Monday, 4 March 2013

Towards a 'new' encounter - reading, comprehension

Very interesting discussions on OD&D go down (like lead balloons?) at Untimately. I like the blog a lot. Today in the comments Gus L and Brendan suggested - if I'm reading right - that the encounter distance, surprise and reaction rolls can be just a little lacking.

For those who don't speak OD&Dese, encounter distance is the distance at which another party or situation is spotted, a surprise roll determines - surprise, surprise - whether each side is surprised and the reaction roll is a roll made to determine how a potential threat reacts, usually on 2d6 modified by charisma or an equivalent.*

Gus wonders if there's a way to generate more specific circumstances, like what exactly the goblins are doing other than "'goblin things'". I can improvise goblins okay, but I would be interested in a useful tool. I'm also the kind of guy who might help make it, even link to the project. But my worry is a new tool is more complication, especially when different settings and GMs have different takes on who or what a goblin actually is.

So I have a simple idea.

But first let's look at what we already have. The distance tells us a lot. If the terrain is light, the encounter could be obscured in some other way, or quiet, or both; gathering maybe, or resting. If the encounter is far off, it may be very visible and/or loud, especially if the terrain is heavy. How is the signal boosted? Is there smoke, light, a wheeling flock, a crump? Other senses could come into play too. Encounter size is also important. Two goblins may be less easily spotted than 12. We then interpret surprise and reaction based on these factors. Why is the band of goblins so amicable? The reason may vary depending on how many there are, whether they're at 20' or 120', and who's surprised.

From all of this - and what the GM knows of the wider world - flow initial circumstances.

A given encounter type may have a number of critical points, and the roll for size and the three extra rolls might combine with this to give a five-dimensional space for a stage, to add of course to all of that information the GM presumably has about the wider world.

When rolls are made at the table, it always is and always has been about improvisation.

So my simple idea, if we even need it given how much a 5D+ space already offers. It's this: we lean on the other factor we have right in front of us, the name of the encounter itself. The words used in the table entry. You know what a goblin is for you, or you have the seeds of a distinct idea ready. It's in the name. A goblin is a goblin. Feel the word.

Run with it. Think 11 pipers piping, but with 2d6 goblins. That's a full 2-12 goblins goblin. They're be goblin about, or goblin along, or man, really goblin out now. Think 1d6+3 orcs orcin. You already know what the kobolds are doing. The onomatopoeia takes the strain.

No new tables.** Just a mind's eye and a lifetime alive. A language may be all the ideas.

TL;DR: Read. Then feel.

* If this sounds interesting and/or you want a fuller sense of how and when, have a read of this simple ruleset.
** I am partial to this way of thinking though, and this way.


Trey said...

The smurfs beat the goblins to it with their name/verb/adjective doings.

Thought provoking post as usual, Porky.

bombasticus said...

Nice. I suppose the test of the "goblins goblinning" system would be to break out some Tekumel, where none of the nouns verb intuitively to native speakers of any earth language.

One of the things that fries these discussions is the concept of rolling up a random 100-ant ambush that instantly mathematically TPK. Things like encounter distance, % lair and so on get lost in that.

Another d(imension) roll for "encounter intensity" would get around this nicely by highlighting the fact that meeting 100 ants at Condition 1 is a lot more dangerous and probably lethal than 100 ants at Condition 6, in which case the ants didn't see us and we only got a brief scare.

That extra die not coincidentally may go by the name of "surprise," which opens up a whole new world of munsters who game the surprise die -- the bugbear as first of a strange new breed.

Magic Realm of all things gets around this with a whole system of "encounter approaching" chits of various intensity: bones lying around, howls in the night, bad smells. Always love seeing that stuff grafted back into the rpg world.

Thanks for this.

Porky said...

A clan of Smurfs could make for an interesting encounter too, and it's a good mix of potential tones.

I also like the encounter approaching idea - a method of rolling for encounters just before they're met does rather undermine the potential and the possible tension. But then with all the house rules and homebrew out there we've long known the books might be missing some pages. In this case a solution could be as simple as rolling an encounter 1d6 turns ahead of time. That gives the GM space to ponder some of the details and weave it naturally into the landscape, the bones, howls, smells and all.

The intensity idea is interesting too and linked with what I'm getting at with critical points. Maybe along the 2-12 goblin range there are key numbers or subranges, for example the goblins usually patrol / scout / hunt and gather in fours, but sometimes they're a gobbo down or another tags along. Maybe they never leave in a group above ten unless it's for strife and/or migration.

That opens up new avenues too. Why are they a gobbo down? Bad food? Spread thin because of raids? Is the missing gobbo running an errand? A minimum of two could be that runner with an escort or the sick gobbo with the shaman or a good / bad friend. The maximum of 12 could have been reinforced or forced out.

As a rule of thumb, the critical points - beyond the two limits and the average - could be the numbers midway above and below the average, rounding to the limit, i.e. on 1d6 at 2 and 5, on 2d10 at 6 and 16 etc.

The intensity could come largely from this and the reaction roll. For example, if a whole marching column is friendly, maybe the party are a potentially useful buffer or an irrelevance. At any rate, taken as a whole and read into, the standard dice rolled are a very rich resource.

bombasticus said...

Moving into some downright divinatory territory. I love the idea of the dice indicating the dramatic arc of the encounter *before* the encounter -- were they winning or losing? -- and maybe even why the encounter takes place.

Goblins can theoretically run back to %lair and hide too, if they see the party first and aren't feeling confident. The only way to encounter a weak (low No. Appearing), scared (low Morale) goblin band is if the goblins were too weak, distracted, hurt, lazy, stupid to be paying attention. A weak but fanatical band may simply charge out of the forest.

Why are they on the march and out of %lair? High morale is going to war, low morale has been displaced. The dice will suggest.

And if the dice let us look backward, they also tell us how the encounter's future might unfold if they survive. A small fanatical goblin pack has better odds of absorbing bachelor males in the wild and becoming a standard 40-400 menace.

Tension between particulars and universals also creates detail. This goblin squad over here hates me and the chief of the larger column loves me for some reason, we have instant Kurosawa.

Porky said...

And that in turn adds a whole other layer, a finer one, and crucially without any extra mechanism to recall or dig out when needed. I dig it.

This idea of extrapolating past and future has a long history I'm sure, but I think there's more yet to be done with it. I'm actually right now working on a simple system for generating a new location back through the characters that know the place, pass through it and maybe live there. It's a little like an inverse function, and maybe every element in the game world can make other elements in a similar way, or even all of them.

bombasticus said...

Thank you as always, o expansive one. I'm sure there's a lot of prior art lurking in the "storyteller advice" essays and Dragon articles, which may be worth a post in itself. But none of the brain trust seem to be talking now like they're aware of it, so we're in the wheel inventing business.

Now that you mention it (I am slow), this type of thinking lends itself to location generation -- dungeon dressing and rumor table -- which might become the entree that grounds encounter design. The last good ambush the goblins had generated *this* morale, *that* lost man and *that* backpack over there. It also generated an entry in the rumor table (or for our purposes, vice versa) that there are vicious goblins on the third level.

Down that way lies Dwarf Fortress madness but maybe also pure dynamic setting gold...