Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thoughts on Dungeon Fantasy & non-front line fighter types

My players and I started a brief discussion on Sunday about the utility of non-fighter types in my game, which I think reflects on deliberate choices in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. Here are some of my thoughts about combat and non-combat specialists in DF.

The thing about DF is, everyone is an expert-level specialist.

Non-front line fighters will never be able to keep up with front-line fighters in combat. Combat that is significantly dangerous to Barbarians, Knights, Martial Artists, and Swashbucklers will overwhelm non-front line fighters. Even some of them - the Barbarian and the Martial Artist - give up some direct combat ability for flexibility in other areas, and are more at risk than the other two. Holy Warriors fill a specific niche - they'll pass as front-line fighters, but aren’t up to the Knight or Swashbuckler level; they excel against "evil" creatures.

Conversely, front line fighters will never be able to keep up in non-fighting tasks covered by other experts. Traps and locks will utterly frustrate any front-line fighter. They are useless for much besides setting off delicate traps. They can't cast spells or disarm traps or open doors without force. Only Clerics can heal. Only Wizards are any good at spells. Only Bards can use songs to sway or calm or incite. Only Artificers can build gadgets on the fly.

The split in DF is that if you take a non-front line fighter, you're as much as admitting you can't hack it against the toughest foes. But if you take a front-line fighter, you can't hack it on technical tasks. Knights, specifically, are so myopically focused on combat they can't do much else besides force doors and kill monsters. If they dump most of their points in more combat abilities and not much in strength, they can't even open doors well.

In this way, it's a lot like a higher-level D&D or Rolemaster game would be. Any trap dangerous enough to require disarming instead of absorbing or bypassing needs a Thief, because no one else can hack it. Any evil shrine bad enough to do evil things needs a Cleric to cleanse it. Any wound bad enough to slow you down requires a Cleric to heal it. Any magical defenses or barriers worth noting requires a Wizard to bypass. Anything on guard enough to require sneaking to surprise needs a Thief or Scout. Wizards will be useful in and out of combat, with the right spells, but they can't out-kill the fighters in combat. You can try some overlap (either with a 50-point lens, or just pouring points into a non-template skill) but you'll forever lag the experts. That's part of the game design. It's niche protection in the best way (for more on niche protection, see here and here)

My game is combat-heavy. But it's also obstacle heavy (fortified entrances, heavy doors, magical barriers, etc. and that's just so far on level 1). Part of the "non-combatants are useless" meme I can see starting to grow in my own game is because, as luck would have it, the group really hasn't hit many of the evil traps, horrid puzzles, killed-by-special-methods monsters, magical barriers, unholy sites, skill/knowledge challenges, and tricky negotiating opportunities that await them elsewhere. There have been some already, but they've either been bypassed, bludgeoned down and walled off (such as the gargoyles), or assaulted with Shape Earth (such as the black door and the trapped hallway from last session). Some of this is play style - if you think it's always fine to bash the chest to pieces or kick the door down or cure damage after setting off the trap, maybe a Thief isn't going to have much to do. If you never scout, yeah, Scouts are useless. If you smash a hole in the floor instead of doing research to find the password for the magic staircase, the Sage or Wizard will be less useful. If you deal with evil shrines by taking the valuables and leaving them dangerously evil, the Cleric is less useful.

I personally think that in RPGs, you get the game you play. If you make non-stealthy fighters and frontal assault everything in a loose combat order, you’re going to get a campaign heavy in chaotic, turns-on-a-die-roll fights with lots of ambushes by stealthy opponents. If you make a wizard-heavy party, you're going to have a "15 minute adventuring day" type of game where the whole group adventures based on available energy, and where magic resistant foes are a special challenge and No Mana Zones seem unfair barriers. If you favor diplomatic types and talking, you'll negotiate more overall in the campaign.

The GM influences just as much as the players - it's probably 50/50 GM/combination of the players. If both react to the perception of "campaign needs" you can get a feedback circle - we fight a lot, so we need more fighters in the group, so we can't navigate traps or negotiate, so we take more damage and have more fights and need more fighters. The GM then tosses more and tougher fights at you because you're too hard to challenge in a fight and too hapless against other threats.

The way out of the loop is to just get out of the loop - both the GM and the players need to do it.

How? The GM needs to set challenges and let them sort it out themselves, and not modify them to match a lopsided approach. Example: "Okay, you wiped out Orcus and his buddies in three rounds with no sweat, but now what? The temple exit is trapped, the treasure is behind a forcefield, and Orcus will re-form in 1 minute if you don't destroy his unholy altar with clerical rituals."

The players need to leverage the skills of their non-front line fighter buddies, and the non-combat skills of the fighters so they aren't "sit around until we fight" types. They need to avoid trying to outrace the GM like he was a video game AI ("I've maxed out my combat skills and win all fights in the game easily, finally. Okay, next quest . . . ") You can't win an arms race with someone with unlimited resources, so concentrate on achieving your goals in a fun manner without trying to maximize your ability to beat one challenge. Pick a guy that's fun and useful, and find ways to get more out of your abilities.

I think there is always room for the expert, the non-combatant, and the utility character. You can't pull your weight when the combat specialists are needed, but the game isn't only combat, unless you make it out to be. If all you bring are hammers . . .


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  2. Oops. I ran into similar issues playing Cadmus, a roughly 280-point Warrior Saint. He's an OK fighter, but not as good as a Knight. He can shoot a bow, but our Infernal Scout can eye-shot (or at least vitals-shot) an ogre in EACH EYE in one round, so it seems. I did wind up being the best healer in the group once I figured out how to use my Learned Prayers right, but for a while it was darn frustrating, and I had to rejigger my character to be a better healer than not (Divine Favor 8, plus Flesh Wounds and Lay on Hands is a mighty fine healing machine).

    But he's pretty "Meh" at most things[1]. His Holy Warrior! skill, from which defaults many useful things, is only 11 (14 if Will-based). His Axe/Mace skill is "only" 18, and thus far his ability to Judo Throw foes based on Axe/Mace (thanks to Technique Adaptation) has been a bust. His damage is so-so (2d+2 cut), but against tough foes, he can't really muster enough Deceptive Attack to punch through defenses.

    I've learned my role in most combats [2], which is whittling down smaller foes until Thumvar, our Knight, can come kick they ass.

    [1] Caveat: I do have Righteous Fury, which adds 1d6 to each of ST, DX, and HT, and my GM allows me to choose which I give. I've done the math (naturally), and that nearly always means +4 DX, +3 ST, and +2 HT. Last fight I got +6 to ST AND DX, +5 to HT . . . which was the only thing saved us from a TPK.

    [2] Unless you're an Undead. Then my Enhanced Protection from Evil will pin you to a wall, often 10 yards away. His niche is really fighting Undead, and he's quite good at it. When it comes up, it's mostly satisfying, especially if others respect your niche and give you that one moment to be a zombie-stomping, skeleton-crushing paragon of the God of Awesomeness. Well, for 3-18 seconds.

    Nice post, Peter.

    1. Thanks Doug. Our cleric has that same thing - he's useful for healing and the occasional whacking with a mace or sunbolt, but that's about it . . . until the undead show up. Then he basically turns them from "fearsome foes" to "weak fodder" with a good Will roll or two using True Faith (w/Turning).

      I haven't seen the Warrior Saint template (too cheap to buy a whole Pyramid just to read it, and I don't want to use Imbuements or Learned Prayers in this game). But I'll say that finding a good niche for a new template is hard. And the more narrow the niche or more specialized, the more the player also needs to understand how to work it. "Combat" is a broad niche. Most of the others - not so much.

    2. Warrior Saints leverage Divine Favor, which is basically an entry point for Alternate Abilities (Learned Prayers). I have sunk about 70-75 points out of 280 into Divine Favor 8 (allowing Lay on Hands, for Healing, 45 points)plus Protection from Evil (Enhanced), which is True Faith that can extend to many yards, Flesh Wounds (1 HP per minute recovery), and a few others. General prayers have added occasional extreme (but low probability) value.

      Where would those 75 points have gone otherwise? Weapon Master, Weapon skill, and ST, probably. The things he'd need as a warrior. He's got DX 13 already, which ain't bad. It's a big deal going from Skill-18 in your weapon to Skill-22 or 24, since that allows powerful Deceptive Attacks to punch through tough foes.

      So basically, he gets partial and very limited utility as a Cleric, traded off directly for ass-kicking power with his axe. For Undead, he's likely soon to pick up Smite, which is a very powerful damage-dealing spell.

      the flip side of that is Righteous Fury, which on a good roll last game turned him temporarily into a 515-point character; it adds 40-120 points in stats for 3-18 seconds!

      Anyway, he's a nice, fun multi-class character, so to speak. His utility in a boss fight is high with Righteous Fury, and his healing ability is really good: I can transfer HP to my friends (I take their wounds to myself), then heal back at 1 HP per minute. So given an hour of rest, I can bring 5 characters from 0 HP to 12 HP, and be hale and robust myself shortly thereafter. Casters can get pretty tired pulling the same feat.

  3. I'm in favour of fairly explicit negotiation about this sort of thing - if the group (including the GM) wants lots of fights, everyone knows it and the PCs and challenges can be set up accordingly. Ditto with traps, undead, and so on.

    1. In my game at least, I explicitly told them the game would be combat-heavy dungeon delving for treasure, with all the traps, puzzle rooms, and cursed temples that usually entails. I told them it would a high-lethality game and not to get attached to characters. The conceit of this game is open rolling, fixed dungeon, and no scaling to PC's power levels or skillset. I don't change it to suit the party's makeup.

      I also tried to make it clear just how far apart a dedicated combatant and a dedicated non-combat specialist are when it comes to combat, and that monsters would necessarily have been written to challenge the former. It might not have sunk in - and really, both of our PC fatalities came in combat where a non-combatant either got caught out and unlucky (Volos vs. the minotaur) or make a mistake (Fuma engaging in melee with a melee specialist monster). In both cases they weren't helpless, just caught.

      If I have one concern, it's the nascent idea that non-combat skills aren't worthwhile. I disagree, and the results might, too. Or they might not - we'll see when they come up in play.

  4. This is one "problem" I don't need to fix, because it is one of the best things about RPGs. To quote you, "if you think it's always fine to bash the chest to pieces or kick the door down or cure damage after setting off the trap, maybe a Thief isn't going to have much to do. If you never scout, yeah, Scouts are useless. If you smash a hole in the floor instead of doing research to find the password for the magic staircase, the Sage or Wizard will be less useful. If you deal with evil shrines by taking the valuables and leaving them dangerously evil, the Cleric is less useful." What that is saying is that there is more than one way to win! The GM sets the situation up, but does not set up a solution because any number of solutions exist and it is the players' privilege to apply the approach of their choosing. Some approaches may be tougher or more costly than others depending on the situation, but the point is that many different things may work to overcome the obstacle, be it monsters (might, stealth, misdirection, negotiation, etc.) or magical barriers (dispel, avoid, find another route in, tunnel around, find an artifact to grant entry, bribe/trick a dungeon denizen for passage, etc.). Huzzah!


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