Thursday, October 13, 2011

Threat Analysis in the Weird Setting

The traditional sandbox structures- the multi-level dungeon and the wilderness hex crawl - both support a degree of transparency in the player-driven game; when formulating their plans, the players know that the deeper dungeon levels are more dangerous, and the further one goes into the wilderness is also more dangerous.  There's a geographic correlation between distance and danger.

The use of standard Monster Manuals enhances that transparency; players learn that goblins live in the woods over here, but an ogre was seen beyond the river; perhaps the orcs on dungeon level 2 warn about the bugbears on level 3.  The Monster Manual provides a common yardstick, both for the players and the NPC inhabitants of the world, when sharing knowledge and describing the dangers that are out there.

With that foundation established, let's toss out a caveat:  transparency and threat analysis is really only necessary in the player-driven game.  A fairly standard style of play is where the DM determines the upcoming adventures:  when the players are 4th level, the DM builds adventures that threaten 4th level characters; the players don't hear about those 1st level opportunities anymore.  When they're 9th level, they're hearing about plot hooks that lead to challenges for 9th level guys.  The world conforms to the needs of the player party and the DM provides appropriate adventures for the point in time.

The player-driven game postulates a different approach; the world exists, and there are opportunities appropriate to both low level and high level characters at the same time; it's up to the players to gather information and plan appropriately. It's a bit like putting The Tomb of Horrors in the swamp outside the home base right from the beginning of the campaign; it's a legendary location the group will hear about early on, but they'll also know appropriate warnings about going there, too.

Let's turn our attention to the Weird Setting sandbox and how threat analysis is different in a campaign where neither geography nor a traditional Monster Manual provide threat transparency.  I've been musing about an approach I'm calling The Library of de la Torre; the character of Luis Diaz de la Torre is like a Spanish version of Solomon Kane, a wily adventurer priest that traversed Europe during the Thirty Years War, building a large occult library and a field journal of notes.  At the beginning of the campaign, the group gets access to de la Torre's journal, giving them possession of wide-ranging plot hooks around Europe.  So the question becomes, how does the group determine which plot hooks lead to In Search of the Unknown (a classic starter adventure) and which plot hooks lead to The Tomb of Horrors (a legendary killer dungeon)?  Ideas follow.

Flatten the Power Curve
The first thought is to build adventures that are less about combat and more about problem solving; fighting is possible, but still avoidable by low level characters if they'd be overmatched.  A rules system like LOTFP works well for this style, since all of the armor classes are in a narrow range and the combat engine doesn't require increasing to-hit rolls and increasing AC across all character classes.

Embellish the Hooks
The idea here is to provide enough information directly in the plot hook, or allow research, such that a group can rank the threat level of a given opportunity.  For instance, first level characters might read about a legendary vyrkolakas ruling over a remote Greek island; a modicum of research would identify that the vyrkolakas is a Greek version of the vampire; as such they might decide it's not a good fit as their first caper.

Use a Bestiary, Anyway
I can't help but think that adventures in and around a fantastic Europe would use some monster names common to folklore - ghosts, specters, vampires, werewolves, bogeys, goblins, and trolls; even if you're not using previously existing versions of these creatures from the Monster Manual, the "weird" versions can maintain a similar power level so a group can plan a sequence for their investigations.

Balance is Overrated
The simplest idea is to toss concerns about balance out the window; who cares if the group tackles the 10th level necromancer right from the beginning?  Once they see what the opponent is capable of doing, let's hope they run and plan to circle back later in their careers when they're better prepared.

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By blending the previous techniques, I'm confident a series of plot hooks could be presented that would still let the players evaluate the risk versus reward of the different opportunities and develop a plan.  The traditional approaches to running a small area sandbox - either as hex crawl or dungeon - make the DM's job a little easier, but nothing worth doing is ever truly easy.