Friday, April 03, 2009

Mad Insights

I've begun the slow process of converting Paizo Publishing's "Age of Worms" Adventure path, originally published in issues #124-135 of Dungeon Magazine, into the new 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. As I've been doing so, though, I've discovered more than a few things about adventure design, as well as about general design tenets of both 3.5 and 4.0. And it's surprising what those things have to teach.

***Spoiler Alert -- Though if you haven't already played through the Age of Worms, the odds that you'll do so soon (other than in my own campaign) seems small, given that three of the twelve original issues of Dungeon are now out of print and can only be acquired in PDF format.***

The introductory adventure, 'The Whispering Cairn', takes place in a sleepy yet dirty (in more than one sense) town of Diamond Lake, and the intended motivation for the adventurers to take on the challenge of the cairn is to try to score a treasure large enough to buy their way out of town to someplace where life isn't so cheap. The designers did a solid job of presenting a classic low-level dungeon crawl with a few twists, and in such a way that players who mindlessly min-max their low-level characters are going to be in for a rude shock. (For instance, among players of 3.5-era wizards, the spells shocking grasp and magic missile are agreed to be more useful and powerful, and thus better options, than the spell burning hands. Yet, one very early encounter effectively punishes the party for containing a min-max wizard by throwing an acid beetle swarm -- a creature immune to weapon damage and most spell damage, but vulnerable to area effect spells like burning hands -- at the young turks.) In this sense, in that the adventure is designed to be a challenge for even experienced 3.5 players, the designers should be thanked and lauded.

In addition, the designers also don't skimp on the flavor in the first adventure (technically the first two, since both of the first two adventures take place primarily in and around Diamond Lake); Dungeon #124 not only contains the initial adventure, but also a sixteen page section detailing the town of Diamond Lake, and a web-enhancement (which at the time took some effort to get out the door) containing full stat-block writeups of all the major (and a good chunk of the minor) NPCs in the town. If you're looking for a place to begin campaigns with echoes of the classic D&D towns of the past such as the Village of Hommlet, you could do worse than to simply co-opt all the background material for Diamond Lake and drop it, whole cloth, into your own campaign world. Again, in an industry that seems to focus heavily on either flavor (setting) or crunch (rules) at the expense of the other, the impressive balance and extreme plentitude of crunchy flavor makes this an outstanding example of the 3.5 era low-level adventure.

Looked at through the eyes of a fourth-edition player/DM/developer, though, there are some problems, not just with the adventure, but with the overall design ethic of not just the campaign but the underlying game system.

Traditionally, 1st level D&D characters are extremely fragile, especially in any iteration of the rules that allows bonus damage on 'critical hits'. Because of this, most experienced D&D players and DMs tend to start their campaigns at 2nd or 3rd level, to ensure that the players have a bit of a buffer to tide over small swings in ill fortune. 'The Whispering Cairn' gives a good reason why: the very first encounter occurs between the party and a pack of three wolves, one of which is significantly tougher (in hit point terms) than the others. The party should win this fight, unless their luck abandons them entirely, but having defeated the wolves, chances are that the wizard has spent his only offensive spell (or only defensive spell), the cleric has used most if not all of his initial healing spells to bring the party's front-line combatants back to full health or close to it, and the party's 'resources' have been largely drained. Pretty much all they have left are the hit points on their backs, so the question is, press on, or head out to the hideout and rest up for another run tomorrow?

If they press on, they run smack-dab into the aforementioned encounter that punishes them for being min-maxers; while I haven't counted all the TPKs listed in the Paizo Age of Worms message boards, I suspect that this specific encounter is one of the more prevalent areas for TPKs (total party kills), in what is ostensibly the fourth room in the dungeon. Unfortunately, if the party goes timid, then the DM has the stick of a rival adventuring party in the area exploring another cairn that the PCs know is treasureless. The resulting tension is classic D&D 'do I push on and die or withdraw and lose' tension, but not everyone likes to play that way anymore.

That's a big reason why 4.0 characters start with significantly more hit points and other resources than starting characters in previous versions of the game -- to help avoid 'low level minefield syndrome', where you're afraid to step anywhere lest it turn out to be a hidden kobold who crits you with his shortsword and sends you to an early grave.

Another point, and this actually feeds into the first point above, is in the area of treasure distribution. Now, I don't want to give you the idea that treasure distribution is badly done in 3.5 terms in 'The Whispering Cairn'; the dungeon is a place where numerous runs have already been made, the 'low-hanging fruit' has already been plucked, and the party gains significant rewards for pushing through the toughest challenges. This absolutely adds a sense of verisimilitude to the experience of becoming a 'professional adventurer'; if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

In 4.0 terms, though, treasure is meant to be distributed somewhat more evenly -- not precisely one bundle of treasure for each encounter, but most encounters should result in some kind of reward for the party other than just the XP. Done properly, this can actually be of great benefit to the party. Let's use the aforementioned wolf encounter as an example:

The party fights the wolves in a 3.5 setting, defeats them, and claims the treasure of an elven-crafted piece of jewelry (again, excellent design from a 3.5-era perspective, since the party, if they took the trouble to make contact with the elven mine manager in town, can sell the jewelry there for a larger profit, rewarding the players for investing time in role-playing). But jewelry doesn't help them make their decision -- if anything, it pushes them to head back to town, sell the jewel for the cash to buy more supplies and press on the next day. (And, not coincidentally, start rumors about the town as to where these ragamuffin adventurers are finding this treasure, which can eventually leak back to the rival party's ears.)

In a 4.0 environment, the treasure is more likely to be a small number of coins plus a healing potion, which recommends to the party that they can in fact go on. (After all, in 3.5, they're probably planning to sell the jewelry to buy healing potions anyway.) Players spend more time in encounters, and less managing their character inventories, both of which are significant improvements for players who aren't already enamored of inventory management in their RPGs. While this means that the players' 'big' treasure encounters won't be quite as big in 4.0 as in 3.5, since some of the treasure that would have been in the 3.5 cha-ching horde is now littered amongst the rabble leading to the monster guarding the cha-ching horde, it also means that they're more likely to survive to that encounter, survive the actual encounter, and reach that encounter within a single game session rather than two or three -- another factor that aging gamers, who no longer have time to spend an entire weekend gorging on Mountain Dew, frozen pizza, and D&D, tend to appreciate.

Now it just so happens that this entry lets me bang on D&D 3.5 for a bit; I'm sure as I go I'll find things about D&D 4.0 to bang on as well. If you want an even more insightful tour of how Age of Worms helped bring out the worst in D&D 3.5, despite (or perhaps because of) their designers' best efforts, check out this ENWorld essay, "How Paizo made me hate 3e."

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