Friday, October 3, 2014

Feeling the Threat

I had been thinking I had come to the end of this series, but as I'm getting praise I'll apply myself and see what's left to discuss.  This would be the sixth post: following Setting the Scene, Groundwork for Dialogue, In-Party Indecisions, Setting Forth and Evil.  I don't typically carry a series on this long, as people lose interest and views begin to decline - but just now the blog is riding a high (consistently 1,200+ page views this week), so I might as well continue.

To my mind, the women wouldn't be dead.  If the goblins simply wanted the pleasure of killing them, they probably would have done it on the road - or a few hundred yards into the forest.  It's too much trouble for them to drive the women forward, even if there are four to six goblins for each woman (which would be my guess).  Any more than 12 goblins and that settlement of 30 goblins would be left vulnerable.

Now, when I say '30 goblins,' I mean combat capable.  Goblins in my world have one hit die with 1d6 per die; the balance of those attacking the road would have 5 or 6 hit points - the ones back in the settlement will have 1 to 6.  I believe that goblins know perfectly well how healthy and strong they are, how durable in combat - and at any rate, balancing out the tribe in this manner improves the threat the goblins offer.

While yes, I know that some just want the goblins to be nothing more than sacks waiting for the sword, that's not my viewpoint.  If the players are turned back by the goblins, if they find themselves overwhelmed or unable to win - and they're too stupid to retreat and all die - then that is a very good thing.  In the short term, it may be unpleasant for the player - but it is beneficial to the world.

This post will be read today or perhaps tomorrow by a player who lost her 6th level mage permanently six days ago, when we ran Saturday.  The party had slipped into an open jungle temple (four pillars and a roof, surrounding by a high grass clearing next to a large pond), in order to lift the ridiculously heavy teak lid off a teak chest in order to seize five idols contained therein.  In doing so they aroused the attention of a slaad in the grass - which had been described to them by the locals as a 'purple frog.'

Since late in the 1980s, I have played slaad quite differently from the Fiend Folio.  In my game, they are trans-dimensional beings from a future culture that infiltrate the prime material plane in order to seize magic - typically religious magic.  There is a larger reason for this, but as I don't want to give away spoilers about my world, the larger reason shall remain in my mind.

Thus, once the party aroused the slaad from its light slumber, it began firing at them with an semi-automatic rifle, taking four shots per round.  In the second round of firing, as the mage announced that she was going to cast Melf's acid arrow, the slaad fired at her, hitting three times.  One of these was a critical, double damage.  Each bullet caused 1d8 damage; I rolled an '8' for the double, then another '8' and then a '5' . . . for a total of 29.  The mage had been hit before in a combat with guards, and dropped to -11.  Dead.  She should have ducked before casting, but in the panic it didn't occur to her.

The idols seized, the fifth level cleric began reading (from behind cover) the plane shift scroll they had along, the fighter opened the mage's eversmoking bottle and the party evaporated from the scene, idols in their possession.

Then the cleric attempted death's door with the mage.  The mage blew her 96% resurrection survival roll (throwing a 98) and died permanently.

A shattering experience all around.  The mage, Demifee, had been running in my world for two years - about thirty sessions, as this group could often play no more than once a month.  Thirty sessions translates into about 200 hours.  For those paying attention, Demifee is one of those names listed on the How to Play a Character's dedication page.

I apologize for the war story, but I need it to make a few points.  It would have been so easy to fudge the die and not direct all four shots at the mage.  It would have been easy to lower the damage (except that I was throwing the die right in front of the party).  And it would have been easy to hand wave the resurrection roll away.  At any point I could have said to the mage, "Did you want to hide before casting the spell?"  There are a number of ways that I could have mitigated or reduced the stress, making it possible for her to take more time to make her decision - but I didn't.  I pushed her by describing the situation quickly, speeding up the moment-by-moment pace and causing her and the rest of her party to feel compelled to answer as quickly.  If they had not, they know that I will cut them off and make them lose their turn.

(I typically allow a player about a non-specific, not-timed minute to decide what their character does during a 12 second round - but this is surprisingly not very long.  Since the minute isn't timed, I use my gut instinct to take note that the player is indecisive and - therefore - stuck for the round)

If I had done any of those things, however, while the character would have lived, the campaign would have died.  A threat has to be real.  It has to be possible for the character to die.  They knew the risk.  They knew the 'purple frog' was freaky dangerous.  They knew the idols were magic.  They had opportunities to defend themselves and get out safely.  They also knew the whole time that one of them dying was absolutely a possibility.

So the next time there's a running, and I say, "I hope I don't kill anyone tonight," a chill will run through every player's backbone.  Those words will mean something.

Earlier this week, the point was made by Barrow that 15 minutes seemed a long time for my description of the forest.  It isn't my description that runs 15 minutes, it is the nervous chatter of the party as they wend their way between the trees and over the deadfall on their way to their goal. They're feeling the tension.  They're planning, looking for a way to deal with these goblins that doesn't involve a direct attack, since direct attacks are dangerous.  The party above had a good plan - get in, grab, smoke up the place and get the hell out.  Never mind killing the slaad, never mind what else might be lying around.  Fuck all that.  Combat is fun and rewarding, but that slaad was definitely out of their depth and they knew it.

The players don't know what the hell is out there in that forest.  We know its only 30 combat-capable goblins, but the players are making themselves ready for 300.  They're building themselves up, they're talking like football players before a championship game.  It doesn't matter what they're saying, or that they're mostly talking shit - they're talking because they have to talk!  It's all they can do to reduce the stress.

As a DM, that's what I want.  The party babbling, the forest holding them in, the space beyond the next screen of trees invisible - that way, when one of the party stumbles across the old trunk of a 200-year-old yew dead on the ground, awakening a cluster of four giant ticks, each a foot across their backs, they'll jump and then kill those ticks as dead as they can.  Because a bit of combat at that point will be a relief.

Of course, I'm only softening them up.