Wednesday, February 17, 2010

First Encounters

If you were an adventurer, crusader, fighter, mercenary, whatever colorful terms gets your character out and exploring in a fantasy RPG, new enemies would present a challenge. You’ve never seen a bullywug or beholder before (unless it’s in your background that you have), and you’re probably not going to be sure about how it fights, what powers it has, etc.

Now, to a certain extent, forbidding metagaming in these situations is impossible. Players may very well know trolls have an adverse reaction to fire, and they may have read up on what to expect from a bullette. What should be an exciting experience against a new foe instead turns into a two-round kill, as the poor creature suffers Death By Metagaming.

Is there a good mechanical representation to represent the first fight against a new type of enemy? Certainly the easiest solution might be to assign a -1 or -2 to hit the first time a player fights orcs, dragons, flumphs, etc. That penalty drops off next time you fight them. Eventually, you could even mark an enemy you fight the most as favored, with bonuses not unlike that of the Ranger’s ability in D&D 3.5.

I know I’ve seen some folks do something like this around the blogosphere, but for the life of me, I can’t remember where.

Of course, Game Masters should not be afraid to “tweak” stats and add & subtract abilities to make new encounters more uncertain and intense. Players should not have a tactical advantage because they had access to your Monster Manual.

22 comments:

Sean said...

For the most part, I just a assume anyone who willfully heads off to kill monsters will know something about them, even if they've never personally encountered them before: "Trolls! Grampa said only fire kills them. Did anyone bring oil?"

Approach two is just as simple. Use the stats from the manuals, but use a different description. "You see men, with four insect-like legs and two human-like arms, wielding crude swords and wooden shields. They stand about four feet tall, are totally bald and have huge milky-white eyes that seem to reflect your torchlight back at you" = orc. You can also switch up abilities just a bit to add flavour ie: trolls aren't vulnerable to fire, but say to sunlight or holy light, taking an extra 1d6 per round when exposed to it, and crumbling away to rubble when they die of it.

There are lots of cool images on the internet you can us to show players what they're fighting that don't connect obviously with any particular 'Monster Manual' creature.

One final advantage of this approach is that you can use it to create evil versions of of good-aligned creatures that the PC's would normally never fight, but that you think would make an interesting tactical challenge.

Greyaxe1 said...

Generally the game mechanics have a system in place to identify monsters. As a Rolemaster GM I only allow players to use the knowledge the character has via Lore Role, for those of you who know RMSS and RMFRP skills abound. I also do implement a penalty (degree of difficulty) based on the description of the creature. A creature (dragon) or another who is a "Creature of Lore" may in fact be famous for lack of a better word. Anyone know what to expect from a leprechaun? I provide a bonus to the lore roll, a daemon form the ether, -50 for a sheer folly lore role. But in each case I allow luck to play a factor. If they get lucky, an iron staff will behave as slaying. If not lucky…… TPK. Here of course is the argument….do you allow rules and a demand for realism and challenge have an opportunity to end an otherwise enjoyable campaign? In my games more often than not it’s a low level threat that is not given any respect kills off an otherwise mighty hero. Boy does the player get pissed….. But that’s Rolemaster.

Zachary The First said...

@Sean: Good thoughts—thanks! I like the idea of switching around alignment on some of the MM baddies—it’s something that probably isn’t done enough.

Mr. Gone said...

For the most part, I do the same as what Sean had stated - use the monster manual but vaguely describe it. Sometimes my players expect me to say "they're goblins," or "the troll bites at you." But I use my own words to describe the situation, and then answer their questions as they come at me.

Zachary The First said...

@Greyaxe: Then again, that’s really part of what Rolemaster is—the idea that any creature or foe, from an ancient red dragon to shaky-kneed conscript, can strike the blow that fells your character. Combat is inherently unpredictable and dangerous.

Swordgleam said...

My players don't read the MM. That's one reason I started running 4e to begin with: it was so new (when I started) that they had no reason to know anything about anything in it. No meta-gaming, no rules lawyering. It's very convenient, if you don't mind teaching a new game to a whole group every time you want to start a campaign.

Zachary The First said...

@Swordgleam: A fair point, but I do think there are some staples of fantasy that are known regardless of RPGs. Still, presentation/powers could be different enough to make that difference.

I know for 4e, presentations and powers granted to various monsters has changed, definitely.

Jason Richards said...

I think suffering a few penalties to fight a monster or creature the first time it is encountered is pretty reasonable. If you're fighting an orc for the first time, I don't know that a character should necessarily be struck with penalties to defend. However, if fighting something with a unique attack or ability, I might consider giving large bonuses to the creature. The first time that new monster breathes fire or takes a swipe with those seemingly-harmless tentacles, I'd consider making it equivalent to a sneak attack.

Zachary The First said...

@Jason: Sneak attack could also work. I'd like to see that in play...

Jenny Snyder said...

Mechanically, I tend to view it like this: The player can make a knowledge roll, and if they succeed on whatever the D.C. is, then their character figures it out, but not necessarily because they've seen that particular monster before, but maybe because they've seen monsters like it, or heard of monsters like it, or read somewhere about a monster like it. Direct experiences are hardly our sole source of empirical knowledge.

In terms of metagaming, I love the few times I've floored some players by taking out or leaving in the typical associations with a given type of monster. But on the whole, if you know you have a player who memorizes monster stats, it's better to anticipate that and tweak your monster, than to get upset when they use the knowledge they have. You can't really blame them, it's human nature to take every advantage available to us to get ahead. Crippling yourself on purpose is almost never fun, and adds frustration rather than challenge.

So, make it challenging and fun, by removing the basis for their assumptions, and leaving them on uneven footing. They'll feel even more awesome when they triumph after having the rug pulled out from under them.

Or they'll whine about it, but if you spend all your time trying to eliminate what your players whine about, you may as well hand them a piece of delicious cake and walk away from the game.

Gleichman said...

There is no such thing as a system solution to a behavioral problem.

Either find players who don't meta-game either by restraint or lack of knowledge (really, it's easy. Few people want to read those books IME), or make up your own creatures for such events.

Zachary The First said...

@Jenny: Good stuff, thanks!

@Gleichman: Ignoring the metagaming, I don’t think of spicing up first encounters as a behavioral problem. You’re trying to convey a sense of the unexpected and unknown, which can be *supported* through mechanical means. Having a GM who’s descriptive and imaginative is great, but showing the effect of fighting an unfamiliar opponent, either through penalties or surprise attacks or however, that’s just another aspect of combat to possibly represent.

Tim Shorts said...

I kind of use the same idea as Sean. The players will have some knowledge of some creatures because in my campaign there are monsters to found everywhere. They are know. There will be rumors told about how to handle this critter or that.

Then I do a tweaking of the monsters. I don't like doing a cookie cutter version of any creature. Especially if I have a player who for example is going into a den of trolls and even though he would have no knowledge of the trolls vunerability and brings extra flasks of oil and a wand of fire, I might suddenly be inspired to create burning trolls. To keep them on their toes, but also its just fun to take a spin on a well known critter.

Gleichman said...

I think that if you're playing a system where the players aren't automatically at a disadvantage (without the need for special conditional modifiers for that lack) against their foe due to lack of knowledge...

...you are playing a very boring system in the first place.

Zachary The First said...

@Gleichman: Do you mean in terms of inherent lethality of the system?

Gleichman said...

Not so much, although that can certainly have an impact.

I mean rather it's simulation quality, or if it can match (or at least approach) the following quote:

"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."

If the system itself doesn't care about knowledge of the strength and weaknesses of opponents (but only say THAC0 and HP)- that quote cannot apply- it fails both as simulation and for the purpose you're seeking here.

Applying modifiers after the fact as many suggested here is attempting to cover up that fact in an artificial manner.

The result therefore will be artificial.

Zachary The First said...

Let me ask you this, then: which systems (aside from presumably Rolemaster) would fit the profile provided?

Rich said...

I run dnd games for a bunch of old school gamers and the method I use is to really send them against the unknown. A large percentage (50% or so) of my creatures are twisted, modified, or made up by me. The players will recognize the trolls and the goblins and thats ok - these creatures are the common beasts of the fantasy ecology. However when they run into these strange winged beasts will tentacles for a face they will begin to wonder how it sees. Maybe it had sonar or psionics? I think it brings a mindblowing truly fantastical edge to the group when you play this way.

Gleichman said...

Why Zach, Age of Heroes of course.

So can HERO System if things are built right.

Norman Harman said...

Age old problem.

There are many "trick" monsters created to foil/punish characters who think they know. Gas Spore is one example.

Variations on trick monster include giving monsters weapons or magic items that make them different. Ye old Troll with ring of fire resistance.

There are soooo many monsters I bet it's possible to reach high level and never fight the known ones. But certain monsters are staples, classics. It's fun to fight them (again) and hiding what they really are would take some of that away.

On other hand, I use metagaming "against" the players. I'll say "troll bites you" when it's really an ogre and characters wouldn't know difference but have heard bedtime stories of trolls.

Aaron said...

Depending on your players, metagaming is often a result of the fact that the players win when their characters win. Therefore there is an urge to help the characters along. I eventually gave up on fighting metagaming, and simply stopped keeping secrets from my players. But, on the flip side, I didn't play monsters as if they were ignorant of their own weaknesses. In the same way that players accented each other's strengths and mitigated the weaknesses, monsters did the same thing, starting to work together to prevent the obvious plans from working easily. I also tried to de-couple the players' and characters' goals, so that the player could win even if their characters had their asses handed to them.

Aaron said...

One last thing - Gleichman makes a good point - most GMs play their monsters as if they understand neither the PCs nor themselves, so the monsters lose every time.