AD&D: When Is Defeat Rewardable?

So, in the most recent Dungeons & Dragons session the player characters purged an underground chapel of undead.

They did so with somewhat more daring and expenditure than I’d actually thought they would apply. The skeletons in question only seemed to respond when they entered the relevant room, and were fairly slow compared with people. (The one who created them had left them with fairly simplistic commands to follow.) The PCs had, in fact, sussed out the pattern to the skeletons’ behaviour (after careful observation and going away to talk to some experts) so they could have got rid of the skeleton without much of a challenge simply by stand in the doorway and throwing shit at them.

Midway through the session, after considering even more elaborate ways to eliminate the skeletons (such as having the party’s thief climb onto the ceiling with the use of a Spider Climb spell and drop holy water vials on the skeletons from there), one player hit on the notion of using the “AI exploit” (as someone termed it) to eliminate the skeletons. At that point I ruled that the players wouldn’t get any experience from doing it, so they opted for the OOC more rewarding and IC much, much faster option of just fighting the skeletons again.

In retrospect, I’ve queried that ruling to myself, because I’m fairly sure I would have given them the full whack had they hit on the solution when they first encountered the skeletons – and after all, 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons specifically gives you XP for defeating opponents and finding an exploit to wipe a bunch of skeletons without personal risk is both a clever plan and a good way to defeat skeletons.

Having ruminated over it, though, I think I was justified in making the call the way I did. Firstly, the players had gone off to get the advice of experts on the undead before coming back, and had mentioned this behaviour of the skeletons to said experts, and the experts had concurred that the skeletons probably wouldn’t leave the room, so crediting the players for a plan handed to them on a plate feels against the spirit of things. Secondly, the players only hatched the plan after they’d already engaged half the skeletons in direct combat, so the big advantage of the clever plan – getting rid of the skeletons without wasting resources, spells and blood – was already mostly wasted anyway. At that point, a clever plan starts to cease becoming a clever plan and starts to resemble l’espirit de l’escalier.

What do you think?

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6 thoughts on “AD&D: When Is Defeat Rewardable?

  1. Shimmin Beg

    I was certainly kicking myself a bit for forgetting Oswyn’s sensible “sling and run” strategy between the last session (when I think I even suggested it) and this one… not that it would have been as much fun, of course.

    Broadly speaking, I do think that finding ways to get around obstacles slash achieve objectives without resorting to dangerous combat is a sensible move and should be rewarded (I suppose there’s a remote possibility that you’ll end up with combatless D&D, but if that’s what happens then that’s probably the game people want to play anyway). As a general rule I might be inclined to cap this XP in some way, either by simply allocating a suitable chunk of Cunning Plan XP, or actually capping it per time, or allocating partial XP depending on the plan. That’s basically because there’s not necessarily direct correlation between the cunningness of a plan and the XP you’d get for the combat: in this case we could have eliminated a thousand skeletons as easily as ten with the same plan and the same risk. Same with, say, bursting a dam to sweep away enemies.

    On the other hand: does a plan become less cunning if the planners carefully research it beforehand and check their assumptions with experts? I think I would disagree slightly with that one, and certainly in cases where the Plan was riskier to execute.

    In this particular case (most of them already destroyed) I honestly don’t know. Two of us were very badly wounded, and we’d expended our precious holy water, so to some extent finding a way to finish the rest off with minimal further damage seems like a sensible option for not dying; but that’s not to say that XP were called for. We’d already committed heavily to the fight, there were only a few left, and I was happy enough to not get the XP for those when you ruled it at the time, because it didn’t call for any risk or even any particular challenge. As it was, we took a punt on a second attack and nearly lost Dan in the process, which I couldn’t justify IC but was more interesting and the others seemed keen.

    I think the two main attractions of spider climb were 1) it would be fun, and 2) the wizard inches fractionally closer to the distant dream of second level with every spell cast. Maybe another time…

    1. My concern isn’t when a plan stops being cunning so much as when it stops being interesting, though I could argue that sufficient time elapsed between you guys acquiring and recognising all the information you needed to hit on the plan and someone actually proposing the plan to call “cunning” into question.

      Checking in with experts and sages to prepare a plan to face down a Great Evil is sensible caution I don’t want to discourage. Doing the same in respect of a situation which a) is comparatively minor and b) which you’d already actually sussed out so the sages didn’t really contribute much beyond confirming your impressions is a level of excess caution and insufficient reliance on your own abilities I don’t want to encourage: dungeon exploration would bog down very rapidly if you sought counsel on every tactical situation you faced.

      Ultimately, y?ou didn’t need the sages to tell you the plan in the first place because you already clearly established to yourselves that the skeletons weren’t going to exit the chamber; coming up with the plan and proposing it then would have shown wit and initiative worth rewarding. Though you are getting the same XP anyway for defeating the skeletons (XP for defeat through cunning being equal to XP for defeat through combat) so it’s arguably academic at this point.

      1. In this case I’d agree it wasn’t very cunning because we didn’t suggest it until the fight was nearly over – that was meant to be more of a general thought.

        In terms of threat level, there may be some complication in that I have little idea how threatening a lot of critters are in AD&D. Kobolds I can make a decent stab, but I wasn’t really sure whether, what, twenty skeletons? were going to be fairly simple, a challenge, a nasty fight, or way beyond our capabilities. However, I think in general we wouldn’t likely ask for advice, it’s just that we were already upstairs fixing Peter’s brain so it seemed worthwhile.

  2. Joe

    For my part I was keen to fight the skeletons properly so Vana had a chance to use her turn undead. If that had actually gone off then the initial numbers would have been much more manageable and we might have been able to fight through them without being forced to pull back and rely on the ‘AI’ limitation.

  3. I’m torn on this one for a couple of reasons.

    For what it’s worth, the strategy of standing by the door and shooting shit occurred to me at the start, but it just struck me as uninteresting (plus my character has, like, INT 7). And as Shim pointed out, we only talked to the experts because we’d been forced into a retreat anyway – plus consulting IC experts is often a good way to resolve the sorts of tensions that I at least had with this kind of plan – talking to NPCs makes it clearer whether something is actually sensible to do in character, rather than just being a game mechanical loophole.

    For what it’s worth, I’m very bothered by the idea of XP being used as a reward for being “clever” – I don’t want to be all forge-dickhead, but I really don’t like the notion of the GM judging whether the party is being clever enough. Surely the reward for a clever plan should be the resources you save by implementing it?

    I agree with Shim that, in practice, there needs to be a cap on the XP that can be earned by circumventing encounters, because otherwise XP become too easy to get. On the other hand there needs to be some XP for overcoming challenges indirectly, or else we’re forced to fight everything if we ever want to level. But I’d very much prefer the XP for overcoming a challenge indirectly to be related to how easy the challenge is to overcome, rather than on how clever or otherwise the players have been.

    1. To clarify: there wouldn’t have been bonus clever plan XP, there’d be an amount of XP for defeating the skeletons, which would be the same whether you did it with direct combat or a clever plan.

      On the other hand, that’s clearly inconsistent with not awarding the XP for coming up with a plan mid-flow, so on balance I think it was a bad call on my part and I won’t be following that ruling in future.

      Re: Circumventing encounters – it’s a good point. The DMG says that monster XP is for defeating opponents. New ruling, then: defeating for this purpose means “eliminating the opponent in question’s ability to be an obstacle to the players in their own right”. Killing monsters does this by, well, killing them. Equally, if you beat down a criminal and throw them in jail, and by doing so make it practically impossible for them to cause you any problems in future (ie, there’s no prospect that they’ll escape or exert influence over their gangland resources from jail), I’d say you’ve defeated them. If you circumvent a group of monsters who are camped out in a room, though, but the monsters are still out there and can still cause you problems (if they leave the room they could find you and attack you, if you wanted to search the room they’re kind of there and in the way, etc.), I wouldn’t give you experience for it because you haven’t defeated the monsters – quite the opposite, in fact, since they’re still causing you a problem by constraining your actions.

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