Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Planning the Unexpected

I loved the old random encounter tables. There was something just so full of promise about them. I used to peruse the massive encounter tables at the back of the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual (you'd get a new set of tables per expansion) in order to get ideas for encounters... and in fact, still do, on occasion, since I seem to be the only person left in the world who actually liked the ring-binder approach to monster manuals adopted by TSR back then. They were divided by terrain as well, so you could get an at-a-glance snapshot of the kind of beasties you might want to throw at your players as they moved through your campaign world.

Which is to say I use random encounter tables for everything except what they're intended for: the actual rolling of actual random encounters.

Random encounters suck. One of the reasons is their unpredictable effect on the party's resources and the knock-on unpredictability in the campaign (which I've discussed below); another one is that they tend to be a bit bland, simply because they're designed to be dropped in at a moment's notice; yet another is that they're essentially, well, random, and have very little to do with the party's constituent classes, location, goals, etc. From the player's point of view, dying from a random encounter seems like a very bad deal, and not very heroic at all.

A good DM will be able to take a random encounter and drop it seamlessly into the game as if it had been there all the time; someone who aspires to be that DM will cheat, by using random encounter tables as seeds for planned encounters that he can set up beforehand.

I'm that guy.

When I expect to have to give the party something to do while they're exploring a dungeon or traversing the wilderness, I'll check the random encounter tables and expand one or two of the best ones into full-blown tactical or roleplaying challenges. A good example that my players probably won't enjoy telling you about is where they were ambushed by several megaraptors in a field of lush, tall grass... and yes, I was inspired by Lost World. The random encounter table simply said 'Megaraptor pack (1d4+2)'. Okay, good starting point. I knew they were in grasslands and that scene from Lost World almost immediately popped into my head... what could I do to recreate that? Was an ambush feasible? What would the sorcerer see when she inevitably flew up above the grasses to get a better look? What would visibility be like? How would the minotaur's scent ability play a part?

A good DM would have been flash-inspired with all of these facts in a blaze of prodigious DM-osity simply by rolling '05-15' on the encounter table. Not being that DM, I had to put an extra twenty minutes of thought into it... but the result was a fun, dangerous encounter, the first few rounds of which caused the party no small amount of controlled panic.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Goals Versus Obstacles

I'm not sure exactly what I want to say here, so I'll just dive in.

D&D experience points are primarily a challenge-based system. Players are rewarded based on the challenges they overcome, regardless of what that challenge actually represented in the campaign. For example, if they are trekking across the wilderness trying to find an abandoned ruin, they might get lucky and find it within a day; or they might get unlucky and take a week to find it. Assuming that the DM uses random encounters (or like me, ‘planned random encounters’, which I might talk about another day) to occupy the PC’s during the adventure, these two extremes represent very different levels of XP gain. At the limit, the group may be a completely different level when they hit the ruin than the DM expected, forcing him to adjust the encounter to present the ‘correct’ level of difficulty, where ‘correct’ depends on how challenging (or critical) the discovery of that ruin is to the campaign. This is despite the fact that the same goal has been reached in both examples: Find the ruins.

Over the years, this has become ever-more increasingly broken to me, because it makes adventure planning very difficult and can exponentially increase the DM’s workload, especially with published adventures which have ingrained assumptions about party level which are sometimes very difficult to adjust. XP is the primary reward mechanism for D&D characters, and defeating monsters is the primary way of awarding XP; therefore the question, “What constitutes ‘defeating’ a foe?” is perennially important. I always need to know when -- and how much -- XP to award the party every single time a foe is killed… or escapes… or is circumvented entirely. Often I have to make the exact same judgement calls discussed in the comments to the Didn’t We Beat You Already? post below.

More and more I find myself eliminating these problems by switching the reward mechanism to a goal- rather than a challenge- based system. In the current challenge-based system, the journey is more important than the destination. Traps, for example, have a CR associated with them, and it doesn’t matter whether the Rogue bypasses the problem with a single die-roll, or whether the unfortunate party whose Rogue is unconscious meticulously solves the conundrum with cute and lateral thinking… the XP award is the same. You'll even get parties who bypass the trap altogether, walking blithely around it via the secret door they uncovered five minutes earlier. In that case, the trap might never as well have existed for all the good it did in challenging them, or for all the role it played in their advancement.

Similar reasoning applies to NPC’s or enemies; when is their Challenge Rating actually relevant? Only when the PC's face them in a direct confrontation and when the combat abilities of the villain can come into play. No-one ever said a villain's CR should be increased because he has a good brain on his shoulders, or because he's adept at sending his minions to do his dirty-work... if for no other reason than that such esoteric measures are difficult or impossible to quantify in a cogent fashion. Imagine a physically weak but villainous mastermind with a network of implacable servitors, infiltrating the upper echelons of society and gradually gaining control of the multiverse. This is a worthy enemy for any group of adventurers, but as an actual foe he is worthless unless he has a set of in-combat abilities which can challenge the PC's at the climax of the adventure. Unless the DM makes him a potent wizard or psion (or whatever), then actually facing him down is irrelevent... it's the defeat of his plans that's the important thing.

This is where goal-based thinking improves on challenge-based thinking. Divide the adventure into story- or character-goals, even give them Challenge Ratings if you want. The fictional campaign against the asthmatic mastermind I mentioned above could easily be divided into a series of sequential goals: discover who paid for the hit on the mayor; bring the perpetrator to justice; uncover the double-agent in the Grand Council; break the villain's hold on the Pit Fiend; engage the demon's help to assail the villain's stronghold; destroy the mcguffin before the world's children become his slaves! In theory, every one of the goals could be accomplished without the need for any Challenge Ratings at all (even though in practice many parties get bored if they're stuck out of combat for too long). Inequities which may come into play between different groups' solutions to these problems become essentially irrelevant (to the DM at least), because they're just different ways to the same goal. XP awards are no longer invested in foes which the PC's may defeat -- or, critically, foes which they may bypass altogether -- but in the adventure itself.

A simple expression of this idea is to decide that this week's module will reward 1000 XP to each of the PC's. Each goal may be an equal part of that total award, or the goals may be weighted according to their difficulty or importance to the adventure. The how's and wherefore's of the party's approach to those goals is irrelevant, and as long as they have effective visibility of their current and future goals, they should never 'lose out' on XP awards simply by missing the secret door in the first floor privvy or stone-shaping through the wrong partition wall.

Like any XP system, this idea has its ups and downs. On the downside, a party which grinds a path the hard way all the way through the mastermind's minions might feel justifiably short-changed that their sweat and blood hasn't yielded any more reward than the party with the bard who charmed his maid into letting them in the back door (I exagerrate, but you get my point). Secondary to the goal vs. challenge issue, there also isn't a whole lot of room for circumstantial or individual excellence in this system, because that adds back in exactly the kind of unpredictability I want to avoid; so, the low-Charisma character whose player executes a masterful piece of in-character persuasion after the bard gets drunk probably won't get rewarded for pulling the party's ass out of the fire. On the other hand, apart from the dual advantages of predictability and not worrying about whether a villain has been defeated or not, a goal-based system encourages lateral and imaginative thinking if the party knows that the path of least-resistance won't get them any less XP, and encourages the use of all of a character's abilities at the table.

There's nothing new here, I'm sure there are many RPG's that use this method of player reward, but D&D isn't currently one of them (although some of the whispers about 4th Edition suggest things may be changing). One of the richest and most unique qualities of an RPG is its open-endedness, in that the players are free to think up any number of ways of getting from A to B. The XP system should encourage this kind of thinking, not strait-jacket the players into a series of combat encounters (no matter how fun) just because the most important reward in the game is invested in the means, not the end.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

New poll! Didn't We Beat You Already?

So the returns are in, with the majority of voters (all 5 of you, thanks mum & dad!) considering themselves 'Good' DM's... which is fine, as there's plenty of room for improvement and you'll all keep reading the blog! /cheer

Our new survey is a trickier one: at what point do you consider your PC's to have defeated an enemy... to the point that they have earned XP? I know this is a question I wrestle with all the time. Myself, I like most opponents to choose the better part of valor and peg it rather than throw their lives away for the sake of whittling away two of the Sorcerer's magic missiles before the fourth encounter of the day... but I know for a fact that it can be irritating to never actually get to kill the guy who's been Sneak Attacking you for the last four rounds. Players, in my experience, can tend to feel a little cheated of victory if a villain escapes the field of combat while his less interesting minions cover the retreat.

For climactic encounters, it's an exceptionally bad idea in my opinion to deny the PC's the pleasure of looting a powerful, Evilly-aligned corpse. Recurring villains can be great fun, but if they are to recur, they shouldn't become the major obstacle or opponent in a fight until such time as you, the DM, are prepared for the possibility that they will be killed. And eventually, of course, you should plan for them to be killed. A bad guy who forever escapes justice at the sharp end of the party's weapons will become an annoyance, not a nemesis, so don't tease your players with the possibility of crossing swords with him until his death is an appropriate and realistic possibility. In the meantime, he should have plenty of challenge-level-appropriate subordinates to punt into the fray until such time as the PC's are worth dealing with personally. (Gamers among you, Shodan from the System Shock games is the model of such a villain.)

But I digress. The question is, what constitutes 'overcoming' a monster? Use the comments if you choose the 'Other' option.

Monday, 3 September 2007

GenCon UK, Friday, 1 Day Pass

I finally managed to experience GenCon last week, if only for a day. I had absolutely no idea what to expect... I'd seen the videos of GenCon Indy of course, but I couldn't imagine the UK version of the convention being anything like that. In the end, though, it was like it, albeit much smaller, and without the ability to play the World of Warcraft expansion or get arrested by Klingons. Damn. :(

We were just there for a day so didn't get up to much, but we did manage to try out the upcoming PS3 CCG/video-game hybrid Eye of Judgment, which uses a fixed camera to monitor the action on the board and play CGI animations on-screen to reflect the action (very impressed, but not enough to entice me into buying a PS3). Other highlights included a demo of the Order of the Stick board game (absolutely mega, and none left in the Trade Hall for us to pick up :( ), and the Wizards 4e 'Announcement' which was enjoyable for the simple fact of being there, if not for the ridiculously hostile crowd. Kudos to Bruce Cordell for coming all the way only to have questions like, "When will 5th Edition be out?" thrown at him. Oh, and it was from that event that we got our only free swag - a 4ed t-shirt - although I did manage to pick up the Gargantuan Blue Dragon for barely seven quid after a discount token, over and above the protests of my wife and best mate (both of whom play in my campaigns, heheh).

Overall it was a great day. It felt refreshingly weird to sit in a cafe and discuss D&D just two tables down from a guy staggering under the weight of the Colossal Red Dragon, two tables across from a guy reading a tired-looking copy of Song and Silence, while catching wafts of passing conversation along the lines of, "No, the mage gets that spell at ninth level."

Next year I'll almost certainly look into attending the whole Con and maybe even running a game or two. Of those I met, some of them were inept, a few of them smelled (but not many), some couldn't take a hint to be quiet and play the game dammit, and a couple more were just plain odd... but they were my people, man.