Design & Development09/29/2006

Designing the Delve, Part I

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.

20 levels, 1 sheet of paper...

First off: Apologies for the long gap between my columns. I blame Starbucks. They're eliminating Mocha Valencias, so I have to go farther and farther to find locations that still have a supply. How the heck else am I supposed to stay awake?

Among the more interesting design projects I had this summer was designing the Dungeon Delve for Gen Con Indy. The Delve sits in the Wizards booth in the exhibit hall. It's intended to be one hour of concentrated D&D. There's no registration, no ongoing plot, no specific schedule... nothing like that. You just show up, sit down, and play for an hour.

(For a quick rundown on Gen Con Indy, check out our D&D podcast. I'll try not to overlap with my podcast babblings too much.)

We knew we wanted to have the Gargantuan Black Dragon as the main foe this year, because... well, because it's a gargantuan... black... dragon. And ole' Blackie sits at CR 22, so that meant 20th-level characters.

On the one hand, I was excited at the prospect of a high-level Dungeon Delve. Most D&D players never get to play a 20th-level character, so we'd be giving fans a taste of something they weren't likely to get in their home games. And it's particularly fun to play a 20th-level character when it's just a one-shot encounter and you don't have any particular attachment to the character.

But on the other hand, 20th-level Delve characters pose a significant design challenge: Could I design 20th-level characters that an intermediate D&D player can play with no prep time and no familiarity with the specific character before? Put another way, could I thrust a 20th-level character sheet at you, give you dice, and get you playing right away?

With a 20th-level character "organically grown" from 1st level, the answer is almost certainly no. Over the course of 20 levels, characters pick up so many idiosyncratic items, weird prestige classes, and subtle rules combos that even an expert D&D player would have to hit the books and do some serious studying before playing the character proficiently. That's part of the joy of D&D: it's an incredibly rich, complex system.

So Let’s Hide All That Rich Complexity

The Delve characters could be designed from the ground up for the Delve environment, though, so I knew we could eliminate a lot of complexity by making characters that worked well in the Delve but had little depth beyond it. I was sufficiently confident that I set two further constraints: Each character had to fit on one side of one piece of paper, and there had to be enough explainer text on the character sheet so that an intermediate D&D player could play the character without cracking open a D&D book.

Here, for your downloading pleasure, are PDFs of the character sheets. They're handy if you ever need a 20th-level character on short notice, or if you just want a yardstick to compare your character's progress against. They aren't optimized to overcome any specific set of challenges, but they're designed to be generally effective. If the Delve characters are optimized for anything, they're optimized to reach the intersection of "easy to play" and "powerful but straightforward output."

Tangent Alert!: That's a useful tenet of information design: Don't include extraneous data. Extraneous stuff isn't just useless. It gets in the way of the good stuff. Those exhaustive feat and equipment lists? They're the leaves that camouflage the data you're actually looking for. If you want a good "user interface" for your character, try using a character sheet that has only essential data on the front side; kick all the non-encounter stuff to the back of the sheet, where you can browse it at leisure.

One thing you'll notice when you check out these character sheets: They don't have any place for listing feats, equipment, or skills. There's no string of boxes that breaks down all the factors that contribute to saving throws. That's intentional. If you don't need it during the encounter, you don't need it on the front of your character sheet. If a feat involved a choice on your part or gave you a new ability (such as Power Attack or Combat Reflexes), then it's listed somewhere. But if it's a feat that merely provides a static bonus (such as Weapon Focus), then it's just getting in the way of the useful information.

I also used static-bonus equipment to simplify the characters elsewhere. For example, I gave every character a ring of protection +5, a cloak of resistance +5, and +6 ability score boosters (belt of strength, etc.) for every relevant ability score. Doing so saved me complexity because it took a lot of low-level "buff" spells like bull's strength off the table.

Dice Expressions I Wouldn’t Wish on My Worst Enemy

Another weird thing: You might notice that the damage for the rogue’s sneak attack, the wizard’s meteor swarm, and other high-level effects isn’t the “plus 10d6 sneak attack” or “6d6 four times” that you’re used to. But if you deconstruct the damage expressions on the character sheet, you’ll see that the average damage is about the same.

We wanted the Delve to be an hour of concentrated D&D, and the time-consuming arithmetic of high-level damage ate into actual play too much. I really didn’t want the spellcasters adding up 20d6 every single round. And while the big dice expressions are tough on players, the DM has it even worse. The CR 22 black dragon has a breath weapon that deals 24d4 points of acid damage. Even if you efficiently “chunk” the dice together, you’re still looking at fourteen or fifteen operations, which will make the game grind to a halt. And only the most masochistic DM would enjoy adding all those dice up.

So we decided to just codify what most DMs (and to a lesser extent players) have been doing for years. We rebuilt the damage expressions so that the dice accounted for about one-third of the output and the constant (the number after the plus) accounted for the remaining two thirds. And I rounded up to the next 5, just to make it look even simpler still.

That’s something you’re going to see more from us in future products: rational dice expressions that assume you’ve got better ways to spend your time than doing a lot of arithmetic in your head. Yeah, we know it’s fun for you to drop a big pile of twenty 6-siders on the table. But it’s only fun the first time, and everyone else at the table is waiting for their turn while you’re having fun with dice. The game flows better (and you get quicker gratification for your high-level effects) if you convert those unwieldy “20d6 points of damage” expressions to more rational “one-third dice, two-thirds constant” expressions. If you’re playing in a mid- to high-level game, try it out. Then write to us at and tell us what you think.

The Constrained Supply of Spells

One final thing you’ll notice with the spellcasting characters: only two or three choices at each spell level. At first glance, this looks like a transparent effort to reduce complexity and save real estate on the page. And it is both of those things. But in a scenario like the Delve, the available supply of spells is a little on the meager side.

Here are some additional factors I considered. I looked at the 9th-level cleric or 9th-level wizard spells, then crossed off all the spells that were:

  • Save-or-die spells like implosion or imprisonment (‘cause those will be dissatisfying at the Delve);
  • Primarily useful outside of combat (like teleportation circle or true resurrection); or
  • Too complex to summarize on a character sheet without referencing the books (like gate or shades).

What do you have left? A pretty small list. I wanted to avoid energy drain because it’s a lot for the DM to keep track of, but the cleric had only mass heal that passed the three tests above, so energy drain made the cut.

I also gave both the cleric and the wizard power word kill, despite the fact that it’s an instant death spell. If you deal more than 500 points of damage to the dragon, you should absolutely get to trot out power word kill and end the battle—by that point, you’ve earned it.

Buff Spells… Crucius, Tell Them What They’ve Won!

One of the trickiest aspects of the Delve is managing “buff” spells—especially ones you cast on your comrades. It’s easy to take care of things like the cleric’s divine power, because it’s a personal spell. You can just mark it as already cast and include the attack bonus and extra hit points. But stoneskin, for example, is trickier. Ideally, you’d want that to show up on the fighter’s character sheet, because the fighter is going to be the one keeping track of it. But what if the fighter appears in the delve, but there’s no wizard in the group? No stoneskin for him! So when you see a spell marked off four times, that means “tell everyone else in the party that they get it too.” If a spell is marked off only once, that means, “you’ve cast this on yourself, and we already added it into the other numbers on the character sheet.”

And Now... Your 2006 Dungeon Delve Party!

On to the characters! Each one is a PDF for your downloading convenience.

Download Tauroc's character sheet: 141KBs

This fighter/dwarven defender is a classic tank: crazy-high Armor Class and almost 300 hit points. I grabbed battle plate armor and an extreme shield from Races of Stone; this cranked his Armor Class up even further and gave me some low-complexity ways to spend feats (Dwarven Armor Proficiency and Greater Heavy Armor Optimization, among others).

Tauroc can easily get his AC up to a pretty gaudy AC 52. It was fun watching players' eyes bug out when they noticed that. And if Tauroc was in a group that also had Seelah the druid, Tauroc could reach AC 57. Good times.

I knew the truth: The dragons can easily hit AC 52. But Tauroc's high armor class turned out to be important anyway, because it forced the dragons (and by extension, the volunteer DMs) into an unpalatable choice: forego Power Attack to hit Tauroc for pretty tame damage, or ignore the front-and-center dwarf to carve up the other PCs. Smart players could use the disparity between Tauroc's AC and everybody else's AC to manage the dragon's melee attacks.

One other magic item turned out to be key: boots of teleportation. I wanted something that would ameliorate Tauroc's slow land speed. And by 20th-level standards, the boots are a cheap way to accomplish that. But the number-one way Tauroc used his boots was to get himself or someone else out of the dragon's jaws.

Download Stratos' character sheet: 122KBs

If Tauroc is designed to avoid input from the monsters, then this warforged barbarian is designed to maximize melee output. Stratos was designed as my "ringer" -- a PC that even a D&D novice could handle with a little coaching from another player or the DM.

I took the berserker option from Player's Handbook II because I knew that Stratos wouldn't get his six mighty rages per day. Instead, he has an interesting wrinkle on tactical pacing. All the spellcasters get less powerful as the fight goes on, but Stratos gets more powerful once he's down to half his maximum hit points.

At the table, it was fascinating to watch the interaction between the berserker threshold, the warforged's innate resistance to healing magic, and a 20th-level cleric who's routinely dropping area-effect healing for 200 points. Sometimes Stratos would try to stay away from the cleric so he could get down into berserker territory. Had Stratos not been a warforged, this would have been even more of a hassle for the PCs.

Download Cerewain's character sheet: 125KBs

First off, I know that as a tiefling, Cerowain should theoretically be only 19th level. But against a gargantuan black dragon, you really aren’t going to get the extra mileage from your tieflinghood, so I gave him all 20 levels.

While Cerowain has the requisite sneakiness you’d expect from a rogue, I knew that stealth wasn’t exactly the order of the day in a battle against a dragon… especially when your dwarf buddy is in full battle plate. Cerowain was built to get into a flanking spot and deal the sneak attack damage as frequently as possible. That meant Improved Two-Weapon Fighting. To help him get into position, there’s Spring Attack, maxed out Tumble, and a +5 defending short sword (nearly as good as a shield during the round you get into position).

Because all Cerowain’s critical hits deal sneak attack damage (thank you, Telling Blow feat from Player’s Handbook II), it made sense to maximize crit potential with a +5 keen rapier.

Given Cerowain’s role, it’s no surprise that he functioned best with competent teammates, especially Tauroc and Ansrail (to set up flanking situations) and Vultram (whose haste spell can mean an extra sneak attack each round).

At the convention, a number of people asked me, “Why nightsong enforcer?” My answer: “Any prestige class with nearly full sneak attack progression and +1 base attack is a class you’ve got to take seriously.”

Download Crucius' character sheet: 150KBs

I wanted the Delve cleric to be more than a healer, because the value of a healer is diminished when you know that the “adventure” is a single encounter. So Crucius is built to smite, and that’s why he has the fist of Raziel prestige class from Book of Exalted Deeds.

High-level clerics tend to be relatively gear-independent; give them great armor and all the Wisdom boosters you can manage, and you’ve got a worthwhile cleric. With 760,000 gp to spend, Crucius had plenty of cash for Exordius from Weapons of Legacy, and that gave him swift-action healing that saved his life more than a few times.

But that doesn’t mean that Crucius didn’t heal. Placing Crucius (and his multiple 200 hp and 150 hp heal spells) near 283 hp Tauroc or 290 hp Stratos was a good way to frustrate a dragon. Even a CR 22 monster takes a long time to deal more than a thousand points of damage to a capable PC.

And as you might expect from a cleric, Crucius provided the party with some terrific defensive spells. Before the battle began, Crucius got to tell everybody: “You all have resist fire 30, resist acid 30, and SR 31.” I half-expected him to add, “If you need me, I’ll be in my trailer.”

Download Seelah's character sheet: 242KBs

With an animal companion, wild shape (into dozens of creatures), and spontaneous summoning (of dozens more creatures), the druid is the most high-maintenance, high-paperwork class of all. So how’d I get a 20th-level druid down to a single sheet of paper? Simple—Player’s Handbook II let me “cheat.”

The alternatives in PHB II let me swap out spontaneous summon nature’s ally for rejuvenation (arguably more useful, especially in groups that didn’t also have Crucius). And I took shapeshift instead of wild shape.

Shapeshift in particular is one of the best ways to downshift the complexity of a druid without losing power. You’re trading the versatility of spellcasting while in forms to get a really good combat form that you can use whenever you want. This sweeps a lot of the “I’m a custom-armored, Natural Spell using dire ape all the time” silliness off the table, and it sets up a nice play pattern. The druid acts like a spellcaster until it’s clear that she’s more useful as a melee combatant, at which point she shapeshifts and starts clawing the bad guy’s face off.

The other nice thing about Shapeshift? At 20th level, the elemental form is clearly the best choice, and we just happened to have a nifty translucent Huge Fire Elemental mini for when Seelah shapeshifted.

As you can see, I found the druid’s mid-level spells in the Player’s Handbook unsuitable for the Delve, so I dug into Spell Compendium instead. We had it available at the booth, but I don’t think players ever needed to reference the spell text. Let’s hear it for straightforward mid-level druid spells! At high levels, I gave Seelah mostly healing spells in case she was in a group that didn’t also have Crucius.

Download Ansrail's character sheet: 293KBs

The elf ranger is also a pretty simple character, designed to take advantage of every archery feat, class feature, and item I could find. If you want to roll a lot of attacks, this is the character for you.

But doing so can be fatal. At Gen Con Indy, Ansrail died when he used Rapid Shot to shoot five or six arrows per round. Against high-AC dragons, iterative attacks are usually a bad idea because a full attack roots you in place, and those extra arrows aren’t going to hit anyway. Players who used a “Manyshoot and scoot” strategy found that Ansrail dealt consistent damage from the periphery of the fight.

Clever players also realized that Ansrail could set up Cerowain’s sneak attacks with his Distracting Shot (from Player’s Handbook II), so they’d manipulate the initiative order so Ansrail acted right before Cerowain. This trick worked well—so well that the dragon often took it seriously and tried to bite Cerowain in half.

Download Vultram's character sheet: 153KBs

When you’re designing a high-level spellcaster, the archmage prestige class and the Scarab of Aradros (from Weapons of Legacy) make matters a lot easier. Why? They both eliminate spell slots, and that simplifies matters nicely. It’s not like a 20th-level arcanist is going to run out spells anytime soon. The archmage’s arcane fire is particularly handy because it bypasses spell resistance (which dragons have in abundance) and let me drop a bunch of pointless low-level spells from the character sheet. For 1st- and 2nd-level spells, I was able to simply write: “Regular low-level spells won’t help you…” and suggest arcane fire instead.

You’d think that there’s a lot of utility in 1st- and 2nd-level spells, but most of the top-drawer choices aren’t any good in the Delve.

  • Bull’s strength and similar spells don’t do anything for PCs equipped to a 20th-level standard.
  • Vultram’s ranged attack is nearly automatic, so arcane fire is a more dependable damage dealer than magic missile.
  • With robe of the magi and the Scarab of Aradros, there wasn’t any reason to have mage armor or shield.
  • Classic 2nd-level spells like web and invisibility aren’t going to do much good against a CR 22 dragon.

One other note: Vultram’s staff of transportation (from Complete Arcane) came in handy for rescue missions, grabbing other PCs out of the dragon’s jaws.

Download Arzimon's character sheet: 141KBs

I knew I wanted a Nine Swords character--something to show off the new book. In mid-August, few D&D players had even seen Book of Nine Swords, and almost none had high-level experience. So figured that all the talk of "stances" and "maneuvers" on the character sheet would put players off and they'd grab Tauroc or Stratos instead. How wrong I was! Throughout the convention, Arzimon was among the most popular characters.

As a character, Arzimon is a pretty straightforward build. One thing I found while building him: more so than most classes, Nine Swords characters tend to be gear-independent. That doesn't mean that they don't need good equipment, but they do have a lot of flexibility. You give 'em good armor, a good weapon, and the usual array of stat-boosters, and they're good to go.

In terms of information design, the biggest challenge was distilling the rules for specific maneuvers down to the functional minimum. I think I went through about twelve iterations of War Master's Charge before I found the wording I liked. And I knew I'd have to recapitulate the rules for stances and maneuvers, answering the "what the heck are these?" questions. You'll see those rules at the top of the stances and maneuver sections. If warblades were in the Player's Handbook, I could assume that players would know the basics. But Book of Nine Swords had just come out, so I needed to do a little more 'splaining.

Or, download all of the character sheets at once, right here: Dungeon Delve Character Sheets (1.3 Mbs).

Wait ‘Til You See the Bad Guys

Those are the eight characters for the Dungeon Delve. Next week, I’ll show you the dragons, and then you can recreate the Dungeon Delve with your own D&D group. Don’t forget to try out the “rational dice expressions,” and email with any feedback.

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.

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