Friday, March 28, 2014

Countering the Scry and Fry

While a goodly portion of my gaming life has not necessarily involved dungeons or dragons, I still try to keep up with things in that corner of the hobby. That's where I found this.

For those who don't like following links, the article describes a tactic known as "Scry and fry," in which the players use divination magic to locate the dungeon's "boss" and then cast another spell to teleport the party directly to the "boss battle" without going through the rest of the dungeon.

My initial response was to defend the tactic because 1) it is a valid use of those spells and 2) as I said in my comment on that page, a lot of the negative reaction I saw was DM's trying to require that the players go through their dungeon before getting to the boss battle and it really felt like a parent encouraging their children to eat their lima beans before they get dessert. Though on further reflection, I do understand the idea of players using it as a "cheat code" rather than simply a "fast forward".

While the owner of that blog has suggested that creating dungeons that aren't "lima beans" has gone on his list of future articles, I thought I'd share some thoughts on the subject as well.

First of all, the "scry and fry" tactic makes a number of assumptions that are fairly easy to upset. I think a case could be made that if "scry and fry" actually defeats your dungeon, you are a very lazy dungeon creator.

1) There is a "boss": While antagonism and conflict are important to any story, making your antagonist a single, powerful individual is just one possibility. It could be a group, or even an entire organization. The party could find itself in conflict with the forces of nature. They could fight a prophecy, trying to prevent an event from happening whether or not anybody involved dies.

2) The boss' identity and/or location are known or knowable: Okay, so let's assume that we've decided to make a boss for this story. If we want this boss to be less vulnerable to scrying or other methods of detection, he's got to be a mystery. Maybe the story is a murder mystery and the party can't act against the villain until they know he did it. Maybe the villain has a secret identity like a superhero and the party's magic can't track him when he's being normal. Or maybe he knows enough about magic to have some degree of protection against divinations (this was the primary solution I saw among the DM's who commented on this on Facebook).

In the case of a mystery story, I have little problem with using scry and fry or any other tactic to confront the villain. Since discovering the identity of the villain is the objective of the adventure, the confrontation scene is more resolution than climax in my mind.

3) The destruction of the boss will solve the problem or threat posed by the boss: There are certainly times where this is the case. But not always. Because most of the ways that villains gain power involve building an organization. An evil cult, a thieves guild, what have you. Ultimately, the boss is the capstone of the pyramid, not its base. So if all you do is kill the boss, you have not defeated the organization at all. The infighting among the organization's leadership to determine who sits directly in front of the firehose of money, magical power or whatever that the initial boss created can do damage to the organization as a whole, but everyone involved has a vested interest in making sure that the firehose keeps flowing at firehose pressures as long as possible and only once that fails to happen will the organization fully collapse.

3a) It is actually possible to destroy the boss through main force: This one is just a subheading because it's more of an edge consideration, and can be system-dependent. It could be that the boss is a supernatural creature who can only be defeated by using the Artifact of XYZ or by those who have gone through the Trials of AEIOU, which are somewhere in the dungeon but will be missed by those who teleport past them. Or maybe the boss just has a few more levels than the party and will overpower them since they didn't go through the dungeon and rack up the amount of XP that the DM expected them to.

Advice to DMs: Even after you start tweaking your storylines to counter scry and fry or any other Stupid Player Trick, your players may still try them. Do not go out of your way to thwart your players or kill their characters. Just confront them with the logical repercussions of their actions. Be warned that this can include unintended character deaths.

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