Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Running Gun Battles

If you’re running a game in a modern or futuristic setting then chances are that sooner or later you’re going to need get involved in a running gun battle through the streets or special forces raid on an enemy compound or some other scene involving lots of people running about grunting and shooting aimlessly.

How you handle scenes like this does depend very much on the style of your campaign and the importance of the event, but there are few rules of thumb that apply to most styles of play and are worth considering.

There is a tendency in the rules of role-play games to analyse gun conflicts in great detail. You’ll find the ranges of a variety of weapons listed in yards, the ammo capacities, the reload rate, damage per square inch. There’ll be rules of secondary targets, blast radius, ricochets, shrapnel and spaniels. There’ll be tables of HE rounds, WP rounds, caseless and ceaseless and recoilless rounds. Armour and penetration rules including tables of armour values for common objects¹.
That’s a lot of stuff and as a GM you do need to know how it all works. You need to have played through, in the privacy of your own home, a few sample fights using all these rules such that you know how they are applied and what happens when a 10mm HE round hits a melon with an armour value of 0.2 and only 3 hit points.

However, that said, you now need to know that you shouldn’t apply any of these rules.

Errrm… what?

Ok, that was an exaggeration. You will need them now and then. But for the most part, you won’t. For the fluid GM the rules are guidelines to be applied as required rather than legally binding documents that must be followed to the letter. What is important is keeping the flow and the feel.

Because there are so many detail rules regarding the exact ranges and effectiveness of weapons etc there is a tendency of some rules-bound GMs to describe the action in terms of the rules. Many times I’ve heard the scene set in such terms:

“You come out into a corridor that’s 2 yards wide and about 27 yards long. About 14 yards along the left side is a wooden door with an armour value you guess to be about 3.”

Are you fighting on the architect’s blueprints here?

There is also a feeling from the GM perspective that you should be tracking the location of the hostile forces in the area, working out where they are, what they’re doing etc. Maybe you should have a map of the area? Then you can work out running distances and lines of fire. You can plot each movement of the combatants and work out who can see who and the ranges involved. Then you can work out armour modifiers, range bonuses, perception checks and shoelace probabilities.
Meta-gaming comes to the front, characterization disappears and before you know it you’re bogged down in a technical exercise – maybe even moving little plastic figures on a scale map – and suddenly you realize you’re actually playing an over complicated version of Ludo².

How did this happen? Well, the rules took over.

But don’t worry. There are alternatives available.

The trick is to keep it loose. Don’t worry about the exact position of each combatant. Keep the action quick.

“You make your way towards the power plant, winding along the narrow, dimly lit corridors, a left turn, then a right and on along to the edge where you hunker down below the reinforced windows that run along the wall overlooking the internal courtyard.”

Who cares exacly how long each corridor is? If it's not important, don't worry about it.

Make the players roll simple “Combat Tactics” based checks so ensure they’re not exposing themselves to enemy fire. If they pass you can describe the challenges that they spot in simple terms:

“The courtyard is overlooked by a balcony round the other three sides. There’s plenty of hiding places up there for snipers and not enough cover to cross safely.”

Then the players will start to ask questions:

“Are there any other ways round?”
“Would a smoke grenade in the courtyard give sufficient cover?”
“Is there anywhere I can get a better view of the balcony to check for snipers?”
“Can I go to the toilet, please?”

These questions can be often answered without any reference to the rules (but you can always look up the amount of smoke a smoke grenade gives off if you want clarification and aren’t familiar with the technology). How you weigh up the options largely depends on whether you want the heroes to fight their way across the courtyard or sneak round the back and take the snipers by surprise. You may not really mind, it might not be important, and so just let the players take the lead. Let them be sneaky if they want. In other cases you may decide that there is no way round – but, as it happens, there are no snipers either. (Just because there’s plenty of places a sniper could be hiding, doesn’t mean that there are actually any snipers hiding. You’re just messing with their heads – which is fun)

Of course, if the players fail on of these tactics checks then feel free to fire off a few shots at them (or pin them down in a corner they then can’t get out of without getting shot at)

The exact location of the enemies is actually quite often unimportant. The tactics roll is failed – so as they run across the courtyard having failed to notice the possibility of snipers, someone somewhere up in the balcony opens up with a sub-machine gun – you roll a few dice and see if anyone gets hit. It’s important to note that the exact model of gun, range or ammo capacity is almost entirely irrelevant. In fact, if you’re running a lenient game (maybe a kind of Ramboesque action romp) then you may decide to have the sniper fire thirty shots into the area but then roll 3d6 and allocate a hit if a die comes up 6. Alternatively, if it’s about time someone got deadded then you can have the sniper turn out to be quite skilful and roll a more sensible shot³. Assuming there are survivors, the players can then roll to spot the sniper and return fire – or they may just run right through and hide at the other side. A tactics style check can be used to determine if they find a suitable hiding spot where the sniper can’t see their bum sticking out.
The trick, as with all protracted action sequences, is to distil the action down to a few key, pivotal moments and make those moments interesting, detailed and exciting. Plan them ahead of time and think them through so that the decisions that the heroes make are clear-cut and important. The rest is just flow and flavour. They might get pinned down by a machine gun at some point, then shoot a few goons at the next corner and maybe have to hide in a few filing cabinets along the way, but the actual nitty-gritty technical detail is, for the most part, unimportant.

The more familiar you are with the style of combat and the environment involved, the more flavour details you can add to make the event more realistic and vivid. You can describe the brass shell casings pinging across the marble tiles of the penthouse floor, the way the metalwork around the fire door has buckled where the rifle round struck it, the way the foamed padding in the stud-walls has been powdered all over the hallway by the shotgun blast that nearly removed Bob’s dashing good looks. These are the things that the players remember and reminisce about when they look back on how amazingly cool your campaign was⁴.

If you don’t know enough about the area and weapons involved to make up this kind of thing on the fly – simply borrow cool scenic colour from the movies⁵! There are often great action sequences in films that are chock full of nice little details that you can reuse in your descriptions.

In summary:
  • Concentrate on the pace, flow and action (not on the minutia of individual character actions)
  • Don’t worry too much about the rules – rules are there to serve you, not enslave you.
  • Fill in cool details of description whenever you can.

¹ Did you know that an office chair has an armour 0.5 while the filing cabinet is 1.0? Quick, everyone inside the filing cabinet!

² I have a version of Ludo which has a three hundred page rule book and additional Players Guide and about thirty different supplements. It’s boring.

³ It should be noted however – you should be consistent in your level of Ramboness. If you switch from an “Action Movie” feel to an ultra-real “Embassy Siege” mode without warning, your players will be confused and their characters will get killed. They may then set fire to your house in protest.

⁴ Unless of course they’re those weird compulsive types that write down all their rolls so that they can re-play the battle later and see what would have happened if they’d had that +3 for that laser scope that you wouldn’t allow. These are the players that also spend hours trying to explain some cunning move they made in a game of chess by saying things like “… And I had a knight and rook in the corner and so he couldn’t get his queen out because I’d blocked the E file with the bishop and he didn’t have any pawns close enough to…” The only answer is to kill them now before they crack and take the whole street with them. It’s your duty as a responsible citizen.

⁵ Although you do have to pick the right style of movie – sometimes players get upset if buckets of cold water explode in a fireball when you shoot them. Particularly if they happen to be hiding in them.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Battles Vs. Brawls

Role-play games are full of fights; it’s kind of expected. Every passing stranger is a potentially hostile encounter and heroes and villains almost invariably choose to settle their differences by beating the hit-points out of each other.

There are of course – many different scales of fight and the way you, as an agile and forward thinking GM, handle these differences of scale, is a key to keeping the excitement level high and the players interested in what’s going on.

Imagine the scene: Two beer scarred veterans of the Goblin Wars are having a disagreement about the rules of Blind Man’s Thumb – one man leaps to his feet, swiping the cards and the little monkey shaped playing pieces from the table and calls the other fellow a cheat. They’re squaring up for a scrap that might turn dangerous, but at this point neither man has drawn a weapon. In this situation the details are important. Not just the relative positions of the two antagonists, but also the location of any handy implements (bottles, chairs, wenches) that they might use to attack or defend. When the accuser goes to punch his nemesis in the face, we want to know each swing, each counter. The fight may, in the end, come to very little. Neither man may be prepared to take the fight very far. There may just be a few sckuffled punches and then a lot of “That showed you” kind of talk. However, if one of the men is a bit more aggressive¹ and weapons get drawn then each swing and parry becomes life threatening and all the witnesses in the bar are dashing for safety.

Compare this situation to the one where a battle is raging in the fields outside Verminholt. Forty thousand goblins have been engaged in vicious hand to hand fighting with the seven thousand men (and five women²) that make up the army of Lord Vermin all afternoon and both sides are getting tired and bored. Flights of arrows fly overhead occasionally striking down some poor unfortunate, who, according to the rules of probability, is more likely to be a member of the goblin horde. Everyone left standing is caked in three inches of dried blood and no one can tell what’s going on anymore.

The Battle Of Garrison Rock is the only battle in recorded history where both sides ran away.The Battle of Garison Rock

It’s clear that we can’t apply the same rules mechanic to both of these conflicts. If we use the standard fighting system that works well for two drunks going mano-a-mano in the Dog and Trumpet to the crusty sea of violence in Lord Verminholt’s cabbage field we would be there all day rolling hit dice and damage modifiers – we’d spend weeks jotting down hit point totals and adjusting dexterity for mud-splatter such like. On the other hand, if we simplify the system to allow us to handle the rabid butchery of the field then the scrap in the bar would be over in a single roll. This wouldn’t allow for all the complex posturing and tension that makes the brawl exciting.

The answer, as you already know, is to use different rules systems. Because that makes sense, right? Well. Maybe. The trouble is that pretty much any rules system for dealing with large scale battles is going to be boring. Why? Because each battle is very different and so make a rule system that works smoothly and handles that elegantly is very difficult. Also much of the outcome of battles is down to woolly factors such as moral, discipline and the communications between the troops rather than just the mechanical bashing of heads. Large groups of people behave very differently to individual people³. A fine example is that if you pitted one Gaul warrior against a one Roman Legionary in single combat the Gaul would use the Roman as a toothpick then throw him away. However, when you put five thousand Roman toothpicks together they can fight and defeat twenty thousand Gaul warriors. Why? Because the Romans are organised soldiers that work as a team while the Gauls are warriors who fight as individuals.
Any system that takes into account these kinds of factors, although it might be useful for working out the outcome of the battle, will most likely be too high level to produce an exciting narrative.

So a new answer? Let’s think about what we really need to know. The heroes want to know how the battle is going – but they don’t need to know (and probably won’t be able to tell) the numbers of actual casualties on either side. What’s interesting for the heroes (and hence the players) is what’s happening to them and what effect that has on the outcome of the battle.
To be honest – in most cases I’m pretty arbitrary about the outcomes of battles. This is because the effect the heroes can have is usually pretty well known beforehand. If you have a hero who is a wizard that can raise mountains and flatten a thousand men with a wiggle of his eyebrow, then you pretty much assume the heroes are going to win. If the heroes are more limited, you can tell roughly how effective they’ll be and what difference it’ll make to the outcome. You can then decide how the battle is going to go (depending on the details and what best suits your heroic narrative). Of course – if the heroes do something expectedly fantastic or moronic, you may have to adjust the result accordingly. If you’re not happy making the decision or you feel your players might think you’re rigging it then you can assign a probability of the heroes forces winning the battle (say 60%) and then add or subtract percentage points depending on actions they make. You can define a series of set-piece action events and assign a modifier to the result of the battle based on how well the heroes deal with each one.

For example: Taking down the goblin with the flaming ball of doom – success gives the heroes a +10% while failure means -10%. When each event has been played through – roll the result and see who’s going to win.

The trick is to ensure that the battle as a whole seems realistic and, most importantly, fair⁴. Then concentrate on the details. The interesting bits of the battle are the snapshots of action that sum up the fight from the heroes’ perspective. Think of a film – huge battles are shown first in wide-shot – where you get a good idea of the number of troops and the scale of the carnage. And then a few shots of particular bits of the action. If the film showed the whole battle, from any perspective, it’d be repetitive and dull. Do the same. Pick a few bits of the battle to describe in detail – make the rolls, swing the swords, describe the blood, the shouts and screams. Then – once you’ve got a feel for it – summarize the rest of the afternoon’s carnage in a few sentences.
“The battle continues for what seems like hours – you hack a few goblins here, a few there, all the while the yelling and wailing and clash of metal continues relentlessly”

Roll a few dice to see if anyone gets in trouble – I usually roll a handful of D10 – any rolls of 1 result in a hero or important NPC getting struck by an arrow or something. It’s an arbitrary risk check kind of thing. It’s usually very much in the heroes’ favour compared to actually working out the chances of getting hit – but it’s quick, easy and serves the purpose. Remember, you can’t have a hero struck down just on a whim without rolling some dice to make it look fair. I usually randomly assign a “hit” in these situations by counting the number of important people present and rolling an appropriate die.

Then just sum up:

“As the light fades – the remaining goblins have pretty much all fled from the scene – Lord Vermin has rallied a group of some eight hundred foot soldiers in the middle of the field and they are now going about the business of finding survivors in the piles of limbs.”

Of course – in those weird systems where a hero gets XP in direct proportion to the number of lives extinguished the players may feel that it’s important to know the number of goblins each hero has personally slain in the fighting. I’d be tempted to fix it at an arbitrary “3d6” or something and say that’s the ones worth XP⁵.

In siege situations where the fighting can go on, day in, day out for weeks – whole days can be skimmed over quite easily with sentiments like:

“Over the next few days the goblin horde throws itself against the walls of Verminholt. The casualties on both sides are horrific and the defenders are beginning to tire from the relentless diet of cabbages (oh, and the fighting).”

Roll a few dice

“The defenders have lost over 200 men so far – while the goblins…”

Roll a larger number of dice

“… don’t seem to have been thinned a great deal, although the bodies piled up by the walls are probably in the thousands.”

In short, battles are only interesting in concept. Too much repetition and die rolling can kill the mood of a game quicker than a munchkin with a dice disability. This is one of those times where a GM must become a storyteller more than a number cruncher. In big battles it’s the feel of the battle, the excitement and danger that’s important. Rules can, for the most part, go hang.

So, as a quick recap, when faced with at large scale battle, have a ponder on this:

  1. Get a good feel beforehand of how the thing is likely to go down and decide how you’ll determine the outcome.
  2. Pick a few dramatic moments in the fight to describe in and play out in gory detail (just as though you were having a smaller scale fight)
  3. String these dramatic moments together with simple “and there was a great gnashing of teeth” type phrases.
  4. Throw in a few risk-checks and so it doesn’t appear like you’re making it all up arbitrarily. (Even if you are)
  5. Sum up with a description of the carnage as the fighting comes to an end.

And there you have it – one exciting battle. What could possibly go wrong?

¹ It’s my experience that ‘heroes’ in general have very little sense of appropriate/reasonable force. Many are the times that a simple shove from an angry citizen has resulted in half a village being wiped out as the affronted hero whips out his +7 spatula of righteous vengeance and pan-handles the man –everyone else reels in shock at the murder leading to an inevitable escalation of violence as the local militia try to defend the peasants from the mad psychotic hero.

² Every army must include a few beautiful and dangerous looking female warriors for use in plot hooks and dramatic scenes, regardless of the setting or social context. However, even in settings of perfect sexual equality, there will still be no females in the faceless rank and file.

³ The classic quote to use here is: “The intelligence of a crowd is equal to the intelligence of the most intelligent member, divided by the number of people”. This goes a long way to explaining the appeal of nightclubs.

⁴ All is fair in Love & War unless you’re simulating in a role-play game, in which case it’s the perception of fair that counts. If players think the battle is rigged they’ll be very upset and demoralized. (Unless of course, it’s rigged in their favour – but even this can cause issue because if the heroes start to think they can win no matter what they do – they’ll get bored)

⁵ If the players don’t like this and complain, just kill them and get some players who aren’t so anal.

Artwork for this blog post by Chris Watson

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Not so random encounters (Part V)

The guide to rolling your own

Tips and tricks of the Fluid GM

The example of the random bandit encounter (with option to become side quest) detailed over the last couple of posts (Find the start of this thread here) showed how you can make up a single interesting encounter to place in front of your heroes in lieu of rolling a random encounter from chart or table. The trick to making this a viable option is to minimize the amount of actual work involved in creating said encounter. The reason people use random encounter generation in the first place is because they can’t be buggered to make all this stuff up, but they want stuff to happen.

So, we want an interesting encounter (which will be more exciting, interesting and relevant than a randomly rolled one) but without the overhead of creation. Fine. The trick, funnily enough, is simply to be ruthless about what you need to invent. Because it’s essentially chance encounter (rather than a required element of the long term campaign plot) the detail you need is actually very small. If you think about it – when rolling up the “D6 wolves attack” random encounter on the table what preparation do you have? None. At all.

Simply spend 15 minutes in the car on the way to the session thinking about your encounter
First break it down to two simple bits of information.

  • What will the heroes encounter?
  • What does it want?

Sanity check this to make sure that it makes sense in your game world that what your encounter wants will allow it to target the heroes in order to get it.

Second think about the situation from the encounter’s point of view – how to they see the heroes? How can they get what they want from them without anything bad happening? What are the risks? How to they rationalize away those risks? Remember – this has to be done on the information that the encounter has available, be careful not to meta-game and use your own knowledge of the heroes to influence things. It’s a bit like playing chess against yourself – it’s quite hard to disregard what you know and look at it fresh – but try. Really try. When the heroes whip out that magic freeze ray and turn the bandit leader into a block of ice the bandits should be surprised - even if the heroes have pulled the same trick on other people. It’s tempting to try to make an encounter that somehow negates this tactic. Don’t. Save that for your plot.

Another quick example:

We need an encounter… um… right… I know! A particularly evil/tainted/hungry/aggressive pack of wolves are prowling the area in which the heroes are walking. They want to kill and eat something.

Sanity check. Why attack the heroes? Right – there’s nothing else about – all the game has gone – winter is setting in – the wolves are hungry. They’ve not seen anything worth eating all week.
So now we spend a little while thinking about it. There’s probably lots of interesting ideas about wolves. You can have the heroes spot the wolf trails earlier in the day – have them hear the howling at night while at the camp – have the heroes harried by the wolves over a reasonable time. (Wolves don’t just jump out of a bush and fight to the death – that’s a dumb tactic – they follow you – come closer and growl – test your defences – circle and wait. They may be hungry but they have remarkable stamina and have no need for straight stand up fight.

Also – thinking back to “what they want” – if the heroes don’t have the stomach for a fight they may well be able to avoid any conflict by finding an alternative food source for the hungry wolves¹. Also – the wolves may be hungry – but they’re not suicidal – if they’re badly injured in the fighting they’ll almost certainly die as they won’t be able to hunt. If the heroes prove to be too tough a nut to crack, the pack will reluctantly give up.

For encounters involving more humanoid persons you can have a list of random names² handy in case anyone asks “What’s your name?” or “Who do you work for?”

So where do you get your inspiration for these little bubbles of encounter gloop? Well – one tactic is to go back to the random encounter table and pick something from there that takes your fancy. Usually however, I just pick something that seems like an interesting idea. You can pillage interesting ideas from all over the place – films, books, TV adverts, supermarkets, blogs – even from things your players have said during previous sessions…

Player: “Well, we got through that dark wood ok – I’m glad there weren’t any of those giant ladybirds or anything!”

You, furiously scribbling a quick note on the label of your underpants: “Yes, you were lucky; I hear those are pretty common round these parts”

You’ll be amazed at how quickly players forget they even said things like that – however, a few weeks later when the giant ladybird eats one of their horses in the in the night it won’t seem strange at all…

Let’s recap before I wander off onto another topic entirely…

Random encounters: Bad

Making up you own the conventional way: Too much like hard work

Making it up entirely as you go along: Too risky and fraught with peril

The solution?

Roll your own encounter goo and add moral quandary to taste. Bake for two to three sessions and see who takes a bite.

Right – that’s enough of that nonsense – this topic is dragging on a bit now³ and I’m sure you’d rather read about something with more explosions in. Or something.

¹ Grandmothers and little girls in brightly coloured hoods are a favourite

² Check out the random name generation links for some ideas for where to get yourself random names

³ Mostly because I fail to keep on topic and start talking about something else, like that time I was standing on the railway bridge trying to flag down that low flying Spitfire when I accidentally started talking in semaphore to a pair of badgers who where… umm… wait a minute…

Random Name Generators

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Not so random encounters (Part IV)

Part IV – Keeping the ship in order

This post continues with the same example we looked at in “Part II – Rolling your own” – You can find the beginning of this article here.

Right…. Onwards and outwards…

You’ve had yourself a little encounter – there were bandits(s) and death and blood and merriment was had by all. But encounters (like real life) don’t just stop there¹. Later you will have to handle the aftermath of the raid. Hopefully this will be the next game session when you’ve had a chance to sort through what happened and make up any relevant detail. If not, well… umm…. Think fast!

In fact there are usually only a few specific details you need to conjure up so even if you’re doing it on the fly, you should be ok.

In the example of the bandit that pleaded the hungry family, say the heroes are suspicious and yet good hearted. They decide to take the bandit to his family and then help them. This way they get the proof that the bandit was telling the truth before they let him go and offer aid. (Heroes are relentlessly paranoid, almost to an art form)

Think. What do you need to invent here? Does the bandit have a family or are there just a group of thugs waiting back at the camp? Are the other bandits watching from cover or have they run away? I usually base the answers to these decisions on the attitude of the players (and hence, the perceived attitude of the heroes) Sometimes I like to prove their suspicions to be entirely correct – it gives them that smug satisfaction of besting the bandit – other times I’ll let him lead them to a dismal camp of half staved children – then they feel sorry for the poor guy and, what’s worse, they not have a bunch of desperate civilians to deal with – they’ve got a busy main plot to be getting on with, can they spare the time to help out?

The beauty of this kind of blatant ‘make it up as you go along’ encounter is that it can end up as a fully fledged plot in it’s own right if the heroes take the ball and run with it. And in some cases, it comes to nothing – but you’ve wasted precious little effort in setting it up, so it doesn’t matter too much.

So what if the heroes just killed the initial bandit without even asking what’s up? Then what? Well… then you have a bunch of the bandit’s friends/accomplices/family or whoever they happen to be still waiting out in the dark for the original sneak to return. What do they do next? If your heroes need a little more poking – maybe they’ll try again with second bandito? (They really want that food and Kevin was a noisy klutz anyway). Or maybe the bandits take the loss of Kevin rather badly and decide that they’ll cause trouble. Sure, they might have to be inventive, because they still don’t want a pitched fight. Cunninger still, and one of my personal favourites, Kevin’s newly widowed wife takes the whole thing terribly badly and, in a fit of frustration and grief, simply storms into the heroes camp and tries to biff the biggest hero in the face. What should be clear in this tactic is that she isn’t really a big threat; the heroes should easily be able to disarm and capture her if they want. The beauty of this is that it’s a great test of the heroes’ nature. How do they react? Again, if they do capture her – you’re back in with the whole staving family gig – or maybe you could set yourself up a heroic bandit rescue where the brother of the poor captured lass makes a bid to free her – leading to yet more hilarity and mixed moral messages.

So in essence… just keep on making stuff up till everyone is dead or you and/or your players lose interest in the idea and wander off to do something else.

So what have we learned here?² It’s all very well taking the one I’ve just shown and trying it out – but what about when you want to come up with something else?

Next post I’ll start to extract some principles from the example we’ve been looking at so that the process can be repeated for anything you can think of (and maybe even a few you can’t)

¹ Unless of course you get killed. Even real life stops at that point. Did you know – the universe itself will cease to exist if you die? (You better stay alive till I've finished this cupcake, damn you).

² Other than bandits are made entirely of gloop that is.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Not so random encounters (Part III)

Rolling your own – the actual rolling...

Continuing the theme we started here...

So – back to the encounter generation thing. You know what your party of wannabe heroes looks like – you know the kind of attitude they have – so you can pick the kind of bandits that will be of interest and suit your location. Do this in a broad kind of way to begin with.

Let’s carry on with that example example we exemplified last post and add in some actual details. The heroes are a bog standard group of a wizard, warrior, dwarf and an elf (with a pointy hat). They are travelling though the wilds where few people go. So what options have we got? A toll booth is out of the question, there’s no point if no-one comes this way. In fact, there’s very little chance of meeting any significant force of bandits out here as there’s very little to prey on. So a small group, keeping well out of the way of civilized folks. They’re probably nomadic, because there’s little out here to keep them in one place. They’re probably quite desperate too, why else would they be out here in the middle of nowhere? So they’re good scavengers, good on the land – sneaky – survivalists. They know how to use the wilds in their favour – they know how to track, hunt and not be seen. They may be on there way somewhere in particular or they may be roaming aimlessly, at this point it doesn’t matter a great deal because until they interact with the heroes you’re still at liberty to change your mind. In fact, even after they’ve interacted you can change your mind about most things.

So you’ve got an idea for a bandit(s) – now you need to lay a slimy plot tentacle somewhere the heroes might notice it and see if you get a bite.

Since our bandits are, at this point, a small group of poorly armed and equipped survivalists they are unlikely to try to ambush a party of folks that look as dangerous as the heroes. They’re not the lost travellers or foolhardy explorers that the bandits would usually prey on. However – the bandits must be interested, or we don’t have an encounter. So let’s say the bandits spy the heroes and clock up all that tasty looking adventuring gear. Jimminy, that’s a lot of cool looking shizzle! There must also be food and water supplies and all that kind of stuff to be had too. But they can’t just attack – it’s too risky. So they track the party of heroes at a safe distance until they stop for a rest¹. If the heroes aren’t in the habit of posting a lookout then you’ve got them cold. The bandits can slip in and lighten all those heavy packs with relative ease. However, your heroes are clever enough to keep a watch. Many parties of heroes are of the blasé opinion that sleep is pretty unimportant and so don’t mind having a sleeping break of only about 6 hours – given that they have to spend an hour and a half on watch each too this means that even if they manage to fall asleep instantly as they stop walking they’ll only be getting four and a half hours of interrupted sleep a night. In which case they’ll be tired the whole time and this makes the bandit’s job a bit easier. (Remember though that if the bandits have to keep up with the heroes, they might have to go a little lean on the shut-eye too)

Still, the heroes don’t even know that there are any bandits yet, so none of this has come into play. Then in session you make one of the heroes (whoever is on watch one night) take a perceptive type check. (Usually I do this on the behalf of said lookout so that if they fail, they are none the wiser) There’s a bandito trying to sneak in and lift a pack of supplies - just play it out and see what happens. If no-one notices – the bandits may try for another pack later. However let’s say that they catch the poor blighter with the bag in his hands. They may kill him, they may interrogate him. If they decide to interrogate him you’re going to have to think fast – just make shit up. You have a pretty good idea why he’s there, pick a random name if they ask it – make him try to weasel out of it – spin a sob story about his starving family in the wilds or something. The heroes might even buy it and let him go. Regardless, make the bandit behave in a very human and believable way – rationalize his behaviour. What happens next is really down to the heroes – but whatever they do, you just react in a measured way. Since you haven’t spent much time setting this thief up, it doesn’t matter if they kill him off or they let him go or whatever. Just roll with it.

Because you’ve based the encounter on some initial thinking (rather than just rolling and die and finding out that there’s bandits about) you’re in a good position to roleplay out the encounter. You’ll be surprised at how much good stuff you can come up with on the fly given a small amount of preparation.

Of course, because this encounter has depth and interest – it’s not necessarily over once the fat lady starts warbling... there’s often mop-up and to deal with too...

That’ll be the subject of the next part – keeping the ball rolling...

Till then. Sit tight. Eat fruit . Don’t play with squirrels.

¹ Even mighty heroes rest when they think no one is looking

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Not so random encounters (Part II)

Rolling your own

Last post I rambled on pointlessly about the drawbacks of rolling random encounters on tables and then had a cup of tea. Then I said something about rolling your own and left it at that.
So – how do you go about rolling your own? I mean, really?

It doesn’t really matter what base scenario idea you use, but we’re only going to need one encounter (a kind of one size fits all) because we’re not going to roll it randomly. We know this is the one we’re going to get. If you like you can always roll a dice every now and then during play and pretend to look up random encounter tables, but know that the result is a foregone conclusion, you’re only doing it to confuse the hell out of your players.

My old physics teacher always used to say start with an example¹. So – let’s look at the classic example – a group of bandits to waylay the heroes. This kind of encounter is pretty much always required in any decent heroic fantasy but can also be transplanted to pretty much any genre and setting. I usually run games in a modern setting, so this is the gang of youths on the corner that follow you down a dark road or some such mugging type event. For the purpose of this rant I’ll stick to a more traditional fantasy setting (you know, with Goblins in it)

Ok, we’re going to roll our own – we’re going to need some bandits. We’ll start with a few thoughts on what makes a bandit tick. What does the bandit want? You money or your life? Possibly². However, there are a number of different modus operandi at work in the bandit community so let’s take a moment to think them through. The beauty of this set up that in practice, you don’t actually need to write anything down, you just ponder the idea in your head while you’re on the train or driving to work or taking one of those excessively long ‘comfort breaks’ in the bathroom.

The anatomy of an outlaw encounter

I figure we’ve got three basic types of outlaw groups to consider (there are plenty more I’m sure, but your investigation doesn’t need to be exhaustive)

  • Small groups of outlaws pillaging on an opportunistic basis.
  • Nomad clans of raiders, also pillaging on an opportunistic basis.
  • Static outlaw groups using a tithe system rather than outright muggery.

Let’s ponder each and see what they have going for them:

Small groups of outlaws pillaging on an opportunistic basis

These would usually be localized to areas they knew and small in number. They probably won’t attack anyone that looks like they might put up a fight because they’re almost certainly bullies and cowards, and even if not – they’d have to be very desperate to risk a deadly fight (as even if they won they might get hunted down by the local law) It can be hard to get folk like this to attack your heroes and remain believable (unless you heroes look like a bunch of wet blankets) If they have a choice of robbing a wealthy merchant travelling with his teenage daughter and their pet sheep or attacking a small band of heavily armed, battle scared warriors who just spent their last gold coin on a shiny new triple handed axe – even the dumbest bandit might figure that one out (what’s the resale value of that axe if I have to extract it from my face before I can sell it?) One trick here is to have these bandits attack some other poor shmucks and then have the heroes stumble on the wreckage. (Or, if you’re into those cheesy Hollywood set piece scenes, have the heroes amble up while the actual attack is still in progress)

Nomad clans of raiders, also pillaging on an opportunistic basis

Here, if the area is large enough and rich enough the gang could be quite large and very aggressive. They’ll pick their targets carefully though as only an idiot would pick a fight that they didn’t honestly think they could win. (It’s good to remember – the criteria for a bandit clan winning is not just being able to best the heroes – but to do so without significant losses – if they lose half their number to bring the heroes down – it’s unlikely to be worth it for them.) Evidence of this kind of raiding clan (burned villages maybe) can be all you need for flavour. If they won’t attack the heroes, the heroes might go looking for them… but they’d best be careful. Some kind of mutual standoff is also appropriate here. The bandits are seen watching and considering if they should attack – but think better of it – or maybe they just wait… the heroes gotta sleep sometime, right? If you’re in wild territory (which is kind of a given with these kinds of roaming bands of thugs) then there’s no reason they can't track the heroes for days or even weeks while looking for a good chance to ambush them – but of course, they’ll only bother if they’re sure the heroes have something worth having. This can be god fun, because the heroes start to think that the bandits are minions of the big bad guy – after all – why else would they be following? (of course, maybe they really are)

Static outlaw groups using a tithe system rather than outright muggery

These guys are my favourite type – this is the kind that’s easiest to get involved with³. They are the kind of bandits who wait at a river crossing, bridge, mountain pass or the only road through a given swamp of doom and despair. Rather than simply looting occasional travellers in the opportunistic manner of the highwayman, they rather toll everyone who wants to use their path, bridge, toilet or whatever it happens to be. The beauty of this kind of activity is two-fold; firstly, depending on the area they guard, their numbers and strength can be anything from a couple of guys with sticks to a whole army of vicious tribesmen. For example, a couple of hoods could easily stand charging a toll for using a bridge and then scarper when the law came along⁴ or at the other extreme, a whole army of spies and warriors could guard remote mountain pass which valuable trade caravans regularly pass. The rules of thumb for such groups are something along the lines of:

  • There must be enough money available to maintain the toll keepers. Although, if there’s too much money passing – why hasn’t a more powerful group taken over the scam? (Maybe the players will...)
  • The law must be either unable or unwilling to intervene (the robbers can run and hide or they’re too powerful or maybe the law is too busy or is corrupt and in on the deal
  • The tithe must be ‘reasonable’. If the caravans lose too much on each crossing of the pass then it’s not worth their while making the trip at all. If the toll at the bridge is too high people find an alternative route or just stop crossing at all. (Although, there’s an interesting sub-plot hook – the villagers can’t cross the bridge – will the heroes help?)

The joy of these groups is that they’re easy to slip in front of the heroes whenever there is some geography to get in the way. Also, because they’re used to tolling everyone that passes, they’ll try to toll the heroes out of habit (unlike the roaming bands who, on catching sight of a heavily harmed group of warriors with the remains of giant badgers splattered on their shields, will most likely give the vicious looking heroes a wide birth). This leads to ample interesting interaction between the robbers and the heroes.

If the bandit gang is large and fearsome, they may have a reputation to uphold and so might be prepared to fight if the heroes refuse to pay up – after all, you can’t have some badger spattered meatsack letting on that he passed through the valley of the damned without so much as a token payment – they’ll all be at it after that! Also if the toll is low and the heroes are not in the mood for a fight there’s the option they might just cough up, although it must be said in my experience, this rarely happens – heroes are, by nature, very unhappy about being openly scammed and will often start fights against hopeless odds rather than pay a few silver for a quiet life – it’s the principle of the thing.

So you’ve got some loose ideas bubbling about... Bandits! Hoorah! But that’s not quite enough to actually get going with, you’re going to need to pick a few specific details and set up something for the heroes to actually encounter...

We’ll look at that in the next post… actually turning bubbling ideas into tentacles of doom...

Till then, lock yourself to a lamppost and sleep with one eye open…

¹ He didn’t really – but it sounds like a good idea so I’m going to do it anyway

² I’ve always though that was a silly thing to say – I mean, if the highway man takes your life, does he then not bother to take your money? Surely a more accurate sentiment is “Your money or your life and your money.” Although I guess it could be a little ambiguous, so you’d need some brackets. “Your money or (your money & your life)” which can be simplified down to: “I’m taking your money. (Death available free of charge on request)”

³ I mean, in the GM sense, I’m not actually... well... I demand a lawyer

⁴ Like they do along the M4 on the crossing into Wales

Artwork for this blog post by Chris Watson

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Not so random encounters (Part I)

Killing the random Encounter table...

How often have your party of adventuresome adventurers been just wandering along, adventurously minding their own business when they have been beset upon by a bunch of inbred, poorly equipped XP fodder who’s only desire in life is to be chomped up by a party of bastard-hard adventurers (or die trying)? It’s happened to me. I wasn’t even playing.

There’s something about a bunch of hoods waylaying innocent travellers that is, at the same time, wholly believable and yet quite ridiculous. The trick to making these things interesting is to make them more… well… realistic. I’m of the opinion that any encounter rolled up on a random encounter table is probably better left out of your game.

“But, but, but…” I hear you cry¹. “How can I possibly make up enough interesting encounters? My world is a dangerous place, dangerous things happen, all the time.”

I know. According to the news, that’s true of Brixton. However, randomly rolling up a bunch of thugs, foxes, squirrels or angry trees to attack the players every now isn’t the best solution to making the world feel more dangerous. You have to face facts. No player wants their character killed off by what is nothing more than a random event, and what’s more, you don’t want to kill off your players (or their characters) in some random manner either. (Where’s the fun in that?) Therefore there’s a tendency to make these encounters pretty easy, which in turn ends up giving the impression that the world is full of suicidal animals and collections of aggressive homeless fruitcakes. I’m going to count that as a fail.

What makes a world feel dangerous is the perception of danger. People talking about how dangerous something is can be quite a bit more effective that actual danger. This is because actual danger is actually quite dangerous and may and up killing off your characters by mistake.

Of course, there’s no point in having all your tavern based beard-stroking rumourmongers wailing on about the dangerous nature of the road to the big city if there is in fact, no danger at all². In a world of heroic peril, we’re going to need some danger to go along with all those rumours and as noted, actual danger is better than randomly generated sudodanger. However, to introduce actual danger (of the kind that kills and eats characters for breakfast) you have to give your players a chance to detect, avoid and plan) If some heroic numbskulls are forewarned of danger, have plenty of opportunity to do something about it and yet still end up facing the danger without a decent plan… well then… they deserve to get eated.

So what we’re getting to here is a simple premise: Don’t roll up a gazillion different random tables of random encounters to randomly get your dumb scmuck heroes into some random pointless fight with something that really should have run a mile at the sight of them.

So what do you do?

Well, you roll your own.

You make up one new fresh blob of encounter juice, fresh from your brain-pit, bubbling and half-baked³. The trick to this is to paint the concept in broad strokes and only fill in detail where absolutely needed. I’m a big fan of a concept called lazy loading. You don’t go fetch all the results you need right away – you only fetch the ones you’re actually asked for. In this way the pool of your subconscious can mull over the half-formed idea and pass you interesting bits as required. (This is basically the key art of the fluid GM – I’ll bang on about this a lot)

Then – once you’ve got your encounter bubbled up inside you (maybe with a few loose notes on a scrap of toilet paper, just for reference) you look for places in the game where it can drop a misshapen tentacle into the heroes’ path. If it takes root and the players get involved, you just roll with it and let the thing go. If they dodge it and walk on (or just hack it off and set it on fire) then you just carry on as if nothing happened and look for another likely spot.

Well... that sounds easier said than done. And it is. But we'll get to the 'how' in the next part.... how to roll your own. Till then, hang on to your hat and hope for high winds...

¹ Well, I would hear if you came and shouted outside my window. Pretty loud, I’ve got double glazing and an ear infection.

² Actually – you can do that a couple of times – because, as we know from real life, people are always going on about how dangerous places are while in fact, people in those areas quite often go about their normal lives without ever witnessing any of the danger at all. Drug deals are a media frenzy of danger – but when’s the last time you got shot dead while picking up twenty Rothmans?

³ The encounter, not your brain.