Monday, 13 February 2012

Rising Tensions (Part 3) - Fluxx

Many RPGs depend on resource depletion as a method for setting difficulty and increasing tension in the game. In Dungeons and Dragons, this has long been true and the latest editions have made resource depletion a core element of the game. Healing surges, action points, milestones and daily powers are all methods of handling resources in your game.

As your adventure progresses, the combats are meant to wear down the party to the point where the final battle will be more challenging. The issue here, as pointed out in part 1 of this series, is that earlier encounters are often less challenging because of this. If the earlier encounter is too difficult, more resources are used and it makes the final encounter tougher than expected . If the earlier encounter is too easy, then that earlier encounter does not provide a challenge and the players don't have as much fun.

In times like these, we need to pull out a little card game called Fluxx.

Fluxx it All
What is Fluxx? Fluxx is a card game where the cards make the rules. The cards say what you're allowed to do. They tell you how many cards to draw on your turn, how many cards you can play, what the victory conditions are, etc. Each time you play a card, you might change how the entire game needs to be played. How you play will change with every turn. How the winner is decided can change every turn.

With resource depletion being a somewhat unreliable method of providing tension in earlier combats, we need a way to change the rules of combat to make life more exciting. Right now, there are generally two rules involved in combat:
  1. You win in combat by killing all your enemies, and you lose by dying. (occasionally fleeing)
  2. Combat will eat away at your combat resources, such as hit points, powers and consumable items by forcing you to use them up before the final battle.
Instead of relying on these two rules to provide tension for a final combat, we need to change the rules for combat. This is another area where adventures are built the right way, but encounters are lacking. Sudden revelations, betrayals and shifting of goals occur constantly throughout many adventures. The rules change. Combats, by and large, involve smashing through all opposition with the goal of using up as few resources as possible to do it.

Alternate Goals
Rule number 1of encounters says our combats are nearly all kill or be killed. Let's Fluxx that out. There are many, many more ways we can run combat.
  • Kill them all! OK, this is not anything new, but it's the basic premise for most combats, so I'll list it first.
  • Kill them all! Wait, didn't I just say this? Here's the twist- killing them all is easy. They're nothing but minions. But there's about 30 of them and any one of them can cause you lots of trouble if they survive your surprise round by sounding the alarm or manage to flee down the corridor.
  • Destroy the One Ring! The classic destroy the macguffin plot. Throw the ring in the volcano, smash the lich's phylactery, burn the cursed painting, disarm the huge trap of doom.
  • Save the One Ring! What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Protect the Tree of Life from being burnt down, save the wizard's life essence trapped in a crystal, reactivate the huge trap of doom before your enemies can destroy it.
  • Save the King! Someone is about to get killed or kidnapped and it's up to the players to stop it. Generally, you don't want the protected person to be a minion- making them a 2 or 3 hit minion will give you the ability to raise tension by having the target get hit and put in danger. If you do make them a minion, make sure the players know that and shift the focus of combat on to keeping the target protected and controlling the battlefield.
  • Kill the King! Yes, goal reversals are the easiest way to provide a change in combat. We're not talking about killing a solo creature here. Like above, the target for assassination should be easy to kill, but difficult to get to. Terrain, soldiers, controllers and lots of minions can make this a challenge for the party.
  • Remember the Alamo! This is the combat where victory is not an option. That vampire lord and his army of thralls are ready to take revenge on you for killing they're undead queen. But dawn is only a few minutes away, if only you can last that long. Movement, defence, stealth, healing and controller powers are the tools of the day.
  • No Time to Waste! Goals are exciting aren't they? That must be why I keep using exclamation marks for all these descriptors. This time, the monsters are the ones delaying the party. If they can just keep the party away from the master for a few more seconds, the party is doomed.
The challenge level of the monsters here does not (and should not) be what you would consider to be a balanced encounter. Since the goal of the combat changes, the ending condition is not dependent on destroying all of the opponents. This gives us a few advantages. First, failure does not necessarily mean character death. The failure can happen without a character even being hurt. How they respond after that is up to them, but they could be facing almost no monsters, or an overwhelming amount. In fact, you can plan for the failure to happen in order to increase the tension even more.

Second, many of these goals don't require the party to expend their resources. They might have daily powers that only deal damage and that wasn't helpful in the encounter. They might not have been hurt, or barely so. The encounter can still provide exciting tension without being about the life and death of the characters. Which is half of the change we can make to rule #2. (combat will eat away at your resources)

Finally, I talked in part 2 about having a sudden deflation of tension by ending an encounter quickly. Many of these goals do just that by focusing the encounter on a single event. The king either lives or dies. You either destroy the One Ring or it's spirited away. You last until round 5 or you don't. Sudden stops and short drops.

Waving Bye-Bye 
A combat that comes in waves helps the DM keep the party on their toes. A group that constantly uses all their best powers to grind the orcs into dust could be regretting their decision when the half-troll werewolf lord shows up in the third round.

When you add a wave (or two or three) to combat, it's the perfect time to change the rules of the game, just like Fluxx. A combat that takes a sudden twist provides more excitement than simply adding new monsters. The entire combat can change tone. Sure the combat looked like your run of the mill grind against a group of fire elementals, until the pyromancer went to open the floodgates and release the lava tubes. Suddenly, you've got No Time to Waste as you need to get out of there. Or maybe you needed to Save the King from a group of assassins, only to discover that the entire palace is overrun, so you need to raise the distress flag (Save the One Ring) and then last out until the royal troops arrive. (Remember the Alamo)

You could run that last example as three separate encounters, but there's no need to give the players a short rest in between the events. String them all together. It keeps the momentum going. It also makes a small, but subtle shift in resource use. The encounter turns away from a slow resource depletion involving healing surges, action points and rechargeable powers, and becomes a frantic race with one set of resources that have to last the entire time. That's the model WotC used for Lair Assault and it's working for them pretty well.
There are some great examples of waves using Worldbreakers and Boss Monsters. Check them out.

Now our encounter tension model look like this:

Much better! And our adventure is like this:

Crap, that's not much different than before. OK, one more game analogy to wrap this all up.

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