Thursday, September 27, 2012

Getting Worse

House rules do two things.  First, they smooth over a problem which has cropped up in a group's use of the rules.  Secondly, they mold behavior (you can call this "attempt to emulate genre" if you like).  These are not mutually exclusive, of course - some house rules do both things.  Often the 'problem' the house rule fixes is one related to the behavior/genre you're aiming for.  As an outgrowth of this second category, a house rule is also a way to (mechanically) finish the sentence, "this campaign is D&D, except...".   There are genre considerations, there are at-the-table considerations, and more, but it all gets patched up with house rules.

Wampus Country has a handful of what I would consider fairly minor house rules which finish that sentence - "Wampus is D&D, except...".  And it's all behavior/genre stuff so far.  When I decided I knew in my mind's eye what Wampus Country looked like, I had to shape the rules and player behavior with firearms and genre-appropriate hats and armor; those rules are under the 'House Rules' tab above.  More recently, I added another set of house rules that address healing (making it more available) and a throwaway bit on musical talent (again, shaping the feel of the setting).  Have any of these house rules revolutionized my Labyrinth Lord gameplay?  No, not really - they're a collection of minor affectations at best.  But some house rules have larger footprints than others.

In that spirit, following on from the previous post, let's talk about It Gets Worse.

The whole concept behind It Gets Worse is that in an adventure based on tall tale and fairy-tale logic, played partly for laughs, Death should not be common; or, to put it a different way, the fear of PC Death should not inhibit characters from doing tall-tale things.  Instead, in lieu of Death and Risk of Death, much of the time the characters should be thrown from the frying pan into the fire, thrust into new situations where they are in equal (or more) danger, but different somehow.  Call it escalation, call it switching gears (from a physical challenge to a social one, for example), whatever.  That's the concept - instead of all the PCs being dead from a TPK, they're all knocked out and wake up in an even crappier situation (ideally one that's also awkward and funny and all of those things we desire).

Now, when we first start to think about this concept and it makes a bit of sense, it's very easy to get on board with the experiment, but there are (at least) two dangling questions.  The first is, Will This Work?  I don't have an answer to that yet - only using the house rule in play will tell us if it helps shape behavior (both the players' and my own) and gets us down the road to the Platonic Wampus Ideal.  The second question is: How Can This Thing Be Implemented?  That's a tricky one, too.

Over the past week I've had several people ask me if I'm going to whip up a Wampus-equivalent of a "Death and Dismemberment" table which could serve as an aid to It Gets Worse.  Frankly, I don't think that's the answer.  With so many potential variations in the situations which might require this kind of escalation, I think a table would end up nonsensical; the Getting Worse needs to make narrative sense as a follow-on to whatever happened previous.  Standard escalation of this sort, as far as I can tell, tends to result in either a new situation best trumped with fast-talk or trickery (aka "the fairy-tale option") or a new situation with increased physical danger which is escaped through physical prowess (aka "the pulp option"; Star Wars movies are good at this, as you'll realize in a moment).

However, we can certainly talk about the sorts of things one might be thinking about when aiming for It Gets Worse as a principle of how the campaign works.  As I see it, there are some general categories of It Gets Worse: at base, you're looking at either a new physical danger, or a new social (or maybe moral) dilemma.  And, at the same time, the development offers the character(s) a new chance to act or talk their way out of the new problem.  Below, a sample list of quandries (Q) and It Gets Worse (IGW).  Some of these will look familiar from previous posts.

Q: The party is defeated by enemies.  (Could be a TPK or a capture scenario)

IGW:  The party wakes in deeper danger which could have a physical or social solution, but at least it's another chance...some options may include 1) in the stewpot; the enemies want to eat you  (alternately, captured to be fattened up), 2) tied to stakes, with the bonfire about to be lit, 3) shoved into gladiatorial combat with something potentially even worse than the enemies, or at least more visceral (see Return of the Jedi and Attack of the Clones). etc.

Q: Bingo the Bard falls out of a hot air balloon several miles up.  He should be dead, no roll.

IGW:  Bingo is snatched mid-fall by a tremendous bird and brought back to an immense nest to be fed to giant baby birds.

In a "deeper danger" scenario you're trading one physical predicament - which you've already lost, mind you - for another, different physical predicament.  It's a second chance, and one which might cater to different skills (figuratively or literally).

Q:  Professor Fizzlewand, the party wizard, is shoved over a cliff and by rights ought to fall in the lava river or be dashed to pieces on the rocks below.

IGW: Fizzlewand is injured on the rocks but rescued and nursed back to health by the Lava Men, who either need him to do something or, via mistaken identity or prophetic timing, see him as the answer to their problems.  Perhaps he's their expected Messiah - the difficulty being that the Magmessiah is supposed to lead the Lava Men in their war against the Dao...  (Note that there's already some PC failure there in the fall; this is not the same as C-3PO's player throwing some kind of chip at the GM and shouting "Um, they think I'm their god or something!" preemptively.  This is not a shift in agency unless the DM actually asks the players for suggestions as to how It Gets Worse, and that's certainly not mandatory!)

Q: The party is subdued by the authorities and tossed into prison.

IGW:  The party is approached in jail by the nefarious bandit Billy Buzzsaw, who wants their assistance for a big breakout - tonight!  Let's hope that cutthroat Billy doesn't figure out that one of the PCs, Lightfinger the Thief, is the same smiling lothario who's been making time with Mrs. Buzzsaw for the last six months...awkward!  (In a situation like this you're pairing the physical challenge of the breakout attempt with the social juggling of the hidden relationship - you can bet I'd be leaning on that second part the whole time, and Buzzsaw would figure it out at the end of the breakout (if successful), so that the PC is trading freedom for a new enemy)

 In these situations, the character has an obvious but dangerous physical option (fight, run) and a nonsatisfactory but less dangerous social option (play along).

Q:  While attempting to burgle the Sultan's opulent palace, the lone PC is knocked unconscious by a sleeping-gas trap on a chest.

IGW:  The PC is found on the floor and awakened by the near-sighted Sultan, who takes the PC to be the new eunuch he ordered and immediately puts him in charge of the harem.

Q:  The PCs are captured by the authorities and about to be hanged - all attempts at escape thus far have failed, and as they stand on the gallows, their doom seems certain.  Narrated TPK imminent.

IGW:  The PCs are rescued by members of a secret revolutionary society and shuffled off to a secret meeting-place -- because the revolutionaries think the PCs have special information.  Of course, if the PCs admit they don't know the information, they'll be killed...

In these situations, the primary quandry is one which is best conquerable through social interaction - fast-talk, trickery, etc.  Stacking lie upon lie is 100% fairy-tale approved.

One potential problem that comes to mind with the It Gets Worse goal is that of an infinite loop - failure, escalation, failure, escalation, ad infinitum.  It's possible, but I don't think it's likely, unless every escalation were greater physical danger of a very narrow type (ie, combat).  If you're mixing up potential solutions, I don't foresee a major problem, especially since players are going to come up with stuff you never would have considered.

The real trick to all of this is going to be enacting a situation which seems horrible, but which can be turned to   the party's advantage via player cleverness - and what's more sandboxy than that, really?  Plenty of PCs would see that giant-bird's-nest situation and think "there must be a way out of this that also conveniently gets me a giant bird for a mount".  Or a tribe of Lava Men as henchmen.  Or the Sultan's harem as allies, and so forth.  The escalation of It Gets Worse isn't an ultimatum by the DM, it's a volley back and forth between the DM and the players.

By rights, Bartholomew should've been killed by that  goblin's arrow; instead, however, the DM determined that It Got Worse.  Bartholomew had only been knocked out, but the flint-headed arrow had shattered the potion of giant size he carried and spilled it across the grass.  Now, as he woke, Bartholomew realized both that his rifle was missing, and that he'd been hunting rabbits in the same spot for some six years now, and they remembered him.


  1. This is awesome. I can see how unwieldy a random table would be, but man it would kinda be awesome

  2. Great, great stuff. (And for this Gamma World loving goon, anything involving "armed rabbit vengeance" is particularly endearing.)

  3. There are actually a number of games that have this sort of mechanic. In Laws's HeroQuest for instance, the mechanics merely indicate "failure," but what forms that takes depends on the situation, the stakes, and GM decision--death is only one option.

  4. It Gets Worse has a nice Dying Earth feel to it, particularly the stories about Cugel. The stories are not about if Cugel will live or die, but about the misfortunes he experiences and the clever way he gets out of them.
    For long haul campaigns where character story is more important than simulation, IGW is my new philosophy. Thanks for the post!

  5. Thanks for giving name to the collected phenomena (IGW) that has governed my real world employment to this point. While my coworkers contune to use the "fairy-tale" options for problem solving, my adherence to the "pulp" option goes largely unnoticed/underappreciated.

  6. not a random table, but maybe something like Oblique Strategies could be useful for this. The DM has to come up with something on the fly, which is fine when you're "on" but could be a fish-gasping washout if you're not and is likely to "get worse" for the DM too as they have to patch in new content dreamed up on a whim.
    That said, I love it. And this sorting into challenge/solution types is a very smart way to keep it interesting/varied/maybe partly randomly generated

  7. I also love this. I shared it with my daughter who thinks Old School GMing is barbaric and stupid. It resonates for me for a game like Pirates of the Spanish Main which, as you say, isn't about dying. Good stuff. Thanks!

  8. Yep, this, very much this. One of the reasons my Table of Death and Dismemberment is so heavily weighted towards KOs and the like is to make death a bit less common and create opportunities for IGWs.

  9. See, I'm of the opinion that, for the most part, player death is rarely the fault of the DM. Very, very rarely. The vast majority of the time, when players have the opportunity to run, hide, beg for their life, or do anything other than fight to the death, they don't take it. In my earlier years, I'd spend whole sessions trying not to kill characters left right and centre, simply because the players were doing dumb things, *not* because the game was too hard.

    Then OSR came along, and I realised: in order to put death on the table, you don't have to increase the lethality of your games. You just have to *not save the players from themselves*. Yes, provide enough information, yes allow for clarification and retcons on occasion, yes provide options. But if the players want to do something dumb, let them. The freedom to do the things that are dangerous is the freedom to be a hero. If they are either prevented from doing the dangerous things, or the things aren't dangerous, then it isn't heroic.

    That said, IGW is an excellent route to take when it is actually the DMs "fault" for death, rather than player choice. If the result on an IGW is character death, I wouldn't spin IGW off itself infinitely. However, if I try it out, I'll be sure to come back and let you know how it goes!