GM’s Guide 5: Stealth Encounters

The video GM’s guide continues, this time without an accompanying Iron Fang Invasion video. My grandmother’s funeral landed direct on the day we usually record that, which means there isn’t one from that week. It turns out there are some occasions that can interrupt my usually impeccable schedule. Anyway, today in the GM’s guide we’re talking about stealth encounters, something which really would’ve benefited from actually relevant video footage, which I did not have time to record and do not happen to have lying around from my regular games.

Dungeon Born: Stumbling Forward

Chapter Seventeen

The Team emerges from Cal’s dungeon and turns the bodies of the elemental rabbits over to a clerk for inspection, where he also makes a decision that the lower level is too dangerous for lower-ranked adventurers:

As a magically bound document, this would forcibly ensure that members of the Guild below D-rank could not enter the second floor, forcing them to have a C or higher ranked person with them who would have to give them special permission to enter.

This whole “magic document binds people to follow its rules” thing solves all kinds of what might otherwise have been interesting organizational problems. How does the Guild enforce their level gating? Do people ever ignore it? What’s the consequence if they do? You could have people subverting guild authority by going deeper into the dungeon despite standing orders, and others trying to catch them and put a stop to it before the trend catches on and casualties skyrocket. Instead, you sign a piece of paper with a magic wand and it’s impossible for people who don’t meet certain requisites to get down there.

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Translating Diablo Loot to Tabletop

I like ARPGs. Y’know, “Action” RPGs that are now totally misnamed because most RPGs have at least as much real time action as they do, and which are instead defined by the dungeon structure, ability trees, and especially loot system introduced by Diablo. As an alternative to gushing about XCOM even more, I’m instead going to tackle the question of how to translate Diablo loot to the tabletop.

Before getting into that, the concern of whether or not this is even a good idea should be addressed. Because making a direct and obvious translation of Diablo looting to the tabletop is a terrible idea. You kill a rat and a treasure chest pops out, you pop that open and you find gauntlets of ogre strength and 27 gold. That’s literally a joke. It works in ARPGs because we all get that verisimilitude isn’t high on their list of priorities, and that the looting is mostly abstract in the context of whatever the greater story is (which is itself better off being just present enough to provide necessary context and stakes – Diablo 3 suffered for too strong an emphasis on a story that wasn’t very good). In a tabletop RPG, you actually have to narrate out that the ghoul was apparently carrying a vorpal sword that it didn’t feel the need to use over the rusty scimitar it’d been attacking the party with while still animate.

Not only that, but Diablo looting operates on having tons of fiddly little numerical increases in different stats. Damage. Accuracy. Rate of attack. Elemental damage. Even in a TTRPG designed to include all of these things (i.e. attacks per turn is a function of weapon, not character class and level, weapons provide significant accuracy bonuses or penalties, and so on), these just can’t have the same diversity as Diablo gives them because the numbers have to be smaller because the game isn’t run by a computer. Number inflation is already a problem in RPGs (especially with regards to hit points), and that’s with the numbers within any given level generally being pretty reasonable (i.e. the difference in to-hit bonuses for level 5 characters and their level appropriate opponents tends to be within maybe ten points from one end to the other). In Diablo, a key part of the system is that it’s possible for this weapon to be 7% more accurate but deal five fewer points of damage and attack only 95% as often. And at the end of the next encounter, you’ll have found another weapon with equally tiny fiddly bonuses. Players cannot be reasonably expected to update their character sheets that often.

So why, then, do we want to make some means of making it work anyway? What’s the benefit we’re trying to salvage? The Diablo loot lottery triggers the same reward centers as an actual, legit lottery, scratch card, or slot machine, but it does so without pumping anyone for money. It’s all the thrill of gambling without the cruel exploitation of the hopeless and/or mathematically illiterate. Most drops are trash that can be rendered down into gold as a consolation prize. Every now and again you get a solid upgrade that will keep you on track for level appropriate foes. A very rare few will be powerful weapons that give you a significant edge over the opposition. The chance that you might get that awesome weapon makes each drop exciting, even though most of them are going to be rendered down into gold and used to buy healing and portals.

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Dungeon Born: Dungeon Renovations

Chapter Fifteen

While Cal has been sealed away working on his new mooks, the adventurers out front have noticed the dungeon is sealed up. Dale and his party are assigned to find a “seeker,” some kind of detection specialist mage, and get them to look at the door. You might assume this entails some kind of side quest, but no, apparently this mage needs an escort from one end of the camp to the other, and then for some reason needs to have their report back to the guild master relayed through Dale’s party instead of just going to talk to the guild master themselves.

We also get our first full look at Dale’s party:

They stopped and the other men in his group, Hans, the near silent Josh, and the ranger Steve, now looked upset at Craig’s words.

I can’t even remember which of Hans and Craig is the monk, and it’s still not clear what class Josh is supposed to be. Rogue, maybe? ‘Cause he’s quiet? Or maybe another Fighter, and he just doesn’t talk much.

In any case, without any dungeons to delve, Craig starts teaching Dale how to manipulate his chi more better. Which kind of mirrors what Cal is doing in his dungeon right now (remember that he spent a lot of time chi refining before he expanded his layout and experimented with the elemental bunnies), but I’m not sure what the parallel is supposed to indicate other than “both of these guys are protagonists of this book.”

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Dungeon Born: Elemental Bunnies

Chapter 14 (cont.)

I’m going to try to stick to a lot more summary here, just because by my estimate I’m quoting about half of the content of this book, which means I’m going to be running up against the highlight limits soon-ish if I don’t start exercising a bit more caution. The next several pages aren’t particularly interesting anyway, since it’s just Cal rearranging the furniture and refining his chi spiral in a manner that is moderately interesting in terms of arcanobabble but has basically no impact on the story one way or another. I do appreciate that there is some effort put into making the magic system follow some rules rather than having it work totally arbitrarily. On the other hand, it’s not really clear how these rules can be exploited. This isn’t a Brandon Sanderson-style magic system where a few super powers are defined and then can interact the world in a variety of interesting ways. It’s more like the arcanobabble that I developed a while back, where sure, there’s an explanation for everything, but you can’t actually do anything with that explanation, the mystical mumbo-jumbo just goes an extra layer deep.

During Cal’s expansion of the dungeon, we see him being weirdly dungeon master-y about things. Not in the sense of “is literally the master of a dungeon” but in the D&D sense of “bizarrely concerned with fair play.”

Everything I made was of course an attempt to gain as much Essence as possible, but I liked to reward intelligence and ingenuity, so I always added ways for these traps to be deactivated.

I’m reminded of that reporter girl from Sherlock who intentionally pressed her thumb into printing ink to give Sherlock a clue to spot that she wasn’t just a fan girl, but rather a journalist, and then Sherlock also picks out like four different clues that were already there that she didn’t even realize were there. The flaws with that show aside (especially as time wore on), that one scene certainly has a good point: If someone is really super good at something, you don’t need to design a solution for them. You can go ahead and design traps that are as inescapable as possible given the resources available to your dungeon inhabitants. As a game master, you have to ask yourself if you really want to demand that level of focus from your players, and to punish failures as harshly and irrevocably as the kobolds running the dungeon would like. Your players are here to have fun, and maybe they don’t particularly want to approach this dungeon with Tomb of Horrors-grade paranoia.

Cal, though? Cal’s goal is to kill a decent chunk of the people who come down here. Not all of the people, as he explains:

I wanted people to continue coming down here, after all, and with a reputation as a place where the smartest and strongest could almost always prevail, people would always assume they were among the ranks of the ‘certain survivors’.

But still, he wants to kill a decent chunk of the dungeon raiders. Designing a trap that will kill everyone who enters it is actually quite difficult (unless you’ve got access to things like utterly impenetrable yet very lightweight materials and flawless triggers that cannot be disabled and so on), because for all that players can murder-hobo their way into all kinds of sticky situations through pure obliviousness to potential consequences to their actions, once their necks are actually on the chopping block they tend to start paying attention and get pretty clever about finding a way out with most of their extremities intact. When it comes to traps, provided you respect the limited resources and energy investment that most monsters are willing to put into them, you can do your level best to murder your players and most of the time you will fail anyway.

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Everything’s Cool

Seeing as how the last thing I posted before going dark for two days was broody and sad, people might be worried about me. No worries, I’m doing perfectly alright, funerals just take up more time than I’d anticipated and I was unable to get any blogging done. I might’ve been able to squeeze out the usual Sunday YouTube posts since the real work of running and recording a game session was done in advance, except that this week’s Iron Fang Invasion requires some editing before posting, so I’m doing that on Monday (should go up just a few hours after this post), I’ll figure out an article for Tuesday, and we’ll be back to Dungeon Born on Wednesday.

Dust to Dust

I have mentioned at least once over the last few months my grandmother’s failing health, and also mentioned the death of my grandfather last year. Later today (provided this posts on time), I will be pall bearing my grandmother, at which point I will have run out of grandparents to bury. These occasions give me a generally morbid attitude, but I wasn’t close enough to either of them to be grieving too badly. I do get sad about it. I can see elements of both of them in my creative ambitions now. My grandfather’s art was music, specifically the oboe, rather than anything as nerdy as game design, but I like to think I’ve inherited something of his single-minded dedication to that art. He played in several orchestras and taught music at a reasonably prestigious university, and most of his expressed opinions on the world were informed by metaphors to music, in much the same way as mine tend to rely strongly on game theory and other board/video game metaphors.

My grandmother had an undaunted sense of independence. When I was a teenager, she was still in good enough health to visit our house, and survivor of the Great Depression that she was, she hated using more cups than was absolutely necessary, and would hide the first cup she used in the guest room so my mother wouldn’t put it in the dish washer and give her a new one the next meal. She’d wash the cup out, of course, but use the same one all day. As her health declined, she still insisted on doing as much as possible for herself. When I was watching her throughout this year (which happened only occasionally, as there are plenty of others able to help in the area), I’d offer to make every meal for her and she would refuse every one and do it herself, moving at a snail’s pace, but under her own power. I can see some elements of that in my desire to get away from having to answer to a single boss, who can threaten my livelihood whenever the whim strikes them.

I should also add, despite a general attitude of mild melancholy, I’m not that broken up about it, so I’ll mention in advance that an outpouring of sympathy isn’t really necessary. I’m typing up some brooding thoughts on this because yes, it has been on my mind, but also because I’m out of other article ideas (since my grandmother died I have written and published two different articles on how much I like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, so clearly the grief isn’t overwhelming), and the funeral and wake are taking up some of the time I’d normally be spending on brainstorming these things. It certainly didn’t help that I spent most of the afternoon (Thursday, as I’m writing this, not Friday, when it will go live) heading to my grandparents’ old house in response to an evacuation notice which, it turned out, had been sent to me and every other person in the county in error. They didn’t deserve to die, but they lived fifteen years longer than most people get.

Dungeon Born: Religious Dispute

Chapter 14

This chapter opens with Dale having developed a Spidey sense from having cold water dumped on him on random mornings by Hans, he of the inconsistent accent. Apparently this has leveled up Dale’s ability to anticipate surprise attacks, and he wakes up early to grab the bucket out of Hans’ hands and toss it on him instead. Immediately afterwards there is a meeting with the chef, who has this weird quirk where he yells at maximum volume on auto-pilot and has to remember to lower his voice. This is apparently because he’s used to talking to soldiers, who I guess have terrible hearing? He also threatens Dale and his group into collecting herbs from him (again, it was a quest they did last time, not that it wound up making a difference much at all).

Now not only was he able to keep up in his heavy plate armor, he had a good handle on the skills and abilities he needed to decidedly defeat the deadly denizens of the dark dungeon.

That alliteration at the end feels like the author has gotten bored with his own story and is throwing in little tricks like this in the prose just to keep himself entertained. I have no idea if that’s actually what happened here, but that’s what it feels like and that’s a problem by itself. The narrator shouldn’t suddenly come to life and have specific speech patterns like this unless it’s first-person or third-person limited and matches the voice of the character, which this doesn’t. This sounds like Cal is still talking, showing off his basic linguistic abilities like an eight year old for Dani, but he doesn’t narrate Dale’s chapters. Having it crop up in chapters where it’s not Cal narrating feels less like those things were meant to be Cal’s narration and more like Cal just so happens to talk pretty much exactly like the author. Which is weird, because while the characters are kind of shallow, Dungeon Born doesn’t have that problem where different characters have near-identical mannerisms, with sometimes the addition of a single agonizingly terrible quirk (not that Dungeon Born is shy about attempting to characterize its supporting cast with agonizing quirks, like the chef who yells for dumb reasons or Hans’ terrible on-again off-again accent, but it’s not actually necessary, characters have noticeably different personalities on their own).

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