Monsters and Organization. Nestled into page 104 is one of my favorite bits of Gygaxian pedagogy. The take-home messages here provide solid advice: think deeply about the intelligence, alignment, and social organization of the adversaries that players face and create contingency plans and strategies for dealing with interlopers. The numerous examples are also pure gold, showing a range of monsters and how they cope with not just one sortie by the PCs but several.
Now here's the part that struck me as both strange and poignant:
“It is necessary that you make a rule to decide what course of action the monsters will follow BEFORE the party states what they are going to do. This can be noted on the area key or jotted down on paper. Having such notes will save you from later arguments, as it is a simple matter to show disgruntled players these 'orders' when they express dissatisfaction with the results of such an encounter [my emphasis].”
Strange because..well...you know, can you imagine this actually happening at your table in the here and now? It struck me how far the competition-adversity paradigm in rpgs has shifted—even among “old school” circles. I've certainly faced the cocked eyebrow of skepticism from players, the little subtle body language that sounds off, but I can't imagine ever taking out my notebook opening it up to the chicken scratchings of my fevered mind and pointing to prove that they face an “objective reality”. And I certainly could never imagine players feeling entitled to see it.
That said I'm not sure it's all sunny upward progress to have ditched it. The trust that comes with maturity certainly is but I still like the idea of both the semi-adversity of the GM (I've written about this before here and here)--and having the “fairness” of a tough-knocks situations that can be "won".
Now I am way too much of a seat of the pants bullshitter to have complex, written SOPs for each and every monster situation, but I do quite often set up some naturalistic sketchy orders that I try like hell not to breach the faith of in-game. Usually they are expressed as a range of broad probabilities around courses of action. Something like: “Roll d10, 2d6 space elves 1-3 are laying an ambush back at a good spot in the dunes, 4-6 hunting the players when they get back to town, 7-8 holing up in their current position, 9-10 sending back to the Bizarro Hill Cantons for 2d6 reinforcements, roll again.”
Somewhere down in the recesses of my DM reptilian brain I must have bought back into this. I freely admit it's a weird principle to get hung up on, so I'm curious as to how readers feel about it. Is this in your ballpark of actual practice or some strange vestigial thing you've long since evolved past?
Other NPCs. Turn over to the page before the last one to the last subsection on running NPCs. Most of this is is quite dull and unremarkable until...
“The host of merchants, shopkeepers, guardsmen, soldiers, clerics, magic-users, fighters, thieves, assassins, etc. are likewise all yours to play...These NPCs will have some alignment, but even that won’t be likely to prevent a bit of greed or avariciousness. Dealing with all such NPCs should be expensive and irritating.”
A throwaway sentence but one that packs a lot of Vance in there. Lovers of Jack Vance's work know that one of the enduring themes of his work is that great chunks of humanity are either “marks” or “hustlers” (broadly speaking since many of his protagonists are shrewd but moral actors). Whether it's one of his space operas, planetary romances, or fantasy novels time and time again you see the picaresque travel punctuated by complicated swindles and counter-swindles “in town”.
The two-paragraph example given after this not only reinforces that but—ignoring all the Welsh-sounding name dress--is a golden little window into what looks like actual play in Lake Geneva. Here you have a witless PC, Celowin Silvershield, waltzing into a “strange town” trying to get one of his buddies unpetrified.
He has an annoying time at the tavern getting unhelpful advice (which he has to pay for with drinks) and then has a run-in with an even-more annoying beggar (and pays him off). Then he has to deal (pay off) with a swarm of beggars before even making it to the mage's tower. There he has to deal with a jack-ass gate keeping warlock just to meet with the wizard—just in time to royally piss him off by spoiling his arcane experiment. And if he can't pay the exorbitant sum he gets geased into another adventure.
Town should be expensive and irritating. It should be a place for pulply fleecing and being fleeced. It should be a place that makes you want to get what you need, gear up and hightail it back to the next murderhole or wilderness death march.