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.


  1. That's exactly how I run my intelligent and organized monsters. I never connected it to "because I watched war movies on TV and played with plastic army men." I guess Airfix rubbed off on my gaming!

    I'm running The Keep on the Borderlands right now and the critters there are reacting to the PCs incursions. So far ineffectually, but they are reacting. And I do have an overall mosnter roster to subtract from and add to.

  2. Same. I keep a running total of who is available and move them around. If they're smart enough to have reinforcements and smart enough to organise themselves into ambushes, they do.

  3. Thanks for the post. Now, I've got to scour the internet looking for army-men rules. Or, maybe I'll make some up. Thinking up some simple rules for cover modifications and recon bonuses...

  4. I do this all the time, my wife complains that it forces the PCs to never withdraw and regroup/heal up/reinforce for a second go round because I am "punishing" the party by having the monsters react to the incursion. I disagree.

  5. Jagatai, you raise a really good point. The choice whether to leave the dungeon, letting up the pressure on the monster population, becomes a *real* choice if the players know that the monsters will regroup, recruit, and bolster their defenses against the next incursion.

    Intelligent opposition is another blow against the 5-minute work day (not that there's much of that in the old school games anyway).

    My players are certainly keeping the pressure on the vampires for that reason.

  6. Very good advice. It's a pity 4e D&D, which I run, goes out of its way to make this approach difficult in the published adventures:

    "What, abandon the EL-balanced, set-piece encounters?! BURN THE HERETIC!!"

    Nevertheless, when I run 4e dungeons of my own desire, like the Skydome Tower the PCs are currently exploring, this is exactly how I run it. With the Skydome last Saturday, the Arang-Tok Orcs were a dynamic, reactive threat, clearly with their own objectives. It made for a great single-session battle over the 6 tower levels. This week the PCs plan to explore the sealed dungeons under the tower, and the threats down there will be run the same way...

  7. Re 5 minute day and the "let's rest now" in the middle of an assault on an organised dungeon - I used to just slaughter the PCs without compunction when they did that.

    Now that I've mellowed in my old age, I've started giving them Nature/WIS/etc checks to understand the situation, and when they succeed I explain:

    "OK, it's now getting dark, so far the goblins in goblin-town have been sleepy and disorganised, so you only face light opposition. If you now set up camp and rest in goblin town for six hours, the hundreds of goblins still in the ruins will get organised and come for you... Are you still going to rest?"

    I worry a bit I'm not being enough of a rat basard DM any more, but players these days seem to be so trained (brain washed?) to seek rest at any opportunity, I like now to give them a chance to reconsider before I slaughter their beloved PCs. When they get higher level I'll probably stop giving warnings, though.

  8. Had the Navarone playset. It was very cool.