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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Combat in Pits & Perils Part II (Lethality)

Some reviewers have (rightly) noted that Pits & Perils produces generally more durable characters than its OSR counterparts, which can fundamentally alter the experience of a genre noted for its total party kills.  For instance, a first level magician (the weakest class physically) starts the game with a good 5 HP, whereas the average melee attack scores 1 point of damage.

Compare this to D&D, where a single orc can easily kill a first level fighter with one strike should they roll maximum damage with their sword, and this fact, combined with save-or-die poison and mechanical traps, generates a degree of lethality that many players have come to expect of the game. 

Now this is exhilarating, but P&P takes a different approach and does so for the reasons listed below:

(1) It affords the players more "dwell time" in the adventure, meaning they get to participate for at least a while, even if they eventually die (which can and does happen)... 

(2) Furthermore, it makes hit points an actual resource to be managed.  Think about it.  In D&D, random damage can easily bypass any supposed buffer afforded by having "more" hits, making it an unreliable measure.  Hit points in P&P are a more stable indicator of current survivability and, in general, reflect the party's previous choices and/or strategy, etc.       

Even so, death CAN happen, although we suggest reading Part I of this series before going on to learn how... 

But, for starters, understand that certain encounters should be nuisance affairs at best.  No total party kills, but the battle will drain hits and limited spells, making the group weaker for their next fight, often with little to show for it!

The threat of death is an
exhilarating and ever-present threat...

There are many ways to exploit P&P's unique rules to create an atmosphere of menace and lethality, some no further than the basic rulebook and some imagination:    

Animals and similar (natural) beasts having multiple attacks per round (typically, a bite and two claws) are dangerous because they have several chances to hit.  Often, these enjoy attack and/or damage bonuses per level/size for added danger.  For instance, a bear hits nearly half the time, dealing at least 2 points of damage; easily up to 6 per round with the right luck!

Wolves aren't quite as strong, but attack in groups, making them incredibly dangerous.  So be warned...

Some (less-natural) enemies, like gargoyles and ghouls, also get multiple attacks per round and have other special abilities, like a resistance to (normal) missiles or tunneling, etc.

Crocodiles, flytraps, and jellies can drown, digest, or otherwise swallow up their victims whole in a most terrible way...

And let's not forget the poisonous and/or venomous things, like spiders and snakes, who deal one or more dice of damage instantly if the victim fails to save.  Giant spiders, who seldom go alone, can paralyze their unlucky victims and trim the party's ranks when every sword and spell is needed to survive.

Now obviously, spell using enemies or those with special attacks that emulate magic are very dangerous.  Evil magicians don't need to worry about saving spells and will happily discharge several Bolts into the party before fleeing through the secret door only they know about, leaving the rest to face a hostile mob of goblin henchmen minus their fighter and/or magician (or elf)!

Such enemies abound, and the referee should use them...

There's safety in numbers, and
enemies will take full advantage of this... 

Humanoids, like goblins and orcs, are relatively weak* and will employ strategy to make up for this, often seeking safety in numbers when out on patrol.  These get the outnumbering bonus (+1) while their superior numbers hold and might be armed with bows or similar weaponry.  Poisoned (1d6) darts?  You bet!

Ambushes along walls (or narrow valley passes) are common and, whenever possible, archers will seek out cover to make any 
counterattack more difficult (-2).  Strategy is essential here, and miniatures are always useful in tactical situations.

Finally, stronger orcs might wear armor and employ two-handed weaponry for added (+1) damage.  This is common amongst chieftains, accompanied always by an elite bodyguard and possibly a guardian wolf in case enemies get too close.  All such encounters should be balanced and fair, but challenging nonetheless...

Of course, traps can also deal multiple dice of damage, and the referee should cleverly place these with an eye towards who set them and why.  Again, these can be undone by clever strategy.

None of this is meant to denigrate D&D, which we love for the exciting and lethal experience it offers.  But as play, inevitably, began to focus on role-playing and character identification, even its designers began to introduce rules to enhance character survival beyond a single bloody session.  Provisions like re-rolling any result of 1-2 for hit points (per the Moldvay game) attest to the basic need for survivability in an otherwise dangerous world!

*In general, the more enemies are present, the lower individual hit points should be (1 HP orcs in numbers are dangerous)...

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