Wednesday, 17 February 2010
Hack and Slash vs. Titanic Struggles, or the Goblin Massacre and Giant Slaying Approaches
Today, I'll be looking at two philosophical positions on encounter design, which I term the Goblin Massacre and Giant Slaying approaches.
Because of its default assumptions (low level characters are extremely weak in comparative terms to single powerful monsters in the bestiaries) D&D leans towards hack and slash when it comes to combat - by which I mean, encounters tend to revolve around face-offs between a group of adventurers and a group of monsters roughly equal (or a bit lower or a bit higher) to their power level. At level 1 this means things like goblins, bandits, and giant rats; at level 2 orcs and hobgoblins; and so on. A group of four level 1 adventurers simply don't have much of a hope of taking on something like a troll, let alone a giant or a dragon. This tends to result in relatively frequent fights resulting in rather large numbers of deaths of low level humanoids - in other words, the Goblin Massacre approach, where your four adventurers encounter eight goblins, kill them all, heal up, and proceed. You're all familiar with the sheer number of mook enemies that a D&D adventuring party can get through over the course of levels 1-4 alone, I'm sure, especially if the DM is not particularly imaginative or the game is very combat-heavy.
While at higher levels this should in theory become less of an issue, in my experience the fact that lower levels (the equivalent of the game's formative years) are so dominated by this mode of play means that even at levels 9+ encounters still tend to follow the Goblin Massacre paradigm, except with creatures like vrocks, slaadi and ogre magi taking over the mook duties. Single, powerful enemies tend to be reserved for "boss fights" only.
The other extreme is something that's rarely seen in D&D (and, consequently, in other games too - more on that below) - namely, the Giant Slaying approach. This takes an opposite tack to Goblin Massacre, revolving around infrequent encounters with large, powerful, and possibly unique enemies right from the beginning. In this paradigm, monsters would start off at the level of trolls and progress from there; they would be mighty and perhaps near-legendary beings who only true heroes could possibly hope to defeat in a fight: Fafnir, Gog and Magog, Grendel, Glaurung, the Green Knight. Giant Slaying adventures would involve much in the way of tracking, exploring and inconclusive battle, and comparatively little in the way of slaughter.
In fairness, I think the D&D 4e designers were attempting to allow for this type of play when they beefed up the power levels of first level characters. (Indeed I remember an Actual Play report somewhere on rpg.net talking about a group of first level characters killing a young white dragon.) They didn't achieve this in anything approaching a way that I would like - D&D 4e is very anime- and superhero comic-blasted, rather than mythic in tone. But the difference between it and older editions of D&D is marked in this respect.
Now, there is nothing wrong with Goblin Massacre, and in fact I would argue that it is what D&D is really a best fit for - its roots are Sword & Sorcery, and you get a heck of a lot of Goblin Massacre in Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Elric. Why change it? The problem is that D&D has been such a dominant force in the hobby for so long, as the gateway drug, that I believe it has skewed fantasy gaming in general away from Giant Slaying and towards Goblin Massacre to an extent which isn't perhaps all that healthy. The other big fantasy games that I can think of (MERP, WFRP, Earthdawn, RuneQuest) all follow the Goblin Massacre, start-low-and-kill-lots-of-mooks pattern.
I rather like Giant Slaying (perhaps I was unduly influenced by Shadow of the Colossus), and would gladly partake in that sort of game. Short of generic systems (or just high-level D&D), however, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of options.