Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Hacking LOTFP Classes Part 2: Encounters

This is the second part in an article series examining the LOTFP classes in order to design new ones. Part 1 is here.

Instead of designing classes from the top down, as described previously; where a narrative concept is thought up, then mechanical bonuses and gameplay subsystems added, and the encounters the classes is supposed to address, often an assumed afterthought. I think the key to successful class design is to design classes from the bottom up.

If I’m starting from the bottom, encounters, I guess before going any further I should first define what I mean by an encounter. To me an encounter is a situation in which the player characters are presented with something they can interact with and make a choice that will have consequences. An empty room is not an encounter as there is no interaction or consequences. Same with a room with two ghosts playing chess, it’s interesting but with no means of interacting with them, and no consequences. Thus it is not an encounter. A 10’ by 10’ dungeon room with a monster they must get past, or a conversation with the Arch-Duke about a conspiracy about the king, are both examples of encounters.

While it may seem strange to design a class from the bottom up I think it is crucial. Furthermore, I think that the simplification or reduction of encounter types is what is behind most problems in in RPGs as I find most stem from a lack of encounter variety. Officially there has only ever really been:
  • Combat
  • Trick
  • Trap
I say officially because it’s pretty much how encounter design was laid out in the original dungeon master's guide:

And it’s largely been the same ever since. Even 5th edition today relies on its ‘three pillars’ of exploration, social interaction, and combat. A measly three encounters. With only social interaction really being new. Exploration tends to deal mostly with traps and tricks. So five editions later, as far as the rules are concerned, we have four encounter types instead of three.

To this end it doesn't really surprise me that when you really analyze the classes in terms of how they differ from each other you tend to end up with 3-4 ‘core’ classes and the rest just variations or combinations of them.

To be honest I’m kind of astounded that there seems to be so little writing, official or unofficial, on different encounter types. I do think that most half-decent adventures or modules contain more than combat, trick, trap, but it’s never been all that codified or if so, has been forgotten. For example, the entire Wilderness Survival Guide pretty much added rules for wilderness type adventure and encounters, but they were never really seen as an encounter type in the same way combat is.

To rectify this I would like to try and define the following six encounter types. It’s not a definite list, but I feel like it covers most encounters you’d find in most well written adventures.
  1. Combat: the players encounter a being that wishes to kill them. Generally, combat will break out and they will have to kill it. Examples of this are a room full of goblins or an ogre.
  2. Trap: the players encounter a surprise danger embodied in a mechanical device, usually requiring some skill rolls or careful thinking to disarm, and a saving throw if triggered. The device can be disabled or mitigated if detected. Examples of this are a pit trap, a room that fills with water, or a poisoned needle trap.
  3. Hazard: the players encounter a feature of the surroundings or terrain that pose a threat or problem. An example of this would be a cliff they have to climb, a narrow ledge they must cross, a river they have to ford, or a desert they have to cross, or a storm they have to travel through. Generally, the obstacle is obvious, and the players will have to either contrive some means to overcome it or delicately attempt to traverse it.
  4. Tricks:  tricks are sometimes confused with traps because they may be mechanical in nature, but I find a trick often has a clear danger or obstacle (unlike a trap) and a clear goal, but a missing middle. The players must find out how to interact with it in order to achieve the goal and avoid the danger. An example would be a statue with it’s hand outstretched to hold something. If you put the gold orb in it, it unlocks the door. If you put the silver orb in it’s hand it summons a demon. Most classic puzzles like riddles are also examples of tricks.
  5. Anomaly: often confused with tricks and labeled ‘special’ in Gary Gygax’s chart. I would define anomalies as something that the players know is probably dangerous, but they don’t know what it will do or not do or even how to interact with it. Furthermore, anomalies tend to be otherworldly or strange. Players often must interact with them in a freeform manner and experiment and they usually trigger a boon or bane that is placed upon the character. Like a crystal fountain of shimmering water which if drunk from when the moon is full will heal you, if drunk from when the moon is less than full is normal water, and if drunk from when there is no moon will curse you.
  6. Social: the players must interact with a person or persons in a social manner. Generally, to convince them of something. Examples of this are talking to the Arch-Duke about the conspiracy against the King, or convincing the troll to let you cross the bridge.
Now these encounters can be blended together where a situation can contain both a combat encounter and a hazard (room full of goblins on a slippery floor) or the solution of one encounter could lead into or be the solution for another (instead of fighting the troll you talk to him and give him some gold to let you pass). In fact, things tend to be more interesting when you combine encounter types in this manner or give players flexibility where an encounter doesn't have to go a set way and could be several types. However, I do think these six encounters form a very solid foundation for most situations that the players will ever encounter when playing a D&D style game.

Matching Classes With Encounters

Now let's take these six encounters and see which classes are typically good at them:

Encounter Type

Now I feel like some of these pairings are fairly self explanatory. The fighter tends to have strong attack bonuses and combat related skills and so is good at combat encounters. The Thief can pick locks and disable traps and so is good at traps. There are two pairings which I feel bear some explanation.

The first is the cleric. At first the cleric seems to have nothing to do with anomalies. However I think part of the reason they are still relevant today is precisely because they have shifted away from a class that was originally meant to deal purely with the undead (and themed that way) and have become a broader defensive/supportive class. With anomalies you generally have to experiment with in order to find out exactly what they do. This experimentation often very risky and ends up with characters suffering harm or permanent banes. Ability loss, becoming poisoned, curses, disease, etc. The cleric often has a wide variety of spells that can heal these things. So while the cleric often isn’t the actual character who is interacting with the anomaly or figuring it out, it’s because of their spells that the other characters are able to in the first place. Without the cleric there to mitigate the danger the anomaly poses, it becomes a greater threat.

The Trick/Magic-User pairing is also another that may seem a bit odd, but less so if you are familiar with how the Magic-User works in LOTFP. Instead of having a lot of damage dealing spells, they tend to have more utility based spells. Spells that are somewhat single purpose and used to break the rules of reality in small ways. This often makes them good at solving the tricks using out of the box thinking and creative problem solving.

Part 3: Ability Scores

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