23 Sep 2010

Reexamining the Dungeon

Blog 88 Comments

In 3rd edition’s latter days, D&D introduced the tactical encounter. This was a revolution. Each one was a script for running a combat. Its structured format helps DMs run complex and dynamic encounters involving creatures, traps, hazards, special terrain and more. For all the benefits this format introduced, it was not without its challenges too.

I was skeptical about tactical encounters at the start. A combat encounter was something that “might” occur in an adventure. Might, because the PCs weren’t expected to fight and kill every monster, because the PCs might talk their way through the fight, sneak past it, or use some other trick to bypass a costly encounter. This, in my mind, was a contributing factor to why “room” and “event” entries tucked the creature information below the other descriptions, usually with a Creature: and then the information the DM needed.

I’ll admit, the old way encouraged the “4 orcs,” “4 orcs,” “4 orcs” design so prevalent in older adventures. Also, if you were lucky enough to get a stat-block, it was either so abbreviated (as in 1e and 2e) you had to have the monster’s entry on hand to use it fully or it was so compressed (early 3e) it was easy to miss important abilities. And if the combat had a terrain feature, it hid inside the descriptive text. In short, combats were harder to run.

So I eventually warmed to the new format. Tactical encounters made the whole enterprise easier. Features, creatures, setup, and all the important content were in their sections. A DM could run the fight cold, without having to mark up the adventure to highlight key elements. Fights became more interesting and far more engaging. In the end, I embraced the tactical encounter format (not that I had much of a choice).

Years later, I’m still chewing on them and their implementation in the game. When writing adventures using this format, there’s less room to develop story content because every expected combat must fall in the one or two page encounter spread. If I put three fights in a 10-page adventure, I only have 4 pages left to frame in the plot. That’s pretty damned tough. Furthermore, devoting 6 pages to combat encounters in the adventure suggests they really shouldn’t be option. Skip one fight and you’ve lost 20% of the adventure content.

What I’ve found (and I’m sure some folks have done the same) is that the tactical encounters have come to define the adventures. Exploration, unconventional thinking, and problem solving have taken a back seat to tactics and optimization. For dungeon delves, this is awesome. For ongoing campaigns?

Resting mechanics and encounter composition exacerbate these problems. Short rests and extended rests are narrative explanations for how character regain expended resources. The short rest refreshes encounter powers and lets PCs to recover hit points. Extended rests refresh the action point and daily powers. Whether the character actually rests or not depends on how much you want the story to influence what is really a necessary procedure that allows heroes to keep fighting, exploring, etc. Resting is a nifty way to manage this process, but it also creates expectations. Players expect they can refresh their resources after each encounter segment and if they don’t, they rightly call foul. Without a refresh, the character is likely reduced to at-wills, doesn’t have a chance to gain another action point, and is ultimately unable to meet the next combat challenge. It doesn’t matter if a five minute siesta doesn’t make sense given the environment. The characters *must* regain their resources or they face a wipe.

Extended rests are even worse. Yes, 3rd edition was sick with the 5 minute adventuring day and it was easily the one thing I hated most about that edition. Now, characters have enough tools to push on for several combats before having to hunker down and refresh their most powerful abilities. Still, healing surges set a hard line for how far a party can go. When an adventurer drops to 1 or 0 healing surges, the extended rest is no longer an option and instead a must to avoid a party wipe during the next encounter. We’re still stuck with the same weirdness of DM handwaving that sees the PCs finding a safe place in the dungeon where they can bed down for six hours without attracting attention from the inhabitants.

Resting to me feels artificial and it breaks the game’s narrative. But this issue doesn’t compare to encounter composition. Without a doubt, the encounters I hate the most are the 8 x 8 rooms with one creature per PC. These fights drag. Everything interesting about the encounter lives inside the monster stat-blocks. And, it is rather upfront about what it’s there to do: let the PCs mine for XP/treasure.

Early on, designers talked about building tactical encounters that incorporated several rooms, diverse monster assortments, and interesting environmental mechanics. For all the great ideas, more and more combat encounters morph into the above construction and step away from multi-room environments where new monsters might join the fight, new dangers might reveal themselves as the combat unfolds. Instead, the PCs walk into a room, trigger the fight, and then hunker down in the hallway for an hour until the battle is done.

What it seems is happening now is that the designer/DM creates a warband to throw against the PCs. They duke it out. The PCs win. The PCs get their reward. The PCs move to the next room and face the next warband.

Warbands grow from how we build encounters. Every encounter has an XP budget. The XP budget is a quantity of experience points determined by level and number of players. The DM spends XP to “buy” monsters to populate the encounter. Thus, a budget of 500 XP allows five 100 XP monsters, four 100 XP and four 25 XP, and so on.

For whatever reason, most adventures use the XP budget to create a band of monsters. In some cases, this makes perfect sense. Orc archers fire on the PCs from balconies. A brute or two wade forward to engage the front lines, while a controller zaps the PC defenders. Fun, interesting, and all too often used.

Bring all these elements together, and my hackles raise. This system works and it works well, but its structure has replaced the familiar game play elements that existed in prior editions. Exploration and roleplaying exist in the lulls between encounters. And, when the challenge presents itself as monsters spoiling for a fight or a complex skill challenge, game play shifts toward a mechanized procedure, wherein resources are spent and, at the end, recovered.

The solution, as I see it, is to deconstruct the artificial boundaries in game play. We must move beyond the concrete game mode and return to a more narrative structure. I think this can happen without sacrificing the core elements that make fourth edition play so well. And I think we can achieve this by reexamining the dungeon as adventuring location.

Classic dungeons consisted of rooms linked by corridors. Today, many dungeons are large areas linked by short corridors, creating weird and unlikely environments designed to create enough room for battles to unfold. Instead of defaulting to the 8 x 8 rooms, I propose going back to the older model. Then, divide the dungeon into multi-room sections I’ll call sectors for lack of a better term. A sector might be a large single room or several smaller rooms linked by corridors, staircases, and so on.

Each sector exists for a reason. There is something the characters must do, find, or survive before the sector can be “completed.” We’ll call this the victory condition. The PCs must find the entrance to the Ghoul King’s lair. The PCs must find the magic sword. The PCs must rescue Prince Humperdink from the ogre. Assign an XP reward for achieving the victory condition. The XP reward should be worth a minor quest.

Next, populate the sector. Use the standard XP budget, but for one or two levels above the PCs. Use the XP to by monsters of around the PCs level. This should give you more critters to play with. You don’t have to link them to each other, though you do have to link them to the sector. For example, you might buy 4 orcs, a few stirges, and a gelatinous cube with your XP budget. Then, place the 4 orcs in room X, where they act as sentries. The stirges hang out in a cave near the lair of the Ghoul King’s entrance. Finally, the cube roams a side passage.

The “tactical encounter” begins when the PCs enter the dungeon sector. The PCs don’t roll initiative yet as they are in exploring mode. As they move through the sector, they might encounter the smaller groups, at which point they could roll initiative and fight, sneak by the enemy, or talk their way through the monsters. A party might roll initiative two or three times before they complete the sector. For example, the heroes come upon the orcs. They botch the parlay. Combat begins. The PCs fall back and stumble into the gelatinous cube and so on.

While exploring the sector, the PCs can investigate their surroundings, scour the rooms, defeat the bad guys. Only when the PCs achieve the sector’s objective (whether or not they slaughter the monsters) do they earn XP. And only when they earn the XP can they take a short rest. I think the PCs should be able to retreat, take an extended rest if they can find someplace safe, and return for another go. And I also think that the DM should respond by repopulating the sector. But there it is.

This method  incorporates all the features from tactical encounters but pushes back the artificial start and end points so they occur at actual pauses in the action. Since the focus is exploration, the heroes are learning about their environments, can use the sector to construct viable tactics, and also encourages combat encounters to occur in phases. Anyway, these are rough ideas, but you now have an idea where my head’s at.

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88 Responses to “Reexamining the Dungeon”

  1. @LawyerDM says:

    I really like this approach, but in many situations won’t it mean more and shorter combats? Instead of using the entire XP budget for one full-sized encounter, you’re spreading the budget around to cover a larger area in space/time, right? Or are you suggesting that the creatures in each zone have a chance to stumble upon an ongoing combat and join in against our heroes based on some sort of wandering assumption?

  2. robertjschwalb says:

    As I mentioned on Twitter, yes. This can speed up combats and spread them out. The PCs still won’t regain their resources until after they achieve the sector’s story goal, so if they blow their red powers against the 4 orcs, they will face a tougher fight when they stumble into the gelatinous cube.

    Also, sounds of fighting from one location can draw critters from another location in the same sector. It just forces the DM to delay entry.

    I will add that this method doesn’t do away with the big set piece encounter. A sector could be the red dragon’s lair for example.

  3. Jon Leitheusser says:

    Have you used this approach in your games or in any of your published adventures? Or are you just putting your thoughts on paper for the moment?

    I think you’re definitely correct about the strengths and weaknesses of how encounters have changed over time, and I think what you propose is a good option for refining them yet again.

  4. JesterOC says:

    Thought provoking.

  5. Stuart says:

    I really like this approach to blending 4e dungeon design with more focus on exploration and taking the best qualities of classic dungeon design. I had been thinking of just tossing out the XP budget entirely (for the reasons you outlined) but now I think I’ll look using ‘sectors’ like you suggested.

  6. Mearls says:


    As soon as your schedule allows, I’m going to have Steve give you an assignment to write an adventure using this approach.

  7. Bruce R Cordell says:


    A great essay. I’ve been feeling, mmm, constrained I guess, by the tactical encounter format lately myself. I’ve seen some dalliance with this sector approach, but I agree, it’d be great to write and adventure that loosens the strictures to see what happens.

  8. deadorcs says:

    Wow! I think you’ve hit on the perfect synthesis of combat vs. exploration/role playing in a “dungeon-like” environment. I also think it’s awesome that your boss (I’m guessing) is assigning you an actual work task to do just this. Feels like I stuck my head in the office door at just the right time.

    I’m already wondering if some of the “short adventures” already provided in Dungeon magazine, could be converted to this kind of encounter. Thoughts?

    Really looking forward to seeing how an encounter like this would work!

    Thank you for the thought provoking post!

  9. Rob Sanderson says:

    We’ve tried a similar approach, with delayed entry of creatures, or “encounters” that span multiple areas. We ran into several issues:

    * It requires much larger table space for mapping for when the orcs run in after the PCs who are now tied up with the cube. We have a 4 x 6 gaming table with 6 people around it… it’s tolerable, but longer corridors along with reasonable sized rooms make it difficult to also have books, character sheets, dice, etc.

    * A very optimized or tactical group will be able to beat the creatures much more easily due to the delayed entry of the creatures. While you can’t recover your encounter powers, you can do a reasonable amount of preparation … for example, just hanging out in healing zones, using buff powers, and so forth.

    * This makes it much trickier to balance the sector as a GM. The players might stumble into the three fights all at once, or they might be almost entirely back to full strength between them.

    * “Until the end of the encounter” abilities are much more powerful than intended, as they apply for all of the mini-encounters, and can be started before the monsters are seen (as per point 2) so as not to take up an action during the actual combat.

    Consider in Keep on the Shadowfell, the fight with the kobolds outside the cave and inside. My group ran straight in, and were almost wiped out by the Boss — a common story from other groups as well.

    In my opinion it comes down to the creativity of the GM in their adventure design. A large map makes the encounter seem very much like a sector, as the monsters will at least have to move towards the combat for several rounds. This worked quite well in the Duergar area of H2, for example.

    – Azaroth42

  10. robertjschwalb says:

    Hey guys thanks!

    @Jon: Nope, I haven’t yet. I tinkered with stuff like this for my conversion of Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury. I haven’t had the chance to try it yet.
    @Mearls: Sounds great! I’m covered up until January, but yeah. It would be nice to put these ideas in motion.

  11. Sarah Darkmagic says:

    I may be wrong about this, but I would be concerned about the encounter becoming easier due to focused fire. At least, that’s a problem I’ve run into when experimenting with similar setups on my own. Minions might help though, using them to harass the ranged PCs at the very least. They easily could be the guards walking the hallways. Monster choice could get a little difficult as well, since it feels like a fair number of them are written with the expectation that they would be run in groups. That said, I’m all for it and can’t wait to see what you create. I may take out my crayons and take a stab at it too. :)

  12. Dean says:


    This very elequently describes my issues with how 4e adventures have ‘lost’ something since 4e started. To the point that we had considered dropping D&D completely and going onto another game system.

    We miss the exploration. We miss the roleplaying within dungeons.

    It’s part of why I was pretty happy with the new Tomb of Horrors supermodule…it actually encourages exploration. It’s also paced better. It still has the problem with the 8×8 room which wasn’t really there in Keep on the Shadowfell but by Pyramid of Shadows it was more prevalent.

  13. Brent P. Newhall says:

    Great ideas! I’m ruminating on them now.

    The DM would need to clearly explain this approach to the players, I think. This approach can appear to hide information from PCs, especially for “Kill ‘em all and take their loot” players, who may not realize that events in one room can trigger events or monsters in other rooms, or otherwise affect their game play.

  14. Matthew AC says:

    Nice essay. I enjoyed your ideas because they support dynamic encounters – a must for most 4e fights, in my estimation. Also, it reinforces the idea that the dungeon is not simply a place where monsters wait to be killed.

    Good Stuff.

  15. Exploration Article by Robert Schwalb « Legends & Labyrinths says:

    [...] Article by Robert Schwalb Robert’s article matches my design and play-style perfectly. I’m currently working on an article about [...]

  16. Josiah Bradbury says:

    @ Rob Sanderson
    “* “Until the end of the encounter” abilities are much more powerful than intended, as they apply for all of the mini-encounters, and can be started before the monsters are seen (as per point 2) so as not to take up an action during the actual combat.”

    It would also depend on if the out of combat part of the encounter switched to real time, because “Until the end of the encounter” also mean up to 5 minutes.

  17. Rob Sanderson says:

    @Josiah: Perhaps I misinterpreted the idea, but to me it seemed that Sector = Encounter. Eg you can’t take a short rest until the end of it.. Otherwise when is the “end of the encounter”? When you drop out of combat rounds? This seems to penalize the players quite dramatically — your powers all end, but you can’t rest to get them back.

  18. Josiah Bradbury says:


    I had thought you would drop out of combat mode because of the mention of rolling initiative multiple times. With that said I had assumed since the area is also for exploring, things might happen in real time.

  19. @LawyerDM says:

    ACK! I missed the part where a sector = encounter — no encounter power recharge until the sector goal is achieved or cleared of threats!!!

    Hmm. Gotta think on that for a bit. Not sure how that would go over in my group. Conceptually, it’s easy to explain why they can’t take an extended rest (“It’s just not safe here!”) but much harder (IMHO) to explain why they can’t sit resting for five minutes. My players would say, “Well, let’s just try — if monsters come along, well, then we don’t succeed, right?” And then monsters *would* come along, and soon the sector would be clear of threats.

    Hmm. More by me thinking is required here.

  20. Rodney Thompson says:


    You’re smelly and I don’t like you anymore.

    Just kidding. This post mirrors many of my thoughts on adventure design as well. Notably, the hit that exploration has taken lately as a result of nothing more than formats. There’s actually a subtle pyschological thing that the tactical encounter format does to the reader. When monster stats are inline in the adventure’s ongoing text, or are simply referred to in the MM, it says to the reader, “There are some monsters here.” If you have a tactical encounter spread, it says to the reader, “There is a fight here.” I think that, when a fight does break out, the tactical encounter spread is great because it makes things so easy to run; however, its presence mandates a fight in the mind of the DM, which I think is a drawback.

    I also think that the rise of the adventure path as a concept is partially to blame. While adventure paths are awesome and they saved D&D for me and my group in 3E, they also demand that X amount of experience points be distributed each adventure in order to get the players to level Y, where the next adventure takes place, and so you get adventures designed to put all that XP in rather than to explore a location. I wonder if there’s a good way to have exploration portions of the adventure that are worth as much XP as a combat encounter or a trap without it feeling contrived; Jesse Decker did this in a way with the visions you receive in the Spire of Long Shadows adventure from the Age of Worms adventure path, but they came so quickly one right after the other that it felt to the players like I was just giving out XP. There has to be something the players do, actively, during exploration that is worth XP, but I’m not sure I have a good idea of what that is.

  21. robertjschwalb says:

    @Rob & Josiah

    The sector includes creatures enough to populate a standard 8×8 encounter. However, they are broken into smaller groups and spread across the area. As the PCs explore the sector, they might start a combat with a 2 standard orcs and 4 orc minions. Provided no one else in the sector comes to investigate, the combat ends as normal. The PCs explore the room, find a secret door. This leads to a trap room (part of the budget). They trigger the trap, minions pop from the walls. They roll initiative again, fight the minions. Combat ends as normal. The PCs might explore the rest of the sector looking for the remaining creatures or they might figure out the sector’s objective (assuming it isn’t slaughter). If the latter, they get the XP plus the quest XP and can move on to explore an adjacent sector (following the Short Rest of course).

    Once the combat ends, time switches to narrative. End of encounter/5 minute effects might last long enough for the heroes to find another batch of monsters. Or they might expire if they get dawdle.

  22. Alphastream says:

    This mirrors what a lot of DMs and authors have been finding. I really wish more designers and developers would stay attuned to living (RPGA) play, because it is often the single most concentrated massive exploration of the rules. Authors are currently exploring some of these methods, such as high paragon play where you have two fights (for a 4-hour adventure) but each has new foes appear at various stages to keep the play exciting and give it a sense of larger space and realism.

    I like the approach you suggest, in particular the idea of no short rest but just a slight elevation in budget and then spreading out the foes. That creates a more realistic setting where the players can’t metagame exactly what constitutes an “encounter”. You can have one room where going around will be a huge boon allowing access to the weak artillery, and another where going around results in finding more monsters. Cool stuff.

    Still, I am not sure this sufficiently repairs the emphasis on tactical combat over RP. I think the quest XP idea could be used, perhaps with a series of ways to accomplish that quest XP in steps. Maybe some of them must be RP-based? Accessing info here, succeeding at a skill challenge there… but it is more about the design phase to get DMs to write this way than how it actually plays. There are so many Dungeon adventures where story gets so little space, and Sectors won’t fully resolve that. We need something that structurally results in rich interaction and true story. The current system does really force the creation of blips of encounter with very little in between.

  23. robertjschwalb says:


    This is why I’m hot to award XP after completing a sector’s narrative goal. If the sector’s goal is finding the secret door that leads to the next sector, then it doesn’t matter if the PCs hacked their way through an army of kobolds or not. Only when the PCs pop the door do they get the XP award for dealing with the sector’s challenge. This is a simplification of course. Maybe finding the secret door requires A) Locating a clue in Yan-C-Bin’s shrine, B) interrogating a kobold prisoner, C) getting the key from the kobold chief.

    Maybe there’s an air elemental in the shrine. A fight there might draw some kobold minions. One might slip away to warn the chief. However the PCs learn there is a way out of here from the prisoner and that it requires a key. Off to the chieftain. Unfortunately, the kobold villain is ready and springs the trap.

    All of this happens with creatures purchased within the XP budget allotted. Yes, the characters can kill the air elemental quickly and then deal with the minions in short order. However, their resources are diminished by the time they face the real threat.

    On the other hand, they might just use that Hand of Fate ritual…

    In short, this idea springs from this thought bouncing around in my head that overlays something like a skill challenge on dungeon sections. Marrying this idea to story objectives seems much sexier. Dunno. I need to drink on it a bit :D

  24. Josiah Bradbury says:

    When you go to exploration mode, do you still keep to speed, actions and turns?

  25. pdunwin says:

    I can’t create drawn dungeons that are anything more than strung-together 8×8 rooms, most of which serve little or no purpose. I’ve also cooled on exploration for its own sake, from experiences with designing mysteries that don’t get investigated (while random details are /over/investigated).

    So, for my last dungeon, I created two skill challenges, one to simulate navigating the dungeon, the other to simulate the interest they were attracting from its denizens. These challenges were woven into descriptions of a few interesting areas I had in mind (and could never have prearranged on paper). In all it worked quite well.

    So, my advice is that people step away from plotted out dungeons as the ideal and (as you say) get more narrative. To that I will add “get more improvisational, too.”

  26. robertjschwalb says:

    @Josiah: I would say no. Speed, actions, turns are all for tactical mode so they’re unnecessary. I’d handle EM in the same way that I run skill challenges so that it feels more conversational rather than mechanical.

  27. inkpenavenger says:

    I’ve implemented rule for “Quick Rests” and “Long Rests,” but I like this too.

    In a Short Rest, the PCs can spend one healing surge and recover one encounter power. I use these when the players need to recover some resources, but there’s not five minutes to spend sitting around. A Quick Rest takes about one minute.

    In a Long Rest, the PCs can spend as many surges as they want, use encounter healing powers (like HEALING WORD or ARDENT SURGE) without limit, regain all their encounter powers, and one daily power.

  28. Claudio Pozas says:


    Your post mirror a lot of my own ideas about encounter design. Your “sectors” can be seen as “minidungeons” within the larger adventure, whether they are a part of the same larger complex or separate structures.

    This structure reminds me of a few adventures from the past:
    - Thunderspire Labyrinth: the opening combat in the Chamber of Eyes was awesome because it was pretty much a single encounter that encompassed the entire temple of Torog. You could barricade a room to catch a breath, or press on and kill the enemy leaders, the environment was very dynamic.
    - Temple of Elemental Evil: you could easily see each of the sub-temples as “sectors”, and due to their own isolationist stance, it lent itself to a “clear sector” approach.

    I’d love to write up a dungeon exploration format using the skill challenge framework to cover long underground treks. You could envision it kinda like the Mines of Moria sequence in the Fellowship of the Ring movie, with a montage of sorts linking different “encounter areas” (entrance, the 3 doors, Balin’s Tomb, the huge hallway, the collapsing stairs and the Balrog trampouline). You’d map these “encounter areas” and leave the rest of the dungeon to be more freeform.

  29. Claudio Pozas says:

    I was forgetting:

    - Keep on the Shadowfell: when I ran this, my PCs went into SWAT mode from the moment they killed the first goblin sentry (in the “sector” where the goblin underboss lived). There were three rooms connected by a circular corridor, and the PCs ran all over the place trying to keep the goblins from getting reinforcements.

    - Forgotten Forge (3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting): the final dungeon was also done in SWAT mode, without letting go of the initiative and actions until the enture area was cleared. This heightened the tension and the entire Forge as a single giant encounter area.

  30. pdunwin says:


    I combined skill challenges & narration with the map of the Trollhaunt Warrens, so that the area is far larger (and more realistic & interesting) than the two page spread provided. But I still hold tactical, roleplaying-riich, combat in the mapped rooms.

  31. Landon says:


    Sounds like a great technique! I don’t even run 4e, and I think I may start thinking about adventure design in a similar way.

  32. chaos says:

    Good, good. I will say this. In the old days we did hole up in the dungeon when we were doing a crawl. If you have sectors of dungeon one could logically extend that the monsters remain in their sectors until after an extended rest.. This can work in the example of guards having 8 hour workdays or shifts. If the denizens of a dungeon circle around, let’s say, a cult leader they are only going to leave the dungeon on business every so often, and then maybe to procure food/etc thereby allowing for more rests. Look at it this way, if the dungeon were an office building there would be sectors within the building that some monsters rarely visit, I don’t know if this is true at the corporate offices for Wizards, but I have seen cubicle workers who rarely leave the floor they are on. I suppose the only difference is that the monsters sleep in the dungeon too.I agree wholeheartedly that exploration is the method to the madness and that it should improve an already great system of mechanics that is the incarnation of D&D in 4e. (really, I should say it more often, but I do love the combat mechanics currently in place)

  33. bluremi says:

    I love the 4e rule system and it is the most fun I’ve had in a system since 1e. Its the reason I’m playing dnd again after “retiring”. However, the published adventures just seem stale and not as fun as adventures in the 1e period. The best adventure I’ve seen so far for 4e is the DM Rewards’ Tomb of Horrors. Tactical encounters just take the soul out of an adventure.

    A good example is U1 – Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. Converting this into the 4e tactical encounter format would take out the fun of finding and disrupting the smuggler’s operation and boring since the monsters in the house are insignificant and do not warrant a tactical encounter. Who really wants to fight a solo centipede swarm just so you can make the XP budget for that encounter? Using the sector approach (sector 1: the Haunted House, sector 2: Smuggler’s Cave, Sector 3: Boarding the Sea Ghost, sector 4: The Sea Ghost), you would be able to use the XP budget per sector and replicate why it was such a good adventure.

  34. Jeff Dougan says:

    I wrote this on the WotC fora the other day, in response to questions about whether there were plans for another adventure path:

    And yet, any time I see a request for a “best published adventure,” there are at least 4 Scales adventures that are consistently cited:

    - Seige of Bordrin’s Watch
    - the Temple Between
    - Haven of the BItter Glass
    - Alliance at Nefelus

    I’d also bet that if a combination of Ari Marmell, Aeryn Randall, the James brothers, and Rob Schwalb were approached and told, “Here’s your project; here are your parameters. You report to Steve. Go,” they’d collectively do a pretty knockout job.

    Mr. Mearls, if you’re reading this, consider the request made here again. :) It’s thoughts like what Mr. Schwalb posted above (I’ve never met either of you; I don’t feel comfortable calling you Mike & Rob) that are part of what prompted my above comments.

  35. Re-examining the Dungeon: Section, Factions and Fronts : Critical Hits says:

    [...] a transcendent piece that may very well be the most thought out, “hammer meets nail” critical deconstruction of D&D 4e’s encounter design yet: When writing adventures using this format, there’s less room to develop story content [...]

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  37. James says:

    I am skeptical of the problem this solves. I can see your point about how, as a writer, your story space is constrained by the space-hogging format of encounters.

    But you say, “Exploration, unconventional thinking, and problem solving have taken a back seat to tactics and optimization. For dungeon delves, this is awesome. For ongoing campaigns?”

    That sounds to me more like the complaints of OSR bloggers than my actual experience.

    All through H2 and a short way through H3, we had sectors. They were defined as single encounters, but had multiple rooms, with creatures that might lie in wait in the next room, or creatures that might retreat to the next room.

    And within these encounters, my players did plenty of problem solving. The room late in H2 with the pools of blood and the item across the room? Finished in seconds flat with the ritual. The slavers? Much of them bypassed by effective roleplaying backed by judicious and successful use of bluff, diplomacy and intimidate rolls. The dragon flying around in the tunnel? Dealt with in combat by a warden who jumped onto him and rode him around the track.

    My players don’t regard exploration as the “lull” between combat. Well, one of them does. He’s counterbalanced by the one who is looking at every book on the shelf, poking at every wall, and attempting to solve every encounter through diplomatic means. (And that’s the warden mentioned above.)

    “Since the focus is exploration, the heroes are learning about their environments, can use the sector to construct viable tactics, and also encourages combat encounters to occur in phases.”

    H3, the lair of the thieves. My players already managed to do just this.

    Now, like my blog name says, I DM infrequently. I’ve got two groups, one in the published series still on the first level of H3, the other in my own adventures still at 7th level. So others have way more experience than I do. But what I hear described as problems with 4E, and hear echoes of in this post, sounds more like a problem with the choices players are making than with how the adventures are constructed.

  38. Justin Alexander says:

    I think the potential risk in either approach is that it collapses the adventure experience down to the “right way” of doing it.

    The tactical encounter results in adventures designed around a series of carefully preconceived encounters: There’s no spontaneity or variance because if, for example, the PCs were to find an alternative approach or if reinforcements were to be called from Area 2 all of that careful, precious pre-design would go out the window.

    The sector design sounds interesting because it loosens up the reins and allows for more at-the-table spontaneity in how a particular opposition is encountered. But the danger here is that you’re still pre-packaging an expectation of the “right way” for the adventure to be played: The system works if the PCs enter a sector and then immediately clear it (by accomplishing the goal of the sector). But what if they clear out some of the opposition in the sector and then decide to pull back? Are they suspended in a state of “can’t rest or refresh powers” until they go back and finish the sector? What if they (intentionally or unintentionally) flip into a different sector?

    With that being said, you might consider combining some of these ideas with the zone stat blocks described here: http://angrydm.com/2010/08/schrodinger-chekhov-samus/5/

    What I’m specifically imagining here is a wedding of “XP for completing the sector’s goal” with the depletion and trigger concepts from the zone stat blocks being used to give the DM flexible tools for responding to PC efforts in the sector. Attacked and then pulled back? Well, if you managed to deplete the sector then your efforts may have had an effect next time you come back. Otherwise you’ll find the sector was essentially unaffected by your efforts and you’ll have to engage it again.

    In this case, the concept of rest becomes one of “disengagement from the problem”. Sheer force depletion or specific triggers determine whether that disengagement happened before or after progress was made towards solving the problem.

    It’s possible given this paradigm that “encounter = sector” isn’t quite right. The sweet spot might be sectors incorporating two or three encounters worth of XP. This might be true in any case, since the more flexible design of sectors will generally mean that there’s a higher chance that the PCs won’t actually encounter everything in a sector before achieving that sector’s goal.

  39. Alphastream says:

    Chatty DM was writing about this on his blog. He was mentioning quests and Chris Sims was talking about not using traditional XP-granting mechanics.

    It all led me back to the game needing a better top-level building formula that addresses the larger story/campaign needs. Not everyone needs this. Great DMs with great players can create a setting/story/campaign that really evokes lots of RP, exploration, and non-mechanical interaction. But, the general system influences the vast majority of gamers and causes damage.

    Skill challenges are something that in theory could have codified RP moments. We see this in Living Forgotten Realms or D&D Encounters, where an SC is placed where a loosely structured investigation would take place. The open format becomes a framework that begs everyone to just roll dice. It is rather hard for the average DM to conceal that a tally is being kept and that this is an SC. Metagaming begins. Despite tons of material on official and other sites, this remains in today’s game.

    Quests are also attempts to codify story elements, which in theory would be very rich. Instead, what we codify is MMORPG-like obvious interactions. NPC deploys hook, PCs accept, they do, they get XP. Yawn, and it just begs for metagaming.

    Also, the quest XP idea really stresses obvious accomplishments that tend to include combat. You recover the lost book by slaying the monster. You end the town’s threat (through combat). Etc. RP-decisions seldom are part of a quest or the focus of a quest.

    It all adds up to be a recipe for what we see today – mechanics driving our play style. Just like “sectors” can act as an umbrella for encounters and potentially reduce the mechanical feeling of XP budgets, we need something that can codify the need for a diversity of experiences within the adventure itself.

    One idea is that of “Goals”. A Goal would be an overarching building block concept that encompasses traditional quests as well as Sectors, SCs, and Encounters. You might replace XP at the combat and quest level with Goal XP, which is the true budget keeper. Or, you might use traditional accounting and simply award XP when Goals are completed.

    In designing an adventure or a campaign you would break down the story into goals, each of which would have a variety of components. Importantly, goals would mirror story arcs. You can have several goals and trade out components based on the different approaches. Goals can conflict, yet share components. Goals could be dynamic. You might look at Temple of Elemental Evil and have many goals that are possible based on alliances made, foes defeated, information gained, etc. Dealing with the fire temple can be a very rich goal that allows for a lot of options (alliances, setting another temple against them, skill challenges to infiltrate, working with external allies to defeat them, freeing captives, etc.).

    Another way to do it is to have “Checkpoints”. You can award the XP for reaching a certain progression point in the campaign. Maybe we start in Hommlet and need to choose NPC allies, establish relations, find info, uncover and resolve some problems. Checkpoint reached, XP given. Now we need to get to and explore the moathouse. Checkpoint reached. Now we need to… Many DMs already award XP this way, but by codifying it we suggest to DMs that they choose from a wider menu of options than the combat encounter and skill challenge.

    In Living Forgotten Realms, for example, authors work hard to mirror suggested 4E XP budgets. This forces 2 or 3 combats per 4-hour adventure, either of which can lead to way too long a play experience and frustrating sameness. If you compare this to Shadowrun or Legend of the Five Rings or Spycraft living campaign 4-hour adventures you see real differences. These other systems don’t force a budget and just reward the overall concept of what is being accomplished. The result is a much more open type of gameplay. You see players coming up with all sorts of ideas. A one-paragraph mention in a Spycraft mod of how a villain likes race cars led us to an extended awesome scene where the “Wheelman” PC raced the villain Bond-style for high stakes that further the mission (true story). In L5R, you can see entire mods without combat and players love it. You do things like have your samurai enter a poetry contest because of Clan and the societal concepts. Suddenly you find yourself writing a haiku your swordmaster is about to recite! This exists in the adventure in part because the author was not led to create a certain type of adventure. In Shadowrun, delivering the goods to the fixer is what matters, not whether you beat up Lone Star cops and four street gangs or simply outsmarted the foes.

    What most good DMs do, it seems to me, is use the awesomeness of 4E to build really cool tactical encounters, but they space those out further based on their knowledge of earlier editions and other RPGs. But, the inexperienced DMs or the ones that feel they must follow the literal page end up trapped into making very formulaic adventures. This means we need to change the overall formula that leads these new gamers astray (and hurts organized play). And it isn’t just solving encounters with Sectors (a brilliant idea). It goes all the way to how you build the adventure itself.

  40. Scott Neese says:

    Hmm, people don’t like reducing the game to just reactionary encounters. Who’d have thunk it? If they wanted that, they can just buy a subscription to an online game. But players expect more out of their tabletop experience? Shocking!

  41. Justin Alexander says:

    It is rather hard for the average DM to conceal that a tally is being kept and that this is an SC. Metagaming begins.

    The real problem is that even if the DM successfully conceals the tally, metagaming is required due to the dissociation of the mechanic. It forces the DM to stop thinking in terms of the game world’s logic (doing X will result in outcome Y) and start thinking in terms of stretching (or shrinking) the game world to fit the mechanic (they’ve done X, but they still need 3 more successes before the mechanic tells me that Y happens).

    At the table I’ve found extended skill checks (X successes before Y failures) useful for modeling single, discrete tasks (climbing a wall, disabling a bomb, etc.). I’ve also found that freeform narrative structures (“You want to find out who killed JR? I’m defining that as a 12/3 structure; on a success you tell me something, on a failure I get to tell you something, and you can’t know the answer until you get to 12 successes.” — IOW, using the mechanical structure to give the players effective DM-like control over the campaign world) effective. But skill challenges squat awkwardly between the two, neither giving true narrative control to the players nor modeling any relatable quality of the game world.

  42. inkpenavenger says:


    HA! I had a dwarf warlord to the exact same thing with the dragon in H2!

  43. Erick Frey says:

    I read this and thought this is exactly the issue and aside from a skill challenge where have we really seen exploration especially in the living campaign. Then I reallized in my last four sessions (two adventures) I had used this concept nearly exactly. If you had seen the list of monsters and traps associated with one map you would have assumed it was grouped for the entire adventure and although that was not the case it was close. I had 4 traps and 14 monsters listed for the area. The PC’s deactivated 1 trap, avoided one after seeing how another worked and used two others to their advantage. Because they decided to investigate a connected area they had an encounter with 2 monsters they could have avoided but would have missed some good information for another area. The then continued down the hall and encountered the main group all of this without resting they could have rested in one place but because they utilized the traps to their advantage they did not need too. If they had rested they would have had an extra encounter to make the final encounter more meaningful. They did not get XP until everything was complete even with one encounter on a different in-game day.

    The only place I might see a question is with milestones. I would expect to see one given at the end a “sector” but based on how the encounters played out I awarded an action point between the final two encounters and although it could have broken the flow and implied a time for rest, it did not.

    I can’t wait to see see the adventure you deliver.

  44. Landon says:

    I said earlier I think Rob’s advice here is interesting and good and it’s going to inform how I look at encounters from now on, but, that said, I have to weigh in with those who have been in the vein that this fixes an aspect of a larger problem without addressing that larger problem.

    I mean, there’s a reason we don’t play 4E, and, honestly, it’s largely because of XP budgets, treasure packages, and so on. My group tends to think it’s turned D&D into WoW played on tabletop, and if we wanted to play WoW, we’d all be on computer. I think this suggestion ameliorates the situation somewhat, but it doesn’t address the basic issue, which is that highly mechanized procedures for designing encounters and challenges have created expectations in players and DMs alike that players would behave THIS way and encounters would be designed THAT way and that precisely (x) encounters should occur between levelings and so forth and so on. The whole point of 4E seems to be to boil down D&D to a glorified board game, with lock-step, “idiot-proof” design standards that keep the whole experienced “hedged in,” and God forbid the players get off script or the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket.

    I don’t get it. I don’t get the appeal. After some initial experimentation, I’ve shelved 4E and have no intention of going back to it. I mean, I appreciate that paying attention to how much XP you’re handing out is important when pacing a story. I get that. And many of the innovations in 4E were meant to help DMs build more predictable, stable adventures. I get that. But, seriously, with that stability comes a loss of the organic feel of the game; when decisions are made primarily for mechanical, rather than “in game” reasons, the world starts to feel progressively more and more artificial, and the players are understandably less inclined to interact with it as a *role playing* game than as a *tactical* game. And while Rob has earlier pointed out accurately that D&D is supposed to be an adventure game, with plot and movement and action, it is also supposed to be a roleplaying game. When the contours of the challenges I face become determined primarily by some arcane formula in the DM’s Guide rather than by a plot and common sense, I I just can’t call it an RPG anymore, and, frankly, there are other board games I’d rather play if I’m going to be doing THAT.

    I think some of the people who are dissatisfied with the approach Rob’s offering here are missing the point that this really is a big leap forward from the tactical encounter approach. However, I think others rightly note that it is a leap forward *within* a certain paradigm of adventure/campaign design that is fundamental hostile to actual roleplaying. I think it’s telling that we needed Rob – who’s a smart guy with a lot of insight – to look at the 4E system of encounter building and figure out a way to come at it so that the DM has a plausible framework for setting up thematically-unified areas that would be impractical to try to “clean out” but which serve as an area in which the PCs try to accomplish their particular, story-driven goals… In other words, it took one of the top minds in the industry years to arrive at a way to “adapt” the basic 4E paradigm into something that can accommodate a genuinely story-driven approach!

    I’ll stick with my “obsolete” gaming material, I guess.

  45. migellito says:

    “Consider in Keep on the Shadowfell, the fight with the kobolds outside the cave and inside. My group ran straight in, and were almost wiped out by the Boss — a common story from other groups as well.”

    It’s not the DM’s job to idiot-proof the dungeon.. it’s the opposite, to make it challenging. If the players do something stupid (and not managing their resources properly, or not determining what they’re up against is pretty stupid) why would you reward poor play?

  46. Sarah Darkmagic says:

    @Landon, I feel you’re being a little unfair. True, the guidelines in the DMGs point out a lot of shortcuts to designing a tactical encounter-based experience. However I wonder if part of that is due to the feeling that those types of games are easier to teach and explain and that enough people enjoy them to devote a few books to them. Also, since it’s a newer portion of the game, it’s possible the writers of the DMG felt it made more sense to spend time on them, figuring experienced DMs would be ok on their own with the other items. Maybe my table is rare, but my players seem to love both the role-playing elements of all versions of D&D and the tactical elements of 4th edition.

    As for many of the mechanical elements of encounter design in the DMG, I’ll be honest and say I threw them out within a month. They weren’t that important for me or my group. However, as a new DM, it was important to see how the different group roles interacted with each other and to get an idea of what might go into treasure. I also committed a bit of sacrilege and just threw out XP-based leveling. They level when it makes sense to me, the story and the group.

    As a newer DM, I use skill challenges as a reminder that players can’t just roll to kill Irontooth or convince the king to give them the treasury because they rolled really well on their diplomacy check. It also reminds me that the times they didn’t succeed on their skill checks should still matter. I’m sure for experienced DMs this isn’t a problem, but I’m still learning how to balance those things. But what do I care if they get the full number of successes first if it makes sense in terms of the story that they achieved their goal?

    Another thing I did with some skill challenges is add degrees of success. For instance, my players wanted to find and interrogate a key figure in a conspiracy. We started with a rumor table. Everyone got 1 rumor (2 if they were trained in streetwise). Each of these rumors pointed to at least 4 ways they confront the NPC. Once they received their rumors, they told me how they wanted to build up to the final meeting and we role played out each mini scene, using the skill challenge framework to determine if they succeeded at their story goal (again very loosely). If they achieved enough of their goals, they would be able to approach the NPC with no guards around him. If they completely failed, they would have dealt with his full complement of guards, and anything else was something in the middle.

    It’s also a bit unfair to say that Rob is the only one to tackle this problem. A number of 4e bloggers give advice for how to bring out the story and role-playing in games. For instance, I wrote on Loremaster.org about adding in overpowering encounters with story-based outs. While it might not be as good as Rob’s post here, it does emphasize story over mechanics.

  47. Edanna says:

    I agree with this essay completely. I feel exactly the same feel with encounters and modules paradigma in the game actually. I would like what designers of Wizards take the concepts of this essay.

    I like the ideas, i`m going to put in my DMing.

    Thank you very much

    I hope you can be patient with my english.

  48. robertjschwalb says:

    @Landon: The absolute last thing I want to do here is turn the blog into a battlefield for the ongoing edition war. I recognize and respect that not everyone has the same tastes when it comes to RPGs and I also recognize that the various iterations of D&D create a different play experience. This said, I take exception to some of your points, largely because A) you admit to having had limited experience with the game and B) your arguments seem to draw their origins not so much from empirical evidence but rather from the same complaints echoing around various fora. That you don’t like 4e only bothers me insomuch that I have devoted a great deal of time, labor, and heart to the edition, yet I also understand that there’s an emotional stake in the edition war and it’s one I know I’m not going to win. In any event:

    “I mean, there’s a reason we don’t play 4E, and, honestly, it’s largely because of XP budgets, treasure packages, and so on.”

    Since you don’t play 4E, you do realize those very same elements exist within the 3rd edition rules set. XP budget is no different than using Challenge Rating to determine Encounter Level, except that the mechanisms for building a balanced encounter using XP budgets has a great deal more finesse. Furthermore, Challenge Rating proved time and again unequal to the task for which it was designed. What might have been a CR 5 for one group could have been a CR 2 for another or a CR 11 for yet another. From a gamist perspective, monster level is a far more precise reading of the creature’s power and that is because the ways in which a monster interacts with the PCs during game play is largely decided by the monster’s level. Damage, defenses, the tactical capabilities: all of these abide by the game’s underlying mathematical architecture. How is a coherent method for constructing creatures and, by extension, constructing combat encounters a bad things?

    The same holds true for treasure parcels. I direct you to page 53 of the 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide, wherein we receive a mechanical breakdown of expected treasure acquisition per character per level for each level. What treasure parcels does for D&D is take the exact same (well, different math) system and break it up into bite size chunks so that new DMs can assign the goods as they go. If a DM has no interest in this approach, s/he is free to use the expected coin + 4 magic items for the level and break them up in whatever way he or she wishes. Or, a DM can award more or less treasure just as DMs always have since the beginning.

    “My group tends to think it’s turned D&D into WoW played on tabletop, and if we wanted to play WoW, we’d all be on computer.”
    This chestnut? Really? Again? I’m so utterly sick to death of this false comparison. When Tome of Battle came out in the last year of 3.5, I don’t recall folks complaining that 3.5 had turned into an MMO. Maybe folks did, but really? Could you run an MMO simulation with 4E, sure. You know what, though? The PnP World of Warcraft RPG came out under the 3E rules set. I have it on my shelf.
    As someone who has written scads of words for D&D 4E and as someone who has yet to play an MMO, I will tell you that MMOs affect my game design about as much as a sale on adult diapers at Walgreens. Which is to say, not at all.

    “[B]ut it doesn’t address the basic issue, which is that highly mechanized procedures for designing encounters and challenges have created expectations in players and DMs alike that players would behave THIS way and encounters would be designed THAT way and that precisely (x) encounters should occur between levelings and so forth and so on.”

    Look at the 3.5 DMG again. Start with page 36. Seriously, “highly mechanized procedures for designing encounters and challenges” are somehow an exclusive problem with 4E? Sorry. No. These game elements are tools. A DM is free to use or discard them as every DM has had since the old days with the three pamphlets. This is something 4E gets right. It provides a baseline understanding. It is a starting point. How is this bad? For game companies to survive, there has to be an expectation that new blood will come into the hobby. If we want another generation of 12 year olds to play, it cannot hurt to provide them with a coherent rules set with which they can do so. You might ignore the very real and very present precision found in 3.5, but a 4E DM has the same freedom to ignore the same with the present rules.

    “The whole point of 4E seems to be to boil down D&D to a glorified board game, with lock-step, “idiot-proof” design standards that keep the whole experienced “hedged in,” and God forbid the players get off script or the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket.”
    Oh give me a break. Rules clarity makes D&D a board game? Really? You know, you don’t have to use miniatures with 4E. You don’t have to a wet erase map. You can throw out the DMG altogether. And you know what? You’re still playing the game. Is it harder? You bet. You know what though? There was a reason why folks used miniatures and battlemats all the way back to 1e. They used them because they were effective tools for managing the game’s action. A 4E group who wants to play a high concept, story driven campaign can jettison opportunity attacks, daily attack powers, feats, or whatever they want to make the game their own.
    Yes, it is possible to run a game with combat, rest, combat, rest, and there are several factors in place that lend themselves to this style. Yet, this isn’t a problem with the rules set. It’s a problem with how we approach the rules. The same tendencies were present in 3rd edition and they are present in any game with an extensive focus on combat resolution.

    “I don’t get it. I don’t get the appeal. After some initial experimentation, I’ve shelved 4E and have no intention of going back to it.”
    This is why you don’t get it. You admit to having limited exposure to the game system and yet your arguments (and I’ll remind you that you are a very dear friend) parrot the same old tired diatribes I encounter on the internet everyday. Like your game. Play your game. But you’re better than this sort of thing.

    “I mean, I appreciate that paying attention to how much XP you’re handing out is important when pacing a story. I get that. And many of the innovations in 4E were meant to help DMs build more predictable, stable adventures. I get that. But, seriously, with that stability comes a loss of the organic feel of the game; when decisions are made primarily for mechanical, rather than “in game” reasons, the world starts to feel progressively more and more artificial, and the players are understandably less inclined to interact with it as a *role playing* game than as a *tactical* game.”
    You know, though, predictable, stable adventures has been, in my estimation, has always been the intent. The intent is to provide a common play experience, a foundation on which DMs and players can tell stories. The trouble, as I pointed out above, is when we as designers and DMs rely on the artificial structure to substitute for good story telling. Landon, this isn’t a problem unique to 4E.

    “And while Rob has earlier pointed out accurately that D&D is supposed to be an adventure game, with plot and movement and action, it is also supposed to be a roleplaying game. When the contours of the challenges I face become determined primarily by some arcane formula in the DM’s Guide rather than by a plot and common sense, I I just can’t call it an RPG anymore, and, frankly, there are other board games I’d rather play if I’m going to be doing THAT.”
    I’m astonished. You of all people, who could turn Axis & Allies into a roleplaying game, really believe this? Look man, I always appreciate your opinions and insights, but you’ve built a giant straw man here. You already said you have limited experience with 4E. You’ve made your claims that 4E is a board game, 4E is an MMO, and 4E somehow drowns kittens (alright I made that last one up). The only thing you left out is that 4E is Magic: The Gathering. I’m not seeing an argument here, though. What I’m hearing is a lot of noise from the internet’s echo chamber being parroted back to me here.
    The suffocating architecture you attacked is just as present in 3e as in 4e. Treasure parcels is simply taking the expected treasure values and breaking them up for a novice DM to award to his/her player. A DM can use parcels. A DM can use randomized treasure (Rules Compendium). A DM can forgo treasure altogether (inherent bonuses, DMG2).
    Encounter building is a vast improvement on constructing balanced and engaging combat encounters. My argument, above, points to how designers and DM default to the expected 5 creatures, 5 PCs, fight, rinse, repeat model in adventure design. This same problem is present in 3rd edition and it’s present in 2nd edition to some extent as well. There’s nothing in the rules that states a DM can’t build an encounter in whatever way he or she wants. Really.

    “I think some of the people who are dissatisfied with the approach Rob’s offering here are missing the point that this really is a big leap forward from the tactical encounter approach. However, I think others rightly note that it is a leap forward *within* a certain paradigm of adventure/campaign design that is fundamental hostile to actual roleplaying.”
    Hold on a minute. Tactical encounters are a DM tool. My objection is when tactical encounter define the adventure experience. A DM coming up with an adventure for his/her home game might string together 9 fights. Then again, a good DM would use combats to add drama to the larger story. The enterprise is not to grind out XP from slaughtering monsters, it’s to play a character in a fantasy environment and engage the story in an interesting way. This is true for 1e, 2e, 3e, and 4e.

    “I think it’s telling that we needed Rob – who’s a smart guy with a lot of insight – to look at the 4E system of encounter building and figure out a way to come at it so that the DM has a plausible framework for setting up thematically-unified areas that would be impractical to try to “clean out” but which serve as an area in which the PCs try to accomplish their particular, story-driven goals… In other words, it took one of the top minds in the industry years to arrive at a way to “adapt” the basic 4E paradigm into something that can accommodate a genuinely story-driven approach!”
    Hey, that’s very nice of you to say this, but I won’t take all the credit. I think (and know) lots of folks, who are far smarter and far more talented than I, have been wrestling with these ideas for a while.

    I need to wrap this up. Paying words are calling. The final point I would make is this: One D&D gaming group, the players might not roll a single die during the entire session. They might resolve conflicts through roleplaying and storytelling. In this case, the edition doesn’t matter. Another group might prefer to kick down doors, kill all the monsters, and then take their shit. In this case, the edition doesn’t matter.

    My concern, right now, is the latter group since people who prefer the former play style probably aren’t buying books and therefore aren’t keep me in beer, clothing, and food. I want to find a way to bring forward D&D’s classical concepts: exploration, problem solving, roleplaying, combat, and character growth. These game elements, if properly presented, will, I hope, create an engaging play experience that will make adventure design more logical, coherent, and easier to run. That’s it.

    Hope I didn’t come across as too hostile here. You pushed some big buttons for me.

  49. Neo-Gygaxian Dungeon Building…I love it! « Lord Matteus' Ancient Tomes and Wonderous Items says:

    [...] encounter building process.  To my surprise, The Chatty DM has already discussed this and quoted Robert Schwalb’s blog in the process.  Truly the stars must be in alignment today.  Perhaps The Chatty DM and Mr. [...]

  50. DMmindy says:

    Thanx for a great article!
    As a new DM that really got into DMing because the old one’s game fell apart, I’ve relied much on running published adventures, which in their design are very encounter driven. For me, the exploration part of the game became very miniscule, and coupled with the problem of combats taking very long time (party due to all of us being new to the 4e, and often having to check up the rules), we’d spend a very very long time in a dungeon. Having random encounters (as in H2 – Thunderspire Labyrinth) even slowed down the progress of the adventure even further.

    As a consequence I decided to get rid of XP altogether, and luckily my gaming group didn’t protest too much. My reasoning behind this decision was to remove a game mechanic that encouraged the PCs to fight every monster in the dungeon just gain XP and levels. Instead I decided that solving crucial plot goals would eventually give them levels. Loot could always be handled in other ways, such as being given by a patron after a successful quest, or something similar. Also, there’s an intrinsic rewards for the heroes just being heroes and doing heroic things, and feeling good about saving the world and basking in people’s admiration :)

    Another reason for skipping XP was game balancing… with the extra material that was published on H1 through DDI the PCs were lvl6 when they started H2, and thus I had to level up the monsters, which took some extra DM effort. Now, being on my third adventure, P3 – King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, I believe using the “sector-approach” will improve the exploration part of the game, and make the dungeons feel less like a series of encounters separated by short rests. This paired with ChattyDMs ideas of “fronts”, (http://critical-hits.com/2010/09/24/re-examining-the-dungeon-section-factions-and-fronts/) will create even more incentives for the PCs to interact with the denizens of a dungeon that doesn’t necessary involve killing them, but maybe instead using sneaky ideas to bypass heavily guarded areas, or play out different factions against each other.


  51. Landon says:


    Your reply was absolutely right on almost every count. I was in a… poor… state of mind when I made my comment, and I fully cop to fielding a lot of egregious fallacies. I apologize, in the words of John Cleese, unreservedly.

    In a more rational vein, let me just make the following, brief, comments.

    It’s true that I didn’t play 4E very long. I admit that means I probably don’t have a good basis for most of my charges, but, in fairness to my side, I didn’t play it long because I *didn’t like* what I experienced – that simple.

    You’re right that both editions provide guidance in building encounters and setting rewards – all editions have done that in their own ways. I guess the thing that left the bad taste in my mouth regarding treasure packages was when I found out – and perhaps this is in error, but this was the impression I got – that my thief couldn’t earn any “off the books” cash by pickpocketing. It was a zero-sum game. Anything I got by interacting with the world in an organic fashion came off of my total allowable haul by level. Again, that may be wrong, but after a few reads-through, this was my impression of how the system worked. That didn’t do anything to inspire confidence. That and the fact that skill targets re-normed every few levels so that I never really got any “better” at using my skills. Again, possibly a mis-reading of the rules, but that’s what I came away with.

    I fully admit I don’t have the experience with 4E to cogently defend my other points, and I admit they were made in haste and while in a peevish state. It was just my impression, from my limited experience with 4E, that the game is so much more… hemmed in… than in previous editions. Maybe I just never noticed that people playing 1E, 2E, and 3E all fell into routines as well – different for each edition, but routines nonetheless. Maybe they did and I didn’t see it, and maybe the presentation of 4E just foregrounds the sorts of routines it’s easy to fall into to.



    I was just jarred by the differences from previous editions, and I’m getting old and curmudgeonly.


    Then again, I remember “someone” who once said he’d change from 1E/2E to 3E when they pried his old books from his cold, dead fingers. (grin)

    Maybe this is my 3E.

    I’m sorry, man, I am, for any offense given. You deserve better.

  52. Reexamining the Reexamining « NeoGrognard says:

    [...] Schwalb has a really interesting blog called Reexamining the Dungeon. Go read it. I’ll [...]

  53. gameplaywright.net // story, games, together says:

    [...] to the RSS feed for updates on this topic.Powered by WP Greet Box WordPress PluginDid you see this blog post that designer and writer Rob Schwalb made last week? He’s taking a new look at the way we spend the XP budget to build encounters for D&D. The [...]

  54. Dungeons, To Be, or Not To Be? « Daily Encounter says:

    [...] week over in twitter land and on a few other blogs (re-examining the dungeon, examining the re-examining, death to the dungeon, re-examining the re-examining, dungeons & [...]

  55. The ‘Dungeon Debate’ « Save Versus Death says:

    [...] think all the voices in the discussion helped illuminate a number of issues surrounding dungeon design, including the ways it’s empowering, dynamic, and prohibitive all at once. Those of us who [...]

  56. Exterior Settings and Dragons « Sageheart's Blog says:

    [...] Darkmagic’s Death to the Dungeon and a few of the responses from a variety of other RPG Bloggers: Robert Schwalb, SRM’s Response to Rob, Robert Schwalb’s response to SRM, Newbie DM and Sara [...]

  57. The (Extended) Week in D&D Hardcore: October 1, 2010 « Save Versus Death says:

    [...] Reexamining the Dungeon: The post the sparked the discussion, Robert Schwalb brainstorms a ‘sector’-based approach to laying out dungeon adventures. [...]

  58. metaDM says:

    I know this topic is so old, but I was flipping through Revenge of the Giants and encounter C4 (p 34) sort of has a sector-like setup. Have you seen that encounter? Is this close to what you are describing?

  59. robertjschwalb says:

    Yeah. This is close.

  60. Ace42 says:

    Interestingly enough, I have started to roll out “sector based” myself (although not using those terms) as a natural part of making outdoor encounters. As my group are travelling between cities, I acquired a ton of outdoors dungeon tiles (Ruins of the Wild + Sinister Woods), and combined with the large size of the push-tack notice-board I was using to secure them, I found that I just couldn’t stick to standard sized (2*12 inch squares) encounters; the concept of boundaries outside is so meaningles that I just kept adding extra tiles around the outsides.

    This had two important effects: 1. The “long range” mechanic suddenly becomes important, the ranged couldn’t take it for granted that they’d hit any unobstructed target; 2. I ended up setting multiple encounters near to each other to make use of the space, creating the “sector” effect.

    One example is a recent Feywild encounter, where they befriended a group of Eladrin chasing a unicorn; if they’d been hostile this would’ve been an encounter on its own; instead they tried to help capture the unicorn, which triggered an encounter with other denizens of the feywild who wanted to protect the unicorn (an Owlbear, sprite swarm, Gnome and the Unicorn itself); but rather than hunker down to this encounter, half the group instead pressed on and triggered a THIRD encounter with a very nasty group of Powries determined to kill the unicorn.

    To throw them a bone, I made sure that the Eladrin helped out just enough to buy them some time; unfortunately for them, one of them ran straight to an Eladrin woman sitting on her own by a pool in the far corner of the encounter to beg her for help; which she gladly offered on hearing a unicorn was involved; but she was in-fact a bog-hag who was responsible for sending the Powries out after the Unicorn, which is what triggered the Eladrin to try and secure the Unicorn (preferably alive, but dead if it was the only way to keep it out of evil hands) in the first place.

    What happened was that they triggered multiple encounters simultaneously, creating one big fight that was dynamic and free-roaming. On the whole it worked rather well; they were overwhelmed, they learned to respect the Feywild as a very dangerous and alien location, and they found themselves presented with countless possibilities (who to ally with, who should they trust?) that wouldn’t've happened in a linear encounter progression.

    The main down-side is that I ended up having to control a LOT of monsters, which slowed things down, and because they weren’t able to ration their powers, it did turn out to be a familiar Monster Manual 1 “at-will HP grind” against some creatures. Fortunately, my group are new and slow, so appreciated the additional time it gave them to figure out their moves.

    The last two encounters were similar: A typical tree-in-the-road style ambush; beyond the tree-line flanking the road I put a keep down. The adventure was broken down to three encounters: The Ambush (Minions and an elite brute leader tackling those near trees, Lurkers and a Skirmisher attacking the wagon that was further back); Archers using the keep and its difficult terrain as superior cover while a Champion mounted on a dire-wolf harried the targets outside the keep; and a third dungeon-based encounter set below the keep where the elite leader from the first encounter was going to run to.

    As expected, the first encounter provided to major problem for the group, although by splitting the ranged up from the front-line they made it easy for the lurkers and skirmisher to deal some big hits; but that’s where the problems arose for the party. Having scared the group into reforming, the lurker was free to steal their wagon and drive it through the tree-line. The rogue tried to run after it on his own, triggering the second encounter by immediately getting hit by a ton of arrows that the archers had as a readied action, seriously injuring him. The melee tried to jump in the back to use it as a trojan horse, but failed the skill checks and ended up being dragged along behind it and ended up triggering the champion and dire-wolf. Although they managed to kill nearly everything, they neglected to tackle the weak archers (two levels lower than the party) and without securing the keep as cover, left them to deal big damage. One of their characters died. Really dead. It’s not an encounter they’re going to forget in a hurry.

    Once again, by triggering two encounters almost simultaneously, they found themselves low on encounter / dailies and heals. It was a major change to the “one room, two room” dungeons I’d been running in Keep on the Shadowfell, and the other source books.

    One thing I found interesting was also the change in the use of some dailies; those that last “until the end of the encounter” mean that without them taking a short rest, they get a lot more mileage out of them, which can seriously mitigate the draw-back of being low on encounter powers.

  61. Reexamining the Dungeon? | Geek Related says:

    [...] an interesting post from Robert Schwalb about the rut 4e adventure design has gotten itself into.  The comments are pretty interesting, [...]

  62. Designing exploratory adventures « CQC's D&D blog says:

    [...] conducted lately regarding the design of exploratory adventures in 4e, spurred on largely by an excellent recent blog post of Robert Schwalb’s. A followup from him here, an outside comment from SRM here, and an outside comment from the Chatty [...]

  63. Weekend Links Roundup: 17th October 2010 « Jonathan Drain’s D20 Source: Dungeons & Dragons Blog says:

    [...] Reexamining the Dungeon, by Robert J. Schwalb. A writer for Wizards of the Coast, Schwalb gives insights into the “tactical encounter” format introduced late in D&D 3rd edition and used heavily by 4th edition. He looks at where the format succeeds, where it fails, and how those issues might be solved. [...]

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  66. The 5×5 Dungeon: The Temple of Elemental Evil : Critical Hits says:

    [...] wanted the Temple to really come alive and react, in ways discussed by Rob Schwalb and Chatty DM, whose articles would ultimately serve as the inspiration for what I [...]

  67. This is My Game » Speeding up Combat #3 – Barking up the Wrong Tree (Or This Post Nullifies Everything Else I’ve Said On the Subject) says:

    [...] rooms where monsters could be coming in from other areas, most tactical encounters now are against warbands that are all in a single room, and start there right from the beginning.  In effect, they’re [...]

  68. Tony says:

    Zooming out from encounters and considering the entire adventure (the narrative, exploration, the story, the history, the motives of those involved) is something I’ve really focused on this year. Some of it is inspired by all the dynamic choices games like Dragon Age give, and some it is a naturally consequence of what Robert Schwalb has already discovered: there’s some drawbacks in repeatedly using the cookie-cutter 4e encounter design, especially combat encounters. Great read, thank you Robert.

  69. Analyzing Combat Encounters – Returning to the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series | The Id DM says:

    [...] most recent addition to fray is the thoughtful article by Robert J. Schwalb, which presents a possible solution for the slow grind of combat and awkward rest mechanics in 4e. [...]

  70. The Architect DM: On Dungeons : Critical Hits says:

    [...] August of last year, and of course there’s Robert Schwalb’s post from September about Re-examining the Dungeon that inspired a lot of people to start thinking about things in different ways. Both of these posts [...]

  71. Dungeons, Encounters and Exploration | Trail Rations says:

    [...] around I found two really great articles about the subject. The first is found here http://www.robertjschwalb.com/2010/09/reexamining-the-dungeon/ and discusses some great changes that can be made to the way encounters are designed in fourth [...]

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