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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Hitting the Party Sideways

Hitting the Party Sideways
One thing that has always gotten under my skin was the concept that as an adventure author, of course this is HackMaster (Association) specific, that my adventure had to "Hit the Party Sideways", or have elements so far out of left field as to surprise the players to the point where it'll lead to a PC death.

Now granted this was usually in context of one of the two big national (Origins & GenCon) multi-round elimination tournaments, but as a GM or a tournament/adventure author, should our goal ever be a player-character death? Personally I say no. My job is to make a fun, engaging adventure that sets up the possibility for the PCs to kill themselves. Despite the apparent adversarial overtones of the GM/Players relationship (we did have PC kill stickers after all), I'm there to have fun and I root for the PCs just as much as against them.

While this "hit them sideways" bit was usually a generic challenge, I have had it issued with regards to a specific group, in one case the winner's of the tournament last year. Evidently my buddy Topher and his group kicked too much ass and needed to be taken down a peg or two. Now I will admit that back in the day I called bullshit. Now I'll admit I was friends with Topher and had actually flown from Boise to Chattanooga a few times to game with his group......ok that's an exaggeration. My work flew me from Boise to Nashville a couple times and I did the added two-hour drive to Chattanooga on my free Monday nights to sling dice. Anyway, this group was a well-oiled machine that wasn't a collection of PCs, but a group that started having their collective shit together before they started rolling 3d6. When Topher played (he was normally the GM) his PC was a Double-Specialist Diviner, basically the magical equivalent to Sherlock Holmes. In a heavy hack & slash game like HackMaster, Diviners seem kind of lame since they are non-combative one-trick ponies that seem kind of useless on the surface. Useless that is unless you need to find out some information about something......which comes up so much more often in a tournament situation than you might imagine.

In any regard, good job creating a PC that either shines or hangs back and does jack squat. In most gaming groups this would not be a good PC to play, but in a good cohesive team built from the ground-up to work together, this guy could be a tournament wrecker......could be.

I'm not one to care if a specific group/table/player/PC finds one particular encounter easy because of good roleplay, character design, teamwork, or just dumb luck. Technically, especially in HackMaster, it is possible for me to set a single 1st level Cleric with a wooden hammer up against a Red Dragon and have the Dragon succumb in one blow due to a critical hit. Statistically impossible, but still can happen. As a GM/author you cannot, I dare say should not, plan for/against outliers. It's kind of a waste of your time.

If you're writing for a group other than your own, make up a story and make it make freakin sense for your game world. Who cares if somebody isn't sufficiently challenged by one particular encounter, or hell....even the whole thing. Now I'm not saying that you shouldn't put in the effort to make it fun for everyone involved, but spending an inordinate amount of time of making it sufficiently "sideways" is not a good use of your time.

I'm not quite sure I can tell you what is the right amount of "sideways" and I'm not sure one even exists because that seems to go against my personal philosophy, but I can give an example where I had added some.....and where it didn't matter. This particular encounter takes place in what is essentially an exit shaft up and out the mountainside of a Dwarven fortress. It's really designed for exit OUT of the complex, but the players are trying to use it to go IN. The wide corridor extends a good 100 meters into the mountainside and ends in what appears to be a dead-end. At the end of this hall is a stone tray filled with large tiles, Dwarven runes on one side and copper pegs embedded in the other side (I actually had props for this of placards with Runes on one side of a bunch of cards). The end wall of this hall had tile-sized indents filled with little holes. Now this was basically a lock for the escape hatch out of the mountain. The idea was that there was a password to open the lock where you had an eight-letter word you needed to spell out in runes using the letters provided. Once the last tiles was placed, if the word was correct, the secret door would open. If not, the ceiling would drop out and crush the party.

Now it is important to note that this encounter was designed to be a time-waster more than anything.  The tiles were large enough and spread out enough that it would take more than a pair of thieves to "pick" the lock. Three thieves could try, but ideally it took four. If a party had three or four thieves in it, they suffered enough and should be able to get a pass on this encounter. This trap/lock was like a memory game. Every letter corresponded to a section of hallway, with an extra section at the end above the tiles. For every letter/rune in the word that was incorrect, that ceiling section came down, doing a specific amount of damage.....but so did the section above the tiles. With enough trial and error, a group should be able to figure out the word needed and open the secret door, which was well down the corridor they had already walked through, definitely not within the area of the trap.

Now with the right spells, skills, magic items the party might be able to eventually find the door on their own and bypassing it (and the trap) would take some effort, but mostly because it wasn't where you would normally look. A party going that far would still be wasting time and having to use resources that would then not be available to them later in the game. The time-wasting effect would still be there.

Now I'm sure this wasn't a sufficiently "sideways" for some of my adventure reviewers, but come on.....this was basically just a fancy lock on a fancy door that was really made for one-way use. If you needed it to be a little more....I don't know...extra: remove some of the needed tiles. Maybe this lock had been used more often than originally intended and some of the tiles were showing some extra wear & tear so one of the brighter Dwarven guards temporarily removed some key tiles so newer replacements could be made.......

......that makes sense to me. Hitting the group sideways by spelling the "password" wrong to begin with, that's probably more like what I'd been told to do all along.

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