(Image: From legendary director John Woo’s legendary film “The Killer”, 1989, one of many films with legendary standoffs)
An interesting situation came up in play and I think it highlights some typical aspects of OSR gaming.
I have started a play by post game on Discord with Original D&D (1974 rules), where a tense scene came up:
The party, 15 strong, with various classes, armors, and weapons, some of them retainers, all low level, walked along a path exploring the forest when they suddenly happened upon a random encounter of 12 bandits moving in the opposite direction.
[Mini-rant: Contrary to a far too popular belief, not every wilderness encounter has to field 30-300 men. Nobody forces tribes of orcs or bandit gangs to always stay together as one cohesive unit. Mini-Rant over.]
Both sides were surprised at a distance of a mere 20 yards. I rolled a reaction roll [2d6, low is aggressive, high is friendly] and got 11, so I considered they’d be quite happy to see fellow humans in these dark woods. And the first reaction that came from the party was also a friendly greeting.
So the leader of the bandits and the greeting PC started to talk, spoke about the area and who they were. The bandit leader openly admitted being affiliated with a known bandit bigshot.
One player took the friendliness of the opposite party for foolishness/weakness and tried to nudge and tease them into walking into a dangerous situation for the party, hoping that if they would take damage that might “soften them up” so the party could then kill two birds with one stone: the dangerous situation and the bandits, and loot their bodies for armor and weapons afterwards.
Friendly =|= stupid
A reaction of 11, of course, does not mean that these people are a bunch of clowns and doormats desperate to please. While the leader was still talking with the former speaker of the party, and suggested they might meet again some time, one of his henchmen confronted the manipulating character in a parallel conversation. The two “tough guys” were antagonizing each other; especially the player character who mockingly made ape noises toward the bandit and even kept an arrow nocked but did not actively aim at anyone.
Basically what is called the “Monkey Dance”, the lead-up to violence among young men who are out drinking, when they raise the stakes and provoke each other in an attempt to be “cool” and signal superiority. [Source: Rory Miller, Meditations on Violence, published 2008]
The bandit felt that this situation was not a good one. The opposite party, which included unpredictable people, was slightly more than equal in numbers and the bandits had their own goal, so the antagonized bandit suggested they kept going, since their big boss was waiting for them.
The antagonizing PC started whispering to bowmen and pointed out to them whom of the bandits to shoot first. The bandits did not understand what was spoken but an aggressive party member whispered to others, that was obviously suspicious. So the antagonized bandit quickly organized some of his own pals to be alert.
The reaction situation had certainly cooled down from the earlier 11 and the topic of meeting again and becoming buddies was clearly off the table, but I decided that the bandits had no interest in starting a fight that might lead to wounds and casualties, and that within goblin territory. They wanted to get that weird situation solved, so they said good bye and moved past the party. The tough guy and his cronies went last, shielded the more vulnerable bandit members and their boss, and kept a keen eye on the antagonizing “ape” and the bowmen.
In this tense situation the antagonizing player was basically waiting for the ideal moment to start violence, and two other team members were also wondering about that, and pondered in side chat that fighting these guys may be risky but might also be fun, and could be called “pre-emptive defense”. Most of the players took their heads down and said nothing. Also a classic psychological reaction to a threatening situation: “If I don’t move and avoid drawing attention, maybe I get through this”.
One player argued clearly against violence, citing logical reasons: The party was already in obvious enemy territory and this was not that enemy. Confronting these humans would be a waste of resources, probably lives, for very little reward. This player made it clear that in the event of a fight he would stand with the others and dish out the damage, but that he would caution against it. “We are not the law” he said, and argued that so as long as they didn’t do anything to the party he had no beef with them.
The more conflict minded players argued that they obviously had the moral high ground for an attack and that looting the fallen may yield a lot of cool armor.
Of course, there were unknown factors to the confrontation:
The party could easily assume that most of the bandits were random level 1 fighters not too difficult to kill, if a hit would be scored. But: How high level are tough guy and the boss of this bandit outfit? And if the two unarmored bandit members are actually spellcasters: what sort of spells do they know? Would they cast sleep? And who would win an initiative roll and cast first?
It seemed inevitable that there would be casualties. Who would it be? Who and how many would take the fall?
5e vs OSR
And here is the OSR-specific aspect:
In a 5e game it would be relatively safe to assume that
- the GM would make sure that the “Challenge Rating” of the bandits would not be too high in relation to the party, and
- that even if one or two PCs were to go down there would be death saves
- and then someone would heal them,
- and even if they were heavily wounded, after a good night’s sleep they would be back up to full tomorrow.
- Plus: the bandits would have some relevance to the plot, otherwise they would not be there. And having confessed to be “bandits” they would be bad guys, right?
- Plus-plus: 5e has no reaction rolls, so the bandits would most likely had attacked right away and the question would never arise.
So in 5e a fight would be a the most likely outcome, even a no-brainer for most groups, given the unpleasantness of the uncertain alternative: letting them go, what will they do next? Tell more people about the party? Attack it in the rear? Dead foes are safe foes.
But in an OSR game such assumptions cannot be made.
- The bandits may be stronger or luckier and slaughter their way through the party like scissors through a wet handkerchief.
- Even if the party wins the fight, someone or multiple party members who get hit may be killed instantly,
- or, by house rules, at least permanently lose attribute points.
- This would also be the first fight with such high stakes in that game. Will this GM shy away from a TPK or will he let them all die?
- Clerics have no healing spell at level 1, so healing up after taking severe wounds could bench a PC for an in-game week even if he survives.
- Plus: OSR has random encounters, and this could be one [and it was]. So it might be very possible that these guys will never show up again. [Time will tell]
In short: Is the possible win (some armor) worth the risk (multiple deaths or wounds)`?
Whereas the risk of letting them go is just an open door to some maybes at some much later point.
I left the situation hanging for a full day so the players could make up their minds.
In the end, the party stood still and did not shoot.