Sub-optimal for the sake of Story

Its the summer and due to vacations and other events my gaming schedule has gotten pretty interesting since not everyone can make it to the regular games every week. In response to this we have started up a few “fill-in” campaigns that we can play when certain players are not available. One such campaign called “Land of the Lost” involves the PCs being shipwrecked on an island that so far has proved to be full of angry dwarf eating dinosaurs.

The introduction to the campaign had the PCs on a boat that was attacked by a (The?) Kraken. We knew going into the fight that the boat would be sunk by the kraken and that it probably wouldn’t kill any PCs so that we could arrive at the island devoid of equipment and have to scavenge the wreckage to survive. During this kraken fight tentacles were wrapping around the deck and we had to fight to get them off so that we could save the ship, which we knew was impossible given the story, but was a lot of fun. The ship had a large ballista mounted at the bow so I decided to use that against the tentacles. The ballista was far less accurate and even more so less damaging than if I had decided to use my barbarian’s glaive in the fight which brings me to my point the age old debate between system and story.

Alright. So mechanically we’ve got the ballista that has an inherent -4 to hit but does 3d8 damage, it also takes two full round actions unless you are large or bigger. On the other hand we’ve got a glaive that deals 1d10 + strength and a half. My character in this case is a second level barbarian with STR 14, DEX 16, CON 14, so she can rage for 8 rounds a day and increase strength to 18. Firing a ballista she has a net +1 to hit (+2 BAB +3 DEX -4 penalty) and can deal 3d8 damage every 3 rounds or can attack with the glaive at +4 and deal 1d10+3 every round, if raging this increases to +6 to hit and 1d10+6 to damage for 8 rounds.

It is easy to see that the glaive has both a higher chance to hit each round and deals a greater die of damage and has a static damage modifier which gives a better minimum damage. Now from an “if I were really there” perspective I would think that using the biggest gun on the ship against the big tentacles would make more sense than using this puny little blade on a stick. Now were damage reduction a factor the higher average/max damage ballista may be the better bet but in this fight it was not.

Since this fight was guaranteed to be a loss for the party there was not any real penalty for using a “sub-optimal” combat choice I was free to take the more interesting route and create a more dynamic scene than would otherwise occur. Unfortunately it often happens that you need to be on the top of your game and exploiting every mechanical advantage just to survive a tough encounter. I feel that when these tough encounters come around they destroy the story focus of the game and make role playing harder since you are forced to think in meta-game terms in order to wring the most performance out of your character just to get by. Now I’m not saying that all encounters should be a walk in the park, but maybe they don’t have to be optimized to stress the party’s resources so much in order to allow more cinematic actions to take place.

How does your group handle story vs mechanics in situations like this?


~ by katallos on June 21, 2010.

2 Responses to “Sub-optimal for the sake of Story”

  1. In the games I run for my group, I tend to favor the story over the mechanics. If there is a huge catapult the players can use if they see fit, they may only be able to use it once but if they are trying to knock down a tower/bridge or something of the sort, I find it a little nit picky to count the hit points of the bridge. “You land a solid hit, one more like that and it will collapse” would suffice in my books.

    But then again, that is just my opinion.

  2. Always. A while back I added an NPC paladin to our Shattered Gates of Slaughtergarde campaign and I rolled him from scratch. The stats were definitely suboptimal and he ended up with a very low Con which meant low hit points. So I went with it and armed him with a glaive so he could fight from a distance and preserve those precious hit points. I decided that he wasn’t a coward, but that he wanted powerful first strike or brace for a charge opportunities to keep from getting to easily hurt in the initial encounter. It didn’t always work, but I decided that was his logic.

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