither unduly slaughtered nor so lacking for challenge that they will fall asleep. At a certain point however, this strains credibility. Why do purple worms never seem to lurk in the same cavern complexes populated by gricks or chokers? ("Well, because their challenge ratings are too far apart, you see...") Using the challenge levels properly also leads to an abundance of humanoids at the lower levels, I've seen.

I enjoy low-level play—there’s a real challenge when a few hits can really threaten your characters (and a possible critical hit on a PC becomes a truly terrifying event)—but I am soooo sick of the goblins. Getting from 1st level to 5th level without fighting goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, or kobolds is a near-impossible event. I like humanoids as much as the next guy, but the obligatory humanoid stomp on the way up the XP ladder is getting old. I’m an old 1st- and 2nd Edition player, and I’ve seen many, many characters of mine never get past 6th level, so maybe that’s part of the problem, I don’t know. As I said once to a friend of mine that is a great fan of low-level, humanoid-heavy play, “I’m getting tired of chalking up … I want to shoot pool* sometimes too.” Everybody likes a good, crowded kobold smash sometimes, and occasionally it even makes for good comic relief, but more often it’s the hydras and behirs and black dragons that make for the special battles we really remember.

The ability to level up nearly any monster or humanoid in Third Edition has added a welcome surprise factor (and added danger) to some of the more mundane encounters, but in this writer’s humble opinion there’s nothing wrong with the characters running away when needed. Adding one encounter per adventure that is a bit more than the PC party can chew isn’t a sin … it might be a welcome dose of reality.

In The Scaly God, I added an encounter that was extremely dangerous—one that any sensible party would back away from if the scene if GMed properly. I went as far as to include a warning note for the GM in the module, telling her that it would be fair play to warn the party that real trouble lies ahead.

Richard Baker did something similar in his Forge of Fury adventure. In this 3rd-level adventure, there is an area in which dwells a roper. That’s right … a roper! Allowing PCs in a 3rd-level dungeon to possibly run into a CR 12 creature is perhaps madness, but Baker did it with style, including notes for the GM. Call me a heretic, but I see nothing wrong with this so long as the author and GM play fair about it.

Sometimes too much is too much, and, given some warning, the adventurers should realize that sometimes it’s best to skedaddle and live to fight another day.

*Lousy metaphor. As some of the Goodman Games folks can atest, I'm no pool shark.

December 07, 2006

The Surround Syndrome

A constant conundrum when adventure writing—writing dungeon crawls specifically—is what I call the surround syndrome.

Any detailed lair inhabited by intelligent beings may well fall into this trap. The writer has carefully and plausibly populated each room, adding creatures here and there, balancing ELs (in the case of D&D 3.5), and so forth. The challenges have been balanced and made so that an adventuring party will be tested but not overwhelmed. So far, so good.

One problem: most intelligent races will employ an alarm system—guards, whistles, spy holes, what-have-you. This means that unless the intruding PCs are very careful, the dungeon inhabitants will soon become aware of their presence and send up the alarm. The result? All nearby creatures are made aware of the PCs' prescence and a stampede of reinforcements heads toward the adventurers at top speed.
Soon the adventurers are surrounded by a large host bent on their destruction and all thought of EL balance has gone out the window. Also, the GM now faces the additional problem of having the PCs explore a largely depopulated dungeon ... assuming the party survives the initial battle.

There are several classic modules that fall into this trap. Key among them were two all-time favorites of mine: Hall of the Fire Giant King (G3) and Shrine of the Kuo-Toa (D2). The former was particularly egregious—PCs entering the fire giant lair head past a hidden guard (who will promptly blow a warning horn), and even if the guard is somehow bypassed the soon-to-be found grand hall promises an encounter with the King, four fire giants, and two ettins, and other fire giants and creatures lurk well within earshot. In the case of the Shrine the party is directed straight toward a ziggurat—the very shrine mentioned in the title—where they could well be completely overwhelmed by angry fish men if they aren’t respectful and subtle in their actions.

There aren’t any easy solutions to the surround syndrome.
Intelligent humanoids and similar foes will almost certainly take obvious precautions in defending their lairs—guard posts, warning devices, and the like. To have creatures simply sit in their rooms, waiting for the PCs to arrive, is silly, especially if the intruders have spent the last 10 rounds fighting a huge battle one room away!
Similarly, I feel the layout of a dungeon should always be “realistic” (or as realistic as you can get in game where humans throw fire or teleport, but that’s a subject for another time) and monsters should be well placed as fits the overall layout. This is not to say that the level of challenge for a particular room or area isn’t a factor, indeed this is a GM’s most important adventure design factor (or one of them), but the dungeon should flow in an organic fashion and not be stunted in favor of allowing intruders easy access for sake of keeping PCs alive.

I suppose a possible solution is a bit of extra work on the dungeon creator’s part, when it comes to creature motivations and lesser changes to overall dungeon design.
Creatures should always have their own motivations, intelligent or not. A dumb or unintelligent monster, such as an ooze, may simply sweep a limited territory for food and not respond to distant stimuli. Intelligent creatures may have their own reasons for not joining a big fray or “stampede to attack the intruders” such as pride, cowardice, laziness, etc. A commanding cleric may hear a ruckus but decide to let his underlings handle the “minor” problem. A self-interested thief or humanoid may purposefully avoid combat unless their own skin is on the line. There are possibilities to be found.

In the case of my own The Scaly God, I tried to prevent total surround syndrome in an area populated with troglodytes by such motivations. In one cave, a subchief wishing to prove himself is purposely slow to ask for help when confronted with puny humans or demi-human intruders. In another cave female trogs are inclined to stay out, guarding eggs in a maternal fashion. In yet another cave lair, the wily trog shaman, if given warning of intruders, remains in his cave and prepares a clever ambush.

Ultimately such motivation tailoring may do more to “justify” PC survival in the GM’s mind, producing little difference to simply having monsters “play dumb”—this is debatable. I have found, however, that giving monstrous opponents clear motivations is extremely helpful to the GM in setting the scene and predicting behavior in the face of both expected and unexpected actions. If, for instance, the PCs attempt to parley with a humanoid, it’s extremely helpful to know whether that humanoid is greedy, cowardly, cocky, etc. Such motivations if properly developed can greatly enrich a dungeon or campaign.

Minor structural changes to the dungeon can also prevent problems, such as using multiple sub-levels to divide up the inhabitants or spreading out the inhabitants a bit (perhaps via less intelligent creatures interspersed amid the others). A dungeon layout may also delay the arrival of some alerted creatures, so the PCs face a few gradually spaced "waves" of arrivals.

Surround syndrome is a drag, to be sure, but not insurmountable. Perhaps with a little extra work and creativity, any GM can banish this vexing problem.
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