Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Dragon of Crab Key

The first James Bond film - Dr. No - features a Dragon. The Dragon of Crab Key. It's a legendary creature protecting the remote island known as Crab Key, making visits very dangerous. In the movie, Mr. Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the death of a fellow agent. During his investigations, Bond manages to uncover a secret organization (SPECTRE) lead by an evil mastermind, foiling the organization's plans in Crab Key.

(Source: Wikipedia)
During the movie, the character of James Bond is portrayed as a man of many skills. The stylish secret agent is an excellent marksman with great unarmed combat skills - as expected from a field agent who sleeps with danger (literally) - but he is also a very keen observer, capable of getting to the bottom of things without bloodshed.

I'll bet the action scenes kept the 1962 audience at the edge of their seats (watching the movie more than 50 years later, the movie still has an edge), but even the non-combat scenes had an edge. In the secret-agent genre, even going to bed alone after a hard day can be dangerous - the scene in which a Tarantula was placed in Bond's bed to take care of the 'pesky' agent was very well done. And if Mr. Bond takes a lady to bed, chances are that he was better off with the Tarantula...

In D&D, the characters have many abilities they can use during combat and non-combat encounters. During combat, things get more codified, with specific actions yielding specific results. While smart players can think out of the box and do cool stuff during combat (take any swordplay scene from the Pirates of the Caribbean's movies) it mostly comes down to attacks and hits, even if they are very descriptive and engaging.

During non-combat scenes (or encounters), players rely more on roleplaying and class / character features that are less codified. For example, let's say that the players are planning to sneak into a noble's mansion as part of their mission to find evidence of the noble's foul dealings with orcs.

Knowing my players, one will suggest to sit in a street corner and watch the mansion for a while, to see how many guards are there and what is their schedule. Another might offer to hit the local bars for rumors concerning that noble. A third player might offer to go to the local masons guild, to see if the plans for the mansion still exist. Or maybe the'll just go straight to the door and knock, winging it as the situation evolves.

In any case, they have way more options than in combat. Any of the above options (setting a lookout, hit the bars for rumors, locating the building's plans and knocking on the door) can be resolved using a little roleplaying, by just describing what the characters do. But we want to make things interesting. Crab Key wasn't interesting because the villain's lair was supposedly located there. It was interesting because a "dragon" was known to live there. There was an edge. Something to make an already exotic place more so.

Sneaking into a noble's mansion is interesting as it is - as the DM, I want the players to be able to do it and get the information they need (it might be even crucial to the adventure) - but I don't want to throw a red carpet under their feet on their way in. I want them excited about what they are about to do, getting them to the "edge of their seat" as they plan their way in, making the actual sneaking-in a climax on its own.

In one line - I want to make a non-combat encounter as exciting as a combat encounter, or at least get very close to it.

How? Read on.

Right now, I am using Chris Perkins's Three Act Structure to outline the entire session, detailing scenes in several sentences. I found that running session out of pages packed with information is counter productive - I prefer to look at the players than at my laptop screen (or notes) - so I settled for a few sentences per scene.

For a combat encounter (scene), all I need is a bunch of bad-guys and a location. The system usually provides the details. Monster stat block give almost everything a DM needs, and in systems such as 4e, even the surrounding can have hazards and dynamic elements that have stat blocks of themselves, while not being "creatures" per se. I have lots of details off my notes, and the "win or lose" situation is built into the encounter. Five sentences to describe the scene are usually more than enough. For example:

Event 4 - An Unholy Man: The heroes come face to face with Lord Seylas, who is frothing over the destruction of his ship. If the heroes did not accept Abector Levatra’s protection, he summons some monsters to fight them and leaves. If they do enjoy her protection, he leaves, telling the heroes to watch their backs.

In the above scene, the location can be whatever I want it to be (depending on where the adventurers are), and the bad guys are probably whatever monsters Lord Seylas summons. The heroes "win" by defeating the monsters (and maybe saving innocent bystanders, if the encounter takes place in a public location such as an inn). So the excitement comes from the action and the question: "will our hereos survive?"

But five sentences are rarely enough for non-combat encounters. There are so many courses of action and so many things the players can try, its nearly impossible summarize everything that might happen, and its even harder to quantify everything into DCs and if-else statements. For example:

Event 3. A Holy Woman: Abector Levatra greets the heroes. They immediately see that she is blind. She explains that her order is waging war against the abominations lurking behind the Veil and the Dragovar Empire - the two main threats to the Lhazaar. Together with Ryger’s forces, her order works to undermine the Dragovar and learn whatever can be learned about the Veil. The PARANTAA are creatures of the Veil, spreading disease if touched by humans. They only learned of the ship’s cargo when it was too late, and so she gave the order to sink it. Using scrying, she saw the whole assault. She was impressed with the heroes deeds during the assault, but so was Lord Seylas - a powerful sorcerer and the Wavecrusher owner. She offers to protect the heroes from the sorcerer’s wrath if they will help her uncover the mystery of the PARANTAA.

(Yes, the Dragovar is a total ripoff from Iomandra. I know.)

Much more than five sentences, and I probably could have written a dozen more. But note that there are no numbers involved. No DCs (if a PC tries to use a skill) or descriptions of spells she have active. No writeup of the surrounding (they met her in her temple), rooms, traps, NPCs etc. No if-else sequences (if a player does X, she says Y). If the players try something that requires actual mechanics, I'm improvising.

It makes a nice roleplaying scene, but where's the excitement? They enter a room, meet an NPC, talk to her, maybe accept her offer. What's new?

Well, I'm thinking of a way to turn this five sentence scene writeup into something more interesting. Here are my thoughts:

  • Some non-combat encounters should be as exciting as combat encounters.
  • Things get exciting when there's a chance of winning and a chance of losing.
  • When you ask a player to roll a dice in a non-combat encounter, you actually say: "lets see if you can pull this off", making "winning" and "losing" very visible.
  • "Losing" should still be fun.

With the above in mind, here a writeup of the above scene. What do you think?

Event 3. A Holy Woman: Abector Levatra greets the heroes. They immediately see that she is blind. She tries to persuade them to accept her protection from Lord Seylas in return for embarking on a mission to uncover the mystery of the PARANTAA (the creatures of the veil).

Blindness [Spot] - Her condition was self inflicted. Disturbing visions were somehow involved. A medallion (silver eye) on her neck allows her to see using magical means. Fail: she asks the player if her medallion interests him. Some tried to take it from her - none survived.

Lord Seylas [Recall Lore, Persuade] - The lord and the abector were once lovers. He will not act openly against her, as he still loves her. Fail: she coldly says that her personal affairs are to remain that way. She warns them to keep their distance from the lord even if they don't accept her offer.

The PARANTAA [Sense Motive, Persuade] - It seems the abector knows more about these creatures than she reveals. Maybe she already have most of the answers. Fail: one of the temple guards snaps at the heroes, hand on hilt, telling them that their questions show disrespect. The abector coldly states she told them all that she knows.

By moving the NPC goals out of the scene description (and into a section dedicated to NPCs not shown here), I made some room to specific "win/lose" situations utilizing skills. I specified what the players learn when applying their skills, and what happens when they "fail", with "failure" meaning a minor change in the NPC attitude, a subtle threat or a tense moment.

So instead of a bulk of text describing boring goals, details and descriptions, I have a short scene description and a focused list of win/lose moments requiring dice rolls from the players, with obvious results (more valuable info when "winning", or some tense moments when "losing"). As I said - interesting, exciting, with hooks everywhere. Maybe even better than combat, don't you think?

Dr. No had one scene that caught my attention. Four sentences that are full of cloak-and-dagger feel, danger  and uncertainty, all in a simple conversation between two would-be allies.

Bond: Your name Quarrel?
Quarrel: Maybe.
Bond: I am a friend of Commander Strangways.
Quarrel: I like people who are friends of people.

I'll try this new approach in my next couple of sessions, and will update on the results.


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