d20 Failure Modes V – The Nova Strike

Merchant Adventurers Hall, York

Let us return to the Inn to rest!

It’s most often called “the 15-minute adventuring day”; the characters go in, use all their most effective abilities and renewable resources up on a few encounters (or even on the first one), and then fall back to rest, refresh their abilities, and deal with the cries of “Linear Fighters, Quadratic Mages!”.

This really isn’t a problem with game design however.

The Infernal Cult was long established. It’s Dark Temple had nestled in it’s hidden valley for centuries, it’s crypts filled with tortured innocents, it’s altars drenched in blood, it’s summoned guardians most formidable. Permeated with unholy energies, the area enhanced the power of the cult and diminished that of those who would come against it. The only access-ways were through the magic of the cult and the maze of passages which lay beneath the surrounding hills.

A group of bold adventurers came, as adventurers had come before – but this batch seemed powerful indeed. They easily blasted their way through several groups of the hobgoblin troops that guarded the tunnels and passages of the outer defenses – and then, inexplicably, fell back.

The Guards were reinforced, and fresh traps and defenses prepared. A few of the greater creatures of the depths were called in, returning old favors. The priests unlocked ancient chests, and used a few scrolls to call in some of the evil adventuring groups the temple had sponsored and aided across the years. Trackers were sent out, and the adventurers – camped nearby* – were attacked while resting, awakened and disturbed so that their mystics would be unable to refresh their powers – effectively crippling them while a massed assault was readied.

As it turned out, it was an easy victory for the Temple’s forces; the group that had seemed so powerful had – utterly foolishly – virtually exhausted themselves in their initial attack, reserving little power for their retreat, their defenses that night, or for any other purpose. Afterwards the temple leaders made it a point to hunt down the attackers families and haul them to the altars as tormented sacrifices. It was such a useful way to discourage others!

*If the group is high enough level to teleport back to their own base, then their opposition is almost always of high enough level to have similar resources – and the divination abilities to locate their attackers, or those they value.

Even a simple clan of Orcs living in a small complex is probably paying tribute to some far greater creature; if you attack them, fall back, and come back later… they may have moved out, they may have called in allies, their boss may have sent help or even come in person, and they might even have sworn service to some local unpleasant warlord or infernal power in exchange for protection. Even Orcs are not stupid enough to be sitting around in their cave waiting for adventurers to refresh themselves and come back.

Of course there are times when the fifteen-minute adventuring day works just fine. If you’re in no rush, have a safe place (presumably without any old-style wandering monsters) to rest, and can easily reach that safe place… Well, the undead sealed in the chambers of an ancient tomb, a nest full of giant insects, or the numerous mindless (or just disorganized) monsters of a cavern may not do anything to get ready for the next assault beyond breeding and eating the bodies no matter how long you give them or how many times you retreat and come back – but mindless opponents really aren’t that big a problem anyway. Go ahead; open one chamber in that long-sealed tomb, deal with it, and wait to open the next crypt until tomorrow. When you’re doing something very dangerous it’s pretty reasonable to want to start off each step as well rested and prepared as you can manage.

There are risks even in situations like that – something may escape, or start to awaken, or some such – but the giant scorpions in the cavern complex aren’t going to use the time to organize their defenses. If there’s no countdown-until-something-nasty-happens, or other major threat in the area, you’re not in a race with competitors, and there are no hostages you need to rescue before upsetting the enemy too much – then take your time.

If you’re exploring a megadungeon, then you may be able to focus on subsections – perhaps going in to go after that sub-complex full of orcs. Since they don’t get along with the hobgoblins, the hydras, or the vermin in the refuse-filled section of natural caves, as long as you do enough damage to the Orcs to really cripple them they won’t be a further worry – and you can fall back to rest without anything going disastrously wrong. Similarly, when you discover the sealed portal which generates the Dark Temple’s unholy power – but which five hundred years worth of Evil Priests have not dared to open – it’s time to come back later. Possibly several years later, when you’ve put on a bunch of levels. Whatever lies beyond that portal has waited for five hundred years. It can probably wait a while longer.

Using the “fifteen-minute adventuring day” tactic against an organized group means giving your intelligent opponents all the time that they need to get ready to take you out. If they fail to call in help and make a really good effort to do so it’s not the game that’s at fault; it’s the game master.

Even if the player-characters win in the end anyway… using the fifteen-minute strategy means that organized opponents will have plenty of time to send their kids away, to get “beware of these guys!” messages out, to put out revenge-contracts, and to hide anything valuable that won’t help them in a fight – which means that the party they will probably never find most of their opponents “treasure”. They might not even find the the stuff that was in the form of domesticated animals or slaves, ransoms, supply stockpiles, territorial claims, and even structures if they can set up a dead man switch or a classical “load bearing boss”. If you knew that people were coming to kill you and take your stuff – and that you might not be able to stop them – wouldn’t you want to make it as difficult and unprofitable for them as possible?

Now the “Dark Temple” scenario is one that’s come up many times in one form or another over the last thirty-five years. The most successful groups have pretty much invariably been the ones that scout out the situation, arrange for prepared fallback positions, recruit local help where they can, stock up on expendables, set priorities, plan their attack, and manage their resources so as to get through the entire “adventure” without stopping and giving the enemy a chance to call in assistance and prepare for their next attack.

The adventuring parties advantage lies in being unexpected, in striking when as many as possible of the temples resources are committed elsewhere, and in being on the attack. There is a REASON why so much effort was made to conceal just when and where the D-Day landings would be made. The focused surprise attack is the attackers advantage. Time to prepare is the defenders.

The trouble here is that game masters are generally pretty reluctant to have their monsters and NPC’s take advantage of such opportunities. Killing off – or even seriously inconveniencing – characters tends to force the game master to rewrite his or her plotlines on the fly and often upsets the players. Thus monsters don’t finish off unconscious characters, the rules about item saving throws and destroying equipment get ignored even when it would be a sensible tactic, organized opponents don’t attack the player characters when they’re at any kind of disadvantage, and so on.

As always, doing things that way fails because unearned victories are ultimately boring. When there’s no real chance of losing, winning is meaningless. Sure, the “unconquerable hero” fantasy is fun for a while – but it never really lasts, and that makes for dull games and short campaigns.

If the players think that opponents actually reacting to what they do is “unfair”… then that is a problem with player expectations rather than the game system. Would Monopoly work if the players decided to “play it as a team against the bank”? Players who aren’t willing to accept failures, setbacks, and occasional character deaths are not actually there to play the game; they’re there for a bit of semi-shared fantasizing. They want to drop the “game” part and just stick with the role-play.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; I suspect that over-emphasizing the “game” aspect is why fourth edition had a rather short run. Still, you really don’t need a game master, or a bunch of books of rules, or dice, for a pure role-playing session – and some of the other people there will probably want some gaming with their role-playing. There are people out there who like finding clever ways to use odd items, trying to figure out what they’re up against so that they can prepare the appropriate spells, gambling on their ingenuity, and coming up with complicated plans.

Personally, I think it’s unfair that I can’t just live on ice cream – but trying to get along without real food would kill me just as inevitably as trying to get along without real challenges will kill a campaign.

Go ahead. If the Player Characters want to use the fifteen-minute day strategy when it isn’t appropriate… Have their opponents exploit that time as efficiently as the players would. Take the abilities they showed into account and set up to counter them. Let their enemies make great promises to dark gods and infernal powers of sacrifices later in exchange for help now (in other words, faced with disaster they take out an emergency loan). Coming back later means giving your enemies plenty of time to get everything ready to kill you – and if that results in some dead characters, or even a total party kill, so be it. Tell them they wake up as ghosts, bound to service by an opposing necromancer, and have to undertake some unpaid missions until they find a way to escape and return. Send them to Planescape, and let them know that their next death will NOT let them off easy. Let them earn new lives by undertaking some quest for the God of Death. Have a ragged priest resurrect them twenty years later, when the Dark Temples forces dominate the continent and the failing resistance has sought out their graves to summon the last heroes who dared to try to stop the oncoming horror.

Just don’t let them walk all over the opposition and the setting because you’re reluctant to risk them losing. It really does make for poor games.

Eclipse doesn’t really address the fifteen minute adventuring day directly. After all, there’s no way to write a book that will force game masters to make their world react appropriately to what the player-characters do. It does chip away at some of the underlying problems however.

  • On the “we’ve used all our best abilities!” front having high-end, but often limited-use, defenses available means that stacking everything into a few powerful initial attacks is very likely to see those attacks wasted. An efficient attack plan in Eclipse will usually rely on things that the characters can do quite a lot of times – probing to find out what’s likely to work and to exhaust defenses. If they’re up against mooks, they’ll never need to go beyond the small stuff. If they’re up against a really dangerous opponent… they’ll want to either wear down his or her defenses with the small stuff or find out what he or she is vulnerable to and use an appropriate attack. In Eclipse mighty attacks are usually finishing (rather than opening) moves, and conservation of resources becomes the default rather then the exception.
  • On the “we’re too badly injured to go on” front, a parties available healing tends to go a lot further when the characters are using active defenses to take a lot less damage in the first place. Just as importantly, powers like Grant of Aid and Healing Touch allow characters to pick up some healing ability of their own rather easily.
    • Fortunately, since the opposition can buy those abilities too, you don’t need to give them huge amounts of magical items to have them be creditable opponents – and Eclipse characters can be a lot less reliant on magical devices than standard d20 characters in any case.
  • On the “we can’t go on without all our buffs!” front Eclipse characters tend to rely more on abilities like Augmented Bonus or Innate Enchantment for their basic “buffs” – making them permanent, rather than something that runs out so that you lose effectiveness. Thus there’s a lot less of a difference between the party with short-term buffs running and the baseline party. You don’t need to have your larger, but limited-use, buffs running for every fight – and so you can, once again, save them for when you really need to go above and beyond your usual abilities. That also frees up the spellcasters to use their abilities for things other than buffs and healing.

None of that’s a guarantee of course; Eclipse does allow you to build any kind of character you want – and if you want to build a character suited to 15-minute tactics you can. Just don’t be surprised if the rest of the world fails to go along with you.

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4 Responses

  1. This happened in one adventure… some players got annoyed with the DM.

    scene – adventuring group attacks a town of undead. Yes the whole town had been wiped out and claimed by evil forces. My character went down in two hits, dead down. lol was funny.

    party got routed so they fell back to ‘camp’. Before the camp was not even set up, four greater shadows came after them, killing their mage (cue the unhappy player)

    couple of arguments in sued too. Why would undead come after us? lol

    well a) you are living
    b) you attacked them
    c) they are not stupid

    :) nuff said

    • An example of “Charge straight in because the GM won’t put in something that we can’t handle!” I suspect!

      I get those too sometimes… A player who says “It must be so-and-so behind all this! Lets go kill him!” – and tries to drag the party along on a straight march towards so-and-so, who he has decided must be the “final boss” – disregarding all possibilities of allies, special equipment, and getting beyond second level first, as well as the possibility of being wrong.

      Fortunately, the rest of the group said “you are nuts!” and didn’t go along with Mr Impatience.

  2. A campaign I tried to run about three years ago ran smack into this problem. It wasn’t so much the fifteen-minute adventuring day so much as it was the enemy NPCs being canny.

    I had enemies take hostages, and then demand that the PCs surrender or they’d be slain (and when they did surrender, the NPCs tried to butcher them where they stood). I had them coup-de-grace downed characters. I had them summon reinforcements when they were under attack.

    Needless to say, my players quickly grew upset with how I was running the game, and I caved to the pressure (albeit after my trying to tell them that they were doing it wrong; a lesson that they were not at all receptive to).

    Following one very brief attempt to start another campaign (differences in style aborted that one pretty fast), I settled in for a long stint as a PC, rather than a GM; I’m much happier now.

    • I suspect you had a group expecting combat-as-sport there, rather than combat-as-war. I’ve never been much for “It is the job of the NPC’s to put up an entertaining but not terribly dangerous fight and then die for our entertainment”. They tend to fight back as viciously as they possibly can when people try to kill them… Of course, in most of my games, combat is a dangerous last resort.

      Still, the “hostage” problem was solved a very long time ago, by one of the Mongol rulers… If someone takes hostages you 1) consider the hostages as already dead, 2) go in and massacre the hostage-takers, and 3) if you happen to recover any hostages alive, celebrate their marvelous resurrection. Otherwise assure their spirits that they were properly avenged.

      To quote a relatively recent bit of character dialogue directed at a captured bad guy…

      The world is full of innocents who can be easily harmed. Anyone, at any time, can claim that – if something happens to them – their unidentified allies will massacre dozens or hundreds of innocents in retaliation. Yielding to such a threat amounts to giving every evildoer and lawbreaker a free pass, forever! The only way to protect those innocents and to support justice is to make sure that threats against innocents result in the most horrible, lingering, and permanent doom that can be meted out so that no one ELSE will be STUPID enough to threaten them in such a way again! You are already known to be traitor and a murderer. You have harmed innocents before, and – if allowed to escape – will likely do so again! I suspect that your ONLY chance for any form of clemency is to tell us who your associates are, and to do your absolute best to ensure that the Captain is returned unharmed.

      And that was the parties paladin-type. He wasn’t much for compromising with evil.

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