Still working through our backlog of GenCon 2008, we stopped in at the Adventure Design Seminar, which Mike Mearls moderated (say that three times fast), and also included Rich Baker, Bruce Cordell, Chris Youngs, and James Wyatt. The seminar was advertised as both talking about adventure design for D&D 4e and actually designing an adventure, but only the former happened. We arrived a bit late, but managed to catch most of the two hour seminar. This is a summary of my notes on the event: it is not a comprehensive account of what happened and who said what, but instead, the parts that I found most interesting, broken up by topic.
Every published adventure has at least one new or modified monster. As an estimate, about 75% of monsters used come straight out of the Monster Manual, with 25% being new or modified. Often there’s an up-leveled or down-leveled monster, or there’s an ability substituted. When making a new monster for a published adventure, it’s recommended to not go outside the rules, and it’s often better to substitute a power instead of adding one, unless it’s a minor action (so that it’ll have a chance to use it.)
Writing Adventures for Dungeon Magazine
The default encounter should integrate monsters, traps, and terrain. This is the expectation, not the exception now. In 3e, those kinds of encounters that used all three were often deadly, but 4e assumes the combination will be there.
Many proposals are still thinking in the 3e mindset. Good 4e encounters take place in a larger area, either a big room or several connected rooms. Terrain is a factor, and a trap or hazard should be considered. Many authors are getting one or two of them, but not all three. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of having an encounter with just monsters. Try replacing monsters with a hazard or trap. When you start thinking of all the different pieces that can be there, it becomes much more of an experience.
Integrated combat experiences are important, not just clearing one room at a time. The prototype of this concept is one of the encounters from Keep on the Shadowfell.
Don’t just take a brute from Column A and an artillery from Column B- think of how they all work together.
Recommendations for a DM stepping from 3e to 4e
The very first thing is to start thinking about 1 monster per PC. From there, throw in difficult terrain. Thinking cinematically helps too, as well as where the fight takes place. For example, a big dining hall, with kitchen off to the side. If the party was in a movie, how would they use the furnishings? You can’t plan precisely how it’ll be used, but if you start simple like “monsters will flip over the table and hide behind it” that should be enough to get you started. Page 42 of the DMG will go a long way towards helping here.
Skill Challenges and Combat
James Wyatt talked about the introductory adventure he was writing for the Eberron Campaign Setting. It’s primarily combat, but it also includes two skill challenges at the same time. You go into a building, and there are bad guys guarding an eldritch machine set to go off. One skill challenge is disabling the machine before it goes off. Another is regarding some of the bad guys guarding the machine: they don’t necessarily want to be there when the machine goes off either, so they can be convinced not to fight.
Skill challenges rewards players who like to roleplay more. You might want to give even more XP from defeating a threat through a skill challenge than through combat.
A member of the audience asked about handling unexpected actions, and gave the example of throwing a dwarf at an enemy. Page 42 was the first thing referenced. The rules are not designed to be “the physics of D&D”, but are meant to give the DM as many tools as possible, and page 42 is a big part of that.
Tips for using minions
Never reveal all your minions at once. They should be spread out, or appear over several rounds. If they’re clumped up, they’re going to get killed by a fireball. That’s OK if the purpose of the encounter is to show how badass your PCs are, but if you want them to be a threat, have them come from different directions, snipe, hide, etc.
Minions are often metagamed. Once a dozen monsters appear, players assume their minions. The easy way to break them of that notion is to have an encounter with a dozen non-minions.
They can also be used as a distraction away from the real threat of an encounter. Additionally, they can be thought of as just being a way to grant combat advantage. Both are great ways to use rogue/assassin monsters in conjunction. Players will start to pay attention when they begin to help other monsters do more damage.
In a Dungeon adventure, they should represent some kind of threat or serve a purpose and not just be stage dressing. For example, in H1, Bulgrim the Fat can throw minions in front of himself. They told a story about how Scott Rouse used his daily power on him, only to have it intercepted by a minion, and Scott stormed out of the room.
Archers have a more meaningful role when protected by minions. Minions can use Aid Another, Bull Rush, and Grab.
Should XP awards be adjusted for primarily minion encounters?
If they’re just there to make the PCs look badass, probably. But if they serve a higher purpose, you might adjust the encounter level, but still give full XP. For example, there was an encounter in Mike Mearls’s game where the PCs charged out to stomp minions, and a lurker was able to sneak in and kill the guy they were supposed to be protecting. That would be a greater purpose for minions.
Look at other minions in the book to start. An easy way to handle it is to just “re-skin” existing minions. Like if you wanted to make a low level Gnoll minion, you could take the Hobgoblin minion and just swap the racial power for that of the gnoll. It’s not like the difference between brutes and lurkers: minions tend to fall very close to their level. (Not a minion, but an example was given of re-skinning a monster: someone used the Gelatinous Cube stats to represent a Sumo Wrestler.)
They deal 1 point of damage more per 5 levels, roughly. Attack accuracy is the most important stat. Epic minions might need to be inflated. There aren’t more epic minions because they’re tough to conceptualize. More are definitely coming.
Some monsters demand a story reason for their status.
Minions’ skill selections are based on theme. Stealth is the exception, since it plays a major role in combat. Attack bonuses and damage are the big things to make sure are right on minions, especially ones with ranged attacks. You probably don’t want to track multiple Stealth scores for different monsters.
These are the classic D&D adventures. Many of the classic modules are in this tier. Protect the town. Defend the caravan. These tend to be the easiest to handle, so not much was said on this.
The defining difference is scope. Larger than a tiny village, like protect a kingdom. Itemization for magic items is more important. As a result, Paragon Tier characters have a lot more tricks up their sleeve than Heroic, so the gloves can come off more. Heroes aren’t quite so fragile any more. The real tipping point is around 13th to 15th level. Character can start to lay multiple conditions on monsters at once. Look for monsters that can recover from status injuries. Be prepared for your monsters to get blinded and dazed. Players will more readily use their daily powers when they have 4 of them.
Their contacts are higher tier individuals, like nobles and kings. Plots are larger than just regional threats. The environments are bigger, and the PCs might start taking trips into the planes. A wider cosmos exists, and the schemes encompass them.
At this tier, you can expand on the story of seeds that were planted in Heroic. Players are more comfortable with their characters. With Paragon Paths, characters can define who they are even more. Character backgrounds are easier to weave into the game, and more NPCs that they are connected to can be introduced.
Earlier in the game, more places are scary, and the PCs will keep away. When they reach Paragon tier, they can start dealing with these threats head on.
How can those kinds of plot hooks be weaved in when using published adventures?
Start grabbing onto the hooks provided, and layering in your own touches. There are plenty of pieces to use in H3 in particular. And P2 uses NPCs introduced back in H1. It’s harder for home DMs to design for future products when they don’t know what’s coming, but there are ways to do it without issue. A character previously encountered might be someone else in disguise, or they might suddenly be in another role.
Take a plot like “the drow are raiding”, and after investigating, it can be revealed that there is a much larger problem behind why they are raiding. These threats threaten the world, plus there are glimpses of the worlds beyond. Against the Giants is a good example of this. It starts with Hill Giants raiding the borderlands, but then the PCs find there’s something weird behind it.
There’s a good reason the Drow in the Monster Manual were designed for Paragon tier: they work on larger scale plots. They become involved in schemes with demons and threaten a wider area. Every humanoid in the Monster Manual has a reason to be at the level they are at.
Bruce Cordell and Chris Sims wrote an epic tier adventure, and when deciding what scope to use, went all the way back to ideas from H1.
Start to think about the Epic Destiny of your players, and what the ultimate fate of what the characters are. Write adventures that speak to specific epic destiny of your characters. You’re familiar with your players at that point. Your characters are the most important people in the world, and epic destinies play into that. In Epic adventures, an Archmage has chance to learn powerful secrets. A powerful figure reaching out to the Archmage can be a good plot hook.
There will be an article in Dragon in September that has Epic Destinies for Forgotten Realms, but can be used elsewhere than FR. In December, there will be an article to accompany Manual of the Planes that will include more Epic Destines. Martial Power will have 6-10 as well.
Epic Destinies, by their nature, have a bigger scale, and that idea must be preserved. If you’re a Demigod, that has to be meaningful. However, the rules are less different in epic than they used to be. Old editions had a raft of problems built into epic: scry & fry, taking forever to buff, etc. Steps were taken in 4e to get away from that. Epic characters still spend plenty of time walking on their own two feet, and not constantly stoneskinned/divine mighted. It’s much easier for a DM to handle their abilities.
James Wyatt talked about writing Dungeon Mastering for Dummies in both 3e and 4e. In 3e, he addresses in epic what things break. In 4e, it’s more about what cool things happen.
Rob Heinsoo’s principles about epic were about taking everything to 11. It stops feeling like any semblance to the real world, and starts to feel like epic fantasy. The phrase “Once per day, when you die…” becomes very important.
Epic monsters can stomp on any village, but they don’t want to because it’s so insignificant compared to them. Galactus arriving is an epic level event- Daredevil doesn’t come along and fight Galactus.
There isn’t much meaningful interaction between epic and paragon tier heroes: the loot isn’t worth it for the epic heroes.
One final piece of advice for epic monsters is to not give them too much healing. Combat begins to slog down. That’s a big difference between making 25th level characters and 25th level NPCs.
Player-created quests and round-robin DMing?
Round robin DMing is another way of reducing workload on DMs, and it gets more people DMing. It gives DMs more ways to have fun and avoid DM burnout. The more DMs, the stronger the hobby is.
Player created quests are a mechanical expression of the story of the game. It’s a mechanical way to put the story hooks for a quest into a box. Player created quests reward players, and gets them more invested. Sometimes it’s hard to nail down what characters want. This phrases it more directly, and give players ownership of the story. It goes from DM’s world to the group’s world. Collaborative world building. Like the old camp game, where story moves around in a circle. Even if you don’t do round-robin, it’s good to take a session or two break as a DM and let someone else run it. It changes the dynamic and lets you understand more.
James Wyatt’s old campaign was a shared world. Separate DMs would run adventures in different parts of the world.
Any issues with just awarding levels as the story progresses, instead of calculating XP after fights?
No issues, since XP is not used for anything else anymore. Just be sure that players are gaining levels at a decent rate to keep up with the expectations of the adventure, especially a published one.
How do you balance the amount of time spent in combat IRL vs. XP gained?
There’s a “subversive” house rule floating around R&D that involves halving the HP of all monsters to speed up combat. They emphasized that this was not official in any way, and won’t be errata, but it’s a way to keep things moving.
Lots of brutes in an encounter will slow things down. Missing with a lot of encounter powers can extend a fight. If fights are slowing down, DMs can toss in more threats, or have the monsters run away, or change tactics. Being able to improvise is a very useful tool for dealing with long combats.
Powers can also be built into an encounter to change the dynamic of a fight. A fire elemental can hop into a stove to cause a change. Chandeliers can be cut with an arrow. Reward players who are creative in these ways too.
Did the designers mean to create the shared experience of Irontooth’s TPK in Keep on the Shadowfell?
Bruce Cordell says that the Irontooth that appeared in print was not what he handed in. Somehow in the time in between, he was “tweaked into viciousness.” However, he said that the best shared experiences in D&D come from TPKs.
Will the format used in H1-H3 stick around?
Dave Noonan came up with the encounter format. The tactical encounter format will stick around, single page when possible for each enconuter. If it changes at all, it’ll be tweaked to be better. Encounters will still be all on one page, no page flipping, since that’s the easiest to play at the table. For the forseeable future, poster-maps and “show me” art will be included in adventures for that deluxe feel. Dungeon magazine is still the best value for getting more adventures.
What are you running right now?
Rich Baker: “I find it very difficult to write a novel and DM at the same time.” James Wyatt was in the same situation, but was very eager to tell everyone about his character.
Any advice for writing for Dungeon for the first time?
Start with your villain. Ask what he wants, and where does he live. Once those are nailed down, everything else falls into place. You can ask, “would this make a good movie?” Try to add one creepy character trait to him.
Favorite setting to bring back?
James Wyatt: Something new.
Mike Mearls: Something with pirates and high fantasy.
Rich Baker: Dark Sun, making it more like Barsoom.
Bruce Cordell: Dark Sun.
Chris Youngs: Dark Sun.
James Wyatt: Revising his answer, something Conan-esque with low magic.