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.

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