- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

D&D Burgoo: A Dragon on the Doorstep

Making players — and by implication, their characters — feel as if they are in over their heads is the hallmark of a savvy GM. Especially for your horror-themed game session.

It also takes players who are willing to buy into the moment — the payoff comes when the sick feeling in the pit of the stomach starts churning.

Creating that moment of dread requires more than dropping a dragon on your players’ doorstep. That’s just providing an insurmountable foe. While daunting, it doesn’t capture the same feeling of fright as when suspense intersects with the monster’s appearance.

There’s at least one other problem with the dragon on the doorstep:

At least in the old days, when the GM rolled a 100 on their home-brewed wilderness random monster chart, the PCs at least had the opportunity and the wherewithal to opt out. When you see that dragon circling overhead, you knew it was time to run, hide or fight and die.

In today’s environment of scaled encounters and challenge ratings, the PCs will likely think (and probably rightfully so) this is a monster that can be overcome. Disabusing them of that notion — while at least playing fair — requires more groundwork on the GM’s part.

In the film “Jaws,” for instance, that classic moment comes when Sheriff Brody has just seen the shark for the first time, backs up away from the edge, and says, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

And that works, even though director Steven Spielberg informed the audience through other means what a monster this shark was. Quint and Hooper knew their boat wasn’t big enough — they all but said so earlier, through descriptions of the attacks and, in Hooper’s case, in a clinical description of the shark’s capabilities. But it takes Brody — whom the audience identifies most because he’s the landlubber — to make the grim realization. That’s horror. Now, we’re scared.

(Spielberg pulls the same trick again in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.” You know just by looking that the stainless steel trailer’s not big enough to protect the expedition from a T-Rex — and you’d be right. But it gets scary when the trailer is hanging over a cliff.)

In both cases, the payoff is achieved because the director foreshadowed the event. And that’s it, in a single word. Foreshadow.

Why do we know the “Jurassic Park” velociraptors will be the most dreaded beasts loosed on the island? Because we saw them devour a man in the opener, watched Grant bully a kid with fossil of one of its claws and then watched them take apart a cow before lunch. The moment that happens, you should be thinking: “If they should get out of their cages, it’s going to be really, really bad.”

And the dread comes when a hobbled Sattler must run through the gauntlet of raptors to the blockhouse, and you see her remembering what happened to that cow before it got turned into hamburger.

Let the players know it’s coming. The horror isn’t the surprise. It’s not a dragon on the doorstep, an unexpected guest with sharp teeth that belches flame and has a hankering for something more substantial than mutton. It’s knowing full well that something bad is on the way, and despite your meager preparations, you can’t do anything about it.

You might say that’s the definition of tragedy — and you’d be right — but only if the principals (say, the PCs) all die horribly and unjustly. (It’s only tragic if all the players roll a 1 in the finale.)

The monster is known — and justifiably feared —for its power and appetites.  In D&D there are literally TONS of monsters that are known to the players that have the potential to be awesome adversaries in this kind of adventure. Pick one, and start thinking of ways to build suspense around it. Then let the PCs know what they are facing up front.

The horror isn’t the monster. It’s the realization that for whatever reason, the deck is stacked against the players. As their tools prove ineffective, as their confidence erodes, as their hit points dwindle away, when their “boat isn’t big enough,” then you’ll know it’s time to spring the monster on them.

When the players, finally, have no where else left to turn or run, they’ll have to face that fear.

And roll high.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "D&D Burgoo: A Dragon on the Doorstep"

#1 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On October 28, 2009 @ 11:19 am

I’m rather curious are there any DM’s out there that still employ the randomization tactic you described? Placing monsters in front of the players that they don’t have a hope of defeating and should (rightly) run and hide? Or do they always place challenges that the players can over come?

#2 Comment By umbral.fury On October 28, 2009 @ 11:55 am

[1] – I have – not the randomization part, but the more powerful adversaries part- and several times it’s resulted in a TPK, mostly from the assumption that I wouldn’t give them a challenge they couldn’t face, but a couple of times, and much more awesomely by playing in character even though they know as players that they’re screwed.

#3 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On October 28, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

[2] – I’m curious how did you convey to them that they couldn’t win? I was having a bit of a problem conveying that in one of my games.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 28, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

Before my “Kobayashi Maru Moments”, I usually have a conversation with one or two key players, in the week before the game: “You know, you can’t kill everything. Sometimes you just have to run.”

If you talk to the right people (the group leader, his or her advisor, the stubborn player, etc), group dynamics usually does the rest.


#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 28, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

Foreshadowing is definitely something that I like to use in my horror games, or any game when I want the players to fear the BBEG.

The nice thing about using foreshadowing is that even if the opponent is something that the party can handle you can still make it scary. I did this with a level 9 white dragon in one of my 4e games, and although the party was at a level appropriate for the challenge they were dreading when the dragon was going to appear because I had an NPC warn them that it was coming. They treated the dragon as a serious threat and not just as an encounter (if that makes any sense).

As for when the players refuse to admit that the PCs are overwhelmed: I say just proceed with the TPK when the players want to attack something that is obviously capable of killing them. Sometimes the dice and the tactics lead to pleasant surprises!

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 28, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

Unlike Captain Kirk, all GMs believe in the no-win scenario. 🙂

#7 Comment By umbral.fury On October 28, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

[3] – I generally handle conveying it through either overwhelming odds, plus NPC warnings/threats. I generally run a lot of modern games, mostly OWoD, where it’s also generally fairly easy to see when you are outclassed. Also when players have seen or heard that you aren’t unwilling to TPK, they are more likely to approach the scenario with caution. If you are running a long term campaign, this could be accomplished in other short or one shot games, or using a flash-forward scene, where you show a planned scene from the future of the campaign and let the players play it to give them foreknowledge of the scene.

#8 Comment By ben robbins On October 28, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

I’ve always found players embrace fear when [4].

I wouldn’t call it a rule of cinema (because the player-to-character relationship is absent) but it fits the Jaws example too: Brody could have stayed on nice dry land, but he chose to get in the boat.

#9 Comment By LordVreeg On October 29, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

Again I answer from work. Another half-assed posting.

It’s Tyson’s Fault. I could have ignored this if he didn’t have to start with that.

1) Logical placement of creatures is at the heart of a good ‘sandbox’ and a frankly, in my opinion, a more adult game. Why? Because of the emphasis on problem solving and taking responsibility.
Every adventure I create, every encounter I place, even Random ones, I give the proper warnings and also place the ‘campaign level context cues’. And it is important, in terms of legend, rumor, story, and song, to make sure players understand what is within their ability and what is outside of it.
So if they run into action that is too heavy, they generally had a chance to avoid it.
And if there really is no chance of running into stuff that would logically be there, challenges too easy and too hard, the game loses both versimilitude and much of the excitement.

2) Logic often means ‘progression’ in an adventure, a continual upping of the ante as the party continues. Internally this can really be used to increase that whole ‘dread’ factor.
“Wow, that fight was tough…and the guy in charge be even tougher”

3) It is the GM’s responsibility to follow through. Nothing creates more subconsious dread in a player if you’ve held your players responsible for their actions before.

4) And to be more clear…
“In today’s environment of scaled encounters and challenge ratings, the PCs will likely think (and probably rightfully so) this is a monster that can be overcome. Disabusing them of that notion — while at least playing fair — requires more groundwork on the GM’s part.”–OP

Scaled encounters and Challenge ratings being used instead of logical placement of encounters? Please.
It is merely my opinion, and everyone should do what works for them, because group fun is the real name of the game…
But these things are rules set up to stop bad GMs from ruining a game, by giving them a framework to follow in creating encounters, and as Troy postulated, giving the players the same framework for expectations.
and thus removing some of the sense of awe and wonder.

#10 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On October 29, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

[5] – Yeah I’m a bit of a jerk like that. 😉

I’ve personally been playing D&D for so long that we’ve never really come across something that we couldn’t ultimately take down. Sometimes it just took us three or four times (we had a high level psion with time regression) but we ultimately won.

Thanks for the suggestions I quite like your ideas.

#11 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 29, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

If you game with the same group of players week in and week out — the whole CR/scaled encounter thing is less of a concern; namely because the players have come to understand a particular GMs approach to encounter builds.

But I think if a GM has new players, it’s entirely possible those players bring to the table a preconceived notion/expectation that encounters are supposed to be scaled to player strength; especially because both the 3.5 and 4E rules sets explicitly set that directive for the GM. Different tables, different approaches. I mentioned it so GMs with new players were at least mindful of that fact that each player at your table brings their own bias/objective/goals to the table, and that includes an understanding of the game’s power structure.

I have no evidence to support this, but I’m fairly certain that younger players probably have a higher expectation of scaled encounters = character level because that’s how many computer/console games approach challenges. I’m not even saying that’s an unreasonable expectation to have. I just know that my generation of table top gamers never assumed that every encounter was scaled appropriately to our characters. (Heck, I’m not even sure my generation had the expectation that individual character classes had power levels that grew at the same rate … but game balance is a whole ‘nother conversation.

#12 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Sunday Six: 2009-11-01 On November 1, 2009 @ 10:37 am

[…] D&D Burgoo: A Dragon on the Doorstep Are your players only nervous and jumpy during the big combat scenes? Well, then you need to head over to Gnome Stew and see what Troy has to say about making them feel in over their heads off the battle grid. […]