Thursday, May 3, 2012

The DMG Ordered me to Show My Work and Irritate My Players

One of the difficult things I am finding about digging into the 1st ed. DMG for Talmudic readings on domain-level play is that I keep finding funky sections that spin me off into long thought-train tangents. Today I raise the white flag and give into temptation and look at two of the ones I just can't get unstuck from my cranium.

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.

Love it.

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.

19 comments:

  1. I've often noticed that encountering forthright, rational and easygoing NPCs is a total snoozefest.

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    1. I could just be rationalizing how I run towns and most NPCs in the campaign. It's why I often call the PCs in-town fence, Fraza the freakishly-honest dealer in curios.

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    2. Likewise for universally annoying PCs. Sometimes I wonder what the social vibe of GG's table must have been like. In any case, isn't this kind of thing what reaction rolls are for?

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  2. Underhanded NPC's also serve the purpose of skimming off some of the treasure the PC's collect, leaving them hungry enough to risk their lives for more.

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  3. I really like both of these. I don't always write down detailed orders for monsters, etc. but I do believe that it is wrong for a DM to have monsters come up with "just the right defense" after hearing the plans of the players.

    On the other hand, striking players with lightning or just deciding they lose points of charisma... not a big fan.

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  4. Some great nuggets you've got there.

    On 1 I think it is a great piece of advice for a new DM, not because players will be adversarial, but so you don't get into the awkward situation of always and only reacting to what the players do.

    For the 2nd, I swear I don't set out to try and annoy players with npcs, but that route just seems the most amusing for everyone involved. I love seeing my players roll their eyes when they first get a sense that this interaction with a shop keep won't be easy. And the thing is there are so many ways npcs can annoy, from being angry to cheerfully stupid.

    Thanks for sharing these.

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  5. I can see the argument for making the encounters complicated, that it makes it more interesting, but I can't help but feel that the quote translates as "Make all your NPCS dicks". And you know, if one of my players RPed a dick every time he made a character while saying "I'm not a dick, but I'm playing one" I'd tend to think he was just making an excuse to be a dick. And dealing with dicks isn't really my idea of fun.

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    1. In practice that's often what happens you have a lot of dicky NPCs. In fact at some point in the campaign I had to cut back on the dickery of the town merchants just to make it not so repetitive. Thus the appearance of Fraza and a few others.

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    2. A dick is someone who's unpleasant, rude or abrasive. If you look at Vance's characters they're rarely any of those things. Adverserial characters should be fun. Celowin's tribulations look a lot more amusing to play through to me than a simple trip to the local friendly sage.

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    3. Good point even the deodands make superficially pleasant banter.

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  6. There's a free solo pen and paper game I found on boardgamegeek.com called epic solitaire notebook adventures. It's a fun game, but point is, in that game, every kingdom your hero wanders into has a rating as relates to how they feel about you. The best you ever get is neutral. The highest is two frowny faces. And that means encounters with armed militia when visiting that kingdom again. I loved that idea so much I use it now in hex crawl sandboxes for encounters with settlements, castles, etc. I didn't realize this had direct representation in btb ad&d. That makes me love it even more. :)

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    1. It just occurred to me that this mechanic is a lot like the "wanted level" in grand theft auto, but more slow paced and long term.

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  7. In my G+ Land of Nod campaign, one party is now involved with a sorceress who wants some death mask from a dungeon, the thieves' guild (which two party members crossed by killing some of their members and stealing their loot), the assassins (who run the town) now convinced them to deliver the mask to them, and a lawful cleric who just cured some disease for them has a couple party members hunting down rival chaotic clerics) - in other words - you can introduce lots of fun with irritating and expensive NPCs. You just have to be careful to avoid overdoing it.

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  8. I want to pipe in on the second point. I'm running a game and the players, all of them somewhat immature and bash-before-thought players, got pissed at me when the last session I ran caused them to kill a fellow PC (cursed item) and now they have four factions after them. Two dragons, a brothel owner, and the NPC they murdered (he is a vampire, they just cut off the head, thinking he was dead.)

    A comment they made that was said was, "All your NPCs int he city were jerks." I thought for a time that I was somewhat wrong in this approach. I think I read this in the DMG long ago and it bleeds through.

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  9. We were recently playing THE FORGOTTEN TEMPLE OF THARIZDUN, a Gygaxian special, and it is rife with detailed combat notes on monster tactics. Some of the tactics were so nefarious, I was quite glad I could point to the text (if need be) that I was running the tactics as laid out by Gygax. I'm a believer now.

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  10. Does this mean we can invoke a dungeon audit the next time we get our asses handed to us in the HC?

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  11. Oh i always have it written down if I can. It's really fun to be able to say "you found a unicorn because you rolled a 62!" or "you were incinerated entirely due to your own actions" and y'know what? They get it. You listen to players kibitz before carrying out a plan and they start thinking like their actions have consequences and their plans get more and more clever and it is super fun.

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  12. I almost always roll randomly and publicly for reactions, attitude and tactics. I even show the players the entry in the table if they want to see it.

    I have an utterly different attitude to towns and villages though. Many of the best sessions I've run have been in urban areas. The level of connectivity between npc's and the small physical spaces involved make emergent play styles much more vivid.

    so far I have not run any NPCs as deliberatly adversarial though many have turned out that way as a result of the various stuff they all have going on with each other.

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