Sunday, November 30, 2014

This sounds like a job for . . . Player Characters!

Admin note to start: No Felltower today - 3/4 of the players who'd been able to make it had to cancel out, so we decided to postpone.

The players in my DF Felltower game have been thinking about raiding some orcs who've been making a serious nuisance of themselves in the dungeon. They know (thanks to their scout Galen) that the orcs live in a canyon/valley north of the mountain that houses the titular megadungeon of my campaign.

My players basically asked for a complete intelligence report on the orcs. Maps, patrol patterns, water sources, defenses, range of control, armaments, paths to and back, etc. Everything. A hex map they can fill in, with most of the details filled in. They were willing to pay, quite well, for this information.

My response was, basically, NO.

Or rather, No, because that's a job for PCs.

I don't fault them, at all, for asking. It's a valid question - is any of this stuff available? If so, we want it. It's asking, is this the kind of game where we buy this stuff and then go fight, or the kind of game where we go get this stuff on our own?

My answer was the latter - go get it yourself.

I couldn't see random scout types or independent farmers or trappers bringing this kind of complete information back. Or even a Royal or city officer pulling all of that information together, collating and sorting it, and then putting together a cohesive set of documents and maps that convey all of this. As for giving it to the PCs - that's trivial to justify, given the lack of resources for killing the orcs and an ongoing war to the south. It's just the initial work and mapping that's harder to justify.


Because that's the kind of thing PCs do.

The PCs are the ones making the big, useful, navigable map of Felltower. The bits NPCs have are incomplete, of dubious accuracy, and old. They might have extremely valuable little bits or clues that make the map come together. They might have treasure maps or guide maps or notes that reveal things the players missed.

But the main core of the map is done by the PCs.

Example Starting Map for the PCs:

The PCs kill the tough monsters. The nasty stuff in the dungeons? Any NPCs who run into it end up as picturesque corpses to warn the PCs about the kind of danger ahead. It's up to the PCs to clear the monsters.

The PCs solve the puzzles. The puzzles in the world stay puzzling until the PCs solve them. Clues are out there, but NPCs don't have the answers.

The PCs tame the howling wilderness. The wilderness stays wild until the PCs do something about it. NPCs will help, they'll settle, they pass on information, but it's the PCs that do the real job of making the wilderness into civilization.

The PCs verify or debunk the rumors. NPCs tell the PCs all kinds of crazy stuff about the world and the dungeon. They might be right or wrong, but the PCs are the ones who find out.

Why is that the case?

First, the in-game reasons.

Simply because the number of 250-point people in the world is finite. The number of 125 point people in the world is also finite. Most of the people running around don't quite get to the 62-point bargain henchmen level. So the competence and expertise just isn't there. Where 250+ point Galen Longtread can pretty casually solo explore the forests and avoid and spy on the orcs, a 125-point guy is risking his life and a lesser scout will get killed (or get only basic information before being warded off.) There aren't a big squad of NPC experts out there, doing adventuring-type things. So stuff that is challenging to 250+ point PCs is lethal to most NPCs. The ones better than the PCs are often, like the PCs, wrapped up in their own thing and aren't wandering around looking to upstage the PCs.

The interest in doing so is a little limited. The wilderness is seen, largely, as a useless borderland. It's marginal farming, good for trapping but hey trapping is risky, and has monsters and literally There Be Dragons. Why muck around up there? Nevermind "raid the orcs to take the pressure off Felltower explorers" is of interest to, basically, the PCs and the Cone-Hatted Cultists and a few independents.

The resources aren't really there, either. I didn't create a war in the south because I wanted the PCs to go fight in the war. I created it to make sure the whole northern wilderness is a problem needing a solution and to take away NPC resources from it. When the orcs get out of hand, yeah, well, there is a war going on. If Stericksburg suffers some orc problems for a year or decade or so while the war is going on, that's fine with the King. It's too small of an issue. Even if the orcs besieged and seized Stericksburg, the King can come back and crush them after he's done ensuring he wins his bigger war. At least, that's how they'd see it.

So it's a dangerous task, requires skills that aren't common, is of relatively little interest, and requires resources needed elsewhere.

Next, the out of game reason. There is one big one.

From a purely meta perspective, the game world is there for the players, not the NPCs. The PCs have the most interest, the most resources (man for man), and the most to gain by solving these issues. They are the heavyweights on the scene. They are the ones who, for better or worse, will make the most impact. What's the point of a game world where the PCs are marginal? I'd rather have the world full of opportunities the PCs can take advantage of.

If I hand the PCs a complete map and extensive details on the orcs, what would I be giving them?

If I did so I'd be giving them a set-piece problem to solve, and a big fight. I'd be doing so by taking away adventure. I'd be saying, don't worry that you don't have Druids or Barbarians* or Scouts, I'll give you what their skills would have given you. I wouldn't be putting up a challenge and then seeing what they'd do with it, I'd be giving them a solution. Where is the fun in that?

So deep down, all in-game justifications aside, the north is a wilderness in need of taming by the PCs, and the map of that area is largely sketchy and unknown, because I want the players to be the ones who do that stuff. They aren't SEALs or Delta Force, to go in and strike the baddies after the intelligence guys gathered all the goods they could, with strike aircraft in the air to help them out. They're Lewis and Clark, heading out with a broad mission and little support once they detach from base.

The map is mainly blank because it's the PC's map to fill in.

The adventure is there for the players to experience.

That's gaming, right there.

* Raggi is a barbarian, but he's not a terribly expert woodsman. He's the guy the expert woodsmen brought with them to kill owlbears and merchant caravan guards. He's okay but he's upstaged, easily, by any template-built PC with outdoor skills.


  1. Good post.

    What about scrying?

    I do have some sympathy for the other side in terms of your meta game reasons. One feature of DF in general is resource management (weight, cash, time etc). Buying intelligence is good because it chews up PCs gold forcing them to go out and explore more to get it. I have a feeling good intelligence would just be too expensive for your game anyway.

    1. The PCs can use spells for information, if they want. They can pay for it to be done, too, but it'll take rolls to find a hireling who can, and they get the information filtered through that person's explanation of the results.

      If they do it themselves, it'll give better results because of that.

  2. I like the general idea a lot - adventuring is the PCs' whole sine qua non in that style of game, so it's logical to structure things so that they can choose lots of ways to adventure. I especially like the fact that there's a consistent in-world explanation rather than the whole thing just being "because I say so"... it always feels a little unsatisfying, even if the goal is something the players are on-board with,

    One nitpick: when you say "What's the point of a game world where the PCs are marginal? I'd rather have the world full of opportunities the PCs can take advantage of," I can't entirely agree. It may be because we're using different definitions of "marginal" or thinking of different scales.

    First, in terms of the game-world at large, you explicitly set things up so that the PCs are marginal: they are literally on the margins of the kingdom, in a backwater where they get to do the adventuring because all the (official) big movers and shakers are away attending to more pressing matters at the far side of the country. They're random free agents who don't get to take advantage of all the power and resources available to the throne.

    And that's exactly where their "world full of opportunities [to] take advantage of" comes from. They're not constrained by responsibilities and duties the way the big movers and shakers are, which leaves them free to explore dungeons and organize campaigns against orc tribes that, if they were less marginal, they'd be instructed to ignore in favor of more pressing issues.

    That's not the only way to structure a campaign, of course. But the point I'm trying to make is that being "marginal" (at least in certain ways) and having freedom and opportunities are hardly mutually exclusive.

    1. They're not marginal by two definitions:

      The only part of the game world to be developed, mapped, or adventured it, is centered on the area the PCs are in. Nothing else is happening in the world except as backstory to explain why opportunities for adventure exist. By that definition, they are central. The fact that the "center" is a "borderlands" is just because it doesn't make sense to have wilderness and unexplored areas except at the edges. If the margins are the only thing actually defined, they aren't really the margins of the game. The capital of the kingdom is marginal - it's just a name on paper. If that - I can't remember if I named it or not.

      They are also not marginal because, ultimately, the PCs are the movers and shakers of the game. They're looting tunnels and killing monsters, but again, the supposedly big powers in the game are armies (off screen), kings (well, one king so far, off screen), a few cities and places (the land of Morthand, the cities of Arras, Molotov, and Cashamash), an order of inquisitors (well, two, now), and a few others. Their only role is to provide color and origin stories and external supplies of interesting things I don't want to come from local areas. So again, marginal.

      Sure, by one definition the PCs are on the margins of the kingdom, fighting threats that don't rise to the level of importance that a King would call up his feudal vassals and hire mercenaries to deal with . . . but that's color. It's background, at best, and it only comes up in play as an explanation why there aren't unlimited supplies of hirelings or why the orcs are a growing threat and NPCs don't solve that problem for the PCs. The big war, etc. will continue, or not, depending on how it moves adventure opportunities forward for the PCs.

      If that wasn't the case - if the war, etc. actually changed the world in a meaningful to the players kind of way - then you'd be right. The NPCs would be the movers and shakers and the area around Felltower the margin. But it won't, unless the players chose to get involved.

      Ultimately, everything except the PCs is painted backdrop.

    2. I just want to follow up a little more here, because you make very good points and I don't want to seem dismissive of them.

      It's just that, the point I make about backdrop, it's important because the PCs do it, etc. is really an important one. The GM needs to say that, out loud and in his or her head, very often. If the players are doing it, it's important. If NPCs are doing it, it's only important as it impacts the players. If the impact of the NPCs' actions outweighs the impact of the PCs' actions, the campaign is out of balance.

      Even if you only repeat it as a mantra - that the PCs actions are central, the NPCs marginal - it will answer so many questions about how to handle play, off-screen game changes, NPC actions, PC actions, effects on the game world, etc. It's a PC's game, and nothing they do, ultimately, is marginal. It's always central and you can't let anyone forget that.

    3. Thanks for the responses! And don't worry about coming off as dismissive; the first line was a big brusque but I was already expecting it to be a matter of differing definitions, so no problem.

      I get where you're coming from, and agree that even if the PCs are in theory overshadowed by powerful characters and big events in the game world, those things do and should tend to happen "off-screen" and act as a backdrop that grounds and informs the players' characters' actions. So what counts as "marginal" comes down to the definition you're using (player-facing or world-facing, so to speak).

  3. This is precisely why lands from which no one has ever returned are made.

    1. Yep. Felltower is one of those.

      I need a rumor, though. "The northern forest? Don't go there - the people that have been there say that no one ever returns from there!"


    2. Have Dennis Hopper make it all the way back, extolling the genius of the Demilich Kurtz.

    3. He's, man, he's . . . what can you say about the man? He's a floating skull, who spouts amazing poetry that sucks out your soul!

      The soulless corpses of his victims? The Sphere of Annihilation in the mouth of that demon face carving? Ah, yeah, well, he can get out of hand sometimes. He's the first to admit it!

    4. I love the smell of fireballs in the morning.

  4. Also, I cannot read the name of that barbarian without thinking "Raggi, relp!" "Jinkies!"

    1. He needs a dog companion, it's true.

    2. That's really the reason Raggi goes adventuring time and again. He's looking to bring back his lost dog, or avenge the poor mutt on those who hurt (ate?) him.

    3. Actually, he despises gnolls, so maybe he needs a cat or something.

    4. Always late to the party:

      He despises gnolls because they stole his dog, thinking they were 'liberating' one of their 'oppressed lesser kin.'

      Gnolls as militant activists has some potential.

    5. It might, actually, although it wouldn't fit what the PCs know about gnolls already.

      And Raggi despises gnolls because he was captured and tortured by them prior to planned eventual consumption. The PCs sprang him from that captivity way back in Session 3. He doesn't need a deeper explanation of his Quirk-level hatred for gnolls than that.

  5. Two questions:

    1) How big are the hexes? It's looking like 6/36.
    2) is Stericksburg going to be in the middle?

    1. I think I'm going to go 1/6, but I'm not sure yet. I need to actually figure out how far Felltower is from Stericksburg. It takes 6 hours hiking to get there, including breaks, and the PCs usually leave around dawn. But that's uphill.

      Stericksburg will probably be bottom 1/3 or 1/6, center. The lands south of the Silver River are civilized, and under Royal control. North of the river, anything goes. That's the spot I want people in, right there.

    2. Six-mile hexes seem to be the new standard. (And I realized after I posted you just nabbed that from Conley.) Regardless, they won't move off the map if they know the right direction—players don't realize how slow they move through heavy woods (or swampland, or whatever) until they spend three days trudging through 6-mile hex of it.

  6. This is exactly why I prefer less-defined, less-explored worlds to play fantasy hero in.

  7. "The valley where the orcs live? Yeah, I got a map of it right here. Don't mind the bloodstain. The guy I got it from guaranteed that it was absolutely correct. Would I lie to you? Only 50 crowns. You want it for less? I'm the only one that has a map of the place, and you're trying to haggle? 60 crowns, then. No, I don't care if I sell it at all."

    Roll 1d6 on the following table to see if the map is accurate:
    1: Totally inaccurate.
    2: Completely inaccurate.
    3: Absolutely inaccurate.
    4: Not one bit is accurate.
    5: The bloodstain would be a better representation of the valley, if it wasn't just a bunch of splatter.
    6: It may be accurate in an alternate universe.

    I'd let them buy whatever information they want, just make sure that very little of it is actually accurate. Either the map was copied from an old map, and only the mountains are still in the same spots; the remaining details are pure guesswork. Or the map was made by someone that never actually went there, just said he went there, and the whole thing is fictional. Etc. I'd make it obvious pretty soon that the info is wrong, though.

  8. Youre joking right? Cause if I was in a DF game and I heard the GM rolling on that table it would be the sound of me taking over GMing.

    GURPS has detailed rules for buying items and determing if they work or if youve been had (incidentally I dont have to roll on some 1d6 table when I buy healing potions, magic swords, um anything atm) its fine to say there is exactly x (x may equal 0) chance of finding said item. Its not okay to completely subvert the rules system and call it GURPS.

    Onw examples to compare

    The gritty cop interrogates the suspect for a map to the crime scene. GM chuckles maniacally and rolls 1d6. Player ' um why do I have cop skills if you are going to subvert the adventure by making them useless'

    1. To use your cop analogy. It would be like if the PC were trying to bring down a mob kingpin but instead of working their way through the lower ranks of the mob to try and find people who will flip on those above them, using their cop skills, they just said "We arrest the kingpin and put him in our interrogation room. I roll against my cop skills, does he confess?" It's not a subversion of the players cop skills to say you can't interrogate the kingpin directly and expect your cop skills to create results.

    2. What would be like that?

      Hiring someone to scout the orc base?
      No that is not like interrogating the kingpin and getting him to confess, you've picked an example on a completely different point of the scale.

      I run a lot of investigation adventures. The GURPS rules provide for how to interogate someone. Telling the players 'hes definitely lying, you notice he tenses up even though he refuses to answer question' or having the kingpin taunt them by confessing (off tape) because he knows they have no evidence are great things for rolls on interrogation skills to provide.

      If you want an actual close comparison paying someone to map would be like getting an informant or cop to go undercover for you, which sounds pretty typical of that genre to me! You might end up with a map of the location and some evidence, but you are still going to have to do the rest of the work. Equally the NPC can horribly fail which might mean you have more problems.

      Incidentally if youre going to compare getting the king pin to confess by just making cop rolls to DF well I can use magic to do exactly the equivalent of that (eg interrogating prisoners using magic. Make roll and then they tell you everything)

      Actually perhaps that is the pcs best option nab a few orcs and sick the interrogation magic on them.

    3. I don't see anything wrong with the table. I roll for rumors that may or may not be true. I roll for loyalty that may or may not be high. I roll for hirelings that may or may not need to roll on the "Secret Menace Table." The only issue to me is that I'd have to draw all of those maps.

      Of course, guys who raise prices while you haggle will sell exactly nothing to my players. They started a war with the orcs to avoid a price hike, slew a dragon to get a new way into the dungeon, and you want to shake them down for a few extra coins? Heh.

      Nabbing orcs for questioning is fine - it's adventure.

    4. I made up the chart off the top of my head, and it was definitely a joke.

      It is all dependent on if you want the characters/players to get the information in an easy fashion, or a difficult fashion.

      In a game I'm running, the players were trying to interrogate a captured goblin on the location of their main base. The goblin not knowing cardinal directions, or longitude and latitude coordinates, just pointed in the direction it is in when the characters asked which way to the base. They never asked how far, and I judged if they took him a distance away from the initial spot and asked which way, he'd point in a slightly different direction. If they then triangulated, they'd get a rough idea of where it was. But they never did, they just killed the goblin. They still don't know the way, and until they either go that way, or find someone who knows where it is, then they won't find it.

      I'm not going to let them just stumble upon, or buy from someone, a detailed map, because the goblins don't need a detailed map, and anyone else won't have updated information.

      If you're ok with your players having their characters hire NPCs to do their work for them, then go ahead and let them.

      The wonderful thing about this is you can play your way, and I can play my way.

      If/when the folks I play with want to stop playing in the game I'm running, they are free to do so. Then one of them can run a game how they want to, and I can play in it. So far, I haven't heard any complaints, and they keep coming back.

  9. I'd distill it more: "As a general rule, PCs don't hire other folks to have fun adventures for them.[1]"

    If doing X would be boring, make it easy to circumvent. If doing Y would be fun, make it hard or impossible to get someone to do it for you. A good GM can always make up plausible reasons.

    [1] There are always myriad exceptions, of course. The main one I've always wanted to try was a strategic resource management game where the players are various adventurer patrons trying to meet their goals using parties of adventurers who are as reliable and honest as the average group of PCs.

    Unfortunately, making *that* fun might be hard.

    1. That's a good way to distill it. I wish I'd thought of that phrasing.


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