Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Does That Answer Your Questions, Doctor?

So, it is my world and the ogre has six hit dice.  It's nine feet tall, it weighs 728 lbs., and therefore it has a d6 and a d8 per hit die ... and the +1 bonus is applied to every hit die as well.  So the big guy has 58 hit points.

The party consists of a 5th level halfling thief, Olie; a 5th level human fighter, Sharper; a 4th level elven mage, Demifee; a 2nd level dwarven cleric, Sven; and a first level human ranger, Molly.  With Olie leading the way, they enter the enormous cave, which truly dwarfs them.  They know the ogre is present, as they've just recently bitch-slapped a small kobald settlement nearby, and in desperation the kobalds explained that all their treasure has been taken by the ogre for years now.

They find the ogre asleep inside the second cave, upon a bed ten feet long and six feet above the floor.  The party makes their plans.  The thief will sneak up, climb the bed and attempt to do triple damage.  The mage and the rest of the party will move within range.  The mage woefully underestimates the danger and chooses to cast burning hands.  They all make their rolls to approach, and as the Olie is climbing the bed, Demifee screws up and gives the game away.

Olie misses with a stab, then leaps from the bed and makes his check, taking no damage.  He runs towards the rest of the party, and the ogre blunders, half asleep, right into Demifee's spell.  Which singes him a bit, but no more.  It turns, finds its gigantic godentag on the wall, and starts into combat.

It's big, its fast, and it hits like a mule that's nine feet tall.  A godentag that's 3 and a half times bigger than one that does 2-8 should do, in my opinion, 2-16 ... and that does not include the damage bonus from the 18/00 strength.  The ogre hits every time it swings and very quickly the party is in trouble.  The second hit on Molly kills her, everyone is soon down to less than 20 hp and prospects of survival look grim.

The thief and the cleric decide to run.  Demifee has been doing well with her whip spell, but she's looking to get out, too.  But the 5th level fighter decides to go one more round, and the mage sticks by her.  And here is where things get interesting.

Truth is, I gave the party the opportunity to go when the ranger died.  It was also their last opportunity.  The ogre moved fast enough to ensure that once the mage and fighter tried for that "one more round," it could hammer them both without letting either escape ... remembering that a good hit in my world causes the loss of a round, where you cannot take any action.  Fact was, by staying one round too many, the fighter and mage were almost certainly dead.

And here is the question - why did they stay?  In my world, with my experience system, they were already due to gain experience for what they'd done so far.  They'd done damage, they'd taken a lot of damage (more than 80 points, all told, by then), and if they escaped with their lives at that point, they would have done all right.  They might have regrouped and come back another day.  That was certainly Olie and Sven's plan.

It's not enough to say that parties "don't like to run."  The question is, why?  The fighter said afterwards, she didn't like the idea of losing.  I find that very interesting ... since, in fact, the almost certain way of 'losing' was to stay and die.  If we define the win as survival, then the win at that point was to run away.

She meant, obviously, losing the battle.  In that moment, she would rather stay and die rather than run and live ... and I don't think it was just because it was a game, and that dying didn't mean much.  I estimate she'd invested almost a hundred hours to get her character to the level that it was; I do not run an easy world.  It takes time and effort to gain experience.  She has expressed her like for her character Sharper on many occasions.  She would not have wanted Sharper to die.  And still she was ready to gamble 100 hours of effort on five minutes of opportunity.

I've been talking about running a world in which a player playing the game does more than just roll dice and succeed or fail; they're given the opportunity to question who they are ... and in doing so, surprise themselves.  For that is really the high point of the game.  Not that you brilliantly solve some puzzle, or cleverly talk your way past the guards ... no, no, no.  It's when you find yourself doing something really stupid, for reasons that you can't begin to explain, and suddenly realize that you've just fucked yourself.

Let me emphasize:  the player behind Sharper's decision did not say, "... because I thought I could win."  In fact, she was almost immediately certain there was no possible way she could.  When the thief and the cleric ran; when the mage was hit and slammed into negative hit points ... the fighter suddenly understood that it was all over.  It was too late to run, it was too late to do anything except to be really, really lucky.  She was toast, and she knew it.

How often are we there in real life?  We've gone too far and we've quit our job in a rush of emotion and anger; we've made a split second decision to go around that truck ahead and now something is flying way too fast at us; we've decided to eat that sandwich that's been a bit too long in the fridge, and now our stomachs are really beginning to bother us.  Momentary stupidity.  It tells us so much about ourselves, about our decision making ability and about our judgment.  We don't just learn from our mistakes; we learn from our really stupid mistakes.

Maturity results from making a lot of them.

We're not gambling that the sandwich is okay.  We know it probably isn't.  But it looks tasty.  And we're more or less certain of our own invincibility.  So we eat it, and it isn't until its too late that we think, wow ... what the fuck were we thinking?  We're not laying on the couch stuffing Tums in our mouths thinking, "Hm, I gambled and lost ... well, win some, lose some."  No, we're thinking, "Why can't I ever learn?"

Introspection is such a bitch.  Even those not prone to it sometimes have it thrust upon them.

This game, this D&D game, has the opportunity to portray these moments like no other game in the history of the universe.  All the more so when players have the opportunity to make their own game.  This ogre did not exist as part of a greater 'campaign.'  The party did not need to kill it to get to the next stage.  There are other adventures, other monsters, other treasures, scattered all over a great big world.  Nothing about this particular ogre cave said, "You MUST kill this ogre to progress."  No.  Kill the ogre, don't kill the ogre, it makes no difference.  If you don't kill it, you'll find treasure somewhere else the next time.

All the more reason to really, truly wonder why in this instance, in this moment, in the mind's eye of the player, this ogre must die.  It's life.  It's true life.  Where nothing is ordained.  Where, as Rorschach says,

"Stood in firelight, sweltering.  Bloodstain on chest like map of violent new continent.  Felt cleansed.  Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in night.  Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there.  The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do.  Devise reason later.  Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion.  There is nothing else.  Existence is random.  Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.  No meaning save what we choose to impose.  This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces.  It is not God who kills the children.  Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs.  It’s us.  Only us.  Streets stank of fire.  The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them.  Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world.  Was Rorschach."


Nicolas "Ungoliant" Senac said...

Interesting quotation. It makes me think of the absurd phylosophy and Albert Camus's Caligula (which recounts the character's quest for freedom).

YagamiFire said...

Ah Rorschach. What a dismal little commentary on the lone vigilante character...and the only character in the entire book with a Silver Age regard for right & wrong. I always found Watchmen to be a real negative for the industry...if only Moore's Supreme had been produced first...but, of course, Supreme had to come second since it was Moore seeing the mistakes he had made with Watchmen so that isn't possible.

The human mind is so ill-equipped to deal with failure and admitting fault. It is why I have struggled so often with teaching people to enjoy fighting games because one of the great joys of them is losing and learning from it. If you ever want to see the same failure to "play" embodied in this post at work, simply go to an arcade (sigh...I wish it was easier to find them)...walk up to a fighting game someone is playing...pop in your money...and throw them 20 times to defeat them.

Typically, you'll want to try to avoid getting stabbed at that point.

"DO SOMETHING ELSE!" they often say angrily...or "Is that ALL you can do?"...of course, why would you do anything else at all? You're winning! But that isn't the point...the point is that the person is refusing, repeatedly, to learn from their mistake. The same mistake. 19 previous times.

D&D players can be no different. The problem becomes the problem...not their failure to overcome it. Know when to hold'em...know when to fold'em.

Ironically enough, I just had the first character death of my two current groups this last Saturday. Beheaded by a trap that was BRAZENLY strolled through. I almost felt as if I was being tested.

Will it be a wake up call for the Saturday crew? Will they learn and improve? Guess we'll see...

Arduin said...

It's a funny thing. I dislike superheroes as a general rule, but enjoyed Watchmen considerably. Both the film and the graphic novel.

This is the third time I've seen a Rorschach quote here, and that's no coincidence. He was a batty sum'bitch, but had an unflinching view of right and wrong.

I can only imagine Alexis sympathizes with such a character when it comes to D&D, given the number of times he's been gawped at for his dedication to the game.

You know, I know how to play for survival (theoretically), but in his player's position I would probably have done the same thing. Which is to say, scratch that, it is exactly what I would have done.

Fight 'till you die, for every fight, against every foe. One day determination won't be enough, but it isn't (can't be!) today.

You're right, Alexis. Introspection is a bitch, but damn if I don't love hearing her bark. The curses and crying of the party is music to my ears. When they're done they usually say so too.

Alexis Smolensk said...

You know, it surprises me that no one has asked if the fighter and mage died ...

Arduin said...

I assumed they did, but also that, for the purpose of the post, it didn't matter if they survived or not.

Character isn't what came of it, it's what you chose. That sort of thing.

With that in mind, did they live?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I did want to downplay it for the post ... but I counted on irrepressible curiousity.

In fact, when the mage was struck into the negatives, Demifee succeeded in remaining conscious - and then, in a series of rolls that would compare with making four successful passes at a craps table, they pulled it off. They managed to get the ogre back on his heels, then dispatched him.

You can guess they did not give much treasure to the thief and cleric. And that, too, begs the other side of this little morality play. What introspection did Olie and Sven have regarding their decision to run away ...?

Steve said...

This type of behavior isn't restricted to the D&D table. Personal accounts of war -- WW2 especially, but then, it's an especially well-documented war with personal accounts -- are filled with stories of men who got killed while taking some action that was obviously suicidally dangerous, that they knew was suicidally dangerous, but they chose to do anyway, often with an almost "Oh yeah? I'll show you" attitude. Now, the level of psychological stress on a battlefield is orders of magnitude beyond what the average D&D player can even imagine, but the psychology isn't that different. There are points where a person simply says "fuck it, I'm going for it," even when their life is on the line.

Darcy Perry said...

A Bridge Too Far (Ryan Cornelius) has plenty of examples of this type of behaviour. I agree with Steve. However, I also think a better strategy for the party would have been to negotiate with the Kobolds to help ambush the Ogre when he next came calling.