Desperate Role-Playing Moments

Shared Fictional State with Clear Tightening Consequences Build Desperation

This morning I read the following from Alex Schroeder:

In episode 53 of Daydreaming about dragons, Judd Karlman talks about the fight between Fin Razel and Queen Bavmorda in Willow and how the fight had a certain desperation about it, and how to bring that to role-playing games.

It’s an interesting question.

I don’t think counting down hit-points gives us desperation. In games with a lot of fighting, possibly with a lot of characters at the table, I see desperation mounting when characters drop out of the game. That’s when we get nervous.

If characters are dead when they drop, this requires a game with a lot of retainers that die first. This may or may not be your kind of game.

The alternative is a game where dropped characters aren’t dead by simply dying, either because they only die at -10, or they roll stabilisation dice, etc. As you can see, this is the route AD&D and D&D took.

This got me thinking of the most desperate Role Playing Game (RPG 📖) fights that I’ve played. The Nexus in our Scales of War Campaign.

Scales of War - The Nexus

The Nexus encounter in the Siege of Bordan’s Watch, found in Dungeon 157 from the Scales of War Campaign remains the most memorable desperate battle I’ve played in a table-top RPG.

From the encounter’s block text:

You step into a massive chamber in which the ceiling rises 100 feet above you. At the center of the chamber is a pillar of solid steel that is screwed into the stone and that stand as tall as the ceiling. Two bronze and steel pipes emerge from the eastern walls and travel toward the steel column before vanishing into the stone. Rising around the outside of the room is a stone catwalk that connects to steel grating that wraps around the steel pillar like scaffolding. Dark tunnels pock the walls, leading to who knows where.

Siege at Bordan's Watch

In this 3rd level Dungeons and Dragons: Fourth Edition (4E 📖) encounter, the characters needed to seal off the room and escape. We assessed danger from the tunnels.

In the first round the Eladrin wizard teleported up onto the platform, and found a control panel. The other characters began their ascent along the outer stone catwalk.

From one of the nearby tunnels, a pair archers emerged. Conflict erupted. The party pressed their way forward as the Eladrin wizard activated the control panel. The chamber began filling with scalding water.

And while the water wasn’t immediate death, it was additional damage, required ability checks, and involved reduced movement until you got out of the water. In other words, the conflict was already desperate, falling the water would accelerate any death spiral.

With water filling the chamber, the battle turned grim, and decisions desperate. Enemies popped out from the tunnels. Sometimes just ahead of the characters, other times from a distance.

Character’s had to assess should I try to run up the catwalk, or push nearby enemy into the boiling water, or return fire hoping to incapacite a ranged threat?

At one point, the waters were so close that both the enemies and the player characters spent their actions running to a safe spot. There, they re-engaged.

At another point, a character dropped to 0 HP and the other characters had to decide should we run back, heal them? All while the waters continued to rise.

At the control panel the Eladrin wizard needed to hold his ground, ensuring the enemy didn’t gain access.

Breaking Down the Desperation

In this difficult scenario, there were two points of opposition. One the uncaring rising water, bringing certain death. The other, the intelligent opposition, vying to keep this area open.

The rising waters behaved predictably, each round they rose a set number of feet. Everyone at the table had this information. Each decision became a risk/reward calculation. However, no one knew how each character or opposition would act (nor what those results would be).

For example, at one point you could see that the waters were 5 feet below. At the end of the round, they’d be at your feet. At the end of the next round, the water would be five feet above your current position.

Before the waters overcome you, you have 2 move actions, and 2 standard actions (which could be used to move). When you take a move action, you can move 30 feet. You need to climb a 10 foot ladder (which costs 20 feet of movement) that is 50 feet away. Climbing does require a rather low difficulty Strength test.

Do you run for the later and start your ascent? Do you move and try to shove an enemy off the edge. You should be able to make it next round…barring a change in fictional positioning.

The characters were 3rd level, which gave them some durability and a few tricks in their repretoire. But there weren’t many tricks and they were smaller in scope. No one could throw a Black Tentacles spell or Control Water.

Most of the characters remained near each other relative to the threats against them. This remained key, as the characters' fates remained entwined. The rising water became the harbinger of a Total Party Kill (TPK 📖). Were the characters overcome by the water, we all knew it was an end of the campaign.

Instead we had shoves, pushes, and brief reductions in movement speed. The 4E system shined in this encounter, placing an emphasis on the tactical actions available to characters.