Design & Development02/10/2006

Let’s Get Small: Adventure Design, Part 1

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

Dave Noonan starts an examination of adventure design concerning his own future adventure.

Wherein Dave uses the word “verisimilitude” no less than six times… counting that one.

My current project is adventure design—specifically a sizeable adventure for low- to mid-level characters. For the last few months, I’ve been doing the nitty-gritty work of designing rooms, statting up NPCs, and figuring out whether the pit should be 40 feet deep or 30 feet with spikes along the bottom.

I’ve found that adventure design demands a much tighter focus than sourcebook and rules design. When I’m writing something like Dungeon Master’s Guide or Heroes of Battle, I spend most of my time creating tools. As I tap away on my trusty laptop, I’m saying: “Here are some teamwork benefits—go ahead and have fun with these.” When I describe some mysterious monster underneath Lake Dark in Karrnath, I’m saying, “Go forth and make a cool adventure out of this.”

But when I’m writing an adventure, I’m not creating tools anymore. I’m employing them. As I type away, I’m no longer imagining a vast audience of D&D players who’ll use the tools we make in countless different ways. I’m imagining one table of friends playing D&D, and I’m trying to craft great D&D sessions for those five guys.

So my focus lately hasn’t been on the grand issues of the D&D hobby (see the “Flow at the D&D Table” column a few weeks ago for that), but rather on the little elements that I’m trying to shape into a fun D&D adventure. These are tiny issues, but they’re reflective of the tight focus that adventure design demands.

What follows are some notes that I’ve collected as I worked my through this adventure—prettied up, of course. Seeing me scribble “Drowses! We hates them, we does!” might be entertaining, but it isn’t exactly illuminating.

The Keys to a Good Adventure

A True-type R&D Confession: Throughout the 30-year history of D&D, we’ve uniformly done a terrible job with locks. Open any D&D adventure, and I’ll bet you find a bunch of locked doors, locked chests, chained-up prisoners, etc. Now find the keys for all those locks… not so easy, is it? Usually, they just aren’t there. As adventure designers, we’ve put the lock in there as a minor obstacle—something that will require a skill check, maybe alert the monsters on the other side of the door, etc. But once we’ve designed our little obstacle, we don’t pay attention to verisimilitude. We never take the time to give the NPCs the keys they’d need to move around their own living quarters and get the stuff out of their own chests.

Well, that problem ends with this adventure. The locks have keys—and we tell you where the key is in the description of every lock. And when the players find a key, the adventure tells the DM what lock it opens. It’s a little thing, but it’s overdue. When my playtest group started saying things like “Wow, we’re finding a lot of keys,” I knew I was onto something good.

Once I committed to a “key for every lock” philosophy, I found I needed to stretch verisimilitude a little. Think about where your house keys are. For probably half the day, they’re inside your house. That’s realistic, but it’s dissatisfying for the players to repeatedly beat down a locked door, take out the bad guys, and only then get the keys that would have opened the lock. So I found myself inventing reasons why there’s a monster in room A3 whose pocket has the key to a chest in room A6. It’s pretty easy to come up with those reasons, but taking that little bit of extra time makes for more satisfying verisimilitude. Depending on how the PCs explore the adventure site, they might get the key first, in which case they’ll feel smart when they use it on the chest. Or maybe they’ll find the chest first and bash it open. Then if they later get the key, they still feel smart for having figured out how the world works—even if their cleverness arrived too late to actually help.

For the record, there’s one exception in this adventure. There are a few rooms occupied by monsters that aren’t exactly the original builders. Those doors have locks, but the monsters don’t use them, because they don’t have the keys.

Monster Response

Three main adventure sites comprise my adventure. Without getting into too much plot detail, suffice it to say that the sites have historical links with each other, but the current inhabitants of the three sites don’t share those links.

Three disparate monster groupings gave me the chance to play with some different choices for how monsters respond to PCs invading their homes.

In real life, if you attack a site full of armed, dangerous people, the entirety of them will respond—probably overwhelmingly, and probably right at the entrance. But that rarely makes for a satisfying D&D game. First, PCs don’t feel a sense of progression when they’re fighting battle after battle in room A1, not exploring the entire adventure site. Second, the PCs don’t get to make interesting noncombat decisions—the “left door or right door” sorts of questions. Third, a dungeon that empties out in response to a PC attack starts to feel like a random monster generator.

DM: This round, the north door opens and a…[rolls dice]… catoblepas comes through.
Player: You didn’t have a lot of prep time this week, did you?

(I should note that once in a great while, you can get away with waves of monsters entering the same room. You can get a good Shaka Zulu thing going, but it’s tiresome when repeated too often.)

Minimal Monster Response
Even if the “everyone rush to the entrance” defense plan doesn’t make for a good D&D adventure, you still have a lot of tools for monster response. My three sites take three different approaches. The first site, populated by creatures that are ot-nay oo-tay ight-bray, is intentionally designed with minimal monster response. If the creatures in room A2 hear a battle in room in A1, they shrug and go back to their porridge, because fights in room A1 happen all the time. There are some built-in exceptions, but most of the first site is built to be explored piecemeal. What happens in room A1 stays in room A1. Given that this low-level site will have players still getting used to what their PCs can do, it’s useful to keep it simple—a sort of “shakedown cruise” to start a new campaign.

Individual Alert
The second site has smarter denizens, but they don’t necessarily get along all that well with one another. So I can introduce a second sort of monster response: individual alert. When the creatures in room B2 hear a fight in room B1, they get out their weapons, start casting spells, and otherwise hunker down and get ready for a fight. But they stay put, and they don’t spread the news throughout the rest of the site.

An “individual alert” monster response system does a couple of nice things for an encounter. First, it lets the NPCs use more complex tactics and employ some basic preparation magic—they get to be more interesting bad guys. Second, it rewards players who can use stealth or speed to overwhelm the bad guys in room B1. If they can dispatch the enemies in room B1 quickly, they’re rewarded with unprepared enemies in room B2. The individual alerts have good verisimilitude for the players (they see the consequences of making noise or being stealthy), but the PCs still get the fun of exploring each room in turn, dealing with it, then moving on.

General Alert
By the time the PCs reach the third site, the players are more comfortable with their characters, and the DM knows more of what they’re capable. And the third site has a (mostly) unified group of intelligent creatures, so I can take monster response to the “general alert” level.

Now monsters in room C2 can put a good chunk of the site on alert when they hear the battle in room C1. Players will have to deal with monsters that have been alerted, patrols that the bad-guy leadership sends in response to “trouble at the gates,” and so on. The verisimilitude is really good. The players get a profound “we just kicked over an anthill” sense once they realize that the whole site knows that it’s under attack.

But general alerts are more work for the DM, who has to manage roving patrols and have a keen sense of timing. All of sudden, questions like “how long does it take the guards in room C4 to put on their armor, talk to the guys in room C5, then head to room C1?” matter a lot more. And DMs already have a lot to keep track of, so it takes some careful design to make general alert monster response work. You want to craft a general alert that feels realistic to the players, but not one that throws the whole adventure site into chaos with monsters running from room to room. If the monster response is too complex, then you’re basically telling the DM: “Redesign this dungeon on the fly, please.”

Individual alerts and general alerts are more work for the adventure designer, too, because you’re designing each encounter twice: once with monsters going about their daily business and once with alerted monsters. Both encounters have to be interesting—and you probably need to fit them both on the same page. But there’s a big payoff for all that work. The DM can glance down at the adventure, quickly scan what it says in the “if the monsters are alerted” box, and run the encounter with confidence that it’ll feel realistic to the PCs.

Reactive Traps

All told, this adventure will have something like eighty encounters. But there’s one staple D&D challenge that I’m skipping entirely: the hidden trap that goes off without warning… the booby-trap that PCs just react to.

You know the type. It’s the poison needle that jabs the rogue picking the lock. It’s the explosive runes on the last page of the book. It’s the slay living spell that goes off whenever someone touches the door of the mausoleum.

I think these traps are fundamentally dissatisfying. Look at it from the player’s point of view.

Player: I go listen at the door.
DM: As you move down the corridor, it fills with caustic gas. Make a Fortitude save.
Player: [Rolls.] An 18.
DM: Not good enough. Take… [rolls]… 22 points of damage as you choke your way through the gas cloud. Now you’re at the door. Make that Listen check…

From the player’s point of view, he tried to do something ordinary, and he took damage for it. He eventually got to do what he wanted to do all along. He just took a little damage and earned some XP along the way. It’s almost entirely a mechanical transaction—no decisions involved. The trap’s only function in the overall adventure is to provide some minor attrition.

Worse, the whole table pays a penalty for that minor attrition. Now the PCs start taking 20 on every Search check. They develop elaborate operating procedures for opening a door. The pace of the game slows to a crawl. I ask myself this: Given that you have a finite amount of time at the D&D table with your friends, how much of that time do you want to devote to door-opening?

Does that mean no traps? Hardly. It means traps that feel like encounters, where the PCs work their way past them on a round-by-round basis. It means traps that function like interesting obstacles: big, obvious, and cool-looking.

An example might suffice: I’ve got a room full of swinging, bladed pendulums—an execution chamber that’s damaged and not exactly functioning the way its makers intended. Is it a trap encounter? Yes, the PCs will still get to use Disable Device to get the bladed pendulums to stop swinging. The PC can still use Search to find the hidden button that turns off the pendulums. And PCs can pile debris in the path of the pendulums or figure out the pattern of their swinging and deftly dart across the room.

No matter how the PCs get past the blades, the players feel like they did something. One way or another, they figured out a way to get through the room. If those blades had suddenly dropped out of the ceiling and started slicing up PCs, the players wouldn’t feel like they did something. They would feel like something was done to them. So I’m promising anyone who plays this adventure: No reactive traps. Listen at the door, sure, but you don’t need to check every single one for a slay living spell.

Drowses! We hates them, we does!

Now I’m going to vent. In a previous column, we asked, “Which monster doesn’t deserve its place in the D&D monster hall of fame?” The most common response was: the drow.

I think drow have a terrific spot in the D&D milieu. Conceptually, I love ‘em. But for those of you that made complaints about the specific nuts-and-bolts of drow mechanics, I’m here to tell you: I feel your pain.

I’m using them as antagonists in part of the adventure, and it’s outrageously difficult to get them to earn their Challenge Rating. Why? Three reasons:

Reason I hate the drow #1: I’m giving up 1 point of CR off the bat, just because they’re drow. Yeah, I know I get spell resistance and some spell-like abilities, but in a low-level game, a point of CR is huge.

Reason I hate the drow #2: They’re basic humanoids, so I have to build them with class levels. The rule that says “an nth-level NPC is a CR n monster”… well, let’s just say that the rule isn’t beyond reproach. It’s true of some classes within some level ranges, but it’s simply not accurate as a general rule. I don’t think any designer will tell you with a straight face that a 1st-level NPC wizard is a good challenge for four 1st-level PCs. (Better hope the NPC gets that sleep spell off, huh?) So my low-level drow have 1 point of CR vanish into thin air, and they lose more oomph because they’re built with class levels.

Tangent Alert!: In City of the Spider Queen, James Wyatt faced the “drow have anemic hit points” problem. His solution was the amulet of dark blessing, a magic item that bestows 24 temporary hit points on the wearer. So we’ve been dealing with this problem for some time.

Reason I hate the drow #3: Then, as a final insult, my drow have to take a –2 Constitution penalty. That hits them right at any monster’s bottom line: their hit points. For a monster, hit points effectively determine how long that monster gets to stay onstage. At the point where I’m designing CR 3 drow with only 14 hit points, I’m asking myself, “Are these guys going to survive into the second round?” When I’m designing monsters with a game-time lifespan of 12 seconds, I start questioning whether they’re worth the ink.

Extra bonus reason to hate the drow: It’s true that drow have survivability beyond those 14 hit points. They’ve got spell resistance and probably concealment by virtue of their darkness spell-like ability. But both of those defenses can play at the table in dissatisfying ways. Both spell resistance and the miss chance from concealment are “neener neener” abilities. They turn successes that the player takes for granted into failures. They feel capricious. The wizard “knows” the magic missile is going to work, but then… neener neener, it doesn’t. The fighter rolls a 20, grabs the lucky “crit” dice, but then… neener neener, the miss chance kicks in. The neener neener defenses are fine in moderation. But if you populate a whole dungeon with them, you’re asking for frustrated players.

Next time, I’ll go through the rest of my notes, including why I’ve got mad love for the gnolls, how to find the right level of “map linearity,” and which encounters tested particularly well.

We’ll also talk a little more about traps. If you’ve experienced a particularly good obstacle-style trap, zap an email to and tell us about it. You already know how I feel about reactive booby-traps, so keep those to yourself. But tell me about cool traps that demand something of the players.

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.

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