Some time ago, I used to blog about how I prepared my bi-monthly games and posted them before my actual game sessions. It was a writing challenge because I was trying to write something significant for my readers while limiting spoilers for my players (most of whom are readers of this here blog).
I stopped doing it for various reasons but for our next game (planned for next Friday), I felt that I had enough to talk about that it bringing the feature back.
As many who are following my current D&D 4th Edition campaign, I’m playing through the 3rd Chapter of Wizards of the Coast’s Thunderspire Labyrinth. My players are going to play their second session into the Well of Demons. This area of the labyrinth is, according to what my players pieced together so far, an ancient area dedicated to Baphomet. It served as some sort of proving ground for worshipers of the Minotaur Demon Lord.
As I was reading the module for what was coming next, I hit a few encounters I didn’t feel comfortable running as written.
Having thought about it for some time, I got an insight about the some fundamental difference between 1st Edition (Advanced D&D) vs 4th D&D. One of the things early 1st edition adventures didn’t do much was tell the DM what the monsters would do once they opened the door. It was always up to the DM, based on player choices and reactions to decide if a fight started or not.
In later D&D adventures, the adventure told you, quite often, that such monsters ‘attack immediately’. When faced with such finality, DMs who have an habit of following the flow of the adventure, basically tells his players to roll for initiative.
Thing is, when the text of the encounters decide for the DM if it’s to be a fight or a Skill Challenge to possibly avoid a fight, one can feel a bit restrained. I think it’s a fair critique of current 4e adventures to say that it railroads the DM into limited outcomes.
Now I’m not being facetious. D&D Adventures are written like that for several reasons. First, they are aimed at the largest possible range of DMs to sell the most copies. Also, among those DMs, many are novice or have low experience. Such DMs oftenprefer to know how an encounter should go. Another reason is that these adventures were written to show what the new game engine does best and that’s dynamic combat encounters (many of which are great in Thunderspire Labyrinth) and examples of Skill Challenege (which need to be better showcased/written… but Mike Mearls is working on that over in Dungeon Magazine).
The thing is, by being so detailed in how monsters react in encounters, it becomes harder to remember the old rule that drives all published adventures: “The DM is free to change whatever he wants in the adventure”. The written word of the adventure is nothing but a canvas to set the action in a specific locale. You are free to change whatever you like.
For example, so far in my prep, I’ve been adding one monster per encounter whenever my whole group was present because they’re 6 PCs in an adventure written for a party of 5. Also, I’ve freely modified some little details of the adventure, giving some minor NPCs a bigger role in driving the plot whenever I felt that it was too weak to be enjoyed.
However, this week, I’m faced with 2 encounters that I really do not like.
The first one features a complicated background (that players will likely never know about) to explain why types of NPCs with no thematic links co-exist in the same room without killing themselves. The encounter then goes to describe how, when its all said is done, amounts to “everyone attack the PCs”
So I’m going to make one small change to that encounter. While the adventure mentions that the first NPC the players are likely to meet should ‘attack the PCs on sight’, I’ll give the NPC some motive to prefer to deal with them and have them remain alive in the complex. Maybe the NPC is a spy from another faction in the dungeon that was looking for a way to oust the current occupants of the Well of Demons. Maybe it’s a lowly third or fourth in command that might hope that the party will clear her way to the top. Either way, there will be a reason NOT to be hostile to the PCs immediately.
If this works out, the NPC may point out toward the second set of NPCs in the area and propose some sort of cooperation to advance a common agenda.
Ahhh who am I kidding? The PCs are likely going to be rude to the NPC up to the point where I’ll say something like ‘it grips it’s sword in anger’ and all everyone will reach for their d20s.
Regardless, having put some though into it, I’ll at least have the foundation for a lasting NPC should the players feel like interacting with more than just steel and spikes.
Hey, can I least I get points for trying huh?
The second encounter that bugs me is basically an infodump (you know when a novelist will spend 10 pages explaining how the FTL drives work in his universe) disguised as a skill challenge. Once again I can’t help but feel that at the time of writing this adventure, the authors (Baker and Mearls, two designers I admire without restraint or remorse) were still working out how Skill Challenges would go and how ro present them in an adventure aimed at all types of DMs.
Thing is, I often feel that as written, social skill challenges are like having this NPC guy standing in front of a door with his arms crossed, awaiting for the PCs to stumble on the secret handshake needed to go further. I’m not alone with this feeling as I’ve discussed this with others and I’ve been in one game where even a very prominent DM (look on the cover of the DMG) would have a pained expression on his face and say ‘that’s good, but they still don’t quite believe you, give me more”.
Skill challenge aside: The actual adequacy of using Skill challenges in social encounters is up for debate, but that’s outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that I’m now convinced that during such challenges, rolling the dice should be secondary activities and success of such challenges should rely on player roleplaying first and lucky dice second.
So faced with this skill challenge, I decided to do supplemental prep for it by giving each NPC (there’s three of them) a reason to participate in the challenge with the players and, more importantly, a goal. Should players hit all goals I will, regardless of dice rolls, make the challenge a success and dump all the necessary info on their figurative laps. Should players flounder or lose the goodwill of the NPCs for whatever reasons, rolling on social skills (and getting a ‘success’) will allow PCs to bring the situation back to ‘okay, we’ll hear you out’.
And if they fail miserably, well at least they won’t have to suffer the joys of a DM infodump.
We’ll see how that goes.
Image Credit: Copyright Wizards of the Coast