Monday, June 10, 2013

Challenges and Party Abilities in Dungeon Fantasy: General Abilities and Non-Combat Specialties

In Dungeon Fantasy, there are a lot of different threats that delvers can face: from hordes of weak minions such as giant rats, to nigh indestructible creatures such flaming skulls, to hard-hitting damage sinks such as siege beasts, to party-defeating monsters such floating electric jellies. On top of the monsters, delve sites might have puzzles, traps, riddles, cursed altars, difficult and impassible terrain and other out of combat challenges.

There's a lot to cover. What challenges do the members of a competent, efficient delving band need to be able to overcome?

General Abilities

A lot of challenges can be handled by a specialist, or at least don't need to be handled by every member of the delving band. Crossing the ice-covered spiked tightrope over the no-mana zone Pit of Doom! is something best left to the thief, for instance. But there are a couple of challenges that every member of the band will have to face.
  • Combat Defense: Every member of the delving band should have some defensive ability in combat. The bare minimum here is a single defense against a single melee foe rolled against a 12 or more - which is Dodge-9 and a Retreat or Staff-14 and a quarterstaff. At least some DR is helpful, too - DR3 is generally cheap (Lightened, Fortified Medium Leather is 15 lbs and $500) but DR4 or more is better.
  • Combat Offense: Every member of the delving band should have some offensive ability in combat. The basic orc from Mirror of the Fire Demon is probably a good standard here: if a 250 point delver can't defeat a lone orc in single combat (including any of the delver's Allies), that delver is almost certainly a liability
  • Communicating Silently: If the GM is using the rules for Gesture, then every member of the delving needs either a point in the skill or 1-2 points in Language (Sign Language).
  • Rope Climbing: A lot of obstacles can be bypassed by sending an agile guy to climb up the side and throwing down a rope, but only if most every member of the delving band can climb up that rope. Some bands manage by having the bad climbers tie themselves up with the rope and get pulled up by a strong guy, but it's generally easiest if everyone can climb simple, short obstacles.
  • Sneaking: Not every member of the delving bands needs to be good enough at Stealth to backstab while ambushed in an open field, but every members needs to have an adjusted Stealth skill of at least 10 to let them sneak up on (or sneak away from) a not particularly alert enemy.

Non-combat Specialist Abilities

A lot of challenges can be handled by a specialist. There's nothing wrong with having two or more specialists for the same tasks in the delving band, and for some (Healing) it is highly recommended. More specialists available for the same challenge provide redundancy if one is wounded or busy, may provide alternate methods to overcome the challenge, or can at least provide complementary bonuses in most situations.
  • Acquiring Rumors: All the combat ability in the world does no good if the delvers don't know where to go. Getting rumors is the first step toward finding out where the dungeon actually is, and can also be useful for finding out information about special threats within the dungeon. The upfront investment in acquiring rumors is cheap, and this is an ability where the more, the better. Almost every archetype can acquire rumors with Carousing.
  • Animal Handling: Mules and donkeys make excellent load bearers, especially for bulky items like food when travelling to a dungeon or bags of silver when returning from a dungeon. It's useful to have someone who can keep the animals steady. This can be a hireling, but for a modest investment in skills, the delving band can spare the expense. Hirelings, Druids, and Scouts are the normal animal handlers, but any high IQ template can pick up the skill cheaply.
  • Bridging Hazards: What with bottomless pits, vertical shafts, and  intermeshing adamantium blades powered by a stone golem treadmill in the next room, walking through a delving site can be tricky. Having someone who can fly, walk on air, or tic-tac up walls and then throw a rope down is essential. This role generally goes to Wizards, Scouts, Thieves, or Martial Artists.
  • Bypassing Locked Doors: Delving sites are filled with locked doors and chests, some of which may be trapped. Avoiding them means avoiding valuable loot. Someone in the band needs to know either how to pick locks (including magical ways) or be strong enough to bash down doors in a reasonable amount of time. Thieves and Artificers can unlock doors and every melee archetype except perhaps Swashbucklers can bash them down, though Knights and Barbarians are usually best. Wizards can cast Lockmaster to open the lock or Shape Earth to adjust the doorframe.
  • Clearing Curses: Curses are best avoided in the first place, but that's not always possible. Sometimes an area is cursed before the delvers arrive, or someone triggers a curse despite everyone's best efforts. Usually, it's possible to remove a curse in Town for a large fee, but it's very helpful to remove them on site and save the money (and possible death on the way back to Town, depending on the nature of the curse). Clerics, Holy Warriors, and Shamans are the go-to guys for removing most curses through Exorcism, and Wizards can Remove Curse with enough available energy.
  • Corpse-Looting: Some monsters hide their loot within their body and the internal bits of some monsters are loot. Either way, it's embarrassing to discover after the delve that you left $15K in magical loot inside a dead enemy because no one had the skills to find it. If possible, some members of the delving band should have the Search, Surgery, and Survival skills. Depending on the approach, just about any delver may be able to contribute, but healing types and outdoorsman may have these skills for other reasons.
  • Getting Sponsorship: Not all groups like to do this, but sometimes it's helpful to have an extra several thousand in starting supplies. Bards are the best choice, but Sages and other high IQ types or Thieves can give it a shot.
  • Going Without Magic: A spellcaster's spells provide a lot of out of combat utility, but sometimes the Pit of Doom! is a no-mana zone and a Fly spell isn't going to cut it. An especially efficient delving band has a back-up specialist for everything the spellcasters can do, since some things need to be done without magic.
  • Healing: Delving is a dangerous profession, and people are going to get hurt. A band without the ability to heal quickly is just one disastrous fight from a downward spiral of doom. The minimum here is the ability to recover 16 HP per delver per day, so First Aid clearly doesn't cut it. Having someone who can cure Mortal Wounds is also helpful. Clerics or summonable allies with healing abilities fit the bill, and potions can be used in a pinch. Having two healers is helpful, since there's few ways to recover if the badly wounded delver is the band's lone healer.
  • Identifying Loot: The ability to determine if a bulky painting is schlock or worth a fortune can make the difference between a successful delve and a waste of time. Someone with Magery is essential here; someone with Holiness or Power Investiture is helpful; delving bands without access to Armory end up leaving a lot of Giant Spidersilk on the ground. Doubling up on identification abilities isn't particularly useful but many of the skills have alternate uses so doubling up is somewhat inevitable.
  • Identifying Magic: Anyone with Magery can notice that a magic item is magic, but it takes Analyze Magic or other weird abilities to know whether an item is magic because it's cursed or because its an +3 Accurate, +3 Puissant, +3 Heartseeker Elven bow. Analyze Magic can be cast in Town for a fee, but having a Wizard or someone else to identify magic items in the field saves money and lets magical gear be used almost immediately.
  • Identifying Monsters: Identifying a monster before attacking it means that special abilities can be used more efficiently and that no one wastes valuable time trying to wallop insubstantial things with physical objects. There are a lot of different monster types, so the skills to identify them are spread around. Sages know everything, and what type of monster is a subset of everything, but Clerics, Druids, Holy Warriors, and Wizards can contribute against at least some monsters. Multiple people with identification skills is usually necessary just to get all the relevant skills; overlap provides some reassurance against unfortunate critical failures.
  • Interrogating: Many monsters don't survive long enough to talk, but interrogating the survivors can be a useful supplement to scouting. This is an optional specialist, but a good interrogator can make things easier. Bards are best at interrogating, having access to both the skill and to Detect Lies, but revised Shamans are also a good choice.
  • Lifting and Carrying: It's not the most glamorous job, but there's space in most delving bands for someone who can carry all the weak guys' backpacks without slowing down or who can carry the unconscious cleric out of the no-sanctity zone to a place where healing potions work. More carrying capacity also means more loot retrieved per delve. Barbarians and Knights often end up contributing as mules.
  • Map-Making: Depending on the play of the game, this can be an optional specialty. Smart players can map without their characters having the ability or the delve site may be simple enough that mapping isn't really necessary. Still, having a high-IQ character drop a point in Cartography can pay off.
  • Negotiating: Most delving bands would rather fight monsters than talk to them, and that's okay. But sometimes delvers encounter other delvers or neutral beings (nature fae being the classic example) that are powerful enough to actually threaten the delvers but non-hostile. Most high IQ delvers can learn enough Diplomacy to be moderately helpful, but Bards and revised Shamans are the clear winners in the diplomacy sweepstakes.
  • Researching Facts: Research is useful for learning more about the delve site and getting advance information about the weaknesses or strengths of foes. Almost all high IQ delvers can do it and there's no advantage to having more than one researcher.
  • Scouting: Having someone who can move ahead of the main mass of the delving band and spot monsters without being spotted can provide tactical advantage. Generally, a scout needs a lot of stealth and perception, the ability to see in the dark without a light source, and possibly some trap detection ability. A high movement speed is also helpful, for retreating back to the main body when spotted. Two scouts are generally better than one, since they can watch out for each other. Scouts, unsurprisingly, make great Scouts, but so do Thieves and suitably-buffed Wizards. Martial Artists can sneak around, but their low perception scores make them poor choices as primary scouts.
  • Seeing in the Dark: Delvers spend a lot of time in unlit depths, and they either need to bring light sources along or have some way of seeing in the dark. The simplest method is for someone to carry a torch, but it's also the worst because it ties up the torch-bearer's hand and provides a dim, short-range light source. Better methods include helmet or shield lanterns, the Illumination perk available to Celestials and some magical types, cleric and wizard's Continual (mage) Light spells, and glow vials; alternately, an all Infernal band can all take Dark Vision and dispense with lighting entirely and some non-human bands can see quite well in very dim light. Most delving bands are advised to carry a torch and tinderbox anyway, as it can be embarrassing to land in a dark, no-mana, no-sanctity pit and be eaten by a grue because no one had a non-magical light source. Although its possible to get by with just one delver carrying a light, multiple light sources are generally better. Any delver can sling a glow vial around their neck, and most spellcasters have a way of accessing Continual Light.
  • Selling Loot: A Wealthy delver doubles the band's take for selling random vendor trash, and a Very Wealthy delver or a Wealthy one with large Reaction bonuses (say, a Nymph) adds 150% to the loot per delving expedition. More wealth means more money for better armor, weapons, and delving gear. In the short term, this is one of the less essential specialists, since character points are as much a reward as looting, but over several expeditions a band with a good loot-seller will be much, much better equipped than a band without one. Even having a single member of the band with Comfortable is probably a good investment: a single addition level of Magery for a wizard or +1 Strength for the knight probably won't generate as much additional cash return as Comfortable Wealth and a 60% cut on random loot. However, only one delver really needs this ability and multiple people skilled at selling loot don't work well together. Bards and Nymphs generally have the reaction rolls to sell stuff, Wizards and other high IQ types are good Merchants, and Knights and Swashbucklers have the discretionary points to afford Comfortable or Wealthy.
  • Taking Damage: Sometimes there's a trap or obstacle that unavoidably does damage over time and protects something that the delving band really wants. There's a couple of ways to deal with such traps: send someone who is heavily armored with lots of HP to absorb the damage and heal them up later, send someone fast who can retrieve the desired item quickly and minimize the damage taken, or summon some disposable minions and let them get it. These methods play to strengths of Barbarians and Knights, Martial Artists and Scouts, and Wizards and the various summoning archetypes, respectively.
  • Tracking: Tracking is a nice to have ability, but isn't essential. It can be used to get to some delving sites somewhat quicker, to figure out where the fleeing monsters went, and sometimes to learn which doors to avoid in the dungeon. Outdoorsman types such as Barbarians, Druids, and Scouts are the usually trackers, as well as the Justicar.
  • Trap-Detecting and Bypassing: Traps are a contentious part of dungeon design. They're usually just an avoidable source of wandering damage or a deadly barrier to delving bands that don't have a trap removal specialist. Most traps can be bypassed in a variety of ways: disarming them is an obvious solution, but triggers can be avoided by magic or clever thinking, mechanisms can be destroyed by brute force, or ammo can be depleted by sending disposal minions repeated through the trap. Still, the base ability to detect a trap before it goes off is very useful, as it informs the choice of how to bypass the trap and makes sure the trap isn't triggered by an especially vulnerable member of the band. Only one member of the band needs to be good at trap-detecting, and it's helpful if she is also good at scouting. It's useful to have several different methods of bypassing traps, though.
    (Some ruthless bands use the disposable minion approach to trap detection, too. That's a valid but not recommended approach, since some traps may not trigger depending on the type of minion used. It can be fatally embarassing to send the necromancer's skeletal servants down the hall and decide the path is clear, and then have the entire delving band killed by a fatigue draining trap.)
    Given the variety of approaches to trap detection and bypass, almost anyone in the delving band can contribute. Thieves are the classic archetype for finding and removing traps, though Scouts are also good choices.
Part 2 of this series covers the wide variety of combat specialties.


  1. Great post.

    In my experience:

    Analyze Magic is useful, but it's very game dependent. It's 1 hour to cast, 8 energy, and takes multiple castings to fully identify a magical item. It's slow and expensive - even at skill 20 it's 30 minutes to cast. So I find it's a useful spell to have but there are usually many better ones. It's helpful if you're routinely far from base and have lots of chances for cast-and-rest identification.

    Scouting - I think the ideal scouts are Scouts or Thieves, but not wizards. Unless you've got a racially stealthy wizard, it's better if they cast their "stealth buff" spells on a sturdier, stealthier party members. They'll do in a pinch but the synergy of using their magic on a better basic scout (more Per, more Stealth, more ability to fight or run) is really the way to go.

    Carrying stuff - I've yet to find money weighs so much that the PCs can't carry it out. Even $100,000 in silver is only 100 lbs in DF (250 coins to the pound, $4 each). It's the oddball loot that makes it necessary to carry a lot of weight. But being able to carry the biggest party member out of the dungeon when he's knocked out is critical - you need a backup heavy-load guy if only for when your heavy guys are injured and need to be lugged to safety!

    Tracking - we've found it essential. The sessions they don't have a tracker are the sessions they have much less idea what's in the area. No one's default matches even a bad roll by a real tracker. My game might be an outlier, but "who came by recently?" and "where do those scuff marks point to?" and "how many and what was it?" have turned out to be important all the time. The PCs missed a big clue last session because no tracker would tell them what it was that went by (or more importantly, where it was going.)

    But yeah, this is a great summary of what you need. Good stuff.

    1. I think the difference in the valuing of Analyze Magic and Carrying Stuff is that your games tend to be site-based adventures at nearby sites and my games are road movies. Like you allude to, if you're a week away from Town and planning to stay at the dungeon for 4 more days, the ability to use Analyze Magic really is the difference between using a sweet magic item now and carrying potentially valuable deadweight back to Town. Similarly, more carrying capacity means you can carry more of the lower value/pound loot, like axes and brass coins.

      I agree with your point about Scouting, but the end goal of this series is "ideal party composition" and if you're in a small delving band, the Wizard covers for the Scout a lot better than the Scout covers for the Wizard. Honestly, I prefer to play with a 5+ member band that doesn't have to make that choice, but that's not always an option.

    2. That's why I said Analyze Magic is very game dependent.

      As for Scout, the Wizard is better off casting his Stealth/Scouting buffs on anyone with Per 12+, which is actually everyone in DF1 except the Knight, Swashbuckler, and Martial Artist AFAIK. I just don't think it's a good idea to risk to wizard as a scout unless you've got no other choice. It's better to find a hidden NMZ or Linked Dispel Magic with anyone else than with the wizard standing in it. IMO, anyway.