Design & Development10/13/2006

Designing the Delve, Part 2

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.

“Here, run this CR 26 monster for those guys standing there, OK?”

Last time we talked about designing 20th-level PCs that an intermediate D&D player could play right off a single sheet of paper. Now let’s look at the other side of the DM screen: the two high-level dragons that were the big, bad monsters at Gen Con Indy 2006.

Here they are in .pdf form, just as our volunteer DMs saw them. Our challenge this time: Make a black dragon that’s a fair fight for four 20th-level PCs and that a DM can run off a clipboard without slowing play or referencing rulebooks more than once in a blue moon. Then do the same with a red dragon, but give it a clear advantage over the PCs.

Tangent Alert!: In years of running the Dungeon Delve, I’ve noticed something about the D&D players who find their way to the table. They approach character death with great relish. In fact, they’re a little masochistic about it, high-fiving their buddies with glee after their PC meets a gory demise.

My theory is that it’s meta-level wish fulfillment. A player who takes great care keeping their fictional character “alive” for the other 51 weeks of the year gets a vicarious thrill when they get a character that they don’t need to keep alive. The player can experience character death without any of the lasting consequences that his or her ongoing campaign would insist on. So that’s why we play rough at the Dungeon Delve—players like it.

And it’s something you might try as a change of pace in your own D&D game. Try out some characters you don’t care about. The experience can be strangely liberating.

Making easy-to-play dragons isn’t as hard as making easy-to-play 20th-level PCs. Even complicated monsters like dragons are less complex than full-on PCs, and the volunteer DMs would get both a little training from me ahead of time and four days of practice with the dragons. By the end of Gen Con, the volunteers were a cadre of PC-killers. Heck, they could probably recite the relevant stats from the dragons by memory.

That said, dragons are the most complicated monster in the D&D game. So complicated that we professional game designers can’t run them well, straight out of the Monster Manual (we can do it, but we can’t do it well). Even running a dragon from the standard stat block is no picnic. Here’s what I’m trying to keep in my head while running a dragon:

  • I’m always playing the “How much should I Power Attack?” game.
  • How much recharge time is left on the breath weapon, and how should I lure the PCs into a nice cluster before letting ‘em have it?
  • I’m checking to make sure there isn’t some key feat or spell-like ability I forgot about.
  • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the third round of the fight when I slap my head and say to myself “I completely forgot about frightful presence… oh well, too late now.”
  • And the powerful dragons are all high-level spellcasters, so I’m managing a half-dozen spells that were cast before combat (or at least they should have been cast) and checking the spell list every round to see if there’s something better than a breath weapon attack or another round of melee.

That’s a lot to keep in the front of one’s mind. Here inside the walls at Wizards, we often talk about the “processor load” on a DM’s mind. Dragons will take all the processing power you have, and then some. Plus you have all those other DM duties like keeping the table moving, answering rules questions, and making sure everyone’s having a good time. If you go into a dragon fight without doing your homework first, the result can be a real train wreck—or at least you’ll feel guilty because you didn’t run the dragon to the best of its ability.

R&D Confession: To be blunt, I think dragons are overdesigned. They’re eighty gallons of fun in a forty-gallon barrel. And the most troublesome aspect of dragons is their potent spellcasting. Those big sorcerer (and sorcerer/cleric) lists certainly make dragons more effective, but they also add about 20,000 moles of complexity. (Side note: we need a unit of measurement for game-design complexity.) And worse, spellcasting makes dragons less archetypically draconic. Rather than rampaging through the PCs and breathing fire on them, the dragon is waving his claws around and chanting. So dragon spellcasting has a big ole’ bullseye on it—for the Delve, anyway.

So let’s see how we can make these overdesigned dragons easy on our processor-overloaded DMs.

Controlling the Environment

First, I wanted to control the physical environment. I decided on low ceilings throughout the Delve so that the dragons wouldn’t fly. That gives the PCs an advantage, sure, but it also avoids:

  • Our flying rules (which are pretty fiddly, especially with poor-maneuverability creatures like dragons). Even expert DMs probably have to consult the rulebook for poor and clumsy flyers.
  • Some effective but unfun tactics (like the dragon acting like a B-52 far above the battlefield or grabbing PCs, flying upward, then dropping them.
  • Omnipresent flying among the PCs, which just adds to complexity, not fun. A couple of the PCs can fly or teleport, and that’s enough to give the PCs an edge in the tactical movement category. (Once you’ve seen the dragons’ stats, you’ll see why I wasn’t worried about throwing the PCs a bone from time to time.)

I controlled the physical environment in another way. I used the battle maps that come with the gargantuan black dragon and the colossal red dragon, connecting them with the dungeon tiles (which I was eager to show off). But I made sure to build with the dungeon tiles carefully so that the dragons could physically reach every square without needing to use our squeezing rules (they’re on pg. 148 of the Player’s Handbook, but I’m always forgetting them).

Controlling the physical environment helps a little. But controlling the rules environment helps a lot. The first rules situation I knew I wanted avoid was something I’d seen in dozens of high-level dragon fights: dispel magic battles. Because I was letting the PCs have spells cast beforehand (and I knew I wanted the dragons to do that, too), I gave neither the PCs nor the dragons any way to dispel the other side’s magic. Especially at the Delve, no one wants to recalculate a character’s or monster’s statistics on a round-by-round basis. Working along the same lines, I kept most ability score damage-dealers away from both PCs and dragons.

Dragons have lots of great options for grappling, but nobody—nobody in the world, anywhere—likes the grapple rules. So I got rid of most of those. I kept one grapple-related function for the dragons: snatch. I did so because the dragons’ grapple checks are comically high (+62 for the black and +73 for the red). It’s easier to adjudicate grappling when one side has no chance of losing. Snatch also sets up a breath weapon nicely, and with a sense of impending doom, no less! Finally, there’s another fun reason to use Snatch on a bite attack: You can actually cram the character mini into the dragon’s mouth, and it’ll stay there.

Answer: Draconomicon

I’m on a mission to reduce complexity. So it’s counterintuitive that the best tool in my toolbox is Draconomicon, which purports to provide “a wealth of new feats, spells, magic items, and prestige classes” involving dragons. I thought the dragon feats in that book would be the best weapon in my arsenal. Make no mistake, they were great—especially for the red dragon, who has fourteen(!) feats.

But for my purpose, the best part of Draconomicon was the metabreath spells (described on pg. 75). These are spells that require use of breath weapons as part of their casting. For one standard action, you get a fully functional breath weapon with an interesting “rider” effect (the spell). The black dragon had greater stunning breath (rider effect: Fort save or be stunned for 2d4 rounds) and breath weapon substitution (rider effect: another energy type, which would confound PCs with energy protection up). The red dragon had both of those, plus the truly nasty enervating breath (rider effect: 2d4 negative levels).

These spells let me avoid a lot of the complexity inherent in high-level spells. For starters, they use the same save DC as the breath weapon, and the rider effects are game elements that most players are already familiar with. They’re effectively on the same timer as the breath weapon, so they won’t be employed every round. And best of all, they let the dragon act like a dragon, not a big scaly sorcerer. The DMs still got the fun of breathing on the PCs, and then the fun of saying, “Good job with the Reflex save… now make a Fort save to see if you’re stunned.”

Once I had a reasonable arsenal of easy-to-use metabreath spells, I loaded up on as many “cast before combat” spells as I could—simple things like haste that I could add to the monster’s stats ahead of time. That’s why so many of the boxes are crossed out already. The black dragon has eight spells going in round 1 of the fight, and the red dragon has nine spells going.

Tangent Alert!: Because the red dragon was a cleric, I wanted it to have an answer for the energy drain that the PC wizard and cleric both have on their sheets. Restoration does the trick, but it’s three full rounds to cast—even if the red dragon could pull that off, it creates an unfun lull in the fight when the PCs make their Spellcraft checks and realize that they’ve got three rounds of no danger. Scratching my head, I wandered from cubicle to cubicle here at Wizards, saying, “Isn’t there a feat or something that will let me reduce the casting time on restoration?”

Eventually James Wyatt helpfully pointed me to the Rapid Spell feat in Complete Divine… a book I wrote. That’s the curse of being a game designer—you see so many versions of things that sometimes you can’t remember which things actually see print, in which books, and under which names. If a game designer answers a rules question of the top of his or her head, be a little suspicious. Those heads are crammed with previous versions, playtest versions, and Versions That Should Not Be.

On to the monsters! I’ll include a few notes from the “here’s how to run the dragons” spiel I gave the Gen Con volunteers.

Gorundal (316k): This is the black dragon you’ll run most of the time. Here are the wrinkles you should know about:

  • Don’t forget to do frightful presence in the first round. I always forget. Don’t be like me.
  • There are two spells you should know forward and backward before you run this encounter: meteor swarm (which the PC wizard has, but you’ll need to adjudicate) and spell turning (which will be an unpleasant surprise for the PCs, but has some complicated interactions).
  • You’ve got a contingent dimension door ready for when a PC flanks you for the first time. They’re going to hate that.
  • Don’t be shy about Power Attack. The players will be more impressed by big damage numbers than by big attack numbers. You’ll still hit a lot—I promise.
  • You’ve got a fast breath weapon due to a feat from Draconomicon. But if you really need it, you can quicken to get a breath right away. You can also get a cone, which will be a “fun” surprise for experienced players. Quickening and coning both increase your recharge time.
  • Use acid the first time you use your breath weapon, but in the likely event that the PCs have acid resistance, change to another energy type (like cold) for your next breath, using your breath weapon substitution metabreath spell. That way the PCs’ spells weren’t wasted, but you’ve still got an effective breath weapon.
  • We’ve simplified the math on the breath weapon dice, because we figured you didn’t want to spend four days adding up 24d4 points of acid damage.
  • If you snatch with the bite, leave the PC there until your next breath, then let ‘em take some no-save acid damage. You could keep a PC there indefinitely (they won’t win a grapple check against you), but the PCs have so many hit points that it’ll take forever to kill them that way. Plus it’s no fun for the grappled guy—they'll just slowly take damage and can’t do much about it.
  • Rend damage probably should be increased if you’re Power Attacking, but by the rules, it isn’t increased. Go complain to a game designer. Don’t forget to apply that damage, though.
  • You’ve got spell resistance 30. Always ask for the level check.

Roathurr (260k): Use the red dragon if you get players who’ve already faced the black dragon, if you’re trying to cycle players through the delve quickly, or if you’re feeling particularly capricious. This encounter works better if you let another player immediately join whenever a PC dies. That way the dragon always faces four PCs.

  • Know spell turning and meteor swarm backward and forward.
  • Both your bite and claws have something special going on. Your bite sets up a snatch; hold ‘em in your mouth until you breathe, then drop ‘em after that point. If your claw crits (on a 19 or 20), then the PC must attempt a DC 47 Fort save or die. (This is the Devastating Critical feat from Draconomicon, if you’re curious.) Unless the PC rolls a natural 20, they can’t make that save. Remember that Tauroc can’t be critted, and Stratos can negate some crits, and this might save his life.
  • Your breath weapon has a quicken option—use it, especially if you’re about to die. And the dice expression for the breath weapon was designed to save you some arithmetic, just like we did for the black dragon.
  • If the PCs energy drain you, you have an answer: Rapid restoration. It takes a full round, though. It’s probably not worth it if you have just a few negative levels, but once those penalties pile up, go ahead and get rid of them.
  • Likewise, consider the opportunity cost of mass heal (namely, that you can’t do anything else fun that round). It’s worth it only if the PCs are dealing less than 190 points of damage to you in the round you cast it.
  • Don’t forget the 19 fire damage from the burning blood spell.
  • You have spell resistance 32. Make the players loathe hearing, “Make a level check.”

Do the Delve Yourself

Well, now you’ve got the characters and the dragons. Try out the Dungeon Delve yourself in any sufficiently large space if you want a change of pace from your usual D&D game. Then zap us an email at and let us know how it went. And, let us know what we should name the official unit of measurement for game-design complexity!

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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