Our fourth session concluded the Major Quest and neatly fulfilled the requirements for leveling up. Regarding that latter, I'm using the generalizing rule that doesn't count experience points finely, but instead sets a level-up equal to a set number of "your level" sized encounters. The default quantity of encounters is ten, but it's also stated that half that is OK too, which is what I did. You adjust your material a bit to this standard based on whether a given encounter is hard (counting more) or easy (counting less). To summarize, for our game, leveling-up is based on five encounters.
Add to that the Quest rules: that a Minor Quest is equal to a foe, so if, for instance, all three characters fulfill a Minor Quest each, that would be worth an encounter too. And a Major Quest is itself worth a whole encounter. Note that quests, especially minor ones, may be imposed into play as we go along. Think about that for a moment.
Furthermore, add that multi-step Skill Challenges count as encounters, or more flexibly, a combat encounter can transform into a skill challenge (e.g., instead of killing the wumpus, trying to escape it), or vice versa (a verbal negotation turns hostile), or even more flexibly, both can be occurring simultaneously and the encounter is resolved by whichever gets there first.
All of which is to say: in this game, although fighting is extremely likely and important, it is not the sole option for DM's preparation, nor is it the sole option for players to address that preparation in play. With these rules in action, exactly when you fight and whom becomes a matter of for what, rather than the default-and-only expectation for what we do. Given the "five per level" standard we're using, that means that focused, purposeful fighting is extremely closely defined for a given level-up.
I say again, this edition is far more flexible and creative regarding this issue than any other version of D&D I have encountered, which is to say, bluntly, any of them. You can turn foes to friends with Minor Quests entailing Skill Challenges, with the difficulty of the latter making perfect sense given fictional circumstances, and that counts exactly equally as killing them. You can level-up on your own terms, meaning, character priorities and personal satisfaction based strictly on what you feel like as you go along, judging situations and NPCs as you will. Why this insight achieved zero penetration into the hobby, I have no idea, or rather, only some ideas rather than certainty.
In this session, I think we found a nice blend between the pop/borderline-silly psych and knock-down drag-out combat adventure, all experienced and communicated in characterization and imagery. If I say so too, I think the warmth and fun among us as people really starts to show up too, and that goes with the sense of achievement and reward in the level-up which is more than merely "we killed enough guys, so it's beef time."
In my next prep, I will specially attend to creating multiple actors with multiple priorities, to set up open choices about whom to ally with about what, and thus enhancing the role of time relative to short and extended rests. It will matter in terms of who’s doing what when you’re doing something somewhere else. I'm looking forward to this context throwing everything I wrote about above into maximum drive.
What’s a “dungeon” anyway?
There’s a recent interesting thread at G+, which I’m not linking to because it mainly demonstrates how confounded the contributors have become in trying to discuss that. We talked about it for a while after play, which I snipped out because it was a bit fun-social and rambly, but I’ll summarize some of the points here.
We came up with three extremely distinct meanings of the term, in practice independent of one another.
- Dungeon as a literal set of interconnected chambers, experienced mainly at the “in there” perspective, meaning, making left-right and similar decisions. The default fiction is underground cellars, but it’s easily expanded to mean rooms in a complex building or interconnected buildings, or paths through a very thick wilderness or rock gullies, or even complex and unknown architecture in a community. James pointed out that it’s a useful fiction/realization of flow-chart space, providing a good or at least a well-established rationale for neither railroading player agency nor floatingin unbounded-whatever. Whether that’s all of play or a recognized subset is another question, but as such, there’s a certain relief to it on that basis alone.
- Dungeon as a strategic play-context, i.e., The Crawl, regardless of its literal setting – the core concept is risk vs. gain, with emphatic loss conditions in place. The simplest version of the latter is the TPK, but good game design includes lots of other, more nuanced (real) loss conditions as well. I am also hasty to point out that although people tag this as “video game play,” the historical fact is that early Dungeons & Dragons play codified it, was even highly identified with it (this is before the “saga/story” play took precedence), and the early computer and video games absorbed it from the table-top. Another nuance is that even groups which disdain the Crawl often include it as a subroutine of play, sometimes associating it with “what players want” as opposed to the GM/DM “wanting the story,” and a great deal of game design in and out of D&D attempts to reconcile these perceived priorities in a variety of ways. Unsurprisingly, in these cases, the subroutine is coded, or activated, by invoking the tropes of #1 above.
- Dungeon as a signal or term for exterminatory play, sometimes rightly identified as genocidal. Long ago a contributor at the Forge suggested this corresponded a little too closely to the American experience in the Vietnam War, particularly after the Tet Offensive and during the so-called Decent Interval, when soldiers were simply being told to kill anything that moved (see the book of that title by Nick Turse). Getting rid of the “V.C.” in the hamlet, pest control, in raw extermination battle situatiosn with the addition of acquisition – this is very much the tourney context, with literally no point to doing anything else but kill, with the exception of occcasional trickery or a clever end-run to subvert or avoid uncertain outcomes.
They aren’t the same things, and are sometimes even contradictory, but they get mixed and matched in a wide variety of ways throughout role-playing history, and they are very emotionally charged in hobby culture.
Fun with psychedelica
Here are the three maps I used. The first indicates depth based on the concentric circles, going deeper with each inward shift.
I decided the black circle at the bottom was a raised dais, creating a big rectangular room down there rather than making it a thick "pillar" for a doughnut-shaped corridor.
The second indicated the ambient light encountered by the characters, based on the diagonal bands. It had no game effect at all except for occasional modifications for visual perception.
The third indicated the zones occupied or controlled by specific monsters, which you can pick up pretty easily from viewing the sessions.
I plan on lots more trippy vortices as we go, so now you know the logic I brought to it in this case.