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.
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.
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.