In a Pathfinder campaign, I had a cunning and dangerous elven bandit that was terrorising the countryside. I used random rogue NPC stats for him. He had high stealth and wielded a spiked chain; I envisioned him running from cover to cover, tripping the players with his chain. The bandit mooks would scatter around, shooting at the players with bows, trying to draw them out so that the elf could work his magic, before the players would defeat him with perseverance and cunning.
Of course, it did not work that way.
When the battle started, the players had an advantage: They managed to surprise the bandits and killed two of them. The elf managed to assert control, commanded the troops and darted to the misty shadows of the camp, disappearing from sight.
Then. The party’s paladin simply turned on his Detect Evil and scanned the environs, pinpointing the hidden elf. Immidiately I knew that never again would a stealth-based bad guy prove a challenge to them. The others surrounded him and pummeled him senseless. The dangerous and cunning elf was reduced to a laughable screwup.
It is difficult to form an opinion about the matter. True, the players used their abilities to turn a dangerous situation to an easy one; For many, the essence of tabletop roleplaying. But on the other hand, the overabundant system denied me of one crucial encounter type: A fight against a stealth-based opponent. One little ability from the vast arsenal of them turned my carefully crafted experience into something a bit anticlimatic and abrupt.
So. This little tale sparked several questions in my mind.
- Did I want to just play a dictator and hammer the players on my own railroad?
- Did the too heavy simulation-based system screw me over?
- Could I have not just made the guy not evil?
First I’ll tackle railroading. When I create a game to play, I usually have some sort of story, theme and mood in my mind. From these starting points I begin to craft experiences, like an escape from a collapsing bridge, or a trek through an ancient, abandoned research centre filled with self-repairing combat droids. These experiences then focus until I have a quite linear road filled with experiences that I hope are great. Were I an excellent GM, I could do this in real time. I could take the actions of the players and re-hammer my own plans accordingly. With experience and time, I think I can. But for now, I prefer making my games exciting rollercoasters. And, since I am a man of principle, I would prefer this approach in the games I participate as a player. As Oblivion and Fallout 3 showed me, I prefer tight action over faffing about.
Next time I’ll explain why I even use a gaming system to roleplay.