A few times a year RPG discussions and recent gaming “tech” converge on my radar to present a completely new insight as to how I perceive the game could be played at the table.
The 8×8 Combat Room Issue
Yesterday, Robert J. Schwalb, one of D&D’s most prolific writers, wrote a transcendent piece that may very well be the most thought out, “hammer meets nail” critical deconstruction of D&D 4e’s encounter design yet:
When writing adventures using this format, there’s less room to develop story content because every expected combat must fall in the one or two page encounter spread.
… Without a doubt, the encounters I hate the most are the 8 x 8 rooms with one creature per PC. These fights drag. Everything interesting about the encounter lives inside the monster stat-blocks. And, it is rather upfront about what it’s there to do: let the PCs mine for XP/treasure.
…What it seems is happening now is that the designer/DM creates a warband to throw against the PCs. They duke it out. The PCs win. The PCs get their reward. The PCs move to the next room and face the next warband.
…This system works and it works well, but its structure has replaced the familiar game play elements that existed in prior editions. Exploration and roleplaying exist in the lulls between encounters. And, when the challenge presents itself as monsters spoiling for a fight or a complex skill challenge, game play shifts toward a mechanized procedure, wherein resources are spent and, at the end, recovered.
This rings so damn true it’s scary. I recall saying it a few months back, I think that one of reasons the 8×8 room fight with 5 monsters has become so ubiquitous is because DMs have become complacent with the DM toolkit 4e offers. They keep to the basic templates instead of trying to be creative.
Now I’ve dabbled in the writing world enough to know that the average freelance writer can’t afford to re-invent the wheel when he’s paid peanuts and works under crashing deadlines. I think that pressure becomes too strong a temptation not to default to the average encounter formula. The same applies to the typical DM who only starts prepping a few hours before his game… the urge to default to the templates (or steal from Dungeon mag adventures who have similar designs) becomes very strong.
I think one of 4e’s problems is that DMing tools are now so structured, it becomes a hindrance for people with creativity issues to push through the proposed models and discover “new tech”. I know I’ve been having a hard time selling some of my weirder ideas like “Trap-Monster hybrids” and “The whole party stuck in the same body” because it seems people can’t see it done (or can’t afford the effort to squeeze the concept) in their 4e games.
Rob then presents a solution which is completely elegant in bringing back some lost aspects of dungeon crawling like exploration, to the forefront:
I propose going back to the older model. Then, divide the dungeon into multi-room sections I’ll call sectors for lack of a better term. A sector might be a large single room or several smaller rooms linked by corridors, staircases, and so on. Each sector exists for a reason. There is something the characters must do, find, or survive before the sector can be “completed.” We’ll call this the victory condition…
Next, populate the sector. Use the standard XP budget, but for one or two levels above the PCs. Use the XP to by monsters of around the PCs level. This should give you more critters to play with. You don’t have to link them to each other, though you do have to link them to the sector.
The “tactical encounter” begins when the PCs enter the dungeon sector. The PCs don’t roll initiative yet as they are in exploring mode. As they move through the sector, they might encounter the smaller groups, at which point they could roll initiative and fight, sneak by the enemy, or talk their way through the monsters.
So in essence, divide a dungeon level in areas which have mini/minor-quests linked to them. Then populate those areas in loosely linked encounters (with a few unrelated ones thrown in) and then let the PCs decide what to do when they meet sub-parts of each: Sneak, Parley, Fight and so on…
I love that. And I really wanted to share Rob’s ideas with you.
But nowI want to build on his idea because I feel it’s not enough. We can push this boundary further.
Neo-Gygaxianism and Fronts
One of the things that the “collectible warband game” mentality of D&D 4e has hindered is the recreation of old Gygaxian factions in dungeons. Those were environment where an Ogre hermit lair, complete with chained Owlbear, kept a warband of Orcs and a Goblins’ den from going at each other’s throat, allowing the Necromancer to work in peace in his laboratory.
In 4e, with challenges properly balanced to allow a party to (narrowly) defeat all encounters, there’s no clear incentive for characters to try to convince the kobold Lord living close to the northern entrance that the Goblin Shaman and her tribe are trying to oust them from their strategic raiding camp.
Much like the DM toolkit gives incentives to the harried DM to colour within the lines of pre-established encounter models, players expect to gain more XPs by slaying every encounters AND they get a more rewarding mechanical experience when they get to use their powers… which, when taken literally, are mostly good in combat only. (They aren’t if you are a flexible DM, but that’s another post).
So Rob’s proposal is great to recreate just that: dungeon sections populated by one main factions (plus associated beasts and/or “natural fauna”). Yet, those who’ve followed my Apocalypse World post may see me coming with a way to make those Sector/Factions come ALIVE and become true dynamic dungeons.
We could make the whole dungeon (and it’s underlying plot) into a Front.
In Apocalypse World, an improv-driven Sci-Fi RPG of conflicting loyalties, all NPCs and places are named and associated “emotions/states” (Envy, Ambition, Hunger, Ignorance, Fear, etc) that could become threats to the PCs or the things they chose to defend.
When the GM builds an adventure, some of those NPC/places are regrouped in “Threats” according to how they could share a dark agenda, a common nefarious goal. A “countdown clock” is then established, a series of steps/event to bring the agenda to its conclusion.
Then you take a few of those threats (the dungeon being one of them) and you unify them into common higher level agenda, and you get a Front, a unified wall of trouble for the PCs.
Well, reading Rob’s post crystallized an idea I’ve had for a few days now:
A dungeon is a perfect element for a D&D Front.
See, a classic 3 encounters + a finale dungeon adventure could be divided into 4 sectors, each populated with a faction that represent a different Threat, for example:
- The Orcs: Establish a permanent raiding camp to reach nearby villages, will eventually destroy the local economy.
- The Kobolds: Snatch humanoids from the surrounding countryside (including unsuspecting orcs) , burn them in sacrifice to bring back spirit of the Dark Dragon God into this world.
- The Mad Wizard (there’s always one): Who’s scouring the temple for that one last element to complete his wand of Very Painful Domination and then test it on whomever is close by!
- The Dungeon: An old temple dedicated to the mad ones and their 5 dimensional dreams of conquest and destruction. Filled with wards that brings it closer to full sentience whenever it catches someone in them.
Each faction would have an agenda… and killing the PCs should not be in any of them, except maybe the Dungeon’s. And yes, it does bear an uncanny resemblance to another approach to adventure design I talked a few months ago.
Players should receive full XPs for dealing with the faction if they manage to thwart their agenda. In practical terms: add the whole XP budget of the monsters/Threats/Skill Challenges of the sector to the Minor/Major Quest that’s linked to the threat. Use that as a pool to hand out XPs as usual, but empty the pool and distribute the remaining points once the threat’s agenda has been nullified, regardless of how it was done, as long as PC choices and action were key in derailing the threat’s plans.
For example, if the PCs convince the orcs to storm the Mad Wizards and they end up all killed by the Temple’s traps, they win all the remaining XP in the “Orc Threat” pool because the villages are safe. Of course, the Temple’s agenda will then be nearly complete. 🙂
So you’d design the dungeon as before but you would then add a new layer over it by creating the factions, their agendas and their “countdown clocks”. During play, whenever there’s an occasion in the story (extended rests, key PC choices, long negotiations with one faction, PC captured, etc), you could push some “Countdown Clocks” further and re-imagine the dungeon’s organization in function of what happened, taking all opportunities to have PCs react to those when possible with generous use of “What do yo do”?
And use those agendas to keep things moving if players get stuck in apparent story dead ends. Players are captured by the Orcs? Well maybe the Kobolds spring them out and give them back their equipment if they accept to deal with a problematic Temple Ward that screws their Divine link to their deity. The Dungeon nearly reaches it’s last countdown clock step and the PCs are down to their last Healing Surge? Well maybe then the bumbling Wizard drops by and disintegrates the newly summoned Gibbering Mouther when his wand misfires during its test run. He then invites the PCs to join his mad quest, providing a short respite of safety for an extended rest.
Explorations, diplomacy, double crosses, twists, complications… all things that this model of adventure should be able to support.
I think it’s a dangerous idea worth exploring.