Friday, May 6, 2011

Waiting for Godot

To say that I've been haunted by the image to the right from Chapter 2 of the old DM's Guide would be putting it too strongly, but something about those two Bugbears standing face to face in that empty room while a third sits against the wall has always disturbed me. I can imagine the eerie silence that must hang like a pall over the trio, none of them moving, blinking, awaiting a band of adventurers so that they can spring into action, given life by conflict, automatons that exist solely for combat--and ultimately death.

How unreal, how strange! While such a set-up might very well work for zombies guarding a necromancer's lair, or carrionette dolls awaiting a victim to come pick them up, it absolutely doesn't work for flesh and blood monsters such as bugbears. (A cool touch for a pair of zombie guards: describe the layer of dust that covers them, their faded footsteps showing where they walked forward to assume their current posts years ago, only to stand still as the seasons turned and the dust settled on their desiccated flesh, dust which suddenly falls from them as they animate, turning their heads to stare at the intruding PC's...)

A million questions begin to bubble up in my mind: what do the bugbears do to pass the time? Where do they go to the bathroom? Do they take turns sleeping, or does another squad come replace them every eight hours? Do they bicker, resent each other, have small rivalries that might blossom into a split second betrayal in combat?

That perhaps is one of the main differences between 'old school' and 'new school' gaming as described by Monte Cooke's article "No School But an Old School" in Kobold Quarterly #10. Old school games wouldn't care for the ecology of a dungeon, having hosts of traps and monsters simply awaiting the next party of PC's to come stumbling into their midst in much the manner illustrated by the map above. 'New school', however, asks those questions, and allows a curious or intelligent PC to access a host of innovative strategies that might otherwise be beyond them (a perfect example is Erik Mona's Whispering Cairn dungeon crawl, where ever denizen had a story and reason for being there).

For example. Consider our three bugbears. They've been guarding that empty room for six hours at the behest of their master, are fed up, bored, have already eaten their dwarf jerky and are now looking forward to being relieved by the next squad in some two hours. An inventive group of PC's might use this to their advantage: listening at the door could reveal the squabbling of the bugbears within, guttural, sullen arguments as to whom went to the latrine last, whether one of them was cheating at cards, idle threats as to what they would do to the leader of the next squad if they were late. The PC's could then plan to ambush the next bugbear to go to the latrine, or knock and pretend to be the relief squad arriving an hour or two early, roll a Sense Motive check to realize that the card game is about to erupt into a fight should they wait a few minutes more, or any other number of strategies that might give them an edge.

Reminds me of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Bruce Willis guns down John Travolta who's reading a magazine while sitting on the can. I love adventure modules that have their monsters and NPC's caught in media res when the PC's come upon them. Arguing, taking a nap, wrestling a hog out of a mud hole, excoriating the heavens over an increase in taxes, writing a love letter, tongue stuck out of the corner of their mouth. From such minor details is verisimilitude derived, and a world that exists only in the minds of the players and DM given ever more depth, color and vivacity.

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