I’m re-reading the veritable Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Companion Volume 1. This is an excellent tome and a terrific read regardless of your system of choice. The first chapter is Good Cthulhu Hunting by Sandy Peterson & John B Monroe and it summarizes 10 best practises for wise Call of Cthulhu investigators. The advice it gives strikes me as equally applicable to adventurers regardless of genre, so I’m going to look at each in turn and see how it applies to your average adventuring party. I’ll be giving specific examples using 4e D&D but the advice should be applicable whatever your rule system.
Hopefully what keeps an investigator’s sanity intact will also help keep your Fighter or Wizard alive too!
1) Keep it secret
It might sound counter-intuitive to warn against your heroes boasting of their exploits, but think on this: your heroes explore long forgotten tombs, break up rituals to dead gods and track down cults bent on attaining immortality by any means possible. It’s best not to spread the kind of information around or you might risk enticing yet more followers toward the Dark Side. That wide-eyed farmer may well become tomorrow’s cultist, spurned on by the fireside tales the heroes spread of promised riches and glory. Or that merchant could secretly yearn for immortality, and have just the right contacts to aide him on his quest. The cowl’d figure in the corner may well be a spy for a more powerful cult, eager to capitalize on the vacuum created by the PCs’ actions.
The Devil, as they say, is in the details – and in the Heroes’ case, it’s best to keep those details unsaid. Reveal that the problem has been resolved, claim your reward and move onto the next village as the sun sets. That is the way legends are made, after all.
2) Stay together
The old adage of “never split the party!” may well have worn thin in this day and age where it’s possible (encouraged even, in my group) for the PCs to go their separate ways during a research Skill Challenge. The more studious members will head to the Library or local Guildhall while the Streetwise urban types seek out local gossip, agreeing to meet up and compare notes at a certain time. After a touch of role-playing in the spotlight and a couple of rolls of the dice they are back together and the adventure continues.
But when swords are drawn and danger is near, a split party is invariably a weaker one. In the case of Fourth Edition D&D there’s no shortage of Powers which explicitly reward Heroes who stay close together – from the Half-Elf’s +1 to Diplomacy to all PCs within 10 squares (a half-elven smile goes a long way, apparently – exactly 50’) to the countless Powers of the Warlord. The message is clear: keep your allies close (but Flank where you can).
A wickedly wise GM can capitalize on that and create layouts or sudden barriers which split the party in twain. Have a crevasse appear down the centre of the battlemat to restrict movement, or use a U-shaped corridor to limit line-of-sight between allies. Worse yet, have the corridor close off after the first PC passes through, forcing him to soldier on alone while the other Heroes find an alternate route. Nothing scares a player more than seeing the GM reach into the mini box with a huge grin on their face while their little hero stands, all alone and friendless…..
3) Act in haste, repent at leisure
This is a simple one: never, ever pull a lever, break a glass vial or smash a stone tablet unless you are 100% completely, totally and absolutely sure it’s the right thing to do. Such things invariably trigger a trap, conjure a Very Angry Demon (who is very angry) or contain the all-important Spell which your heroes will need at the climax to the adventure.
A wise GM will provide a get-out clause so that just in case the heroes do the thing they shouldn’t do there’s a way to fix things. Perhaps the trap can be avoided or the stone tablet repaired in some way. At worst, your heroes will have lost some Hit Points, gained some XP (from killing the Very Angry Demon) and learned a valuable lesson.
Of course, an evil GM won’t provide a get-out clause. Therefore, it pays to know your GM.
4) Always have a plan
It’s a sad fact that your typical adventure party doesn’t have a plan. At least, not one that goes beyond “enter dungeon, kill things, take stuff”. As far as plans go, it leaves a lot to be desired.
At the very least your band of weary heroes should have a marching order agreed so that your heavily armoured high hit point guys can soak up any hurt from a surprise attack. Having your Wizard taken out of action in the first round of combat isn’t fun. Unless you’re the GM, of course. The look on the players’ faces is priceless.
A good plan is one which keeps an eye on the goal at all times. If the scenario is a recovery mission to rescue the King’s Daughter from the Drow Witches then there’s little to be gained by wandering off and slaughtering every last creature in the dungeon, and much to be lost if they kill her before the stroke of midnight. Get in, get the girl, then get out. You can always come back tomorrow to clear out the dungeon properly.
An important element of good planning is knowing what you’re likely to face beforehand. Which leads us neatly to……
5) Scout it out
Know your enemy, and the battle is more than half won. Scouting out the area and potential threats makes a great Skill Challenge which can reward the heroes with both XP and valuable information to aid them in their quest.
Use the skills that the gods (ok, the rule system) gave your hero. The more studious and knowledgeable party members can reveal the strengths and weaknesses (especially the weaknesses) of your foes with Arcana, Nature and Religion. The more charismatic members can use Bluff, Diplomacy, Insight, (if necessary) Intimidate and Streetwise to discover rumours, gossip and legends about the area while Dungeoneering and History will tell something about the background and physical features of their lair.
And if all else fails, use Thievery to steal a map :)
6) Weapons are a last resort
The world of Dungeons & Dragons is a dangerous place with swords unsheathed with barely a moment’s thought and a Minor Action. It doesn’t always have to be that way though.; after all, killing Bandits is fun. Convincing the Bandits to work for you in return for a good word with the magistrates is better.
Most times though, violence is the only option, and even then it pays to think smart. Hitting a Goblin with a Fireball is once thing, but if you hit the wall behind him, that could cause the wall to collapse and take out the lot of them in one strike.
Don’t underestimate the usefulness of Skills in combat too, and Intimidate should be top of the list. It’s an Intimidate vs Will check to force all bloodied enemies to surrender. The modifiers are pretty steep: –5 if you don’t speak the same language (but everyone understands the language of violence, right?) and a +10 to the DC if the targets are Hostile (combat. duh.), but it’s well worth a try after you’ve used particularly impressive Power or rolled a critical. Spend an Action Point to Intimidate in the same round, and tell the GM you deserve modifiers to the Intimidate roll. I’m sure he’ll agree.
7) Know your enemy
To repeat point Five, it pays to know what you are up against. It’s one thing to scout out the area of your current adventure, but entirely another to understand the evil of the long-term Big Bad Villain who is behind it all. This is something which can’t be gained through Skill Challenges alone.
Perhaps the last few adventures have been tied together in some way; a mysterious cult is harvesting undead body parts, gnoll caravans are trading under the moonlight and slavers are looking for someone with a green gem embedded in her forehead. As the heroes thwart each step, they attract the attention of the evil mastermind controlling these disparate threads – a vile Necromancer/Artificer intent on creating a Flesh Golem powered by the undead head of a god’s Avatar!
Can the heroes follow the clues and recognise the threat before it’s too late? Good luck with that.
Knowing your enemy is something which only comes after several encounters. D&D doesn’t really do well the concept of recurring villains who escape and live to fight another day, but there’s no reason why not. GMs, why not have the key villain in the story pull a lever, teleport or distract the heroes by summoning a demon when he’s low on hit points to make good his escape. Reward the heroes full XP for defeating him, and you now have a returning thorn in their side you can use later.
8) Things are not always as they seem
Plot twists. I love ‘em. Perhaps the true villain isn’t the corpulent merchant laid on the bed, but the lithe slave chained to him. She is secretly a Wizard who has dominated the weak-willed Merchant and is the true power behind his empire.
I never did trust Princess Leia.
Role-playing can sometimes be like a game of Poker where the players are on the lookout for a GM’s tell. A twinkle in his eye may well mean that things aren’t exactly as first appears. The challenge is to translate their suspicions into in-character role-playing hooks their heroes can run with.
And sometimes a twinkle in the eye of a GM is just a twinkle in the eye of the GM.
9) Never give up
The mark of a true hero is in their resolve against unimagined opposition. Can five heroes really turn the tide against a Demon Lord and the countless Hordes of Hell? Can a magic-user, thief, cleric and fighting man bring down a Beholder Warlock? Can the Rogue really steal the Fighter’s gold ring without him noticing?
Heroes don’t give up but if the battle is too tough there’s no shame in retreat. Sometimes the best tactic is to rest and regroup, especially if resources are running low. Those Daily Powers recharge on an Extended Rest and sometimes the Wizard would be better switching his spells out with those in his Spellbook. If carrying on leads to certain death then it’s wiser to withdraw. There’s always another day.
But never, ever give up!
10) Be prepared
It’s a foolish adventurer who doesn’t include an Adventurer’s Kit in their equipment list. It’s your hero’s Swiss Army Knife containing everything (beyond a pointy metal thing or magic wand) needed to tackle any threat a dungeon may bring. Add class and skill specific items provided by the Climber’s Kit and Thieves’ Tools, and you’re good to go. It’s ironic that the stereotypically most agile class, the Rogue, needs to heft the most equipment to do his job properly (47lbs of it, all told). Talking the Fighter into carrying your backpack is a very good idea.
Having the right equipment can be the difference between life and death, or at least the difference between making a skill check and failing it. A Rogue without his tools is at a serious disadvantage and a party lacking a 50’ rope will have to find another route down a 40’ hole.
Beyond that though, it’s important to know what you’re facing, and prepare for that. Vampires and werewolves in particular require special equipment to deal with effectively. I pity the party who faces a vampiric werewolf – wooden stakes coated in silver are particularly hard to come by.
In summary, the ideal hero should plan ahead, scout the area beforehand and be willing to talk or outthink a problem before resorting to combat. Stay together, be well equipped, and don’t trust a word the GM says.
Till next time!