Monday, November 17, 2008

Because the King Wears Green Boxers!

In response to my last post, fire snake aries asks:
It sounds like you're really good at improvising and adapting the area and what its inhabitants do depending upon what happens. I try to do that, but it's tough! I always seem to find myself thinking, "Uhh... I have no idea what should happen now."

When you make these dynamic decisions on the fly like that, how much of it is simply you thinking, "What would actually, logically happen here?" and how much is more like, "What can I do that will be cool, but won't be too unreasonably hard on the PCs?"

I always want to make the players feel like they're dealing with a real, living place with occupants which interact with one another organically, so that there are definite ramifications to their actions beyond simply the current encounter. YET, I always worry that if I really do this, it will almost certainly end in a TPK. How do you balance that?

I felt rather clever when everything went down the way it did because of a little technique I've applied to my dungeons.

Back in the day, there was a ton of DM advice about creating a history for your dungeon. The idea was to think of the dungeon before it became a ruin, determine the rooms' uses, and then push time forward, account for the ravages of time and wandering monsters, and use that to drive what the place looks like when the PCs enter it.

I do something a little similar when placing monsters in a dungeon. I try to answer the following questions:

1. Why did these guys come here?
2. What keeps them here?

Answering these questions is useful, because it helps set the stage for quick decisions and improvisation. In the kenku's case, the answers were:

1. The kenku are thieves and bandits looking to make some easy cash.
2. Iuz's lieutenants pay them to act as spies and raiders.

During the last session, it was a lot easier to plot the course of events with those two things in mind. The kenku were in it for the money and they were here because they got paid. Why wouldn't they run to help the wizard?

The simple, but boring, answer is that they just didn't hear the alarm gong. I decided that I needed something more interesting to keep the action going. If they heard the gong, why wouldn't they come? That suggests conflict or some active plan on their part.

The risk to this approach is that you might create stuff that you never need to use because the PCs just kill the monsters when they meet them. For instance, in the same dungeon the PCs fought a band of hobgoblins. The hobgoblins had traveled to the moathouse from the south looking for mercenary work. I had built up an entire skill challenge that allowed the PCs to bargain with the practical minded, hobgoblin commander. They ended up just killing most of them.

OTOH, if I create a monster background that I like and it never comes into play, I just recycle it for the next dungeon.

Really, it's just building in details that seem a little pointless but have the potential in play to come in handy when you have to improvise. I don't obsess over the details, but rather look for some simple, one sentence explanations that can come in handy. It's all about the useful parts of simulation (depth, detail) without the bad parts (drowning in minutia).


GrecoG said...

Kudos to the 4e design team at WotC, Mike, for creating the new edition. I've gamed for 25 years+ myself, and this edition is both new and exciting, plus gives us an Old School feel. I love the constant stream of ideas from all of you at WotC, via every medium, on every product, creature, setting, etc. You all have truly refreshed and re-invigorated my games!

Thomas said...

I received my copy of the Draconomicon last night, and I would just like to express my satisfaction at seeing the Kobold Victory Chart in the printed medium.