Friday, October 9, 2020

Building an Adventure (pt.3): Encounter Design

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This is part three of my detailed rundown of adventure creation. In these articles, I'm focussing on the decision making processes that lead to the creation of an adventure.

UPDATE: If you like this adventure, an updated, cleaned-up and slightly expanded version of it is now available on DrivethruRPG.

A Note on Party-Specific Design

If you're building an adventure for home, then tailoring the adventure to your particular characters can be very valuable. What I'm doing here is developing an adventure that could be published and shared with everyone.

As I pointed out on my article on Rationale, this in and of itself leads to certain assumptions. First, we have to assume that nothing is going to be used as written. You don't need a lot of complex specifics, highly detailed description, for background material that fits into other campaign worlds. In fact, too much of that will Peter waste of time, energy, and money. The real goal for writing a module is to create a jumping-off point for a Game Master, and assume that they are going to customize the hell out of the adventure. Therefore, focus on making it easily customizable.

If you're only writing for your own group, building challenges that will let the various members of your group shine is helpful. This means taking some time to asses what your PCs are capable of, and what class features the players favour.

For example: my playtest group is particularly good at handling high places. They keep a lot of grappling hooks and equipment that makes them better at climbing and moving vertically. The party thief has a set of magic wings that allow her to take flight. The party wizard is quick to use tenser's floating disk as an elevatorfor safety net. The danger of a fall is less frightening for them, and so if I were building this adventure with just my group in mind, I might find an alternative threat to having them fall into the machines. But I might make a thrilling vertical battle.

Likewise, I am recycling the boiler encounter. They have already tested it for me, and gave me a huge thumbs up for the tense design. I will probably replace the boiler with some kind of hostage situation that allows them to employ stealth deception, and magical tricks, as my group excels in those fields. Whatever I choose, it will probably be something I would like to use in a future adventure.

Encounter Design Tools

When I design encounter, I like to refer back to the Three T's that Hankerin Ferinale published in Index Card RPG Core 2E; I also look for an opportunity to create iconic moments where characters get to play at the fantasy archetypes that they built their characters on.

Finally, like the true grognard that I am, I'm not particularly interested in balancing encounters. I am, however, interested in making sure that everyone has a good time. To that end, I trying to make sure that players handling things intelligently will not face a tpk. For that reason, I like to leave an out or a bypass to any encounter.

My game of choice for my playtesting group is Index Card RPG. It is built on a Dungeons & Dragons core, but tightenrd for faster play. ICRPG characters mathematically work out to the equivalent of a second level Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition character, or characters between 3rd and 5th level in older editions of Dungeons & Dragons. You can simply use OSR monster stat blocks without modification with ICRPG as long as you make that your assumed level of play around 4th.

(Typically, I will build an adventure using OSRIC or Basic Dungeons & Dragons and then play it with ICRPG.)

The Three Ts

The three Ts of good encounter design are Time, Threat, and Treat. Every encounter should work with a tight Time frame, every encounter should have a clear Threat to the party's life beyond getting hit a few times of the weapon, and every encounter should provide a player character an opportunity to be a badass or find something unusual and exciting as a Treat.



Here is how I will handle that with each of the encounters I described in the last article.

Entrance with Guardian: Sleestak Lookouts and Bionic Triceratops

Threat: The triceratops are exceptionally tough, players will have to be clever rather than go toe to toe.

Timer. I will use one of the sleestaks to go and warn the others. It will take him 1d3 rounds to go inside, sound an alarm, and seal a set of heavy doors behind him. This will give bonuses to the Sleestak defenders in the Trap encounter,

Treat: a little harder to pin down. Perhaps a bit of sleestak technology, like a loaded alchemical mortar with a couple of rounds of sleep talks in.

Role Playing: Dying Australopithecus

Threat: For the scene with the Australopithecus, the threat is more intangible. It would be tempting to say not getting information would be the threat, but that is not enough. So, I will make the garbage heap toxic, and player characters who spend too much time here will get severely penalized.

Timer: This is straightforward. too much time in the environment and the characters will get sick. Moreover, there is a limited time to save the Australopithecus before it dies.

Treat: aside from getting some very basic information from the Australopithecus about where they are, and what the enemy plans, the Australopithecus gives them the location of the boiler Chambers. They might also get a low-powered follower out of the deal if they treat her well.

As an additional way to raise the sense of threat, we can add in a few corpses of the missing people in the trash heap as well.

Trap: The Gantry

Threat: This is the most dangerous encounter for the player characters in the environment; we will let them know exactly what will happen if they fall in that machine by letting them watch a triceratops being processed. The threat is that they are under fire and in danger of falling well dealing with an enemy that is out of melee range.

Timer: I will have one of the sleestaks attacking them target support cables for the catwalk with caustic alchemical mortars. Once it's scores three successful hits against an armour class of 14, the characters have only two rounds to get clear before they fall into the butchering machinery.

Treat: If the player characters can get undercover by crossing the catwalk, they can turn the tide of the battle,  where's the sleestaks have to engage in melee combat.

If they can cross to where the sleestaks first attacked them, they can also discover the controls and user manual for the machinery. If they have magic that will let them translate that information, they can prevent the collapse at the end of encounter four.

Climax: The Boilers

Threat: The threatening this area is both to the player characters and to the PCS that's sent out to rescue. It is a tense multi-part attempts to free imprisoned people before they are boiled alive by an overloaded boiling machine.

Timer: The prisoners are spread over three rooms. 

  • One is a machining room with lots of grinding gears and moving parts. The five prisoners there can be freed 1 / round by picking a lock or using the key, or two per round by feeding a chain into some machinery. That latter option is dangerous. Characters being incautious might accidentally kill a prisoner with the machinery
  • Eight more prisoners are being kept on a packaging assembly line they can be unchained with a key, or by picking a lock. but only one person that use the key per round, however. Breaking the chains is also an option. Freeing these prisoners in time is tricky. they are also much lower than the boiler, near a lava pumping room that keeps the water boiling.
  • Four more prisoners are kept down a long hallway in a repurposed store room. It takes two rounds to reach them from the starting hub. They're stuck behind a locked door.

A single advanced sleestak who serves as the foreman for this structure will be there to threaten the PCS, taught them, and waste time. He has the keys.

Timer: The packaging line will flood in 2d6 rounds. The cells will flood 2d4 rounds after that, and the machine room 1d4 rounds after that. Pplayers will have to use their time cleverly if they wanted to save everyone. Once the room begins flooding, characters take one d6 damage and must save or have their speed cut in half, visibility rapidly disappears, and there's a chance of disorientation.

The machine works area will be filled with fog, making avoiding the butchering machines extremely difficult.

A player character may choose to go into the boiler room to try to vent some of the steam. This will require a successful intelligence check to guess the machinery and at least two strengths tests with a bonus if they have a staff or lever of some kind. For each round that they are in the chamber they take a growing amount of damage, starting at 1d4, then 1d6, then 1d8 each round thereafter. If they succeed, they can add an additional 2d6 rounds before the next chamber floods.

Treat: The players are heroes! Loyal NPCs with valuable Intel. Not to mention overcoming a he'll of a challenge!

Revelation: The Escape

Threat: There are three ways out of the lower machine works through the slide down into the trash heap, up a ladder to the control room and across the gantries, if they are still intact, or out through the dinosaur pen.

Reaching the garbage chute walking through a chamber full of bladed machinery gone berserk and clouded with steam.

Climbing up the ladder and across the gantries may not be an option depending on how the battle here went, but if the PCs choose that route because the Gantry is still intact, they will find the Gantry shakes and threatens to drop them into the machines. Every one must make a saving throw not to be tossed around and possibly lost.

The escape through the dinosaur pain is the safest route.

Temporary Map made with items from
Timer: Time is not on the player character side. The boiler is not done flooding the structure. The garbage chute will become a slide of boiling water into searing pools of toxic refuse in 2d4 rounds. The machine room itself will become too dangerous to navigate and too filled with scalding steam to be safe 1d3 rounds after that. 

2d4 rounds after the gantries and lower machine chamber become too dangerous, the machines will explode dealing significant damage to everyone in the room from flying shrapnel and concussion, also damaging anyone in the trash heap or within 15 feet of the dinosaur pen entrance.

Treat. After this, all surviving prisoners will become loyal henchman more possible replacement PCS until they can return to the village.

If the player characters took the easy route of escaping by way of the dino pen, they will get their first glimpse of a Lost world style hexcrawl adventure. The can also steal some triceratops.

Iconic Encounters for Character Archetypes

At this point, I attempt to ensure that the adventure I designed include some kind of iconic action for each character archetype. I want to make sure that every character has an opportunity to do something that fits their character archetype.

Swashbuckling for Fighters

In the entrance encounter, the fighters have a powerful foe they could defeat. In the Trap and counter, they are doing battle on a high and dangerous environment. Swinging on grappling hooks, running across a rocking Gantry, or throwing enemies into grinding blades all our options to allow the swashbuckler to shine. 

Mighty Deeds for Fightrs

In the climactic encounter, the hero can shatter chains with a weapon to set prisoners free, or have a duel with a powerful Sleestak for his keys. There's also a door that could be bashed down.

Trickery for Thieves

Picking locks can make an impossible seeming situation possible. In the climax, they can free prisoners, or have the best chance of sabotaging the boiler and buying time. they also have the climbing skills that might allow them to sneak in by way of the garbage chute. And with stealth, or speed they can stop the guards from sounding the alarm and letting the player characters get surprise on the trap encounter.

Heroic Deeds for Clerics

 One of the most important things to make a cleric feel like a true champion is to give them something evil to face. I am trying to make sure that it's clear that the sleestaks AR intensely evil. They slaughter animals alive in terrifying killing machines, they throw still living slaves that they think are no longer useful alive into trash pits, when they are found out, they try to boil all the witnesses alive. They even use the remains of their food animals as Undead servants. They make pretty solid enemies for a cleric.

Holy Miracles for Clerics

With the right spells, a cleric can protect much of the party from the heat and dangers of the boiler. They also are the only hope that the dying Australopithecus has of surviving. Other player characters may become poisoned in the trash heap and need the cleric's healing.

Realities to Bend for the Magic-User

A clever use of Sleep or Charm Person could let the PCs simply Waltz into the dungeon and surprise the sleestaks on the gantry. Spell such as Rope Trick or Levitate can make the garbage chute a stealthy entrance. Feather Fall, Floating Disc, or Levitate can save lives in the Trap enounter. Likewise, a clever casting of Shatter or Gust of Wind could turn The sleestaks' high ground against them in the same encounter

Clever Solutions to Solve for a Magic-User

Next to the thief, the magic-user has the highest chance of sabotaging the boiler. They're also number of spells I could possibly slow it down or cool it down. Likewise, there are machines to tinker with. The player character could fiddle with the controls for the machines and learn how to manipulate them. And sleestak technology coukd arm the party with ersatz firearms.

In the next article in this series, I will go over how to plug this into a game engine and make sure every encounter has an out.

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