Thursday, November 10, 2011

Monsters as Plastic Army Men

An approach to running a site based adventures

I guess they don't make the mine sweeper guy anymore...
When we were growing up, my neighbor had a huge collection of those plastic army men - USA versus Germany.  We'd always watch "war week" on after-school TV, annually viewing The Longest Day, and then we'd bust out his Guns of Navarone playset and wage plastic war.

Some of you guys were kids in the 70's and remember that kind of stuff; sorting a huge pile of those guys and figuring out how you were going to attack or defend.  You'd determine where the assault craft would hit the beach, where to put the crazy guys with the bayonets over their heads, and where to stick the mine sweepers.  (Mine sweepers were always out front; they didn't have guns, so they had to run up to the enemy and club them with their metal detectors).  Even back then, I can remember we "matured" to using d6 dice with those plastic army men battles to figure out who actually got shot.

There's a process to setting up your army of plastic guys - you dump them out of the box, sort all the suckish binocular guys in one spot, the awesome machine guys over here, the prone snipers, the flame thrower guys, the tanks.  And then you make little dirt hills and foxholes, you draw a line and say "this is the ocean and the beach, and here is where the boats (amphibious assault vessels -higgins boats) are dropping the guys off…"

The way we used to play with the plastic army men is pretty much a metaphor for running a dungeon; it's definitely my approach to running any kind of site-based adventure.  I build a roster of the forces available in the dungeon, keep track of who's still alive in between games, and add reinforcements where appropriate.  Game prep consists of determining how the monsters are reacting to what's going on in the dungeon, based on the monster's intelligence, culture, outlook, morale, and so on.

In the Greyhawk game I'm running, the past few months of Ravenloft have been one improvised game of mayhem after another; we've had Strahd fireballing houses, stomping the village flat with a conjured Earth Elemental, I've had vampires ambushing the party in the streets at night, setting up and luring them into death traps, all sorts of glorious attempts at carnage, none of which appeared in the written module.

It's easy to do - just make a list to compile your forces, and each time the players apply a beatdown, the surviving (intelligent) monsters regroup in the dark warrens beneath the castle and figure out how they're going to strike back.  It's advice that goes right back to the roots of the hobby.

If you don't run a site-based adventure this way, I recommend you try it.  Forget about what the module author says, no plan survives contact with the enemy.  The moment adventurers enter the dungeon, all bets are off.  Monsters move around, they react to the incursion, some places are abandoned, guards in other places are doubled, new traps are set.  This is even more true in the megadungeon environment.  The monsters are your little green plastic army people - put them where you want to put them.  Every game night is 1976 all over again, setting up the Fortress Navarone and making sure that this time, the beach invaders won't make it past the obstacles.