Saturday, February 13, 2016

How to Tackle a Dungeon II - Hold Our Ground

As Keith Sloan said, "The wilderness is a dangerous place . . ."

This is a continuation from the first post, First Steps.  In it I argued for the creation of a base camp - it is very important that this camp be secure.  It isn't just a question of setting up a few tents and a brush pile surrounding it - the camp has to prepare for an onslaught of at least a hundred orcs or the largest beasts imaginable.  That means pit traps, solid fortifications, food for siege, oil, starting fires, blocks of stone cut from the nearby mountain and a chosen strong point that can't be surprised and can't be overwhelmed within a few rounds.  If we're not picking a flat place where we can clear the trees and give us a clear field of fire at an attacking army struggling up the hill towards us, then we're not doing our jobs.  If an army can come up and over the mountain and down at us from above, then we've made a mistake in setting proper traps or keeping important guard posts on those summits.  Finally, we don't want a bunch of lagabouts in the camp who will eat our food and get caught by surprise.  We want a sergeant who would have, if no one had hired them, drilled those cobbers hard in town,  Now that he has them out in the bush, he'll drill them twice as hard.

When I said we want to know every valley for five miles around, that means looking for spoor and tracks and evidence that there's a chimera or a gorgon waiting in them thar hills.  If there is, we're going to mount up and kill that thing first, before going after the dungeon.  As dangerous as a wilderness is, something big enough to threaten forty trained men is going to make a mark on the countryside.  We'll find that mark and scrub it out.  Don't whine to me that there may be something out there - find out what it is, where it is, how many there are and then go out and kill it.  What's the matter with you apes?  You want to live forever?

Good.  Now when the camp is secure, we're ready to have a look at that hole in the ground.  We'll take along the party, two of our toughest guards, a young lad who's fleet on his feet and 'fraid of nothing and no horses.  If we rode horses out to the base camp, those horses were long ago taken back to town and are back there, stabled and safe, far from the present operations.  The guards are under orders not to engage, but to witness and report back, not in themselves but through the words and legs of the kid.  That kid is our most important lifeline.  He has to be able to cover the distance between our camp and the mouth of the dungeon in twelve minutes, a distance of about 1 mile over rough ground.  To do that, he's unarmed and lightly encumbered.  He needs those two guards to protect him, not the front of the cave and not us.  That is, protect him when he's not running; when he's running, we hope, nothing can catch him.

If something happens: someone gets injured, someone needs their extra sword, we need some unexpected antidote or the cleric from the camp to hurry forward and bestow healing, last rites, remove curse, whatever - the runner is our link.  Communication is key.  If we find a massive treasure we can't easily haul out, the boy runs, grabs five men and in an hour the treasure is packed up and good to go - and woe betide these men if they cross us and try to walk with that treasure.  They know damn well that we're a crowd of magicians, master swordsmen and assassins; and those are people you don't cross . . . you count yourself lucky that they pay well and that everyone back at camp is going to be rich as bankers when this venture is done.

If they don't think that way, we sure picked the wrong men, the wrong sergeant and the wrong DM - for not telling us the obvious fact that these were scum who could not be trusted.

Very well, let's get on with it.

What's the first thing we find?  Is it a long circular staircase down through steam, followed by a force wall and a Sphinx?  Or will we find something more akin to Keep on the Borderlands - a dozen guards, an ogre, a trap or two.  We'll have to handle whatever is thrown at us; smash it, tramp it down, clean it out of its lair and do everything we'd normally have to do if we were in anyone's dungeon.

Eventually, we trust, we'd get to that point in every dungeon where there's nothing in front of us to kill.  There are doors yet we haven't tried and passageways that may bring unexpected visitors.  Though we're not threatened right now, there's a general sense of uneasiness, made worse in that we are all low in hit points, spells, potions, flasks of oil and whatnot.  It is the moment when normally we'd have to retreat and return to town - because it is just too dangerous to stay overnight here.

Of course, we might not have access to the outside.  We may have stumbled into some trap and now we have to fight our way out.  Sooner or later, however, we will find a way out and a way to communicate with our guards and runner.  Once that happens, what do we want to do?

Hold our ground.  We don't want to give up what we've gained, back away and let the monsters re-emerge and take back these rooms we've taken.  That's a decision we have to make, however; we may be too weak right now; but we should consider sending our runner back with the following orders:

  • We have treasure; send men who can gather it up and bring it back to base camp.
  • We are wounded; bring back the camp's cleric to give us some of what we've lost (it may be necessary to add that an unconscious/dead character needs to be carried back to camp).
  • We want to sleep here in the caves.  Send a quarter of the men with equipment and materials to block up three passages, hammer shut four doors and stand guard while we sleep to regain spells.
  • Send half the treasure we've taken with trusted, strong guards back to town.  Have them invest the money in another troop of guards, more hard goods and tools and an agent willing to come out and look over the investment opportunities.  PAY WELL.

If necessary, send one of the party back with the two men to get an investor interested.  What we want is a trail cut that will increase communication between the base camp and town, even if that journey is as long as four days.  The treasure is going to start flowing out of the dungeon and we want it working for us right now: by the time the agent overlooks the operation and gets his cut, he'll have a town built for us next to the camp, with smiths and vendors, before we're done here.

As a reminder - if you liked this post and the thinking that's behind it, consider the sort of module I'd write or the sort of fantasy book writing I'll produce.  Any small contribution will be welcome, $10 to have at the module or more if you're interested in helping me out with my bigger task of writing The Fifth Man:


Ozymandias said...

Personally, I would use two runners: one waits outside with the guards and relays important messages to the camp. The other goes into the dungeon as a torch bearer (with an extra backpack and a canary) and relays important messages to the runner at the entrance.

Either way, I anxiously await the next installment in this series.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Let me check my understanding about one section.

The purpose of hiring the agent is to offer them an investment opportunity ("get in on the ground floor") in this treasure-seeking dungeon expedition that is being staged.

An interested agent would make an investment (i.e. provide money or resources, allowing the party to make further purchases of men, tools, etc), and furthermore would be able to attract people to come out and try to snag some of the new money (the treasure) being recovered, by setting up shop as vendors, smiths, etc for those doing the treasure recovery. Thus a small settlement will come together.

Have I got that right?

Adam said...

Good post, keep them coming!

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes, Maxwell, that's the idea. Mostly, however, so that the players don't have to return to town to get things in order to keep going and at the same time have a place to reboot between forays underground.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

I was asking so that I could understand the agent's motivation and thus be able to understand how I would present one as an NPC. Thanks for the confirmation: and from your response now I see that it is doubly in the players' interest to find an investor, since the DM can then cause a town to be set up which is another win for the players' expedition.

PS: I encountered an issue with your donation link as an American. The donate link defaults to my being a Canadian, so naturally I changed it to my country. However it stubbornly only offered me my choice of Canadian province instead of American state, and refused a payment otherwise. Going through the regular Paypal website and entering your email manually worked fine -- in case anyone else encounters this issue.

Alexis Smolensk said...

It's always very important for the players to see NPCs as an asset to their own plans. In life, when we begin to achieve success one of the BIG steps we take when moving forward is to make connections and build relationships with strangers - if the players feel that the DM does not encourage this (and reward them for the step) because NPCs are always villains, then player agency is severely limited in that world.

PS: I don't know if others are having that problem, Maxwell. I looked at it myself and saw the same issue, but I didn't complete the form so perhaps that's what's needed to get the state list you're looking for. I am getting donations from Belgium, Denmark, Australia and Spain, as well as the USA and Canada, so clearly other countries are able to use the donate button.

Mujadaddy said...

Your methodology expresses the scientific method of exploration and mastery; the great explorers turned to the dungeon. This reminds me of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by Terry Gilliam, in that the march of Reason threatens to kill adventure.

Therefore, it falls to the DM to take the adventure to the players. You've spent a good amount of time mentioning how vetted the hirelings and investors have been, so let's skip the cheap betrayals.

You can track signs of large predators, but can you kill or drive them away with minimal cost? I've got the impression these are the wilds, so the incidence of local mountain men in your company would be low, if any at all. In real 1650, there were plenty of rifles, but bears & wolves still killed occasionally. In a world where owl-bears exist? Or stirges? You don't have to dig very deep into the books to disrupt steady work in a valley clearing. Disruption means delay, and delay means increased costs.

And that's leaving for later any supernatural malevolence lurking in the next valley over.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The only "cost" that the players can incur that they care about is death.

The disruptions you mention are adventures in the game. Players at this level aren't going to be dismayed by an owl bear or a dozen stirges.

The players want to fight things; all I am saying is that in fighting them, take ground and then hold it. I'm not for a moment saying the dungeon won't be dangerous or that the wilderness can be made perfectly safe. However, the game itself describes "clearing" an area of monsters - I'm merely saying do that for the space around the dungeon so that a seed can be started for a local village and outlet centre. After awhile, the people of the village will help civilize the area and that will let the players concentrate on the dungeon.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a ghastly mess. And don't tell me that science kills adventure.

Mujadaddy said...

Sure the players want to fight things, and they may not fear anything of any size, but the workers might feel differently about being red shirts. And the investors would care about more than death, too. With unlimited funding and manpower, your solution works every time; but how long do funding, manpower, willpower last in the face of resistance?

I don't have the answer: I'm suggesting this would be interesting to find out. (And really, I'm only bringing it up because you don't seem to be allowing for the concept of failure.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Sorry, Mujadaddy, I don't see the source for your contention.

It appears to be based on an idea that while the player characters have levels and are able to fight off monsters in a D&D world, the NPCs cannot. I don't know where you're getting this. If the world exists at all, obviously it is because NPCs built it. You seem to think that the agent would be some non-leveled person who would run away from the first sign of trouble or that 40 "red shirts" would be unable to properly fight off a chimera. I don't see this at all. All over the world there are non-player characters and all over the world there are chimerae. What do you suppose the people in China are doing when the player characters are in Poland?

Perhaps this is some way of looking at the world that fits in with players being heroes and the rest of the world needing them. But as I've said, the players aren't heroes in my game - they're just ordinary citizens, doing what matters to them. And by ordinary citizens, I mean that MANY non-player characters have major levels, are capable of doing whatever the player characters can do and are not spongy, weak, milque-toasty red shirts.

It's really a matter of how you look at the way the world works.

Mujadaddy said...

Well, if it were easy, these wilds wouldn't need clearing.

"What do you suppose the people in China are doing when the player characters are in Poland?"

For the most part, not exploring haunted ruins and cursed valleys. You'd have occasional tomb robbers after a quick score, but are you saying the typical fighter or cleric or mage is hard at work scouring the land to mechanically eliminate all places of mystery from the map? "Sorry guys, there was a really ominous ruin within a few days ride of here, but the local baron just cleared it out with logistics."

I'm not trying to pick a fight at all here; just discussing the things that can possibly go wrong with the base camp, as you have most everything else covered.

Alexis Smolensk said...

"For the most part, not exploring haunted ruins and cursed valleys."

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Not every fighter or cleric or mage, but no matter where in the world we look at, there is a percentage of people doing exactly that; expanding into the wilderness, building camps, clearing out the forest, killing owlbears and stirges, lichs and chimerae.

I have argued before, in reference to Death Frost Doom and elsewhere, that the local baron WOULD clear out every obvious and findable dungeon within their realm. So you're wrong there again.

The player characters aren't SPECIAL. I understand that you're not trying to pick a fight, Mujadaddy, but you're just not getting it. I think you've been looking at your particular game in a particular way for a really long time - a game that does suppose that the PC's are some Super Special Snowflake Saviours of kingdoms, where a given king can't find a single person in his whole kingdom to rid him of his White Plume Mountain problem, but "Oh Look, the Player Characters have arrived! We're saved!"

I don't see the world that way at all. Kings have enormous resources and wage massive wars against other kings, because my world does not take place in ancient Greece when a "King" controlled one small city state, the kind that did need Hercules, Theseus or Jason to take care of its problems. If the king in my world knew about the lich in such and such a tower, scratch one lich - because he's not going to wait for a bunch of 10th level PCs to show up, he's going to send a company of his best led by a 24th level fighter and YES, they're going to smash that lich's tower with logistics.

It's clear you see that as anathema to the campaign, Mujadaddy. But go back and look at Blaine's comment on the first post of the Dungeon Tackling series. It WORKS. And apparently the manager players in that campaign weren't bored - only those who wanted to do it in the old fashioned way. I wrote about that a couple of days ago as well, didn't I? Some people won't change. They just won't.

Please feel free to run your campaign any way you want; but understand - your arguments are really just a set of preconceptions, like what you think can't possibly be happening in China. Who says? Don't they have haunted ruins and cursed valleys?

Before you rush once again to tell me that I'm wrong, I really wish you would more closely examine your own precepts and re-examine what's being discussed here. Nothing I've said changes the game rules - only the game's long-standing corporation-designed traditions.

Mujadaddy said...

"the local baron WOULD clear out every obvious and findable dungeon within their realm"

I'm not arguing that they would not want to do so; I'm not even arguing that in the real world they wouldn't be successful (If we can pretend to put a man on the moon, we can certainly pretend that we can finish exploring a hole /s).

"The player characters aren't SPECIAL."

Here is really our only point of contention. We have a philosophical difference here. I understand the point of your assertion, and why you reject it in favor of a level field. Treating the players as more than ordinary members of the public creates paradoxes.

Paradoxes are not a problem for gamers. Inconsistency is.

The players are special. They've sat down to listen to and participate in something I've put together. They are special, to me, because I need them.

The characters they play are special. I don't gather my friends together to relate the tale of How the King Defeated the Great Lich Without Any Involvement from You, Whatsoever. Or the Adventures of John the Scribe Who Walked to Work Without Incident Each Morning.

The King exists. John the Scribe exists. These characters exist in a quantum superposition, probably doing normal-for-them stuff, until I need to observe them. I don't need a defined course of action from them; I trust that they are taking care of themselves, in-character, doing the things persons in their respective positions do. This could for the King certainly include clearing hexes.

It's really not my game. Sure, I run it, I know it, I love it. But games do not exist without the players, as inconvenient as most game designers find this. Games exist for the players: not for them to get everything they want, but for them to share an experience.

I mentioned time in the Interpolator post as the advantage of tabletop role-playing games. To me, this has meant that, without a good reason, I don't have my players enter a kingdom at a point when everything has been settled, and the base camp is finished and the treasure is trickling out the dungeon into the King's coffers. Maybe the King would overpower the dungeon with his veterans and with logistics. But I don't care about the King, or his kingdom, or his scribe. I care about the Players, so their characters will encounter this project during development. Maybe they in fact become the runners for the 24th level boss, in your example. Maybe they're hired to keep owlbears away from the camp site. Maybe they don't want to play second fiddle and they leave. I'm not invested in the outcome, but I am heavily invested in the players having the opportunity to enjoy themselves.

What is anathema to the campaign is drudgery. Am I capable of presenting a session where hydration and calories are the enemy? Yes. Would I focus on it for a six hour session with multiple players? Not. Ever. Player agency is the freedom to make the choice to bring insufficient supplies, not a guarantee that the player must experience the consequences of their choices at their precise severity.

I owe it to my players to prioritize their time at the table. Sometimes, convenient solutions are much better for everyone. I am not trying to create a perfect experience: just one that is unforgettably enjoyable.

The characters are not cogs in a machine: they are the avatars of the very reason I built the machine. They are special. Everything is for them.

Alexis Smolensk said...


At least now we're getting down to brass tacks.

I'm not sure you've read my book, How to Run. I'm thinking of the argument you're making on Dragonsfoot regarding simulation. If you had read my book, you would have seen that I no longer view my game design in terms of fuzzy ideas like "simulation"; since the research and writing of that book, I now see game design in strict engineering terms of Function, Structure and Behaviour.

Player behaviour is affected most of all by the presentation of the game. I, like you, argue all the time that I am here for the players, that the game is about the players and that it is, as you say, "not my game."

Yet I feel it must also be understood that this is only true during the actual session. When the session is not in play, then it is very much my game. This is how I am able to make "my game" for more than one party.

One of the structural principles of "my game/their game" is that no one is special. I'm not special, they're not special; we both act according to strict principles designed to produce the flattest table possible; where no one receives special recognition by the game structure.

I work hard for my players; I do not OWE them anything. "Owe" implies ownership and my players definitely do not "Own" me. I play because I like this, not because I am bound to do so. Moreover, the game structure I play is mine, not the players; it happens to have been designed so as to give players the best possible experience, but it does not, absolutely does not, service the players.

I am 100% certain this is not how you meant your response. It is clear you're getting passionate and that's great. But your choice of specific words, your apparent drive to get this point across to me, AFTER stating clearly that we do not see things the same philosophically, makes me wonder if you're not digging yourself into a hole regarding your own game. You know, the more you service your players, the less they need to do to prove their "value" in the face of already having been defined as "special."

When we give anyone the benefit of being "special" simply because they have appeared and are ready to run, we reduce important game elements like uncertainty, ambition and the need to prove our self-worth. Much of any sport or game is about proving ourselves, to others and to ourselves, since it is in doing something wonderful that we obtain our greatest triumph.

Let this go. I don't think we're going to convince one another and I think the readers get the idea already. If you haven't, read my book. If you have, then I don't know how I can better convince you that you're a judge, not a cruise director. Because right now, passionate though you are, you sound passionate about being in the service industry. That's how you SOUND to me. If you work yourself up to writing another long comment to explain it further, chances are you're just going to use different words to say the same thing all over again.

Let this go.