Thursday, March 15, 2018

Investigating the Stairs

The following sequence arose from events associated with the Campaign Juvenis, played in succession from January 26 to February 2, 2018.

To set the scene.  The players are moving through an underground lair in the control of what, by the old Monster Manual, would be called killer frogs.  The players know them as "froglings."  They're a little stronger than the original, with 2 hit dice, and have proved troublesome in the past.  Stumbling across a small kitchen, the players find it full of slaughtered froglings, apparently torn limb from limb.  There's no explanation for what killed them.  The only way out of the kitchen, apart from the way in, is a flight of stairs down, behind a large lattice-iron door, the metal of which has degraded over many centuries.  However, recently, the door has been broken, so that it is clear it was forced open.

After digging out some of the booty from the kitchen, the party begins to get interested in the stairway.  It is a 55-degree slope of crumbled steps; this sounds very steep but it isn't for the time period.  After Engelhart, the cleric, makes an observation, I describe the stairs.
Engelhart: I have no special agility sage ability, I'm really just a clod with a crucifix. How hard would it be for me to descend, safely and silently?
DM: It is as difficult as a normal staircase, but the stones are out of place or ground away. There are signs of water damage. You can make your way down, but it would be a hell of a place to fight a combat (multiple rolls for slipping).

Why should I take the time to describe what the stairs would be in combat?  There isn't a combat, right?  Am I not deliberately jerking the players' chain, making them think twice about descending?

Yes, of course I am.  I don't have the benefit of making them feel the stairs, or seeing them, in near darkness, with the broken stones.  I have to put it into a context that players will appreciate.  The stairs are fine as long as nothing bad happens.  That's all I'm saying.

Now, note the final word from the cleric: "silently."  Players are obsessed with silence.  After years of dealing with different incarnations of rules surrounding the idea of creeping up on an enemy, I finally hit upon the idea behind my present stealth rules.  They work pretty well, I have found ... and will usually favor a thief or an assassin eager to surprise an enemy.  However, they are devilishly hard for players to grasp, for some reason ~ I think because they are also hard to bend to a player's will.

Basically, the principle is this: you want to approach an enemy.  If you're a long, long way from that enemy, you're certain not to be noticed.  On the line graph between a long, long way, and close enough to the enemy to put a sword between your enemy's ribs, you're going to be noticed.  You don't know where that threshold will be.  You're not meant to know.  So you move up to a certain distance ... and you find you're not noticed.  After that, every step forward that you take is a risk.  There's nothing else for it.  You have to either move that step forward, or retreat.

Since creating this system, where once I found players willing to bet their success on a surprise roll or an initiative roll, I now find players somewhat lacking in fortitude.  If they can't be absolutely sure they'll be close enough to the enemy before they're discovered, they're very hesitant.  Observe:
Pandred (the fighter)Alright, stairs it is.  I'm willing to go on, but I've got no stealth, and I am not personally prepared to risk a lighter armored run.  I know you mentioned using Sanctuary earlier Engelhart, and unless Embla or Lothar want to join your fearless foray I think it'd be a worthwhile idea.
Engelhart: I ask for a lantern and shed away all weight other than hammer & shield. This still leaves me at 4 AP as the armour is just too damn heavy and not taking it doesn't look like a good tradeoff. Here’s the thing, I obviously don't want us to get into trouble, just to get a finer sense of where we're heading and some intel of how safe it might be to overnight in the storeroom, seeing as it is still rather near to the potential focus of danger.
For all we may know, the beast may have been put down already, rather than left to rampage across the frogling compound. If all I find is closed doors, we can feel somewhat safer. Beside faith in the Lord, I'm gathering that such a brute must make more noise than I ever would. (If the party will give me missile cover from up above, I might be able to duck on their command?)

Initially, the cleric meant to remove his extra weight and not his armor; and that's fine.  He knows what the stealth rules give as a penalty, so he's making his choices.  Afterward, he reads the stealth rules I linked for him (as I have linked for the reader) and changes his mind:
Engelhart: It seems that should I lose the armour and shed all weapons there's virtually no chance of being discovered as long as I take measured steps and keep it cool down there. Since the plan wasn't to triumph through arms anyway, I'll go ahead and strip down to hauberk and chausses. Once AC ceases being a concern, might as well leave both shield and hammer behind, as well.

That's what I want from a game system.  The risks can be managed IF the player is prepared to sacrifice some of his benefits in order to receive other benefits.  That is how game play should function.  Everything is a strategy.

At the moment, the cleric can't see how far the stairs go; no light source had been produced ... so this becomes the subject of discussion for a bit.  I had not added "candlelight" to my stealth rules, so I did so, inserting it between dim moonlight and starshine, as far as giving away an individual.  If that seems kind, remember that a candle can be hidden by one hand, or gutted so that it reveals very little flame.  Anyway, I explain the rule change to the player and we move forward.

continued elsewhere...

This is the first of two such posts I will be writing in the month of March 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.

To see the rest of this post, you must pledge at least $3 to my Patreon account.  This will enable you to see all material to date on the Master Class, or you can use the sidebar to dedicate $3 to me right now. The latter will permit you to see the content as soon as I confirm the donation, rather than having to wait until the 1st of April, when Patreon will process your donation.


Sterling said...

Alexis, I'm really enjoying these window-on-the-DM's-mind posts of yours. More than some of the more theoretical discussions, for me, these examples are the way to instruct the newer DMs, fill spaces that some more experienced of us have not yet managed to fill, and help drive interest learning in how to run the game well for all.

I don't comment often, but you've previously voiced your reservations about teasing for your Master Class blog on your public one and I'd like to add my voice to the others who've supported you in that.

Misunderstanding the mechanics of Patreon, I waited for March 1 to pledge and now am anxiously awaiting April 1 for that pledge to become material so I can read on!

Fuzzy Skinner said...

As much nostalgia as I have for the traditional percentile roll, your stealth rules with the different dice schemes are pretty good. I'd suggest changing the link to point to the new wiki rather than the Wikispaces one, though, since the latter will be shutting down.

Pandred said...

I like these posts. A lot.

I've enjoyed Juvenis a great deal, and that 7 month hiatus was a long, sad wait.

More please.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes, Fuzzy. At the moment, the page isn't on the new wiki. The moving process is very complicated, and to ensure all the links are done right, it has to be done in a certain order. I'll have to remember to change the link on the post when I move the page.

I'll get another in place at the end of the month. These take a lot out of me.