Sunday, March 10, 2024

What it takes to live & thrive in Felltower, Part II: Players

This is part II of my series on what it takes - from the ref's point of view - to succeed in Felltower.

Here is Part I.

What does it take to be a successful player in Felltower?

This is what I think, looking from the GM's side of the screen. I think two things are critical for success, and one, for enjoying the game.

Creative Thinking

Felltower rewards flexibility and creative thinking. It's a simple framework - monsters in rooms with treasure. But it's not a simple game. You need to be able to look past the easy answers. If you solve your problems by looking at your character sheet to see what you character can roll against, you're likely limiting your own options. You really need to look at the situation in the totality of what a being could do in that situation, and then narrow it down from there by what you can accomplish given your tools and skills. Too often people get hypnotised by the stats and skills on their streets. And this isn't a GURPS thing. Any time you have things to use or roll against, you look to use them or roll against them. If you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. In Felltower, this can sometimes be, "If I didn't bring the tool or the spell or the skill, it can't be done until next time when we do." It's a self-imposed creativity constraint.*

You need the ability to simplify. A lot of the problems of Felltower - puzzles, monster issues, factional conflicts, character limitations, whatever - seem complex. Some of them actual are. Most are not. Felltower rewards players who can identify a way to get simply to the heart of the matter. What is your goal, and how can you get to that goal?

This isn't to say you have to play a simple game. You can't just, say, exterminate everything you face and expect it to go well. But overthinking can lead to issues - wether it is causing yourself a long, drawn out journey to avoid facing a problem head on, to talking yourself into truly bizarre solution attempts - like throwing a key at a door to try to open it.

You do have to think . . . and be clever . . . but avoid overthinking. You have to avoid the dangerous either extreme of oversimplifying and overthinking. Keep in mind here that when I write for Felltower, I really don't put a lot of thought into how a problem will be solved. I put them out there and see what happens. There might be a key for that door, or not. There might be a clever way around a situation, or not. I often don't know . . . some trying to discern the solution isn't helpful; trying to create a solution is. Sometimes that solution is very simple - break down the door, kill the monster, disarm the trap, grab the treasure. Other times, it is not.

An aside on engineering: All of that said, it's a dungeon exploration game, not a construction game - I've seen a lot of "creative solutions" that were just using magic and brute force to dig through obstacles. The game is designed to make that difficult and to generally punish the attempt; if Felltower is like a video game, it's Diablo, not Dig Dug.


Caution is certainly important. But there are huge opportunity costs to not taking risks in Felltower. All success in Felltower comes from taking risks, not from playing it safe. Let me put it another way - in the long run, anyone who delves in Felltower eventually dies, unless the player just quits or retires the character.

Given this, it's understandable that players might play with great caution - this is a very risky environment. But it's a false choice, really. If your paper man is going to die eventually, no matter how cautiously you play, you aren't gaining your desired end - longevity of your paper man - by being maximally cautious. You might even be shortening it, by playing a succession of sessions that each pull in very little XP, very little treasure, and don't pave the way for future gains. Starved of XP, the PC doesn't improve. Starved of funds, equipment can't be easily replaced or upgraded. And starved of success in the dungeon, it's less and less likely you'll want to play.

You have to be willing to bet the "life" of your paper man. I've long argued that from my side of the screen, I see a lot of strategic caution and a lot of tactical risk. Felltower is built to reward strategic boldness and tactical caution. That's not just fighting in hallways and bottlenecking foes into doorways. My players over the years have turned to tactical caution, but strategic caution + tactical caution doesn't work any better. It's what leads to resting in the dungeon in a dead end so no one can sneak up on you, when neither resting nor cornering yourself lead anywhere good.

Being unwilling to fully commit is a related issue. You have to be willing to push your chips in when it matters. You can't wait for the perfect time because it's never the perfect time. There are bad times to do things, but no perfect times to do things. A delve or two from now, you'll wish you did the thing this time.

Felltower is designed as a pick-up game, lethal, on "hard mode," and generally a erring on the less-serious side of the serious-silly spectrum. It's not above being meta, having the world designed to support the play style, and otherwise being a construct for a style of play. It's not a long term, serious fantasy campaign with long-lasting characters. You can try to play it that way, but ultimately, it's going to fail. There is way too much baked in to the premise to undo with roleplaying and heroic characters intended for long-term play. The adventure in Felltower - the intended source of fun - is the experience of the good and bad happening to PCs. It's a meta kind of fun. You, the player, should enjoy the discoveries, the riches, the wins, and the losses. The PC is a tool to do that job. You don't have to play it that way . . . but the game will revert to form.

Finally, you need a Sense of Humor. It's a dumb game, deliberately. You have to be willing to have you, or the dice, or your friend, do something mind-bogglingly frustratingly stupid to your guy . . . and laugh. Straight-up enjoy it. If you can't, this isn't the game for you. It's just a way for those of us who are already friends to do some activity together that's entertaining for a few hours. It's satisfying when you win. It's annoying when you lose. But it better be fun the whole time. Taking it all too seriously is a bad idea.

* I'm a big believer in the ability of constraints to help teach physical skills, though - but that's not the same thing as you get in a TTRPG.

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