Sunday, January 13, 2019

Felltower, Grinding, and Game Style

Martin Leuschen brought up the prospect of Felltower becoming some grim grinding while the PCs get back up to speed after the loss of almost the entire core of the PCs last session.

"Grim grinding with poor rewards" is how he put it.

My game, though, largely has been grim grinding.

So, what do I mean by "grinding?" In CRPGs, I've always associated "grinding" with repeatedly and steadily clearing out encounters that give you a good XP and resource reward for their challenge level, and/or killing fixed encounters over and over again for their XP. Basically, turning the process of gaining enough power to fight and beat the game into a simple series of repeated actions done over and over.

Here in particular I'd say it encompasses a mix of risk reluctance and confidence that you can eventually build up enough resources to overcome a challenge. The idea is time is on your side.

In most games - and in most of my games, this kind of grinding generally works. You don't take risks unless you're forced to. You maximize the force you can bring to bear. You bite off the smallest chunk you can get away with biting off. You don't, in a word, risk. Sometimes you need bold choices, though, and if you don't identify them well you tend to miss opportunities. I've seen a lot of them, and experience more frustration as a GM from them than from ill-advised risk.

We're playing Dungeon Fantasy now. The power level, I felt, plus a mix of risks and rewards that made any delve dangerous but potentially lucrative, would discourage that approach.

Felltower sprang from that.

Felltower basically depends a bit on not grinding.

Not just the megadungeon, but the entire campaign, has a bit of "replenishing risks but finite rewards" to it. You can literally spend too much time or money gaining your loot.

The Cold Fens had that happen - I expected a smaller number of delves, and so the PCs expended a lot more resources to gain loot than I'd expected,

Felltower itself isn't so parsimonious. There is more loot out than has been found. There are places to go get it. It probably doesn't seem that way with a very significant number of delves being barren of loot. However monsters do appear, and fewer of them have loot than do not. Many of them are just wandering scavengers, who probably will eventually depart themselves when the last of what's worth scavenging is gone. Or not - there is a lot pointing to creatures (like delvers) feeling an irresistible pull to the dungeon.

I'm rambling a bit, but back to the point:

Felltower basically depends a bit on not grinding.

The game expects you to take some risks. You have to go through gates before you know everything that's beyond them. You have to fight a battle sometimes and then go fight another before you've fully recovered. You have to pull the lever. You have to open the door. You have to turn the statues. You have to cultivate allies because you'll need them later. You have to rush ahead because fleeing or staying is too dangerous - or flee, because the other two are too dangerous. And you have to figure out with limited time and resources which one is appropriate. You need to use resources up with cheerful abandon when they're called for and husband others for a dark day, and know which is which.

It's very much the opposite of the Black Company approach, which puts the 15-minute work day to shame. They clear a dungeon (more or less) with a siege, and a graveyard full of monsters one single monster at a time with maximal force and rotating troops. That's something I deeply appreciate . . . but it's not this game.

This game requires a bit of boldness. You'll lose characters - it happens. You can't grind yourself to certain victory.

And one consequence of the "you can't grind yourself to certain victory" is that Felltower is a hard place to bring up replacement characters. Each wave of new characters - lacking the permanent resources found and lost with dead PCs - is less and less well equipped to face the risks that slew the earlier group. Without the video game "levels reset" and "creatures respawn" and "monsters are loot pinatas" it requires an entirely new area to explore and loot. That's something that it isn't unreasonable to expect in the game world but requires more and more time from the GM. In this particular case, that's not generally available.

So the next wave needs to go in without Shieldslayer, Sterick's armor, Inquisitor Marco's Mace, the Wand of Holding, and many item items. The personally owned treasures of the PCs are either lost (siphoned off to relatives or left undiscovered where buried) or are loot in the dungeon, now. It's back to square one, but the dungeon is a bit more barren and the way a bit more dangerous.

I'm not sure if that's a flaw, or if it might not cause a different approach. It may be perceived as a flaw, or a flat-out serious negative or impediment to fun by the players. It's just part of the mix between the design of the game, the way it's been played, and the reality of a GM with less time. Some of which I spent just now explaining all of that, but hey, I didn't have enough going to make a whole side area ready for next week anyway. I expect we'll keep playing but it's possible it's tipping the line over from "sometimes frustrating but fun" to "sometimes fun but frustrating." We'll have to see.

It's possibly ironic that I finished grinding my new Bard's Tale party up to the levels I want them at this morning for an hour or two while I was listening to some study materials. I don't know. Different games. You can't just go fight 396 berserkers over and over for 65K experience in Felltower.


  1. In a way, Felltower seems distinctly deflationary, similar to cryptocurrencies where mining each additional piece gets progressively harder- especially when starting over again. What's the plan in the eventuality that starting PCs cannot reasonably survive against any of the challenges that are in felltower if all the low-hanging fruit has been plucked?

    1. I think that's a good description. I'm really not sure. It may have reached the end of its useful, playable life with this group of PCs. We could end up doing something else entirely, or rebooting the campaign to one set far later in history, or something drastic of that sort.

      Or start a campaign external to Felltower, or just expand its playable areas, or something of that sort.

      We'll have to figure that out when the fun:difficulty ratio becomes an unfavorable one.


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