Re-examining the Dungeon: Section, Factions and Fronts

Do you remember those guys?

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.

The Solutions?

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.

Thoughts? Ideas?


  1. Seems like an ideal technique to run my own version of Temple of Elemental Evil, with various elemental factions having different goals that the PCs can get into the middle of. That, combined with some of the techniques discussed over on At-Will for “dungeon alertness” levels, might just make it a very interesting dungeon indeed…

  2. Great follow-up post to Rob’s great post.

    Maybe it’s old-school non-D&D talking through me, but I have never believed in the model D&D uses to distribute XP. Used haphazardly, it can seem incentives in the wrong place by encouraging kill-loot-kill player behavior. In theory, the XP scheme is more complex and meant to reward accomplishing of goals, but even in published adventures it can devolve into much less than that.

    I’ve used the D&D XP scheme haphazardly and written dungeon sections that simply support kill-loot-kill dynamics, so I’m not pointing fingers at anyone else. I also admit that the default D&D XP system is simple to use. It can be converted, simply, though.

    It’s time to move beyond the haphazard to a scheme wherein characters gain XP for accomplishing goals. Unlike what is usual in the current XP scheme, quests should be more important than any one encounter’s resolution. I say quests, because, at least eventually, the characters and players should know what the ultimate resolution for a particular faction. If they accidentally solve a problem, they should receive XP, but not as much as if they purposefully figure out and resolve a situation.

    This places incentives in a totally different vein. Players and characters then have better reasons to become explorers and problem solvers instead of mere monster slayers. This is not to say that slaying can’t be a solution to a given problem, or that playing a dungeon hack game is wrong. Both are valid. But both can benefit from a layer of resolution-oriented complexity.

    It’s very important that players understand such changes in XP distribution if the DM makes a change in his or her game. Incentives need to be clear.

  3. Hey, I see the CH crowd already moved in on the idea, Yay!

    @Dave: I’m so glad you found the piece inspiring. I woke up this morning with the whole thing getting ready to burst out of my brain. It even killed my nascent Glee obsession… at least for now. 🙂 The Temple of Elemental Evil is the perfect.

    @Chris: I agree with your ideas of making Quest far more important than killing monsters in all versions of D&D. That’s where my idea of rolling the budget of all XPs under a common “threat/story thread” in an adventure that has multiple such threads can work as it gives the players rewards, regardless of how they try to find solutions to thwart agendas.

    In an interview I had with Andy Collins last year, he told us that the Quest system was probably one of the most under used tools of the DM toolkit… this discussion we’re having seems to open cool doors to explore and push the so called envelope.

  4. This is a brilliant extension of the Rob Schwalb’s sectors idea. The diagnosis of complacent Dms is accurate, and the solution is simple and straightforward.

    Factions have always been the most interesting element of games to me, and I’ve petitioned WotC for Dungeon/Dragon articles or DMG content writing more to DMs about implementing them well. This is the best idea I’ve heard for linking many elements of good gaming that I’ve been trying to add to my games.

    “Each faction would have an agenda… and killing the PCs should not be in any of them” – that is
    “Players should receive full XPs for dealing with the faction if they manage to thwart their agenda.” – That will go a long way toward altering player assumptions about “XP = win the fight, kill everything” because the more kobolds you slay, the less damage they could do to the orcs. Now my PCs want to paley and end up as friends with everything they meet, and some monsters are just unreasonable. Even so, “thwarting the agenda” gives a great framework for PCs to make decisions other than just fight and be the combat big shots.

    I really like how your example adds the setting the dungeon itself as one of the threats with an agenda to thwart. I wonder what agendas a non-sentient setting such as a random piece of the Feywild or an abandoned dwarven mine could have. I wouldn’t want every dungeon being sentient.

    By the way, I think complacent DMs may still be too lazy to do the critical piece: “you would push the “Countdown Clocks” further and re-imagine the dungeon in function of what happened.” Even though I think that is the most fun part for me personally.

    This makes me ponder how this same way of adventure/dungeon building can apply to major plot arcs, where whole adventures could be macro-sectors with agendas/threats that interact with the overall Front of the campaign.

  5. Angry DM had a similar build up.

    Essentially, its quite similar to what you’re discussing, only he details many permutations to outcomes. Such as… if 50% of the orcs get killed, then the remaining Orcs will pack up and leave. (The idea being that they can no longer defend themselves.)

    More to the point, as factions shift, the adventures themselves change. The Orcs may have left, but the illithids may have been waiting for just such an opportunity to take over that area. Next time you’re wandering through room A, you may get an unexpected surprise. And where are the Orcs? Maybe the remaining Orcs were enslaved, etc. As factions shift, maybe you’ll see varying levels of hostility. “Now that the Orcs are gone, the Illithids are attacking us, and its all your fault.” Remember that the players aren’t the only instigators in the action.

  6. I think that “rolling the budget of all XPs under a common “threat/story thread” in an adventure” is a great step toward believability in a game world, as well as breaking DMs (like myself) out of habits such as falling back on the standard encounter XP budget. Why not make some encounters heavily weighted in the monsters’ direction: it’s their turf.

    Given a whole sector/faction of XP to work with, the PCs will run into some areas (such as the front gate to a factions turf, or the inner sanctum guarding the valuable thing) which will be heavily manned (meaning, unbalanced to the extremely hard side of encounters) while others may be lighter. This almost demands from the PCs narrative flexibility and ingenuity to be smart enough to not pick a fight when the whole gang is present, or to flee when being trounced, and then find some way to weaken the force or draw off the group into manageable subgroups. Make them use more than their standard powers and weapons, or use powers in more abstract ways.

  7. I think this is a great way to handle it.

    One thing I want to suggest is that the “delve format” really does have a tendency to create chess match type battles that are designed to always be close calls that the players win- and they take a while. Walking away from it, is something I wish more DMs would do. I say that with love. I say that as a Living Realms, D&D Encounters DM.

    Well, for all the talk about how AD&D and Basic D&D used to run, I’d also like to point that after about level 3 or so, the advantage in an encounter usually went to players who would pick and choose their own battles- sometimes even by going back to an easier dungeon level and “clearing” it..sometimes by ‘make your own luck’ scenarios where players would create plans to reduce the threat of an encounter by parcelling it out, tactics, or other cleverness – (ie “we take out this lone guard and make a beeline for the alcove. we’ll be through the gate before the other monsters even notice us..”, or “let’s divert the river and flood the dungeon..”) For some reason, many players DM seem to forget how all of that would work because it creates in effect- an “easy” encounter, and think it’s cheating the experience. It’s really not. Players feel clever when they come up with a clever plan. Negating or “shaping” a battle through smarts should be honored, and there’s certainly no reason DMs can’t allow this.

    A half step between this (and somewhat in accordance with Chatty’s Fronts idea) is right up front to declare a goal to an encounter that does not involve killing everything on the field. The encounter is then free to be wildly unbalanced either for or against the players as far as monster budget goes if the real goal is to .. liberate a prisoner, seal a portal, disarm a bomb, escape the area. You could put Orcus (well minus the death aura..) up against 1st level characters if the real goal is to escape him chasing the PCs through the dungeon to the abyssal portal room or somesuch. Communicating that “it’s not meant to be a battle exactly” goal without being too obvious is going to be a challenge, but it is certainly possible.

    Great blog, I’m a fan. Oh, read my attached blog entry- last night I threw 50+ goblins at 4 characters. The goal was to reach an altar and activate a magical forcefield. It was a really fun running battle.

  8. Part of the XP for killing mentality is baked into the 4E game set (and a variety of other rule sets). As your character gets better (levels) what do you get better at? You get better at killing things; virtually all your new powers are about new ways to kill things. You may get a slight increase in your skills (the non-killing part of the game) but these are not new powers. Thus it makes sense that if the focus is about getting better at killing stuff then you are learning from killing things, IE XP for killing stuff.

    Who has a saving-the-princess skill? No one. The reward for a quest, such as saving the princess, is an abstraction that is a package deal for everything you did to get to that part (of which killing is usually a big part) since you can’t go up in an actual saving-the-princess skill.

    Bear in mind that XP is not the reward for killing stuff or for accomplishing goals. XP is a placeholder for the actual reward, which is leveling up. By taking a look at what a character gains as part of the leveling process, we can see what the actual reward is. In 4E it is the ability to better kill stuff.

    Personally I use both. I give XP for killing stuff (since the players are in fact learning to kill stuff better as reflected by their next levels abilities). I also give XP for completing quests and tasks, since a character can learn as they accomplish said task. I also give XP if a player comes to a conclusion regarding the overall plot without being told by me (IE they make a leap of logic and manage to figure out an integral part of my plot). I give XP if someone can make me snarf a drink. I give XP if someone brings snacks consistently each week.
    (As a side note, I give XP to the entire group and never to just one person. It makes it easier when a group levels together. If a person receives a reward for something they did themselves (like bring snacks each week, they are in fact helping the entire party.)

    One thing to beware of when rewarding XP for specific tasks is not to overdo it. Do you give XP for each door unlocked so the party can continue or each sneak roll that allows the party to advance or each act of diplomacy? I agree with rewarding a goal (moving past the door) but not for the actual act (picking the lock).

  9. One important aspect of Rob’s idea you didn’t mention is that the short rests only take place after the sector is clear. That is really an important piece. You still can have issues of a low challenge, but this keeps it reasonable. And, low challenge is ok in that the emphasis slides to accomplishing goals.

    Because what you wrote (seems to me) to really be based on what Rob is saying, I’m going to post the rest of my thoughts over on that thread.

  10. I never switched over to the 4E encounter template philosophy. I had too many years of designing encounters based upon a dungeon “ecology” approach, deciding what creatures could live in proximity to each other without risking predator-prey annihilation, and leaving only one (BIG) creature left standing for the adventurers to face. So I draw up a ruin or dungeon, create encounters based upon what makes sense “ecologically”, and then add in traps and treasure. But as I populate the monster encounters, I always keep my mind on how creatures will respond if they hear their “neighbors” under assault, ranging from hiding in ambush, to flight, to investigation, to sending in the cavalry.

    However, I do like the sector goal idea – adding a quest/goal reward to completing each segment of a dungeon sounds like a good idea. But it might be a good idea to let the Players know that they will be rewarded reasonably for completing the goal, as opposed to tearing the place apart like a search and destroy mission that so many delvers seem to want to do to a dungeon.

    Opposing factions are definitely a lot of fun to add into a dungeon setting, and even more fun when the factions are part on the same organization! A cult or orc tribe might be all that is in a dungeon, but might be factionalized between charismatic leaders. So rather than pitting kobolds against orcs, your pitting the orc chieftain’s men against the orc shaman’s followers, who think the chieftain is not leading the tribe in the “right” way.

    The “countdown Clocks” sound a bit too rigidly structured to me, although some DMs might prefer to have agendas planned for all their factions. I tend to run things a bit more ad lib than that, having each faction react more “off the cuff”, but for newer DMs I suppose it can never hurt to plan ahead.

    Good thoughts here, and I certainly hope some Dungeon Masters use your ideas to break out of their template shells!

  11. Love reading your follow up Chatty, as a 1e DM whose come back via 4e I notice some of these things as my group are going through the scales of war AP. I liked Roberts comment that roleplaying is what happens in the lul between combat and that ends up being so true. This whole idea was something I thought I did read about early on, but clearly pragmatism and pressing deadlines have squashed this out. I’d be really interested to see how this could work as a mechanic overtime. How you’d not fall into the other trap of having to have dungeons full of factions, fronts or different tensions without it equally being just as forced and predictable. Good follow up post all the same. Thanks.

  12. XP? I’ve long since got rid of it… When I realized that I was calculating XP to get my player to level up at the pace I wanted, I just dropped it altogether and made them level up at the intended pace.

    This had an interesting side effect, since progression is no longer related with any particular aspect of the game, players are encourage to do what makes more sense in the story. 😉

  13. Forget short rests: encounter powers refresh and healing surges can be spent when the countdown clock moves another tick. It doesn’t matter if this happens in the middle of a fight, or an hour after the last one ended.

    Booyah, I just fixed the whole system.

    To go with 2 factions above: the Orcs’ clock looks something like:

    3:00 – prep for raid on human settlement
    6:00 – out raiding human settlement
    9:00 – return home with slaves
    10:00 – arguing about division of treasure
    11:00 – argument grows heated; one orc grabs a plundered axe and attacks the chief
    12:00 – the ancient heirloom weapon enables the orc to easily defeat the chief and become a much more powerful adversary, who is a larger threat to the region

    The Kobold’s clock looks like this:

    3:00 – kobolds guarding lair; shaman receives vision on how to summon avatar of dragon god
    6:00 – shaman inciting followers to raiding frenzy
    9:00 – kobolds out bringing back sacrificial victims; shaman readying ritual
    10:00 – victims brought back and locked away, pending ritual
    11:00 – victims brought out and bundled into wicker man
    12:00 – victims sacrificed; shaman becomes avatar of dragon god

    The characters, meanwhile, are in the dungeon, about their own business. At 3:00, they encounter some undead guards set out by the mad wizard. They kill the guards and decide to go hunting for their origin. They discover the nearly empty orc camp, what could this mean? Counter moves to 6:00. They find and deal with the mad wizard. Leaving the wizard’s chambers, they encounter a small kobold party, carrying back several bound orc children. Counter moves to 9:00; they fight the kobolds. They decide to go back to the wizard’s chambers to put the orc kids out of harm’s way–and encounter another party of skeletons, leftovers from the wizard’s guards. They’re still tired from the fight with the kobolds: their encounter powers haven’t reset yet. Only when they either get to the orc camp to witness the argument, or else go to the kobold camp to try to free the captured victims does the clock move to 10:00. Etc., etc.

    This brings the world alive, and means that their choices have meanings–even if they don’t know what they are. Throw in a few more factions, and the characters are really on the clock, so to speak. But, importantly, their resources are reset only when they advance the story in some way. Just hanging around after the battle and waiting for five minutes does nothing: the characters have to keep interacting with the story, not the mechanics of the world.

    I’m totally going to do this next time I’m running a game. See, Chatty–your AW posts have brought the awesome to D&D as well!

  14. @atminn: Thank you for the feedback. All emplacement can have agendas. A Dwarven Mine’s could be “Collapse after so many key support beam breaks” and a piece of the Feywild could be “Absorb the blood of 5 Natural humanoids before shifting back”. As you mention, sentience is but one goal.

    As someone else mentions later, this approach is perfect for campaign design… in fact, it could be the true Sandbox tool as you could have the campaign’s starting point and have a few Fronts going, each front centred around a key NPC, emplacement or even Special Item/Artifact.

    @UHF: I’ll check my other (Adjective)DM colleague’s post as this looks interesting. What I like about the Countdown Clock is that by having each threat’s clock (they are actual clock diagrams divided in 6 with 1 liner events on each) you can look at all of them and then improvise a plausible state of the dungeon and react accordingly to player action.

    So if 50% osf the orcs get wiped… depeding on the state of the other threats, I may decide that narratively speaking, the orcs are defeated and go home, because they can’t set a camp that will survive the kobold’s attrition… nor further PC attacks.

    But yeah, I’m onto that post, thanks!

  15. I’ll add my voice to those saying that this was a great addition to what Rob was talking about! Just like Dave, I immediately thought of his recent work on designing the Temple of Elemental Evil (and some of my own efforts on similar things for my campaign), so thank you Phil!

    I do take some issue with what I see could eventually become an OVER reliance on the faction-faction-faction style of dungeon, I saw this as something cool that the Thunderspire Labyrinth module did but if every dungeon I encountered in a game had 2-3 intelligent factions I would start to wonder why everyone can “get along” until the PCs show up. I’m much more interested in what I’ll simplify as beast + humanoid team ups which can include anything from hunter and pet to alien-like beings and indiginous peoples who the aliens just don’t see as a threat at all. I’m not a huge stickler for realism in my RPGs, but I would wonder how unlucky my party was if they continuously stumbled into these locations that seemed locked between 3 factions that aren’t necessarily opposed but in my opinion would either drive the others away or find somewhere else to live.

  16. @Alphastream: Yes that was an interesting point, but not so much one I wanted to build upon. The old way still works fine by me, and I would assume that PCs who decide on a full Ninja/kill scenario would likely wipe a whole sector in one encounter anyway. But I’d stay with the established short rest rule because those short pauses (which I’d stretch freely to fit with barrative imperatives) allow the dungeon state to change too (did a survivor flee and hit another faction? Has some stuff offscreen occur that I want to hint at, etc).

    Thanks for continuing the discussion.

    @Arbanax: Hey! Welcome! I think the Fronts would become natural guides as to what happens in the dungeon… Agile DMs could then make encounters on the fly based what the PCs decide to do and where in the dungeon they would be (hurray for Tiles!)… When I try it out, I will let you all know about it for sure.

    @Yan: We’ve discussed many times online and offline that not everyone is ready to dispense with XPs like you and I did in our respective games. For some it’s a way to keep score, for others it’s an important metric that allows to track progress without giving the DM all the power to set the beat. That being said, our playing styles have shown how flexible the system can be and the whole “budget” thing remains a most interesting and simple way of building encounters.

  17. What I failed to mention and what Jeremy generously points out in his detailed examples is that the countdown clock, a Story mechanic from Apocalypse World is actually a analog Clock Diagram, (like the Doomsday clock of the 60’s Cold War) where the closer to Midnight a clock is, the closer to full victory a faction gets.

    The clock starts at Noon and each step (3, 6, 9, 10, 11 and 12) are a significant progress in the faction’s agenda. At Midnight, the faction won…

    It’s a great abstraction tool that can save plages and pages of “if PCs do this, then do that”

    Also… it’s nothing new… many GMs have used tools like that for a long time… just not as formal 🙂

  18. You may want to see the Dungeon World project that’s in development now:

  19. Wow… I hadn’t been behind the screen on a D&D 4e game yet. I had no idea it was quite that crotchety to design encounters. Last time I did something quite that hairy sounding I was designing an encounter for a computer to run and all it had going for it was a bunch of pseudo-random numbers and a clock. Pretty sure most DMs bring a LOT more to the table so I’m not sure why WotC settled on something quite that mathy. Sounds way too “Elf shot the food!” to me.

    I had an idea and I’m not sure how well it would work. Originally I was thinking of it as a sort of acid test for your new design idea but I’m not sure how it would work with the system elements. All I can really do is the story bits. Think you could apply your logic to this story and give rewards that don’t feel too arbitrary?

    Anyway, here’s the example scenario. Someone in power doesn’t like you and the deal is to overcome the things their influence can do to you. Specifically here we’ll go with a border baron. He doesn’t like the family or group ties one of the PCs has and the rest are guilty of annoying him by association. We can divide his power base into three basic groups.

    His “Personal Retainers” who work directly for and with him. They go down if he does so they have a vested interest in keeping his affairs in order.
    An “Old Money” faction who like him because he’s old money and they all like keeping themselves rich and unaccountable for anything they do.
    A “Loyalist” faction who obey and protect him because he’s a lawfully appointed lord of the kingdom.

    Some groups would be in opposition to him as well.

    The “Wild People” from across the border definitely don’t like him. He’s too strong for their tastes, they’d prefer to weaken the wall keeping them out by removing him.
    What we’d call today a “Civil Rights” group. Basically they’re in direct opposition to the Old Money group because they raise the banner of the poor people who can’t afford to go against those people.
    The “Thieves Guild” doesn’t like the baron because he’s the local symbol of authority.

    I’m figuring the adventure would allow the PCs to prove themselves in battle with the Wild People faction. it isn’t necessarily the best way and certainly isn’t the easiest but if they want to slog through, they can. Basically the PCs earn brownie points with the Loyalist faction until the baron has to appear pleasant and happy to see them in public. Other possible resolutions include anything from working with the Wild People to assassinate the guy, helping the Thieves Guild clear out his coffers enough to give him something else to consider, rabble rousing with the Civil Rights guys, or in effect distancing themselves from whatever the baron doesn’t like about the party by proving themselves too useful to the Old Money faction to be considered anything less than a favorite tool.

    P.S. Faction chat got me thinking of the old D&D 2e Spelljammer stuff. Did anyone else watch the”Stargate Universe” tv show and think “Oh cool, a bunch of random story arcs if I ever run Spelljammer again”? 🙂

  20. Another narratively cool idea, while still playing within the 4E paradigms is to make each of the factions agendas into specific, XP-producing Quests. In the OP Example, there are minimum 4 hooks to get the PCs into the adventure, because there are 4 different opposition groups each with their own methodologies and habits that can bring PCs into the action. If you’ve got solid grounding of NPCs in your game, you can even have the PCs brought into the conflict indirectly by giving them the “hook” for one Quest first and designing modular encounters for each faction and interspersing them amongst each other.

    Basically, the PCs get the hook for the Orcs leading them to the area in which the dungeon is located, but encounter the agents of the Mad Wizard first, in such a way that they don’t realize the Wizard is unrelated to what they’re already searching for until they discover that the MW has a plot of his own. THEN they run into the kobolds, etc etc… all the while still with the first quest of the Orcs ticking away towards midnight. Adds levels of tension.

    In essence what I’m saying is that I think you are cheating yourself if you design the factions to be encountered and dealt with all in one sitting. It’s mechanically easier to do this, and less work on the GM’s part, but the complexity and tension you can bring by giving each group their own separate Countdown Clock isn’t something to pass up.

    Also, the idea of an inanimate object or location having its own “agenda”–even if that is just “fall down after X happens”– is PRICELESS. Totally yoinking that and applying it to my game right now.

  21. I’ve had more time to think about Robert Schwalb’s posts, and I have to say that I’m not convinced.

    First off, have any of you tried building an encounter that is hugely under budgeted? No really, have you?

    I recently ran module B3 using Castles and Crusades rules. It seems to me that older dungeons had more exploration of rooms, clue finding, and really quite a few encounters which were not challenging at all… Save versus death.. or quick fights. The players would gradually get worn down, then take a break. This is old school.

    This all translates verbatim into 4e. More empty rooms with nothing but adventure clues… and exploration… A few really easy fights… EL-1 or EL-2 if you must, or even less. Save Versus Death? How about 4 minion snakes squeezing out and attacking the players? 5 ongoing poison damage translates to lost healing surges.

    The slight translation to 4e that needs to be considered is that a clever DM will design the minor encounters to suck out specific Daily powers from the party, and dish out enough damage to leave the players in a more challenged state, for a big fight.

    War Of The Burning Sky features tons of under budgeted encounters and has lots of exploration without altering the 4e rules.

    I think that what’s really missing in a lot of adventures is a good story line, and I think that there is no doubt that the encounter system used by 4e leads to laziness.

  22. Chatty sez…

    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…

    This confuses me. If one of the problems with 4e is that the designers expect encounters to be ‘properly balanced’ for fighting, why not start players off with the expectation that encounters…just…won’t be balanced? The XP budget and expected damage systems are guidelines for the creation of dangerous but winnable combat encounters – but so what? There’s nothing stopping a level 4 party from meeting a group of level 15 monsters. The numbers don’t particularly matter unless you (for whatever reason) need them to. It’s a gorgeous design but you can always chuck the parts of it you don’t like. The countdown clocks are a good idea, but do we really need another ‘encourage roleplaying and character development’ algorithm?

    (Does XP-budget-abandonment break the leveling-up schedule? Fine, improvise it or chuck it. If your players are having a good time roleplaying level 2 they won’t care so much about getting to level 3; they’ll only obsess about XP acquisition if (1) they’re boring (2) the campaign is boring (3) everyone’s scared to try something else.) Yan has it, on that score.

    Meanwhile, Schwalb is right that 8×8 rooms with one monster per player suck. That’s true in every edition of D&D. 8×8 rooms full of unmotivated monsters suck because when you die of your inevitable Cheetos/Mountain Dew heart attack and have to explain to St Peter how you spent your leisure time, he’s gonna say ‘Seriously? Why didn’t you just play Dying Earth or Over the Edge?’ And you’re gonna have to explain how important was D&D as such, and St Peter just doesn’t give a damn.

  23. Neo-Gygaxian! I love it! I can’t wait to tell people that I am a “Neo-Gygaxian Dungeon Master.”

    But in all seriousness, I have just written my first “real” 4e adventure and boy, was it a pain to mold and shape it to the story line I was creating. I basically ended up doing what you and Mr. Schwalb have suggested. But, as usual, you have articulated perfectly what is needed to enhance the 4e game. Thanks for the post!

  24. I’ve been edging towards the same realizations in my 4e game. Too often it seems like I’m building a little warband and putting it into a room to wait for the players – too many stand-up fights. However, the system as presented really makes it easy to create and use that kind of encounter. My current dungeon has experimented with using “sectors”, much as the Schwalb article suggests, although I hadn’t gotten to the point of “over-budgeting” each sector, and then letting the creatures run as independent groups. I’m thinking about that now, though, and it makes a lot of sense – then I read Chatty’s piece on Fronts in D&D and that goes even further. Man, I wish I had read these 9 months ago, when I was first starting this campaign. At least I can use them in this – the final dungeon – and send the campaign off on a high note.

  25. @Tim: I’m watching it with a lot of interest. Anything that Tony Dowler touches has my instant interest. He’s a great guy and I love what he and fellow like-minded people do for the hobby.

    @Lanir: I’m sorry I can’t afford the time to deconstruct your example, but the Front concept was implemented first in a Post-Apocalyptic game where the PCs are the main badasses surrounded by hostile forces that tend to aggregate in commonly-themed threats because it makes for more fun games.

    In your example I see Front as being arranged around the Baron. But, in all franksess, as a GM, I’m not overly excited about a bad guy’s who’s main agenda is “I don’t like that PC’s ties to family X” Now I’d make the Front into : Clear out absolutely all opposition to the Baron’s tyranny. And the PCs are the ONLY badasses that can conceivably threaten his agenda (either through brute force or social engineering)

    So the Baron would be a threat: A Warlord.

    The Old Money faction would be a “Mob” or Sybarites, going around and burning through the regeion’s ressources for personal gain.

    ThePersonnal Retainers would be a “Mob” a group whose motivation is to take away by force whatever the Baron wants…

    And so on…

    I’d make the Wild People part of what Apocalypse World calls the “Home Front” which I didn’t touch in the article. They would be neutral, neither threat nor ally to the party but could become either (and switch sides).

    The key thing is to make each faction be made of actual, named NPCs with direct, simple motivations… and the model can make for an awesome “Frountiertown” political campaign that’s a crossover of Far West and Regional Roman Empire themes.

  26. @Jason: You totally got the gist of what I was going for. Of course… as a few people mentioned. Players would be aware of the XP paradigm and, as you see, when properly implemented, each hook/quest would be tied with properly defined (if by just a sentence) NPCs.

    @UHF: Were I to do this… I’d probably just have an empty Dungeon map with old school indications on my map key like: Room 2-10 Orc camp and zone of influence. 11-14: DMZ between Orcs and Kobold, wandering Otyugh, 15-17: Kobold temple and side exit. And so on.

    If combat is to ensue, I’d build encounters pretty much on the fly and adjust for the appropriate challenge I want the PCs to face (Within the local Budget I gave myself). And that would likely mean monsters running around and alerting nearby areas to create some old school “Monsters are zeroing on us” terror.

    The use of sections, fronts and quest/localized XP pools is an extra layer to create story potential with a LOT less work for the DM. I’ve had a front sheet in my hand last week. One that took me 30 minutes to prep for. And I ran a 2 hour adventure (I could have run it for 2 more) without breaking a sweat about thinking up what would come next.

    So the Dungeon and the encounters remain the game pieces that 4e (and 3e) has always been. The Fronts and section ideas can bring the stories and Role Playing from between encounters right back in the encounters themselves.

    @Wax: Ah man, I missed your brand of incisiveness.

    (blockquote)The XP budget and expected damage systems are guidelines for the creation of dangerous but winnable combat encounters – but so what? There’s nothing stopping a level 4 party from meeting a group of level 15 monsters.(/blockquote)

    The problem is exactly that time harried DM and freelancers… lured into the ease of prepping for 4e, don’t naturally break out of those guidelines established 2 years ago. So the default goes back to the boring 8X8 approach and the DM invokes “First Idea” syndrome to rationalize that it won’t be as bad as that when played at the table.

    I’m with you 100% that the Invaders vs Guardian scenarios is more clichéd than the tavern scene and I’d challenge designers to create a published adventure with absolutely none of those… Or I should challenge myself… but I’m not in the designing mood right now.

  27. Sorry, my example got away from me a bit. 🙂

    Mainly I was kind of trying to test how well the idea worked for a more social scenario. That’s always been one of the big weaknesses of D&D… Everything points you towards waving a sword or throwing around fireballs and lightning bolts as the best solution to any problem. I think halfway through I got off track because I was realizing an XP bonus for defeating a faction (doing anything that resulted in them not working against you, with an extra bonus if they end up working -for- you) would pretty much handle that if the XP awards scaled well. Which they should, in general. Might be odd to “defeat” someone like the baron in my example (a purely political opponent you’re unlikely to ever see on a battlemap) but you could always rate his XP bonus by the thugs he can/has sent after the group.

    So, end result: I’m seeing how the idea would work well even for non-dungeon stuff. Which is a solid jump forward.

  28. @Lanir: One rule I invite DMs to break Shamelessly is to take a Major Quest and make it worth 80% of all the XPs of the 10 encounters needed to level up for a party. Hence, performing the quest, regardless how, is how the PCs get to their true “reward”: leveling up. And if that makes for the game advancing too rapidly… well make sure the quests are longer to achieve.

  29. I’m getting more and more convinced that D&D 4e is built entirely around combat & XP.

    I’ve been trying to avoid that the few games that I’ve DMed so far, but (my DMing skills nothwithstanding), so far the best games we played in D&D 4e are the ones that daisy-chained combats.

    I used to advocate that its players creativity that had to fill in the blanks… but the powers are combat, the rewards are combat… and the rules are combat… If you strictly follow the book (I’m trying it this way instead of beginning with bending the rules first, this time around), the game pretty much runs itself, DM only enforcing the rules and giving proper narration.

    I’m not finding it it what I’ve seen in the other few games I’ve had the change to play or glance at, and so far, it seems I’m mostly wanting to graft concepts from other games onto my D&D 4e games.

    Odd thoughts for me, as far as I’m concerned, this afternoon.


  1. […] that I was going to discuss my problems with the 4E encounter building process.  To my surprise, The Chatty DM has already discussed this and quoted Robert Schwalb’s blog in the process.  Truly the stars […]

  2. […] There’s been a lot of chatter in the online D&D community about dungeons.  Some present the argument that dungeons are a very important part of the game, while others make the argument […]

  3. […] illuminate a number of issues surrounding dungeon design, including the ways it’s empowering, dynamic, and prohibitive all at once. Those of us who aren’t fond of dungeons come away with a […]

  4. […] Re-examining the Dungeon: Section, Faction, and Fronts: Chatty DM weighs in the discussion and suggests we borrow from Apocalypse World to improve our dungeon ecologies. […]

  5. […] followup from him here, an outside comment from SRM here, and an outside comment from the Chatty DM here. I feel incredibly presumptuous adding my two cents here, since Robert Schwalb, SRM, etc., have […]

  6. […] Re-examining the Dungeon: Section, Factions and Fronts, via Critical Hits. The Chatty DM posts in agreement with Robert J. Schwalb’s deconstruction of the tactical encounter format, and suggests a solution inspired by old Gygax-style dungeon modules. […]

  7. […] all said and done, the element of Apocalypse World I prefer is the Front structure which I discussed here.  It’s an awesome framework to build adventures and campaign on without resorting to […]

  8. […] Re-examining the Dungeon: Section, Factions and Fronts ( […]

  9. […] example, in a recent article, I suggested dungeon environments where competing NPC factions had differing agendas playing […]

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