Friday, November 29, 2019


Old school RPG combat is not a carefully balanced system meant for the players to win. It's a high-stakes affair, but its lethality can be mitigated somewhat by giving full consideration to other possible alternatives than fighting to the death. Fleeing is an oft-cited and important option, but there's another one less considered: surrender.

There are many reasons why monsters, particularly intelligent ones, may be willing, even eager, to accept the PCs' surrender. Surrender shortens a battle, avoiding the additional losses that even the victors will likely suffer if they fight on. In the long run, being open to surrender is also a great tactic for gaining more loot at less cost: if the monsters can cultivate a reputation for letting victims live, it encourages future victims to surrender with little or no bloodshed, a strategy used to great effect by real-world pirates. "Your money or your life" is a much more meaningful dilemma if you know your life will really be spared when you hand over your coin.

The PCs may also have more value as prisoners than as corpses. The monsters might keep them as slaves, sell them into slavery to another group, or demand ransom for their release. They might be kept alive as livestock for fresh meat later. Or the monsters might wish to interrogate them for information. Clever players may plead for their lives with promises to reveal the location of something valuable to the monsters. or to perform some unique service for them.

So, why is surrender as an option in a hopeless combat shunned while running away or fighting to the death is not?

For the players, it may be a matter of pride. Surrender may feel like a more ignominious action than retreat. Running away also has the advantage (if successful) of assuring the party will keep all or most of its equipment and treasure, while surrender often results in the losers being stripped of valuables. Finally, there's the possibility that captured enemies will simply be executed, thus resulting in a more certain death than fighting on against long odds.

The DM may be guilty, consciously or unconsciously, of making surrender an unattractive option. A DM who hasn't considered the possibilities or doesn't know how to turn a surrender into an interesting setback rather than total defeat, may steer players away from it. An adversarial DM who punishes the party harshly in-game for surrendering also pushes them toward a binary fight-or-flee attitude. Also, if the campaign is one where death is cheap, with an abundance of options for raising dead characters, the players will likely consider any combat that doesn't result in a TPK to be better than being captured or looted of favorite magic items and such.

How does one, as a DM, begin to reverse the stigma against surrender in a fantasy RPG?

1. Flat-out tell the players before beginning a campaign that they won't be able to win every fight, and retreat and surrender are both legitimate alternatives to getting slaughtered.

2. In-game, feed the players evidence that surrender is a setback, not an irredeemable defeat. Let them hear of a group of traders who surrendered to the local orc tribe and were allowed to live. Better yet, give them a strong example to follow. Maybe they hear accounts of experienced, brave, and respected adventurers, perhaps even mentors of the PCs, who have surrendered to opponents, and who have embraced the philosophy of "live to fight another day" rather than "death before dishonor." Have them recount their memories with pride or amusement rather than bitterness, to drive home the point that knowing when to admit you're beaten is just a part of the adventuring life, not a disaster you'll never live down.

3. Don't summarily execute characters who surrender. This should be so blatantly obvious, I almost didn't include it, but better to be thorough. If you decide the monsters would execute the PCs, at least let them mull their options for escape from a squalid cell for a while before the sentence is carried out. Surrender should be an opportunity to extend the story, not an excuse to cut it short.

4. Really consider what the monsters want out of the encounter. Dead PCs are not always a primary, or even secondary goal. Do the monsters want loot, food, prestige, information, to complete some task, or to protect their territory? Can they get some of what they want with minimal combat losses instead of risking their very existence to get the whole ball of wax? If so, why wouldn't they take it?

5. Surrender does not always have to be unconditional. Allow players to bargain for the best terms. Remember that this isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. Intelligent monsters should weigh the risk of trying to get everything against an easier win for a lesser reward. Not only does this allow the party to limit its losses of prized equipment and treasure, it allows the players to save a little face too.

6. Be prepared to explore the consequences of the choice to surrender. Let them feel the agony of defeat, and then tempt them with opportunities to escape, to regain their lost possessions, to rebuild their reputations, to seek retribution, to use their survival against all odds to rally the townsfolk, or even reach an understanding with the monsters as worthy adversaries. Revenge and redemption can be powerful motivators.

7. Remember that as DM, your goal should be to play the roles of the monsters, not to crush and humiliate the players. It may sometimes happen that characters are humiliated in-game, but the players should never be made to feel hopeless or ashamed of their performance.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Secret dice rolls

Sometimes you may not want a player to know right away (i.e. at the time the dice are rolled) whether or not a character's action is successful. Stealth and sneaking are obvious examples. Another I'm thinking of is for the prayers and rituals of my Devoted class for Goblins & Greatswords: I want to make the faith element of the class more than just a word, by keeping the rolls secret from the player until actual results are seen (or not seen.) Yet I also don't want to undermine confidence in the objectivity of my GMing.

Option 1: Roll the dice in a box dedicated to the purpose, and leave them until the players have seen the results in play, then reveal. The down side is that those particular dice are out of play for a while, so you'll need extras.

Option 2: Have a different player, whom you can trust to keep a secret, witness the dice roll. This would work best when the other players trust that player, too.

Option 3: For better or worse, we're not living in the 1980s any more, so we may as well make use of the technological advances of our age. Roll the dice in secret, but where the players can hear it, and then snap a picture of the dice with your phone. Have the players record the time and the purpose of the roll. When the time comes, show them the picture -- the time stamp will confirm its authenticity.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Goblins & Greatswords: A new look for the cleric

My much-delayed fantasy heartbreaker, Goblins & Greatswords, is finally picking up some steam, and has given me a new take on a fairly controversial class that's been with us almost as long as fantasy role-playing games have been a thing.

I've opted to call this reimagined class the Devoted (after waffling between that and Dedicated.) I'm trying to avoid using the class names from that other game, and neither "priest" nor "crusader" had the broader feel and connotations I was looking for. I'm not 100% happy with it, but unless I get a better idea, Devoted they shall remain.

Rather than casting spells as clerics traditionally have in D&D-like games, the Devoted can petition the higher powers for boons thought prayer and rituals. It's a bit more limited than wizardly spellcasting, but also a bit more open-ended. The basic mechanic is essentially identical to the reaction roll to determine monster and NPC actions toward the party -- I'm using my own 2d10 reaction table, of course.

Every Devoted can gain Faith Points for dutiful service, up to a maximum of two per level of experience. These are not acquired automatically upon gaining a level, but must be earned through deeds that advance the faith. These may include assisting those in need when it would be inconvenient for the character’s own goals, heroic acts at great risk of life or limb, or defeating an enemy of the faith; the GM will decide how many points each deed is worth. Points may also be lost for acting against the tenets of the character’s faith, but otherwise, a Devoted can always restore his or her maximum Faith Points through a night of rest and a morning of prayer.

When petitioning for divine aid, the player rolls 2d10, adds the character's adjustment for Presence (i.e. Charisma) and as many Faith Points as he cares to spend (announced before the roll is made, not after.) Other bonuses and penalties may apply e.g. for holy items used, the magnitude of the boon sought, and strength of the opposition. The cleric's Turn Undead ability is folded into this system, with a penalty based on the Hit Dice of the creatures to be banished. 

Roll (2d10 + modifiers)
Request denied; offended. No further requests considered until penance is done
Request ignored
Request granted
Request granted with pleasure; half of Faith Points returned

Possible prayers include:

Banishment: The equivalent of Turn Undead.

Guidance: Similar to the AD&D spell Augury; the player frames a question and if successful, receives an answer in the form of a sign or omen.

Healing: Not the same as instant magical healing, but rather to speed recovery. E.g. instead of curing a disease, the symptoms get better over a period of days.

Warding: Sort of like Protection From Evil (or undead, or lycanthropes, or what-have-you.)

Cleansing: For purification of food and drink, but also for purging spiritual foulness such as curses.

Blessing: Bolstering the character's or an ally's chances to succeed at some feat, or at least avoid harm in the attempt.

The exact descriptions and mechanics for these powers are still in development (i.e. bouncing around in my head) but I think, at least in principle, it's a feasible way to differentiate a faith-based class from its spellcasting counterparts.