Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Dungeon Design in 4e - Considerations

So, I do like 4e.

Sure, it's not as "D&D" as the other editions, but it's a shit-ton of fun, and the focus on combat really frees up the skill system to be a very loose, fluid thing - which I like, a lot. While 3.5 had a lot of rules on how to use certain skills in certain situations, 4e only has a few - the rest are up to the players and DM to work out.

But, while doodling some dungeon maps up, I realised a few things about making dungeons for 4e.

First, is space - you need a lot of it. Older editions were rife with 10ft wide corridors, 10'x10' rooms, etc. But, due to the way 4e combat works, with powers that push, pull, and rely on movement, such corridors become very limiting on what actions a PC can take. And that goes against 4e's ethos in a big way. 4e's heroes are cool, larger than life combatants - forcing them to cramp their style is tantamount to hamstringing them!

So, I need to design dungeons which have less corridors, maze-like sections, and true curves, and instead focus on having larger areas interspersed with interesting scenery. This is kinda rubbish, as I like the little fiddly bits! It also means sticking to regular shapes - everything kinda has to be measured in 1"x1" squares, so no circles/curves. I feel that that will strip a lot of the dungeon's vermilisitude.

So, we go from this:

If I ever meet Dyson Logos, I'm going to blow him.

... to this

I know it's from Gamma World, but I'm still just not feeling the love.
Second is the sheer time that combat takes - 4e has no wandering monster rolls, because frankly, each battle against level-appropriate threats can take upwards of an hour to resolve. I played OSRIC, and watched 10 PCs (in Dangerous Brian's Expeditionary Campaign) take on similar numbers of bad guys - and the fights never took as long as when we played 4e. Part of this was down to player choice - there's just a bit too much of it. While in OSRIC, you either shot/stabbed/lobbed/generally attacked, or maybe cast a spell, your options were limited - but you had a lot more say in how you performed them. In 4e, even a Level 1 character can have up to 7 specific attacks listed, and more options besides. As many of them rely on the aforementioned pushing/pulling/movement, pre-planning often leads to you being unable (or, at least, making it unwise) to use certain Powers. People get in the way, monsters dodge out of reach of certain Powers, etc., and it can lead to some stage-fright when you finally get around to your turn. How this affects dungeon design is that each combat has to really matter - it should further the plot/story, because it'll take fucking hours, so it better be worth it! And, to be honest, I don't like running a dungeon with a plot in mind - there's just too much that can occur within a dungeon, too many places where the plot will be lost, that it's not worth losing out on the feeling of adventure, the spontaneity, the sheer fun of a dungeon by meticulously planning every aspect of it. It's just not fun. Stock it and let the players choose how to encounter it. Don't force them to take certain paths, or make enemies appear at set places like videogame spawn points. Just roll with it.

Thirdly, is the matter of Experience Points. In 4e, XP is meticulously balanced by encounter - so, for each fight, you have an Encounter Budget, based on the number of enemies/traps there are. This is the main way of gaining XP, and can make dungeons into hack-and-slash blenders. In OSRIC, XP was garnered through collecting loot - gold, silver, copper, gems, whatever valuables you could make off with. Players prised elaborate candelabras off walls, bought mules to carry their treasure back from dungeons, pulled of heists that would make the Leverage team dizzy. Fighting wasn't worth it - you gained a piddling amount of XP for risking your life (and, your chance to reach a higher level - a lot harder to do in OSRIC than 4e). When fights occurred, most were simple survival - and good players planned ahead, made choke points, set their polearms for a charge, or fired missile weapons and burning oil from behind cover. There was less mechanical variety in combat, but a lot more choice.
So, when making a 4e dungeon, you have to plan each encounter out to ensure it's within the correct scale, and that the players level at the right points. A good DM also includes plenty of chances for the individual players to shine - if someone made a Wizard and took all the Powers and feats to make him tackle multiple enemies at once, throw her a cloud of minions every few fights, so she gets to nuke huge groups of bad guys. If someone made an agile, acrobatic Rogue, then don't make everything about corridors - throw in poles to balance on, traps to spring-vault over, and walls to run along.

Despite all this, I do like 4e - just as a player. Running it can be somewhat fraught with problems (or me, at least). It does have some awesome stuff (the feeling of being a hero, rather than a very lucky chump; the Powers system; the flexibility regarding skills and terrain use), and the player options are both mechanically interesting and very flavourful - but as a DM, it's kinda fiddly. I'd rather doodle up a dungeon in half an hour than dick around with Dungeon Tiles and make sure everything's alright for everyone.

Yep, I'm officially a grognard (despite not being around when AD&D was released). God help me.

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