Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Improving a Poorly Designed/Executed Encounter

Since I missed yesterday, I'm going to do double duty today and make my ninth post for the DBloC Challenge. I'm still a day behind, due to a late start, but I'm sure I'll be able to catch up this weekend with reports from GASPCon.

Earlier today, I gave an overview of a game experience my 4e group "suffered" through this week. Here's the link to that post, in you didn't see it. There is some whining and complaining there. The more I think about it, the more frustrated I get with the whole situation. Now I'm not sure if the real problem is with the encounter design or my execution as a DM or the players execution of tactics, but I have a strong feeling we can take a little from columns A, B, & C (plus maybe another column or two I haven't even considered.)

It's my opinion that becoming a great DM or GM or Referee or Keeper or whatever is not something you're born into and it's not some right or passage or secret club. It is a learning process and it requires practice. It requires learning from your mistakes and from your successes. A good DM is humble and realizes when he has had a rough night behind the screen, and as I alluded in my previous post, last night was particularly rough. Some of that can be attributed to my recent growing frustration with certain aspects of 4th Edition, but not all of it. Some of it was directly related to learning what works and doesn't work in a particular scenario with a particular group.

As far as the game went, I'm trying to work through places were things could have been remedied, had I really understood the problems. You get to that point where you know something sucks, but you're so far into it, you feel like you have to finish.

So let's turn this into a learning experience, okay?

The Problems with the Scenario (as I see them):
  • Lack of player control
  • Resolving the problem doesn't end the scenario
  • Too many hit points, not enough damage
  • Too many "effects" floating around
  • No "out" if the scenario implodes
Ideas for improvement?

First off, an NPC is off screen performing a ritual to stop the invasion. Each round the DM rolls a d20. On a 1-2, magic is weakening & more monster spawn. On 19-20, the ritual is completed and no more monsters can spawn. The players can't effect this roll. If I were to redesign, the players would be the ones completing this ritual or acting with the NPC to complete the ritual. On any given round, they would have to make the decision to assist with the ritual, defend those assisting with the ritual, or continue to fight. I think this would likely lead to a significantly more dynamic battle.

Dice Meltdown
Additionally, completion of the ritual only stops more monsters from spawning and has no effect on the existing enemies. In the module, it states that they are on a suicide mission and fight to the death. Completing the ritual, especially if it was built into some kind of challenge, could have done major damage to the enemy, caused them to flee, or destroyed them outright. Instead, it just allowed the scenario to continue to drag. The players even asked about assisting with the ritual, but I hadn't prepared for anything like that, so I said it wasn't possible from their location. Essentially, they ended up becoming meat shields for the city.
The monsters themselves? Well, combining a solo monster with two standard monsters was a bit of overkill. There were too many hit points out on the table. Two of the three monsters screwed you if you stood to close to them and both were pretty hard to hit. There was some pretty heavy frustration brewing around the table as players missed over and over. Some d20s were definitely put at risk for maiming and destruction. Any way, I think the Behir with an army of Hill Giant minions would have provided plenty of challenge for the players. The archon's powers basically just frustrated everyone, because of their ability to take a player out of the action. The minions could still be strapped with bombs, but maybe they would be more like real suicide bombers. You could turn the scenario into a bit of a tower defense simulator, where the players are trying to figure out how to stop the bomb laden enemies before the make it to the wall. Maybe the players could even figure out how to detonate those bombs from a distance to turn a disadvantage into an advantage.

Run Away! Run Away! Run Away!
Finally, the PCs were kind of locked into the combat, whether they wanted to continue or not. They couldn't run away. The monsters couldn't run away. It was a knock-down, drag-out, fight to the death, whether anyone was looking for that or not. The idea that completing the ritual would end the scenario could have really alleviated some of this problem. I think changing the monster line-up to be an overwhelming number, rather than being statistically over-matched would have been beneficial here, too. Just that feeling of dread as more and more minions entered the fray could have been amazing. Hell, the monsters could have even surrendered after the ritual is completed, knowing their allies were blocked from assisting. This could allow a savvy group of  PCs a role-playing opportunity to extract additional information.

All that said, the evening wasn't a total disaster, but I know I can do better than what I put out there. I'm striving to do that each time I act as DM.

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