Friday, 17 January 2014

Of Stones and Sleep, or, Why Designers Don't Like You Just Attacking Things

As I mentioned a few posts back, Arthur ran us through the Deathwatch scenario A Stony Sleep recently. I'm on some kind of Deathwatch-craze at the moment and feel the urge to write about it constantly. The adventure will almost certainly pop up as a podcast so I'm not going to run through it in enormous detail, but here's an observation or two.

Obviously, this post contains spoilers for both A Stony Sleep and The Price of Hubris, so y'know, imagine it's some kind of autohypnotic training you received of an ancient mission that just happens to closely correspond to the one your GM is about to run. Or look away.

Last chance.

No, really.

Mission structure

The mission followed the almost-inevitable structure for this kind of game. Beginning with a mystery, the Marines quickly follow a fairly obvious set of clues to the first and rather feeble set of enemies in need of the Emperor's wrath. This provided a clue leading to a tougher set of enemies, and their clue led to the third section of the adventure where you deal with serious alien threats and fight two sets of powerful enemies.

On the one hand, I worry that the weak-weak-moderate-strong encounter structure may become a bit jaded after a while, but it's the structure of just about every RPG scenario ever written so I may be overthinking it. There's also a genuine issue that having the toughest enemies at the start may well make everything else feel anticlimactic, and that having a weak encounter or two after the boss battle is likely to just feel tagged on.

The story

The actual story is something like this: an inquisitor has gone missing, and his old friend requests Astartes aid to help determine his fate. You quickly uncover (one way or the lethal other) a plot to assassinate her, which assures you that foul play is in evidence. The planet has two obvious issues, these being a cult who worship pre-human beings they expect to return and save them, and some underwater structures that the inquisitor was investigating. Chance of them not being linked? Zero. The inquisitor's disappearance seems to involve some mysterious Space Marines and a submarine stolen by the cultists.

One way or another, you end up storming the cult base where the submarine is moored, and find them armed with xenotech - specifically, terrifying Necron gauss weapons. The inquisitor is found incoherent and useless after prolonged torture. Retaking the submarine, you head down to the city, which is inevitably a Necron tomb-city apparently stirring from aeons of slumber. Inside you encounter the Marines, and learn they were part of a traitor techpriest's mission to steal strange technology from the tomb, waking the Necrons as they left to cover their tracks. The evidence suggests a strong connection to events on Aurum in The Price of Hubris. You must find a way to stop the machinery before the Necrons rise again, which turns out to mean "blow things up".

Demolition derby

Demolition is one of the things I find a little bit odd about the Deathwatch skill set. I mean, I can see it both ways to some extent, but it seems a little strange that elite soldiers charged with tackling the most dangerous foes facing humanity don't get any training at all in effectively blowing things up. I'd have thought that all that assaulting of strongpoints and so on would make it a sensible thing to cover, if not in basic training, certainly a bit later on. There's two sides to this being a good choice: being able to effectively bring down enemy structures or use geographical features against them; and knowing where not to go tossing krak grenades or lascannon fire around so you don't bring the whole damn place down on your heads.

Anyway! The scenario ends with you confronting a huge glowing crystal that's slowly rousing the Necron city from its slumber. The obvious thing to do is to destroy it. Admittedly I had a certain amount of concern that it would explode devastatingly and annihilate us all, which would be fairly likely in a 40K novel, but on balance I decided it was unlikely in a game. Also, even if a designer had included a screw-you like that on the assumption that obviously that would be stupid, I could be pretty confident Arthur wouldn't spring it on us without making it clear we were making a mistake.

The crystal is protected by a shimmering force field, and there are massive guns atop and below it that are obviously there to return fire if it's attacked. You're in a city full of Necrons on the verge of waking, totally isolated from any Imperial resources.

From a quick glance at the mission post-game and from what Arthur and Dan have said, the solution to the crystal problem is absolutely anything, providing it isn't just attacking.

As Dan mentioned recently, game designers (and sometimes GMs) are very keen on situations where just attacking doesn't work. I'm very torn about this.

From a design point of view, I can very much see the temptation to give things attack-immunity.* For one thing, it's easy in games for direct violence to become the omnisolution, especially because PCs are often a lot better at violence than at other things. Combine this with problems that can usually be solved with violence, and particularly with lack of consequences, and violence as first resort can be both the easiest option and the most efficient one. Enemies? Use violence. Recalcitrant prisoners? Use violence. Locked doors? Use violence. Suspicious NPCs? Use violence. This isn't particularly interesting and it reduces the value of other skills, as well as producing a very specific kind of PC. Providing attack immunity to an objective like this is one way to force players to get creative, and perhaps get them in the habit of taking a more varied approach.

Another point is that it's nice to have puzzles to solve sometimes, and I for one find it satisfying working out different ways to approach a problem. I'd have preferred working out a cunning way to deal with the Necron crystal rather than shooting it at long range with a heavy bolter, but there didn't seem to be many; more on this later. Targets immune to direct attack can tickle that itch even in a combat-heavy game. Not trivially, they can also defend puzzle-inclined players' interests against other players inclined to blast through problems with brute force. The puzzle-solver probably won't get much milage from a complex door mechanism with a really clever solution if someone else reaches for their disintegrate spell as soon as they find a door they can't open. Note that I'm not saying this isn't a valid playstyle, players like different things, and you might quite cheerfully solve one puzzle door and disintegrate another one. Indeed, sometimes using the disintegrate feels like the cleverest thing to do.

Thirdly, there can be obstacles that just don't feel like conventional attacks should work against them. This is a strong argument, when it's coming from a convincing basis, and when it's implemented properly. It can add to the immersion of a game and help reinforce elements of the setting.

Lastly, and weakestly, sometimes an element seems significant, such that just overcoming it with straightforward attack rolls would be an anticlimax and undermine the scenario. This is weakest because isn't really easy to predict what will feel significant to players and what will feel anticlimactic. Sometimes encountering the final obstacle and summarily defeating it makes you feel awesome. Sometimes the way previous events have gone mean the sense of significance just hasn't arisen, so the immunity doesn't feel justified. Sometimes, just as with NPC plot armour, a designer is just too much in love with their creation and has misjudged how players will relate to their obstacle.

The main problem I'd note is that all too often, the players aren't convinced by the immunity of the object, either because of insufficient build-up or inconsistent implementation. A secondary problem, but a very real one, is that sometimes the obstacle might be more or less convincing, but is nevertheless annoying. Less can be done about the second issue so I'm ignoring it.

Unfortunately, the mission here seemed to be an example of the former problem.

*I'm considering Attack Immunity as somewhat different from NPCs with Plot Armour, and from Plot Doors. The chief difference I'd highlight is that generally Plot Armour and Plot Locks make it impossible to deal with something until you achieve tangential objective X. (or impossible to do it at all), whereas Attack Immunity asks that you do something other than Y. There's a third related category, what you might call the Achilles Heel, which states that Only X Will Y.

If we imagine the adventure as a castle, then the Achilles Heel has the castle sealed for battle but leaves a side window open, Attack Immunity shuts the drawbridge and goes to sleep, and Plot Armour is a tourist agent behind a glass panel who won't tell you where the castle is until you buy her a sandwich.

Reverse the polarity of the krak missiles, battle-brother!

In the case of the Necron crystal, the guidance is that simply attacking it will not work, but any other reasonable plan will. One suggestion seemed to be planting krak missiles on a timer.

I'm not sure whether these occupied two different categories of strategy in the designer's mind, or whether it was a more arbitrary decision. I can certainly see the first one. Under "attack", they perhaps picture a hail of fire spattering off the crystal's crackling energy field; under "sabotage", they picture the missiles being carefully positioned for maximum effect against the crystal's structure, and perhaps even someone stepping carefully through the field to plant the charge. I can sort of get behind that. The problem is, not everyone has the same shared mental image. The richly detailed chamber and technological setup perhaps pictured by the designer has to be distilled into a handful of words, then filtered through the GM to the players, and getting everyone on the same page is very difficult. To a lot of people, both of these consist of weapons being discharged against a floating crystal, with an arbitrary split in their effectiveness based on how you detonate the missiles.

I'd also say that the setup presented felt to me quite discouraging of inventiveness. I am absolutely down with experimenting with a crystal surrounded by a force field. However, there were massive guns on top, and this is a pretty lethal setting, where survival relies on you not doing things that are patently stupid. Clearly, some interaction with the crystal would make them fire, but what? Shooting, probably. What about approaching too closely? I considered using handfuls of pebbles to investigate the field, to see whether it was more of a timed pulse (so pick your moment to strike) or a fixed field, or maybe even something that could be disrupted by a couple of Marines's efforts while the other one slipped through or took another action - but without any particular knowledge of Necron force fields, it seemed entirely possible that this would get me shot.

Oddly enough, I did actually come up with something very like the krak missiles plan, involving jump-packing up onto the crystal to lay charges, but by this point our pessimism had surfaced and we were worried the field itself might fry Nikolai. In retrospect, it's relatively unlikely that Arthur would have allowed that, but then again it's a dangerous setting with brutal rules and leaping into an alien force field is quite reckless.

As well as the immediate concern, ironically I think the time-pressure exerted by the plot actually discouraged creativity. We knew that the Necrons were about to wake up, and had to be stopped as soon as possible. There really wasn't time for too much faffing about, either in terms of wasting time, or causing trouble that would delay us. Moreover, as I noted above, Space Marines don't actually come with any demolition skills, and the entire Imperium is highly paranoid about technology, let alone vile alien technology: we were very short in the kind of training that might have helped us to find alternative approaches.

It felt, in short, less risky to find a safe firing angle and shoot the damn thing, than to stand around in the open pussyfooting our way around in an attempt to cleverly disable it. The chances of either approach activating the weapons didn't feel that different, and it was actually easier to protect ourselves while doing the shooting thing.

Ironically I suspect making the endpoint of the mission into a massive floating crystal in a power field undermined the idea of making it attack-proof, because something like that is a very obvious target. If the designers had given us a more diffuse and complicated environment to interact with, reduced the immediacy of the Necron threat, and perhaps hinted that blowing up the wrong things was likely to make things worse, they might have had a better chance of persuading us to interact differently with their problem.

1 comment:

  1. If I recall correctly, the suggestion in the book was to rig a bunch of krak *grenades* to blow the thing, and I seem to recall that we decided against it because we didn't expect to pass the Demolitions check.

    You did suggest using our krak missiles as charges and triggering them with a krak grenade, but to me that seemed less likely to work than just firing the missiles the old-fashioned way. Krak grenades are designed to be laid as demolition charges, krak missiles aren't.