Thursday, October 17, 2019

Scaling and Threats: DM Insights

We all know the player where we aren't sure what the heck they're doing at the table. Here's my favorite example, from my old friend Mike Nevala's d6 Star Wars game.

  The young Jedi, hotshot pilot, young senatorial, and smuggler were separated in the Imperial base. The Jedi (me) found the young senatorial (now my wife on what was our first real date a looooooong time ago) pinned down by blaster fire and rescued her. The smuggler (my wife's best pal) had already stolen a shuttle and was waiting for us at a side exit. The hotshot pilot (Dave, in his first game with us) was on top of a lift when this occurred.
  Mike: "Above you you see a metal grate about 4 meters square - the top of the lift shaft. Above it you see the lift machinery. The elevator will be at the top soon, if you don't do something you'll be crushed."
  Dave: "Uhhhhhh. I pray."
  Mike: "Wha?"
  Dave: " I kneel in the corner and pray for the Force to save me."
  Mike: "Ummmm. OK, as you raise your eyes in prayer you see that in the very center of the grate the grill has a different pattern, an area about a meter on the side."
  Dave: "Does the Force tell me what to do?"
  Mike: "....noooo. But that square area could be an access hatch or something."
  Dave: "I don't move."
  Mike: "OK, well. You die."

  Dave never played with us again. I saw him 2 years later and he was still complaining bitterly that Mike was a killer GM.

  I've taught a lot of people to play RPGs when they'd never heard of one 10 minutes before. I have DMed for a huge number of 6, 7, and 8 year olds. I have had people with brain damage and learning impairments at the table. Dave was none of those, but he is germane to the topic at hand.

  Here's another tale from the table.

  Airik, Count Westergoth, the Lord of All Death Knights, General of the Necromantic Armies, Most Favored of the Ghoul God was angry. The party was fleeing. A mix of clerics, thieves, illusionists, and fighters had just done the impossible - robbed Westergoth's fortress of the last canoptic jar of the Broken Man. In order to save the world all they had to do was get away.
  Westergoth's steed, a black dragon, was much faster than the merchant ship they were on.
  The party of 5 PCs and 2 henchmen averaged 6th level. They had exhausted all but a tiny number of combat spells robbing the fortress and getting to the ship.
  As the dragon stooped the mage cast Slow and the dragon fell into the sea. Westergoth's grappling cross bow struck the ship. As he dragged himself through the ocean the party began using every potion, scroll, and item they had.
  Westergoth's plan was simple - kill two or three of them, take the camoptic jar, and then hold the dead hostage - their bodies for the remaining jars. He was the most powerful Death Knight to ever exist, and a mighty warrior. These peons could not stop him.
  15 rounds later? Westergoth was dead, every PC still alive. The world was saved.

  So what are these two anecdotes about? How are they connected? Simple.
  The first was, very literally, meant as a bit of color, a shout-out to the pulps and serials of old. But because of how every player and every player group is different, a PC died.
  The second was a curb-stomp battle where the bad guy, who was much more powerful than the good guys, was setting up an adventure arc where the PCs would have to escape, recover, rebuild, and spend time leveling up and getting the right artifacts for a rematch. But, instead, they kicked evil's ass and walked off into the sunset.

  Dave was a long-term player of many systems and truly enjoyed playing a lot of them. He was awesome as a hobbit archer in our Rolemaster game. But he was not the sort of guy to think laterally. Young kids, novice players, etc. can all struggle with what, on paper, looks simple.
  My current team of players? As paranoid as a clan of coked-up conspiracy theorists and as wily as a greased wombat with its tail on fire. When they play Champions their 100 pt street level guys defeat 300 pt supervillains routinely. And not just versus me - when they play other systems for other GMs they tend to leave a path of campaign destruction behind them as they punch way, way above their weight.

Pictured: Punching Above Your Weight

Don't get me wrong, the idea of 'monster level' is baked into the RPG experience with the charts in the back of the AD&D DMG making them very explicit. And D&D runs on player level, spell level, etc. But you can't let this sit still because the real drivers of RPGs are the DM and the Players, not the math.

 Don't believe me? Who hasn't yet heard of Tucker's Kobolds, from the infamous tale in Dragon #127 (I think)? This was the story of how a DM used 1/2 HD critters to completely terrorizes PCs of much higher level. The DM doesn't even need to fudge dice rolls, just make them cunning and prepared. In my Seaward campaign Lew Pulsipher called hobgoblins 'Rick's Nazis' because I played them as tough, smart, militaristic, and prepared.
At the same time I've seen DMs that had powerful, intelligent monsters just charge and bash with subtlety not even in the same zip code. I've read people online say,

  "We did Isle of the Ape in 20 minutes. Flew over the island, saw the ape, disintegrated it, flew home."

And I bet at least a few of those are simply true. No flying encounters, not random encounters, no magic resistance, no saving throw, just - blunt force from the players and the DM.

Obviously players and parties can be the same, right? Everything from 'I charge' being 99% of what they do all the way up to 'we have our cleaning staff arrive to sanitize the battle site'.

The shorter version is - no two players or parties are exactly alike in how they deal with encounters, so you have to adjust the scale up and down independently of player level or monster level.

The real short version is: challenge ratings are for chumps.

  This means that as GMs we must scale and adapt. The first step is try to recognize how you DM.:
What are your habits with encounter design?
What are your habits with map creation?
What are your habits with 'monster behavior' (how you run the antagonists)?

  For example, back in 1987 Lew Pulsipher pointed out I almost always had a few weak creatures then tougher, then very tough, then a boss (I called that the 'orc writeup'). Lew, though, tending to have vast numbers of scum Just. Keep. Coming. So we started mixing it up.
  In 2009 in a dungeon a player said,

  "Third left turn in the corridor - check for traps."

I had gotten lazy in mapping that dungeon back in the '90's. And I am careful to use written goals, checklists, and morale checks to make monsters more unpredictable.
But I still have strong DMing habits! The key is to embrace them, understand them, and use them.

Next is, be honest about your players. What do they like to do? What do they want to do? What are the good at and what are they bad at?
Do they groan and roll their eyes at yet another riddle? Does everyone perk up and get pumped about the hints of a big fight? That group needs a lot more troglodytes and a lot fewer sphinx encounters. Is there a swashbuckler, a gentleman thief, a 'daughter of a count' mage, and a theologian priest in the party? Sounds urban, not mountain climbing.

That's all pretty obvious, and said a lot better by others.

But you also have to figure out how they deal with encounters. Did the 3rd level party get smacked around so bad they had to heal up by a bunch of giant rats? Or did they deal with a troll so efficiently that they were never concerned? The first party needs to fight more 0 level bandits and kobolds, the second one might need to start tracking down that mountain giant.

Your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. Written goals for monsters... That's a really great idea, but what are the checklists about?