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 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.


  1. Excellent post--I'm inspired to take a first level party on a giant slaying adventure.

    It leaves me wondering, however--have you ever actually implemented such an approach? I would worry that low-level adventurers would get confused and frustrated (and annihilated) when they are put up against against such baddies, because their expectation of a goblin massacre encounter is so ingrained.

    Also: the accompanying art is spectacular. I think you've done an art post or two in the past, but I would mind another one. Any artists on you can recommend?

  2. I was going to say something along the lines of "like in Shadow of the Colossus" and then I got to the end of the post! ;)

    I don't know why more rpgs don't go with something like this outside of boss encounters. I might argue that WFRP doesn't support "goblin massacre" play at early stages of the game, simply because starting adventurers would have trouble with one goblin, let alone ten.

    In all fairness to 4e, there is an attempt in the game to emulate something like this, with "brute" and "solo" type monsters, which are essentially a level-appropriate bunch of monsters all in one, swapping 5HD of goblins (4e doesn't use hit dice, but you get the idea) for a single 5HD monster. It doesn't work quite as well as intended, but the intention is there.

  3. I've played a successful adventures based around "giant hunting" using the 3e, but when I switched to S&W I've found that early D&D didn't support this type of adventures well.

    On the other hand, I've managed to get around this by two means. I used a singe imitative roll for each side, rather than each of the combatants and I tried to present a quite common monster (an ogre to be exact) as a beast of almost mythical proportions.

  4. I like giant-slaying a LOT and have found D&D EXTREMELY well-suited to it.

    Basically, for low-level PCs, it forces them to strategize and think about how to use the environment to their advantage. And they do.

    The whole point of the early D&D combat system is, I think "You can;t win this way in a stand-up fight--so find a way to not have a stand-up fight."

  5. Giant hunting is the norm with me. I focus on fighting one big monster to gain a reputation/levels than a mire of smaller useless ones, especially at low levels. Part of this is to go for "Bruiser" monsters. This means alot of damage (both give and take) but not automatically good at scoring hits. I also make sure the monsters suffer penalties as they get injured, or have ways to trap. You don't go toe to toe with the cylcops. You blind it, or have it chase you off a cliff, or into a cave that you collapse, or hell you jump out of a tree and latch onto the hard to reach part of the back and stab. Something beyond "charge!" (unless perhaps you are a mounted knight with a lance)

  6. I don't think RM or MERP encourage the goblin massacre approach so much at all, and they have a simple game mechanic - the deadly critical - which encourages a different style of play because

    a) you avoid any straight-up fight due to the extreme risk of your own death

    b) you avoid fights with lower-level monsters because of the extreme annoyance of being killed by a skeleton after 12 levels of play (it happened in one of my campaigns)

    c) higher level monsters on their own are killable due to the critical

    I quite like this style of play, and a lot of my combat scenes involve this type of play. But I'm a fan of systems where combat is deadly, rather than an accounting exercise.

  7. I somehow feel that this is primarily problem of XP distribution and accumulation.

  8. Mob rules might make it easier/more obvious how a group of low-level characters could go giant-hunting.

  9. I agree with the notion that there is a problem that relates to experience. As it stands D&D's reward system encourages the goblin massacre approach. Thwarting, wounding, scaring off, tracking down and various other actions that could conceivably lead towards the slaying of a giant do not traditionally reap experience rewards. Of course one could rule that the party could get a portion of the XP for such actions.

    I think the game for this stuff is Ars Magica, not necessarily mechanically, but certainly atmospherically. That's what your Arthur Rackham illo evokes - dirty old Mythic Europe with it's northernness and such.

    It's a pity old Rackham was temporally restricted from illustrating Tolkien.

  10. In my Warren's Deep game, the players just defeated the Green Knight. (ok, so actually it was more of a chivalrous trial-by-combat and the real bad guy is still at large)

    They did fight a troll though... and get their butts kicked. If they had worked together then they would have had a decent chance, but as it was, two NPC's got eaten and the rest of the party was only saved by the werewolf character transforming out of fear(he just avoided becoming wolf-stew himself, literally)

    I think that the main problem with having a real 'giant slaying' type of first level adventure is that it is too short. The party hires a dozen hirelings to help slay the giant which is terrorizing some village. There is a big, deadly, combat, then the story is over :(

    Of course if you have them travel to buy a big keg of gunpowder to blow up the thing, and throw in some Skaven as a distraction, then you can drag it out some more...

  11. Ivan: I think you just need to make it clear from the outset what's expected, so that everyone's singing from the same hymnsheet.

    The artwork is by a man called Arthur Rackham - most of his stuff is now freely available, because he died in 1939.

    I never really visit, I'm afraid, so I can't recommend anyone.

    Kelvingreen: WFRP is about Rat Massacre.

    Squidman: Nice idea.

    Zak: I can't help thinking that some other game somewhere which I've never played might be even better. Also, there's the problem with XP. See Tom's comment below.

    Zzarchov: Sounds a bit like that game Mike Mearls did before D&D 4e. Somebody will remind me of the name.

    faustusnotes: Now that you mention it you could be right about that - all the games of MERP I've played were mostly to do with Goblin Massacre because of the tone of the campaign, but it doesn't have to be that way of course.

    Anonymous: Quite.

    Otemoyan: Thanks, but no thanks. (If anybody is curious about what words like "fellatio" and "creampie" look like in Japanese, it's all there for posterity in this list.)

    Norman: I couldn't access the link for some reason.

    Tom: I've never played Ars Magica. My personal intense distaste for one of its major authors doesn't help.

    Billy Billerson: Yep, golem slaying is a bit less straightforward than giant slaying.

  12. The x.p. system? no way.

    Leaving aside the fact that my players don;t even know what they get xp for, it's a piece of cake to rig it so that the PCs know a giant's hoard has way more treasure than whatever the goblins are hauling around.

  13. WFRP is about Rat Massacre.

    "Yes-yes. Puny manthing understands WFRP."

    As for giant slaying games in D&D. Ambushes and dirty tricks are your friends. Only a fool fights a superior foe on even terms.

    Look at the better class of S&S source material (Conan, Kane, etc. Not Charles Saunder's "Imaro" books, the hero there just has mile-thick plot armour and powers of grunting and flexing that make Flex Mentallo envious); the hero is /always/ using dirty tricks against stronger foes.

    Of course, this kind of tactical planning is hard (and often impossible if you have a poor DM who tries to block player plans that diverge from his intended solution), so most casual games default to a "collect n+1 [yard trash monster] [body part]" model.

  14. Giant-slaying is one of the most singularly fun things there is to do, but frankly there's a lot to be said for wading through a couple dozen mooks like it's no big thing.
    I think 4e does a good job of mixing the mediums, which may account for it being my preference. I think it also has something to do with the fact that one influence on my view of good fantasy is Marvel's old Savage Sword Of Conan title.

  15. Ha! Rat Massacre indeed. Yes, a fair point. I miss WFRP.

  16. Yep - I get into the giant-slaying side more often now. I like running unique creatures, opponents, situations, etc much more than the mob mentality of 2d6 mooks. They got their place still, sure - too bad we couldn't bribe the bomb maker down into the Pit! hee hee

  17. If you're running adventures with decent stories it's likely that the balance of goblin slaying vs. giant slaying doesn't matter, because the opponents the players encounter are inherent to the story and match their expectations. A good mystery, for example, might only lead to repeated goblin slayings but can be fun regardless.

    But I do think systems where combat is deadly discourage these kinds of mass combats. D&D has many good points, but the sudden-death nature of its combat system ain't one of them.

  18. sorry that sir s was faustusnotes. Stupid google...

  19. @zack: how do you modify XP award to encourage more giant-slaying approach? share that pie with us :)

    @kelvingreen: wfrp misses you too ;)

  20. opossum101: A giant's hoard will pretty much always be worth more XP than a group of goblins', so I think Zak was just implying that if the DM insinuates as much to the players they're naturally going to be more interested in the giant hoard. At least, if they're worth their salt.

  21. I should read more carefully other peoples posts in the future :(

  22. Oh possum, I love any man capable of using that phrase.

    In a platonic way.

  23. Great post - this really has me thinking about what sort of creatures to introduce the player characters to.

    I watched Outlander recently and that inspired me to put something... bad... out in the wilderness of the campaign world. I'd thought the players wouldn't encounter it until they'd gone up in level a bit.

    Maybe not. :)

  24. In Ultima Online and other crpgs I would go giant slaying for fun & challenge, but I called it "Big Game Hunting."

    Big Game generally has not just more but also better treasure!