Mar 02 2012

Story First, Then Numbers

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Well, my attempt to put aside GMing doesn’t seem to be going so well; for the past few weeks I’ve been grinding away on a campaign idea that won’t leave me alone. It’s nothing new under the sun– essentially a Lord of the Rings clone, with the main item of note being that it really is a Lord of the Rings clone, right down to singing (well, chanting) goblins and all sorts of detailed fiddly world notes and linguistic flourishes (like as an elvish dictionary that I use for creating consistent, meaningful place names and such). Assuming I can pull it off, it’d be very much a literary campaign, rather than a gamey one.

One of the issues with it, however, is finding the balance between making the world distinct from the Generic D&Dland of every other game, and making so much work that I might as well be running some other game. For instance, I don’t want there to be bags of holding, fireballs, and magic missiles flying around, so I banned arcane casting classes for PCs (except for bards). But I also made that important thematically: arcane magic is the arrogant imposition of the caster’s will over the natural order of the universe, and as any good Tolkien scholar knows, that’s bad juju. Divine magic, by contrast, is allowing yourself to be the conduit of a higher power and is essentially a humble thing. The exception to this is loremasters (i.e., bards), whose study of the world has taught them how to skillfully work within the natural order, rather than to just override it, so to speak.

Admittedly, it’s kind of a kludge. But again, it’s striking a balance between the needs of the story (i.e., flashy, blasty magic should be rare and mostly in the hands of badguys) and the need for an easily playable game (I don’t really want to spend a month editing the spell list for every class in the universe).

The biggest place where this is going to be an issue, in the long run, is going to be in scenario design– because D&D (and by D&D here I mean Pathfinder, but you get the drift) has an established progression of standard foes by level, e.g., kobolds, then goblins, then orcs, then gnolls, then hill giants, blah-blah-blah. But I don’t want to use that standard progression. In fact, in this setting, large swaths of the usual Monster Manual menagerie just don’t exist or are very different from the usual canon. (Chromatic vs. metallic dragons? What does that even mean? And what is this “astral plane” of which you speak?)

This means I can’t just call up call up the bestiary and start picking random critters to toss in and build a scenario around that, nor would I want to. I’m building the skeleton of a story here (with the players providing the flesh and soul), so I need to come up with what will be there and then make numbers to suit.

For instance, in one of the very early scenarios for the campaign I have in mind for the players to be confronted by an ettin as a dangerous “boss encounter.” (Why an ettin? Because they’re cool, strange, frightening monsters that fit the folklore/fairy tale/epic fantasy feel that I’m going for while still being unusual and exotic.) Unfortunately, a by the numbers ettin is CR 6, way way over the heads of any starting party.

For a regular campaign, as a sacrifice to ease of prep, I’d just say “screw it” and go with an ogre instead. But like I said above, this campaign is different. This campaign is a story first, and for the encounter I want, it pretty much has to be an ettin. What to do? One possible answer is something I’ve talked about many times before: reskinning the monsters.

I mean, I could just take the stats for an ogre, swap out its Iron Will feat for Two-Weapon Fighting, give it an arbitrary +4 to Perception checks, describe it to the players as having two heads, and call it an ettin.

Alternatively, I could craft a workable “Lesser Ettin” monster that hits the CR spot I want by stripping hit dice and stats off of the standard ettin. That would probably take 30-60 minutes all told and give me a new critter I could use indefinitely.

Either approach will satisfy the needs of this particular campaign and I haven’t yet decided which one I will use. But the crux of the problem is that either one takes more time than simply taking an existing critter and running with it– and prep time is what killed gaming for me before.

I’m not sure what to do about that problem. It’s every clear that my brain wants to do this game and isn’t going to leave me alone until I at least give it a shot. But I barely have time to do the things I’ve already committed to, much less add a time-consuming delve into Deep Fantasy Geekery that will only be enjoyed by a handful of people.

On the other hand, I could always use the variant statblocks I come up with for blog content. ;) Maybe I’ll start doing Monster Monday posts where I put up the critters I’ve come up with… after the players fight them. ;)

-The Gneech

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