The Alphastream Game Design Blog
(Originally posted in 2010 to my WotC Blog)
As you may recall from the previous blog, we are talking about breaking established patterns in encounter design. Last time I talked a bit about my approach and now will share the process I used for one of my Dark Sun home campaign sessions. At a broad level, I had the following:
Session 8: One PC meets with Abalach-Re, becoming her templar. The PCs leave Raam toward their home village near the south of Dragon’s Bowl. They want to stop to see the druid that lives near the village, seeking information. I want to hint at a new foe, have some wilderness fun, and have a fight with traditional beasts of the wastes.
1) I want some spotlight time for the PC meeting Abalach-Re. This is a solo story time, but will be humorous enough (and the player is fantastic) so everyone will enjoy it. There will be good tension and questions raised that everyone will enjoy. This isn’t an encounter but just pure RP. I jot down bullets as to what will happen and ideas for how to react to the PC. This went really well in actual play. I also used it as an opportunity to provide an alternate reward. I don’t hand out treasure in normal ways. Here, the half-giant developed a Wild Talent after his dalliance with her.
2) I provide some story closure for leaving Raam. I make sure to have 2-3 bits for different PCs, slightly advancing their story. One of them ate something strange, and they have a sleepless night wracked by stomach pain. Another has city contacts and comes up with information. This was pure story, but very fast.
3) I want the PCs to get to the druid pretty quickly, because we have other important bits to cover. However, I have an idea for introducing a new foe… a Sand Drake summoned by a powerful foe they don’t even yet know they have! I also want a bit of a scene involving creatures or terrain to add color. I don’t like a Dark Sun wilderness trip without something like that. Based on that, I don’t use Hexploration this time (as I did last time they visited the druid, itself a break in the usual mode for adventures).
My original plan was that they would go to the village first, then come back. This would let me have a long trip where they would play cat-and-mouse with the sand drake. I deliberately let the players make choices that can throw things off. Here they did so, visiting the druid first. I pushed the Sand Drake back and went with the wilderness danger scene first.
This time I look to lessen the reliance on rules and present them with a skill scenario. Like a skill challenge, but I don’t track success or failure explicitly. I do have danger elements, damage, and they can use attack powers. During design I think through several options. I finally settle on rock bees. These made up critters are basically giant bees that live in dug-out tubes in the rock, have huge carapaces, and their stingers can impale you and leave a hole large enough you will never recover. This is a free-form scene with loose rules (like an attack roll and damage but no actual stat block). It has enough structure that I could write it up for a campaign like Ashes of Athas, but I don’t bother since I am the only person running this.
How it played was pretty fun. The PCs come upon this small valley in the mountains. They use skills to spot and recognize the holes. They also have heard that rock bee honey is very nutritious and has healing powers. Wizards are said to use it, it has value! And the bee grubs are also nutritious (did I mention they were low on survival days?). They learned that fire draws them as they hate smoke and fire. I then expected them to find a way to create a fire (they did that) and draw one rock bee out (they didn’t, they drew them all out with a huge noise)! Fun ensued and much damage was given while one intrepid PC grabbed grubs and honey. I added things on the fly for fun, like the lip around each tube hole is hard-packed mud and breaks, so they might fall or not get out. Good times.
4) I knew the meeting with the druid would be pure RP. My druid gags and wheezes and sprays phlegm all over them, provides cryptic “answers”, and gives them a nudge in a certain direction. I did give them, mostly, the information they wanted.
5) The way things were going, I didn’t want to drop the Drake in yet. But, there is this spire they have climbed before. With a bit of a challenge, one PC got the other to climb it. From there I gave them the beautiful view of Dragon’s Bowl… and the drake off in the distance. They then did a bit of hiding and moving about carefully, learning some things about it as they observed it. Sand Drakes only operate in the day. This was a nice set-up for the future, giving depth to later encounters.
6) They reached the village. This was an RP catch-up scene. We interacted with NPCs, caught up on what the village has been doing, and saw the fruits of their labors. There is a lot of fun in taking breaks from fun NPCs (like the half giant that changes personality to match the person speaking to them) and in seeing the results of prior actions. Here, the approach they took to prior encounters was in full swing as released foes now worked for the village, repairing it and having beaten back raiders in the PCs’ absence.
7) Baazrag! They began the trip south, following the main plot. I dropped the Baazrag fight I had planned, which was a pretty typical fight with some nice terrain and fun monsters that are iconic Dark Sun beasts. Except I rolled terribly, players rolled well and were smart, and my at-level encounter was a cakewalk. This is fine (players like easy fights from time to time), but they seem a bit bored and it gives me an opportunity. “I’ll be right back,” I say, and I come back with my Sand Drake.
I then commence to give them a serious beat-down. My thought was it would flee when bloodied. It is a level 6 solo (PCs are level 5), but a very tough one with several solid powers. I deliberately used the non-standard mini size (roughly 2×3 squares at the base) to represent that it was often moving up and over rocks. Half of it might be on top of the rocky terrain and the other half might be down on the sand. I played it fast and loose and allowed PCs to do fun things to affect the combat with their skills, such as distracting it, drawing it towards them, etc. The result was a very cool fight including some mul heroics, some PCs running for their lives, and a lot of close calls. The drake retreated and the heroes prevailed.
Update, October 2011 for everyone other than the players in my home campaign: You can download a pdf of the Sand Drake (a modified purple dragon, if memory serves) here.
That was the session, running 5 hours. Very little was conventional. And yet, I’m pretty sure we could package it for organized play with some work so DMs know what latitude they have in the scenes.
It was a ton of fun for me creatively, was full of story and RP, resulted in fantastic interaction with my friends/players, and had very few of the patterns we constantly see in published adventures and organize play. Next week I will share the design approach and pattern breaking applied to the most recent session.
I do want to opine on one more thing, and that is the concept of Fourthcore (hardcore fourth edition). I think part of the draw is around making things harder, but harder is a slippery beast… you can only lose PCs so many times before the game isn’t fun. I think the greatest appeal is around old school ideas around encounter design, unpredictable dungeons, and monsters that aren’t bound by typical 4E rules. It is this breaking of patterns that most speaks to many of us when we look at Fourthcore. To that end, I highly suggest looking at those concepts.
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