Dungeon Design: Tailored to Distraction

In my last article, I discussed how adventuring in a “megadungeon” allows the players to choose their own difficulty level. It’s a very useful style for new DMs and players to use in their initial play of D&D. To a large extent, the megadungeon provides the training wheels of D&D, an environment that allows the players and DM to come to grip with the rules and understand the relative balance between the monsters and the PCs.
However, the megadungeon, as a player-driven environment, doesn’t allow for the type of plot-driven adventures that have become popular since the early days of D&D. These adventures require far more targeting of encounters to players, which, of course, creates its own problems.
Early examples of the tailored dungeon can be found in the Slavelords series (A1-4). If you look at the first dungeon in A1, Slave-pits of the Undercity, you find an adventure consisting of about 10 encounter areas in a linear format. This was due to the adventure’s origin as a tournament module. Each team would encounter the ten encounters in turn. The winning team was the one who proceeded the furthest with the least casualties. The adventuring party had a goal (defeat the slavelords) and if you defeated the tenth encounter, then you were successful!
One of the most important features of this format is that there is a strong goal and there are a number of encounters you must overcome to fulfil it. There isn’t anything optional about them. A modern version of this idea appears as the Five Room Dungeon, described in an issue of Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips e-zine. I’m sure you can think of other examples in published adventures.
The shift from the megadungeon’s “we just want to survive, kill monsters and get treasure” to “we need to accomplish a specific task” means that the players no longer have the option of avoiding an encounter that is too difficult for them. It’s quite simple: if they can’t get past the dragon, they fail. This suddenly shifts the burden of PC vs monster balance to the DM. Although the threat of failure is an important part of keeping tension and interest high in the game, a badly unbalanced encounter is no fun for the players. Several unbalanced encounters and your players will be looking for another game! A Great Wyrm Red Dragon against a party of 1st level characters? Uh… no.
Quite obviously, knowing the relationship of power between monsters and PCs is suddenly quite important. At this point, game designers begin to shuffle their feet nervously. The simple truth of the matter is that most RPGs are so complex in their interactions that getting a completely accurate encounter balancing system is a fool’s dream. Most designers would settle for “good enough”. That’s not actually true: most designers don’t even try, and leave it up to the poor DM to work it out for themselves.
D&D 3E was quite a leap forward with its CR system. Of course, it doesn’t work properly. I doubt there’s any other RPG system as complicated as D&D 3E can become with regard to its interactions, simply by virtue of the amount of material produced for it (with results such as Pun-Pun). The CR/EL system also becomes quite wonky when it begins to deal with groups of monsters, if simply because the mathematics unpinning the system don’t allow it to. (What’s the problem? Simply put, it’s because characters gain too much power with each level. After two levels, a challenging monster is no longer a credible threat – it doesn’t have a high enough AC or Attack bonus any more). However, even with its flaws, the D&D 3E CR/EL system gives a good first approximation of the challenge involved.
Unfortunately, any such system is built on the concept of a standard, unwounded party. Once a party is nonstandard or has expended a lot of limited use abilities, the approximation how challenging an encounter will be gets more unreliable. Your group of 10 ogres would be a walk-over for a group that was freshly rested, but a group that’s out of fireballs? Oh boy, are they in for a world of hurt!
I expect that AD&D was easier to balance encounters for than D&D 3e due to its shallower power curve and the lack of special abilities distorting the comparison, even though it lacked more tangible tools. (Mind you, this doesn’t mean I want to go back to AD&D, for my players and I really enjoy the plethora of special abilities we can have fun with, as well as other aspects of the game that we think D&D 3E does better).
So, does that mean that you should never used tailored encounters? Well, no, it doesn’t. What it does mean is that you’ve got to be aware of the issues. In general, it doesn’t matter if the PCs overcome the monsters easily in a few fights, for you do want them to win, after all. If the monsters overcome the PCs in the first fight; now, that’s more of a problem!
The real advantages of tailored encounters is that you can design them around the PCs strengths and weaknesses, and you also don’t need to do as much possibly wasted design work as in a megadungeon, which can have rooms the PCs never visit.
The greatest flaw with tightly focused tailored encounters – and more particularly, adventures – is that they don’t allow enough scope of player action and ingenuity. I’m sure many of you are already considering the potentials of hybrid adventures – that is ones that have both freeform adventuring and a limited number of tailored encounters – and that is the topic I’ll be discussing next week.

One comment

  1. orryn_emrys

    Following the tendencies outlined by the evolution of the game, my more recent campaigns have contained a great deal more tailored encounter material, but my players have also evolved more purely into roleplayers. Combat encounters are just a lot less important to them nowadays, though still significant enough to inspire many of them to continue to focus on combat-capable character builds. Even so, they are far more interested in the completion of each quest and their PCs’ role in the setting at large than they are the individual struggles, and freeform adventuring will frequently include numerous, seemingly pointless encounters… which can be particularly damaging to the game should a character meet an untimely end in such a fight. Not that the mortality rate is particularly high in my games… but you know what I mean.

    Ironically, one of the ways I’ve taken to balancing this particular tendency is converting old 1st Edition material and tossing it into the middle of the campaign somewhere, though I’m careful to make it important to their overall aims somehow. My most recent accomplishment, which (after more than 30 weekly sessions) they’ve very nearly completed, is the Desert of Desolation. It’s been a blast.


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