Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sometimes, a skeleton is not just a skeleton.

I’ve been thinking about the combat encounters for the Bard Rock Band campaign (detailed elsewhere in my blog, below). Our houserules give an AD&D feel to a 3.x game, in that we’re giving xp for gold, having a slow experience point progression, and the magic will be of the weird, mysterious, wondrous sort. No magic items which give a numerical bonus will exist. We are also setting the game in Green Ronin’s Freeport, which is itself set in Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

In trying to give the game a Swords and Sorcery feel, like the Conan, Elric or Leiber books, one of the big elements is the monstrous foes faced by the heroes. I’ve noticed that quite often, the monstrous foes are fearsome, and the heroes don’t want to fight them, but are often forced to. When given the opportunity though, they will take the gold, avoid the monsters, and run away. There is never a theme in the novels of “If I kill this monster, I become a tougher fighter, and am then better able to kill more monsters, and get more gold.” They may want the gold and the lifestyle, but they don’t necessarily want to put themselves at risk to do so.

One problem with D&D and trying to recapture that feel of S&S books in the game, and generate those feelings of “Holy CRAP! I’m not fighting that! Run away!” amongst the players, is that the monsters are all well known. After 25 years of playing the game, you know that if you’re a 3rd level character, and you enter a room with 2 skeletons, you’ll likely mop the floor with them. No challenge.

Think about that for a second. In Sword and Sorcery novel terms, some evil wielder of foul arcane power, a master of the necromantic arts, goes through an evil ritual to raise the dead in a horrific form, and make them his servants. He lost part of his soul to do so. The foul beings stand before you, the antithesis of all of life. In D&D terms, the players say “Meh. Only skeletons. One HD. Arm the blunt weapons. Let’s kill them quick and take whatever crap treasure they have, and get to the next room where we can hopefully fight something stronger and get more XP.”

That’s a big disconnect between the two genres.

How to bridge that disconnect? Make every monster an unknown factor. In other words, ignore the monster manual statblocks. D&D gives very specific rules on game mechanics for everything. For the players, the rules give them a sense of what they are able to do, and when. It lets them know what the effects of their actions are going to be in game terms. It also gives them an idea of their chances of being able to pull off certain actions, such as skill checks. It’s fine that their players know their characters abilities and detailed specific effects of spells, their magic items, and actions. However, the rules should not give them a very certain idea of their chances of success in combat, except in very limited circumstances.

For example, a wolf is a wolf. A dog is a dog. A old man farmer is likely not a good fighter. Things that occur naturally should all be about the same in their stats, and are hence predictable. But when it comes to undead, dragons, things created through arcane means, horrific creatures, extra-planar creatures, etc., all bets are off. This is where we throw the rules out the window. Especially the rules on giving monsters “classes”, along with skills, feats, etc. A monster just has abilities. Special attacks and special defenses. Like it used to be in AD&D.

I thinking giving monsters classes, levels and progression equivalent to the PC’s is one of the biggest mistakes made in 3.x. It limited the game in terms of monsters to whatever the rules allowed. If the rules didn’t allow it, the monster couldn’t do it, unless you created a rule to allow it. And if you create the rule for the monsters, in an effort to appease the God of Balance, you had to make it available to PC’s too, and vice versa. Yeah, great way to stifle imagination. Imagination within rules is no imagination at all. Screw balance. The only predictable thing I want in my games is that the players are going to be nervous, excited, scared, and having fun.

That being said, Why can’t an owl bear have fire resistance? Why can’t a skeleton emit an electrical shock or life-stealing cold damage when hit? Why can’t trolls breed with giants, giving a subbreed of giants some regenerative ability? Why can’t there be 10 HD skeletons that just explode when reduced to 0 hp?

Our houserules do away with the 15 minute adventuring day, and the incentive to fight to move up in level (the fighting is the smallest part of the xp equation, the looting and living the lifestyle is the biggest). In eliminating predictable stats and abilities for monsters which are not naturally occurring, (in other words, anything in the monster manual which doesn’t exist on Earth in 2009), the players now have to wonder if they should fight or run—with running being the likely first option, and fighting only as a last resort. If you can scoop up some treasure as you are running out the door, all the better. This is how encounters with monstrous creatures often turn out in the S&S books I enjoy. The experience point system we have in place rewards that behavior. Thus more closely bridging the game between the game rules and the game style.

As long as the players have fair warning, they shouldn’t complain. Besides, remember the early editions of the game? Where it was strongly advised that the players do not read the monster manual or the DM Guide? There was a reason for that. This approach of unpredictable monsters just brings us back to a more old school feel to the game, both in game terms and S&S terms.

I’ll end with a passage from a Conan story I just finished reading. From “The Pool of the Black One” by R.E. Howard

Conan caught the girl’s hand, and fled. Slope after slope rose and fell before them, and behind sounded the rushing of a river. A glance over his straining shoulder showed a broad green ribbon rising and falling as it swept over the slopes. The torrent had not spread out and dissipated; like a giant serpent it flowed over the depressions and the rounded crests. It held a consistent course – it was following them.

The realization roused Conan to a greater pitch of endurance. Sancha stumbled and went to her knees with a moaning cry of despair and exhaustion. Catching her up, Conan tossed her over his giant shoulder and ran on. His breast heaved, his knees trembled; his breath tore in great gasps through his teeth. He reeled in his gait. Ahead of him he saw the sailors toiling, spurred on by the terror that gripped him.

The ocean burst suddenly on his view, and in his swimming gaze floated the Wastrel, unharmed. Men tumbled into the boats helter-skelter. Sancha fell into the bottom and lay there in a crumpled heap. Conan, though the blood thundered in his ears and the world swam red to his gaze, took an oar with the panting sailors.

With hearts ready to burst from exhaustion, they pulled for the ship. The green river burst through the fringe of trees. Those trees fell as if their stems had been cut away, and as they sank into the jade-colored flood, they vanished. The tide flowed out over the beach, lapped at the ocean, and the waves turned a deeper, more sinister green.

Unreasoning, instinctive fear held the buccaneers, making them urge their agonized bodies and reeling brains to greater effort; what they feared they knew not, but they did know that in that abominable smooth green ribbon was a menace to body and to soul. Conan knew, and as he saw the broad line slip into the waves and stream through the water toward them, without altering its shape or course, he called up his last ounce of reserve strength so fiercely that the oar snapped in his hands.

But their prows bumped against the timbers of the Wastrel, and the sailors staggered up the chains, leaving the boats to drift as they would. Sancha went up on Conan’s broad shoulder, hanging limp as a corpse, to be dumped unceremoniously on to the deck as the Barachan took the wheel, gasping orders to his skeleton of a crew. Throughout the affair, he had taken the leadwithout question, and they had instinctively followed him. They reeled about like drunken men, fumbling mechanically at ropes and braces. The anchor chain, unshackled, splashed into the water, the sails unfurled and bellied in a rising wind. The Wastrel quivered and shook herself, and swung majestically seaward. Conan glared shoreward; like a tongue of emerald flame, a ribbon licked out on the water futilely, an oar’s length from the Wastrel ’s keel. It advanced no further. From that end of the tongue, his gaze followed an unbroken stream of ambent green across the white beach, and over the slopes, until it faded in the blue distance.

The Barachan, regaining his wind, grinned at the panting crew. Sancha was standing near him, hysterical tears coursing down her cheeks. Conan’s breeks hung in blood-stained tatters; his girdle and sheath were gone, his sword, driven upright into the deck beside him, was notched and crusted with red. Blood thickly clotted his black mane, and one ear had been half torn fromhis head. His arms, legs, breast and shoulders were bitten and clawed as if by panthers. But he grinned as he braced his powerful legs, and swung on the wheel in sheer exuberance of muscular might.

“What now?” faltered the girl.

“The plunder of the seas!” he laughed.

“A paltry crew, and that chewed and clawed to pieces, but they can work the ship, and crews can always be found. Come here, girl, and give me a kiss.”

“A kiss?” she cried hysterically. “You think of kisses at a time like this?”

His laughter boomed above the snap and thunder of the sails, as he caught her up off her feet in the crook of one mighty arm, and smacked her red lips with resounding relish.

“I think of Life!” he roared. “The dead are dead, and what has passed is done! I have a ship and a fighting crew and a girl with lips like wine, and that’s all I ever asked. Lick your wounds, bullies, and break out a cask of ale. You’re going to work ship as she never was worked before. Dance and sing while you buckle to it, damn you! To the devil with empty seas! We’re bound for waters where the seaports are fat, and the merchant ships are crammed with plunder!”