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

1 comment:

  1. Cool! Very funny - love footnote number 2. Am itching to find some victims - players - whatever to start tithing.