Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Monster Diplomacy

Monsters in the wilderness are largely a libertarian lot. They’re have a strong laissez-faire streak, and embrace an “only the strong survive” ethos. Might makes right. They are quite happy to live and let live… until someone has something they want. And they have nothing but contempt for weakness. One thing’s sure, they are quite happy that guys like Sauron and Saruman aren’t around to tell them what to do all the time and use them for cannon fodder!

This chaos is a big part of what makes adventuring possible. If the monsters really had their act together, then the players would be unable to set foot in the vicinity of the caves complex of module B2. Scouting parties would keep close tabs on The Keep, waiting for a chance to sack it. Travelers on the road would suffer hit and run raids from agile wolf riders. If the players camp anywhere, the monsters would arrange to have some sort of wild creature stampede through their tents. It would be a mess.

We wouldn’t tend to start a game that way. But I think especially something like B2 should get that way. If the players sack a cave complex and eradicate an entire tribe, then word would get out. It’d be less likely to happen if the players had left the women and children monsters alive… but alliances among the monsters are going to increase in direct proportion to their terror. All of this falls under “monsters learning from experience.” They’ve just had an easy time of it until the players showed up.

But this is all a big powder keg. The players can’t necessarily afford to adopt the usual dungeon crawling tactics of “always go left,” “we’ll clean this out room by room”, and the asinine “15 minute workday.” All of those tactics emerge from a player culture that is used to a static environment. It’s a product of players assuming that monsters will simply wait in their rooms until they arrive. If necessity is the mother of invention, then the average dungeon crawler has not faced a whole lot of necessity.

This horrible style of play is easy to code up… even on an 8-bit computer platform. A referee could take things so much farther beyond all of this… but I’m afraid a large chunk of the gaming scene would consider it “unfair” if they did. The players are “supposed” to win with their last hit point, after all.

I think the biggest problem is a lack of imagination. I know that I’ve been scratching my head about how the players might take advantage of the “tribal warfare” of module B2. There is that tantalizing bit of advice to the Dungeon Master there… and it sets up the political situation in the caves… but just how the players might take advantage of this wasn’t at all clear.

Of course, if Clint Eastwood had sauntered in to the Caves of Chaos, it would be an entirely different matter. If Fistful of Dollars is any indication, he’d see the place as an absolutely fantastic business opportunity. He’d overlook a certain amount of razzing and violence… but he’d figure out how to land a job with one of the stronger tribes. He’d work out a way to get paid for attriting their rivals. At some point he’d be in position to sell information to those same rivals. And when the dust settles, somehow he’ll have double crossed them all.

Players just don’t think this way. And a really elaborate plan is unlikely to pan out unless you have complete control of the script. But the monsters will definitely have a reason to try to deal… especially after the body count has gotten their attention. If the players are unlikely to spontaneously channel an old spaghetti western, then maybe the monsters can demonstrate the technique. Maybe the players won’t develop interesting tactics until they start to learn from the monsters….

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10 responses to “Monster Diplomacy

  1. Alex February 26, 2014 at 9:22 am

    One interesting idea I’d like to run with B2 is to treat the Caves of Chaos more like a “Rendezvous”; the players would be like the 18th century French trappers and traders who had often been accused of having “gone native”. Most monstrous demi-humans in the vanilla D&D setting are not manufacturing cultures, and would therefore need to acquire most tools and goods through trade or by theft. The Caves themselves represent a ‘soft’ target, and the source material implies that the complex is ultimately doomed to be displaced due to adventurers from the Keep and the eastern human civilization that sees the presence of hunter-gather-trader culture as gross misuse of arable land. The dynamic of the module changes radically if you throw away the assumption that the tribes in the caves are all inherently evil and worthy of extermination.

  2. Jason Packer February 26, 2014 at 9:59 am

    We grew up in gaming in a different time, Jeff – a time where you took your (character’s) life in your hands when you left town on the next big adventure. Modern game design is all so heavily invested in “telling an exciting story” that they’ve lost track of “challenge the characters and their players” in the process.

    • jeffro February 26, 2014 at 10:05 am

      The question for the designer is… how do you make that lightbulb to go off? How do you set it up so that sort of thing can happen….

      • Alex February 26, 2014 at 12:15 pm

        Emergent narrative hooks are all important and something that some (not all) old TSR modules are definitely missing.

        It’s from a defunct OSR publisher, but Terror in the Gloaming is a really good example of a module with a ton of stuff to do. It has a ruined dungeon-town, detailed rural wilderness area with active roving bands of different factions, a base camp that can be treated as a town or a dungeon, and a few ‘trigger’ events that set time-table driven narratives into effect.

        It can be picked apart, dropped in various places, run with or without dynamic events (not everyone might want to deal with a barrow-wight apocalypse at low levels or if the party is definitely unable to stop the nominal “Terror”), but has a “whole shebang” dynamic feel to it that few other beginner mods I’ve come across have.

  3. PeterD February 26, 2014 at 10:12 am

    I think saying “Players just don’t think this way” and “Maybe the players won’t develop interesting tactics until they start to learn from the monsters….” are unfair.

    I think the reason players don’t go all Fistfull/Yojimbo/Red Harvest on the monsters in adventures is because it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of buy-in from the GM. You have to be sure that there is a good reward for doing it and know the GM is along for the ride. If the GM has any objection to you doing so – even just that they’re evil and untrustworthy and suspicious of humans – it will likely fail and you wasted your time.

    You said it yourself – “a really elaborate plan is unlikely to pan out unless you have complete control of the script.” The players don’t have that control, so it’s a big risk and a lot of effort for possibly no reward. Nevermind that not everyone wants to play both sides against the other, especially when they all know how it ends (both sides dead.) They just want to skip to “fight both sides.” That’s not a failure of imagination. It’s recognizing the final reward (the monster’s loot, the cleared-out caves) isn’t worth the effort.

    • jeffro February 26, 2014 at 10:36 am

      There’s got to be something more than just static monsters waiting around to get cleared. It doesn’t have to be epic movie material or crazy A-Team schemes. At the very least, a goblinoid group will try to buy the players off once their morale breaks. If the players go “no quarter” on them, then an alliance is far more likely to be formed temporarily between otherwise uncooperative groups. A cunning group will try to leverage the situation to settle an old score. Something.

      There has to be a way to apply the Gygaxian advice from B2 in order to create a richer game. If players don’t naturally know that they need to make deals with the monsters, then the Dungeon Master needs to take the initiative and have the monsters offering to become patrons of the party on their own.

  4. Gus L. February 26, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    I think one of the keys to this issue is how ‘monstrous’ monsters are. The distinction between Monster & NPC is a problem here – and one written into early D&D publications. The alignment system, the non-human nature of the enemy and the sense that the D&D world was a Manichean one all lead to play where the players don’t consider negotiation with the monsters, they themselves would never surrender and routinely commit atrocities against monster populations. This isn’t to say that I weep for the orc babies of cave B, but if you replaced those orcs with a tribe of human barbarians, bandits, fugitives or religious dissenters I suspect player behavior would change radically.

    Less dramatically, I think the tired nature of the D&D humanoids (and that every player knows they should be able to take on a mass of goblins) add to this. Goblins and orcs aren’t mysterious and their abilities are known – reskinning monsters gives players pause and pause leads to conversation. Heck even violently aggressive enemies that taunt and jeer are something that encourages considering them as a part of a roleplaying games rather then mechanical obstacles to mechanical rewards.

  5. Role Play Craft February 28, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    I was very proud of my players when the Next playtest was first released with a version of Caves of Chaos, because their first thought was to pit the monsters against each other. They did false-flag attacks and started a monster mash (heheh). The evil priests, of course, figured it out and the players had to face them head on.

    It was a lot of fun, even if a character did get thrown down the side of a mountain by an unexpected ogre.

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