Friday, June 12, 2009

Duergar Workshop

The "delve format" of official 4th Edition adventures creates some odd quirks.

Under the delve format, each encounter is completely self-contained. All the information relevant to the encounter is printed on the same one or two pages, including battlemaps, terrain features, and the complete stat blocks of every monster that appears in the encounter. Very important encounters sometimes get a third page.

The method by which page counts are allocated appears to be this: the encounter is given the minimum amount of space required to accomodate its map and its monster stat blocks. Any remaining white space can then be filled with description of the encounter and additional flavour text.

The first encounter in the Horned Hold ("The Portcullis") had a small map and only used one type of monster ("Orc Beserker") with a very simple stat block. As a result, it fit on a single page. We got almost no information beyond the monster tactics and the terrain rules, turning the encounter into a puzzling and almost insurmountable roadblock with no hints on how players should overcome it.

By contrast, "Duergar Workshop" uses three enemy types, including a named Controller, so it just spills over onto a second page. The authors are left with a lot of white space to fill, so they use it to provide a pantheon of utterly irrelevant background to what's almost certainly going to be a tank-and-spank slugfest.

A little primer: this encounter is home to Urwol, Master Smith, commander of the northern mini-fortress (one of three minor buildings comprising the Horned Hold). Urwol's a Duergar, and as his title suggests he's responsible for forging the Horned Hold's weapons. As a Controller, he's got a whole pile of unique forge-themed powers, including the ability to heat opponent's weapons to hand-burning temperatures and unleash a trinity of vicious area-burst debuffs. Players might have to be reminded that Duergar are psychic dwarves in order to understand Urwol's near-wizardly manipulation of molten metal.

The encounter description includes a big heading, "Roleplaying Urwol", and three paragraphs of notes thereunder. We learn that Urwol is a bully, that he's impatient, that he has a hatred for surface-worlders and particularly dwarves. We hear about his attitudes to his superiors and to the Mages of Saruun. He's vain and confident and proud of his work.

That's all great. DMs should really take the time to pack as much of that into Urwol's first free action as possible, because that's all the time they're going to get between the players bursting into the room with the blood of orc guards still fresh on their weapons and the moment when they identify Urwol as a Controller and focus-fire on him. Urwol has 64 hitpoints and an AC of 20; an un-buffed level 6 Ranger hits him on a 9 and can kill him in two standard actions.

When, exactly, was Urwol intended to be roleplayed? Was it before players murdered the sentries in the next room? Or is he going to have a quick chat with the armed surfaceworlders after they come strolling into his supposedly secure military smithy? Players can get into melee with Urwol on the same action that they enter the smithy; it's entirely possible to eliminate him before he even acts.

In cramped quarters where the players are maintaining momentum from the last encounter, this is going to be a massacre. The Duergar have no room to manouever and they're going to be cut down like wheat by any competent party. It's a complete waste of a named opponent and an incredibly poorly-planned introduction to the Horned Hold.

On the plus side, Urwol had that scepter that Gendar was looking for. Quest XP, anyone?


FalconGK81 said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds entire paragraphs about how to roleplay these guys is odd. They do it with all the named guys in this dungeon, yet there is next to 0 reasons for the players to not just smack them around. This leaves me just roleplaying some guy saying random things. It goes in one ear and out the other.

4e makes a big point about how monsters don't need tons of abilites when their lives are on average about 6 rounds long. Well, if thats the case, why do I need multiple paragraphs telling me about there motivations and desires when they will be on screen for 6 rounds? Oh, thats right, cause they don't want whitespace on over half a page. Thanks for giving me a quality product...

By The Sword said...

They could have used that extra space to give the DM suggestions on how to get past the portcullis.

Maelora said...

Great analysis as always, Greg.

Sigh. Even when 4E gets something right (i.e. a bit of NPC personality) it still manages to get it wrong (by having no way to interact with the NPC).

Of course, this is the Kalarel situation all over again. Backstory is meaningless unless the PCs have some way of knowing it, and NPC personality is useless unless they are allowed to interact with the players in some way.

I find the whole 'delve format' thing makes the game resemble Descent or some other board/minis game rather than an RPG.

Can I ask you, Greg - do you think, assuming this format is going to be used for the remainder of 4E's lifespan, that there will EVER be a 4E adventure with meaningful PC choices and decisions that actually affect the flow of the adventure?

I know you're an 'Insider' subscriber, so you may want to check out the new 'Forbidden Forge' adventure for Eberron. I'm no great fan of the campaign world, but this offering is actually half-decent. It's no masterpiece, but it has a few different starting hooks, at least three diplomatic possibilities, an open ending and the outside chance of completing the adventure with diplomacy rather than bloodshed. Any thoughts?

Greg Tannahill said...

FalconGK81 - as I look at in tonight's post, actually the next named NPC (Rundarr) doesn't get any roleplaying notes at all despite having three times as many HP as our man Urwol.

Maelora - I heard you touting the Eberron adventure on the boards; I'll go have a look at it although I'm not entirely across the Eberron setting.

I don't think there's any reason you can't do a non-linear or character-driven story in the Delve format. For a start, if it's a non-combat encounter you have a lot more space to work with when you don't have to print statblocks.

King of the Trollhaunt Warrens actually has a very, very basic stream of non-linear encounters at one point.

I think ultimately the adventure design gets hurt by the requirement to give at least a page to every encounter, and always provide statblocks. It makes it much harder to do, "In the unlikely event that players return to the surface to recruit soldiers to help them, here's how that might work" moments. Any contingency longer than a paragraph but shorter than a page doesn't really have a place to go within the module.

Greg Tannahill said...

Oh, hey, okay, Forbidden Forge is a much nicer format. Still unashamedly a dungeon crawl but with the implicit assumption that players DON'T automatically kill opponents, and with heaps of information to be gotten from enemies after defeating them. Also an assumption that not every room is a tactical encounter, with relevant information to make those rooms significant rather than just places to pass through to get to the next combat.

I like! More like this!

Maelora said...

I'm glad someone else liked it!

I've resigned myself that 4E is primarily a combat game, so I've accepted that we won't see anything like 'Assassin's Knot' or 'Beyond the Crystal Cave' in AD&D.

But that shouldn't mean all the adventures have to be as soulless as the ones we've seen thus far. I'm not exactly an Eberron fan (and I'm certainly a 4E skeptic), but if more adventures contain a little intrigue and interaction like 'Forbidden Forge', it might be the best thing to happen to 4E.

Bryant said...

My players did indeed steamroller this encounter fairly brutally. The close quarters become even worse for the duregar due to the noise -- no question but that the PCs can sneak around.

Aaron said...

In our game, Urwol actually ended up being one of the chattiest and most entertaining NPC fights that we've yet had. Our GM really went out of his way to have Urwol taunt the players, berate his allies, laugh at players misfortune, and swear at players success. That said, it wasn't a hard fight. We did win out in fairly easy fashion, but even so because Urwol couldn't shut his gob, it was entertaining down to the last.

CarpDM said...

I don't see how Urwol and his 4 guards aren't able to hear the fight that's going on just 2 rooms away ... especially if the doors are open. In other words encounters H1 and H2 should be joined as one encounter. Not such an easy fight now.