Do As I Say, Not As I Did

In a previous column concerning designing and redesigning, I promised that I would examine adventures and encounters where I created something less than perfect, and then describe how I would redesign them to make them better. Let the self-flagellation begin!

Sometimes Making Players Cry is Not the Design Goal

The first work I want to look at is one that became infamous in WotC’s Living Forgotten Realms campaign. One of my first columns for this fine gaming site talked about a player who said that I should throw myself under a bus. Well, this is the adventure that prompted those kind words.

While I do not want to defend myself or give justification for my design, I must provide a little background.  The adventure in question is called “Zhent’s Ancient Shadows,” and it was co-written by Sean Molley and me for characters levels 7-10.  Let it be known now, in no uncertain terms, that Sean Molley is a great adventure designer and an even better person. Everything wrong with this adventure was my doing: the encounters that he wrote were well-loved and much-lauded. Mine, not so much.

The adventure was designed a few months after the start of the campaign, and the general tenor of the players at the time was that the combat encounters in the campaign were far too easy. I am not one who wants to kill the characters—either as a designer or as a DM. However, this was a Special adventure in the campaign, which means that it is generally a little tougher than other adventure. However, I admit that I might have tried to do brain surgery with a sledgehammer in managing the encounter difficulty.

Spoiler Alert!

Since this adventure is, at least for the present time, still available for play in the Living Forgotten Realms campaign, what follows are definitely spoilers. However, if you are planning to DM this adventure, feel free to use this discussion as a means to modify the adventure if you think these changes would be more enjoyable to your players.

The adventure takes place in the section of Zhentil Keep that was overrun by undead after the Spellplague. That meant my encounters needed to reflect the state of the setting. At the time the adventure was designed, there were not an abundance of monsters to choose from, as there is now. My first encounter in the adventure was comprised of one banshee (level 10 controller) and 6 wraiths (level 5 skirmishers). I realized that wraiths, as designed initially in the first 4e Monster Manual, are badly designed because of the combination of their regeneration and insubstantial traits, in conjunction with their weakening at-will attack. However, I thought that using a monster which was at least 2 levels or more lower than the PCs would make it a reasonable challenge.  We even added a paragraph suggesting the DM reduce the hit points of the wraiths if the characters were having trouble. Even when groups did not have trouble with the encounter—and many did—the encounter went on for far too long.

One other issue that I did not foresee was the lack of radiant damage that characters were doing. When I was designing my encounters, most parties had a either a paladin or a cleric, because few other options were available. However, between the time of the adventure design and release, the new hotness in character rules was released, and it focused on martial characters. So the players flocked to the new stuff, removing a lot of the potential radiant damage as players turned their backs on clerics and paladins for warlords and fighters and the new options released for them.

My Fix!

If I were redesigning this encounter but using the same monsters, I would definitely alter the environment to let the PCs use it to their advantage. The two main issues are the regeneration and the insubstantial/weakening synergy, so the PCs must be given ways to remove or minimize those effects. Removing one of the wraiths and adding a complexity 1 skill challenge, which if completed successfully would give the characters a way to make some of their attacks radiant. In addition, add a couple of consecrated areas on the map, which if the wraiths can be moved into, removes their insubstantial trait while they stay there. This does not neuter the encounter completely, but it adds some interesting twists and allows the characters to use special powers to give themselves a distinct advantage.

Elite Soldiers are Bad News

The next encounter consisted of a bunch of level 10 minions and a level 11 war troll with the vampire lord template. This means that we are looking at level 7 and 8 characters trying to hit an armor class of 29, which is certainly doable but still very rough. This encounter had all of the normal problems that have been learned since 4e was released: early minions were neither interesting nor hardy enough, even when spaced throughout the encounter map or sent in waves, an elite with a bunch of minions turns into a fight against one creature quickly, etc.

I have to admit that I love templates.  I love them so much that if I lived in California, I might marry them. If you create a good monster, you have one additional good monster.  If you create a good template, you have a large number of additional good monsters. However, creating good templates that are balanced and usable with many types of creatures is tough. Additionally, using a template means that you are forced to use an elite (or solo) in your encounter, whether you want to or not. The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 provides the option to create custom creatures with monster themes. These themes are a sort of “templates lite” way to make monsters fresh.

If I were to redesign this encounter, I would change the war troll vampire lord to have the same flavor, but use different powers. It might be possible to create a non-elite version of the creature using monster themes, or I would attempt to redesign the monster entirely. (One of the drawbacks of Living Forgotten Realms at that time was we were discouraged from creating our own monsters, instead using templates to get the creature we wanted.) Making a non-elite version of the vampire troll would free up the experience points to use standard creatures as support instead of minions.

The major problem with the war troll vampire, apart from the too-high defenses, is that its most interesting attack (blood drain) requires combat advantage. Without other creatures to provide flanking or use conditions from attacks, that attack isn’t probable. Even if the monster’s helpers simply have an at-will attack that knocks targets prone, that allows the troll vampire to get that interesting attack more than just once or twice in the encounter. Additionally, since the creature would not be elite, it helps avoid to “4e encounters go on too long” problem: the PCs would be more at risk from the dangerous attacks, but they would be able to take down the monsters more quickly.

I Did a Bad, Bad Thing

There are times when you make a mistake, and everything seem to go into slow motion while the mistake plays out: running your car into a signpost, dropping grape juice onto your new carpet, watching reality TV. This next combat encounter is like that for me, only I have been seeing it in slow motion for a couple of years now.

This was the final encounter of the first half of this adventure, right before the characters are likely to take an extended rest before moving on to the second half of the adventure. I wanted to make it challenging and special. I think I did, although these might be different definitions of both “challenging” and “special.” The book Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead had just been released, so I wanted to make good use of it.  In it were a variety of undead dragons, which I thought would make a great and interesting encounter. The two main foes were a bonespitter (level 12 artillery) and winged putrescence (level 10 elite brute). Just those two creatures would have been a challenging encounter. But I had some experience points from my design budget left to use, so I decided to throw in a couple of lesser creatures: wyrm-wisps. I thought they sounded like cool monsters, very apt for the story I was trying to tell. Unfortunately, wyrm-wisps are basically just dragon-wraiths, with all the accoutrements: insubstantial, regeneration, and a weakening at-will attack. Not only that, but the wisps have an encounter power that lets them shift 6 squares, phasing through enemy squares as they go. Any character whose squares is passed through during the shift is weakened until the end of the wisps’ next turn.

Needless to say, for those parties that had trouble with the first encounter with the wraiths, this encounter was just rubbing a whole shaker full of salt in their wounds, eyes, and other orifices. I heard stories of parties not even bloodying any of the wisps before either running away or suffering a total party kill. Even those parties that were able to survive the encounter reported to me that the encounter took two hours or more to complete.

I’d like to think that there would be some easy fix for this encounter to prove that it wasn’t terrible. Two words: my bad. There isn’t much I can say other than that. I thought adding the wisps would be a good intelligence test for the characters, where if they dealt with the lesser threats first rather than going with the instinct to take on the huge challenges first, they would be fine. I thought that maybe turning the wisps into minions, and having them come out one at time would let the characters deal with them quickly, having the characters coordinate with each other to make sure that someone dealt with the wisps while everyone else dealt with the major threats. Unfortunately, the wisps on their own were just too tough, the bigger creatures were very tough as well, and not even changing the environment and giving the characters some terrain advantages is going to help.

If you find yourself DMing this encounter, I strongly suggest gutting it completely and designing your own encounter.  Even if you use the bonespitter and winged putrescence, remove the wyrm-wisps.  If anything, add a skill challenge instead of the wisps that allows the characters to turn a terrain penalty into a terrain advantage. This would make the encounter harder at the beginning (especially when the characters tend to go nova with their dailies and action points all at once) and then easier at the end (so the encounter does not go on for too long).

As our collective experiences with 4e D&D expand and mature, we are able to see better where the problems areas are, where the strength of the game lies, and how to avoid putting every conceivable bad design idea into the same encounter.

Not that anyone would ever do that!  Ahem.


  1. Standard MM wraiths are seriously horrible.

    I remember one campaign we had very early on in the edition. The GM was a big fan of undead, so he prepared an adventure in a creepy graveyard. The first encounter was a huge horde of doofy wraiths. “Wraiths, haha,” we all thought, having schooled wraiths of all kinds in the campaign before this one, with our favorite overpowered D&D 3.5 builds. We had no idea about the 4e wraith.

    Suffice it to say the GM had to plan a different adventure, and the town would have to find some other way to deal with its undead problem. We suggested taking all the lamp oil in the shops and burning the graveyard, salting the earth, and then burning the earth too. Then maybe dynamiting it.

  2. Kensan_Oni says:

    I remember finding Wyrm-Wraiths and went, “I gotta use this!”, and that was before I realized the wraith issues…. and then I ran two of them up against a 1st level party…

    Needless to say, that the battle lasted a lot longer then it should have, and I later went back to the WOTC boards and said “Umm, guys, you realize that these monsters effectively have Solo Hit Points, right?”. Never got a word officially back on that.

    Still waiting for clarification and errata on the Fairie Dragons, as well…

  3. John du Bois says:

    All I know is, my parties spent the next few months being *very* careful around trolls and vampires, since they weren’t sure which half was the cheese half ;)

  4. First off, kudos to Shawn for realizing and admitting his “mistakes”. I put it in quotes in part because a lot of the mistakes originated with the design of 4th Ed itself and that Shawn was just using what he was given. But yeah, wraiths are just . . . bad. Umbraforge resulted in a near tpk (3 of 5 went down) for my due to a) no radiant and b) the constant dazed effect from the Mad Wraith.

  5. Imaginaryfriend says:

    While I agree with your assessment of the encounters (and would adjust them more as a DM these days :) ) I still remember that adventure and the fights in question fondly. In the context of LFR that adventure and those encounters showed that fights could have some serious bite to them. Something that I feel at that point in time was useful.

    The rest is all just live and learn.

    P.S. Honestly i think some of the later encounters were possibly meaner than these 3 especially considering the popularity of martial builds at that time……although the wisps.. those are pretty evil.. :)

  6. My favorite part about that first encounter is actually the two free level 8 hazards you threw in… to which the monsters are immune. It is fun to laugh about it all now. :-)

    In truth, though, this should not discourage anyone from writing for organized play. In my experience the better authors try out new things and pursue concepts that can be tough to execute. Sometimes encounters will fail, especially in a swingy 4E game. For playtesters, it becomes really important for them to check things carefully and to fully address issues plainly. In my playtest of EAST1-4, I really wasn’t clear enough about how the last fight went. I used tentative language when I should have really raised flags. I feel bad about that, because most tables have had the experience we had, and we perhaps could have helped avoid that if we had been really clear.

    But, stuff happens. This article is a good reminder that we should focus less on the failure and more on what to do the next time. As my favorite basketball coach says, it is all about the “next play” and not about living in the past. At the same time, we should not forget what has come. We use it to get better and to move forward.

  7. To me, one factor can really screw up a playtest, and that is dice luck. When you get to the end, and look at a party in shambles, barely scraping through an encounter that should have been a moderate to easy, and have to start thinking, “Was it their bad dice luck, or was I just too hot on my own rolls, or is this encounter busted?”, it can be somewhat frustrating. The other side of the coin is true too – watching a party decimate an “end boss” encounter with some killer dice luck, while you’re rolling single digits and pitching dice around the room in anger, hoping the next d20 you roll will have learned from the previous die’s mistakes.

    But the reality is that those types of scenes will happen during an LFR session at a convention, no matter how good an encounter is written and playtested – because dice luck… happens.

  8. @Neuroglyph: Good point. I think that this is one of the biggest problems with playtesting in general. To really get a good feel for an adventure, it probably needs to be run dozens of times in a playtest format in order to account for a) luck of the dice and b) assorted party make-ups. I also think that one problem with playtesting can be who does the author have doing their playtest? I know that if I were to try to playtest an adventure, it would no doubt be with one of two groups of players. The problem here is that I know both groups pretty well, and can pretty well anticipate what they will do in a given situation. So, naturally, when designing an encounter or adventure, I take that into account. The problem of course is that every group is different. One group might completely ignore the bookshelves that can be knocked over to create difficult terrain and damage, etc. while the next will look for every opportunity to wreak havoc on your battlefield.

    This is one of the main things that has routinely made me hesitant to try to submit adventures for publication because I’m just not all that certain as to how easy or difficult or interesting they would be for the gaming community at large since my potential playtest group is a fairly small drop in the proverbial bucket.

  9. eudemonist says:

    Haha, that was a beast of a mod! I’m with Imaginaryfriend on this one–I too remember these fights fondly. The Double Dragon fight was especially tough. If I remember right, the floor had areas of lava or something scattered about that made it very difficult for us to engage the fliers effectively. Just pulling those might help.

    It really did take module design to a new level at the time, though.

  10. I played in this mod, and had a horrible time…and I also played in this mod and had a fine old time. The difference? Radiant damage, and time pressure. The first time I played this mod, I was at a convention, playing as a dark pact warlock. This is before the rod came out that let you change necrotic/poison damage to radiant. The first half of the mod was hell–I could do virtually nothing when my best attacks do necrotic damage, and the DM’s ruling of ‘Your Delicious Weakness doesn’t become Radiant just to negate regen.’ Ouch. Worse yet–we ran it as written, with a party with No Radiant ability at all. The mod in total took 12 hours–and that was making a snap judgement to skip the final combat.

    The second time I played it, on the other hand, was in a party with an Invoker, a Cleric, and a Paladin. We had some idea what we were in for. The mod was perfectly nice–even fun, handling it like that.

    It’s all a matter of what you bring to the battle, at times, that can change things for better or worse.

  11. I also appreciate the honesty and a look inside another DM’s head when designing encounters…

    I find it difficult to determine how “hard” an encounter will be … balancing making them challenging but not very likely to cause a TPK without just making them drag on because off too many enemy HP or too many high defenses is always tough…

    Some monsters, some abilities, and some combinations of those are always surprisingly better than you’d expect.. in fact, WOTC realized that not all level 4 magic items are the same (hence the magic item rarity) and I almost feel like there should be a similar list (lethality instead of rarity?) for monsters… as not all level 4 monsters are created equal either… of course, a lot has to do with the players… we all have played “tough” encounters where the first 2 rounds were dominated by crits or near crits and excellent damage rolls where the PCs easily handled what should have been a tough controller or elite and roll over the rest, and we’ve all played “easy” encounters where you end up using your dailys and all your healing because you can’t hit the broad side of a gravestone…

    Anywho, thanks for the insight! – Josh

  12. This is great stuff, Shawn. It’s information like this that helps us all become better DMs. Thanks!