Saturday, December 27, 2014

Play Report and Important Points on Designing Low-Level Encounters

  I met my lovely wife in August of 1990 just before I left for the Gulf War. The very first thing we did for fun was play the old WEG Star Wars RPG. I thought she was a long-time veteran of RPGs. it was actually her first RPG session, she had just memorized everything about the Star Wars universe.
  A match made in heaven.
  In the 24+ years since she was played all sorts of games, cutting her teeth and learning how to play from some of the best GMs on the planet. Over the years she's made some truly memorable characters, like:
  - The Mysterious Amazon, a barbarian mistress of the spear who was one of the deadliest fighters in Lew Pulsipher's campaign world.
  - Lady the Abbess Gabrielle, a paladin who dual-classed into cleric and went on to name-level.
  - Stardust, the very best thief in my Blackstone campaign.

  She has a strong preference for fantasy RPGs with AD&D 2e S&P being her flat-out, must have a campaign running, favorite. She prefers to play front-line fighters with cleric/paladin a close second and loathes playing mages.
  And she has never, ever, not once, ever dungeon mastered a single game.

  Until yesterday!

  After a few weeks of prep (it is the Christmas season, so she's busy) she ran a simple encounter to get her feet set.

  To prep the Wife used the 1st level dungeon random encounter tables and followed the random rolls to arm, equip, etc. the villains. She stated very clearly that this was a 'practice round' [i.e., no permanent death, no treasure, no experience].

  She asked that we play only the Big Four (fighter, cleric, magic-user, thief) with no specialization, custom classes, multiclasses, etc.

  The Players and characters:
  Me: Thrain Ironhand, 1st level dwarven fighter with an 18/91 strength and 13 hit points. Bardiche, heavy crossbow, splint mail for protection.
  Ja., the oldest son: Justinian the Great, 1st level human magic-user with Charm Person. A dagger and happy thoughts for protection.
  A., the second oldest son: Legas, 1st level half-elven thief with really good pick pockets. Short sword and a bajillion daggers with leather armor.
  S., the third son: Otto, a 1st level halfling thief who is as silent and stealthy as a shadow. Dagger, club, and leather armor.
  N., the fourth son: Bill, 1st level human cleric with a fiery faith. Heavy mace, warhammer, chain and shield.

  The setup was simple; we are old friends on our way to visit a remote abbey when we learn that a small hamlet had been raided and all the chickens had been stolen. We followed a trail of heavy bootprints and feathers to a small, remote cabin. The thieves crept up to see what was going on as all else hid nearby. The cabin had a single door in front, two heavily shuttered windows in back and two open windows in front. The thieves heard indistinct noises and smelled fried chicken. Otto decided to check the back windows, where he heard Ominous Chanting. Legas decided to look in one of the open windows in front-
  and looked right into the eyes of one of the three hobgoblins eating friend chicken around a table.
  No one was surprised so Legas dove into the room through the window, trying to keep the hobgoblins from blocking the door. Thrain, seeing, this, charged up and smashed open the door.
  Battle began.
  In the first round the hobgoblins (with broad sword, spear, and long sword) all missed Legas and Thrain missed. Justinian held his fire, watching the door to to back of the cabin. Otto tried to stealthily open a back window and failed. Bill stood by to step into melee as soon as Thrain could press in.

  In the second round Thrain slew the broad sword wielder in a single blow and stepped up to engage the spearman. Legas missed and was cut down by the long sword wielder, alive but bleeding out with -1 H.P. Bill rushed in and engaged the long sword user. Otto failed to stealthily open the other shutter.

  In third round Otto smashed open a shutter and saw a human cleric sacrificing a chicken at an altar to Maglubiyet as a hobgoblin with a spear rushed him. Otto threw his club at the cleric, hitting for minimum damage but disrupting the ritual. Otto promptly fled for the front.
  Thrain wounded the spearman, the longsword user wounded Bill, and Bill missed. Justinian threw his dagger at the long sword user and missed.

  Fourth round! Thrain missed. The spearman grazed Thrain. Bill missed. Otto arrived. The longsword wielder hit Bill.
  Bill goes down, slumping over the body of Legas.
  At this point Legas is at   -3 H.P. and Bill is at -2 H.P., also bleeding out.
  Otto steps up to fight the long sword user as Justinian scrambles to retrieve his only dagger from the corner.

  Fifth round. The long sword wielder cuts down Otto, who falls next to Bill and Legas at -2 H.P.
  Its looking like a TPK at this point.
  Justinian flees out the front door as Thrain cuts down the spearman.

  Sixth round. Thrain misses. The long sword wielder hits, bringing Thrain down to 5 H.P.
  Legas is bleeding out at -5 H.P., Bill is bleeding out at -4 H.P., Otto is bleeding out at -3 H.P. The magic-user is ready to sprint away, the long sword wielder is fresh as a daisy, and there are reserves behind the door.

  Seventh round. Thrain hits and kills the long sword wielder. The jerk. Justinian prepares his spell.

  Eighth round. Thrain smashes open the door to the back room where the cleric has just finished strapping on his plate mail. Justinian hits the cleric with Charm Person and the foe blows his save. The last hobgoblin, seeing the devastation and that his master has gone all wobbly-headed, dives out a back window and flees.

  The Wife rules that the charmed cleric saves the lives of the downed members of the party and we wrap up.

  All in all it was a great first session. Varied enemies with different H.P., different weapons, etc. We all loved playing the session even when it was grimmest.

  Notes from the DM on her first session

  1) The storytelling was easy and fun for her, but the mechanics was more involved than she expected.
  2) She realized how important reacting to the actions of the players is and that too much prep might result in trying to force the players down the "right" path.
  3) It is shockingly easy to wipe out a party.

  Notes on Making Low-Level Encounters

  In the post-game discussion I went over my own insights and the things I have been taught by other GMs about low-level encounters:
  1) The thing most likely to kill a low level party is the armor class of the enemy. Hobgoblins are A.C. 5 so the mage needed a 17 to hit them - that's one hit out of 5 attempts. Even Thrain, a dwarf with a  total of +3 to hit (strength and racial bonus) needed a 12, hitting only 45% of the time. Even though 2 of the hobgoblins in the main combat only had 2 H.P. and the 'tough' one only had 6 they were so tough for 1st level n00bs to hit they almost wiped out the party.
  2) The thing second most likely to kill a low level party is the number of attacks facing the party each round. Low level parties have the terrible combination of poor armor classes and low hit points. Each extra attack per round increases the odds that a character goes down that round.
  3) Low Hit Die Monsters are, one-on-one, tougher than low-level characters. A hobgoblin has 1+1 HD for an average of 5.5 H.P. Only as tough as a first level fighter, right?
  Wrong. His to hit roll is the same as a 3rd level fighter. A hobgoblin is, in effect, a 2nd level fighter.
  4) The number of characters in the party != the number of combatants in the party. Yes, we all like to have something to do in battle. But this little skirmish was a perfect illustration of my oft-repeated maxims
    A- Fighters are physical offense.
    B- Magic-users are magical offense.
    C- Clerics are magical and physical defense.
    D- Thieves are scouting  and intelligence.
  These are all very, very true at low levels where players haven't had a chance to 'buffer' their roles with magic to add some flexibility. When the thieves got into front-line battle they died. While the cleric did his best to hold the line, he died. When preparing an encounter for low-level parties calculate 1 melee foe per fighter +1 melee foe per cleric +1 melee foe for everyone else.
  Example: With the party above I would have calculated 1 hobgoblin for Thrain, one for Bill, and Justinian, Otto, and Legas would be just a single additional foe, for a total of 3 hobgoblins.
  Trust me, this will be enough.
  For a tough challenge add a spell foe for each mage and a spell defender for each cleric.
  Same Example: Tossing in a witchdoctor adds spell offense and spell defense.
  These are really rough guidelines and YMMV.

  Have fun!