Fleshing out encounters

This play report started as a comment on Issues 1–7 but ballooned into its own post.

I ran an impromptu game of “generic OSR” (whatever that means — as I have seen playing these games, a lot of different things to different people) last week. We went spelunking in the module Caverns of Thracia by Jennell Jacquays. I’ve talked about other sessions here, though my play reports are woefully behind.

This was our second session in Thracia. The first had been well populated (I think 7 players, including myself), brisk, and controversial, as a nasty encounter with a wight killed all but two of the characters. This one was the opposite, in every way. I had one other participant, Jay, who had been in a good number of my pickup games before. It was slow-paced and cautious, and surprisingly collaborative.

Jay likes to play wretched, pathetic characters, at a steep disadvantage in any tactical situation, and then claw himself up if he can. I didn’t record his character sheet before the session, but here’s what Wybert looked like after:

Wybert’s character sheet

Spent a lot of time in jail (“gaol”), raised by ghouls, failed career — eek! I’m glad it’s not me!

Wybert started with like no equipment (I think just clothes and a dagger?) and no friends or allies. As far as I know, all of that is to Jay’s liking. I’m not familiar with the system he used to generate a character — Bastards — but he could have easily made another character, or taken some ghouls as companions.

We started the session chatting a bit about how Wybert’s background might influence his skills and personality, and, crucially, his immediate tactical situation. Here is a guy who was raised by ghouls, and has nothing but the clothes on his back, and he’s decided to go raid a ruined, monster-filled city. Bizarre! He must be absolutely bonkers. Moreover, he wouldn’t have any allies with him. Who would want to be his friend, anyway? He can probably see in the dark a little better than the average human, but not as well as a real subterranean creature. And, of course, he’s friendly with ghouls.

We rolled to see if Wybert spoke either the language of the tribesmen who live in the top level of the caverns — no — or the modern descendant of the ancient Thracian language — also no. He didn’t speak any other useful languages, either. Normally a lone character will want to use diplomacy to get around, but that didn’t look like it was going to be an option for Wybert. Then again, he wasn’t the sort to use diplomacy in the first place.

I asked what direction Wybert would take to get to the city, offering north, east, and south as the plausible routes, but Jay chose west, through a swamp, which felt fitting.

In my notes, the swamp has a lizardman patrol in it, and they’ll attack anyone who enters it from the city. I had to ask myself how they would respond if someone entered the swamp from the east. Would they even notice? Apparently they’re looking towards the city, 24/7 I guess. (The text has a lot of bits like this, obviously transient features of the environment that are described as if they are constant.) More likely, the route through the swamp is pretty busy, and lizardmen are often coming and going. Where are the coming from or going to? Hunting, I guess. They don’t have any other economic activity described in the book, and they can hardly be getting enough calories from the giant centipedes on the first level of the dungeon.

So I roll for surprise and encounter distance, as per the usual rules (in the 1974 Dungeons and Dragons) and find that the lizardmen don’t notice Wybert. Then they aren’t looking at him. Then they must be returning to the caverns. The whole picture takes shape — they were hunting, they had a decent catch, now they’re on their way back.

Maybe this stuff is obvious to other people, but it’s never come naturally to me. It feels like hard work.

Jay has Wybert duck low in the water and watch the lizardmen. They enter the city and he trails them a couple dozen yards behind. They climb into a roofless building with no doors. He climbs a tree to peek into the building, and sees them meeting up with a couple gnolls standing guard around a staircase going down. They descend. Wybert can’t take on the gnolls and he can’t sneak past them so he investigates the rest of the city. (It’s actually just 4 or 5 buildings, a little silly. I will no doubt expand it as we keep playing here.) He also has Wybert coat himself in mud as camouflage. For any well-equipped character, this would be madness, it would totally fuck up their weapons and armor, but for gross, poor Wybert, it makes a lot of sense. I decide that it’ll give Wybert a bonus to surprise in muddy areas.

He goes to a building to the north, which has a 60% chance of an encounter in it. I roll and find that it’s a battle between 6 tribesmen and 6 lizardmen. The lizardmen will obviously win this fight. They are better equipped and individually stronger. — Ok, what’s going on here? There’s no way the tribesmen picked this fight. Then the lizardmen attacked the tribesmen. The tribesmen must have been camping out in this building, and the lizardmen found them and attacked them, looking for food, loot, and slaves. Got it!

No need to roll for distance or even surprise. The fight is in the entrance to the building, and nobody will notice Wybert sneaking around, because they are too busy fighting. Wybert sneaks around to the back of the building and waits for the fight to end. He does some magic shenanigans and makes a tunnel through the building that pumps water from the swamp nearby up into the building. We don’t need to consider the details here.

If I were the lizardmen, how would I respond to this? First off, I don’t understand it. I’m in a dry(ish) building, and then in an instant there’s a hole in the floor with water pumping out of it. That’s some scary magic shit. Now the tribesmen’s loot is being carried away on the stream. They have to act fast, and they’re jittery, so they grab the remaining tribesman and their two fallen friends and leave the rest of the supplies behind.

Wybert swoops in and nabs a backpack after the lizardmen have departed. Lots of good supplies there, though all the torches are soaked and useless. He keeps investigating the ruined city and finds a big hole in the ground, going straight down. He now has a rope, thanks to the dead tribesmen, so he ties one end around a nearby tree and rappels down the hole.

The hole goes down 60 feet to an area on the first level of the caverns. Wybert’s rope is only 50 feet long, and is at least 5 feet shorter because it’s tied off somewhere. If he wants to descend all the way to the floor, he’ll have to drop down, off the rope, maybe taking damage, and either get a stepladder or find another way back up. He drops down.

Wybert explores the dungeon for a while. Some stuff happens that isn’t my focus in this post so I’ll skip it. He sees two guards outside a closed double door. They have torches on the walls on either side of them.

What are these guards like, and what are they doing? Well, obviously, they’re standing guard outside the door. They don’t want anybody to go in. But they’re pretty deep in their own territory, and as far as they know there’s no way for anybody to reach them without getting in like 3 big fights, which they would surely hear, so they must be pretty relaxed. They’re leaning against the door, chatting, and their weapons are at their side. They’re not combat ready, despite their gear and posting.

He gets noticed by two guards, tribesmen, with torches, outside a closed double door. They only just notice him as he darts briefly into and out of their torchlight.

What do the guards think when they see Wybert? On the one hand, he’s an intruder, and the whole point of a guard is to protect against intruders. On the other hand, they’ve only caught a glimpse of him, and he’s quite small, bedraggled, covered in mud, and barely even human. I think first they’ll alert the two other guards inside that something has happened. All four will stand outside by the door. Then they probably send just one guy with a torch to investigate. As far as they’re concerned, this is something minor, and the lone guy can always shout for backup.

This happens, and Wybert flees the lone guardsman. He finds a door and struggles to open it, making a big racket in the process.

Even though the guard couldn’t see Wybert enter the room, he could surely hear it, so he knows where Wybert is going: a horrible disgusting charnel room full of corpses. Though the room is a sacred burial place, the guard doesn’t follow Wybert in. He doesn’t want any needless risk to his own skin, and he trusts that the defenses of the charnel room will take care of the intruder.

Wybert explores the corpse room, running into a carrion crawler. It hears him rifling through bodies, looking for treasure, but he hides from it and it doesn’t detect him. (He has surprise.) He runs out and bonks the crawler on the noggin.

Ok, how does the crawler work? It just eats carrion. (Its attacks don’t even do damage!) It’s eating the bodies, all except the ones it’s laying eggs in. It is more interested in protecting its eggs than eating Wybert, since there’s lots of other corpses around and it’s not used to its prey fighting back. It retreats.

Wybert triggers a trap, animating the dead bodies around him. He flees from them and finds himself at a chasm cutting across the floor of the corpse room. He descends into it, climbing to its narrowest point and crossing to its other side.

Do the skeletons follow him? I decide not. They are simple creatures and are just striking out at anybody intruding on their burial space. They don’t understand or care about the chasm. If he descends into it, he’s beyond their concern. (If he started attacking them with a bow from within the chasm, it might be a different story. But I didn’t consider that then, and Jay didn’t have a bow anyway.)

Jay investigates the space beyond the chasm. Another trap, a big setpiece this time. Jay and I work together to figure out how some volcanic gas hydraulic shit should function, literally, what are the physics here. Wybert spends a week in this room. He has a lot of food and water, though he runs out eventually and starts taking damage.

In the week he spends in the room, I didn’t roll any random encounters. I had two thoughts here. Partially I thought, I don’t want to just announce to Jay that the session has ended, he has no hope, because here’s a squad of gnolls and you have nowhere to go. I’m not happy with that reaction on my part, but it was there, so I’ll record it. But the bigger thought was, how would anybody get in here, and what would they be doing if they were here? And what would a random encounter add here? Isn’t it enough to explore this one situation, see if we can think up a way for Jay to exploit this one setpiece trap? Do I need any more complexity here? And it’s getting late. I want to see how this plays out on its own, without a distraction, now.

As I said, I’m unhappy with my first thought, that it would be too hard or depressing to have a random encounter here. I’m pleased with my second thought, that nobody would be here, they don’t know how to get here and they have nothing to do here anyway. And I’m torn on my third thought, that I didn’t need any “bounce” in this scenario, I just wanted to see if Jay could exploit the setpiece. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thought, given my creative purposes in this game.

In the post I linked, Noah talked about how OSR players use random encounters to disclaim responsibility, whereas he used random encounters for bounce.

I think random encounters are definitely bouncy — they were the very first thing I thought of when I learned the term “bounce”. They’re bouncy in OSR games too. They can remove some bias from the game, if we’re interested in presenting a dangerous location that doesn’t revolve around the players’ needs or any predefined narrative. But in this session, I took responsibility, by deciding not to roll, operating on the same sorts of principles I had used in fleshing out encounters throughout the rest of the session. Was this still a sort of bias? Was it hygienic? It hasn’t escaped my notice that many of the decisions I made worked in Wybert’s favor. Was that bias?

I don’t know. More thought, more play, is needed, before I can paint a clear trend. I don’t have a real good summary of my thoughts yet.

If you’re curious, Jay did figure out how to exploit the setpiece trap, and got a fancy jewel for his efforts, but did not figure out how to get Wybert out of the dungeon. We rolled on an “escaping the dungeon” table (he survived) and ended the session.

Anyway, here’s Jay’s notes on the game:

When back into Thracia, all by my lonesome. A freed prisoner man-ghoul (Canyon made the apt description that the dude was basically a Wretched from Dark Souls, which aint too far off). This leaned more into playing the PC in a risk averse-cautious manner, as personally I tend to not rely on the meta-assumption that dragon games have you make when entering a dungeon; ie the near-requirement of hirelings to assist in the delve.

With just a player and the GM “at the table” this session felt more like a conversation and (at least in my impression) more towards what I call “playing the world” more so than the use of straight procedural rules for a lot of things. Granted I’m sure there were above-table rolls Canyon was using for # of enemies, disposition, etc., but for the majority of the session this delve felt more like a back and forth conversation where we explored more with how to accomplish things at hand using natural diegetic commonsense. Examples that followed this train of thought included that character could see a bit better in the dark than a regular human and could theoretical gain HP by consuming the dead in traditional ghoul fashion.

The only few instances that we relied on hard rules were for combat, avoiding fire, and skill checks like avoiding traps and fall damage. Which in themselves work just fine. Overall this felt more inline with an FKR ethos with some old fashion OSR dungeon delving which made for a nifty game session.

2 responses to “Fleshing out encounters”

  1. Regarding possible random encounters, I’d note that the probabilities involved are typically heightened beyond what would be realistic. This is a deliberate choice, similar to engaging only with scenarios worth playing (though we can still end up with wild goose chases and anticlimax within a scenario). A woodcutter going about his job does not have a 1/100 chance of meeting the area’s dragon but the PCs do, as they are, to some extent, magnets for exciting things.
    This is a just a long-winded way of saying that you gave considerable leeway in setting encounter probabilities to where you want them to be without compromising your wargame. I think it’s more important to have *a* chance for one happening and introducing the unwanted or opportunities, than calibrating probabilities for world-building concerns. If you feel you have enough potential for chaos already, go for low probabilities (but honor the results, of course).

    • Yeah, I think that’s probably true, we do have considerable leeway.
      If I could play the session again, I’d make a small chance of meeting a giant centipede, giant bat, or giant rat (maybe 1/6 per day?) and an even smaller chance (1/6 per week?) of a patrol finding the secret entrance to the place. Since I didn’t do that — I stopped rolling encounters, period — I do think I compromised the wargame.
      With a very few exceptions, a dungeon is just not the sort of place where a hero can safely hang out for a week. Not in the fantasy/pulp adventure literature, at least.
      I’m not sure if I have a problem with the idea that no patrol would ever find this place if a PC weren’t sitting in it. I guess it does match the heightened reality of the PCs, just as you were saying about the odds of a dragon encounter.
      I said in the report that I felt the situation was rich enough without needing an encounter to spice things up. That I thought an encounter here would be a distraction. I can imagine the wargamey response to that line of thinking, though: “Sometimes you are unlucky enough to get distracted. No matter how rich a puzzle is, you have no guarantee that you will be given the time to solve it.”

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