This weekend I finished an adventure I was designing for my upcoming Dark Sun campaign. Aside from my usual difficulties with generating compelling adventure hooks, I struggled with dungeon design and encounter building. Last night, after a full 12 hour day of writing, re-writing and a 6-pack of beer, I completed the basics. This is not the first time I’ve struggled with 4E encounter building. As such, I decided 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 must be in alignment today. Perhaps The Chatty DM and Mr. Schwalb have stumbled upon a higher order concerning the aesthetics of DMing? I think so.
So, what is the problem? As others have pointed out, it is the carbon copy template of encounter building that is the problem. The template looks something like this: You have an 8 x 8 room with a warband that is going to fight another warband, the PCs. This suggests (in fact encourages) a “fight-loot-fight-rest” structure to an adventure. The PCs enter the dungeon and move from one room to the next, killing, expending resources, resting and then move on to the next room. I describe this as the World of Warcraft design. Now, to be fair this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For the new player who is familiar with World of Warcraft, it is an easy transition to D&D. And, subsequently, Wizards of the Coast’s income stream increases so we old-timers can continue playing with new content.
But the problem with the World of Warcraft designing philosophy is that it is so damned hard to write an adventure the way I used to write adventures back in the day. Role-playing gets downplayed, or as Mr. Schwalb as suggested “occurs between encounters”. Compounding this issue is that I am forced to make many alterations to the creatures I am using to make sure that all of the creatures in the encounter fit my adventure theme. Otherwise, if I pick any creature to fill out the missing “warband role”, the encounter seems like a hodgepodge of creatures generated by a random die roll. That’s no fun for the role-player because it makes no sense.
I have always designed my adventures and dungeons using the Gary Gygax dungeon ecology model. This model focuses on the ecology of the dungeon and how the different creature factions within the dungeon balance the power between themselves. This opens the door to a whole host of role-playing options within the dungeon for the players to choose. This approach facilitates story generation and advancement of the campaign. The Chatty DM does a wonderful job using the pre-existing 4E rules structure to compliment the ecological approach that The Chatty DM is calling “Neo-Gygaxian.” (I love this label, by the way.)
The Neo-Gygaxian model, to sum it up, is basically dividing the dungeon into a number of sections with a number of rooms. You then pool the experience points for each room/encounter in a section and divide that total in any way you wish. If the section of the dungeon is part of a quest, leave some of the pool left over for quest rewards. You then do it again for the next section. You should read these blogs yourself. They are fantastic guides to dungeon creation.
So…after hours and hours of trying to make a dungeon/adventure for my future gaming group, I ended up doing something very similar described by Mr. Schwalb and The Chatty DM. I am happy with the outcome. I can’t reveal any specifics because my players read this blog, but future adventures and dungeons should be easier (and quicker) to build with this Neo-Gygaxian model.
DM’s Discretion has always been my favorite rule. It was the source of all power in the multiverse and it was taken from the Dungeon Master in the 3rd Edition, but after many battles with the rules lawyers, 4th Edition has returned control back to the Dungeon Master, albeit in a somewhat reversed, behind the scenes sort of way. When DM’s discretion was exercised prior to 4E, it was exercised to settle in-game disputes. Now, the discretion occurs prior to the game. In effect, the Dungeon Master becomes a rules legislator. A general survey as to how the rules of the game have changed can explain what I mean.
During the good old days of 2nd Edition the simplified rule set was focused primarily on combat. The Dungeon Master’s task was to use what was available to make determinations for player actions not covered by the rules. How many remember this tired old phrase from their Dungeon Master: “Hmm…ok, make a Dex check.” This, of course, could infuriate the rules lawyers in the group who, being the good lawyers that they were (and I am serious about that) would point out the inconsistencies between the call for “dexterity checks” and advocate for a strength check or for some kind of bonus to an ordinary attack roll. And we all remember how those discussions went: the Dungeon Master would have to assert his authority or the rules lawyer would take control of the game.
Now, that is not to say that such use of discretion was a bad thing, but clearly, gamers wanted something more concrete and less arbitrary. They wanted a rule that they can rely upon when thinking about how to kill the ogre charging down the corridor, or unlocking the trapped chest full of goodies. Enter Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 and 3.5.
These games fully democratized the game and turned the Dungeon Master into just another player, or a merely a referee of a game. The d20 system simplified the general formula for determining success and failures with the game (which was genius), and with that, there was no room for the Dungeon Master’s discretion without sounding completely arbitrary. With the multi-class and feat system a player could design his or her character in any way that he or she saw fit. Aside from some general campaign prohibitions, the Dungeon Master was powerless to stop the PCs from doing just about anything. If the Dungeon Master attempted to alter a rule, a competent and well-read rules lawyer could make a very compelling argument as to why the rule should remain the same. Any work a Dungeon Master wanted to put into an adventure or villain had to be supported by a concrete rule to justify the action. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing, but it does create a lot of work for the Dungeon Master. I once spent 8 hours researching the Dungeon Master’s Guide, The Player’s Handbook, both Forgotten Realms books and the Book of Vile Darkness to create a red wizard of Thay that could, in the very first round of combat, cast a twin-quickened-maximized fireball (free action) followed by a maximized meteor swarm (Standard action). Another villain I made could kill a PC instantly with a critical hit if the PC failed a fortitude saving throw vs. 38. He had a critical range of 15+ and with his chaotic evil vicious two-handed sword he could inflict 10d6 + 25 damage on a critical hit against my lawful good player characters (and there were a lot of them in the party). Both villains were totally legit. Unfortunately, I never saw these villains in action…but I was ready for any complaints!
Of course, the 3rd Edition of the game brought a whole host of rules. Some players, Dungeon Masters included, found this to be too unwieldy and the game became more about rules and less about story-telling, a valid criticism to be sure.
Fourth Edition of course has provided a streamlined version of the game. (I am not exactly sure if you can say it is all THAT streamlined…) But, the game has certainly changed: it has simplified combat (sort of) and simplified the role that skills play in the game (sort of). This is, of course, from the player’s perspective (read: “Rules Lawyer’s perspective”), makes it easy for rule adjudication, character design and developing combat strategies. From the Dungeon Master’s perspective, the Dungeon Master has been given chapter after chapter of rules that are really just “the rules about the rules”. These “rules about the rules” provide the Dungeon Master with limitless possibilities to mold and shape anything and everything in the game. From skill challenges to monsters, the Dungeon Master can do just about anything and it is entirely legit. The Dungeon Master, when countered by a rules lawyer hell-bent on challenging something (usually anything) the Dungeon Master has in mind, can point to chapter 10 of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and explain why the goblin that just killed the PC is a 6th level ranger with fire powers.
This is what I like most about 4th Edition. The rules provided in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are the nuts and bolts to the very game itself. The rules provided in the DMGs are at the heart of the gaming reality to be molded by the Dungeon Master. Dungeon Master’s Guide One and Two are truly tomes of magic and wisdom that equip the Dungeon Master with the necessary tools to legislate effectively and, as Gary Gygax once stated, “to give shape and meaning to the cosmos.” The game designers at Wizards have produced a set of rules that places the Dungeon Master back where they belong, at the head of the gaming table.
Many, I’m sure, were as eager as I to purchase the 4th Edition Dark Sun Campaign Setting when it was announced over a year ago. I was so desperate to read and dive head first into the Silt Sea and start wrestling with Silt Horrors that I pre-ordered the book. When the great tome arrived on my doorstep the first thing I noticed was how thin the book appeared. Sadly, I would discover that the book’s thickness reflected the effort put into the remake of one of D&D’s more legendary campaign worlds.
First, let me explain why I was so eager to read the 4th edition version of Dark Sun. The world, in a nutshell, is different from any fantasy gaming world out there. Sure, there are now post-apocalyptic games available, but at the time Dark Sun was first released back in 1991, D&D players had little to choose from. Indeed, the campaign source books available were very similar in scope, history, culture, and plot. Since its release, no other campaign world by TSR/Wizards has compared to the distinctness of Dark Sun. What made Dark Sun so memorable?
Obviously, the research and writing that went into creating Dark Sun was stellar and the results of such work unique. The setting focuses on ecological disaster in a world reminiscent of Sumeria or Babylonia. The gods of this post-apocalyptic world are either dead or they have abandoned the population to the arbitrary whims of the Sorcerer-Kings. Civilization hangs on by a thread as the people starve under the yoke of their cruel masters. The writers, Troy Denning and Timothy Brown, went to great lengths to rewrite standard D&D races to reflect how such poverty, resource depletion and godlessness would affect their cultures. Who doesn’t remember the first time they tried to shake hands with the not-so-jolly halfling cannibals of the Forest Belt? Or tried to negotiate with an elven dune trader in Baalic? Not this guy!
But what really made the world of Athas unique and come to life was that the 2nd edition rules changed to fit the world. The world was no longer a backdrop for a dice game, but the world affected the mechanics of the game itself, which added a level of reality to the role-playing experience. For example, to reflect a defiler’s abuse of the land and give a player an incentive to be evil, the defiler class gained levels faster than their preserving counterparts. Psionics were commonplace and operated with a wholly different system than magic. As metal was scarce, weapon attack and damage penalties were added to reflect the materials the weapons were made from, thereby making combat more brutal and desperate. Armor was so hot that a player would have to wear “piece mail” as opposed to the whole suit, which would affect the character’s armor class, thereby adding to the brutality of combat. And finally, my favorite rule of all was that a player’s character could turn evil if the party ran out of water by failing a saving throw versus death. Dark Sun was a beautiful amalgamation of rules and story-telling that I have not seen duplicated. The effect of this brilliant game designing was a unique experience that forced the player’s, even those that don’t like to role-play, to role-play. The 4th edition setting does not do this, or at least, not very well.
So what happened? The authors Richard Baker, Robert Schwab and Rodney Thompson, provided aesthetic descriptions with few rules modifications, most of which are optional. The net result is a watered down version of Dark Sun that does not reflect the desperation and survivalist themes incorporate in the original. All in all, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting feels like 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons in a desert and not the burning sands of Athas.
To be fair, the campaign sourcebook provides some optional rules to make things “tough” on the players as they trek through the wilderness. For example, they incorporated “Sun Sickness” and a -5 additional armor check penalty for sun sickness or endurance checks if a character is wearing heavy armor. But, heavy armor is still available!? Why!? The authors provide a flimsy reason: it is made from chitin with holes drilled into it to cool off the wearer. WHAT!? Furthermore, all weapons are presumed to be made from bone, obsidian or stone, so there are no penalties added to your attack and damage. It seems as though the authors were afraid of upsetting potential players by taking away their favorite toys. But taking away the player’s toys is exactly why 2 Edition Dark Sun was so memorable.
Another disappointing aspect of the book is that it does not address the non-standard races that appear in Player’s Handbooks 2 and 3. The authors give each a mere 2-3 sentence paragraph and expect you, the Game Master to do all the work. The authors gave the standard classes the same short shrift as the races. Now, I don’t mind working for my game, but I do not purchase a campaign setting so that I can do a bunch of extra work to make the campaign setting that I had just purchased.
The problems with the 4E Dark Sun campaign setting are a reflection of the problems with 4E in general. The game has sacrificed realism for ease of game play. There are ways of manipulating the 4E rules to tailor your game and match your gaming style, but here the authors did not go far enough. Indeed they seemed timid and their product weak. The authors could have done so much more to make the Dark Sun 4E stand apart from a Forgotten Realms campaign or an Eberron campaign. If you are an old-timer like me, then you probably have one of the Dark Sun box sets. If so, use it as supplemental material. I used them as resources to develop my own rules to make the world of Dark Sun more like the way I remember it: beautiful and brutal.