Dungeon Design: Difficulty Level

On page 125 I read the recommendation: There should be one problem that is simply too much for the players to handle. A creature high on the Order of Might; a creature with a Nature of 10 or higher; obstacles rated 6 and up.

I get the idea of having a really tough challenge in the dungeon, but shouldn’t it be possible for the players to have some partial success by working around the big obstacle or by just avoiding the boss monster? Do we really want to set our players up to fail completely? For example, in The Dread Crypt of Skogenby, the final confrontation with Haathor-Vash seems too hard to me for Level 1 characters to successfully navigate around. I keep imagining a final Banish conflict that the players lose and are forced to leave all the treasure behind to satisfy Haathor-Vash. If I run my first dungeon and my players’ characters barely escape alive, with no Loot, I’m not sure my players will come back for more.

Torchbearer does a good job of building rewards into play, but as the GM don’t I have an obligation to give my players a good shot at making it back to town in one piece with enough Loot to allow them to (barely) regroup for the next round?

Consider the wandering epic mobs in World of Warcraft. Sometimes you hear loud noises, turn around and stare up at a level ?? giant just tromping by your 10th level character. It’s a moment.

I hear you. I think that’s one of the reasons half my gaming group hates Torchbearer but the other half f****ng loves it. If I have learnt something after GMing Torch, is that is not a game for everyone.

My take on that advice is that it exists for three reasons:
[li] It encourages inventive play. Players can get really creative when they are having a hard time, and circumventing problems calls for more thought that hacking and slashing your way out of it.
[/li][li] It creates new adventures. If you don’t clean the dungeon of it’s treasures and denizens, then you have a reason to come back. At this time my group is dealing with a loose dragon mad at his missing hoard, a mage that had blackmailed them into a quest after they looted his home, and unbeknown to them there’s a wight with a grudge against the warrior of the party, among other things. Those are new adventures that came from play, directly influenced by the way they got around their problems at the time.
[/li][li] It buys you time. Torchbearer is a small game: only five levels to progress, focused scope, if you go easy on your players soon you will find that they are running out of reasons to adventure, that they are not “murder hobos” anymore; now they have high Resources, cool items and nice spells on their repertory. If the adventure is easy you run out of Torchbearer to play :stuck_out_tongue:

I won’t lie to you, in my experience it can get frustrating, but that’s the goal of the game, I think, to struggle and endure through guile and luck, and I assure it attain what it proposes.

Stay cool :cool:

I interpret it the same as Jared. In one of my d&d campaigns years ago the Tarrasque made an appearance in the first session. I didn’t expect the players to fight the Tarrasque, it was just a way of saying “this world is bigger than you, and sometimes you will have to chose which battles to fight and which to avoid.” Of course my players completely ignored that and tried to kill every monster they encountered, just short of something as obvious as the Tarrasque, but I suppose that’s just how they play d&d. However, if you always have one thing that’s too big for the players to handle then over time they’ll either learn to be more careful or ask to play a different game. Torchbearer isn’t Torchbearer without a little bit of mortal terror.

So in The Dread Crypt of Skogenby it is a good thing if my party can’t completely resolve its confrontation with Haathor-Vash. If they make of with the treasure but the spirit of Haathor-Vash is unbanished, then this is grist for a future adventure. Is that the idea?

It’s important to remind yourself that players advance by failing in addition to succeeding. Player’s characters cannot gain levels or skill if they succeed on everything.

As a general rule, these aren’t “boss monsters.” You shouldn’t have to fight through the little guys to get them and then have to go through them to proceed.
They should just be denizens of the ecosystem. Fuck with them at your peril.

The Dread Crypt of Skogenby is a tough little dungeon, no doubt! But I have seen groups take on Haathor-Vash and win. Most just didn’t do it with violence.

The idea is to create a world that lives and breathes without the characters. Some things are going to be beyond the characters’ powers, and it is incumbent on the players to recognize those situations. In many ways, later versions of D&D got “safe.” Encounters got designed with the characters’ levels and abilities in mind. In theory, characters could defeat anything they encountered in those games because they were level-appropriate. In Torchbearer, like in older versions of D&D, you will occasionally find yourself face-to-face with something that you just cannot kill without major mojo. In those instances, your wits really come to the fore. You can’t kill it, but you could run. You could try to trick it. You could converse politely. You could try to sneak.

Also, with regard to Skogenby, consider that Lawful characters might not consider the adventure a success unless they banish Haathor-Vash and free Jora, but other characters might see it completely differently. They might be satisfied with scoring some loot and never encountering Haathor-Vash at all. I’ve seen others get on board with what Haathor-Vash is selling. From her point of view, the adolescents of Skogenby are tomb robbers that stole from her and disturbed her slumber. And she’s not wrong. Maybe a little old-fashioned eye-for-an-eye vengeance is just what the doctor ordered? And let’s be honest, you could do worse than having an undead demigod as your patron. There are lots of ways the adventure can go down!

Incidentally, the one group I’ve seen that did manage to take Haathor-Vash down with violence? They didn’t go directly into the crypt at all at first. They waited for Haathor-Vash/Jora to come out and wreak more horror upon Skogenby. Then they rolled a boulder in front of the entrance to the crypt. When Haathor-Vash returned, they followed her to the secret, rear entrance (which they did not yet know about) and ambushed her there while the sun was coming out. After subduing the girl, they worked the banishment in the sunlight where HV’s guardians couldn’t protect her.

1 Like

I also think there is something to be said about making them a boss monster, too. What happens when the players decide to take them on, fail, and retreat back to town to work out another plan of attack? The monster emerges from its lair and begins causing havoc. Nothing like motivating some players to quest for more loot and level up like knowing a Dragon is devouring entire towns and it’s your fault.

Last adventure the “boss” was a gnoll’s warband. It all came down to splitting up the warband and taking it on piecemeal, which they did like pros.