September 1, 2010

I’ve Got Your Improv Right Here

Part 3 of 3

As has been said, I’m not crazy about the tactical encounter format that’s been the norm since the tail end of 3rd Edition D&D. Not because of any implicit shortcomings in its design or intent, but because that design and intent has had an inadvertent effect on how the D&D game is played.

Nobody, myself included, wants to simply lose the tactical encounter spread. However, in the aftermath of an email I’d received in response to my Dungeon adventure “Test of Fire,” I began to think about ways that the tactical encounter format could be put to better use in adventures. The challenge was to come up with a way that contemporary adventure design could accommodate both the specific effectiveness of the tactical encounter spread with the more free-form, improvisational style of play that I’d started out with. Then Chris Youngs dropped me a line to ask if I’d be interested in writing a Netheril-themed adventure for Dungeon. Being an inveterate lover of all things Faerûn, I jumped at the chance — and decided to try to put some of what i’d been thinking about into action.

Since the advent of the tactical encounter format, the ability to let the PCs go wherever they want and do whatever they feel like has been hamstrung to a certain degree. Using tactical encounters as the foundation and framework for an adventure necessarily creates an overall shape for that adventure — a shape that limits the options of DM and player alike in terms of how many different ways the adventure can be played. Among the most serious complaints that I see on the RPG boards and forums about the current paradigms of adventure design is the notion of the “straight-through” style of play. Open a door, have an encounter; open the next door, have an encounter; repeat. Certainly, it’s possible to create an encounter framework that incorporates a certain amount of randomness, so that the players can undertake encounters in any order. However, that really just boils down to having five or six doors to open, and if that’s the only choice the players have access, it’s not much of an advantage.

So in my original notes for the project, I hit upon the idea of treating tactical encounters not just as the static foundation points of the adventure, but as “junction points” — an event important not just for its inherent challenge, but notable because it spins the adventure off in a different direction. The opening tactical encounter of the adventure would introduce the heroes to one of the NPC factions fighting to find the location of an ancient and powerful ruin (the site of a dead portal that both groups are intent on reactivating). In the aftermath of that encounter, the PCs have to make a decision about whether to throw themselves behind faction A or faction B — or to stay neutral and try to play both sides to their own advantage. Each subsequent tactical encounter would play out differently based on the PCs’ initial decision, as well as on subsequent decisions made during the course of the adventure.

The challenge was to figure out how to do that and still keep the story self-contained. The solution was described in my initial pitch to Chris:

I’d like to use this shorter standalone adventure to do things in a somewhat nonlinear fashion (though the adventure maintains a clear throughline). The flow of the adventure is flexible depending on whether the PCs make the choice to ally with one of the two Netherese factions searching for the scroll fragments, or whether they stay at arm’s length from both factions (and thus incur the enmity of both to a lesser degree). That initial choice plays into the initial encounters, each of which generates choices that inflect the final encounters.

To accommodate this flexibility, I’d like to pitch you on a specific format that will separate out the encounter spreads a little bit. For Encounters 2 and 3, there’ll be a traditional spread detailing the area and the fixed challenge (in Encounter 2, traps and hazards; in Encounter 3, a pack of banderhobbs). However, the two factions will have their stat blocks and tactics on separate pages, with the idea being that the DM will append those faction pages to the encounters depending on who the PCs are actually fighting. Though this mix-and-match approach isn’t possible in a printed adventure, I think the Dungeon online format lends itself well to this kind of flexibility.

Some feedback from Chris fine-tuned the approach, which ultimately became the foundation for Dungeon 180’s “The Spiral Gate”. You need a D&D Insider subscription to download the whole adventure, but here’s a taste of the underlying intent as pitched to the DM:

Enemies and Allies

This adventure is different than many others, in that it allows the players to decide who the “bad guys” are. Each encounter has a specific threat that the PCs must square off against. However, that threat is faced within the context of the party having established some sort of relationship or alliance with the Sand Kings or the Shadovar.

In the world of the FORGOTTEN REALMS campaign setting, the power of the reborn Netheril is widely seen as a threat to the stability of Faerûn. As such, a typical approach to this sort of adventure would be for the PCs to join forces with the underdog Sand Kings to make a stand against the powerful Shadovar and their hunger for even more power. If your players want to take this default approach, that’s fine. However, the adventure doesn’t force that alliance on them.

Once the existence of the two factions and their goals have been established in the aftermath of Encounter M1, the characters are free to choose their own path—allying with the rebel Sand Kings, throwing their lot in with the powerful Shadovar, or even playing both sides against the other as they seek the scroll fragments and the power they promise for themselves. Moreover, the PCs can pretend allegiance to one group while secretly supporting the other, or can even attempt to change alliances mid-adventure if they want to.

Later sidebars like this one talk about how the context of an encounter changes depending on which side the PCs are on. Beyond that, however, “The Spiral Gate” relies heavily on you and your players’ ability to roleplay, and on you using your improvisation skills to adjust encounters and bring the complex interactions between the PCs and both factions to life.

Each tactical encounter then features a short sidebar breaking down the three different ways the encounter might play out, depending on the previous choices the PCs have made.

Enemies and Allies

If the PCs have chosen one faction to ally with, they arrive at the encounter with that faction. The enemy faction is already here, and engaged in searching the tomb for the scroll fragment. The number of NPCs in each faction should equal the number of PCs. See pages 18–21 for Sand King and Shadovar statistics blocks. See “Everybody In” on page 8 for further guidelines on playing both factions in combat.

If the PCs are feigning allegiance to one faction or the other, use the same setup as above. However, at some point, the PCs are likely to turn on their supposed allies to fight alongside the “enemies” already here.

If the PCs have not allied with either faction, the Shadovar are the enemy faction here, and the PCs fight them alone. Set up a number of Shadovar equal to the number of characters in the party and yielding the appropriate experience.

I’ve already gotten more direct email feedback on this adventure than I have on anything else I’ve so far written, and that feedback has been uniformly positive. Both DMs and players seem to like the challenge of an adventure whose throughline is completely determined by the choices of the players, and I think this suggests that the tactical encounter format can live happily within a much broader design context than it currently does. For me, at least, tactical encounters and the arguably more combat-focused 4th Edition of the D&D game are entirely compatible with the kind of freeform and improvisational play that Dungeons & Dragons was once all about.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 24, 2010

Firestorm the Foundations

Part 2 of 3

As has been said, i’m not crazy about the tactical encounter format that’s been the norm since the tail end of 3rd Edition D&D. However, the most important thing about the tactical encounter format is that its very creation has made it indispensable to the way adventures are designed — and, as a result, the way game play is conducted.

From a design standpoint, using the tactical encounter format takes a lot of work. Although there’s a certain amount of boilerplate and stat block cut-and-paste in the layout and construction of a tactical encounter spread, from a design perspective, creating a compelling tactical encounter is a delicate balancing act of form and function. There’s a lot of work that goes into a well-made tactical encounter — and as a result of that, the D&D game no longer has any room for tactical encounters as an optional choice. If i, as the designer, have gone to the trouble of crafting the tactical encounter, you as the DM or player are effectively obliged to run it.

From one perspective, tactical encounters take up a huge amount of design space. If i’m a designer writing a tactical encounter, I don’t dare to make it throwaway or optional, because doing so means that i’m cutting a significant amount of the limited space i’ve been allotted to craft my adventure. From another perspective (and from the other side of the table), today’s adventures consist mostly of tactical encounters by page count (often by a ratio of 2:1 or more). If you’ve paid for the adventure, you’ve implicitly paid for the tactical encounters first and foremost. As such, there’s no rational basis on which you can arbitrarily throw them out or let the players simply bypass them, because if you do, you’ve wasted your money.

And so tactical encounters have become the foundation of the adventure — the absolutely necessary points of play — on which the implicitly expendable nontactical material and backstory are draped for show. And this is a huge, huge reversal in terms of design philosophy. Once upon a time, adventure scenarios were crafted in a fashion that can lovingly be described as “sparse”. Once upon a time, adventures were a continuum of tactical encounters, nontactical material, and backstory — all of which was equally important and equally expendable at the same time. As a DM, you made choices at every stage regarding what was worth keeping, what had to happen, and what could be thrown away based on the whims and decisions of the players, and thus did the game progress. Now, the game progresses according to a tactical script for the most part — but the game should be more than that.

Here’s an example that I think is fairly telling. For the home game I run with my wife and daughters, I decided that it would be cool to create a campaign based around mostly-on-the-fly v3.5 adaptations of the large number of older AD&D adventure modules that I’d owned and read but never got around to playing (plus a few good enough that it’s always fun to play them again). One of those never-had-a-chance-to-play it adventures (because I wasn’t playing during the 2nd Edition days) was Bruce Cordell’s epically bugfuck (and I mean that as an extreme compliment) chthonic masterpiece “The Gates of Firestorm Peak”.

The initial encounter of GoFP is a classic D&D tactical scenario. A steep climb up a remote mountainside. A lone portal hacked out of the living rock. A passageway beyond. Invisible poisoned caltrops strewn across the corridor floor. A stone wall set with barbs and spikes that blocks the PCs’ passage. A force of twelve enlarged Duergar behind the wall, locked, loaded, hunkered down, and ready for anything.

In the end, the party walked through them without losing a hit point.

Arcane eye scouted out and noted the Duergar positions. Invisibility all around, with characters moving up connected by rope (because not having invisibility sphere, they were invisible to each other). Message for whispered communication. The rogue carefully sweeping the caltrop field, the sorcerer getting ready with the fly spell that let her lob multiple fireballs over the wall before the Duergar knew what hit them. It was epic. It was perfect. And it would never, ever happen — would never even be allowed to happen — if “Gates of Firestorm Peak” was converted to the tactical encounter format. Because the tactical encounter format says, “You have to fight now.”

Dungeons & Dragons in any of its many forms has always first and foremost been about options. The entrenched reliance on the tactical encounter format reduces the options available to player, character, and DM. And for me, at least, the game risks losing something as a result.

(This rant has three parts. Up next: I’ve Got Your Improv Right Here.)

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 20, 2010

Tactical Breakdown

Part 1 of 3

I love Dungeons & Dragons in all its myriad, varied, and mostly contradictory forms. In high school, I started with the Holmes Blue Box and graduated quickly to AD&D. I went all down-and-out-in-Greyhawk-and-Faerûn during 2nd Edition, but continued to read the game even though I wasn’t playing it. I was intellectually and emotionally revitalized with 3rd Edition and the idea of Open Gaming, and am now one of the few people lucky enough to be asked to watch over 4th Edition and (unless Wizards finally gets tired of me and fires my freelance ass) the implicit future of the game.

So here’s a confession — I really, really, really dislike the tactical encounter format. I disliked it when it appeared at the tail end of v3.5; I dislike it in 4th edition. I dislike all previous attempts to revamp it, to streamline it, or to make its fragmentation of the playing experience less obvious. (The one narcissistic exception to this is the RPGA Tomb of Horrors update that landed last month, for which I asked and gained permission to flow the tactical encounters freely within the overall text. However, that combat-light adventure is a specific corner case that can’t be automatically applied to adventures as a whole.)

Why I dislike the tactical encounter format isn’t for any of its mechanical features. Taken for what it is, the tactical encounter format does its job extremely well. Combat encounters are easier to play by far with a well laid out tactical encounter breakdown in front of you. The problem is that not all combat encounters deserve or need to be tactical encounters, but current adventure design is slanted so strongly toward the tactical encounter format that it creates a dependent relationship. Tactical encounters now define the game session as anchor points, where they were once simply part of a continuum of process and play that shaped itself in a largely gestalt fashion.

Well-meaning contemporary game designers like me are thus responsible for an entire generation of gamers (a generation of gamers being about half the life of any particular edition of a game, so figure five years on average) who no longer know how to conduct an encounter unless the tactical encounter breakdown is sitting in front of them. And, in my view, the basic style of gaming has undergone a sea change because of that, and not necessarily for the better.

I got an email shortly after my adventure “Test of Fire” appeared in Dungeon the beginning of this year, which read in part:

When I download an adventure I expect to be able to run it not have to dig out stat blocks. All these random encounters in the [“Through the City of Brass”] skill challenge, why am I doing your job?

I wept openly when I read this, and not just because of the comma splice, or because like all writers, I crave validation and the rejection of my work makes me suicidal. The bigger issue for me is that there are now countless D&D players —players of all ages, of varying experience — who don’t understand that improvisation is the heart of what this game is supposed to be about.

The tactical encounter format has done more than simply make certain players forget how to wing a combat encounter on the fly. The tactical encounter format has actively taught certain players that combat cannot be conducted that way.

The reason that there are random encounter groups tabled in the big cross-city skill challenge in “Test of Fire” is that the question of which of those combat encounters are necessary depends entirely on how the skill challenge progresses. Nothing is set; everything flows from the players’ decisions and the luck of the dice. And this underlines for me that the singular problem with the tactical encounter format is that it makes combat inevitable — and thus makes the expectation of combat inevitable. A tactical encounter format makes a tactical encounter necessary, and for all the wrong reasons.

(This rant has three parts. Up next: Firestorm the Foundations.)

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

July 23, 2010

Somewhere Under a Lost and Lonely Hill…

 So some time back, I mentioned working on a writing project that was very cool, and which I couldn’t talk about. What I didn’t say at the time was that it was actually two related writing projects, whose juxtaposition made both even cooler. Here’s the first.

In the new Tomb of Horrors super-adventure, the excellent Ari Marmell (lead designer) crafted a story framework within which we both had a hell of a lot of fun thinking up new and exciting ways to send your D&D characters to an untimely end. You can read more about it here, and I’m sure people will be talking about it elsewhere, so I’m not going to.

Except to say this.

The super-adventure builds on the events of Gary Gygax’s original Tomb of Horrors, as well as the sequel Return to the Tomb of Horrors by the incomparable Bruce Cordell. In that mega-adventure, a necromancer’s enclave called Skull City has been built up around the fabled dungeons of the Tomb. In the new Tomb super-adventure, the original Tomb of Horrors dungeons have been mostly destroyed. Skull City is a ruin, fought over by factions allied with and against the demilich Acererak. One of those factions is a group called the Skullbreakers, which are described as follows:

The Skullbreakers

Much smaller in number and presence than either the Blackfire or Faithmarked factions, the Skullbreakers are not the descendants of those who settled Skull City. Rather, this loose band of warriors consists of heroes who heard that the Tomb of Horrors had been drained of power — and who intend to make sure it stays that way.

The Skullbreakers are named for the shattering of Acererak’s skull — the legendary (though ultimately false) means by which the demilich was said to have been endlessly destroyed. (The devious Acererak had long spread rumors that an Acererak construct guarding the Tomb’s final vault was the demilich himself.) The Skullbreakers control a well-defended portion of the residential ruins, from which they make strikes against the Faithmarked and Blackfire factions.

But what nobody knows except me (and, well, you now) is that the Skullbreakers are based on me and three good friends of mine — David, Kevin, and Mitchell — who were the three people I originally started playing Dungeons & Dragons with lo those many years ago.

(Heroic portrait by the excellent Kerem Beyit.)

From left to right, that’s Myshal (Mitchell); Daud Jatmor (David, from David the Giant Killer, his first PC); Njall (me, from Nigel, an old nickname; it was the 80s, leave me alone); and Kobhein (Kevin, continuing to demonstrate my incredible fantasy-writer ability to translate ordinary names into Epic-Speak).

Frankly, I think the likenesses are amazing, especially considering that Kerem wasn’t working off of any pictures of the actual people, but merely my art-order description of celebrities we each kind of resembled. (I’m seriously thinking about getting that skull tattoo.)

In a pivotal encounter in Chapter Three of the super-adventure, the PCs face off against the Skullbreakers — and hopefully parley with them, because we will kick their asses.

And if that wasn’t cool enough (at least I think it’s cool; your mileage may vary), here’s something else.

As mentioned, the original Tomb of Horrors is a wasted ruin in the new super-adventure, which I thought was a great twist by Ari on which to build a “sequel”, of sorts. However, the backstory of the super-adventure made me think it would be kind of cool to actually update the original Tomb to the 4th edition rules, making it a kind of “before” picture to the super-adventure’s “after”. I pitched the powers that be on doing just that for Dungeon, and they agreed — but wanted it done as a free adventure for the RPGA (a worldwide players’ group that TSR created and that WotC now runs). That free adventure was also out this month, and was just as much fun to work on as the super-adventure. Especially getting to break out the cover credit.

The one thing that I want to share from the RPGA update module is the afterward.

The short version: I really like my job.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)