Sunday, March 27, 2011

Converting A1-Slave Pits of the Undercity -part 2

Last time, I was setting my overall parameters for the design of this mod. I determined that I would need to cut or combine encounters to fit the mod in a reasonable amount of play time. Today, I'm using going through the mod in detail to determine which encounters to convert directly, which encounters to combine and which encounters to cut.

To do this, I printed out the map of the dungeon and made brief notes on each room about what it contained. That gives me a quick, 'at-a-glance' overview of the mod without me flipping back and forth through the whole thing. The first thing I noticed when I did this is that there are way more encounters in the mod than I thought! From the description and my brief reading, I was planning on having to cut from 18 encounters down to 12 or 14. My new count has upwards of 24 encounters! What to do?

Further analysis of the map shows that there are multiple paths through the dungeon, and it is possible for a clever party to miss entire sections of it. That will let me include a few extra encounters, because a party won't necessarily face all of them. I'll say that taking the multiple paths into account will allow me to include about 18 total encounters, hoping that a party will only encounter 3/4 of them.

That still leaves me with a few too many encounters. To make the first round of cuts, I'm going to use some tricks I learned playing a conversion of the original Ravenloft adventure a few weeks ago. The DM had converted some of the single monster encounters, which in earlier versions of D&D would have represented a legitimate challenge for a party, into an effect more like a trap. For example where the original module called for a banshee to appear, instead of running an entire fight against a single banshee, the banshee made a single wailing attack against us all and then disappeared back into the mists. This saved time at the table, maintained the fast pace of the original, and still had an impact on the PCs. There are a few encounters of this type in A1, so I'll convert them to an effect like a trap (some ideas: a group of archers fires a volley then retreats to another position, a group of monsters rush the party and deal some damage even as they are cut down).

Still a few encounters over, I turn next to combining encounters. In earlier editions of the game, encounters with a handful of weak enemies were common. The 4e equivalent would be to happen upon a group of minions. In 4e, running all of those individual fights would take too long, and not be interesting enough to be worth spending time on at the table. Without giving too much away, I can say that there are several areas in the original mod that list encounter statistics for rooms like this that are very close together, and that for my purposes I will treat these thematically linked mini-encounters together into a larger encounter. Basically, I will use a suite of rooms as the area instead of a single room.

That brings me down to my magic number. Now I'll need to convert the remaining encounters to the new rules and away we go.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Don't Negate Player Choice

Well, with being out of town last week, and catching up from being out of town this week, I haven't had a lot of time for writing. I have played a couple of games since then, though, and I've had some thoughts.

Last week I ran the first part of the Dungeon Magazine adventure Lord of the White Field. From my read of the adventure, it looked like a few of the toughest encounters were loaded into the front of the mod. The party was faced with a level+2 and a level+3 encounter, each with secondary objectives, and they seemed to just waltz through them.  I'm not sure what the player perception of the difficulty was, but it seemed to me that the monsters just weren't hitting often enough, even on the 'soft' characters, and this is using the new MM3 monster math. It just didn't feel right.

Looking at the math when I got home, the encounters were built so that the individual monsters were of party level or party level+1. The threat (on paper) was from the quantity of monsters. But for whatever reason, the party was built with defense in mind. The lowest AC in the group was 22 (for a melee ranger with no magic armor even! He should have been down in every fight!), so on the softest character the average monster had a hit range of 11-20 or 45%. Meanwhile, the PCs have a hit range of roughly 8-20, which means the baddies are sitting ducks.

The encounters so far have been designed with the monsters to come in waves. This has absolutely reinforced the 'zombie apocalypse' vibe that the mod is going for, but it means that the threat is spread out over the encounter. Unless the party has an unlucky round, the monsters don't have enough time to group up, position themselves and wear down the PCs.

When I first got home after running this game, I started brainstorming ideas on how to beef up the adventure to make it more of a threat. I could level up the monsters, or add some situational bonus that would let them hit more frequently. I could up their damage, so that when they do hit they have more of an impact. But then I looked at it from the player perspective: people usually build their characters to be good at doing things they think are fun. If someone chooses items, powers and feats that improve their thievery and stealth skills, they probably want to sneak around and open locks.

This party chose to design hard-to-hit characters. If I made adjustments to the mod to bring the hit range of the monsters more in line with my expectations, that would effectively negate the choices those players made when they created their characters. As frustrating as it seems to me to be unable to hit the PCs, they should be rewarded for choosing defensive options for their characters. In the long run, it probably means that they are each dealing slightly less damage per hit, and are healing slightly fewer hit points per surge, or their skill bonuses aren't as high as they could be.

I'll have to find a way to challenge them by making them feel those sacrifices: let them be hard to hit, but emphasize their weaknesses in other areas.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Converting A1-Slave pits of the Undercity - Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts about my process updating A1-Slave Pits of the Undercity for use in 4e D&D. I'll be explaining how I approach the process as I go along. To be clear, I'll be writing about how I work, not about how I think everyone should work. Your mileage may vary. Let's get to it.

Converting a mod is kind of a big project, so to make it more manageable, I’m going to break it into steps. The first step of any project should be to clearly define the end goal. Here is how I went about defining my goals for the conversion.

Here are the requirements that I set for myself:
  • The mod should run in 3 or 4 sessions.
  • The mod should accommodate 4-6 players
  • I want to maintain as much of the original ‘flavor’ of the mod as possible
  • Possible contradiction: I want to move the adventure to the world of Dark Sun – some cosmetic details will need to be changed, but the main antagonist is a group of slavers which seems like a perfect fit for Dark Sun.
  • I want to maintain the pace of the original mod (no 5-minute workday)
  • I want to maintain the challenge of the original (character death must be a possibility)
Next, I read the mod (and reviews and a little bit of history) and gathered this list of facts:
  • A1 is the first of a series of four modules
  • A1 was originally a written as a competitive tournament mod
  • The focus of the adventure is a dungeon crawl through a twisting, multi-leveled dungeon complex
  • It was written for a party of 9 characters,
  • It was written in two parts, each part having nine encounters*, with each encounter designed to be deadly enough to kill one of the characters if they players weren’t careful.
  • Each part ran in a single 3 1/2 hour session, for a total of 7 play hours. Not every party was expected to face every encounter.
  • The mod was printed in two places: as a standalone product and in an omnibus edition called Scourge of the Slave lords that included all four mods in the series.
  • It was intended for characters of level 5-7 (AD&D)

To boil that down to defining the scope of this project, I’ll go through my lists and try to make them fit together.

I assume that a well-balanced 4e party with moderately experienced players will finish 3 or 4 encounters in a 4-hour session. Optimized parties might blow through a little faster, and inexperienced players may take a little longer, but that will be my starting point. To fit comfortably into 4 sessions, I should be looking for about 12 total encounters.

Already there is a time conflict – if I directly convert all 18 original encounters, it would take a party 4-6 sessions to finish. Right off the bat I know I’ll need to either cut or combine encounters to make the mod fit into my time-frame. I haven’t decided which I’ll do, but I’ll keep that in mind as I go forward.

Level Range
In AD&D, the maximum level for a human PC was 20, so the 5-7 level range was about a third of the way through the range. In 4e terms, that translates roughly to the high heroic or low paragon tiers. I eventually want to convert all four mods in the series, so I’ll set 11th level as the target for PCs starting the fourth mod. If they gain 1 level per mod, that puts the first mod starting level at 7.

In the original, each encounter was tough enough to kill at least one PC if the players were not careful. In 4e, lethality and pacing are linked. Tough encounters slow down play, but easy encounters are rarely a threat. However, if a party never knows when they will be able to rest and regain healing surges and dailies, even a weak enemy becomes threatening. I want the game to move along quickly so I’m going to use pace to control lethality more than encounter level. Most of the encounters should be be within one level of the party, but it should be difficult to take an extended rest.

The adventure pits the characters against a maze-like dungeon defended by a well-prepared and intelligent enemy. The players should feel the need to accomplish their goal all at once, without leaving the dungeon or taking an extended rest. If they leave the dungeon to rest and resupply, the defenses will almost certainly have been bolstered by the time they return. If they try to take an extended rest inside the dungeon, they will find that there are few places to safely do so, and it may be quite challenging to access those places. In either case I want to push them to face as much of the dungeon as possible without resting. This could be problematic for a 4e game – the rules assume that the PCs will be able to renew some of their resources every now and then, so to encourage the pace of exploration that I want, I’ll have to find a different way for PCs to recharge their daily powers and regain healing surges. I don’t know what that is yet, but I know I need to figure that out.

This mod is a little light on story, but has a very well designed dungeon and some interesting NPCs. The dungeon looks like a really fun crawl – there are clear objectives, multiple levels, and multiple parallel paths that lead to the final objective. All of the paths are interconnected as well, making it possible for parties to run into a tough obstacle, choose to avoid it, then double back and try another route. The players should be free to overcome challenges in a variety of ways, not just by hitting things until they stop moving.

That covers my basic guidelines for the conversion going forward. Next time I am going to review each original encounter, get my XP budgets sorted out, and start designing encounters.

*Here I am using the word encounter to refer to traps, puzzles, combats, parleys, skill challenges or any other discrete unit of the story.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Bark at the Moon - Conclusion and Review

Excerpted from Olaf Olafsen's address at the opening ceremonies of the Hammer Festival:
Well met and welcome, fellows! I am truly glad to be here today to see all of your stern, hairy faces. It brings a warmth to my heart that not even the finest ale can match. I am especially glad because it was not long ago when it seemed as though I would never see you again. Last week, my cousins and I... stand up Thump, and there's Beric over by the cheese plate... well last week we faced terrible dangers on the road to the festival. The town of Silver Lake was beset by werewolves. Their warriors had been defeated and their children carried away. 

The source of the problem was to be found on a nearby island named Wolfheart; a crossing into the feywild had opened with the full moon, releasing the foul creatures upon this poor, unsuspecting town. Once through the crossing we were set upon on all sides, and our enemies were tireless. We took no rest as we tracked our quarry across the dense forest, trying to find the poor children. Wave after wave of enemies crashed against us, and our hammer arms were nearly exhausted. Luckily we were accompanied by brave warriors. Although they were not dwarves, they exhibited the strength of true hammer warriors. No enemy could escape Bargidigos' sharp eyes and deadly arrows; Gould was a master of finding and exploiting enemy weaknesses, and Shamash' fearsome visage made the blood of our enemies run cold with terror.

Our band struck fast and hard, which is the way of the hammer! We struck blows long after our arms were tired and sore, which is the way of the hammer! And we fought for justice and law which is the way of the hammer! We would have been lost if not for the way of the hammer! Which is why this festival is so important, to dwarvenkind and to all people who would fight against the forces of chaos and decay and build a better world. The first event today will be the 15 pound hammer toss for height...
Tonight we finished Bark at the Moon. We had a great time playing this adventure, and I thought it was a great example of 4e adventure writing. The story was gripping, the encounters were challenging and interesting, and the pacing was superb. I don't want to give away any details that would ruin the experience for players, but here are some quick thoughts:

The adventure is flavoured strongly with fey creatures and were-beasts of all kinds. None of the encounters were throw-aways. Each one had a unique play style, while also staying within the themes set by the larger story. We fought in varied terrain and our tactics in each fight were very different. Even though we were fighting similar foes in each encounter, there was enough variation to keep us guessing. Few adventures achieve this balance of strong theme and variety.

Managing our in-game time created a lot of tension at the table. We were constantly weighing the time cost of a rest against the value of renewing our surges and daily powers. We could feel the deadline approaching and we risked everything to meet it. The adventure managed to create this tension entirely through the storytelling. I felt that a character death was a very real possibility, and that made our eventual victory that much more satisfying.

Long story short: I highly recommend this adventure as a player, and I learned a few things that I look forward to using as a DM in future sessions.

Better late than never

So, I’m in the process of converting A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity to 4e rules for the meetup group I’ve been playing with lately. The group has been a lot of fun, and through it I’ve been introduced to a lot of classic D&D experiences that I missed out on when we were playing mostly homebrew stuff in high school and college. Back in high school, I had never heard of the Tomb of Horrors, the Temple of Elemental evil, or Castle Greyhawk. I never met Elminster in the streets of Waterdeep or fought alongside Sturm Brightblade. I didn’t read any of the novels and I didn't watch the cartoon show. We were having a blast with our own creations, and occasionally dabbled in the netbooks of traps or riddles, but nothing in our experiences tied us into the larger D&D world. Now I feel like I’m getting schooled in all of these classic mods, and I’m really loving it. Better late than never.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Bark at the Moon - Trouble in Silver Lake

Just finished playing Part 1 of Bark at the Moon. I'll hold off on a full review until after we finish Part 2 on Saturday, but I'm having a blast. The encounters so far have been really tightly themed and make both mechanical and narrative sense. Until then, here's a little after action report taken from the journal of Olaf Olafsen, world's fastest dwarf.

August 17th
After that awful business in Orlane, it was nice to run into a friendly face on the road. My cousin Thump was heading East for the annual Hammer Festival back home, and we decided to travel together to pass the time more quickly. Soon after, we met our cousin Beric Low-Toes and his traveling companion Shamash, a fearsome dragonborn holy warrior. They were fresh from the Orc Wars, and also on their way to the Hammer Festival for a little R&R.

August 18th
Gould and Bargidigos joined us in the town of Plainfield. I dismissed them as nothing but honorless mercenaries at first, but they fought bravely beside us when the bandits attacked, so I suppose they aren't all bad.

August 19th
These are dark times we live in. We had barely caught our breath after being set upon by bandits in the Low Forest when a piercing cry awoke us in the middle of the night. Crashing through the brush was a human woman being chased by several wolves. We rushed to her aid only to discover these were not ordinary wolves but werewolves! We killed the foul creatures but not before they had bitten the woman, Regina, and my cousin Beric. They both came under the influence of the Moon Frenzy.

Regina led us to her village, a town called Silver Lake, where we met their healer and some of the surviving villagers. In order to cure the Frenzy, we needed to collect some flowers for the village healer from a haunted barrow-grove. The fey-creatures guarding that place were strange and powerful - their enchanting songs still fill my ears. Beric was so moved by the faerie-music that he was unable to keep his feet!

Okay, that's it for tonight. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion this weekend.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Zombie Lord Update

*Spoiler Alert* If you are playing in my home campaign right now - DON'T READ THIS.

Now that they've gone, we can get down to business. Last weekend I started to run Night of the Walking Dead for my home group. It is a small party, only 4 PCs, and two of the players are brand new to the hobby. I had a great time running this mod back in the day, and I thought it would be a good followup adventure to Into the Shadowhaunt, which I ran for the group the week before.

Updating most of the encounters was pretty easy... there are 4e versions for zombies, ghasts and ghouls, but the Big Bad of the mod is a Zombie Lord. I couldn't find a good 4e equivalent, and the 2e version's save or die aura is a big no-no these days. Unfortunately, the story of the mod hinges around villagers being killed and turned by the aura days before the PCs become aware of the Zombie Lord itself. Hmmmmm... How to update the aura?

I have two ideas for the aura, as follows:
Option 1:
Stench of Death • Aura 10 ; attacks living creatures who enter it for the first time each encounter
+10 vs Fort; target is dazed and has ongoing 5 necrotic (save ends); Aftereffect: ongoing 5 necrotic (save ends). Targets reduced to zero hit points by the aura die and rise as Tarascon Zombies in 1d4 rounds

Option 2:
Stench of Death • Aura 10 ; attacks living creatures who enter it for the first time each encounter
+10 vs Fort; target is weakened (save ends); first failed save: target is dazed (save ends); second failed save: target is stunned (save ends); third failed save: target is reduced to zero hit points and is dying and is subject to the zombie lord's curse (save ends). If the target dies while subject to the zombie lord's curse, it rises as a Tarascon Zombie in 1d4 rounds.

Other than the aura, the Zombie Lord is a typical level 2 Solo Brute, with a leader ability that lets him command his zombie minions to attack.

I'm not sure which version of the aura I'll run with. Both seem a little weak, requiring a long streak of bad rolls to actually die and rise as a zombie. Option 1 seems a little more dangerous, as the target could be damaged by other monsters and then be pushed over the edge by the aura, potentially without failing any of their saves.

The party is far from optimized, and have no powers that grant extra saves or bonuses to saves. That may change, since I expect them to level before they face the Zombie Lord. I'll post updates as events warrant.


I play a lot of D&D, and spend a lot of time thinking about D&D. Lately I've been playing and running 4e conversions of 2e and older mods. It's been a hell of a lot of fun, and also a good challenge to capture the flavor of the original mod and highlight the best parts of the new mechanics.

I'm going to put down some of my thoughts on this (and other) D&D-related topics here. Maybe other people will have something to learn or something to add. Perhaps no one else will read this.

Here goes anyway.