How to write 4e

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How to write 4e

Post by apotheot »

What is thew best resource or style guide for writing 4e adventures? I've written 1e, 2e, 3x, and 5e before but have never really gotten the hang of writing for 4e. There is seemingly just a different psychology behind the layout of 4e adventures than I am used to. Any suggestions?

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Re: How to write 4e

Post by agathokles »

I'm no super-expert, but I think the main change in 4e w.r.t. other editions is that it does not try to provide a "seamless" feel to the narrative. Rather, it embraces the difference between social, exploration, and combat so that each is managed in isolation.

Another key feature is that combat encounters are relatively long and often designed with complications, leveraging battle maps, terrain (pits and other terrain effects). Some character classes leverage these elements quite heavily through powers that forcibly move or hold enemies into dangerous/harmful terrain. Thus, combat encounters need to be set pieces -- I wouldn't use random encounters in a 4e adventure. These set pieces can and generally do involve multiple rooms, if staged in a dungeon. Thus, the dungeon can (and should) be broken in encounter-sized fragments interspersed with mostly hand-waved exploration (i.e., you don't really need an overall map, but you need precise maps for each encounter).

The same is true for social and exploration encounters -- "skill challenges" only work if they are well-crafted, otherwise they soon become stale as the same tricks are used repeatedly.

Finally, level progression is very fast, but characters fight all encounters with more or less the same resources, since they have few daily powers and healing is very generous. This makes large sandboxes difficult to do in 4e, but small ones (generally with enough encounters to increase by a single level) can be done, and are actually needed to avoid total railroading.

So, if I was to write a 4e adventure, I would work in this way:
  • Design the overall plot. This is mostly a railroad, since you need the PCs to go through the hoops, and break it into single level blocks.
  • For each block, design a sandbox environment (dungeon, overland, or even urban), and a set of balanced encounters. Some of these encounters should be social or exploration, but probably followed up by a combat encounter if the PCs fail (they need the XP anyway).
  • Clarify the transition scenes between the encounters, and the exit nodes that lead to the next block. The exit node of each block should be reacheable only by running through a minimum number of other encounters, otherwise you risk letting low level PCs face exceedingly difficult challenges (note that 4e characters are rarely equipped for fleeing from an encounter, as spells and magic items allowing that are generally toned down in 4e, so one should avoid using overpowered encounters except perhaps as a plot point -- e.g. as the exit encounter from a sandbox, where you want the PCs to be captured).
Obviously, since some players are likely to try and break out from the railroad, you either need to replan from time to time, which may make adventure design costly.
On the other hand, the speed of combat encounter is such that when faced with a party fleeing from the plot, the DM needs only have one "emergency" combat encounter ready to delay them until the next session.


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Re: How to write 4e

Post by Tim Baker »

You did a really nice job of summarizing 4e adventures in the post above. I found that there's a trade-off between a railroad and designing encounters that the PCs won't face. It's certainly possible to create a "point crawl" adventure, where the PCs truly make meaningful decisions and the outcome of each encounter matters more than answering the question, "How many resources did we spend?" Creating such an adventure takes more time, creative energy, and page space, because as the players engage in portions of the adventure, their decisions will negate the opportunity to engage in others.

As a DM for a home group, I could allow the characters to go "off the rails" and place encounters pulled from elsewhere or even entirely different adventures in their path. I could nudge them back toward the original adventure, or at least its conclusion, to make sure those plot threads felt like they were satisfactorily wrapped up. Sometimes, this would be a few levels later, and I'd need to boost the monster levels. Thankfully, the DDI online monster builder made this trivial – I would click the up-arrow a couple times and be done.

For published (even digitally) adventures, this is more challenging, because you need to predict the likely paths that the characters might travel. Or you keep it simple, document the "intended" path, and let the DM do the heavy lifting if the characters do something unexpected. The latter is the route most 4e adventures took, and I think it's at least partially responsible for why it came across feeling "video gamey." Like a video game, you can't travel beyond what the designers have created, so they use everything from dungeon designs that funnel you into a single path to "invisible walls" to keep you in the intended area.

I found an approach that can work reasonably well to recreate those little skirmishes that would pepper adventures in prior editions. They're really only there to burn down resources over time and add a sense of verisimilitude without just hand-waving that such encounters must've happened "off screen." I would model these quick battles with a skill challenge. Just like skill checks can be made against an appropriate target DC, attack bonuses can be used to make a check against the target's AC (or other defense). Failures result in losing a healing surge, or if time is the most meaningful resource, it slows the characters down, putting them into a more challenging situation in the next set piece encounter. Perhaps I'm a mean DM, but I would often use both consequences. It still took some thought on my part to set up the skill challenge, but it had the payoff of making the adventure feel more "alive" – like there was connective tissue between the big, set piece encounters, yet we didn't have to spend an hour running through it.

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