Monday, September 7, 2015

Post-Massacre Postmortem I: What went wrong?

So, near TPK yesterday. How Gerry managed to escape and limp home is a testament to his luck, skill, and the relative paucity of See Invisible-using monsters in my games. He's a diseased mess and in terrible shape, but he's alive. All those failed Survival rolls have taken a toll on him, though, and he's going to in recovery for a while or have to fork out some money to get fixed up. The rest are in the newly-updated graveyard.

What went wrong?

First, the PCs made some tactical errors.

One they pointed out yesterday was that they sent Bjorn in the middle-left and Rahtnar around close to the wall. So the TBAM guy with better DR and higher defenses and better multiple-defense rolls was fighting one guy, the high-power fighter with less DR, lower defenses, and worse multiple-defense rolls was fighting several. Oops. That Bjorn totally forgot about Retreat - and missed a critical pair of defenses by 1 each - was also a problem.

It didn't help that the fire elemental got cut right down. Diffuse is nice, but not against a massive pile of attacks, especially with a 40-point elemental that has fodder-level defenses. It went down to below 0 HP and a failed HT roll in about two seconds, dealing almost no damage in the meantime. It is dangerous when it does a slam, but shield-armed foes can keep it at bay without getting lit on fire so it wasn't a big threat.

Another is that they put a lot of emphasis, it seemed, on area denial with alchemist's fire. One attempt to light lizardmen on fire went badly because no one buys Throwing so a toss was missed and landed short. The other two laid down along the flanks were just useless, and only ever constrained the PC's movements.

(It didn't help that Hannibal rolled utterly awful damage on his fireballs, either, but low damage rolls happen - had they been max damage, every one, the PCs would still have lost based on everything else that happened.)

Then there was Great Haste.

I've said this before, but I think Great Haste is the single most lethal spell in GURPS. I've seen more NPCs killed by folks under the spell than under any other spell. I've seen more PCs killed using it. Generally they don't die while they are using it. My observation is that the 10 seconds of double-turn actions you get, and the 5 energy cost to cast and 5 FP cost to the target, are so high that people will put themselves in terrible risk to try and maximize its use. No one is patient while under Great Haste. So many battle plans hinge on its use that people must maximize its 10 seconds or lose the fight. Casters do little except cast it over and over to keep the fighters zipping out attacks at full spell.

It's the most valuable use of a few seconds and 5 energy a caster has. But it encourages risk and means any turn not spent maximizing your attacks or movement is "wasted." The inability to get it off on a lot of people at once means you get this staggered casting of "cast on self, then speed-cast on toughest fighter, then on the next toughest, then the next, then the next, then re-cast on self" - all the while worrying about FP-draining foes because the automatic loss of 5 FP is coming.

It's a spell a caster can't do without, and once the casters have it is the best thing they can do. Yet I think it's why fights always turn into a free-for-all. The rush to use it, the penalty for wasting turns, the need to finish a fight before your FP runs out, etc. ends up with a gap between fighters and support and thus only fighters who never get hit really benefit fully from it.

My NPCs rarely use it - and the last time one tried he almost got waxed immediately trying to maximize his chances to attack.

So much for Great Haste, anyway.

Finally, although the PCs were immune to the enemy caster's best spells, they still let the poison gas cloud spell split their fighters from their support wizards. Keeping that gap from being filled by a pincher is probably why all the alchemist's fire was dumped down, but either way, it meant healing was impossible - especially since everyone had a big pile of spells up. These included Affect Spirits, which they still don't know if they needed or not. The lack of actual combat in the first encounter with the lizardmen meant they had no intelligence to go off of. I think the hope was "see the enemy, go back to town and make some rolls, find their Vulnerability, come back and destroy them with ease." Didn't work, because I don't let that work - that's just feeding into a theme of "cautious until the fight, reckless in it." I prefer the players to be the ones that figure stuff out, not the NPCs back in town that have the equivalent of a Youtube video showing how to solve the video game puzzle. They can give hints, the players have to find the answers. Part of the game is finding those answers, and it's not a question of skill rolls but of experimentation and observation reinforced by skill rolls.

Was the fight too hard?

In a word: yes.

On paper, it should have been tough. Difficult to kill undead warriors in an environment that negated turning*, with solid defenses (Medium Shields for DB2, active defenses in the 10-12 range) and strong offensive power (3d+3 with axes, 3d+2 with picks.)

But lethal? I was surprised. I expected that one or two PCs might bite it in the ultimate encounter, but this prelim should have just been a resource drain.

The offensive power was high, but had it been lower (in the 2d+2 to 2d+4 range) they wouldn't be a threat against PCs with DR 6-10 - hits are relatively uncommon against the defense-first build/buff approach my players use, and if 50% or so of hits do no damage it's a cakewalk. These were the inner guard, after all, so they were big.

Lots of HP, but with the usual undead ups and downs. DR was low everywhere but the front of the torso, the front of the neck, and the head (Face and Skull.) Those were solid but not crazy solid. They weren't easy to light on fire nor easy to chop up, so they'd take some work to destroy.

The lizardmen were smart enough to work together, but lacked anything resembling combat subtlety. They'd attack, never Retreated (even when they needed to), only passed up attacks to bypass and surround, only targeted torso, didn't Feint, didn't Deceptive Attack, and just plowed away at opponents.

The clerics pretty much had some defenses (Shield spells, unholy magical staves), lots of poison-based magic, Deathtouch, and Summon Demon. So they couldn't usefully buff or heal. It was a straight brute force fight once the PCs figured out Resist Poison was the way to go.

So was the fight too hard? In another word: no.

It turned out hard because the players played to the enemies' strengths (brute force vs. brute force, enemy local superiority of numbers, fighting as a slog, not using area effect spells on the diffuse demon, etc.), spent some effort on unimportant issues (battlefield denial on parts of the battlefield the enemy didn't need but they did, buffs on people who didn't need them), and dithered when it looked like they might lose instead of deciding immediately if they wanted to cut and run or fight it out. Bjorn spent a lot of time unconscious before anyone decided that it might be a winnable fight if he was back up, for example. Lots of time was spent trying to cast spells but failing because the casters had so many buffs up it was crazy.

Even so, I'd expected this was going to drain off lots of FP, Paut, Minor Healing potions, and HP - not kill off the PCs. It was just a hard physical fight against foes that needed grinding down, and who wouldn't put themselves into a funnel just to make it easier on the PCs.

Risk Averse Adventuring, Risk Heavy Combat

This one is my personal opinion only. But I think one thing that doomed the players was that this was designed as a 3-6 session adventure. I saw it as:

- Penetrate the temple level, crush the bandits, crush the priest and his cronies (1-2 sessions)
- Penetrate the cavern level, mess around with the wights, find the big tomb and explore the top level (1 session.)
- Clear the tomb (2-3 sessions, probably one two-day session in the mix for the final fights.)

It turned into 8 sessions just to start onto the third one. The bandits ended up taking a long time, because the players didn't want to risk a straight-up fight after suffering some surprise injuries the first time. It took so long that the bandit wizard departed (along with his loot, and a nice magic item he was using), the priest brought his dead friends back as wights, and much treasure was expended on rations, potions, etc. to get to the tomb and back.

The next few delves were the same - lots of dry hauls, but costly in terms of gear and consumables. The more this happened, the more the players asked for special-order items (at a high cost, if available) and the more the players got cautious because of lack of consumable fight-modifying buff items. They spent a lot of time digging around looking for a cache of something - digging the big mound, combing over the same parts of the top level repeatedly, etc. - hoping to find something new and avoid the tough task ahead.

So by the time the delvers were at this big fight, they had no reserves left of magical items, much less loot taken, much more loot expended, a fair amount of lost gear (Bjorn's gear, one of Rahtnar's axes, endless amounts of paut, etc., expended boons earned above, etc.) So it was just a roll of the dice - beat the bad guys, or die trying. The lack of anyone to replace the unholy water needed to get into the deeper dungeon meant that there was a delve limit, making this the last delve they could do without victory. They were committed.

It's tempting in this kind of situation to eat the elephant one bite at a time - but this kind of dungeon wasn't designed to reward that. The enemy didn't lose strength, and there wasn't strength to be found and gained once the easy pickings were gone. And I deliberately set up the game to make "go back to town and stock up on buffs so we can win next time" harder. The cumulative effect was the PCs were less equipped to deal with the big fight in the last session than they were a couple sessions earlier. Maybe even less than much earlier. I understood the impulse to only go when they had to, and not go when certain PCs weren't there, but overall, there was a cumulative cost that was weakening the PCs.

And that's how the near-TPK happened. At least from the GM's side of the screen. I'm sure my players have some diffing opinions, and good rationales for a lot of their actions. Ultimately, though, seven went in, one came back, and we need to find another side adventure setup before we can get back to Felltower.

* There were hints: "Asher turned undead, but they kept coming." I never mentioned even a tiny flinch, and there was no observable effect from any turning in that area. I did mention last time that they were clearly undead but also didn't seem to notice Asher's turning attempts.


  1. Regardless of the proximate reasons, in OSR style games it is really hard to avoid TPKs (or enough PCs dead for there to be a significant issue with continuing) in the long run without GM shenanigans.

    1. Encounters that are a credible threat to experienced players have to be visibly dangerous. There has to be a chance that if you screw up you could die. (This is a core part of the OSR experience, really.)

    2. Every encounter that ends in a TMK (total monster kill) is just another Tuesday in the dungeon, every TPK or near TPK is a disaster.

    3. Almost everyone screws up now and then.

    These three things combine to make a lot of OSR gaming look like old school video games - you deal with harder and harder problems until you die.

    I think that frustration with this is what led people away from the Old School in the first place. I remember neigh-on endless debates about GMs fudging for PC and plot continuity vs. letting the dice fall where they may.

    1. I came into the hobby in the first decade of the fudge vs. let them die debate. You're right, there is always the chance of death. What matters to me is that people learn from their mistakes and keep playing and enjoying themselves.

    2. No argument about the goal - having fun should always be the main point.

      I'm just observing that if every game has a small chance of a PC massacre, PCs have a ~half life. Felltower might take a while.

    3. Sure. Which is why I encourage people to save for Resurrection (and keep it freely available) and have a stable of characters in play (no one has really done this, though).

      But there is possibly a fundamental assumption in this sentence: "Felltower might take a while." If you mean to complete, it's designed to never be complete. It's never going to be done. The only time Felltower is finished is when we no longer have an abiding interest in setting DF games there, or in any other megadungeon. Even then it'll lurk around, ready for whenever I want to bust out a dungeon and play it.

    4. I meant "to get back to," actually. Any new PCs need to survive long enough to be Felltower capable. This batch didn't make it. Next batch might not either.

      As for stables of PCs, why do you think your players haven't taken advantage? Is it just that playing a 250 newb instead of you more powerful "main" PC cuts party power so much it is considered letting the others down?

    5. I think it's a mix of:

      - your current guy is the one you have the most interest in.
      - your current guy is the most powerful one you have
      - your current guy may be critical to the upcoming delve (only cleric, only wizard, best fighter, only thief, etc.)

      Gerry the necromancer has been sitting around made and ready to play since not long after the game got rolling, but it took a near TPK before his player could set aside Vryce and his firepower to try out his necromancer. Now, it might be so because he could be the only party wizard.

      As for getting back to Felltower, they won't have as many sessions to do it as last time. I'm getting tired of making new areas to play after building one megadungeon so I wouldn't have to keep prepping new areas to play!


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