Now, I’m starting to challenge my thoughts on it. Not the Rule itself, as it is a great tool to help inexperienced GMs let go of the dogma of “logic over fun”and saying “no” in RPGs. What I’m starting to wonder is if trying to awesome up adventures all the time can become a hindrance for some types of GMs, including my own.
I’ve recently discovered a pattern common to the gaming sessions that leave me somewhat unsatisfied. I realized that it’s partly because encounters reach a state of complexity such that players become confused about the best way to navigate through them. The goals becomes fuzzy or the options are either too numerous or too complex mechanically to be used in full.
It’s not just the players though, I too become lost in options and end up dropping or forgetting powers, tricks and other things that looked awesome on paper while writing such encounters.
This happened at PAX while running the DM Challenge and last week in my last Gears of Ruin session. Too much stuff end up going on at the same time, more than was necessary to hit that sweet spot where players and myself are sufficiently challenged but aren’t bored with a generic encounter.
Lets look into that and see if there are lessons to be learned here.
I’m allergic to boring!
I swear to all the gods of the D&D pantheon, if I read about one more encounter made of generic humanoids where the only features are a table, 2 barrels and 4 squares of difficult terrain, I will light the adventure on fire (or the computer it sits on). If you look at the 4e’s Dungeon Master Guide adventure, Kobold Hall (an excellent model to follow for beginners doing dungeon crawls) you can see that each of the five room has at least one cool special feature:
1) A pit of goo, a portcullis and kobold slingers
2) Dart traps and kobolds that dodge underneath them
3) A very well designed trap/trick encounter (The Skull Rock game)
4) A boulder trap that crushes PCs in its circular path, surrounded by kobolds on elevated platforms
5) A classic dragon in a cave encounter.
This is the zen of D&D encounter design, each (be it combat or non-combat) displays at least one original element that differentiates it from an encounter that is philosophically identical to Monte’s Orc and Pie (which, as much as I love the joke, is also the perfect example of what I define as mechanically boring).
But herein lies the danger of pushing this to extremes. If adding one element makes an encounter cooler, how about 2 or 3 or 6? Where are the lines between generic, interesting, sweet and “too freaking much” drawn?
My recent experience says that 1 or 2 elements per encounter is usually enough. The players’ interaction with the core of the encounter and the added element will make it awesome, not your piling up of concepts on top of it all.
Speaking of which…
Do ideas have expiry dates?
While reading Roger von Oech’s excellent book on creativity last summer I re-learned that not everyone has the ability to generate several dozen ideas about everything and nothing in the space of a few minutes like some bloggers here.
When I write encounters, I can’t stop ideas from pouring in to make each encounter more interesting. Such ideas, while great on paper, end up muddling the waters and making the encounter too complex to run smoothly, therefore making it less fun than if I had left some ideas on the side for later.
For example, in the 2nd encounter of The Font of Sorrows (PAX version), I had the following elements planned, all in the same room.
- An insubstantial Elite Ghostskull (based on the fireskull)
- Several Icy Water Vapour Wraiths that slowed PCs on a hit
- The Wraiths turned to ice creatures at the beginning of every rounds, gaining Temp HP, dealing more damage and gaining a power that made them explode in a shower of ice slivers.
- Hitting a solid Wraith broke it back to vapour form.
- The floor was covered in water and squares froze semi-randomly each round, then spikes grew out the next round, then they exploded the round after that.
- Some floor tiles could be broken by PCs to create whirlpools that pulled in the Wraiths
(Phil collapses, exhausted)
It still sounds awesome up there, but it was HELL to DM properly and I ended up forgetting to freeze water tiles and using the proper powers at the proper time.
Now it wasn’t so much my fear of boredom that fed me all these elements but my incapacity to close the gates to new ideas during design. Each new idea sounded simple in itself, but the sum of all elements made for an ungainly monster of an encounter.
So all in all, I realize that each encounter can afford to have one to three cool tricks/special monster powers and that should my mind insist on feeding me with cool ideas, I should pick the ones most likely to make for a great encounter and jot down the others for later use.
The Strings Puller
I have a long-held theory that the motivations assigned to players by Robin Laws and his predecessors are also present as is when they DM (they just manifest differently). In my case, I’m an instigator (I like to make things happen), a psychodramatist (I like to explore plot from an inner, often perverted perspective) and a butt kicker. I’m impatient and I want things to go forward both in and outside of combat.
Thus, when I add too many ideas to an encounter, even when I plan to have them appear over a long period of time, I often rush to add them all, in the spirit of making things happen or keeping things interesting. It’s like I have all these strings I can pull to make the adventure more challenging but yank at all of them at the same time for fear that the adventure will slow down and people will be… wait for it… bored.
And so we come full circle.
I fully realize that my special combination of impatience, wariness of the ordinary and propensity to generate too many ideas in a short time has calibrated my ‘boring” and ‘I can manage this” gauges into a range beyond the average player. But the advice to avoid it leads to sound adventure design paradigms.
The trick here is to once again set a few strings, one or two for the GM to pull to surprise the party: like a lurking monster exploiting some form of hindering terrain or a surprise encounter should the action slow to a crawl during a session. Then set one or two strings for the PCs to pull themselves that are off-limits for the DM. Thus, the temptation to pull a five-alarm situations is going to be harder for the instigator GM. Thus, your players can still do it if they feel like it (and if you want to feed your other instigators).
It all boils down to this:
GM know thyself as well as your players, and plan your adventures accordingly.
Oh and here’s another one:
Simplify, simplify, simplify
Took me 27 years to learn the first lesson, I’m still working on the second one.
How about you? Are you subjected to design adventures that don’t fit your natural GMing style? Do you add too many elements to your encounters an become lost in them? Or do you stick to overly generic adventures and can’t find a way to add those often mention “one of two” special elements?