The Alphastream Game Design Blog
My favorite adventures were always bold ones. Those adventures took risks, breaking new ground and creating exciting and memorable situations that woke us up and brought us to the edge of our seats.
Ambitious design isn’t easy. You have to break eggs to make an omelet, as the saying goes, and you have to take chances to design innovative adventures. Because my favorite organized play adventures were bold ones, that’s the approach I took when I wrote as well. Simply put, I wanted to do for other authors what those ambitious adventures had done for me.
There is a price to be paid. Writing ambitiously (at least for organized play), comes with the responsibility to accept that it will at times go horribly wrong. At some number of convention tables, it will be too much (especially in the hands of a DM that didn’t prepare well) and will fall flat. It will be a bad experience. People will be disappointed. Not every author is okay with that.
Ambitious adventure design is sometimes the opposite of what we should be doing. Great adventure-writing advice, after all, includes:
Because all of the above is true, ambitious design requires more work. More wordsmithing, to make the new concepts as clear as possible. More playtesting, to identify problems. More development. More editing. And it still might not work. We improve our chances if we have played the ambitious designs of others. (One author I consistently recommend is Will Doyle. I love his bold groundbreaking adventures!)
Josh dV was kind enough to reach out and say he really liked an adventure I wrote, The True Lesson Learned. It’s the third in the Ashes of Athas organized play campaign (available free here) we wrote for Dark Sun 4E. When designing it I was foolishly ambitious, but it ended up being one of my favorites.
At a convention a few years back, I had played a Living Spycraft adventure that starts with the party in a jeep driving over rough terrain. The DM asks, “which one of you is driving?” and then informs you you are chasing a vehicle, and in the back of it you can see them preparing to fire a rocket at your vehicle!
I loved that strong start! It was a classic James Bond in media res start, and immediately had every player on the edge of their seat. As the driver, this was one heck of a character introduction for me! It was awesome!
In The True Lesson Learned, I wanted to replicate that feeling. The previous adventure in the series had some politics, some sneaking, and a lot of urban fighting. It was time for something different. Borrowing heavily, I started everyone on a chariot, chasing after the enemy that ran away in the previous adventure.
Mechanically, it felt like a 4E skill challenge. But it played out across discrete scenes. Each scene was written to feel like an exciting moment in a movie. The villain casts a lightning bolt at a rocky pillar and it tumbles toward you… time for the driver to make a very important check! We try to encourage fast and loose play, instructing the DM that other characters can take actions, and you can adjudicate how it impacts the scene.
Additional scenes continue the cinematic feel. A mirage causes there to appear to be two possible paths, with the enemy fleeing down both. Succeed and discern the correct path, or be momentarily caught in a pool of life-draining silt. Continue past that and you find a crystal spider has placed a web in your path. Determine how badly you are stuck, then free your chariot to finally catch the villain!
One of the hardest things to pull off mechanically in recent D&D editions is combat where the party and foes are in vehicles. It basically doesn’t work, because the movement of the vehicles usually happens once in a round, and everyone’s actions happen throughout the round. The vehicle speed doesn’t match the character’s actions and plans, and it does not feel cinematic. Moving vehicles around on the battlemap is something that should be cool, but it’s boring in actuality.
I ran through three playtests where I experimented with rules for chariot vs chariot combat. Terrain, special movement, different battlefields. It all felt sluggish – the opposite of what we want!
Finally I tried something completely different, inspired by Indiana Jones (of course). Remember in Raiders, when Indy climbs onto a caravan of Nazi trucks? He manages to fall of, climb back on, switch vehicles, all of it, while the line of trucks is relatively static to each other. That’s what worked.
The encounter begins by figuring out how well the party did in the previous chase scenes. Boxed text then describes either how you are surprised by the villain’s chariot coming up to you and smashing you into the walls of the narrow canyon, or how you manage to do so. This matters, because the chariots are locked together and you don’t want to be near the walls. See… it’s the walls that move!
Since I found that moving the chariots didn’t work, I made them static. Plunk them down on the battlemap, side-by-side. Now tell the players that the chariots are moving, of course, but it’s the terrain on this map that is flying past them. Those walls? Each round you roll to determine how bad they are. Maybe it’s normal rock. That’s not too bad. Or maybe they are flecked with obsidian or thorny bushes, causing damage to you. Or there are hungry kes’trekel buzzards nesting along them. One option even has healing cacti you can try to grab.
We add to this a handout with special options for the driver. You can try to prevent crashing into the walls. You can try to ram the enemy vehicle into the walls. You can drive with one hand, and fight with the other. The enemies use these tactics. They also have a few extra tricks, such as the half-elf mindblade who can use telekinetic flight to jump onto your chariot. There are rules for when you fall off a chariot, so that, of course, you can climb back on.
The result was pretty great. Players were having a blast jumping from one chariot to another, grinding foes into obsidian-flecked walls, falling off a chariot but grabbing on and climbing on again, and so on. It was exciting and furious!
A few months before I wrote the adventure, Rob Schwalb had written an article decrying the death of the dungeon in 4E. Because 4E tended toward set-piece encounters, it used big cinematic foes. The standard battle was one monster of the PCs’ level, per PC. If you had a big dungeon, you couldn’t have a standard battle in each room. That would use up too many resources and the party would have to retreat. The result was that every 4-hour adventure had 3-4 fights, and no dungeon had lots of rooms.
Rob didn’t just complain. He theorized there could be a system where the encounter XP budget would be spread across zones, with traps and other features bolstering play and providing the classic feel. You would prevent resting, so that it basically functioned like a big encounter, but didn’t feel like one. I wanted to try that.
I set out to design the corrupted Temple of Fire and Sun for the final part of this adventure, using those concepts. It wasn’t easy, in particular because I had to be really careful around timing. The first two parts of the adventure were about 2 hours. I could only spend 1.5-2 hours on this temple.
I took the remaining XP budget, bumped it up a bit to account for the monsters not being all in one room, picked lower-XP than normal but still fearsome monsters, and spread them across fun elemental-themed rooms.
It worked really well. The combats were fast and exciting, and there were exploration surprises in each room so it wasn’t just relying on the combat. Story and lore matter too.
It helped that in this organized play campaign, we were free to create or modify creatures. One room playtested poorly. The party sat in the hallway and fought from there. I gave the defiler the ability to use a wind spell that pulled characters into the room. Problem solved.
The final room is made more challenging by needing to cleanse the room of its corruption. It was great seeing players realize this, and their actions to cleanse meant fewer actions to attack, so the weaker foes survived long enough to be a challenge.
Ambitious design is hard, but it can be immensely rewarding. Even when we borrow ideas and concepts from other adventures and designers, we are building upon them and changing them. We allow more players, DMs, and authors to consider the innovation. Hopefully, we inspire others to embrace the risk and design their own bold and memorable adventures.