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Breaking Patterns, part 3: Abstract 4E

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Breaking Patterns in Encounter Design, Part 3
Home Campaign Example: Session 9

(Originally posted in 2010 on my WotC Blog)

Wasteland, by Steven James

Wasteland, by Steven James

As you may recall from the original blog, we are talking about breaking established patterns in encounter design. I talked a bit about my approach and shared the process I used for session 8. Session 9 is a good one to share because we broke established patterns to have a strong story-rich wilderness travel skill challenge feel and two abstract combats.


At a broad level, I started with the following from my campaign story arc notes:

Session 9: The PCs are traveling south from the lower end of Dragon’s Bowl to the Crescent Forest, seeking a hidden temple.The temple is found near Losthome (see Ivory Triangle, it is settled by halflings that escaped Gulg).


Design for Session 9

1) Travel. One of the big questions around any campaign is how to treat travel. You don’t want the voyage to be dull and taken for granted, especially in dangerous Athas.

I considered skipping this and starting the session when they near the Crescent Forest. It didn’t feel right, so I began exploring how to combine elements and allow for story to come forth during the travel so it furthers the session.

To introduce danger, the first element was to have their poor village offer them only a very short supply of survival days (despite the PCs having brought them supplies!). The intention is to drive home the message that the village still needs help and to set them up for a tough trip.

Athas has many types of terrain. Sandy Wastes was new, so I stressed its characteristics during their voyage. Having non-encounters is a good way to provide color and keep things from being predictable. Here I had a PC chance upon some ruins of an old keep and strange long areas of stone (docks). I credit my awesome players in that they never used the word “boat” despite eventually figuring out what the half-buried and petrified thing that looked like a rib cage was. My notes were just: Event: random PC hits something hard as they walk. Find sunken tower. Following wall/rampart, travel down dunes to reach dock area, fossilized skeleton/boat. That was enough for some fun RP/exploration.

They ran out of water and food on the third day into the trip. Thus began a loose sort of skill challenge. Each day one PC could use Nature against a hard DC. This established whether the party was doing well with regards to general survival. (This was as much a way to reward the strength of the Wasteland Nomad Seeker as anything else.) Success/failure drove whether the group check was against a hard or medium DC (I didn’t tell them this, keeping mechanics away and just RPing results). Each PC then had to choose from Perception or History to help chart the course through the wastes. This was a group check. Further, when a PC was out of survival days, they were attacked by either Sun Sickness or had to make Endurance or lose a surge from the cold (which they could not recover until done with the trip).

The reason for the light format was to keep it from being “fake RP”. The typical wilderness SC pretends to be story-rich but ends up being about dice. This brings up their capabilities at set skills and accomplishes it quickly. This is hard, see how you do, done.

On the 6th day a sandstorm approached. This is the entirety of my notes: Perception hard. Sand Storm approaches. Each PC chooses how to prepare as group check. (I can get away with that because I know 4E well enough and my group is great.) I had some perception checks against a hard DC and the Seeker actually failed.  They make a second round of checks and now spot the storm – with very little time to spare. Here I wanted a bit more story to the challenge. They immediately start coming up with ideas and questions. This leads to fun (the half-giant wants to dig a massive hole for everyone, the nature and perceptive people are asking about the storm and where to hide, etc.). I make sure everyone can try one thing (I think a PC actually chose not to do anything other than panic) and that is the group check. The skills they used shaped the story. They manage to see which way it is heading and run the other way, finding the right type of dunes where digging in can protect them. There are some funny failures, which we decide are because the mul that is on top of everyone is taking the brunt of the storm. Some lose surges.

Athasian Weather

On day 7 they reach the pass that leads to the Nibenese road. I describe the dry mountain flora and fauna on behalf of the Seeker, who is from Nibenay. Everything described is new, making the area seem different… and we haven’t even reached the forest.


2) An Army – friend or foe? With travel down, my second thought was around how to cover Nibenay. I didn’t want them to skip it entirely. And, I like reminding PCs that there are a lot of big forces out there that can destroy adventurers. Sorcerer-Kings are big threats and you don’t just waltz through their territory. My concept was to have a meeting with Nibenay’s forces but provide a lot of leeway in how that happened.

I had the Sand Drake from session 8 show up in the distance behind them as the sun began to rise on the horizon. Before them is the pass, which the Seeker knows is a frequent ambush spot for raiders. The PCs of course flee the drake, but should they run into the pass or into the mountains?

Had they gone into the mountains, the dragon would have harassed them and they would have used skills to evade… and then the army would find them in a weakened state.

Instead, (for once doing as I expected) heading over a crest in the road they come upon a large group of soldiers: 55 or so slaves, several well-trained soldiers, an assistant, and the templar (all Nibenese templars are female and considered to be brides to the Sorcerer-King). The Sand Drake sees the large force and flies off.

The idea I had was for parley and the Templar to decide how to conscript them based on successes: as slaves, in exchange for supplies, or as hirelings (earning a payment in addition to food). However, our fighter decided to punch the Templar in the face…


Winging a social encounter turned abstract fight with an army unit!

I had some basic minion soldier stats for later use, but when the PCs decided to fight I ran upstairs and printed out some regular units. I had actually chosen them before, decided the PCs would never be “smart” enough to fight them, and didn’t print them. Ha!

I didn’t want to plunk down 60 minis. It seemed too heavy. We would have spent a lot of time on the maneuvering of it. Instead, we ran it without any minis. Many people would say you can’t have 4E combat without miniatures, but you really can.


My two guiding principles on abstract combat:

  • It has to be done so it is heavy on story. There needs to be a reason you aren’t on the map. Being really descriptive can take you away from “powers” and “dice” and into really imagining what is taking place.
  • Don’t nerf PCs or monsters. Allow map-related powers to work but in quick imaginative ways. For example, the half-giant warlock used a zone power. I just estimated the number of foes in the area and most died in a descriptive manner. If a power had forced movement, it provided tactical benefits that I took into account, such as giving the next PC a bonus to hit the shocked and out-of-position foe.

In brief, I jotted down the number of minions and crossed them off as they died. I made rough notes about where they were (5 North on mul, etc.), keeping them in large groups employing common tactics. I ran the non-minions as teams as well, RPing how they chose their targets based on the threat presented. Because slavery and defeating the PCs was a fine option, I concentrated fire to my grand enjoyment. The fighter PC that started the fight? He amused us by rolling low on every attack (including action point) and my templar and her allies beat the PC without mercy. I then slowly took down the rest of the party, with the exception of the Raamite PC. Being a clever negotiator, he never attacked.

When it was all said and done, the Raamite was having food and water while the other PCs were being tied up. They were now slaves to Nibenay. We had some RP, with the Nibenese (portrayed as roughly Cambodian in culture). The one PC that was seen as an ally was commanded to oversee the rest of the PCs and ensure they did not cause trouble. The RP was great, as the PCs resented that a great deal and the lead PC gave no indication that this was a ruse (strong bluff = RP win!). To drive home the effects of travel and being slaves, there is no short rest for the PCs without food and water, though they can spend surges to be conscious. The night passes without an extended rest. Athas is brutal…


3) Unclear allies. I knew I wanted the Crescent Forest to feel different and for the halflings to attack everyone, creating confusion. This would create mystery around the halflings, explain how they are dangerous and manage to survive, and set up interesting interactions with the PCs. I though the Nibenese could be on patrol because the city had been losing troops. Not knowing why, they believed the spirit was full of ghosts.

The ghost stories told by the Nibenese troops (“the forest spirits punish us for logging,” “a forest ghost killed my brother”) created some mystery. I also described the strange forest, the bizarre presence of grass, the humidity that made their noses and skin feel strange, the many sounds of the forest, etc. Hostile and alien territory!

The army unit moves through the jungle and suddenly the vines come alive, entangling everyone. The trees themselves join the fight, spitting thorns at the column. PCs and Nibenese are all attacked and I ask the PCs what they want to do.

Skills are used, eventually seeing that the vines are magic and the thorns are coming from camouflaged halflings in the leafy trees. Some PCs just hide, some want to help the halflings, others want to calm the panicked soldiers.

My notes were:

  • Skill challenge format:
    • Each round, ask what they do. At end, a PC is attacked by either Thorn Dart or Spirit Creepers (roll to determine).
    • Can try to organize Nibenese (diplo or intimidate, work against Halflings)
    • Can try to fight Halflings (see stat blocks)
    • Can try to kill Nibenese (See printout. Templar and consort are busy and do not fight PCs unless sought out.)
    • Can try to hide or escape (med Stealth, can use other skills)
    • Once four successes, achieve that goal.

So, after a round of confusion they start helping the halflings. One group really wanted to find the soldier with their food. Another wanted to engage the Templar, even though she was off in the distance (so, I obliged). Others wanted to do whatever worked best for the halflings. Some used powers, some used skills.

Again, no battlemap was used. The battle was abstract, with descriptive results to paint a vivid picture of the battle in and around trees and dangerous plants. It was a lot of fun, especially when PCs took actions against particular captors I had detailed during the RP.

In the end, the Nibenese were largely destroyed, with just the Templar and a few of her men escaping. There were a lot of options for what could have happened, ranging from both sides retreating to big impacts on future encounters. I can’t share what will happen, but let’s say the halflings are a lot stronger than they could have been.


4) End on the invitation to Losthome. Losthome is briefly mentioned in the 4E DSCS book but more fully detailed in the Ivory Triangle boxed set. The PCs were busy eating their rations when the halflings surrounded them with spears and blowguns. After some discussion, the halflings seemed pleased and escorted them toward Losthome. To drive home how nothing is safe, the session ended with “We are very pleased you aided us. We invite you be a part of a grand feast!” There wasn’t a player in the room without the question “are we dinner?” in their minds!


Looking Back

It was a lot of fun to listen to two of the players in my group, Ian and Justin, talk about the session on their Going Last podcast. (Check it out, it is really funny!).

They felt that the whole thing was like a skill challenge. That’s really great, because not one part of it was a traditional success/failure challenge. Instead, there were discrete bits that had some teeth and RP, without conventional ways of tracking progress or XP.

They also liked how the two combats were abstract, without minis. The funny thing is that I actually had minis and tile maps for the second fight, but the first improvised fight was so good in an abstract form that I just kept that for the second fight.

It was interesting to note some PC frustration at machinations as well. One thing that is hard is finding enough time for each PC to shine. I try to bring to light some backstory aspect for 1-2 PCs each session.


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