Saturday, March 7, 2009

Rival Adventurers

There are lots of elements of old school play that have been forgotten over the years and one of the ones I miss a lot is rival adventurers. Starting with OD&D, whose random encounter tables included entries for "Veterans" and "Mediums," and continuing at least through 1e -- I'm not sure if the tradition was continued in 2e -- there was always the implicit assumption that the player characters weren't the only adventurers delving into a particular dungeon. These other adventurers might not necessarily be evil, but, seeing as they were likely after the same things as the PCs, they could certainly be called rivals, with whom the PCs might even come to blows, as famously illustrated in the Dungeon Masters Guide, which describes the battle between Aggro the Axe, Abner, Arkayn, and Arlanni against Gutboy Barrelhouse, Balto, Blastum, and Barjin.

Rival adventurers are useful in a campaign for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they provide a link between the PCs and the outside world, especially in a megadungeon campaign. They're as much a part of Gygaxian naturalism as are monsters who do more than wait around to be killed. Second, they serve as a useful goad to the PCs. If they know they have rivals who are after the same goals as they, odds are good they might move a lot more precipitously, thereby leading to some interesting situations. In my Dwimmermount campaign, the players have found signs that someone has been in the dungeon while they were away healing and disposing of their loot, which has added another layer of urgency to their explorations. Finally, as a referee, rival adventurers provide an opportunity to roleplay with more depth than one is typically afforded by most monsters. I love playing the role of venal, self-interested antagonists; it's fun in a way that playing Pig-Face Orc #231 is not.

I suspect that one of the reasons why the idea of rival adventurers dropped out of gaming is because of the time consuming nature of creating them as rules become more complex. In ancient times, I could make up random adventuring parties on the fly by just referring to a couple of tables and making some quick dice rolls. I can't even begin to imagine doing that under 3e, for example, and I suspect I'm not alone in feeling this way. That's a shame, since rival adventurers bring a lot to the table and greatly expand the scope of the campaign in small but significant ways. That's why I was glad to see the concept included in Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. I'll be including several such groups for use with my megadungeon project and I'll be using them with Dwimmermount as well. It'd be nice to see other old school projects do the same.

27 comments:

  1. "rival parties of adventures" continue to turn up in later adventures as well.

    The age of worms adventure path for 3.5 featured a group of adventuring antagonists prominently at the beginning. So did Banewarrens.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I once (In a 3e game, no less!) had a rival party made up of a Werewolf Cleric, Vampire rogue, and a sentient Flesh golem. (The fourth slot rotated, but it similarly called back to whatever classic horror movie had captured my interest at the moment, and included a mummy lord and the ghost of a teenage sorceror.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. (Dammit, why don't we have an edit button?)
    Also, 4e has extremely simplified NPC rules I could see being used for a rival party.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Kinda goes back to the feel of Steve Jackson Melee/Wizard games

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'd forgotten about the rival adventurers in "Age of Worms." Aren't there some in "Shackled City," too?

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm currently messing around with the idea of a D&D campaign with rival adventurers as the main antagonists. It's interesting how people seem to hit on the same "lost" bits of old school play around the same time...

    ReplyDelete
  7. In my campaign, there was a rival party to the PCs who called themselves the Red Seekers. They were about 2 levels ahead of the party at any given point, so it was a blast watching the players do a slow burn of hatred towards them, with the Red Seekers constantly upstaging them, treating them with a condescending attitude, etc. They never really bolloxed the PCs directly; never grabbed the treasure before they did or anything, but they had a charter from the local potentate to operate as a treasure-seeking party and never let anyone forget it. The local townsfolk were mighty impressed; the PCs, less so. I kept it going for many months, so that when the PCs did finally get the upper hand on their rivals, it was a really big "win" for them. The point being, the rivalry was always "friendly"; they never came to blows because they were obstensively on the same side. But in a lot of ways, that just made it worse, from the PCs point of view. Ah, good times, good times.

    ReplyDelete
  8. NPC opponents in general become more of a pain in 3e/OGL games.

    The only thing I like less than doing d20 NPCs would be creating new d20 monsters.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'm reminded, of all things, of Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna.

    This was the ridiculously tough Sir-Tech game in which you played the evil wizard Werdna (your adversary in W1) escaping from his prison. The cool thing was that most of the significant enemies were characters that Sir-Tech had extracted from floppy disks players of the earlier games had sent in either for data recovery or just to brag.

    I always thought that was a neat concept.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The original source of rival adventuring parties (if I'm not mistaken) was the insanely popular game Gary and Rob were running. I read somewhere that they would run their game many times a week, with a different party each time.

    So, if you have a lot of players, you needn't worry about creating a rival party -- let the players do it!

    ReplyDelete
  11. The 3e DMG has pregenerated generic NPC stats that can be used for rival adventurers easily enough, just tweak one or two things.

    My problem with rivals is that either they're evil, and get in a fight with the PCs, or they're non evil and logically ally with the PCs for strength in numbers. I like the idea of the group that does neither, but it has to have some unusual characteristics - higher level than the PCs, obnoxious but not hostile, and with enough members it doesn't want more joining.

    ReplyDelete
  12. My problem with rival NPC adventurers is I'm not sure how active/dynamic to make them after they first appear. Showing up as random encounters, no problem. Stationed as guards in a fixed area, no problem. Rival PCs adventuring on alternate game days, also no problem (as Will anticipated above).

    But if they're supposedly on the move and active like the PCs, I'm not sure how to judge what areas they clear out over time. It feels like I'll veer into pure DM fiat doing so, with the results being snatching treasure from PCs (or emptying out the very encounter areas I want the players to engage in). I always wildly underestimate the amount of coverage players make in a gaming session, so I'm worried my judgements for NPCs will come off as crazy over-powered.

    Anyway, I'm sure things worked great for Gygax/Kuntz when they had hordes of rival PCs all plundering the same megadungeon. Re-creating that via DM-led NPCs makes me feel all queasy.

    ReplyDelete
  13. The 3e DMG has pregenerated generic NPC stats that can be used for rival adventurers easily enough, just tweak one or two things.

    Working from the 3.0 DMG, I found those to be another at-first-promising feature that wound up sucking more time than it saved. Racial modifiers were really hard to overlay (esp., humans changing feat progressions). No spell lists available. Trying to piece together the level-by-level ability, feat, and equipment deltas. Presumption of elite abilities for all. The thematic limitations of those fixed feat choices. Stuff like that.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Most of my 3.x experience was though MGP's Conan game - which did a lot of things differently then the generic dungeon crawl. In maintaining the style of the setting, most encounters are with human NPCs. Unlike the normal 3.5 rules, there are no NPC classes beyond Commoner, so you'll face a lot of grunts with core classes, and there are no gauge to balance out encounters. An encounter with a rival party could be friendly or deadly, but without Alignment to gauge things, an encounter can always go both ways. Without balanced encounters, the common use of PC classes, and the use of chunky salsa rules - the players have to keep on their toes, and not jump headlong into a fight (but still, players prefer facing people, then some horrible, unearthly rape-beast so typical in pulp fantasy - they tend to be hard to gauge, do to their highly unique nature). Thankfully, the rules dont punish the players for making liberal use of henchmen, because you need them!

    As fun as Hyborian Age adventures are, its still a d20 game with all the dame crunchy mechanics therein. With all the effort put into making NPCs, GMs would make them flushed out and well-rounded, even if they know they would likely die after the first encounter - as death is never certain with this game! Even if you dont like the 3.x/D20 rules, the Conan game has a lot of primer that goes well beyond game mechanics and the setting itself.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Jamessaid: "[...] I'm not sure if the tradition was continued in 2e [...]"

    Having started my D&D life with 2nd Edition, I recall some "NPCs" results in wandering monsters tables. I was never really good at deploying them on the spot, preferring a previously generated party.

    When I build a rival adventurers party I try to mirror some PCs with a twist, especially those who feel so unique.

    TheGoof said: "The age of worms adventure path for 3.5 featured a group of adventuring antagonists prominently at the beginning. So did Banewarrens."

    I remember having a great time DMing the Banewarrens for my players' evil PCs. The Church of Lothian (Tyr in my Realms) sent a group of paladins, clerics and monks to find a particular treasure -- and one of the PCs was looking for the same object! They ran into each other's traces a couple of times but interacted only once, to the utter destruction of the good-aligned party :( Well, the PCs are the stars, right?

    Rach's reflections said: "Also, 4e has extremely simplified NPC rules I could see being used for a rival party."

    I really like those rules. I presume they allow a faster NPC generation (haven't tried yet).

    ReplyDelete
  16. There's a set of rival adventurers in the current Dragon adventure path (Scales of War) as well -- I suspect that Paizo's adoption of the concept means it's become a standard trope for adventure path style campaigns. Which is, of course, not terribly old school but there you are.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I've created some NPC generators that you might find usefeul, they are hosted over at S&W on the free stuff page.

    - Grim

    ReplyDelete
  18. "I really like those rules. I presume they allow a faster NPC generation (haven't tried yet)."

    I like the 4e NPC rules myself, but the lack of powers is a double-edged sword. It's really fast to make an NPC by just picking one of each highest level type of power you can, but you don't end up as strong as a PC unless you do some more personal tweaking. I make NPC powers recharge on a roll of 5-6. Otherwise they'll be stuck with their at-wills a lot.

    I like the idea of rival adventuring parties, and do use it in my 4e games sometimes (and have had to deal with it as a player in numerous 3.5 games). However, in the 3.5 games I played, it was rarely friendly competition. Almost always you had to kill the rival party or suffer the consequences of their being around. I think I might try a rival party in my next long 4e campaign, but not one that'd incite players to try to kill them all the time, see how it goes.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Yep, 2e Monsterous Manual had an entry for men which allowed a DM to quickly generate an entire party, including magical items, and different levels.

    Rival parties are an excellent way to involve PCs, it can turn a boring dungeon crawl into a great race. Bad guys would, no doubt, send out parties of their own to capture hard to find objects. They may even wait at the entrance of a dungeon and wait for a party to come out so that they can just mug them (a great way to take back access cash from the adventurers)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Rival adventuring parties (without care) could make the dungeon feel like it is invaded by rival high school football teams. As with high stats I like to make player-adventurers feel rare. The world is full of people of various trades and professions but the adventuring classes are rare.

    For strangeness a sample rival party in the warped reality of a Dungeon could consist of Humpty Dumpty, a crocodile, a mobile diseased limb and insect-sized alien spaceship crawling with ten thousand laser-firing tiny dudes.

    ReplyDelete
  21. The 4e designers did indeed spend a lot of time - and evidently cultural capital :) - simplifying the NPC-creation rules. Customizing is trivial with templates, adjusting levels is 4th-grade math, and at-the-table improvisation is encouraged by the rules themselves. Though I've yet to see a 4e adventure take advantage of the rules to the effect you desire, James.

    But yes: the solution clearly is bigger (and incidentally drunker and more bellicose) adventuring parties.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Delta:
    "Working from the 3.0 DMG, I found those to be another at-first-promising feature that wound up sucking more time than it saved. Racial modifiers were really hard to overlay (esp., humans changing feat progressions). No spell lists available. Trying to piece together the level-by-level ability, feat, and equipment deltas. Presumption of elite abilities for all. The thematic limitations of those fixed feat choices. Stuff like that."

    I find that if you ignore all that stuff, it's not a problem. Just change whatever you want without worrying whether it's 'legal' per RAW. Add extra feats to taste, leave others unused. Change bastard sword to dwarven war axe for a dwarf fighter, but don't bother reclaculating the feats - it works out much the same anyway. Give ad hoc saving throw bonuses for elves and dwarves, if you want, or ignore it.

    If the NPCs end up joining the party you can always rebuild them 'legal' as if they were PCs.

    Making 3e work requires treating it as if it were 1e, IMO.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I read somewhere that they would run their game many times a week, with a different party each time.

    I think this is close to the truth. Remember that, in OD&D, the standard assumption was that there'd be one referee per 20 players. That's extraordinarily high by modern standards and, while I don't believe that Greyhawk ever had that many PCs at one time -- though it might have -- it was filled with a lot more adventuring parties than is common nowadays.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Re-creating that via DM-led NPCs makes me feel all queasy.

    Me as well, but I'm going to try it nonetheless, because I think it's an important dynamic to the old school dungeon that's long been missing.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I've created some NPC generators that you might find usefeul, they are hosted over at S&W on the free stuff page.

    I shall have to give them a look!

    ReplyDelete
  26. For strangeness a sample rival party in the warped reality of a Dungeon could consist of Humpty Dumpty, a crocodile, a mobile diseased limb and insect-sized alien spaceship crawling with ten thousand laser-firing tiny dudes.

    Now you're talking. :)

    ReplyDelete
  27. Whenever I think of rival NPC adventuring parties, I'm reminded of the scene in Man Bites Dog where the group of documentary filmmakers following the serial murderer encounters another group of documentary filmmakers following a different serial murderer, in the dark, inside some abandoned industrial building. It's perfectly ludicrous - and the first time I saw it my first reaction was, "OMG D&D!"

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.