To finish off the paragon tier, the PCs in my game headed into one of the most classic dungeons out there: The Temple of Elemental Evil. I started with the original module (while not being slavish to it), then hacked away to adapt pieces to my game and involve major NPCs from earlier. The original module itself wasn’t hard to convert on the fly to 4e, especially with Monster Vault at my disposal.
However, I had a very specific style in mind that would feel like a big dungeon crawl. That posed a few problems:
- My group is pretty capable, and I wanted to challenge them in ways that reflect the dungeon crawl style- choosing when to rest, what resources to expend. where to explore, etc.
- I wanted to push the group forward in ways they weren’t used to in my episodic campaign.
- To really get the Temple of Elemental Evil feel, I wanted to give the PCs good reasons not to hack and slash through everything, even though they were more powerful than most of the enemies there.
- I wanted the Temple to really come alive and react, in ways discussed by Rob Schwalb and Chatty DM, whose articles would ultimately serve as the inspiration for what I wanted.
To try and achieve these ends, I came up with a 5×5 plan (based on my own 5×5 Method) for the Temple: one for each element, and one for the Temple itself (which also represented the imprisoned demoness at the bottom breaking free.) These I dubbed the Machination Meters: a list of goals that each temple element was pursuing for some ultimate agenda. Advancing a step on a track represented the passage of time and the goals advancing while the PCs adventure.
The tracks advanced as follows:
- +1 Every fight
- +1 Every extra short rest (i.e. a second short rest taken after a fight)
- +1 Alarm raised or other conflict
- +1d6 Every extended rest (After playing, I would revise this to +1d4)
- +1 End of session (in my game, through some teleportation magic, they were able to swap party members in and out to accomodate the player base, but if you have a stable group, this might not be necessary)
When one of these events would occur, I would advance a track of my choice, except for the Temple’s track which was special. The Temple’s track could only be advanced if each of the other elements were advanced to that point: so Temple 1 could only occur after all the other elements were at 1 or beyond.
For an example of one of the tracks, here’s Earth:
Earth’s goal is to build the largest army for the Elemental Eye. Since Earth focuses on the recruitment aspect, it gets the largest amount of space taking up the entire first dungeon floor, but since the followers are the weakest, Earth gets the least respect. Earth wants to build the ultimate army, train the best soldiers, and then unleash its forces on Tarturia.
- Train and process recruits, provide food (Banquet Hall #119, Staging Area #103)
- Interrogate Lord Hans for information on Tarturia (Prison #114)
- Put down an insurgent Earth Priest (Room #135)
- Get equipped by the artificers of the Fire Temple (Forges #202)
- Use the Air Temple’s teleportation circles to invade Tarturia (Air Temple #210)
Each one lists a room where the event occurs, which could be averted (or helped!) by the PCs taking direct action, with #5 being the cumulation of that group’s schemes, and was generally Very Bad. So while the track could advance to #4, if the PCs already had gotten involved, they could have sabotaged the artificers and thus the advancement wouldn’t mean anything.
The special Temple track was for Zuggtmoy, trapped at the bottom, who got more powerful for the final showdown for each advancement on the track.
How did it work? It solved a number of problems, though wasn’t perfect.
Some of the big plusses from this system that helped smooth over some issues I was running into with 4e:
- Extended rests had to be undertaken carefully, which meant that using dailies and healing surges was a more nuanced decision. Unlike previous games, I was able to drain the healing surges from defenders, which really put them in some tough spots.
- Extra short rests to use healing powers really cost (and in fact extras never happened, which I’m OK with.)
- It encouraged talking, sneaking, and exploring the dungeon rather than fighting everything, which would be an easy impulse with powerful 19-20th level characters.
- Even when combat happened, there were some more decisions to make to try and keep combatants from getting away and raising an extra alarm.
- It forced the characters to really consider some moral grays, getting involved in the struggle between the Elemental temples and doing bad things for a greater good instead of, again, just killing everything in the path.
On the flipside, what didn’t quite work so well:
- As a DM, choosing between which track to advance wasn’t really a decision. Next time, I’d probably make a track of what order they advance in, rather than choosing.
- I ultimately didn’t come up with 20 schemes, just enough to flesh out general strokes for each section.
- Sometimes there were players who didn’t play a particular section because their characters were more drained from previous sections, but didn’t want to take an extended rest yet.
- During the second extended rest, the die roll came up a 6, which was way too big a swing for what was an essential and smart rest. As noted above, a d4 is probably the right amount of variance.
I liked the ultimate result, since it fixed a lot of the issues I was having running an episodic game. It wasn’t nearly as annoying as I thought to tell players to track daily powers and healing surge use between sessions, and the end result was something that felt a lot more dynamic.
This approach as stated here won’t work for everyone, so consider the situation with you group before implementing something like this. I, on the other hand, will be adapting something similar for the epic tier of my game. The players will be in an Astral race to find the Rod of Seven Parts. 5×5 isn’t the only shape for such a grid to take, so likely, I will be trying a 7×3.