Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Decision Quandary

The following sequence rose from events played between May 2 and May 3, 2012

Prior to these events, the party had just fought a 31-round battle against an excessive number of kobalds (I've forgotten exactly, I believe more than 80), with the help of 21 dwarves and a non-player hireling, Klaas.  As shown in the image below, made when my art abilities were somewhat less than what they are now, this led them to a storage room, filled with sacks of grain, barrels of beer and buckets of pitch.

Image indicates positions after investigating the orange colored storeroom, upper left.

Following the usual after-combat discussions about searching bodies, collecting weapons, splitting loot, designating search groups, setting up watches, the party descends into the storeroom with an eye to searching it.  Throughout this time, the party is asking questions, describing their actions and at the same time, "role-playing."  This last describes the pattern of expressing how they feel about the last fight, their emotions about finding loot and treasure, supporting each other's participation and various other elements that any DM will recognize from having run a few games.  At some point I should write a commentary on this sort of thing, but the example here is fairly confusing due to a lot of other references and so it is a situation I can discuss at another time.

So instead, let's pick up the story as Andrej the Cleric casts a detect malevolence spell, then ventures towards the cavern that is shown in blue, to the left of the storeroom:
DM: From 2605 you can't see much - There is some kind of large cavern between where 2303 and 2305 slopes down. And just for a moment Andrej catches sight of a ... wing. It extends out into Andrej's line of vision and then disappears again. The wing appeared to be about the size of a bedroll.
Andrej: Bat-like? Bird-like? ::gulp:: Dragon-like?
DM: Correct answer ~ ::gulp::

Normally, the correct manner in which such a disclosure should be managed is not to blatantly state the case; this builds up tension and intrigue, while maintaining the strict access to information that the character should have.  In order to learn more about what the wing belongs to, the players should have to actually enter the cavern, letting their imaginations feed their fear.

However, here we are talking about a dragon.  My personal feeling is that, given the name, a full-grown dragon should be the scariest, most powerful monster in the game, short of a demi-god.  I've written rules for that purpose.  The practical and terrifying aspect of meeting such a creature is, therefore, more than sufficient to establish all the fear and stress that we could possibly want.  As a DM, because the players are only 3rd or 4th level here (Lukas is 1st, but realizes he is 2nd after the Kobald's experience is passed around), I'm not anxious to force them into the cavern, as though they are fighting another group of mere kobalds.  I created the description of the wing specifically to serve as a warning, to give the players foreknowledge ~ and it worked because the player jumped on the detail perfectly.  Letting the player be right in this instance serves to give them a little confidence; knowing what's in front of them, they can prepare and plan to face it.

Even though it is a very small dragon, they need confidence.  Note the immediate reaction from the other two players:
Ahmet the Fighter [upstairs and quite a long way away]: Ahmet resolutely guards the door. Good luck down there fellas!
Lukas the Mage [in the storeroom]: I guess dragons are one way to keep the beer cold. And they would probably do a fair job of keeping kobolds in line. Tell you what, Andrej you distract it while I thaw out this pitch ...
Andrej: Yeah, I'll get right on that.

When you're DMing, keep conscious of this sort of exchange.  It gives a lot of information.  Some parties might respond with something like "oh, shit," and a DM might be tempted to think the above is exactly the opposite of that.  In fact, it's the party has probably reacted just like you expect only they feel compelled to make a joke, cover up their concern and emotionally separate themselves from what's happening.  They've been hit hard by the information and they're "dealing with it."

Of course, that can go too far.  A party that starts with a joke or two can quickly fall into a massive derailment of the game for several minutes, which can manifest as a) more jokes; b) mockery of the DM, or c) actual anger.  It's important with these things to understand what is going on in the mind of the player.

continued elsewhere ...

This is the first of two such posts I will be writing in the month of April for the Tao's Master Class blog, where the rest of this post can be found. Examples on the Tao of D&D blog can be found here and here.

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James Clark said...

It's hard for me to believe this was played nearly six years ago. This encounter and the larger conflict (Hornung and the party vs. the evil Bishop) took place during this particular campaign's heyday. As I recall, the party braced themselves to fight the dragon only to change their minds and parley at the last moment, using the Conflict! rules to do so. I think it was a wise move, as resources needed to be conserved for the coming battle in the bishop's castle. I'm sure your break-down is worth the read, Alexis.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Writing personally, and not as a DM, I can't help feeling that the party's conservation of resources figured too highly in the minds of the players. It's clear the party viewed the dragon as a drain on their resources, whereas I believe that the dragon could have been a tremendous increase: in experience gained from treasure; in weapons and other magic that I had included in the dragon's horde; and in the morale and good will of the dwarves, who could have bonded more closely with the players while participating in an act of valor.

More to the point, the party was, at that moment, in the midst of a military operation. And it must be said that there are mandates that should not have been ignored. First, to kill the enemy. Second, to deny the enemy resources, such as the piles of food, pitch and beer that were simply left behind. And third, to be willing to sacrifice one's own life in order to carry out 1 and 2.

It is true that the dragon gave a story that made it seem that it was not the party's enemy. But the dragon might have been lying. It does not matter whether or not that was the case. The dragon was a denizen of the castle; a castle occupied by the enemy, identified as evil by several events leading up to the battle, and certainly considered as such by the benefactor of the party leading the charge on the surface. It was the party's duty to kill anything and everything that they found, and to destroy everything they could not acquire and carry out, if only to ensure that whatever was left behind would be neither a threat to anyone else, nor have the capacity to help unseen threats with succor such as food, treasure or material.

None of that was considered in the conversation before the dragon. To be honest, I could have had the dwarves desert the party, quite fairly, over that very issue ... but I did not think of it at the time. I don't regret playing it out as I did; but I wonder it I would have considered these other things if I ran the same encounter today.

James Clark said...

There's always "what if?", I suppose, hence the title of the post being what it is. As I recall the remainder of the battle was pretty taxing on the party, though:

"... I used every spell at Andrej's disposal, all of the healing salves and all but 9 of my many hit points."

Had they fought the dragon, one could reasonably argue the party wouldn't have been able to take out the magical weapon firing on Hornung's men from the tower and might have died trying. Without that action does the bishop win? Maybe some other part of the force would have acted in the party's stead, and maybe the dragon should have reneged and helped with the defense anyway. But given the info the party had and how it played out I remain happy with the choice. I seem to remember getting a lot of XP from both winning the battle and looting the bishop, above and beyond our combat XP. I wonder how that would have compared to the dragon's horde.

The dragon reneging and attacking at some inopportune time would have been a disaster and other than somewhat undermining the Conflict! rules you were still trying to work out, I suppose would have been fair game. I'm not sure I understand the dwarf's "abandoning" the party, though. What would they have done? Attacked the dragon anyway? Left the tunnels in a tiff?