Sunday, May 13, 2012

Analysis Paralysis - Choice


 It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
-J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 
For me role-play is all about walking in someone's shoes for awhile. To do that I need to decide what is important to them. By this I refer to my character. I do this is to create a frame of reference for the choices I will make later. I could leave the frame of reference alone and let the choices define the character. Either way my choices reveal more about my character's personality then all the descriptive text anyone could write.

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
-Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

There is an element of ourselves in each character we play. We draw from our own life experiences more than we can from the fictitious ones we create for our PC's. Role-playing games allow us to experience things out of our comfort zone, because we can make different choices then we normally would and play out events within the framework of that "safe" environment. Everyone has played the what-if game about something they have done in the past. What-if I would have studied harder an got an "A"? What if I would have blown off my book report and gone to that party? What-if I wouldn't have taken the new job? What if I would have? What if I was a born a penniless half-orc on the streets of Waterdeep? Role-playing games are an extension of this.

There are no safe choices. Only other choices.
-Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible Beauty 

In life, once you pick a fork in the road and travel down the path, there is no reset button or redo. Role-playing games are similar. It is very rare that at the focal point of a decision you are able to see all outcomes, nor would it be good if you could.

Frank Herbert in his Dune series described it so,

Muad'Dib could indeed see the Future, but you must understand the limits of this power. Think of sight. You have eyes, yet cannot see without light. If you are on the floor of a valley, you cannot see beyond your valley. Just so, Muad'Dib could not always choose to look across the mysterious terrain. He tells us that a single obscure decision of prophecy, perhaps the choice of one word over another, could change the entire aspect of the future. He tells us "The vision of time is broad, but when you pass through it, time becomes a narrow door." And always, he fought the temptation to choose a clear, safe course, warning "That path leads ever down into stagnation.

Consider this, what appears to be a disastrous course of action to the characters objectives can be the greatest path to fun for the players. D&D is in large part about the journey and not about the destination. The dragon you see from one fork of the road may not be on your path at all, and the mountain spring envisioned on another may contain a water elemental. No matter how clever the solution to this week's problem, next week there will be another. If there isn't, did a too clever a solution cause your campaign to stall and stagnate as a DM forces a tacked on adventure upon you?

You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.
-Rabindranath Tagore

Indecision is the bane of fun. Without successes and failures, the game loses its excitement. I am not promoting flailing about willy nilly, but  consider the problem for a brief time, decide and act. Look not back at the shore and contemplate what might have been. Look to the horizon; the brewing storm clouds and plot your next move. Leave indecision to the NPC's.

Saturday Night

The cavalry, the party among them, arrives on the road above the valley of Vew mid morning. The scene below is troublesome. The town is ablaze. The outer wall shattered at several points. Orcs move thru the town looting and setting fires. The southern bank of the river is held by a group of orcs; over seen by an Ogre. 

A group of dragonborn foot-soldiers raid the sacked Temple of Bahamut, loading spoils into wagons. Only the town's keep stands as a last bastion of hope among the wreckage, but even now Orc siege engines swarm the western wall of the keep. To the east an ordered camp houses reserves and command tents. Four banners of the party's enemies fly over the tent. 

Combat Objectives - More than Kill Them All!

I have talked before about victory conditions or combat objective style fights. Here is a good list that I like to refer to when building these fights. It was compiled by Halivar at EnWorld in this Thread.

It takes some practice for your players to get good at recognizing these situations and seeing a way to clear the board without slaughtering every thing in sight. As always be sure to let your players know that this is an option in your campaign, and make sure that is the type of campaign they want to play in.

Use these sparingly and let the players' actions decide how oft they want this type of combat. In my campaign, this is something I throw at my players about twice a level or about 2 out of 7 combat encounters. The option is always on the table for a clever player, but only those few encounters are structured that way.

Scenario: Breakout
Objective: The party is encircled by a horde of enemies. To escape, they must reach an objective (an exit, a door, a magic portal) on the battle mat.
Setup: The party begins in the middle of the mat. Depending on the setting there may be obstacles (buildings, trees, rocks) and rough terrain. The encounter begins with the players surrounded by 40-50 minions of comparable level to the party. There are minions between the party and the objective.
In Play: Minions slain by the party return to their initial entry point at the beginning of the next round. Minions will keep coming until the party is either dead or has escaped.
Ancillary Skill Checks: Terrain and obstacles should force Acrobatics (moderate) checks if double-moving. Otherwise players must make Athletics checks (easy) to overcome said obstacles.

Scenario: VIP Escort
Objective: The party must ensure that a helpless VIP (a merchant, a courier, an injured nobleman) reaches an objective on the other side of the battle mat.
Setup: The party begins surrounding the VIP on the opposite side of the battle mat from the objective. The mat should be covered in obstacles and cover for assassins to hide in (a town with streets and alleys is perfect for this). The encounter starts with 10 lurker minions and a non-minion leader (controller or artillery) hidden among the obstacles. The VIP has artillery monster stats, but with no attacks. Unlike monsters, the VIP obeys PC rules for death and dying, so if he falls he can be revived.
In Play: The VIP only moves 5 squares and cannot double-move (he is either injured or encumbered). If attacked, he will stop and cower, and will not move until intimidated to move forward. Slain assassin minions and ringleaders return to new starting points when slain, and will not stop until either the VIP is dead, or the VIP escapes. Assassins will try to avoid the PC's as must as possible to get straight at the VIP.
Ancillary Skill Checks: When the VIP cowers, the PC's must make an Intimidate check (easy) to get him moving forward again. Perception checks (against monster stealth rolls) determine if the PC's get early warning of attack. Players can identify likely ambush areas with a hard check in the appropriate skill (Streetwise in the city, Nature in the woods, Dungeoneering in a dungeon).

Scenario: Last Stand
Objective: The players must hold a defensive position (a building, a palisade, a section of castle wall) against a horde of enemy minions for 10 rounds (until activation of a super-weapon, until extraction, until a group of refugees has time to escape).
Setup: The party begins inside the defensive position, with 20-25 enemy minions at the edge of the map. At the front is a non-minion ringleader (controller or artillery). The defensive position should be such that party members are (or can be) in an elevated position and have cover bonuses.
In Play: The ringleader will lead the minions only as far as just outside a move away from the defenders, from which position he will spur on the minions. If the ringleader dies, all minions are demoralized, and may only take standard actions on their turn until a new ringleader shows up. At the end of the enemies' turn, fallen enemies (including the ringleader) are replaced at the edge of the map.
Ancillary Skill Checks: Athletics checks are useful if minions are scaling defenses with ladders. A hard check will push ladders off the walls and stun the climbing minions for a turn.

Scenario: King of the Hill
Objective: Last Stand with a twist: players must first assault the defensive position and wrest control of it from enemies before they defend it.
Setup: The party begins at the edge of the map. The defensive position is occupied by 5-7 non-minion enemies, which are not yet aware of the PC's presence.
In Play: At the first sign of attack, the defenders call out for backup (thus setting the stage for the Last Stand portion of the encounter). Other than that, this is a pretty straight-forward combat encounter. If players elect to damage the defenses during the course of the assault, the difficulty of the second part of the encounter will increase.
Ancillary Skill Checks: Stealth will be essential, as will be Athletics (for scaling defenses).

Scenario: Capture the Flag
Objective: The players must capture the enemy “flag” while defending their own. The encounter ends when one individual (PC or NPC) has both “flags” (two parts to a powerful relic, the Hand and Eye of Vecna, the Cosmic Key from the Dolf Lundgren motion picture “Masters of the Universe” and One-Eyed Willie's sheet music from “Goonies”).
Setup: Both sides (the players and the enemies) have fortifications on opposite sides of the battle mat (forts, dives in the slums, open mausoleums in a graveyard). There can be as many or as few obstacles as the DM desires. The enemies have 4-5 non-minions defending their flag, and 10 minions outside. The players have the aid of 5 friendly minions who will obey the PC's instructions. Whoever is holding a flag is magically, supernaturally, or psychically aware of where the other flag is. There is a problem: the flag is bulky and impedes the holder. The flag-bearer may only take a standard action. To compensate, the players may elect to give a minion the flag; it's a tactical decision on their own part.
In Play: The enemies will leave 1 non-minion with the defending minions and the flag. The other non-minions will take a circuitous route to the PC's base to steal their flag. At the beginning of each round, replacements for all NPC's (including friendly minions) arrive at the edge of the mat.
Ancillary Skill Checks: If any players choose to stay and defend the base, they will need to make Perception rolls against stealthy attackers.

Scenario: Spaced Invaders
Objective: The players are forming a thin (but porous) line of defense against single-minded invaders whose only intention is get past them. The players must stop them. They can be plague-bearing zombies heading towards town, wounded enemy couriers on a battlefield trying to get a request for reinforcements out, or cultists of Orcus trying to throw themselves into a black abyss for some terrible ritual.
Setup: Divide the mat in half. The players can be anywhere on the side of the mat to which the invaders are streaming. The players should be made aware that they will need maximum coverage and mobility.
In Play: There are 20-30 minions who trickle in at the far end of the mat and move unswervingly to the other side. Now because they are either wounded, undead, or encumbered, they only take standard actions. They will prefer flight to fight, but will stop and fight if directly prevented from moving forward. At the beginning of each turn, roll a 1d4. This is the number of enemies that appear that round. For each enemy minion, randomly roll to see which edge square they start at.
Ancillary Skill Checks: Perhaps allow Perception roles, and allow players to discover, one round ahead of time, where new enemy minions will appear.

Scenario: Whack-A-Mole
Objective: The players must scramble to different objectives on the map to stop enemy machinations. The enemy only needs to complete one of their objectives; the players must stop all of them. Once an enemy objective is activated, the players are on a time-limit to stop it. This can be evil cultists setting up idols to enslave a whole town, an enemy defensive battery trying to set up magical trebuchets to sink a refugee boat, or goblins in a forest trying to set up bon-fires to burn the forest down.
Setup: The map is covered in obstacles, and there are 5 enemy emplacements. Each emplacement is guarded by up to 6 minions, and one non-minion. By random die roll, select one to be "activating", and inform the players (placed on the far side of the mat) that they have 5 rounds to stop the completion of the enemy objective.
In Play: Every 3 rounds, randomly activate another emplacement. The urgency factor will increase dramatically, and the party may decide they need to split up.
Ancillary Skill Checks: Allow perception or insight checks to allow players to predict which emplacement will activate next. Place obstacles that require the use of Athletics or Acrobatics checks to overcome.

Scenario: Assassination
Objective: The opposite of VIP Escort. In this scenario, the enemy is trying to protect the party's target, and get him to a safe area. The party's job is to stop him from getting there. This can be a murderous crime lord moving from one safe house to another, a deposed tyrant fleeing to escape to his waiting army, or a courier rushing to give the uber-archvillain the pass-phrase to the Book of Vile Darkness.
Setup: The enemy has dispatched three parties. One has the real VIP, and the others are escorting a minion look-alike. The VIP has artillery monster stats (but no attacks). Like in the VIP Escort scenario, the VIP will cower when attacked. Each VIP is surrounded by 4 non-minions. In addition, there are at least 10 minion patrolling the board.
In Play: Slain minions are replaced at the end of the enemies' turn at the edge of the mat. As in the VIP Escort scenario, the VIP is hindered and can only make a standard action each round, and moves 5 squares.
Ancillary Skills: Insight and Perception are the key skills here for noticing doppelgangers. A hard check will spot the deception before engagement.

Other victory condition advice can be found at: