Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Combat encounters per adventure

I am working on a conversion of a classic Dungeons & Dragons adventure module to today's 4th edition D&D. And that conversion process really makes some of the changes from previous editions to 4th edition very clear, with the key factor being the number of combat encounters in the adventure. I have one old module with 54 combat encounters, and I am trying to condense that into a 4th edition adventure with about 10 combat encounters. While keeping the same amount of story and roleplaying.

Now I'm not saying that this is all due to 4th edition. There are significant personal factors at work here too. But 4th edition isn't really suited for having small and short fights which are over after a few dice rolls in 5 minutes. That means that I usually don't do more than 2 combat encounters in one session. And as I play only every other week, an adventure with 54 combat encounters would last over a year. I find that far too much for a single adventure with a single story. With 10 combat encounters and the same amount of story as the original, I can play the adventure in 2 months. That gives everybody involved a much better chance at having an enjoyable coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end, with the end happening before you completely forgot about how the story started.

A general formula of 10 combat encounters per adventure also fits well with the xp structure of 4th edition. A combat encounter of normal difficulty gives the players 10% of the xp needed to level, so 10 fight per adventure results in one level gained per adventure. I have run bigger adventures, but then the players level up in the middle of it, which is something I always find a bit awkward; I prefer having some sort of "training" happening when players gain a level.

But more importantly I think that having too many combat encounters in an adventure is harming the story. Combat stops being meaningful if there are too many fights, it leads to a "here comes another trash mob" mentality in the players. That might be okay for a MMORPG, but not good for a pen & paper roleplaying game. Even a James Bond movie doesn't have 54 combat scenes. Shakespeare's Hamlet, while considered rather bloody, only has 8 deaths in total; I doubt that adding a dozen trash mob fights would have improved the story. I rather have fewer and more memorable combat encounters, and at least half of the adventure being taken up by role-playing and other non-combat sequences.

How many combat encounters do you usually run in a pen & paper role-playing session, and how many do you think should make up one "adventure"?

I don't think its about the number, its more about the balance and the quality of things. There is no balance in my mind if all it is is killing. The narrative is important to give you a reason to kill, the puzzles are needed to keep things fresh, the role-playing and character building are all part of the fun and should be rewarded every bit as much as killing. I think lack of rewards for role playing is something most games could learn from. Arelith kind of has server people doling out rewards for good roleplaying and this works as long as they are on duty but it'd be nice if there was some automated way of doing it without having an easily gameable system.
The other factor I think comes into play is not so much about how many fights, how many monsters, etc, but more… variety and how it meshes with the whole story. Maybe think of each individual adventure encounter as a WoW boss-fight in a raid. Too many IS fatiguing mentally, and you want to ensure the mechanics are changed up to give a little variety.

Something else… fatigue in-game. I haven’t tried 4E, but I have read the rules pretty extensively. It looks like recovery between encounters is a lot easier than the editions I played. (Advanced and 3.5)

One of the experiences you get in Advanced is a sort of… risk aversion, when it comes to engaging in too many encounters. It creates a tension.
Each encounter, especially with such low health pools so badly affected by random dice chance, runs the risk of slowing you down or killing you. Encountering more and more rooms of monsters gives you a very ‘gauntlet-run’ feel.

I think depending on your wording, framing, dramatic licence, you can take a series of encounters and make it feel like a brutal, bloody slog, the stuff of legends… have your characters feel like any Bruce Willis character, limping at the end of the movie, but it’d have to be appropriate. If you simply have areas where encounters could take place, and the players wander into those places, with some sort of house-rule ‘fatigue’ system in place (reducing their ability to recover), you could artificially inspire them to try – over time – to find ways to avoid encounters that they still might otherwise have easily overcome.

Personally I’d make that kind of modification to recovery rates a GM-decided ‘house rule’ rather than relying on some in-game magical macguffin.

This kind of rule shift could help fight power creep down the track, too, allowing encounters to be harder by virtue of using time-related plot devices as incentives to prevent the players from saying, “We stay in the inn for a week until we are fully rested,” like many Advanced adventures used to allow.

“You rest for a week? Cool. You have given the foul sorcerer all the time he needs to sacrifice the virgin and empower his dark master. When you awake, finally recovered, you see that the sky has turned a dirty, rust-red. You notice a black wave upon the horizon, an endless tide of winged nightmares, descending upon the inn. Your opponents are ten thousand demons. I have not prepared models our counters –this length of black thread represents the border of the demon-mass. Roll to save against suicidal despair.”
Something else… fatigue in-game. I haven’t tried 4E, but I have read the rules pretty extensively. It looks like recovery between encounters is a lot easier than the editions I played. (Advanced and 3.5)

What 4E does very well with fatigue is that it has the concept of the "short rest". You will end up with full health, but low on healing surges. You recover your encounter powers, but not your daily powers. And there is a system that if you do a series of fights with only short rests in between, you get action points as rewards which enable you to do an additional action.

Thus in 4E you can do a series of fights with just short rests in between with a definitive feeling of resources running low, but without totally crippling the players right from the start. And it nicely solves the "5-minute work day" problem of the Vancian magic user in previous editions.
Heh. I had seen those rules, but they still struck me as being a bit soft.

That said... I haven't rolled the dice.
Perhaps a better example of what I was thinking of... Jagged Alliance. Did you ever play the originals?

Your characters can bandage/first aid themselves up, but only up to a point. They suffer movement/action/morale penalties based on their low state of health, and only fully recover to their true max health by being out of action ('full' resting) for a significant period of time, like 12-24hrs.
I do believe that the concept of healing surges is hard to understand unless you played it. Previous editions of D&D had a lot less in-combat healing, thus your health pool was the resource you looked for. 4E has more in-combat healing, but it is limited by the amount of healing surges you have left. So with full healing surges after an extended rest you can do MMO-type "tanking" while being healed. If after a short rest your health is full but your surges are low, the fight becomes a lot more risky.
In that case, I'd probably suggest tweaking the encounters such that they seem to require healing surges to be completed comfortably.

I guess in MMO terms, it's like... fighting in a zone where you can beat the mobs, but get down to a sliver of health. If you can do that without relying on potions, then there's never really any tension. If you have to down a potion on every other fight, however, you might think twice about how many mobs you engage in that zone, depending on how many pots are in your bag.

ie: If 'short rest' with refreshing health and encounter powers is 'enough' for most encounters, there's no real escalation in the fatigue. It's the same calculated risk, just over and over.

(I still think artificially tossing in a few really good 'sustained' injuries, like broken legs or whatnot is a good way to help escalation along. DMs still roll their dice behind the curtain, right?)
To answer your question, I usually have 3-4 combat encounters (most often 2 meaningful and 1-2 just to roll some dice) in 5-7 hour play session. We mainly play Deadlands original ed, not D&D, but its still rpg.

Back when I ran D&D 3rd ed campaign, I had only 2-3 combat encounters per session, because I had 6 players to handle (as opposed to 4 now) and because 3 rd ed rules are much more complicated.

I never ever ran (A)D&D adventure module as written, I vastly prefer to have much more roleplaying and problem solving.
Cam: When I still played DnD with a group here, if we ran into a really tough encounter that necessitated use of a large number of Daiy Powers across players, or if we had done a couple easier encounters but were starting to run low on Healing Surges on especially the tanks, we'd easily head off for a full rest. Otherwise we'd just go on.

It's reasonably hard to die really dead in 4E, but a character who goes down with no surges left and perhaps some sustained damage going on is at a lot more risk.

So when roleplayed, we did have the characters discussing how beat they were from fighting of those few waves of, well trash mobs, and could really go for a night's rest.

I think that works a whole lot better in 4E than any previous version, really.
And of course the strange thing is your calculating what the players need in XP, when the players have ceased to care about pursuing XP a long time ago. They have no say in how they get XP or what they can do to get it, so those who remain don't care. So why bother figuring out all the numbers when you could just wave a wand every so often and say they level and they'd be just as okay with it?

Because they have to do X amount of battles to level up? Otherwise they aren't 'earning' it?

Which seriously comes down to what are they doing to earn it - if there's a 1 in 2000 chance of a PC dying, why is that considered earning anything? What is the point of combat? Just to not do the most obviously silly things (like stand in the fire) and that's 'earning' your levels?

Leveling design has gotten quite odd over the years.
Leveling design has gotten quite odd over the years.

I rather get the impression that your ideas of what an RPG is have gotten quite odd over the years. Do you actually have an active group playing like that? Because frankly, your description of how you imagine D&D doesn't look like anything I've ever seen played.

In my group players CARE about combat, they care about doing well in it, there is excitement and a sense of danger, without anyone actually having to calculate the exact percentage chance of dying. And because they care about combat, my players want new powers, which come with new levels, which come with XP.

If you play something that has nobody interested in combat, in XP, in levels, in character power progression, well, maybe that exists as some sort of weird improvised theater like group activity. But I wouldn't even call it an RPG (it would be role-playing, but not a game), and it certainly isn't D&D.
I had a moderator at who told me that's precisely how his group is (and no one else in the thread seemed surprised). I've also played in a campaign where the GM would just keep everyone the same level, even if people missed a session (particularly as he was using a module that went from 1 to 30, apparently, and the module just couldn't cope with anything going off track, even levels).

Hey, as I think I've said before - I don't understand the 'another trash mob' issue existing if the players care about pursuing XP and/or there's more than a minute chance of death. Assuming 'another trash mob' is a boredom complaint, why would you feel boredom if the dang monster might just kill you? Of course it's totally odd to think the reason a player might think 'trash mob' is because it's not going to kill them. Or that the XP from it just isn't of interest (though rather than a lack of interest in XP, it could just be too low an XP amount to be interesting, granted).

Maybe the 'trash mob' issue isn't even an issue amongst your players at all?

Or if it is, then instead of trying to treat the symptom, what is the cause?
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