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.


  1. Personally, I think that "Use a Bestiary" is the strongest tack to take - but don't just hand it to the players as a bestiary. Include encounters with the Weird of your Fantasy in letters, journals, documented spell research... whatever lets you insert exposition in an interesting way. Flood the players with small segments of information about the world and all that is in it, and you'll probably trick at least one of them into focusing on being a scholar.

    As I've understood the concept of the sandbox, it is and always has been about putting meaningful choice in the players' hands. Surprises, twists, and reveals are good, but there needs to be a lot of informed choice along the way.

  2. I think this is the right approach. The world is th world--and people choose danger or safety as they may (mostly).

    I also like the bestiary idea. Unique monsters are given a lot of acclaim, but that ignores real history and folklore that had things like hyenas with magical voice-mimicing abilities, and a "Basilisk Country." The weird or fantastic is an element of the world not merely the oneshot monster like the Minotaur or Hydra.

  3. PS.

    I'm reading your past dozen-or-so posts completely out of order. It's clear from your brainstorming and plans on de la Torre that most of my commentary is where you already are, and I salute you for it. You're describing something I'd really enjoy playing.

  4. Glad you're enjoying it - one of my first thoughts was "Why wouldn't this be a kick-ass Call of Cthulhu setting", so I wanted to lay out the case for D&D; the rest has been me thinking me out loud how the proposed "wide area sandbox" would work.

  5. Good thinking going on here.
    I've been grappling with the same problem and discussing it with my gaming group and I think you nailed it. (We're not actually going in the WFRP direction right now but it is sometihng I'd like to pursue at some point.)

  6. Steep-power-curve games like D&D are designed to either have easy threat assessment (player driven Gygaxian megadungeon) or to have threats tailored to PC power. Anything else is frankly unfair. If there's no way for the PCs to assess the threat of eg a vampire nest, and it's a system where PC power & threat levels escalate rapidly by level, then I think there is actually an obligation on the GM to tailor the threat of the vampires to the power of the PCs. My preference would be something in-game that makes threat level explicit, eg in your case Luis could have personally rated each listed threat with an estimated threat level on a I to X scale, like the AD&D monster level. It won't map perfectly to actual threat level, and occasionally he'll have got it wrong, but it's a lot better than nothing.

  7. @S'mon I disagree, and here's why. Your point holds if players are assumed to be able to defeat most enemies by combat. And most players have been trained that that is what they are supposed to do (maybe this comes from computer RPGs). However, if trusting a character's life to the goddess of luck is always or often a last resort, there is nothing unfair about making the enemy too hard. There is only a referee obligation to tailor the threat of the vampire if the only way the PCs can survive or proceed is to defeat it in combat.

    This does depend on what the players want to get out of the game. If they only enjoy the tactical part, then they are going to want to fight everything. If they are more into the exploration and problem solving part of the game, the "challenge rating" is less important. This is something that should be part of any campaign social contract (implicit or explicit), I think.

  8. S'Mon, that's a pretty good idea that the priest's own journal might indicate a danger scale on some of the things he's encountered - something like one skull, two skulls or three skulls. I'll have to see if something like that works when I start putting the notes together.

    I am sensitive to the issues around threat analysis, but am hopeful it can be made to work - I'll know when I start compiling plot hooks. Either way, as Brendan said, groups can always run and return later if they get in over their head.

  9. Brendan:
    "@S'mon I disagree, and here's why. Your point holds if players are assumed to be able to defeat most enemies by combat. And most players have been trained that that is what they are supposed to do (maybe this comes from computer RPGs). "

    I think they're trained by D&D!! Even OD&D - my 2 hp 1st level Cleric may suck as a combatant, but the OD&D solution is typically about training war dogs, hiring mercenaries etc until I can defeat the orcs; I'm still expected to engage and defeat them.

    You can run a horror game like Call of Cthulu where PCs are expected to avoid combat and flee most foes, IME D&D is not designed that way at all. It's more like Buffy the Vampire Slayer - sure you *could* lose, but if you play smart and stack the deck, the assumption is that either the fight is winnable or if not you'll probably be able to at least survive long enough to realise that and flee.

  10. I also think that the Solomon Kane swashbuckle-&-sorcery genre is one where bad-ass protagonists are typically expected to either be able to defeat the bad guys, or to recognise the bad guys are unbeatable and retreat before being turned into hamburger. If I were playing LoTFP and the GM told me it was a monster-hunting campaign where we followed up the journal entries of a dead inquisitor, that's what I'd expect. I'm all in favour of over-level threats, but to be randomly squelched by a monster lair I had no way to assess as Too Hard, and no chance to flee from, would be annoying.

  11. BTW I played about 6 sessions of a Savage Worlds zombie apocalypse campaign recently. We usually ran away from the zombies, there usually was no particular reason to fight them. Occasionally we'd start to fight, change our minds as we realised we were outmatched, and flee. This worked fine and the SW system makes random PC death unlikely. But if the campaign premise had been "hunt and kill the monsters" we would have played very differently, and game balance would have been far more of a consideration.

  12. Beedo:
    "S'Mon, that's a pretty good idea that the priest's own journal might indicate a danger scale on some of the things he's encountered - something like one skull, two skulls or three skulls. I'll have to see if something like that works when I start putting the notes together. "

    I think that would work well for low, mid and high threats. It would also give the players a general framework for assessment beyond the specific listed monsters - if all the vampire nests are 3-skull, then the players have a strong indicator that vampires are a high-level threat.

  13. Hi new reader here, I am reading with attention since I am also facing some of the same issues with my LotFP campaign.

    You seem to have a good threat level indicator directly build in your campaign setup: the Luis Diaz de la Torre library itself or how he classed, kept, conserved and protected his writings.

    Put some clues in various sort of books kept in different containers and locations in the library. Put some clues in plain books and some other in ominous books protected by prayers and holy seal or in a partly burned book that he tried to destroy. Then put some of those books in ominous places: locked containers, a secret room or even in his grave.

    Instead of skulls rating use the books themselves and where they are kept as indicator of their danger level. You can also let the characters discover or earn some books later as adventure rewards. The library can be at first incomplete, some intriguing books or notes could be missing. You can also introduce other authors.