Thursday, February 18, 2010

Conan's 11

I am going to run my next 4e game like a caper, simple as that.

It actually takes surprisingly little in the way of preparation to make the transition. Characters are already highly capable and aware of their capabilities, the only real difference between the standard dungeon crawl and a caper is a simple matter of information management. All of the material is already in place, the trick is to change the players from the reactive group experiencing the dungeon[1] to a proactive group exploiting it.

Now, I could use almost any pre-published dungeon to do this, but I will definitely be a little bit picky. First off, I need ones where the motive to go into the dungeon is clear and is more nuanced than "There's treasure there" or "The Bad Guy Lives There". Those are flat motivations, and flat motivations make for flat capers. The characters are badass professionals, not simple thieves, and there should be a reason they are directing their considerable talents to this task rather than something else. Additionally, a clear motive helps make for a better adventure because players can come back to their true goal when they consider plans. For example, if they're just after loot, then the plan is unlikely to get more sophisticated than a smash and grab. If, on the other hand, the goal is the recovery of a specific item, then the players could still smash and grab, but they might also try to trick the owner into moving it, swap in a substitute, con the owner out of it or almost anything else. A clear goal allows for specific, thoughtful action. A murky goal allows for only mess.

As such, a certain amount of urgency is usually called for. Without it, players can afford to wait for the perfect moment, and that can be dull taken to its extreme. In a caper, the characters have a LOT of information, but they shouldn't have ALL the information, so there needs to be some sort of reason why things need to happen *now*, rather than the next time the bad guys are going to town for supplies.[3] Dungeons that also are strongly personality driven, that is ones that are the base of operations of a well fleshed out villain[4], also tend to be a lot more useful for a caper since they're usually designed with more flexibility of response.

But with those simple ground rules, it's a simple matter of handing the players most of the information you have about the dungeon. Give them a map, give them a breakdown of who is where and doing what. Don't give them stats or anything, but rally give them enough information to accurately describe everything in the dungeon, then let them come up with their plan.

Now, naturally, there should be a few surprises. Pick a few pieces of information to keep in reserve as surprises - tunnels that aren't on the original map, secret resources of a lieutenant, and unexpected twist or whatever. This doesn't take anything hugely sneaky or cunning, just find the things the author clearly put in as twists and then make them real twists.[5]

And seriously, that's all there is to it.

Ok, yes, I'm skipping over a big chunk here and just handing the players the information, with the assumption that they've already successfully done the footwork and research to get it all together. On some instinctive level, it feels like I should set up some skill challenges and die rolls to make this investigation part of the play process. But that instinct is dangerous. See, the caper is not a familiar model for players, so the first time I do it, I don't want to dwell over the supporting details, I just want to get to the meat of it. Based on success or failure of this, I might take that to inform on my decisions for the NEXT caper, allowing for some rolls beforehand to tune what information the players do and don't get, but at no point do I want that to be the *focus* of play. If I really want to make players work for information, I'll make getting THAT information a caper of its own.

Anyway, that's how I'd do it.

1 - Does that sound mean? It's not mean to be but it's really what's going on in most dungeons. There's an illusion of proactivity through player directed action as they explore, but that's mostly sleight of hand. Excepting certain key decisions like when to rest, the set pieces in a dungeon might as well be coming to the players on a conveyor belt.[2]

2 - Yes, the players might decide between right and left and that impacts the order things happen in, but that's still sleight of hand. Which does not make it a BAD thing. The dungeon is a very efficient adventure delivering device.

3 - Doing this also spares us the kind of convenient timing that guarantees the demonic ritual is underway JUST as the players bust into the room - fun once or twice, but absolutely trite after a while. If the players know that the ritual is coming and will happen in 3 days, they have a timeline to beat.

4 - Owen KC Stephens' adventures tend to excel at this.

5 - More snark, I know, but the reality is that a "twist" in the context of a dungeon is virtually meaningless. It's a disposable environment, and all the information within it is disposable too. Twists are merely unexpected. It takes some investment (as in the case of the knowledge that players are given) to give a twist some weight.


  1. I think the real challenge is to have the bad guys react in ways that surprise the players but don't break the plan so much that it gets thrown out and they have to go back to a reactive mode.

    A caper involves a very intricate plot so that each twist and turn seems to throw a huge wrench in the plan, but we discover the plan has more layers and things carry on. Very tough, I suspect, for a group of players to come up with such a plan and difficult for a DM to keep the bad guys interfering but not obliterating the plan.

    I love the idea, though. Keep us posted as to how it goes!

  2. A very useful set of thoughts here. I think you've got a core insight here regarding seeing the team as "badass professionals" rather than simple thieves or marauding adventurers.

    Depending on the group's interests and style, the planning phase could present some great opportunities for roleplay and character development as well.

  3. Bless you, Rob Donoghue. I've been working on something rather similar, but grimmerdarker.

    I ran pretty solid capers with Spycrafts 1 and 2, back in the day. Once you have the dungeon in the player's minds, and they can formulate their plan, wrinkles abound through regular play. Instead of discovering that, Ocean's style, everything is a part of the plan, the players must strive to patch their plans (back?) together as play intervenes. It usually requires two things: communication and guile.

    The biggest hurdle I'd foresee, seriously, is giving the players the freedom to split up, caper style, and still communicate, earbud style. A simple magic item would do the trick, but D&D characters aren't made to survive on their own real well, so some of the caper tropes will probably go out the window as the party strives to stay together (or, if big enough, maybe in two mini-parties).

    I'd like to write more about this, but there just isn't time.

  4. There's a dirty trick here because on theory the things that could knock things off plan, like alarms, patrols and communication *should* be in play in a non-caper too, so a good adventure design already accounts for them and a sloppy design is revealed as such.

    -Rob D

  5. @will oh, man, yes the group communication point is so huge I can't believe I overlooked it. Definitely need an "earbud" equivalent

  6. I think some of what you're talking about was at the root of Robin Laws' "Raiders Guild" stuff ... I did a little layout template development for them (Axe Initiative) but don't remember hearing much about it afterwards.

  7. Don't forget that the earbud as we encounter it on Leverage isn't the only way to solve the communication issue. Sometimes the communication *has already happened* -- it's The Plan, which can be revealed in flashback instead of happening in the moment the way an earbud facilitates. I think you missed my Buffygame episode where all dialogue was in flashback, reactively and retroactively establishing what the plan was as new details came up in the present. It's a neat way of creating a story that says "these guys saw this coming, and here's what their contingency for this is".

  8. Doing all communication by flashback really is one of those truly beautiful ideas

  9. I was really ludicrously happy when I hit upon it as a structure for a session of play.

  10. Great ideas. After a stint playing Scorpion (the 'sneaky' clan) in Legend of the Five Rings, I've been mulling over running a thieves' game in 4e.

    The problem I'm foreseeing is how to point them at suitable targets. Yes, you can start the first caper in media res with a target scoped out, but after that you either rely on someone hiring the PCs or player initiative. My players are motivated types, but it can be difficult to choose new avenues if they don't have a crisp picture of their surroundings.

    Keep us posted on your developments!

  11. @Mooney the trick, I think, lies in the motives of the characters. If they have a clear purpose, targets will suggest themselves. If they're just out for adventure, that's definitely much harder.

  12. Unsurprisingly, Fred beat me to the point about flashbacks.

    When I've tried to run capers, I've pulled the Confessional model from InSpecters to control the flashbacks. It keeps them mechanically limited (InSpec does one per scene, but it's easily tokenized), and gives a formalized process for how the team should react when Plans A-D go off the rails. It lets them handle those setbacks like bad-asses, bringing in secret gear, lifted keys, body doubles, and the whole host of other caper-isms. Then, when they run out flashbacks, they have to really improvise a solution and feel scrappy as hell.
    I haven't done this with D&D, but when I tried it for Buffy my goal was to limit fight scenes for non-Slayers to the climax. Then, when people actually got down to ass-kicking they were ready for it, and it felt clearly motivated as "our only option" rather than "what we do to get to the next room."

  13. I can't find a blog post that I read this bit of advice in, but basically:

    When dealing with a caper, with Intelligent Heroes, making the enemies Stupid is a cop-out. It discredits the PCs by making them winners simply because the opposition are losers. And it doesn't really offer the challenge of their opposition/marks if the opponent is gullible/easily tricked.

    Two general comments:
    1) I think above-ground dungeons maybe work better. Non-dungeons so much as actual places. So a tower in Sharn, or other such places, so it's not limited to the typical Dungeon-denizen trappings, but offers more room to explore.

    2) The caper might benefit if the objective is NOT to take something, or defeat something, but instead to add something. For instance, add false information/a cursed item/etc into the Bad Guy's study, messing up his plans. Or swapping the Evil Empress (who's actually a concealed medusa) with an inept look-alike. Or perhaps the REAL empress was swapped out for a monstrous lookalike by the Inner Circle, and thus switching the Monster Empress with the Real Empress is the way to go.

  14. Rob, thats a good idea for the first caper. Sort of coming back from the commercial with all the plans done.

    And. It's not mean. Pc's (myself included) want to be fed. Tell us what happens, then we will tell you how we react.
    It takes alot of confidance to be a "proactive TTRPG'er"

    @ Earbud idea.. we used magic coins

    @ Rechan. I think the post you read was Rob's Post: One thing not to do in a Caper

  15. Being a non silent fan: Hurray for this post. It's the first thing I've read in years that has tempted me to run a game of D&D.

  16. Many years go, a con-going local in these parts ran the whole Against the Giants series of modules having explicitly invited the players to study the adventures in advance, and come to the game with an explicit plan and cast of characters engineered to defeat the scenario.

    I am almost certainly recalling it incorrectly, but if memory serves, the party defeated the first module in something like eleven rounds.

  17. Fred, the Plan makes a lovely solution to the dialogue option, I agree. We used a similar trope in one of my futuristic Storyteller home-brew games, now that I think about it: the scenario was being related by the characters after the fact, so the dialogue actually happened *afterward*, with the characters saying things like, "I knew that might happen, so I..." and "While you were doing that, I was on the roof, going to..." Etc. etc.

    I've tried that after-the-fact flashback trick in WFRP and D&D, too. I must like it a lot. :)

    For me, though, the thing where Everything Was According To Plan is less interesting to me after the first or second scenario, because what I like to see is the quick-witted trouble-shooting of the players AND their characters, so that little wrinkles like a guard deviating his patrol route are actually decision points — easy to invent and easy to grok — for both the players and their characters.

    The other thing I try to do is give the characters subtly different goals in the heist, so that some just want the treasure while others want to humiliate the guards or leave a calling card or prove their mettle to the team or what have you. Thus the players add their own wrinkles during play and have floating decision points: Is NOW when I make my move? &c.


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