Thursday, October 7, 2010

Danger Zone

The city of Manteau's inner wall separates the haves from the have-nots, and our brave adventurers wanted to be on the inside. To get past the guards at the busy gates they had to have "privilege papers," which were purchased from bureaucrats for a hefty fee. I came up with this concept on the fly, and to be quite honest I was immediately appalled by it when it came out of my mouth. As far as I know there is no precedent for this in any medieval setting, real or imagined, and it just seems kind of hokey to me. Regardless, we're stuck with it now, and Elerisa and Bubda found their papers had been pick-pocketed by the time they reached the gates anyway (the streets are crowded and there is much jostling). So they bribed their way in.

Elerisa, for those more recent readers of this blog, is an elf of royal ancestry, but she is not in direct line to any throne. She is currently way out of her element, though, for not too long ago she was suddenly and quite rudely wrenched from her own era 500 years prior to the events of the game and dumped unceremoniously into an impoverished human village in the present time. She has since learned that the elven people have vanished from the world. She longs to return to "high society" and the comforts of inherited wealth, and rediscover her home in the palace at Nimoriél.

After they got into the city's wealthy uptown districts, the party had to decide what to do next. They had a promise to keep: to take Fibon's skull to his new home at the famous city library and archives. But first, a few details to clean up...literally! They were filthy from all their exploits, so they cleaned up at a bathhouse (and we learned about Roman bathhouses and aqueducts in the process). Then, they didn't want to stand out from the crowd with armor and weapons, so they had to do a little shopping. They learned that prices are steep uptown, but they didn't let that stop them from spending their hard-earned dough. Elerisa in particular was keen to continue shopping, and expressed no interest at all in checking out the "Lost Princess" exhibit at the Manteau Museum of Ancient Elfin Antiquities down the street. After all, who has time to pay attention to fine campaign setting details offered by the GM when there's power shopping to do?

So after a shave, a bath, and a little shopping, they left the first clothing shop and decided it was time to find the library. They got out into the streets, in the middle of a wide avenue, when they heard a massive horn blast from the top of the city keep. The party watched in confusion as the city locals wailed in despair and scrambled for cover. The adventurers followed suit, just as they felt a dark shadow deepen the gloom of the already rainy afternoon. A solitary man froze in the center of the avenue, and the adventurers witnessed a massive black claw reach down and snatch him up. The massive black dragon swooped over them, wings grazing the rooftops, and flew off into the sky with his squirming prey.

Elerisa was appalled at the unfortunate man's fate and heroically drew an arrow, aiming to fell the dragon. With the beast gaining altitude every moment, she had time for just one shot. She let fly her arrow, and its course was true. Sadly it did not penetrate the dragon's thick hide, and the wicked serpent didn't even notice that it had been attacked as it faded into the dreary mist.

Or was that really so sad an outcome? For the man, yes. For Elerisa, a pretty glad ending. Had she rolled a 20 the arrow would have found its mark, and the dragon would have indeed noticed the pesky elven archer shooting irritating darts into its belly. This would not do, and poor Elerisa may have found herself doused in its acidic breath. Such an attack would have had a fair chance of slaying her outright, if she'd failed her reflex saving throw. Even making the save she would have suffered grievous wounds and the loss of some of her recently acquired finery.

Too harsh? Perhaps, if indeed that's the way I would have run it. But maybe not. Maybe it's better to have character death be a somewhat common occurrence in the game. In my adult games I am certainly in favor of life constantly hanging in the balance. Death should be omnipresent, so that there is real suspense when threats are encountered. Some folks might argue that the characters should always survive, because they're the heroes of their own epic stories. I don't see it that way. Characters shouldn't be destined for greatness: it should only seem like they were destined for greatness all along after - and only if - they become great. And when characters are prone to dying, it's more difficult for players to become too emotionally attached to their characters. They are able to keep a clean separation between the game and reality, and I think this would help some players enjoy the game even more. My youngest (age 7), for example, finds some of the encounters frightening and runs away. Maybe if she wasn't too concerned for her character's safety she would be bolder. Maybe. Then again, maybe the first time her character dies will teach her to never take chances again!

These are young children I'm refereeing, and truth be told they were emotionally attached to their characters before they even finished rolling them up. I doubt that the deaths of Elerisa and Fiona could be met without tears. By contrast, Norma has been on death's bed a couple of times and her player really couldn't have cared less (she loves playing, but I honestly don't think she cares what character she plays with). So I feel compelled to be at least somewhat careful with them, aiming for a delicate balance between danger and mercy. I won't be fudging the die rolls, but if characters die, it won't be because I put them up against something they didn't have a good chance of beating.

I thought that with my description of the dragon's huge bulk and the ease with which the monster flew off with a full-grown man, the players would have known better than to tangle with it. But these players are new to the game, and their assumption going in - and I don't think I ever said anything to give them this impression - is that their characters are mighty heroes destined for fame and fortune. So if Dad throws a black dragon in the game, that must mean they can take it on, right? After all, they have magic bows, cool spells, acrobatic skills, and more. In the context of their not having deep experience with the game (and older players to guide them), it's not too unreasonable for them to think this way. So it somehow would have seemed wrong for me to punish that assumption.

I do need to correct the assumption though. I've started with setting expectations: death is a real possibility, I won't fudge the rolls, and sometimes you've got to know when to run and know when to hide. I explained about dragons and what weaponized acid in aerosol form might do to a party of adventurers when delivered from above. On my end I'll be more careful about the encounter selections until the players have a firm grasp on their characters' limitations.

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