4 Hours w/RSD: Run Away!

“The party is currently split ... in two different dimensions. Mei Ling is "mostly dead" and being dragged like a meat balloon through zero gravity tunnels by Marteen and Bog. Temper is very badly injured and "Dimissed" herself back to the Prime Material Plane a melee round before being turned into Shoggoth kibble.”

-- Paul Jaquays

Shoggoth_by_Nottsuo.jpg

Unwinnable Does Not Mean Bad

One of the complaints that I sometimes hear from longtime gamers is that they feel “abused” by certain GMs – those who throw impossible challenges at the party. Sometimes the other end of the spectrum is the problem – GMs who refuse to make a challenge deadly enough to inject an element of “real risk” into the game.

In our last session of Undermountain, I decided that it was time to put the characters on notice that they were not guaranteed winners every time they rolled for initiative.

In Undermountain, PCs don’t die from loss of hitpoints. However, if the whole party is rendered unconscious or a PC’s body is not recoverable, the character is dead. So you won’t lose your PC unless something really catastrophic happens.

The PCs have been investigating a complex situation involving three opposed forces living in close proximity in Undermountain. Eventually they allied with one faction, mostly wiped out a second, and are currently attempting to deal with the third. In our last session, they took a one-way gate to a extra-planar location (a zero-g hive of formians).

The PCs are aware that an element cosmic horror is at work and while exploring the maze of tunnels in the dark without gravity, they encountered a shoggoth. This monster is effectively “unkillable” by the party. They simply don’t have the ability to absorb the damage it can deal long enough to take it down.

Run or Die

The party thus faced one of the challenges that can be very demoralizing; the “unkillable” opponent. And I made sure that the party understood (via my gleeful rolling of damage dice and happiness at having the shoggoth swallow one of them whole) that no punches were being pulled or die rolls fudged. This was serious business, a Total Party Kill was extremely possible, and since the fight was taking place outside of Undermountain, there was no chance bodies could be recovered.

As I mentioned previously this group of players spans the gamut from completely new to “dawn of the hobby” experienced. That’s part of the joy of running this game, seeing how people from every level of experience handle the various situations that arise.

As I’ve been taking notes on the kinds of play preferences these particular folks have exhibited (see previous column!) I was pretty sure that I could rely on them to stay true to form and the encounter would end up “ok”, and in fact that’s just what happened. The Power Gamers did their best to use a brute force solution. The Thinker solved a puzzle. The Character Actor made choices based on what her character would do, not what was the mechanically correct choice.

The three damage dealers did their best, before discovering that they were totally outclassed. In fact, my rookie (playing the Paladin) did us all proud when she was told that the creature she faced was a ravening mass of chaos and extreme evil but far too powerful for her to defeat, and her only question was how many extra dice she would roll when she used Holy Smite on it.

The Cleric figured out that since the party was extra-planar, she was an Outsider, and used Dismissal on herself, neatly escaping the clutches of the monster but abandoning the party to its fate. On the upside, the Cleric is now back in Undermountain, and may be able to marshal reinforcements.

The half-orc Fighter burned two Hero Points and cut the Paladin out of the shoggoth (did I mention how that Holy Smite ended up with a swallow whole?), and the Fighter and the Rogue dragged the unconscious Paladin out of the combat at full speed.

Upside

The game is now building great storytelling material. The PCs are separated (voluntarily!), and the Cleric is alone. The group that remained in the formian hive is fleeing from an opponent they can’t defeat.

So in one encounter, in one game session, we generated the following content for the players:

• The characters now have a villain they really care about killing, not some anonymous monster

• The characters know they can’t kill it by themselves, and they’ll have to find allies and help to get the job done

• The Cleric has no idea if she can save her friends, since she left in the middle of a fight they were losing badly

This is the value of putting unkillable opponents in a game session. Not to just wipe the party, but to change the terms of the game from “the PCs kick the door down, kill the orc, and take its pie” to “the PCs have entered a contest where the cost of failure is death!”

The shoggoth is going to require a lot of work to kill. The reward is in the story: the players are going to self-generate a fantastic epic tale that will be so much more meaningful because they have to work for it as opposed to just having victory handed to them.

The delicate balancing act I am required to perform as GM is to make them pay the cost for their mistakes without letting random bad luck doom them (or allow them to know that random bad luck was altered by GM fiat).

This is a classic problem for d20 game systems. When you make an opponent that vastly over-matches the characters you almost always create a situation where the result of a string of bad rolls can be unintentionally catastrophic.

Keeping the Fun In the Four Hours

The whole point of this column is to talk about ways to make tabletop RPG play fun. And here I am writing a column about attacking the players with an unbeatable foe. How is that fun?

Trading card games sold in booster packs deliver an experience called “intermittent reinforcement”. This is a pattern of stimulus that tends to generate an intensely addictive response in the subject. For TCGs, that’s the feeling that comes from finding rares in booster packs – at first, every pack you open has a rare card you’ve never seen, but as you open more and more you get lots of duplicates – but you still occasionally get a new rare. As those moments of “success” become fewer and fewer, the stimulus impact they have increases as well.

In a tabletop RPG you can create something like this same pattern of stimulus. The PCs grow used to winning their fights – the only question becomes how many resources they’ll have to expend to overcome their foes. This is the initial period of booster pack opening – every fight is fun!

Soon, the players will start to question the value of the game though. If they win every fight, then the fights are meaningless.

Suddenly losing a fight becomes a positive! It sends a shock of stimulus through the group: The fights are not meaningless!

Of course, we don’t want the PCs to lose every fight. That would be worse than letting them win every fight. At least when they’re winning they feel like they’ve achieved something. If the game is just an endless session of defeats and retreats, the players are going to quit that game quickly.

They’ve got better things to do with their free time than be losers in a fantasy game.

So we have a couple of goals:

1. We want to make losing a fight (occasionally) FUN.

2. We want the PCs to get out of the lost fight relatively intact (or at least in a recoverable situation)

3. We don’t want the players to lose hope; losing a fight doesn’t mean losing the war

Losing is Fun

One technique I applied to this particular encounter was to try to engage the players on two levels – the horrible danger their players were in, and the entertaining spectacle they were watching as real people.

Sure, their characters were having the stuffing kicked out of them, but the mood at the table was lighthearted. I made a point out of laughing at every absurd thing that happened and taking wicked glee out of playing my monster to the hilt. When the Paladin made that doomed charge, we all celebrated the awesomeness of the heroics. When the Cleric vanished from sight I made sure to congratulate the player on his creative solution to the problem.

This is a place where the free-form Hero Point system in Undermountain proved its worth. There was no mechanical way for the party to rescue the Paladin, but by just letting it happen via the use of Hero Points the players accomplished something (they saved a friend) and we didn’t bog the game down with having to figure out some obscure corner case of rules minutea.

Retreat, Hell! We’re Just Attacking In Another Direction!

The encounter went through three critical phases to reach the desired resolution.

First, the PCs played a cat & mouse game through the formian tunnels with an unseen opponent. I added tension to this process by showing them a die roll every time they entered a new room, and by occasionally having the Paladin’s Detect Evil power trigger. This built anticipation that a major event was upcoming.

Second, during the initial engagement I established the danger the PCs were in very quickly. There are no fumble rolls in Undermountain, and rolling a “1” on a to-hit die is meaningless. When the shoggoth got its first initiative action, and I announced that it had hit its target without rolling a die (because it’s to-hit bonus was higher than the armor class of the target), the players got a big jolt of “uh-oh!”

That set up the third phase of the encounter – the need to retreat. Players often become so accustomed to the idea that there’s a “solution” to an encounter that they’ll stay in a fight when they should run, metagaming the idea that there’s a lever that can be pulled to crash a portcullis on the monster or a combination of spells that is the “magic bullet” needed to kill the opponent. When I was a younger player I often took the attitude that the players should be free to be as foolish as they wanted. Now however I feel it’s my responsibility to play the metagame back at the players directly. I flat out told them that they could not win this fight. That, combined with the obvious damage I was doing to the party, was enough to trigger the “correct” response – getting the hell out of there.

A single PC surviving the encounter would have been a really bad outcome. Its unlikely that the other players would be happy sitting around a table for however long would be required for that one character to get the others back into the game. Having 3 of them get away as a group means there’s a reasonable kernel of activity that they can build from in future sessions.

Parting Words

They are really clear on what needs to be done now – kill that shoggoth. What they have no clue about is how to do it. That could lead to a rapid negative feedback loop of frustration. And frustration isn’t fun.

So I told the players ex-parte that we needed to arrange a “council of war” with the formians. I’ve essentially told them that while things look grim, they’re not halfway as badly off as they would be if there was not hope of getting local help. Of course, they’ve carved up the formians they’ve met so far pretty good so they’ve got a big diplomatic challenge ahead of them.
Next column, I’ll tell you all how it turns out!

--RSD / Atlanta, December 2011
 
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Ryan S. Dancey

Comments

RyanD

Villager
I couldn't find the "create article" button I used to use. So I posted this here, so it can be moved to the right section.
 

Noumenon

Villager
The game is now building great storytelling material. The PCs are separated (voluntarily!), and the Cleric is alone. The group that remained in the formian hive is fleeing from an opponent they can’t defeat.
Don't know if the promise of a meaningful victory over the Shoggoth wayyy down the road is worth breaking up the group here and now, which never sounds fun to me.
 

MortalPlague

Adventurer
Good article! That combat sounds like a thrilling, epic fight. I'll be starting a high-paragon / epic game soon in 4th Edition, and the thought that not every fight can be won is one I really want to emphasize.

Of course, only once in a while. Just enough to throw some doubt on the players' choices.
 

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