Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Look Ma, No Dungeons

I'll admit, I love dungeons.  They limit the player's options of movement, allowing the referee to focus his or her preparation time on the important aspects of the environment.  There is usually an artificial explanation for why deeper levels are more dangerous, giving the players a built-in tool to gauge their level of risk vs reward - the dangers on the upper levels are less dangerous, but the potential rewards aren't as good, either.  The progression of levels in a dungeon-based game parallel the advancement of class and levels of the PC's on the player's side of things.  It's all nice and neat.

If you're not using dungeons, what are you doing?  You might be preparing the next set of adventures and plot hooks to lead the players to challenges and lairs that are right-sized for them at this time.  I get it - 1st level guys go into the woods, they meet goblins, the 4th level guys run into ogres, the higher level guys run into dragons.  The contrivance drives me a bit nuts.

There are ways to avoid the hellish contrivance, sure.  You could put the goblin woods, the ogre woods, and the dragon woods, right on the map, as three distinct destinations, right from the beginning.  Okay, you're first level, you don't believe me there's a dragon living in the dragon woods?  Fine, everybody dies, make better choices with your next set of characters.  I can respect an approach that puts multivariate dangers into the setting right from the beginning as a nod towards decreasing the amount of contrivance in a level-based game.

What about flattening the danger curve for your non-dungeon-based adventures?  There would be lots of adventure opportunities in the area, of indeterminate danger, and it's not going to be possible to fully gauge the level of danger until the characters learn a bit more about what's going on.  There is precedent - I've even seen published adventures with broad level ranges - good for character levels 1-8, or 1-5.

The interesting point about flattening the danger curve is that it flips the typical approach of D&D style games on its head.  Wizards and spell-based characters (the problem solvers) are particularly weak at low levels, so exploration in default D&D requires a steady stream of fighting and melee combats.  Fighters and combat skills become less relevant as the traditional campaign goes forward and characters gain levels - spells take the prominent role.   In the horror themed sandbox, if a first level party squares off against a higher level threat, combat is the worst option and the group is forced to find alternatives to fighting.  When was the last time a horror movie was resolved because the heroes had more hit points than their opponents and went toe-to-toe  in melee with Freddy, Jason, or the Xenoform?  (Arnold gets a free pass in movies like Predator, I'm sure his contracts stipulate he always gets to be a 10th level Chaotic Neutral Bad Ass.  Same goes for Vin Diesel).

As I start to work with the material in Silent Legions, the flattened danger curve is how I'd implement the horror-themed sandbox.  While the players are constrained by classes and levels on the player's side of things, there are no such constraints on the elder horrors and squamous things lurking in the sandbox.  However, true to the tropes of the horror genre, there are usually macguffins, silver bullets, or non-combat resolutions available if the players survive long enough to get the necessary information during the scenario.

You could see why this approach has me excited to work on some OSR material again!