Pickup 5: the gap between plan and execution

Another session. Adam, plus Patrick, who I’ve played with previously, though not in the pickup series, and Tommi, whom I have spoken to but never played with. Going in I was excited and a bit more nervous than usual. I think Tommi represented the entire “RPG Theory” discord server in my mind. They’re cool kids, and the “wargaming way” is one I aspire to. So I felt some pressure, and planned pretty hard for Borshak’s response to Grignr’s next incursion.

I think this is a good place to lay out my motivation for the pickup series. I’ve spent the last year running a pretty solid wargame, but it didn’t have any dungeon action or small maneuvers. Everything was group action, simple tactics, here’s the line of battle and that’s that. (I generally didn’t even ask people to target specific enemies; I just apportioned damage.) A big focus on politicking. And almost no magic to speak of. Now I want to hone my skills on the opposite side of the d&d coin, the dungeon game: small scale maneuvers, man-level tactics, close attention to timing, and the traditional d&d quantity of magic.

Here’s Patrick’s description of the session:

We hire some retainers to fill our ranks. We enter the dungeon in the midst of an ongoing civil war. Gargamel the Necromancer hires a tall person with bad eyesight and a limp. Norbert the Lame. People accuse the poor Necromancer of bad intentions. Grignr and his Orcs kill and scare off some giant centipedes we find and we enter a room with an immovable curtain. We figure out they’re suceptible to gravity and drill away a few of the hooks. We see inside: 2 skeletons and a glowing crystal ball. We drill more hooks out to create a small opening to club the skeletons and walk in. As we walk in and start fighting them, a gong sounds and where there were 2 skeletons are now 4! The necromancer in the group raises a centipede exoskeleton to help and we manage to get the crystal ball out of the room. The skeletons disappear and the crystal ball ceases to glow.
We plan to get the whole curtain and sell it as a group of Hobgoblins shouts through the darkness, demanding valuables or they’ll block our way. We try to send the centipede after them but Sharpshooter-Gob rolls a natural 20 and smacks down the centipede. We then plan to ambush them if they come through the door while we detach the curtain. They don’t want to get ambushed and fruitlessly shoot arrows at us but they can’t shoot around corners. We take off the curtains, roll them up and throw it down the stairs on the hobgoblin troupe. Meanwhile, Gargamel checks for secret doors and finds a secret door that leads to a room with two orcs staring at something small towards the other wall. Grignr thinks one of them may be Borshak himself and we ambush the two surprised Orcs. We overwhelm them and they surrender. The big one is actually Borshak. He says there is a treasure chest in a small table, made of 4 feet of oak. The chest is trapped with a poison needle. We carry out the whole table to figure out the trap elsewhere as more Orcs and an Ogre barge in, one of them gestures and talks to cast a spell. He casts darkness, then disappears and we have to leave the table behind with a heavy heart as we flee through the darkness, heavy Ogre footsteps behind us.

So, the important beats of the session:

  • figuring out the outside of the curtained room
  • fighting the skeletons
  • standoff with the hobgoblin patrol
  • ambushing Borshak
  • whatever the fuck happened after that

As usual, I’m going to focus on what went wrong and what I can do better. The session was marred with a few technical difficulties and three notable blunders on my end.

I was really excited about my fancy individualized fog of war, but it turned out to be a lot more trouble than it was worth, constantly glitching out and interrupting play. Additionally, players could only control their own individual hirelings, meaning they got in each other’s way constantly. Tommi suggested that one dedicated person (the caller maybe?) could be in charge of character, or at least hireling, position, and I think that’s a good call. Otherwise, I think the personalized dynamic fog of war is better suited to survival horror. It’s just too much effort, with too little reward, for dungeon warfare.

Twice I had to say, “Oh, did you actually do that? I thought you were just planning to” because I had moved to interrupt the players before their plans could come to fruition. They, meanwhile, thought they had already done the actions. The two occurrences were: maneuvering away from the hobgoblin patrol, and tying up Borshak. It’s just not obvious when an action counts as “done”. For something like “I attack”, the answer is obvious: you try to attack, making an obvious movement to do so, and then you roll, and maybe you hit and maybe you miss. But for something like “Let’s tie him up”, does that count?

Takeaway: I should have asked if the players were planning or acting. If they were acting, I could have said, “Before you have a chance…” or similar.

The end of the session, when the players ambushed Borshak, was a total mess. They had surprise, so the whole party crammed in into his chambers and surrounded him. They had the movement range, so I didn’t see a problem with it. In hindsight, I should have asked, “How many people do you think can slip into the room in 10 seconds? Given that they’re not in a line beforehand, they’re all bunched up and trying to push through.” Perhaps only three or four could have squeezed in in that first turn.

I had Borshak surrender after they got him surrounded, and was going to lead the players to his trapped treasure chest while he got help from his magician. But was he already tied up or not? Adam said, “I get a length of chain”, but where did he get the chain? Was it already on him? I didn’t think to ask. And how long did this all take?

Borshak told the players the treasure was in his huge oak table, and the players decided to just cart the thing out. They had four extra hands, so they could probably do it.

Then the magician came up the stairs, followed by his guard and an ogre. I was pleased with his first move, to cast darkness over the whole party, and planned on following it up with a limited wish (to get Borshak and himself free) or a fireball, if Borshak couldn’t be saved.

But could Borshak be saved? Tommi reminded me that with his high HP (Tommi didn’t know how high, but it was 25) Borshak shouldn’t be simply beheaded by Adam. (Adam had repeatedly said statements of the form, “And if x, I’ll behead him!”) He could wriggle out of his chains or similar. I’m using Eero Tuovinen’s conceptualization of this principle, which he has called the “HP Cancel”: pay hp per hd of your opponent to negate their status effect. So I had Borshak take 20 damage and asked Adam to do the rest on his weapon strike. This was an error in two parts: first, Adam’s character Grignr is only level 2, so it should only have been 10 damage to Borshak; and second, I didn’t ask Adam to make an attack roll, just to do damage, “since he’s already tied up”. Adam dealt 7 damage, which was enough to kill Borshak after the 20 from ???, but that’s all in the past.

Then the magician cast fireball. Or started to, anyway. First we had to puzzle out if he could even target the party. Yes, we decided, he could. Then we figured out how big the explosion was. I said I wanted to do fixed-radius fireball. The other players ignored and started calculating the size of a fixed-volume fireball, which of course would kill everybody in the vicinity. (I’m actually fine with the gang disagreeing with me here; not everything is up to me. When I want to adjudicate something, my first move is always to ask, “What do you think?”.) Well, the magician’s not suicidal, so it won’t cast the fireball if it’ll kill itself, so what else would it cast? (Limited wish, to teleport himself and Borshak out.) Does he even know Borshak’s dead? The whole thing happened inside the cloud of darkness, after all. Fuck, whatever, he vanishes, teleported away to gather reinforcements.

I felt like I had a poor handle on the magician’s capabilities and plans. I realized, with a start, that I had never controlled such a powerful magic-user; not as a player, nor as a GM. Not even close. My preferences have always skewed martial. I need to brush up on the effects of all the magician’s spells, and think about their uses.

Remaining forces (an ogre and an orc) check morale and succeed. They’ll come chasing after the party. At this point I really have to end the session and get ready for work, so I give a summary judgement. The party can’t both hold onto the table and escape the ogre. If we are to end things, they’ll have to drop the table. (My call, not theirs.) Then they escaped the dungeon without further incident, before the magician could rally Borshak’s forces.

If we hadn’t had a summary judgement, I told the players, they would have had to actually deal with the ogre (possibly just running away; the ogre couldn’t see through the magical darkness either) and then their way out would probably have been blocked by the magician and a wall of fire. And the magician would have summoned reinforcements. It would have been a pretty nasty fight out.

I’ll comment a little on the intraparty dynamic. I think Patrick got bored by some of the bean-counting, like when we were calculating the weight of the magic curtain or the volume of the fireball. Physics modelling never engages him. I think Adam stifled when his plans didn’t work or were rejected, particularly by Tommi, and he was positively shocked when Tommi suggested that Grignr couldn’t simply behead Borshak. And I think Tommi was frustrated at the looseness of the game. Of course, they are all free to disagree if they read this, and I’ll happily edit out any reference at their request.


This drawing of a skeleton beyond the magic curtain is so charming. Thank you, Patrick!

I’d really like to replay the last 15 minutes of the session, from the Borshak ambush on. I’d need to get familiar with the magician’s capabilities first. We’d need to have a really tight control over action timing – who is doing what, when? What is being discussed, and what is being done? If we did that, I think we’d have a hell of an interesting scenario on our hands.

I started this series with the intention of uncovering (and hopefully fixing!) some of my weaknesses, and it’s definitely working.

Next time, I’ll do a bit more opforce modelling for the magician, maybe get some advice from some other gamers.

3 Appreciations

Hi, I extremely appreciate your focus on concrete play here.

Three questions:

  • Are you playing Original D&D 1974 o another rules text?
  • I don’t get the HP Cancel (I’ve been reading Muster in these days, but I didn’t found a reference to this rules so far). Can you explain? I’m curious.
  • I don’t understand (take it as my shortcoming) why how you have maneuvered the orc magician is problematic.

Thanks in advance for the clarifications!

2 Appreciations
  1. There is no explicit system, just “generic oldschool D&D”. Attack rolls, armor class, group initiative, the usual statline, etc. When I need data about a monster or spell, I’ll usually look it up in AD&D 1e. This is, in itself, an experiment, and I think it’s going pretty well. There are plenty of errors, disagreements, and confusions at the level of technique – that’s what this post is about, after all – but few or none in the places where the various D&Ds establish their identity.
  2. The HP cancel is from Eero’s current campaign. I don’t think it’s in Muster. Here’s how I’ve phrased it in my rules document:

HP cancel
Pay HP to cancel negative effects. Usually 5 HP per enemy HD, or 10 HP per enemy spell level

Here’s the text from Eero’s campaign workbook, hopefully sharing this portion doesn’t violate its license:

cancel.pdf (125.2 KB)

I don’t give the motivation for the rule in my little rules document, and I hadn’t used it yet in play, so I can understand Adam’s shock when Tommi suggested it.

  1. I dislike four parts of how I played the magician. First, the timing of the magician’s entry was very confused, which is wrapped up in the other confusing events of the ambush. Second, it wasn’t obvious to me what the magician knew or could guess about the situation, and I did not play the magician’s knowledge consistently. Third, I said, “The magician casts fireball”, and we went through the motions of calculating the fireball, only for me to say, “No, actually, I guess he doesn’t do that, he’s not suicidal”. (This is only sort of an error, because I had a different intention for the rules on fireball than the other players: I wanted to calculate the size of the explosion with a fixed radius, while they wanted to calculate it with a fixed volume. Had I known they would insist on fixed volume from the beginning, I wouldn’t have considered using fireball.) And fourth, I didn’t have an adequate understanding of the magician’s spell list to formulate a really good plan of action for him.
1 Appreciation
  1. I agree there was unclarity around what was planned and what executed. I can not off-hand say what I usually experience, but maybe slowing down might be useful? Or maybe the referee being more distant in the planning phase, only making noise if the plan is completely infeasible and the players do not notice this, and then when the players are done, ask them what they are actually doing.

  2. There was also lack of clarity about the geography in general, like what is up from where and thus who can see what. I think we also figured out that the fixed radius fireball would scorch the caster because they were already in the stairs and the geometry stopped them from targeting very far. But might be I misremember or misunderstood.

  3. With respect to the end, I figured out we would take a quick peek behind the secret door, get a bit more mapping info, and then be on our way. But it was the scenario goal for Gringr there and off we went. Stating as a participant that you do not have enough time to engage with this situation might have been a good call when we stated we would peek behind the secret door.

  4. There was some disagreement about the feasibility of various plans. I could probably adjust and argue less about them if prepared. From my perspective the plans often seemed to work on the logic if I can imagine how it looks like, I can do it. I am more used to interrogating the fiction and considering how easy it would actually be and then applying that with as much rigour as we can, to figure out not only what we can imagine, but what would actually work, given our best judgement. This is what I typically play wargamey OSR for. So certainly a conflict in assumptions there.

  5. Still, overall, it was (from what I understand) a new group with people coming from different communities, so friction happening is no surprise and, as far as I did not destroy your game, not a serious problem, either. Certainly worth a discussion about how to go on if I join you again, especially with respect to the modelling of how likely and what kinds of plans are to work.

1 Appreciation

I agree with pretty much all of your observations.

3 is an interesting and exciting suggestion, one I’d never considered. In my practice, sessions end when they end, and players know what they know. I don’t have a fixed procedure for navigating conflicts between session and scenario.

4 Is something I’m consciously trying to work on. “If I can picture it, it works” is the OSR standard, as I understand it. But I have a higher aspiration. One impetus for the game series (small engagements in an enclosed environment) is to help myself practice this sort of thing exactly.

5 isn’t quite right. Adam, Patrick and I have known each other for about a year and a half now, though I think Adam and Patrick have rarely played together in the last 6 months or so. All our styles and interests have been changing in complicated ways.

I think our play culture prefers to paper over disagreements and confusion, and goes softer on critique than I’d like. (This is one reason I’m writing up these reports here.) And so Patrick’s, Adam’s, and my ideas about how to play, and what would work, and all that, have been growing apart, and play has grown more friction, and we have never truly addressed it.