Monday, March 26, 2007

Note to PCs: The Dungeon is Dangerous

When a DM sends the PCs on a specific mission, I think you have an obligation to play fair. If Ganmerlinster sends you out to retrieve the Great MacGuffin the expectation on the part of the players is that the beardy guy won't ask you to do something you can't handle. It might be a tough gig but no DMPC should ever send the party on an unpossible quest. (And any DM that sets up a quest where only a pet NPC can finish the job ought to be tied up in a burlap bag and beaten with sticks.) To me, this issue goes straight to the trust and responsibility implicit in the DM role.

But the Dungeon is a different matter. I'm talking about the classic big, sprawling, multi-level underground complex, places like Castles Greyhawk and Blackmoor. I feel a different sense of obligation when it comes to these nightmare underworlds. For one thing, I don't feel like the DM has to be fair in the sense that all challenges are meant to be overcome by the PCs. If first level PCs take the elevator down to level 5 whatever happens next is on the players' heads. No one should ever be in a big, multi-level dungeon and say "We can take the Troll King! The DM wouldn't throw him at us if we couldn't handle him!" Sometimes in a big dungeon enviroment the right thing to do is to run away to live to fight another day, preferably after leveling up and buying some scrolls.

If I'm reading him right my Prussian homie Settembrini looks at these too different states ("Challenge but don't overpower the PCs." and "If the PCs tug on Superman's cape it's their tough luck.") and sees too different styles of play. The first he might call Tactical Gaming, which emphasizes setting up fair fights and pushing around the pieces on the game board. 3rd edition D&D really brought Tactical Gaming to the fore. The second he calls Strategic Gaming, which hinges on taking unfair situations and working to overcome those handicaps through smarter outside-the-box thinking. Earlier editions of D&D (going back to OD&D, Basic/Expert, and 1st edition Advanced) maybe weren't always clear on the importance of strategic play, but they were written implicitly with that play style in mind.

Maybe Set is right and D&D has (at least) two distinctive styles of play, but I would suggest that a hybrid approach is possible and perhaps even preferable. In my experience few players want to constantly face the challenge of strategic operations. I know personally there are many nights when I just want to the DM to line up some orcs to fight. But to know that every encounter will have the CR crafted to your party's level eventually leads to boredom. I relish occasionally finding myself in over my head. One of gaming's great thrills is to escape an untenable situation by the skin of your teeth. Even greater is the satisfaction of going back prepared and giving the bastards what for. Hey, undead dickweed! We're back and we brought wooden stakes!

I started this blog entry as a way of putting the players of Beyond Vinland on notice. Don't get cocky. There may be balrogs at the bottom of those stairs.


  1. That's fair.

    The one caveat that I would consider is that there really ought to be some indication that the Balrog is at the bottom of the stairs... or that the PCs have an opportunity to recognize that they can't take the Balrog and flee.

  2. I think the dungeon level system really helps in this regards. If you are on a level with goblins and go down a short staircase, there won't be liches on the next level.

  3. I've always had mixed feelings about the dungeon level system. It seems to presuppose the use of player knowledge - since there (usually) isn't really any in-game reason for PCs to think that lower dungeon levels will be increasingly more dangerous.

  4. "The bottom level of this dungeon is the top level of Hell."

    How's that for clearing it up?

  5. Anonymous12:17 PM

    In my recent foray into the wilderlands, I´m making heavy use of in-fantastoverse references. Like when they met a NPC Group, I mentioned that one of them wears a winter wolf pelt, so they knew: These guys are way more powerful than the players were at the time.
    Add to that a lot of rumours, gossip and legends. I have a general rule though: It´s way better to exaggerate then to hide the approximate danger of a place in the wilderlands. Of course, once in a while that rule has to be broken to keep things interesting.

    In my MT Campaign OTOH, I never pulled any punches. Information gathering AND source criticism/double checking the info was one of the major points where player skill was expected to be applied. Also true for other Trav-likes, or CoC-likes.
    That is to say: Games were you are expecting way less combat than in D&D.

  6. Anonymous3:37 PM

    (And any DM that sets up a quest where only a pet NPC can finish the job ought to be tied up in a burlap bag and beaten with sticks.)

    Lead pipe.

  7. Anonymous11:24 PM

    I have played in games with disparate levels of characters and horribly mismatched adventures. Not really fun. Nothing like having an ancient Red Dragon pulling guard duty outside the city gate. Oooo, how many characters will you roll up before you quit my game?

  8. If a city uses a dragon as it's gate-guard I would expect that to be pretty well known.