Playtesting the dullest demonslaying

Yesterday, my group took Grave for a spin for the third time. I knew that they were nearing the end of their journey through the Veins of the Earth, so I prepared a number of other locations for them to visit next, unsure of which they’d pick. An ever surprising lot, they picked the absolute last place I thought they’d go: straight into an empty void where a building-sized demon had been held prisoner for eons. (They promised to bring its heart back to a giant talking bug who they got along with way better than I’d expected.) Of course, an empty space with only a single, high-HP enemy, no interesting terrain or environmental effects, and no other creatures to help or get in the way, offered a fascinating but potentially frustrating playtesting opportunity for a game that features a lot of combat. In short, can this game make the most boring fight imaginable seem fun?

The answer, I think, was yes, as long as you have some creative people at the table.

The fight kicked off when Lavitz, an erratic spell caster, dove into the volcano where the demon was imprisoned, gripping a key that allows its bearer to cross any portal. He then duplicated himself with magic, surrounding the creature. A couple of his allies dove in after him before the barrier became solid again, and two more hung back to see what might happen. The demon snapped at Lavitz, but because he can make duplicates of himself disappear at will—including at the instant he would be hit by an attack—he was able to safely draw the demon’s attacks away from other PCs.

The other PCs, meanwhile, started climbing onto the demon, finding vulnerable spaces between its armored plates, around the joints. One player correctly guessed that the fire demon would be especially susceptible to cold damage, and used an icy blade to attack it for a bonus. In the first round alone, they made decent headway against one of the strongest “boss” monsters in the game.

The PCs still up at the top weren’t quite sure how to proceed. One of the players expressed his concern to me about this scene plainly: He wasn’t interested in standing around and doing nothing, waiting for the other PCs to die, but he also had no particular interest in diving into certain doom just to chip away at a monster with 100 hit points that they probably couldn’t even kill. And to be honest, I consider this an extremely valid concern, especially if (like this player, I believe) your previous RPG experience comes from the most recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons. I’m pretty intentionally designing this game to not work like that, though, so I tried to reassure him of a couple things:

  1. I want to encourage risk taking and picking fights with scary monsters, so death is a minor penalty, built a lot of leeway into this game for players and referees who didn’t want to deal with “permadeath” at all. Your PC might get killed, but you still get to take a turn even after that happens, you come back to life right after the fight, and nobody in the group is really in danger of losing their character permanently—not even Lavitz, who’s died 6 of his allotted 11 times. After all, they’re out on a mission for a guy who we’d (far too subtly) established can literally undo their deaths as long as they stay on his good side.
  2. Monsters and PCs alike have a smaller HP pool in this game than you’d think, specifically because I don’t want fights to drag on. In D&D 5th edition, this boss would’ve had over 100 HP. In Knave, it would have 80 HP. In Grave, it has 60 HP. In the first round—with only 3 of 5 party members—it’d already taken 10 damage. It’s possible some characters would be killed in this fight, but the fight was winnable—especially with the option to come back and try again after learning from their mistakes.

So, the last two PCs dove in too. Then they steamrolled one of the most powerful bosses in the game.

You see, one of those PCs followed up by casting a spell I probably need to rewrite. Malediction lets you curse targets who fail a contested save with some kind of seemingly natural impairment, such as boils, wracking pain, or, in this case, paralysis. Now, technically, by the rules as written in Knave (which I’m thinking need to be slightly rewritten for a game that more routinely expects to throw big monsters at you), this monster can’t fail a contested save. At 20 HD, you have to roll over a 30 to beat it, which is mathematically impossible even if you get your ability score up to the maximum +10. (Well, it’s the maximum in Knave, anyway, and I haven’t tested the rule in Grave that might allow you to go higher at the risk of your character “going bad.”) So I ruled on the spot that to beat this demon, you had to beat a 20. And this player rolled a natural 20 (which also happens to be a modified 30 in her case). And by the rules as written, if a duration isn’t specified, a spell lasts at least 10 minutes. The player generously suggested that maybe it might only last a round; I decided to make it two rounds.

While the demon was paralyzed, the PCs did, of course, find some vulnerable spots and stab away, as expected. But also, Ham’s player got the bright idea to go straight for what they were sent to retrieve, so up the creature’s gullet Ham went. I had her save Wisdom to see if Ham could push back the terror and follow the heartbeat sound through the soft tissue. They reduced the demon to 3 HP before it woke up long enough to get one round of attacks in, killing no one. Then Ham cut its heart out from the inside.

So, what did we learn from this? A few things, I think:

  • It might be worth rewriting Malediction to be less of a show-stopper. It would still be a good spell if it only struck targets with maladies like pain and sensory deprivation, but I think there is a reason that other relatively low-level or level-less spells I’ve seen that completely take away a target’s ability to act also have some other drawback (e.g., like you have to leave your body to possess theirs, they’re stuck in an astral prison and can’t be harmed, they’re asleep and damaging them wakes them up). That said….
  • They would’ve won this fight even without the paralysis spell. They just might have taken some losses too. That is precisely what the system is designed to do, so I feel good about that.
  • Even with nothing in the environment to aid them and no puzzles to make things interesting, players came up with unexpected and fun strategies that took advantage of their spells, items, and stamina (e.g., the caster disappearing his duplicates to draw attacks, the thief running straight into a giant creature’s mouth, characters spending stamina to aim at weak points and climb a demon’s body to avoid its attacks). This is probably more to the credit of these players than this game, I think, but I do think there’s something to be said about rules that “get out of the way” well enough for players to feel free to pitch wild ideas and run with them.
  • I can’t take it for granted that players will understand my design intent enough to take deadly risks even after playing a couple sessions. Maybe that’s an acceptable weakness of the text (especially for a game I’m just giving away free), but it might be worth noting in the refereeing advice that players might find some reassurance helpful.
  • I really need to give Lavitz the attack spell given to level 1 wizards so his player feels useful when it’s time to pour the damage on. He actually has a decent weapon or two he could be using, but his player really wants to focus on using magic, so he keeps suggesting elaborate uses for the telekinesis spell in the hopes of turning it into an attack spell. (When he suggested in this fight using it to impale the limp demon on some terrain, I had to remind him that an empty void has no terrain, solidifying my claim to be the biggest stickler jerkbutt GM in history.) I haven’t decided yet whether this is an issue with the game or just an example of how referees should be more attentive than I have been to what their players seem to want to do, and provide opportunities to do those things.

All in all, this session reinforced what I started suspecting in the previous session: The rules are pretty much done. I only added very little to Knave on the rules side, and it feels like we worked out the kinks with the most divergent subsystems. (Players are being creative with stamina and otherwise; casters and specialists are traveling light so they can free up more stamina; and lowering HP and making death sting less encourage at least some players to take on fun risks.) The materials generating the most questions, confusion, and “broken” encounters at this point aren’t in the base rule set, but specific spells and magic items I created. Those are a lot harder to test for when you’ve made around 90 spells and 50 magic items, but I’m learning a lot nonetheless. (I am definitely a fan of the magic item that says anytime somebody leaves the room to bring back food for the other players, their character disappears and has a chance to reappear later with treasure.)

By my estimation, we’ve got maybe one to three sessions left, depending on what the players decide to do next. I’d be happy to call this game “done enough” after just the one session, and move onto other projects. Hopefully I’ll get someone to help me test that subsystem for leveling up beyond normal limits. I would love to see one of these PCs “go bad.” Maybe I could even get their player to help me design the boss fight against their former character.

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