Thursday, May 15, 2014

Clark Ashton Smith and Unbalanced Encounters

If you haven't yet, you should definitely pick up The Dark Eidolon and Other Stories, a new anthology of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories, prose poems and poetry. It's edited by S.T. Joshi, a Lovecraft scholar who has managed to convince Penguin to put out all kinds of weird fiction lately. Joshi's Amazon page is like a wish-list of weird fantasy tales.

The first story in The Dark Eidolon is "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros", a short romp in the Hyperborean cycle where two disreputable types go to the ruins of Commoriom in search of treasure. It seems pretty undeniable to me that this is the kind of story that D&D is made of, even if CAS didn't make Appendix N.

Anyway, if you haven't, you should read the Satampra story. Mostly because it's a damn good yarn, but also because it's essential to my point here.

The thing in the basin is a great example of how an encounter should be able to go in a D&D game. PCs need to be able to run like hell, which seems to be missing from a lot of players' mindsets and editions of D&D. If you're going to have bona fide monsters in the game, it stands to reason that they should be able to have the kind of response that the thing coming out of the basin has on Satampra Zeiros and Tirouv Ompallios.

It's a terribly unbalanced encounter, but clever player characters could have handled it otherwise. Not being drunk would be a start, as would a better plan of retreat. Some kind of alternative plan for the creature – fire, oil, throwing food or a corpse at it, pretty much any desperate move, or retreat and research as to its capabilities – could prevent a TPK, but if they stood and fought they'd both be dead.

To me, that's why save-or-die mechanics are a good thing in old school RPGs. Without them, you can't create that sense of visceral terror that we see in Satampra's tale. A careful referee could manage, although not with CAS's unique style, to create something quite parallel in the players as they face an unknown horror.

Of course, not every encounter should be like this one. CAS is unforgivably stingy with the treasure, for one thing. And there should be a time when it's appropriate to the PCs to stand and fight. But combat should generally be at the PCs' choosing, not in carefully arranged set-pieces. You fight when you think you can win, and you shouldn't always think that.

For me, it's very important that the dungeon is dangerous. If it weren't, someone would have already looted it and there'd be nothing left for the PCs to get. Encounters like the one faced by Satampra Zeiros and Tirouv Ompallios are one of the ways to make sure of that.


  1. I like what you are saying, and thanks for the book recommendation.

    But how do you make it work? When the PCs encounter a monster, it is more than likely at least one combat round is going to play out (probably more) before the party realizes they should be running. And for a suitably dangerous monster, with save or die mechanics, that could very well mean one or more casualties. That just seems too killer DM.

    Yes, you could describe the monster in such a way to show how dangerous it is and/or foreshadow it prior to the encounter. But even "appropriate" monsters are terrible to behold when described correctly. And this group of heroes is there to fight monsters, so the odds are they will appreciate your flavor text, but not necessarily know that you are hinting that this thing before them is beyond their capability.

    1. I'd take the approach that, if the PCs choose to fight a totally unknown creature, they've handed their lives to the dice gods. It seems capricious but as soon as you ask a player to roll a d20 they know they're in some serious stuff - and will likely develop that same feeling of dread that motivates Smith's heroes, whether the saving throw is a success or not.

    2. It only takes one encounter for players to learn that running is an option. Play with a system that features quick chargen and everything should be alright. Nobody cries when they lose a life in Mario, after all

      Also, these so-called "heroes" aren't there to fight monsters (well, maybe the fighting-man is). They're there for the obscene amount of wealth some half-mad wizard hid underground! Monsters are just an obstacle (and potential source for material components)

    3. Harvicus - There are plenty of options for letting the players know they should probably run from a monster and take it on imaginatively rather than through combat - beyond sacrificing one PC as a "gotcha," that is:

      1. Sacrificing one NPC as a "gotcha."
      2. Seeding the adventure beforehand with rumors or other information about how horrible the monster is and what it can do.
      3. Present the monster in a way that telegraphs its danger: claw marks scored in solid stone or metal, acid discolorations, obviously sealed away to protect the world, etc.
      4. Giving it a freaky game mechanic, especially a non-standard one that they players don't have a reflexive counter to (reflexive in the sense that an experienced gamer who meets a troll will reach for their fire or acid because that's what you do).
      5. Using a game system where players can roll to get information, and straight up telling them "Bard, you've heard of something like this. If the rumors are true, this bad girl has a razor body, acid blood, and a mouth inside its mouth so it can bite you while it's biting you."

      I ran a sandbox campaign a while ago with several too-high-for-the-party challenges (including a 13th-level wizard whom they took out with a mercenary army, a magic sword, and a grappling hook). One of these was a modified black pudding or similar ooze monster.

      The thing was locked up in a vault (#3 above) and they first heard of it when a band of brigands began claiming they could control it and threatening to level any villages that didn't pay them protection money (#2). It had a fear effect when encountered (#4). I figured I'd done my job as DM telegraphing the danger level.

      Despite this they still managed to free it and lose a party member in the process... some people just don't give up their mechanical assumptions quickly. But after that they got their act together, did some research, and took it out with arrows treated in something like Powder of Ibn Ghazi. Good times.

      So yes, Wayne R. - I thoroughly agree that a good dungeon or sandbox should house the occasional danger spike as atmosphere and as an extra challenge for the players. And thanks for stirring up some memories of good times. 8^)

    4. Great comment, thank you for taking the time. I will make use of your advice next time I find myself behind the screen.

  2. I've read one or two of the recent CAS anthologies myself, and found them very inspirational. Contra Professor Oates, quick chargen isn't needed; I just warn my players to roll up an extra while they're at it. And perhaps Mario is part of the problem, conditioning players to think the same character always comes back.

  3. It turns out that my posting above closed a loop of sorts. The fear-pudding I talk about was inspired, now that I think about it, by this post on the Alexandrian... which in turn draws its inspiration from the exact same CAS story. No wonder it came to mind now. [wry]

    1. Thanks, good to see I'm not the only one who's read this story and said, "Wow, that was a D&D adventure!" Takeaway is obv. a little different but definitely an interesting read.

  4. Trail of Tsathogua book for Cthulu based on that story set in 1920s finding tomb in greenland. I ran for my BRP/RQ3 vikings game fine. Did better than CoC characters but mighty heroes kill it on to thre hp t a time and two paty members eaten and all really pissed off.


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