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.