Monday, February 6, 2017

Quantum Difficulty, An Example - Orcs of Brimstone Pass

I've had a whirlwind travel schedule the past week (Chicago, LA, then London, then Kent, back to London tomorrow...) so it's taken me longer than I'd like to post a follow up to the blog.  Theorycrafting is all well and good, but putting an idea down on paper as a concrete example is a much better vehicle to stress testing an idea to see if it has merit.

With that in mind, consider this example of "quantum difficulty", the proposal from last post, that games like Skyrim ensure "no wasted content" by allowing the game engine to scale aspects of a quest or dungeon along with the player's power level so a locale is significant regardless of when the player finds it.

I suffer putting humanoids into games; I'm always looking for ways to make them anything but knock-off humans in fuzzy man-suits living out in the wilds.  In a campaign several years ago (Gothic Greyhawk), I made orcs cauldron-born hell-spawn; witches and warlocks, lawful evil clerics, created ritual hellfires that let them pull wriggling larva out of the coals of the fire, and grow them into full-sized orcs in a cauldron filled with pigs-blood and offal.  Orcs in AD&D 1E were Lawful Evil, in line with these hellish origins - they are evil souls, reincarnated as orcs, and the pig's blood lends them their bizarre, porcine features.

For this hypothetical quantum difficulty problem, I've populated my sandbox with a location called Brimstone Pass, and the orcs are a bog standard orc tribe (except their origin is as above and there are no orc babies lying around), and there's a handful of warlocks and witches who stoke the hellfires and make more orcs.  The campaign features a version of the endless war between demons and devils, and the orcs are mining the Brimstone Mountains looking for the lost Demonomicon, to strike a blow against the demons.  They enslave nearby villages and force people to work in their mines and quarries.

Brimstone Pass and the Hellfire Orcs would appear right on the map from the beginning of the game, and the threat (and opportunity) of the location can be revealed in rumors right away.  Such a standard orc tribe (using AD&D's wilderness rules) would provide a challenge that could keep lower level adventurers busy for a long time - ambushing orc hunting parties, planning prisoner raids, hit and run tactics; various asynchronous warfare tactics to compensate for the character's lack of numbers and power.  However, by the time they hit the mid-levels and start having "Wands of Fireballs" and similar boom-sticks, a bunch of humanoids aren't much of a threat.  Fireball and Level 5 is the great shifting point.

The promise of Quantum Difficulty is that when I become so enamored with my idea - that Brimstone Pass and the Hellfire Orcs are absolutely brilliant, my bestest orc idea ever - it provides an option when higher level incarnations of the party finally pays attention to the malfeasance of those nasty orcs.  (It is fair to say no referee should become enamored with their ideas, but I am a weak example and hold ideas in too high favor).  The players have already surpassed the mid levels, or might even be high level characters.  Assuming this is the player's first foray into Brimstone Pass, the referee does some "quantum leveling", and voila - the witches and warlocks are suddenly mid-level or high level casters; the tribe has the services of a powerful Lawful Evil dragon; actual devils spawn from the Hellfire pits; a high level campaign against Brimstone Pass could involve some of the powerful devils from 1E, like a Balor wrapped around the mountain peak (Night on Bald Mountain style).

Consider some of the alternative ways to present Brimstone Pass.  I could present it as originally stated, a standard orc tribe, supplemented by some lower level evil clerics (the heretofore mentioned witches and warlocks).  If the players delay in dealing with the orcs until they're high level, so be it - they'll utterly destroy the lair with a furious magical assault and cleaving fighters, and enjoy the benefits of smashing a bunch of orcs when they're high level.  As I said, so be it; that's a perk of being high level, you get to smash level 1 humanoid tribes.  (And there's a message to you, Rudy - don't get so attached to your ideas, it's not 'actually' your game... time to straighten right out).

Alternatively, I'm so fixated with the idea of devils and high level casters and the Balor of Brimstone Pass and Mussorgsky, that I choose it to be a capstone location for the entire campaign like the Mines of Bloodstone adventure, and immediately craft it as a dangerous locale for all but the doughtiest warriors and wizards.  This is is fine, assuming I don't mind putting the content on the shelf until later in the campaign, and woe betides any low level characters that decide to assault Brimstone Pass... but that's why we foreshadow these things, no?  Players need to pick up on the signs, better think of their future, and realize the big devil from Night on Bald Mountain lives up there.

This is where a reflection on your own sandbox approach is worth considering; do you create sandbox locales in advance, knowing some of the sites will become obsolete as the player's become powerful and mighty?  Do you let your 6th-7th level guys go off and mug goblins, or take lunch money from the kobolds?  Or do you create hideously horrible locales in your sandbox right from the word go, knowing they spell instant death if a low level party misreads the signs and prosecutes a campaign against the locale?  Like putting Tomb of Horrors right outside the village?  (Which is kinda appealing, gotta say).

I'd submit that both approaches are interesting; it might seem like a waste of table top time when high level guys go out back and beat up some goblins, but there's value in letting the players flex their power and absolutely destroy a low level encounter site once in a while.  And who doesn't like having clearly marked danger zones right on the map as a skill tester?  For these reasons, I'm not sure I'd actually employ quantum difficulty - this is a hypothetical discussion, after all.  I can imagine circumstances where I have a vested interest in ensuring a locale is challenging (regardless of when the players encounter it) that I'd scale the location to fit the current campaign arc - low level, mid level, or high level.  The other alternative is you just don't put the thing in the sandbox until it's the "right time" for the players to encounter it - rumors of orcish raiding parties and villagers carried off in the night only crop up at the point of the campaign where you've built Brimstone Pass to exist as a fitting adventure site.  I tend to think most "just in time" referees don't bother with too much content creation in advance, so whatever they happen to make next is automagically a relevant encounter site for the party.  Imagine this, Goldilocks, everywhere you go, you run into dungeons that aren't too hot, and aren't too cold, but they're just right.  You have journeyed to the quantum world without realizing it.

Further, I would only consider something like Quantum Difficulty for wilderness locales; when I build those giant megadungeons with levels, the logic of "dungeon level = danger level" trumps all other considerations, and one must adhere strictly to the classic scheme.