Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Powers as Roleplaying Tool

I've started to stat up a few major villains for my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, the guys that the PCs will face when they reach the finale of the heroic tier portion of the campaign. While thinking things over, I had a flash of insight.

Back in the day, I read a novel called A Gathering of Heroes written by Marion Zimmer Bradley's brother, Edwin. While I'm sure most of you have never read or even heard of it, the book had a big influence on my attitude toward D&D. Namely, I loved how EZB depicted his villains. I can still vividly remember how each of the main, evil guys fought and frustrated the heroes.

My favorite bad guy from the novel is Svaran the Black, a warrior of middling skill who also happens to fit perfectly into an impenetrable suit of armor that the bad guys steal from the dwarves (it's a very typical fantasy setting, though overlaid with elements of Celtic myth that I find appealing). Svaran's armor allows him to fight recklessly and relentlessly.

When the protagonist, Istvan, finally defeats Svaran, our villain suffers a moment of pathetic recognition when he understands Istvan's gambit and realizes that he's about to die. The mighty Svaran, slayer of heroes, general of the armies of evil, squeals like a baby and begs for mercy. IIRC, he even pleads, "I'm not supposed to die. I'm invincible," or something to that effect.

EZB was a good enough writer that he pulls off the scene, using the main villain's only line of dialog to evoke both a sense of pity and sweet revenge. Sure, Svaran killed several heroes during the novel, but in the end he's just a coward hiding in a suit of impenetrable armor. Istvan notes several times during his battles against him that Svaran is a middling warrior who would've been an anonymous toady to evil if he hadn't been the only guy who could fit into the armor.

As a reader, Svaran's death both illustrates some interesting depth for the character while also providing a satisfying victory.

I've been thinking of doing something similar for my NPCs in 4e. Sure, they'll have the typical spells and tricks to make them daunting enemies, but I'd also like to insert a few powers that are a mechanical expression of the NPC's personality and role in the campaign, built along with quotes or other material to go along with the attack.

To use Svaran as an example:

* Svaran can make a basic melee attack as an opportunity action, but he must allow the target to make a basic melee attack against him as a free action. He fights recklessly, relying on his armor to deflect blows. Each time he does this, I roleplay him a bit, describing his arrogance and overwhelming confidence, how he completely ignores attacks as they clang against his armor.

* When he's bloodied, that ability goes away, but instead he now gets a new attack he can use to strike anyone who hit him in melee the round before. He fights with increasing desperation, growing more cautious but desperately attempting to make each attack count.

* When he's down to his last few hit points, he misses his next turn and utters the line above.

The idea is that as the PCs tangle with him, his personality and role in the story inform how he fights in a direct, obvious way. A few other ideas:

* The PCs face a vampire and his succubus lover. If a PC harms the succubus, the vampire gets a huge attack and damage bonus against him on his next turn.

* A psychopathic dwarf assassin fights with a disturbing lack of emotion. If he hits a PC, that PC suffers penalties on attacks against him. When the dwarf is bloodied, he snaps into a psychotic fury. He can attack only the PC who bloodied him, and gains some temporary hit points to let him shrug off the inevitable opportunity attacks as he rushes at his victim.

* Two NPCs are hated rivals. If they can catch each other in area attacks, along with at least two PCs, they do so.

I like the idea of these "scripts" because they make a fight different. Sometimes, the tactically smart play for an NPC is boring and flavorless. If every NPC fights as well as the DM can run them, you lose a lot of what makes an NPC unique. Ideally, the players think of the fight in terms of the NPC's personality ("That dwarf was crazy! He ran across a pool of acid to get to Baldar.") rather than in terms of powers ("That dwarf had a nasty sneak attack abililty.")


Anonymous said...

I think that avoiding "roleplay non-optimal choices" and instead building the powers so that the formerly script-induced behaviour now becomes tactically optimal, or at least tactically reasonable, would be aligned with 4e design ethos.

If two npcs are supposed to fireball each other, give 'em a bonus for doing it. Much like kobolds are supposed to be shifty so they have powers that let them shift under given circumstances. Give crazy dwarves an ability to resist damage when charging and it will more often be smart to charge.

Let the GM play the opposition to the hilt and still let their personality shine through.

Mike Mearls said...

I really like the idea of a bonus for the two rival wizards' blasting each other. The especially evil part of it is that it encourages PCs to step away from the squishy, melee-hating casters. Nice!

Anonymous said...

Some really fun stuff here. I have to admit, I really like the idea of of the dwarf running across acid.

I am creating a heroic tier foil for my PCs, an arrogant noble's son playing at running a 'thieves guild' . . . I will have to really consider how his personality may inform his powers and fighting acumen.

Nope said...

How about role playing powers as quest rewards?

Quests that involve character progression may grant a temporary power to assist in completing the quest (bonus to attacks and dmg against nemesis who kidnapped your kin) or a permanent power with limited application or strict triggering conditions (lightning attack encounter power usable only during a lightning storm, while bloodies, and while wielding a specific magic sword gained from a previous quest.)

I've been thinking about alternate rewards besides gp and xp. Role playing powers sounds like it might work.

Anonymous said...

This is brilliant! I've become a bit jaded about the whole controller/artillery/mob setup lately, perhaps playing too much DnD. I just get the feeling that it's a bit too streamlined, still I think the rules are very well designed. This way, you play with the rules, not outside the rules, abiding the old game design tenet that rules should encourage good play, not punish it.

Shameless plug: new RPG blog, currently with a heavy DnD slant.

Frank Alejano said...

WOW... well, this is a couple of weeks late, and has nothing to do with the core thrust of this post, but you don't know how pleased I am that one of the designers responsible for shepherding D&D forward has read Paul Edwin Zimmer. His books only share real estate with Robert E. Howard's Conan compilations on my top shelf. I've read that battle scene tons of times- Svaran's death and Istvan's showdown with Grom Beardless are two of my favorite duel scenes in all of fantasy.

You're right that most people haven't even heard of Zimmer- poor guy died way before his time.

Anonymous said...

There's an LFR module (Baldurs Gate 1-2) which has a number of fights that I treated like this.

(SPOILERS, ok...)

Ok, so there are three or four fights in the adventure. But each one is slightly not what it seems. In one fight there are undead protecting an evil altar-- but the undead are under the influence of a lich trapped in the altar who wants to be let the undead are only fighting half-heartedly. Because once the players wipe them out, the lich knows that the PCs will unwittingly set him free.

Next there is a battle against wights that are terrorizing the town.. but it isn't actually PCs vs wights. It's the wights vs the towsnfolk, with the PCs doing their best to stop the wights from devouring and slaying the helpless. This is not a subtle difference. If the players create a tactical formation and hang back-- the wights will just concentrate on slaughtering more innocent civilians on the far side of the battlemap.

Finally there's a battle against halfling thieves in a warehouse. Again- it's not what it seems, the thieves aren't interested in fighting. They are interested in running away with as much loot as possible. So when the players start setting up tactics, the halflings just break for the windows and doors. The goal of the encounter is to capture the bad guys and prevent them from escaping with the loot.