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.