Goldilocks Syndrome

Normally I try not to give my players any direct advice about how to play.  I want them to learn their own lessons and come up with their own clever ways out of a pickle.  However, we’ve been playing almost a year now and I see them make this same mistake time and time again.  I’m starting to feel bad for them when it blows up in their faces, so players, this post is for you.

My players suffer from what I’m calling “Goldilocks Syndrome”.  That is, they seem to think it’s a good idea to break into someone’s house, rifle through their things, and then stop for a nap.  They’ll be in the middle of exploring a dungeon, be it an ancient ruin filled with strange monsters or a simple thieves’ hideout, when they notice their resources have been pretty depleted.  By which I mean, the fighters are down to just a few hit points left and the spell casters are all out of spells.  Thus, they decide, let’s find a room or a corner to hole up in and sleep to refresh.  At this point I suspect they’re thinking of it too much like a video game, and not enough like a simulation of real life (or at least, fictional fantasy-land life).

As DM, I see myself as having two major jobs:  1.  Enforce the rules as written, and 2. Roleplay the non-players to the best of my ability.  For the latter I’m referring to every sentient being that’s not a player, be it the friendly king who asks the players to go on a quest for him or the band of goblins whose cave the players are invading.  Both of these jobs are directly at odds with the practice of “holing up” while inside a dungeon.

Item #1: Enforce the rules.  The rules in a dungeon often dictate that I roll a d6 every turn or every other turn, and on a 6 a wandering monster shows up.  Let’s be generous and say it’s every other turn and the players want to rest for just 8 hours (it’s often more, as they want to keep a rotating watch and still give every person 8 full hours of rest).  Even in this most generous case I’m rolling 24 dice, which means on average you’d get at least 4 encounters during that time period.  You want to face down those 4 encounters with a subset of your team who are already in a weakened state?  I think we know how that’s going to go.

Item #2: Roleplay the non-players.  This is even worse for the players.  Let me give you an analogy.  Let’s say you come home from work one day and discover some stranger is sitting on your couch watching TV.  You yell “Hey, what the hell are you doing in my house?  Get the hell out of here!”  In response, the fellow runs up stairs to the bedroom, locks the door, and lies down on your bed to go to sleep.  Do you:

a.  Go away so he can steal all your belongings and leave safely when he wakes up.

b.  Wait patiently at the door so the two of you can have a fair fight after he’s slept and feels refreshed.

c.  Call the police and let them bash down your bedroom door and beat the living snot out of the bastard.

When my players enter a dungeon, make huge amounts of noise, get into fights with the inhabitants and allow some of them to survive and escape, what do they think is going to happen when they try and stop for a nap?  This is especially bad when the inhabitants are at least somewhat intelligent.  I end up looking at the layout, which obviously the inhabitants know well while the players do not, and try to think “how would these guys eject or kill invaders?”  Then I try to implement that plan.  More often than not, it works.

So players, please, take my advice.  When you’re exploring a dungeon and feeling like it’s too dangerous to continue, leave!  Go away, rest, refresh, and maybe think of a new plan of attack.  And be aware that while you did so, so did the inhabitants of the dungeon.  If you think there’s any way they might suspect you’ll be back, you can bet things will be a little different than how you left them when you return.

7 thoughts on “Goldilocks Syndrome

  1. Point well taken. Last night was a bad judgment call on our part.

    The only counterpoint I’ll make to this, however, is that when you’re deep in hostile territory, it’s often a choice between trying to fight your way out through the same ringer you just went through to get in, with almost no gas in the tank, or trying to secure yourself enough to replenish your resources.

    To your point about following the rules: Would you have made fewer encounter rolls for us if we decided to double back and leave Skull Mountain vs. camping out? We could just as well been jumped by a force of cultists while we were heading back through the halls and wiped out.

    Truth be told the only sure fire way to keep safe is not to invade a fortified position manned by unknown numbers of opponents at all. But that ain’t what this game is about, is it?

    While the home invasion metaphor works pretty well for the thief/cult base last night, if you’re talking about a dungeon or cave or ancient ruin, I tend to think of it more like a wilderness expedition. If you’re trying to climb a mountain, to you keep going back down to base camp every time you get tired?

  2. To your point about following the rules: Would you have made fewer encounter rolls for us if we decided to double back and leave Skull Mountain vs. camping out?

    Exactly correct. Ultimately it just a factor of time. WM checks are made per turn or per every other turn. Turns are 10 minutes. Which takes more game time, to sleep for 8 hours or to turn around and leave? I think pretty universally it’s faster to leave. As for the “ringer” you may have to go through to get back out, well, if you only got past by the skin of your teeth and shut the doors behind you, then yes that’s an issue. But if you killed all your enemies or flushed them forward, then probably the road back is going to be pretty easy.

    While the home invasion metaphor works pretty well for the thief/cult base last night, if you’re talking about a dungeon or cave or ancient ruin, I tend to think of it more like a wilderness expedition.

    I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. What you really have to ask yourself is, are the monsters we’re encountering just passing through, or do they live here? If they live here, you can bet they’re going to try a lot harder to get rid of you than if they’re just a chance encounter in the wilderness.

    And to go back to the argument of game mechanics, WM checks in the wilderness happen much less frequently than in a dungeon. Even in a dangerous wilderness you can still expect to get WM checks no more than once every couple of hours. In a dungeon, it might as frequent as once every 10 minutes.

    If you’re trying to climb a mountain, to you keep going back down to base camp every time you get tired?

    Accessibility of the dungeon is certainly an issue. However, if you know you’re making an expedition to a remote location, than I think it behooves you to be well prepared. Obtain some extra healing potions, hire on extra help, etc. Even then though, yes, when you find yourself depleted and unable to continue, then it’s time to leave. The only case I can ever imagine when camping in the dungeon is a valid option is when you can empirically prove that the area you’re going to camp in is completely unreachable by the inhabitants (eg. in an extradimensional space, behind a wizard-locked door, etc.)

  3. I remember one of the first dungeons we explored and everyone deciding to ‘rest’ in there for the night.

    I thought it was the most suicidal idea I had ever heard in a D+D game. Amazingly we survived. We’ve had a few weird knocks on the doors and some strange encounters in the middle of the night but mostly we’ve been lucky as hell.

    I’m all for changing up our standard delving procedure and while it can be a bit annoying to go in and out each day, the safety is way more valuable. We should also consider camping a bit away from the entrance of the dungeon.

  4. One reason I love reading your blog is how often it directly reinforces experiences I’ve had, and that other people don’t write about as much. I’ve had to deal with this exact same thing as DM, my adjudications were the same, and the player reaction was somewhat similar. “Goldilocks Syndrome” is a great, great name for it.

    One thing to keep in mind is the not totally unfounded strategic notion that you’d rather have monsters come at you on the defensive, then you going at the monsters. If you have an opportunity to lure monsters out of their trapped lairs by being obstinately immobile, then it might actually be to your advantage. More on that point here:

    Compound this: If the wandering monsters are weaker than “full lair” monsters, and PCs are getting XP for them(3E-style), then it might conceivably make PCs stronger to sit still and pick off a series of monsters. Then you’ve got long-term Underdark adventures that actively encourage camping underground, and that further confuses players.

    Now I’m totally in disfavor of this, of course. 1E style experience that comes mostly from gold is a help on the XP issue (3E style I would go in a variant direction of no XP for wandering monsters at all). Disrupting spell recovery for any interruption is a rule I definitely enforce. Sometimes I’ve just come out explicitly told the players what the wandering monster checks are like in-dungeon vs. out-of-dungeon if they don’t get it. Maybe it’s something easier to see as DM where every AD&D module has the “make sure to find a safe cave outside the dungeon” clause in the introduction.

    “If the group becomes low on vital equipment or spells, it should turn back. The same is true if wounds and dead members have seriously weakened the group’s strength. The old statement about running away to fight another day holds true in the game. It is a wise rule to follow.” [1E PHB p. 109]

  5. I’ve played with a lot of different XP rules and I’m starting to come to the conclusion that XP is not actually as big a motivator for player action than you would think. On the other hand, exposing them more blatantly to the wandering monster rules might help cement the idea. I’m almost tempted to try rolling those checks out in the open. Maybe if they saw the ridiculous number of rolls I was making when they stopped to rest that would convince them it wasn’t such a good idea.

    I also dig the idea of having spell recuperation require uninterrupted rest. You could probably also require whatever natural healing rules you use to do the same. I bet that would change things pretty dramatically.

  6. Oh yeah, I always thought “uninterrupted” was part of the rule already. Maybe it might be most elegant to just directly say to casters in advance: “You cannot recover spells after sleeping in a dangerous dungeon; it is not restful enough.” Emphasize creaks and bumps and moans and chain-rattling if that’s not clear.

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