Thursday, October 9, 2014

Village Defenses

This would be my last post regarding adventuring for a time.  Good thing, because I believe I am just about out of gas.

Despite what I said about finding the two women or about the tired cliche of finding the lair, destroying the lair, let's presume that this is just what happens.  The women are still missing, the party has chanced into the location of the goblin village and they are now free to take action.

At this point there's little to do regarding the set up.  The party is champing at the bit - so much so that they're almost certain to do something stupid just so they can get on with things.  Hey diddle diddle, right up the middle is almost certainly the tactic the party will employ, because parties are like that.  Parties tend to convince themselves that there are only two possible kinds of assault:  divide up the party (bad) and attack head on (also bad, but at least we're together).

But . . . we're not responsible for what the party does, or how meritoriously they die.  We're responsible for the situation and the information the party has.  Regarding this, there are a few things to remember.

Let's consider the village's defenses.  The goblins need a wall, certainly - but against whom? Character parties wandering off the road looking for them?  Usually, the standard module assumes this is the case, but it's rather silly, as though the goblins have nothing better to do than wait for characters to turn up..  The goblins have not settled here, built walls, given birth to children and accumulated coin and property just so they could be cleaned out occasionally by wandering adventurers.  Realistically, the village is hard to find and it's likely been here a generation, perhaps two or three.  Does the reader really believe that the goblins are going to have guards standing outside the front gate month after month, year after year, in case marauding strangers appear?

Defending guards do not stand in front of gates!  That's confoundingly a stupid place to be standing. The only reason to have guards there is to fleece customers (visitors) entering a town.  That is certainly not the situation here.

The U.S. cavalry did not post guards outside its forts.  The French Foreign Legion did not, either.  We have no reason to believe that people were stupider hundreds of years previously.  This is a trope created by Hollywood because it looks pompous and impressive on camera; dump it.

If there is a guard - an issue I'll come to in a moment - then the guard is in a tower.  It doesn't have to be a very high tower; a fifteen foot platform over the ground will be good enough.  But why would there be a guard?  This isn't a military compound; the goblins aren't readying themselves for war.  They're herders and peasants, just like any group of humans, working the area to feed themselves.  If they were fundamentally hunters and raiders, why would they build a permanent home?  Hunters and raiders are much better off with temporary shelters, so they can keep on the move.  These goblins aren't moving - because, as they understand it, they're safe.

If there are walls around the village at all, chances are those walls are to keep out the local wildlife.  A bear is a greater threat to a village of goblins than an off-road party would be.  Bears, wolves and gawd knows what other existing monsters (giant ticks, for instance) would be raiding the village regularly if that wall wasn't there.  And because some of those monsters can climb (giant ticks, for instance), it's probable that the walls overhang or are fitted with spikes or some other system to keep the creatures out without there needing to be guards.  Alarms, for example.

There ought to be snares, traps, alarms and so on all over the place, set up to capture animals, warn of big things that are incoming and generally to let the goblins know there's something out there.  It takes far less time for one goblin to make the circuit of the village traps (fifty or sixty of them) to make sure everything is in good working order than to have half the village standing guard all the time.  Moreover, every kid in the village will know where the traps are, so that if they're caught in the woods they'll know exactly where and how fast to run in order to lead a pursuer into a dead-fall or some other surprise.

Oh yes, there will be goblins outside the perimeter, since they'll be hunting for squirrels and deer and what have you.  They may be in parties of two or three or all alone - and many of them will be children as young as six or seven.  You may rest assured that when the party comes clanking up in their heavy armor and weapons, the six year old goblin that hears them or sees them is going to fade invisibly into the foliage.  Being about two feet tall, the party could walk right past the kid without knowing - hey, this kid knows its' home ground!

There don't need to be any guards.  The gate doesn't need to be closed and barred.  The nearest trees will be cleared because they'll be needed for fuel; the nearest grass to the walls will be cropped by the goats and sheep the goblins keep for meat, milk and fibres.  It's not as if the chief has to say, "clear out the area fifty yards from the walls - this will happen naturally.

As the party rolls forward, they're going to change the balance of the forest.  A deer is going to appear inexplicably on the verge, bounding left or right, moving in a hurry.  A covey of partridge will be put up, the starlings will get agitated, the herd animals will sniff something in the wind.  If the party doesn't constantly keep one scout moving ahead, alone, but insists on marching forward in pure military fashion, the goblin villagers will probably know something is up before the party knows there's anything to find.  If the first glimpse of the village comes to the whole party at once, it's already too late to send thieves forward to 'surprise' the residents.  They've already sent out a scout or two to see what's coming, while calling a meeting of the whole village.

Players and DMs simply fail to recognize what it is like living in the great outback all alone.  The wilderness is not 'wild' if you live there.  It is predictable, measurable and - most of the time - intensely quiet.  Given the right conditions - a clear, calm day - it is entirely possible to hear people galumphing through the woods and talking to each other up to a mile away.

While I'm on the subject of defenses, let me also stress that the homes the goblins live in would be fireproof.  It has long been known that if you mix pitch with enough grit, then smear it on wooden timbers, the timbers don't burn.  I am so tired of parties that believe everything can be set aflame - as though in three generations of living in the forest the goblins have never faced a forest fire.  For the love of goblin marauders in pink petticoats, don't have the village be made of convenient matchsticks.

Fuck the roll of the die where it comes to weapons.  The goblins will have accumulated an excellent stock of whatever weapons their intelligence and technology can provide.  There will be plenty for all.  By the time the party arrives at the village (unless they wisely sent scouts, removed their armor and took precautions such as travelling at night, in properly windy conditions or by magical means), the goblins will be armed and ready for them.  Chances are, they won't suffer a penalty for firing at any point inside the verge, since every one of them will have a very clear understanding of how far away is that stump or tuft of grass next to the party - they've all shot hundreds of little animals that wandered into sight.

Think of it like the Battle of Cer, where the Austrians attacked the Serbs on the Serb's artillery practice range.

As with other entries in this series, that I now draw to a close, try to think outside the 'adventure' format.  Try hard to imagine what it must be like to be a goblin boy tending the sheep, seeing a group of the adults suddenly appear with two human women in tow.  Is that unique or is it something that happens perhaps once a year, before a given festival?  Imagine the fascination; the opportunity to see these giant women begging for their lives, seeing the chief strutting before them, demanding that the women be bound and readied for the sacrifice.  How cool is that?

Think about the boy's thoughts the next day as he's out hunting squirrels with a knife, like he does all the time, only to see appear a group of humans, dwarves or elves, armed with weapons and so on.  He drops down into the bushes; judges his distance from the village; thinks about the best circuitous routes he can use to get back and warn people.  Or perhaps how he could move fifty feet closer to the village, shout at the party and lead them right into the patch of bees that swarms around the great dead tree.  He might figure he can leap the tree and arouse the bees, then be gone and past them while the bees attack the party mercilessly (I'm stealing chapter and verse from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, but a good idea is a good idea).

Even a tough, high-level party is going to be surprised when they're each stung fifty or sixty times before the goblins attack . . .


JB said...

Such a great series. Thanks.

Scarbrow said...

Thank you, Alexis. Let the series rest, if you want. You've certainly showed yourself. That last example, even stolen chapter and verse, is also one of the best reasons one may wield against those who recommend a limited reading list. A broad culture shows itself. Thank you again.

Ktulu said...

So inspired. I don't have anything of value to add. Just inspired.

Alexis Smolensk said...

" A broad culture shows itself."

This from the fellow who disparaged the Count of Monte Cristo to me the other day. I felt inspired myself to reread it - I wonder if you've read an unexpurgated version of the book. What of the escape? The finding of the treasure on the island? The means by which Edmond inserts himself into the halls of power? The very fabric of the world through which he maneuvers? I think, my friend, you much sell the book short!

Matt said...

Pain, discomfort, fear, and compromised senses are things that I always have difficulty imparting to the party. Any advice on how to mechanically represent being stung 50 or 60 times by a swarm of bees?

I know I've had difficulty presenting hearing loss due to gunshot and canon fire, pain due to teargas attacks, and so on. Things that don't cause hitpoint damage, but where a simple penalty to actions seems somewhat odd.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hm, Matt.

Experience is a big boon. You could go get yourself stung a bunch of times. If you do, come back to me, I'd like to have your insight on mechanical effects for it.

Abilities lost, weapon damage loss, inability to use body parts, inability to use some weapons, lowered saving throws, 1 hp damage per 3 bees, automatically surprised, inability to move or fight in armor, subtractions to hit, lost attack rounds due to disorientation, failure to recognize the difference between friend and foe when standing next to one another (or situations resulting in friendly fire), inability to concentrate on casting magic and reduced magical powers/effects. How's that for a start?

Matt said...

That's all great for a start. I suppose the part that I have the most issue with is convincing my players that the effect is appropriate. My players are a little spoiled, and it's entirely my fault.

Inability to tell friend from foe is another one I generally have trouble with, especially if we are using any kind of battle map. It usually ends up with either the player agreeing to be a complete schmuck, and attack anyway because "I guess it is what my character would do" or the player trying to move to a safe position before attacking because "My character would know to try and get out of the way."

Maybe in that case have the possibility that any movement could end up going in a random direction? What if that direction took them into a fire, or off a cliff? Would that be too harsh?

I mean, I suspect that your answer is that it isn't. I need to work on unspooling my players though.

Alexis Smolensk said...

It is lines like, "My character would know . . ." that start arguments.

This is why I employ a flat, non-modified d20 roll against player stats. "Let's find out if your character knows or not." Failure. "I guess he doesn't. Think of something else."

Telling friend from foe: the character must be, at first, either partially blinded, inebriated, delusional, highly insane or otherwise not in possession of their faculties. 50 bee stings, with the commensurate half-blinding from stings around the eyes and the amount of poison coursing through the system, could easily cause a player to be both partially blinded and delusional.

Now picture the character fighting a goblin, and immediately adjacent is another character fighting a goblin. Everyone is milling around, melee is confusing - the player announces that the character swings. YOU, the DM, ask the character to roll their wisdom. The character fails. "You were not careful enough, given your partial blindness and the bee juice running through your system. You have just hit your friend George."

As above, the whole fire/cliff thing is, again, a wisdom check. IF the player has indicated their willingness to go NEAR the fire or the cliff, then no, it's not too harsh if they fall in or off. On the other hand, I would never say, "Your character is delusional, he walks to where he is near a cliff."

There might be circumstances in which the knowledge of the cliff is totally unknown to the character, but I would be very careful about setting up such a situation - and the character would have to be in a dungeon or high in the mountains, so there would be some understanding that 'cliffs happen.'

I don't know, you may be spoiling your players. That's your call. My advice would be that they'll accept your rulings on things IF those rulings are based on standardized die rolls and IF you firmly believe that those die rolls are reasonable given the situation. I've built that acceptance through years of play, as I always ask for that ability check with such things UNLESS I want the players to automatically do something. Success can sometimes be assumed; failure must always be rolled for.

Matt said...

Success can sometimes be assumed; failure must always be rolled for.

You know, I think that this is the answer. I think I'm going to put that in bold letters at the top of any table or chart I frequently reference. I think this will solve a lot of my issues.

Pastor Bill said...

"You could go get yourself stung a bunch of times. If you do, come back to me, I'd like to have your insight on mechanical effects for it."

Years ago - mowing - I hit a nest of ground bees and they swarmed me. My only thought was to get away. I dropped everything and ran as fast and as far as I could. I was stung maybe 50 times in the legs. After about 30 minutes my legs started going numb - wait, numb isn't the right word for it. They tingled. It started at my feet and worked up. I got really concerned as it got to my waist... Got to the hospital for epi... Not allergic, just so many stings. Strangest sensation in my life...