Hello everyone! Kyle here with a blog post before I am off traveling for the rest of the holiday season! I wanted to do a follow up to my “Complicated Life of an NPC” post and continue our dive into encounter design and providing your table with options rather than restrictions.
In my experience, players will often try to resolve an encounter in a way the Gamemaster doesn’t expect. Still, it’s in the best interest of the GM to consider the most obvious approaches the group will take and plan accordingly. To my mind, the three most obvious solutions to any encounter in most RPGs are: combat, stealth, or charm. A given group will likely have a preference for one approach over the others, but even veteran players can surprise you from time to time. A well-designed adventure should consider all three approaches to conflict and attempt to make as many approaches achievable as practically possible.
The Earthdawn system offers a fourth approach: knowledge. In many cases, this path mainly assists a group attempting one of the other methods. However, depending on the opponents, proper knowledge of the situation can defuse an entire encounter.
Combat is the most straightforward approach and likely the one a Gamemaster is most familiar with. Preparing for a combat encounter involves setting an appropriate challenge, gathering appropriate stat blocks, and clearly identifying the battlefield. Even Disciplines not built entirely around combat are given many combat options and all should have ways to contribute to the ensuing battle.
A Gamemaster should consider the world’s reaction to any given combat; figuring out such details as when assistance is likely to arrive, when opponents will flee or surrender, and what public opinion will be for the characters defeating their chosen foe. Otherwise, let the dice fall where they may!
When a group wants to avoid the problem entirely, they can try to sneak past it. Unlike combat, not every Discipline is granted tools to assist with the stealthy approach. In many cases sneaking will involve the use of the Stealthy Stride (skill or talent). There are also many spells (especially those from the Illusionist list) that can trick the opposition into getting out of the way.
The primary hurdle a GM runs into when players attempt this solution is a split party. Typically, only a few members of the party are skilled at sneaking, which can leave the rest of the group twiddling their thumbs. This can become an even larger problem when the infiltrating party members fail a roll or fall into a trap–they can run into a threat that was built for the entire group and you may quickly have a dead character on your hands (maybe even an entire party!).
If the encounter is relatively unimportant, it is a good idea to move things along and reunite a split party as quickly as possible. To that end, a GM should consider whether it is possible to abstract the stealth rolls, and, on a successful test, the burglars have managed to accomplish their task, and have already reunited with the party beyond the threat. Perhaps the sneaks have managed to find a route around the ravenous shadowmants, the burglars managed to secure the note pointing the players towards their objective, or a thief has reached the gong summoning all of the guards to the front gate to discuss the new shifts. By making the threat hinge on a single roll, you give the stealthy players a chance to feel valuable, while keeping the action moving.
If the moment is critical to the plot, have the sneaks come up with their plan ahead of time and determine the difficulty for all rolls involved, a GM should not be afraid to point out ways that sneaks could bring the rest of the party with them, if they so desired.
Talking your way past a problem is a tried and true method, especially for the group’s Troubadour. Every character has a Charisma value, so they at least have the most basic tool of social discourse. However, as with stealth, some characters will be far more capable than others. If a social scene is too important to allow a good social roll to negate it, the GM needs to keep all of the players engaged. While those with many Charisma talents can easily find hooks to get involved, it can be more of a challenge finding ways for brutish Warriors or bookish Wizards to get in on the fun.
Preparing for this path, it is a good idea to determine the NPC’s motivation and select a few strong and weak methods of manipulating them. Perhaps the mercenaries sent after the party feel underpaid and are easy to bribe but are confident in their skill and refuse to be intimidated. Maybe the angry villagers are being manipulated by their headman but lack the self-awareness to admit to themselves they are easily led. However, if presented with evidence of the manipulation, they will quickly change their allegiance.
If a tactic should work against the target, perhaps the Difficulty Number for the Charisma-only roll should be reduced, perhaps by as much as 5. If the point is a hard sell for the NPC in question, an extra success might be required on the test, even two or three if the argument is entirely illogical. High-charisma characters can rely on their rolls to get them out of their situations, while others will need to rely on your world’s internal logic. The final approach, knowledge can be used to help players find the weak points in their opponents’ social “armor”.
Earthdawn is a world of lost secrets, complex magic, and forgotten lore. Spending enough time in a library or among experts might be enough to find the answer to a lost riddle, discover a passage into the sealed estate, or discover a pattern item for the vile Horror that threatens them. Discovering a solution through diligent research sometimes solves a problem before it even gets started. More likely, knowing is only half the battle and the knowledge gained beforehand will help supplement the effectiveness of the other three approaches.
For this approach to work, the GM needs to properly inform their players about the threats they are facing. The Research talent typically takes a week to use, and many investigations require similar timetables. It can be helpful to provide these research opportunities to players alongside other moments of narrative downtime or pointing them out when groups are advancing their Circle or improving skills (or other advancement that can take weeks). The GM can take the opportunity to drop information about upcoming opponents, maybe the group can tell them about their opponents’ weaknesses in combat. Perhaps the players discover a locked secret door that a single thief could approach to let the rest of the party in behind enemy lines. Maybe they can learn a way to easily infuriate the Machiavellian mayor of their corrupted hometown. With preparation and foreshadowing, knowledge can be an immensely powerful tool.
Remember that all characters are given free Knowledge skill ranks at character creation. Your group’s knowledge skills can provide inspiration in the moment for how to get through a fight. Perhaps the Warrior can use his knowledge of Military History to determine how the guard would react to a Charm approach, and which tack is best to take. The Elementalist’s knowledge of local flora could point out a likely path around the angry jungle griffin up ahead. GMs should try to make knowledge skills work for their table and provide options to players who are less likely to be equipped for the approach their table is taking.
A Gamemaster should prepare for as many approaches as possible and exploring these four (well, three and a half) options can make the GM ready for many player shenanigans at the table. A GM should consider ways to allow their players to succeed using any of the above approaches. The more paths through the maze, the more the players can feel a sense of accomplishment for finding the “right” way to go.
With that, I bid thee all adieu. Happy Holidays, and I hope you are excited as I am to see the Earthdawn line continue to grow through 2020 and beyond!
About the Blogger:
Kyle Pritchard is a second-generation tabletop gamer who has been slinging dice since before he was crawling. He’s been working with FASA Games since 2014 and has been a member of Earthdawn Team since 2018.