While we were in college, one of my wife’s roommates learned that I played Dungeons & Dragons and as a result I ended up with her dad’s old copy of the D&D Basic Set. Other than some damage to the box it was in great shape and had all of the original contents – both books, a set of dice, a crayon, and even an old TSR catalog (sadly, I don’t think WotC would honor the t-shirt order form). Despite the luck of getting a free copy of a game older than myself, I didn’t manage to play it for several years.
That changed when I kicked off my game-of-the-month group in September. As the oldest RPG that I own and the closest to the original D&D rules, the basic set seemed like a natural place to start any tour of games. September was a busy month for me though between work and a long vacation, so we only had time for a single session.
Hoping to get a group of around 4 or 5 characters, I sent out an e-mail invite to a few potential players that had expressed interest in the game-of-the-month idea. The response was better than I had hoped with almost everyone on my mailing list wanting to play plus a few new people. The party ended up including a dwarf, a magic-user, a cleric, and two thieves.
The basic set includes the Keep on the Borderlands adventure, so I decided to use that for the game. Its namesake keep is a base of operations for the party as they explore the nearby Caves of Chaos which are populated by a variety of humanoid tribes. The adventure is meant to be an introduction to D&D and offers a chance to fight increasingly more difficult opponents as the party ventures further into the caves.
To account for the one-shot nature, I started the game with the adventurers already at the caves and ready to start exploring. The party ended up choosing to enter a cave that was home to goblins and fought their way through a few sentries before fleeing back into the daylight. The goblins, however, hired an ogre mercenary from a neighboring cave to confront the adventurers. Deneb, the party’s magic-user talked down the ogre by offering to split all of the goblin’s treasure with it after they finished off the tribe. Then the party headed back beneath the surface and confronted the goblins once again before finding the secret entrance to the ogre’s lair and stealing his stash of coins before fleeing back to the safety of the keep.
I had fun running the game and the players all seemed to enjoy it. It was also a very different experience than playing either D&D 3.5 or 4E. The most noticeable difference was how frail the 1st-level adventurers were and how few mechanical options they had at their disposal. A single hit from even the goblins would have been enough to kill most of the party’s members, and they had no options for healing other than taking a few days to rest (a 1st-level cleric doesn’t get any spells). That frailty gave the game a much different feel than 4E where low-level characters can confidently enter a fight and take a few hits without much risk of death. This meant that the players had to be far more cautious about combat and encouraged them to go out of their way to avoid fights.
While I definitely prefer the powers and options available to characters in D&D 4E, I thought the desire to avoid combat instilled by the lack of hit points and adventure design was a nice change. That led to me thinking about how to encourage players to try to avoid or bypass encounters in 4E instead of boldly charging in to every fight.
Multiple Ways to Achieve Goals
A standard adventure in D&D 4E tends to be designed around encounters with an expectation that a party will fight there way through each in order to complete the adventure. With this assumption, many adventure sites end up as dungeons with a different encounter in each room and no way to sneak around (and sometimes not even the option to tackle encounters in different orders). If you instead want to encourage players to bypass encounters, then you’ll need to take that into consideration when designing adventures or modifying published modules.
An exploration-themed dungeon should have passages that allow the party to sneak around rooms full of monsters to get to the treasure vault, places to hide for ambushing monsters patrolling the halls, and possibilities for heroes to intimidate opponents or otherwise dissuade monsters from fighting. A good method to build adventures like this is to have a goal for the adventure and then think about different ways the party could achieve the goal such as deception, stealth, bribery, and diplomacy. Thinking about those options and taking steps towards enabling them should go a long ways towards giving players a means to avoid combat if they decide to do so.
More Vulnerable Heroes
In addition to modifying the style of adventure to better allow the party to avoid combat, I think you should also consider some mechanical changes to motivate them to do so. Characters in D&D 4E are pretty robust and are able to take a few hits before being in any real danger of death and then having healing surges that allow them to easily heal up to full hp between fights. For 4E’s design goal of making the characters heroic from 1st level, these mechanics work great. If you instead want to encourage the players to have their characters try to avoid combat, then you should consider more fragile characters.
I think the best option for this would be to reduce the number of healing surges available to characters. This change keeps characters as robust as normal in a single fight so that you can still use standard 4E encounter balance, but will make the party less able to tackle multiple encounters in a single adventuring day. As long as you have time pressure in-game that prevents the party from taking extended rests frequently, then this should provide an extra incentive for them to avoid dangerous fights as often as possible. I’d start with halving the number of surges and then adjusting from there until you find a number that works well.
Using the standard 4E rules, quests offer an experience reward but it is generally overshadowed by the xp granted by the encounters that the party tackles while completing the quest. In order to make avoiding combat a viable alternative, you should consider instead having quest rewards be the main way to earn xp. One way to do this is o just adjust the amount of xp rewarded for quests and then drop encounter experience altogether. Here are the categories and rewards that I would start with:
- Side Trek: XP equal to 1 monster of the party’s level per PC
- Minor Quest: XP equal to 4 monsters of the party’s level per PC
- Major Quest: XP equal to 8 monsters of the party’s level per PC
For next month, I’m running Technoir which is one of my most recent RPG purchases. Stop by next month to see how it goes.
Also, the Dice of Doom podcast is encouraging gamers to try out a new game in October with their Play a New RPG Month site. So far I’m really enjoying the opportunity to run different games, so I’d definitely suggest taking the opportunity to try out a new game (even if you can’t manage it this month).