Monday, February 4, 2013

Piles of hitpoints in the Temple

One of the things that happens in the Temple of Elemental Evil is that, in order to ramp up the difficulty as you go down levels, the monsters get nastier. Instead of orcs you fight gnolls, instead of gnolls you fight ogres, and so on. The number of opponents stays the same or thereabouts. I imagine this works fairly well in D&D, but in GURPS it's a disaster. One of the first things you learn/are told as a GURPS GM is that piles of hitpoints do not long encounters make. That ogre might be intimidating to a level 1 party, but to a bunch of 100-pt characters it's a pushover.

Instead of a hitpoint economy, GURPS has what I'll call a maneuver economy. (I use that term to distinguish it from the action economy of 3.x edition D&D). What I mean by this is that combat is won by the side most able to do effective things each turn. At the same time, the ability to do effective things is fairly well constricted (with the exception of certain advantages or spells like Great Haste), so for non-exotic opponents it translates pretty well into 'number of combatants on your team'. There are exceptions, of course, which is why I put the emphasis on the maneuvers rather than the allies.

This is the case because, generally speaking, GURPS characters can't 'soak' attacks as well as high-level or high-hit-dice D&D tokens. in D&D you can win a war of attrition by having more to start with. In GURPS, not only is it a lot harder to have more to start with, but your combat effectiveness is tied on a turn-by-turn and overall basis to your damage taken.

Okay, so I haven't said anything new. Anyone who has GMed or even just played GURPS for more than a month or two understands the above, at least on an intuitive level. So, how to translate the D&D difficulty scale over to GURPS, especially when dealing with 250 point characters?

There's the simple answer, which I might go with: hire more NPCs. Instead of having two orcs, have five. Later on, instead of having two gnolls, have eight. The problem with this approach is that combat difficulty in GURPS is very difficult to judge, and it's a very fine line between outcomes, at least when judged by the numbers. (A smart party whose incentives are divorced from combat may very well find a way to avoid those eight hyena-men.)

The more complicated answer is to make your combat NPCs exotic; that is, give them traits that allow them to even the action economy out against multiple foes. (I mean traits like Extra Attack and Altered Time Rate, or even Compartmentalized Mind). The problem with this approach is that the opponents in the Temple are known (to me), and one of my goals is to hew fairly closely to the original, while still making it interesting to play.

I think what I'm going to do is, first, in the lower levels of the temple especially, pad out the numbers with less-nasty monsters. This works fairly well inside the world, too; it's quite believable that a small troop of bugbears has a posse of goblins at its disposal. (Plus, doing this might allow me to sneak in some more interesting fodder-type monsters, like gibberlings and xvarts (not to mention norkers). I don't have a feel for exactly how to do this yet, and I imagine each encounter will involve decision about how much to pad (and how to change room descriptions to account for the extras).

In addition, I like the idea that our well-known humanoids should still have some surprises in store (much like Peter D's hobgoblins, for which I sadly cannot find a more specific link). Therefore, I might decide all my githyanki are mana-dependent, or that kobolds are, due to their strange physiology (being the degenerate spawn of Elder Things) resistant to cutting damage, for two fictional examples.

Hopefully soon I can share more specifics. We game again tomorrow night, where we will hopefully finish up the currently running campaign, leaving the next-but-one Tuesday for the players to explore my version of Hommlet.


  1. What I have done is make the goblins, ogres and trolls back into fairies. This mean they are not made of the same thing that mundane life like humans are made of. They are have damage reduction, extra attacks, and can do do some supernatural feats. Goblins have some magical abilities, ogres can growl and cause terror, troll wives can cast magical spells etc. In GURPS a humanoid with a club is not very tough because it tries to be realistic so I have to remake the goblins ogres and trolls so that they are challenging. I feel that going back to the myths that created them really gives me ideas.

    1. That has a lot of potential for a later project, but I don't want to tip my hat too far.

  2. You had me at xvart. I like the idea of filling out the monster party with lesser critters.

    I also like b-dog's idea of using the fey origins of some of these critters.

    1. Really, I'll jump at any chance to use the less-loved monsters in the old AD&D manuals.

  3. Great post, and something I've grappled with over the years.

    One additional thing you might want to consider is, skill matters. A guy with skill 13 and Parry 9 is dead meat against a PC with skill 18 and Parry 12, just because the higher skill guy will defend more often and can Feint and then Attack to leverage that 5-point skill margin into a 5-point defense penalty (assuming identical rolls). It doesn't matter if a monster does 6d damage if the PCs can parry with ease. So you need some minimum level of skill - 15 or 16 is good - to denote a serious combatant. Skills under that generally mean you won't die automatically on the battlefield but you aren't a serious threat.

    That's something D&D conflates with HP - your HD determine how likely you are to hit, and how tough you are to kill. They are divorced in GURPS, so you need to scale them both up to make for a tougher combatant.

    1. Interesting. Do you find that larger numbers of low-skill (13, say) opponents are not as effective as small numbers of high-skill (15, say) opponents? Putting aside damage for the moment, I mean.

      It seems like with sufficient numbers some goblins could afford to take a telegraphic all-out attack against chinks in armor from the rear, but maybe that's not the case.

    2. That's exactly what I find. They can't hit very often, can't effectively aim at anything but the torso (so even lightly-armored spots are off limits), and they can't either stop an attack or effectively reduce the defenses of a foe.

      If their average damage is below the DR of the torso of the front-line fighters, even if they someone do get in a blow it usually won't hurt. Only criticals and a great critical hit table result will get them anywhere, and that's not something to rely on.

      And telegraphic all-out attacks from the rear means you need to get to the rear, which either means surprise, total swamping numbers, or ambush - usually more than one of them. PCs won't let foes into their back arc unless they have literally no other choice, and you can't rely on it.

      Skill 13 folks with ST 12 and under are true fodder - you can build guys like that with the 62-point templates in DF15 and they will last about as long as you'd expect them to last.

      At least with a 15 - and some damage behind it that can penetrate torso armor - they can land blows regularly, force defenses to be rolled, and can aim at limbs (with a 13 or less to hit). They are even a threat for a Telegraphic Attack to, say, the eyes (10 or less, 9 or less chinks in a helm), so you can't risk your defenses to kill them faster.

      Still, if it's 20 skill 13 guys or 10 skill 15 guys, well, quantity is a quality all its own. But it's hard to say if it makes up for much.

    3. I'm interested to see if this remains true with DF characters starting at 150 points instead. I guess I'll try it and see. After all, I can always re-jigger the next group, so long as I'm not changing any of the factors that caused the PCs to make the decisions they did.