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.


JB said...

Knowing the time and dedication it takes characters to advance in your campaign a permanent death must seem like an awfully large penalty to the player.

Or maybe not...after all, Demifee had the pleasure of running in an excellent campaign for two years. I'm curious how the player felt: after all, while it's one thing to intellectually understand the threat of permanent death is real, it's sometimes another thing to actually experience it happening to Your Character.

Perhaps the question's not pertinent to this series (or at least this post). I understand that the establishment of real threat is necessary to establish real tension (just like the discomfort of "ordinary evil" benefits this), in aid of creating a better play experience. But, well...I'm just curious as to the frustration level.

In my own games, death has been a real and present threat, but the setback from death is not quite as extreme. Again, I realize this is in aid of creating the world/campaign/game that you want, and you've written before how beginning (1st level characters) tend to level up at an accelerated pace when they join an existing, experienced party (which I presume Demifee will be doing). But still, I'm interested in the real, human reaction of the player after logging 200 hours of game play and seeing it go up in smoke.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Actually, remember that as she was 6th level, Demifee had a henchman. In this case, a 2nd level druid who improved to 3rd level upon the end of the adventure, Woodsole. Given the choice to start anew or continue forward with the existing hench, the player chose the latter.

Yes, it was devastating. On the other hand, I take umbrage, JB, with your use of the word 'penalty.' My dictionary defines penalty as "a punishment imposed or incurred for a violation of law or rule; a loss, forfeiture, suffering or the like, to which one subjects oneself for nonfulfillment of some obligation."

I'm not sure if you understand what your casual use of a very loaded word is meant to imply. No violation occurred, no obligation went unfulfilled.

People DIE. The underlying message behind your curiousity is easy to see for anyone who has been role-playing for even a few years. The suggestion seems to be that if a player does spend so much time participating, there ought to be a point where death is 'too high a penalty' - a word that implies guilt, responsibility and so on - where plainly, from my description, the die roll simply went against the player.

Tell me. If you're up $500,000 at a casino, does the casino have some special policy if you lose that doesn't apply to people who are only up $500?

See, for me, it seems you don't understand the meaning of the word GAME.

JB said...

Hmm...I was too casual in my use of the term "penalty;" in fact, the first sentence of my comment wasn't clearly parsed to reflect my thought.

You answered what I really wanted to know ("how'd the player take it?") and with further reflection, I see I was silly to intimate that A) there was a problem here, or B) that there was anything to be done besides what happened. The rules are what they are, the players agreed to them, the rules were followed, end. I suppose there's some ridiculousness to even asking for the player's reaction: clearly if she wasn't down with the game, she wouldn't have spent the time playing.

Your play is what I'd refer to as "hardcore." And that's something I appreciate, even if I myself am a little "soft."

Alexis Smolensk said...

After answering your comment, JB, I thought that myself - the 'hardcore' point.

Yep. Like Monte Carlo, the players at my table play for High Stakes.

Mujadaddy said...

Whenever I read about one of your players dying, I just have to marvel for a second at how many calories were wasted!

Alexis Smolensk said...

Memories are never wasted, Mujadaddy.

Reading YOUR comment, I think back on my friend Heather in university; Heather who suffered from a pituitary deficiency that left her in a wheelchair. Heather passed away in 1995, but I can still see her perfectly. I can see the glint in her eyes as she thinks about something dark and morbid, or the hard flinty steel there as she talks about people who pity or feel soft hearted. I smile when I think about her laughing at some bit of sarcasm I've dredged up from the bottom of my own dark mind and at all the millions of calories we expended at Latin or Roman History.

Nothing is ever wasted. Imagine how both the player and I will recall Demifee and those last moments, particularly as the name itself is inscribed within a book that makes me proud - and her too, since Demifee's player is my editor.

Mujadaddy said...

Aw, there you go turning an offhand comment into something serious... Fond memories are what our lives are, of course.

And fond gaming memories? Well, we try, don't we?

Scarbrow said...

Ouch! Just reading about a character in your campaing, being permanently dead... I feel for her. Your posterior comment, "Memories are never wasted", offers a somehow consoling thought. This series is possibly the best you've ever written, Alexis. I just refrain from calling it the best because of the 10,000 word posts.

I understand you are wrapping up this series, but I still have a question: once your players have built themselves up, have trekked the forest surviving whatever it is there, found the camp (let's suppose they are lucky) and the naked, brutalized women held there, in short, they are near the climax of the adventure... and they find a village of 30 combat-ready goblins. Supposing they are the main party, or anyhow they have power in their hands to wipe the settlement from the map (not without risk, but they can be rationally sure to be able to accomplish the mission, now they have it in front of them), how do you keep up the tension then?

Oddbit said...

I think that is an interesting question Scarbrow.

I can see a half a dozen ways that Alexis's game would retain tension.

I am not so certain about some games I've played however.