You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.
-Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”
+Peter V. Dell’Orto recently ran a truly epic Dungeon Fantasy combat. Something like 15 hours and 90 or so combatants. It was tense and interesting the entire time. He followed up the play report with a note on how he balances encounters (hint: he doesn’t), and as I read through both wonderful posts, I had a thought occasioned by the recap of what could have gone wrong, and right:
After the fight Dryst’s player and I talked about it as we cleaned up (me my minis, maps, and PC; him, wiping the battlemat for me.) Had Christoph the Scout also been there, or if Borriz was there, or Honus – basically, if there was just one more PC-level delver – the fight would have been much shorter. Or if Dryst had just a few more paut potions or a bigger power item. Or if Galen had a spare bow once his broke, instead of needing to waste turns scrounging up a tiny shortbow to plink with. We both figure the fight would have been much shorter and lopsided in favor of the PCs.
But had the PCs been a smaller group – say, had Dryst and Honus smashed the door guards with ease a few sessions back and managed to force the door and get into the temple – it would have probably been a TPK.
Each of these things is effectively a “what if,” where the decision was made (actively or implicitly) to press on and keep fighting, to engage or fall back, based on a series of events.
It occurred to me that (bear with me here) my wife and I were encouraged to come up with a highly specific “birth plan” for my daughter, but when something that was not on our expectations list occurred – my daughter reacted in utero to some external stimuli by flipping on her head and thus presenting a breach birth – our only recourse was to basically chuck the plan and improvise. That worked out well for my daughter, but for adventurers (ah ha! he returns to the point . . . ) this doesn’t always go well.
So, (and I fully expect +Mark Langsdorf ) to jump in here with more: this is his forte) how many parties have a list of things, if-then statements, that can take a turn for the worst or a twist of fate and prevent them from spiraling into TPK?
I suspect very few.
What questions should you ask?
Let’s Start with the Spectacularly Fatal
Well, one thing you can be sure to ask is what happens if any given party member is one-shotted into incapacity by some beast. Given the lack of redundancy in many roleplaying parties skill sets, this could range from trivial (we had four melee fighters, three front-line capable and one second-ranker; now we have two and one, respectively. OK, keep going) to catastrophic (we are being attacked by a diffuse swarm only affected by magical fire, and our only party member capable of producing explosive magical fire is now a pile of steaming viscera).
The party really should have some plan in mind when one of the niches that are carefully preserved by DF templates is no longer filled. This could be a fighting (or screaming) withdrawal, a concentrated effort to get the party healer to the downed foe, or launching bottles of paut and Greater Healing at the guy with a sling. Whatever works, use it – but have a plan.
War, HUH! What is it good for?
The other thing that’s often (and entertainingly) left undecided in DF and standard popcorn fantasy (and I say this very fondly) is some sense of why the battle is happening. In Peter’s case, his players deliberately set out to pick a fight with a known numerically superior foe – the newtmen – in order to make subsequent delves less dangerous, and perhaps allow them to concentrate on the Lord of Spite. Either/or is bad enough, but both/and has been figured to be pretty fatal.
So this group went looking for a fight, and found one. It was almost more than they could handle, but it turned out OK.
Still: how many fights does your party get into that are basically without any sort of strategic goal? What are you trying to do?
- Take and hold a particular area of ground?
- Destroy and/or kill a particular adversary?
- Survive, or otherwise get out of the encounter alive?
- Thin out resistance, and therefore maybe not have to fight to the last man?
- Simply traverse an area which may or may not have live and hostile opposition in it?
Huh. Lot of options here other than “fight a pitched battle to the last man standing.”
The fourth one is really interesting, because it gives the option to spread the conflict over many battles, each of which is hopefully fought on the PCs terms. You enter the room, hopefully surprise the foe, engage in a few rounds of totally one-sided combat, and then do a fighting (or magical!) withdrawal.
Who bothers to use invisibility as a planned “let’s withdraw from combat” strategy, rather than a “let’s get into position so that our pitched battle ends favorably?” Heck, I know I’ve never really thought this way, but perhaps I should.
Healing, magical spells/fatigue, expendables. All of these are held as a resource pool and used up in any given delve or fight. I know in our current DF game that +Nathan Joy runs, one of the things we used to do when we had a “real wizard” is to have Mark blow through Brother Michel’s FP reserve for magical spells, and then he’d fall back and become a second-line melee fighter.
Why the hell would we do it that way, especially regularly? Well, sometimes there’s no choice. Lots of foes, nowhere to run to, etc. But we should have always been looking for a way to keep the spellslinger in the game. That includes fighting defensively, strategic withdrawals and pauses, etc.
Furthermore, as Peter’s “the Scout’s bow broke” example shows, many PCs are one Disarm or critical failure away from pretty much being totally useless. If Cadmus, Pharasma forbid, drops his axe, he has gone from a pretty good fighter (he’s good, but he’s no Thumvar) to flailing away with his fists, a Judo Throw he can’t use because it defaults to Axe/Mace, or a shield bash. He has no backup weapon, and his learned prayers, while mighty against the undead, don’t do squat vs. an irritated drunk orc.
So, what’s your party’s plan if the Scout runs out of arrows (unlikely with a cornucopia quiver), their weapon breaks, or you find yourself facing a foe where pi and imp attacks suck? What happens if your line fighter drops his primary weapon? What’s the plan when your magic user is down to their second-to-last bottle of paut, or the group healer is gutted or tired?
Don’t have one?
Maybe you should.
Now ev’ry delver knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
‘Cause ev’ry fight’s a winner and ev’ry fight’s a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”
-Ken’i R’grs, “The Delver”