Monday, January 8, 2018

The Known Dragons of DF Fellower & Dragons in General (Part II)

Yesterday I spoke about the dragons in my DF / DFRPG megadungeon game, Felltower.

I mentioned, briefly, that the danger of dragon fights and the concern of the players that they don't really know how to kill them means that they've avoided deliberate dragon encounters. They've had conversations about "Is this technically a dragon?" about other monsters, in case they might mistakenly fight a dragon and get stuck in a dangerous fight with a monster they don't know how to kill. It's a lethal game and guessing wrong can mean making up a new character.

In a way, this really comes down to a GM tip - whatever extra importance you openly apply to something, your players will potentially magnify it many times. To put it another way, if you make something out to be a big deal, it's likely your players will think it's a very big deal.

Dragons in my current game, as above, are an example.

Dragons in my previous GURPS game are another.

I didn't want dragons to just be a casual encounter in that game. I subscribed to this theory of dragons. They were big deals. Huge. Named NPCs. Seen but not encountered unless you went after them. Fabulously wealthy, but also powerful and dangerous. They could be hunted and slain by only the boldest and best equipped, or negotiated with and spoke to in the hopes of acquiring their pent-up knowledge of the ages.

So naturally, dragons were a huge aspect of my game, right?

No, of course not. One dragon was seen flying. The group (wisely) hid from it, as it was early in the campaign and they weren't ready.

The rest of the campaign?

No dragons. Not one was investigated. Not one was spoken to. Not one was seen. Not one was researched to see where it lived, even when names came up. Not one was attacked. No one sat around the table and said, "We should hunt down one of the dragons and kill it, we'll have all the money we need for the rest of the game!"

When dragons did come up, it was quickly agreed that the group wasn't ready, that should be tabled for another time.

Any why not? I'd said they were dangerous, important, wealthy, knowledgeable, lethal, and so on. Who looks at their character sheet and says, "Well, I'm ready for the toughest possible monster in the game"? Not that many players - not a majority, anyway. It's always better - for in-game and out-of-game reasons - to put off danger you don't understand or can't be sure of and solve the easily solvable.

I made an effort to have dragons front-and-center in my current game. There are dragons you can't just march up to and kill - ones that are potentially shatteringly powerful and absurdly wealthy.

But equally, some dragons just sit in a major dungeon entrance on a pile of loot, and can be slain in a single encounter by PCs not entirely ready for a dragon fight.

Even so, we've had one accidental and zero purposeful encounters with dragons since. That's even with a party member, often acting as a party leader, who is obsessed with fighting and killing them. He's been unable to make the case for a dragon hunt, and those who don't want to go are careful to keep him away from a potential fight so he won't rush off and start one.

Another good example are the gates in Felltower. I put them down so they'd be ways to get to many different kinds of adventure or locations they just didn't fit within my megadungeon. So, magical doorway to them. My PCs finally went through one, only out of terror at something else and a series of mistakes that boxed them in near the gate with no other way out. Otherwise, gates are always "We aren't ready, we don't know enough, we might not be able to find our way back." My own logical setup to avoid "toe in the water" gaming - you can't always just go in, look around, and then come back - has meant it's a big deal to step through a gate.

My players regard gates, then, as a really big deal. Because you can't test the waters, you have to commit, it's safer just not to commit because you don't know what you're getting into. A solution would be to allow for "toe in the water" go-and-return gates to be totally standard just like two-way doors, not one-way, are standard. But then we're right back to every gate just being a "go see, and we'll come back someday when we're prepared for certain victory." With an added dose of GM prep and loss of sense of wonder, since gates are no longer doorways to strange and wondrous adventure but just fancy doors to larger dungeon rooms.

In the game world, and real world, that has logic - don't have fights, perform executions; know your enemy like you know yourself; failure to plan is planning to fail; look before you leap. But the war stories we all teach years after the game really happen when you leap and then look.

It ends up being a clash of logic. On one hand, the logic of the GM seeking to make something important and different - dragons aren't just bags of HP slain by dealing enough injury to them in any fashion you choose, gates not simply being glorified doors you can casually walk through and back as you please. On the other, the proper caution of players who don't want their paper man dead or trapped in a different world today, even if it means a potentially less story-worthy session.

I do have three potential solutions, however, to keep the logic but encourage particular actions.

Increase the risk-to-reward

This can be an in-game reward (more treasure with dragons, behind gates, etc.) or a meta-game award (extra XP for killing dragons, extra XP for crossing gates) or a real-world reward (free beer for fighting dragons and going through gates!)

Making every single dragon fight a +1 XP in GURPS or DFRPG - or every gate count as "lots of exploration" for a 2 XP session in my rules - means there is a real basic motivation for giving it a go. You know it will pay off

Brute force

Simply make more encounters with "important" monsters or passage through gates required. Have a dragon attack the PCs - like in Skyrim, where they'll just drop down from the sky and attack you. Make a gate the only way into or out of an area. Rocks fall, the big doors slam shut, everyone is stuck in the room with the open gate.

Make them common

Make these things more common. Again, Skyrim has you fight so many dragons you need the game to track the count. Gates could be all over the place, so avoiding them is like adventuring with a "we don't open doors" philosophy. You can keep these things special but common enough that you must encounter them - have a dragon nest on top of the dungeon after a while, have important bits of powerful artifacts or keys to great wealth known to be past a gate. It's still a choice to deal with them or not, but you're giving up a lot to avoid the perceived magnified risk.


  1. I think the reward angle is far, far better than making them common. Commonality destroys the mystique.

    1. Commonality could make them mundane, but you can just amplify their uniqueness to address that.

      Ensure all gates lead to truly mysterious and fantastical locale, often very different from whats on the other side. Make sure dragons always have at least one "rule breaking" and unique item in their hoard. You might run into them frequently, but they're always something different and unknowable - its a mystery of what new things you can obtain that you could never find anywhere else. Even if they're not "useful" to you now, they're always new and interesting.

      Rewards only encourage when those rewards are meaningful. Eventually someone will run the numbers or balance the risks against them and find those rewards lacking. They need to be enticing to remain a reward, but if you're using fixed rewards, you always know what to expect from entering into it. Whilst if you make gates/dragons common, but always providing something possibly very useful in their uniqueness, then that reward is never known, its a gamble - and one that could pay off massively. Much more appealing that an XP incentive imo.

    2. My gates do all lead to fantastic locations - so far, the PCs know about one of them being a silly place, one being an air realm with a flying castle, one to a lost jungle city (which they've been to, and really want to go to again), one leading to a "tavern level," and more. So they're already unique places.

      I'll have to see about the XP award - if every time the PCs go into a new gate, they walk out with 2 xp for the session no matter what, plus up to 4 for treasure - that's not small. That's a 20% increase in XP with a group that treasures each one. It might sound like nothing, but be something to the people who'll experience it.

      Assuring a unique item is interesting, but I'm not sure I want to commit to "all dragons have a unique treasure." It's an interesting idea though.

    3. In one campaign I ran a million or so years ago, Dragons didn't reproduce normally. They were a curse, Greed. A greedy enough individual, one who amassed the most fabulous of wealth /and/ had acquired some unique, potent artifact of magical power /and. refused to share or use the wealth (and artifact) to help others /could/ become a Dragon.

      Thus in this game, all Dragons had at least one unique, potent, magical artifact.

      I think you however have already put in evidence that Dragons have young? So maybe it takes those things above to become more powerful for Dragons (I mean the first did have Gram!).

  2. I think you've identified the problem correctly, but I'm less sure of the solutions. Your groups is actually pretty aggressive, so if big dragons are a serious TPK risk they probably won't bite for an extra 2 points and some shinies.

    This is a core problem with any gaming that tries to faithfully replicate cool stories where someone succeeds despite steep odds. For it to work in gaming, either the odds aren't really steep, or the majority of PCs are going to fail.

    If you want dragons that are so powerful that they pose a large risk of TPK for the delvers, sensible delvers will stay away regardless of the reward. Less sensible ones will die off fairly quickly when they get access to dragons.

    I'm not sure you *can* have OSR style deadliness without this problem cropping up again and again.

    1. You might be right, but if even a dirt-poor giant rat, random goblin, or treasure-free ooze can kill a PC or TPK the group with the right rolls, why is a massively richer potential TPK something to avoid?

    2. /raised eyebrow

      There is a vast difference in potentialities there Peter.

      On one hand the Giant Rat requires good rolls itself and bad rolls from all the PCs to TPK the group. With a Dragon, to /avoid/ a TPK, this needs to reversed.

    3. Also, you might want to check and see where the richest hauls have come from and how dangerous they were (or rather if possible, evaluate how dangerous they would have been with completely average rolls, if possible?).

      I seem to recall some of the best hauls the group has gotten have come from relatively weak foes (or just from tricky traps and puzzles). Yes, some great hauls have come off tough (and deadly) foes (like the Dragon), but it might be useful to evaluate the hauls on a whole.

      If the dragon fight wasn't that spectacular (compared to some of the spectacular and far less challenging encounters) then that might be where the problem lay.

    4. Random goblins have not crippled your group, bosses have done so at least once, and came close multiple times.

    5. @evileeyore: One of my players did do a treasure analysis, although it doesn't pull things out monster by monster. I'm not sure it matters if I do one or not - it's not my perception of treasure, or even the reality of treasure, but the player's perception of treasure that matters.

      @Martin: That's true, but the death list has folks killed by everything from unnumbered fodder to worthy foes to epic boss monsters, yet not one killed by a dragon. Or killed by going through a gate.

    6. However it's still a matter of perceptive potential TPK, and Dragons top that list...

      Though if we just want to go by "monster that killed the most" (and include NPCs) we'd put "Teleport Trap" at the top of the list. Dropping the full party into the drink killed 19 people in one go (16 NPCs and 3 PCs). I'd argue that was pretty much a "Boss Encounter".

      However if we don't count NPCs...

      It's a tie between Baron Sterick the Red with 9 kills under his belt (5 PCs and 4 NPCs) and the Undead Lizardmen under the Cold Fens with 7 kills (5 PCs and 2 NPCs), both of which were clearly Boss Encounters, one which took two goes (and technically the Undead Lizards are still down there, so neither Boss Encounter was a 'one go affair').

      I don't know, your Boss Fights tend to end with half the crew dead or dying (eh, like 50% of them)... which means pretty much everyone looks at the odds and has to ask themselves, "Is this Boss Fight my day to die?".

      Whereas the weird kills (Teleport TPK, throttlers, Dryst's 'friendly' fire, etc) just come out of nowhere and can't actually be evaluated that way.

      Lastly they've taken, what, two runs at Durak (Durak, Durak, Durak) and have failed both times (but oddly, no deaths to The Lord of Spite) so they might just figure some big dragon down even lower should really not be messed with.

      And really, with gates being touted as possible one-way affairs, I'd be damned hesitant to go into one. Zero intel situations are a bad thing to walk into /with no way out/.

      But really, the group has an decent list of Boss Fights under their belt (or maybe they just look like Boss Fights from this side of the screen):

      Prison level
      Lizardmen and Newt Throneroom fight
      Baron Sterik
      The Mummy
      7 Demons From beyond The Stars (if this isn't a boss Fight?)

      Mmm... I can't think of anymore.

      And really, I am down right surprised they've never geared up and gone after Mungo and the trolls.

    7. The thing is, you're retroactively defining "boss encounter" in several cases because of casualties.

      The teleport trap? It was a potentially lethal trap. Is that a "boss encounter"? I don't think it meets the standard. It's a bunch of totally avoidable fodder monsters that weren't avoided because the PCs did a really odd thing coupled without basic precautions. Had they just put Levitate on all the PCs, it would have just been a humorous end to Galen's hobgoblin army.

      The lizard man fight? I'd call that worthy. I still maintain that was a totally winnable fight, it's just that the PCs made some terrible tactical choices. The same group, getting to do that fight over again, would probably win the fight with some minor losses.

      The others? Some were bosses, some were worthy, much of the volume of monsters in the others were fodder. But I probably don't define "boss fight" the way you are. For example, to me the "Prison level" is an area with a mix of easy, medium, and potentially hard encounters - and some potential allies (that the PCs killed for their loot). It's not a "boss" anything, anymore than the level with the Lord of Spite is a "boss encounter." But I'd put the spectre as a boss monster - it was single-handedly capable of wiping out the entire party and almost did so.

      Plus a good example of a fight against weak foes going wrong is the gnoll fight - the PCs had to use a Wish to escape from foes with the same stats as ones they'd mopped the floor with back in the earliest sessions. A good example of a worthy fight going badly is the demon-ape fight. The Sterick fight was a classic "boss encounter" gone horribly wrong, partly from luck but also from the classic "let's half of us follow one plan, the other half follow a totally different one" error.

      "And really, with gates being touted as possible one-way affairs, I'd be damned hesitant to go into one. Zero intel situations are a bad thing to walk into /with no way out/."

      Oh sure, I understand their thinking. And they are indeed welcome to not go into gates until they can be assured they can come back, and have all the possible intel on the situation, and so on. Or they can go in, risk their resources and lives, and potentially come out with amazing loot. As I see it, it's not actually any different at all than any other new part of the dungeon. You don't know what's there, you don't know if you can make it out, you don't know if it's one-way, you don't know what you'll get. You just know the survivors, if they identify the chances when they see them, could potentially be rich. And the players could have a lot of fun. So in a way, it's just odd to say, "I'd wander around a megadungeon with a demon lord stomping around and walk into rooms with unknown monsters for unknown risk for unknown loot, but go into a gate without knowing what's beyond? No way!" Demonstrably, two of the gate destinations are safer than the areas they connect to in the actual dungeon.

  3. "As I see it, it's not actually any different at all than any other new part of the dungeon."

    Has the dungeon itself been touted as "potentially one-way"? See, every gate is potentially one way. Sure... some corridors, rooms, and doors are one way, this has been established. But they /have/ to go there.

    They have to go into the dungeon. The gates, not so much. And that's pretty much the difference as far as I can tell.

    So when presented with "Go into a probably one-way gate that we can't even see what's one foot into it or down this corridor that we can at least see to the edge of our torchlight..." I can totally understand their chose.

    1. All I can say at this point, without giving anything away, is heh. You might think that.

  4. Thumbs up!

    I'm just trying to explain why (to me anyway) the PCs don't seem willing to just jump through a gate or go hying off and tackle a dragon. (Though honestly, get Vryce, a few tough guys, a cleric, and a mage and it's probably Dragon fight time, I mean dude has Gram for crying out loud!)

    1. Yeah, and I get it, too - which is why I'm trying to find ways to ensure what's "special" in the game doesn't mean "stuff to save for tomorrow +1 day."

      I should also point out that, thanks to Scry Gate, they have a very idea of where some gates go (and certain knowledge of one).

  5. "I should also point out that, thanks to Scry Gate, they have a very idea of where some gates go (and certain knowledge of one)."

    Does Scry Gate in your game let them know if a Gate is one-way or not? If not (as I suspect) is there spell to determine this?

    Like maybe History or Analyze Magic?


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