Reexamining the Dungeon?

There’s an interesting post from Robert Schwalb about the rut 4e adventure design has gotten itself into.  The comments are pretty interesting, too.

I hated the ‘delve’ format when it came out for 3.5e.  I read one adventure using it, said “WTF,” and just ran out of Dungeon after that.   And now I realize why!  System matters, and format and presentation matter.  These things encourage specific behaviors, and Rob seems to somewhat understand this – hence his post in the first place, he sees that the stultifying encounter description format is in practice encouraging frighteningly homogeneous slogs of encounters; it even influences larger dungeon design and cuts out page count and time for other secondary concerns like “story.”

But then of course Rob gets all offended at Landon saying in the comments that 4e’s mechanized approach has sacrificed organic feel and story at the altar of artificiality and predictability.  Rob says “Well but there was wealth by level, and CRs, in 3e!”  Yes, but (almost) no one used those as more than a suggestion. Formalizing that into “treasure parcels” and “XP budgets” is another huge step – rather than just having a guideline to help you understand “how much is this encounter likely to kick your PC’s asses” or “about how much loot will adventures and whatnot assume the PCs have” it is a lot different than having a mandatory prescription for it.  And 4e in general is much more hostile to “just throw that rule out if you don’t like it” – you can say you can do that, but the book certainly doesn’t encourage it, and a tightly interlocking set of rules like that makes it difficult.  When you read 4e, it clearly implies “You will do it this way.”  Sure, apparently in later 4e books there are “alternate options” that are less rigid, but the game has set the general tone already.  Just the statement that you need a supplement to give you an option for randomized treasure to replace the treasure parcel rule is fundamentally demented and indicative of the obsessive-compulsive lawyer mindset that 4e has become.  In previous editions, whether there was a rule for it in a book or not, there was more of an understanding that “these are suggestions, use them if it makes your life easier as a DM.”  They’ve done away with that, and now they get all surprised when story content shrinks and combat is seen as mandatory.  You reap what you sow.  If you present your game as a set of law books, then everyone starts acting like lawyers.  Designers in most fields understand this.

I’m sure it’s not their intention for that to happen – but it’s the natural conclusion of how 4e is framed.  There’s some bad natural conclusions to how 3e is framed too.  But for me – I play for the story, for the inter-character interaction, for the immersion – and so I see that 4e is a hostile environment to that.  4e lovers will pop out of the woodwork and say “NO IT’S NOT I ROLEPLAY IN IT” but you have a lot of articles like this by actual 4e designers that recognize this is happening and are even starting to understand the reasons.  You “can” create a story in 4e, but its nature is slowly discouraging that in players, play groups, adventure writers, and eventually that vicious circle spreads like a cancer through the hobby.  If I was more into the combat part of D&D, and the new version downplayed combat and had sloppy rules for it and was presented in a fashion that would encourage less and less combat encounters over time, I’d be similarly upset.

When I design a location/adventure encounter, do you know what I put in it?

Whatever the fuck I want to.

See, isn’t that easy?

It makes me sad that these otherwise talented adventure writers are trying so hard to innovate within the bizarre restricted environment that the tactical encounter format dictates.  “Maybe if we reorganize each tightly budgeted room as sectors…”  No one is putting the restriction on you but yourselves!  Rise up and cast off your chains!

4 responses to “Reexamining the Dungeon?

  1. I can’t disagree with the article. There is a structure to D&D4 adventure design, and it’s a system that works well, but it’s also restrictive. Building an encounter starts to feel like putting together a small Warhammer army rather than coming up with something cool for your players to interact with.

    It’s one of the many places where D&D4 does what it does well, but it’s not something I’m at all interested in. I prefer my games to be more fluid and dynamic, and I’d prefer to not fight against the system to make them so.

    • Yeah. You know what game was a lot like this? Rune.

      I was a huge Robin Laws fan from Feng Shui and previous work. I heard he was coming out with a Viking RPG. “Sweet!” I got it the second it came out, and the problem is that encounter design is a tightly budgeted activity; you end up needing a spreadsheet to write an adventure. Caused me to abandon it completely, because without published adventures, I sure as hell wasn’t going to go through that – it becomes about the format and what you put in is driven off the rules, as opposed to being driven by the story and fun stuff you have in mind. Sadly it seems that a lot of this aesthetic was put into 4e.

  2. The important thing to remember is that the rules, game mechanics, cannot be easily separated from the narrative/fictional world. They need to compliment each other in ways that interest the Gaming Groups that use those rules. A lot of the blog entries I’ve read about this whole “dungeon” thing seem to try to reconcile the two, but fail.

  3. Good article on Robert Schwalb’s part. I’m glad that more of the minds behind 4E are looking critically at their design and its inherent flaws and strengths. There are good things about this design asthetic, but it does lead to combat in many cases. I use the rough values they give for XP as guidelines like people did for 3E. A lot of my more challenging fights are significantly over the XP guideline since my players rarely are dungeon-crawling, so they often only get one or two fights per day, thus the hard cap that Robert Schwalb describes is less of an issue for my players. I would argue that those hard caps did exist in previous editions as well, particularly when healing isn’t very prolific in your party. The modified 1E game I’m playing in was heavily influenced by the low HP and no healing in our party. Rest for a day and I get 1 HP back. Yippee. This means that instead of the one rest that we take to get our dailies and surges back that happens in 4E, my 1E fighter/thief is begging for 4 days of rest so that he can be just slightly over half his HP.

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