Friday, May 13, 2011

There Will Be Blood

Yes I, too, was affected by the recent blogger craziness (though the only post I lost was one about Dragonsfoot pod casts and selling out to the man). Mainly it just prevented me from posting about last night's game session down at the Baranof.

Nope, we did not play War of the Mecha or any variation thereof. Yes, I brought by mecha stuff, but I was all hot and bothered to play good 'ol D&D after a two week break, and my players were rarin' to face death again. We even had yet another new player (this one named Ben...don't ask) who was anxious to have his character cut down in the prime of his life. I was only too happy to oblige him.

It was a pretty good night in general. Not that I'm trying to play favorites or anything, but I can definitely see an improved life expectancy rate with the players that have been coming to the games longer. Luke's magic-user survived despite being reduced to 1 or 2 hit points in multiple encounters, as did Randy's necromancer, Josh's archer, and Neckbeard the Dwarf (played by Heron).

For the newer guys, the Keep on the Borderlands continues to be a bloodbath. Dave and Ben both got killed once and Greg lost three characters in one night, which may be a record even at my table.

The sad part is, the group got precious little XP for the whole outing. I haven't added up the figures yet, but the unfortunate truth is that running from rats and koboids and occasionally picking up a silver piece or two might keep your character alive, but it doesn't advance you very quickly. "Fortune favors the bold," as they say but sometimes I wonder what's keeping the players from looking for "the big score."

I mean, I do offer some hints. Orc snipers. Rumors of a mad hermit. A mysterious stranger asks them to find her sister in the temple of Chaos and offering platinum pieces. I suppose it could appear I'm just throwing random shit out there to "spice things up" (and certainly "spicing" is part of it), but they aren't taking the hint.

Instead it's "let's hit the kobold caves," even though I've blogged before (and they read my blog!) that the damn kobold caves are a frigging death trap.

I don't care that they're "little creatures" with 2 and 3 hit points...stop thinking this is a video game designed to scale ("oh, you have to fight the little guys first to earn XP to fight the medium guys...."). D&D doesn't work like that! Old school RPGs aren't video games...they're like life, i.e. they aren't simple and easy and linear.

At least, the good ones aren't.

Let's look at the damn kobolds for a second shall we? Let's take a look in depth at this bunch of little dog men.

Less than 1 hit dice. D4 damage with their crappy weapons. Weak armor class.

So how are they surviving in the Caves of Chaos anyway? Why aren't they simply the local delicacy of the bugbear tribe or something? Heck, why haven't they moved away from the caves and looked for an easier ecosystem in which to make their lair?

Two words: Cleverness and Numbers.

And it's these two things that make the kobold warren such a death trap. At mid- to high levels, PCs aren't troubled much by the occasional dead fall or pit trap. At low levels (when saves are weak), these things can take PCs out quick...or weaken them to the point where they're easily killed by a single lucky blow.

And high numbers of monsters means the chances of that lucky blow landing just got ramped up. Would you rather face four orcs or eight kobolds? Well, let's orc needs a 17 or better to hit plate and shield. And a kobold...needs a 17 or better to hit plate and shield.

So you face eight monsters that have a 20% chance of hitting your frontline fighters or four monsters that have the same chance. Plus with multiple foes, the likelihood is that they'll be able to surround you, engage your "squishier" party members, cut-off your retreat, bear you to the get the point, right?

Also, there's that great equalizer we call "Morale." Monsters check morale after suffering their first casualty and after 50% of their force is gone. Unlike, say, monsters in the World of Warcraft, not every creature is interested in "fighting to the death," which can give adventuring parties a well-needed breather (and a chance to escape the dungeon when resources are getting low).

However, if the monster mob being faced can pass the morale check for that 1st casualty, the large mob of small monsters can absorb many more casualties prior to facing a second morale check. And that means subjecting party members to additional rounds of multiple attacks.

Randy has this to say about goblins: "I hate these guys." And he has good reason to...they've killed more PCs with their half-dozen-sized platoons of spear carriers than the big monsters (minotaurs and owlbears and such) ever have. Because they seem easy; they seem weak...3 hit points each, weak armor class, sure. But they travel in six packs...and if you let one escape they're bringing another 6-pack of reinforcements in short order.

The kobolds? They travel in eight packs. And their females fight, too. Like the males, females have less than 1 hit dice, do only D4 points of damage, and while they only have 2 hit points (as opposed to the males' 3 apiece) who cares, you're already dead because you've been hit multiple times by a bunch of D4 javelins and the little dog men are feasting on your bones.

Now here's the worst addition to the traps and the cultivated packs of disease-carrying rats (also only 2 hit points, but there are 18 of 'em and they all have the same chance to hit as an orc)...HERE's the WORST PART:

They've got bupkiss for treasure.

Being low down on the CoC pecking order, they're carrying copper and silver, having been strong-armed over time by their larger humanoid neighbors; to a TRIBE of kobolds a TRIBE of bugbears is an intimidating threat, and one to which they're willing to pay tribute rather than start a war that will end in genocide.

But to a small adventuring party? Facing a horde of sharp points for a handful of silver is a complete waste of a good character sheet.

Here...y'all want to know how much experience the party pulled out of the kobold warren last night (which killed three PCs)?

107 XP. That's the total party take...including the XP from the 70 or so silver coins they pocketed.

When you divide that amongst the 6 survivors, it sure ain't much to write home about. 17 or so apiece? Maybe 18 or 19 with that bonus for a high Prime Requisite.

Fortune favors the bold. I'm not saying this to be an asshole or call my players chumps. Or rather, maybe I AM an asshole, but I'm tired of them scrabbling around in the dark for chump change. If you want to use your superior technology (plate mail and musket fire) to kill the spear-chucking natives, then do it the Napoleonic way and hire/equip some troops. If you want to be treasure hunters, then go get some treasure...go after the big score!

"Oh, the monsters are too big and dangerous."

What a crock of shit. I mean, fine I didn't think you were heroes anyway, but why does everything have to be a goddamn frontal assault? You've got two or three fighters...out of party of eight or nine. How about thinking like something other than a fighter. Stealth. Negotiation. Trickery. Missile fire and tactics.

Your magic-user can bring down anything up to an ogre in size. Your archer seems to be able to hit fairly regularly at distance (without being hit himself). Your thieves have yet to demonstrate their bushwhacking and backstabbing...and last night you weren't even using the thief to scout ahead (despite still allowing "auto-success" with thief abilities) about a little basic recon?

Yes, when Steve's character turned invisible and shot arrows at a crowd of goblins, THAT was dumb and bad and bad things happened (including Steve getting the death he so richly deserved)...that doesn't mean such tactics might not work in the future (or that you might learn from his errors of judgment).

Look, maybe I'm to blame. Every session I ask for a marching order, and my players dutifully line up and parade into whatever hell hole they've chosen to die in this particular evening. The REASON I ask for the marching order is so that a DM that doesn't use miniatures but orients spatially based on these notes and my adventure module map...the REASON is so that I can picture who is standing where when shit hits the fan.

But it is totally okay to break formation!

No need to march off to slaughter, time and time again. You can start in a march and send individuals ahead (or behind for that matter). You can even send a couple of PCs to scout if you're worried a lone dude ain't going to make it back with any intel.

Okay, okay...I feel like I'm berating my players and I don't really want to do that. They had fun (so they tell me) and I had fun (I really did) and it was a good session and everyone (I think) wants to come back again next week. And many PCs ARE surviving these sessions, which is a good thing and a step in the right direction.

But do you want to risk death itself for a handful of silver? Do you want your character's final fate to be the cook pot of a pack of miniature dog men? Come on, people!


  1. Honestly, JB, I don’t think any of that would really make much of a difference. Yes, there are various distractions and widely differing levels of player engagement/seriousness at play, but your particular style of game has a whole lot to do with how things go down as well, as I’m sure readers of this blog can deduce. I enjoy coming down to the game each week, but when my character dies I don’t always feel like I had a whole lot to do with it.

  2. We didn't intend to enter the kobold caves. We entered the first cave on the right and that happened to have kobolds in it.

    You need to hit us with more obvious clues. Which of the numerous identical cave openings is the "big score"? Not like they have signs outside that say "Orc Residence". If the secret medusa lady said something like her sister was in the fourth cave on the left, I missed that.

    Also, you should get realistic about how well tactics are going to be used. Lining up and moving in formation is the only way we can get the game moving forward. The table is too big and venue is too loud to do anything else. Also, constant scouting and conservative advancement are time-consuming and tedious as fuck.

  3. I don't know who the fun havers are in our group. Last night, as soon as you sat down I saw on your face that you didn't want Ben there and decided to brutalize our group for it.

    I've played with this group for months and have yet to even level up a character; they either die or we switch games before we can gain enough XP to even give hope of leveling. Why would I invest anything in new characters besides a silly name?

    I'm not sure how we're supposed to start adopting these tremendous tactics when we have to wrangle six to eight players and 99% of the time we're in yet another "dark corridor about 10 feet wide," forcing us to line up two by two and carry torches. We have no choice but to wait for the person in front of us to get hewn down before we can even attack. Not to mention that most battles where we DO spread out end up with arguments like "Matt gets run through with a goblin spear," "How can that happen? I'm supposed to be 30 feet away firing arrows."

    Then of course we get penalized with hidden traps even when we explicitly say we're proceeding carefully and checking for them, or random monsters when we're in one spot too long because everyone's dutifully checking for traps.

    We took the lower caves because we hoped that would translate to lower difficulty. This wasn't cowardice, but hope that we wouldn't have to head back to town every time we encountered a squirrel that wiped out six of our seven collective HP that our cleric can do nothing to help with, because he has to be first level and thus useless.

    Our games have devolved into just hoping we'll at least get to roll some dice before we die.

  4. I think what's required here is a calibration of expectations.

    Perhaps playing in a pub with characters named Neckbeard is not the best situation for a reasonably hardcore type of game? I like those types of games, but you need everyone to have concentration and serious intent.

    Maybe for the pub games have it a little more simple and fun? They're also very enjoyable if everyone embraces that light hearted and humorous nature.

    Either way, you just need to get everyone on the same page I think.

    Anyway - These comments look to be a good thing. Get everyone together, have a chat about what everyone wants from the game (DM included, since you need to have fun too).

  5. @ Heron: You are RIGHT. I don’t think it makes any difference whether one is killed by a pack of kobolds or a single mountain lion; dead PCs don’t level up and don’t spend gold. Though I do think it’s easier for eight PCs to tackle a single large monster than a pack of small ones (as your party proved when taking down the ogre). And my personal style (i.e. “drunk”) probably IS a serious contributing factor to the overall sketchiness of the scenario.

    @ Luke: You are right, TOO. I am TERRIBLE with handing out “hints” and “clues;” I think I’m too obvious when I’m not really providing enough info. I figured the party would “break” (morale check) the orcs and follow them back to their caves, or tie ‘em up and squeeze ‘em for info after incapacitating them with the sleep spell…I suppose I should have just stashed a crude map on their bodies, but orcs don’t read much in my campaign.

    The woman DID tell you where the Temple of Chaos was (“the cave entrance directly under which the sun sets”) but you probably didn’t catch my slurry speech down at your end of the table. (*sigh*)

    And no, there are no signs on the caves (well, the lower ones anyway)…the only way you would have known which lairs were which would have been to stake them out or look for tracks or something…and I totally agree that this kind of shit is “tedious as fuck,” too. My attitude of trying to “pick up the pace” definitely does little to encourage this type of action!

    @ Randy: I do NOT think you’re right (regarding brutalizing the party as retaliation for a new player showing up unannounced)…but then again, I AM an asshole, so I can see how that might appear to be the case.
    ; )

    I could write you a point-by-point response, but it will take it’s own separate post (I started writing it, but it got looooong…).

    @ TrentB: Oh, I think our game IS light-hearted and humorous…even as it is sometimes deadly and serious. Does that seem like a paradoxical dichotomy? To me, it just seems like “D&D,” and makes perfect sense…but that, too, may need a longer post of explanation.

    The point of MY post was really that I am frustrated with the lack of PC advancement. Why face death and dismemberment for a handful of silver and little XP when you can face death and dismemberment for a chest of gold and a heft chunk of XP? That’s part of why I ran the party through Tomb of Horrors (as a “freebie/dreamstate” adventure)…it’s a module that has little actual combat and yet can still get you a tidy sum of treasure with a little cleverness (and, yes, with a little luck, too…but didn’t I say it was a freebie, no-one-dies-for-real session?).

    Randy’s comments echo my own frustration. Really. My venting over what the players “could have/should have” done and his criticism of me (and he has valid points) both stem from the same cause: a lack of progress, and “ramping up” of the characters.

    As for “silly names,” that DOES deserve its own post. Which I will write and post shortly.
    : )

  6. I think you're also forgetting that some of us DO have some prior experience with Caves of Chaos, though I try not to let it affect my choices. I generally move along with the rest of the group in those cases, but I also know that the evil cultists' cave is a notorious meatgrinder full of unturnable undead, and no way in hell I'm going to suggest we should go there. At least not at the point where kobolds and goblins are still a serious threat to our party. I'll level up a bit first, thanks.

    There was a similar situation in a previous game, where it was pretty obvious you wanted us to go look for a particular dragon. My take was "I'm first way in hell I'm going to go looking for a dragon". Maybe gamers used to later editions would go along (and did), assuming the encounter would be balanced to their level, but that's not my immediate assumption.

  7. @ Heron: Point(s) taken. The dragon, well...that was a whole different experiement (but there WAS a lot of "push" there, I agree). The cultists...well, I completely forgot about the stupid amulets (I believe I am on record, here at least, as saying such things are generally stupid), and I fully hoped to give the 1st level cleric a chance to "shine" a bit.

    After all, there IS something a 1st level cleric can do, even in B/X, and that's turn those low level undead!
    ; )

  8. Excellent! No, I don't think it's a dichotomy, now that you put it that way =]

    I think youre right about that particular frustration being part of (perhaps a defining part of D&D). I think everyone has experienced it at some point.

    Is it something that requires a solution, or can you just tweak some of the treasure tables or something? Or is it perfectly fine the way it is and its just part of the game? I guess thats all subjective.