Fear Itself

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

D&D, GUMSHOE, Compartments, and You

A primary goal, if not the primary goal, of fourth edition D&D is to bring balance to fight sequences. The latest build of the RPG mothership seeks balance across several axes:

  • between players, so that everyone gets to be effective during a fight
  • throughout combat, so that you can do something useful even after firing your big guns
  • against enemies, more evenly matching PCs and their opponents
  • across levels, so that the game performs equally well at low, mid and high levels

To achieve balance, 4E compartmentalizes its crunchy bits by function, into combat and non-combat categories. A few character elements, like skill checks, cross the line between combat and roleplaying sequences. Most, however, are tuned for either one type of scene or the other. Powers are part of the combat balance. Rituals aren’t.

A parallel use of compartmentalization appears in GUMSHOE. It also privileges a type of activity, and divides character elements according to their relationship to it. In D&D, the activity is combat. In GUMSHOE, it’s investigation. Investigative abilities work differently than general abilities and are initially purchased from a separate set of build points.

In play, the line between compartments is harder and brighter in D&D than in GUMSHOE.

D&D combats are scenes unto themselves. They have their own sense of timing and draw on different mental acuities than scenes of discovery or character interaction. When PCs switch from talking to the orcs to whaling on them, player attention radically shifts. While in interaction mode, they’re thinking about what the characters want, how they’re trying to get it, and how they behave. They’re imagining the scene in their heads. When the throwdown commences, they shift perspective: often literally, moving from comfy couch to loom over the tabletop. Now they’re thinking about their positions on the battle map, what powers they’re going to use, and how to coordinate tactically with the other players. Typically, they’re looking at a map and a set of minis, and conjuring mental images only intermittently.

In its scenario structure, GUMSHOE divides scenes to some degree: antagonist reaction scenes, for example, are sequences of action and suspense in which general abilities predominate. Investigative scenes, as the name suggests, focus mainly on information gathering and draw mostly on investigative abilities. However, you don’t get the same cognitive shift when you move from one to the other: the picture of events is always in your head. PCs might easily gather information and then perform a general action back-to-back, then go back to an investigative ability use, all in the same seamless sequence.

4E’s hard line between scene types, and the cognitive shift that accompanies it, can take some getting used to. Even when it appears to be a drawback, I’d argue that it’s a small price to pay for fights that are as varied, tactically challenging, and easy to run as 4E’s are.

That said, once you’re aware of the hard line, you can begin to use it to your advantage as a DM. Compartments become the building blocks of story structure.

The classic dungeon delve scenario requires little shifting because its compartments for combat are large, and its non-combat scenes minimal. The latter provide flavor and a sense of continuity, but are essentially transitional in nature. If you prep three rooms where the group will, respectively, fight kobolds, rumble skeletons and confront an assortment of traps and monsters, you’re building the cognitive shifts into the literal architecture of the scenes. Fights occur in rooms. Exploratory transitions and character banter happens in the corridors. Moreover, the room/corridor setup gives the players the salutary illusion of narrative freedom. You know they’re probably going to engage with all three of your prepped encounters. But they get to pick the order, albeit blindly, by deciding which hallways to head down and which doorways to bash open.

Story-oriented adventures, where the connections between fight scenes are not doors and hallways, but rather interaction sequences that forward the plot, challenge your ability to provide a sense of narrative freedom. Here you might establish a story premise, or dangle several premises in front of the players and see which ones they go for. You’ve prepped three encounters, but haven’t nailed down how they connect or what their significance to the overall narrative might be.

You know that the characters are going to battle kobolds, skeletons, and a trap/miscellaneous monster mix. What you don’t know up front is why these fights will occur, the story elements that will connect them, and the impact they’ll have on the overall storyline. This you discover as you respond to player choices. Here, the non-combat compartments don’t just connect the fights—they invest them with meaning and heightened emotional stakes.

Now the combat and interaction/exploration compartments aren’t operating in two separate vacuums; they’re informing one another.

An agenda for the PCs allows you to link the two compartments. You might provide this as part of the campaign premise, request that the players generate it themselves, or go into picaresque mode. This last approach sees them adopting and rejecting various goals as they wander through your campaign.

Let’s say they’re amnesiacs seeking a magical orb containing their stolen memories. Your introductory interaction/exploration sequence starts with their realization that they can’t remember their pasts. They head into the nearest village, where, by talking to its inhabitants, they get the first inklings of what might have happened to them. You establish a choice point that propels them to one of two future scenes. They might seek the advice of a sage, or decide to follow the trail of a sinister-seeming peddler who passed through town on the night they lost their memories. Tying these into combat compartments, you could decide that the sage is being held prisoner by kobolds, and that the peddler maintains a secret lair guarded by traps and trained creatures.

Whether the group chooses between sage and peddler knowing about the kobolds and skeletons is a matter of taste. You could leave them in the dark. You might let them discover this while gathering information. That way, they can factor the sort of fight they’ll likely face into their decision as to which choice to pursue. As a third option, you might let the dice decide, providing the scoop on either or both sets of guardians on successful skill checks.

By withholding prior knowledge of the guardians, you get to keep the unused encounter in reserve for later. This way, if the group focuses on the sage, you can couple the skeletons to a fresh narrative thread later on, with none of your prep time having gone to waste.

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