Article: Top 10 Flaws of 4E Adventure Design

Posted on June 8, 2011

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After reviewing all the E-series 4th Edition modules here on this website plus examining many others from Wizards of the Coast and a few from 3rd Party Publishers I have compiled a list of the main problems apparent to me with 4E adventure design.

I won’t be talking about adventures that do not have up to date (post MM3)  monster damages, I assume most people are aware of that by now and will fix this problem in older adventures of their own volition.

I do want to add that some of the following complaints and criticisms are starting to be addressed by WotC (which is a good thing) and some of their more recent efforts and forthcoming products show a lot more promise.

1. Aesthetics

Lack of Art: The severe lack of art within the Encounter Books of the official WotC really hurts the aesthetics of the product. While I understand the idea behind putting the art in a seperate book so that it can be shown to the players without exposing details of the encounter you also have to give a thought to the DMs who are reading the book in the first place. The encounter section is like a barren wasteland of muted brown stat blocks.

Type of Art: Secondly, a lot of art is functional rather than evocative. Yes they often show the monsters, or they’ll show the room you are in, but they rarely if ever show sample characters interacting (either battling monsters or escaping/suffering traps and hazards). Note that these are exactly the sort of illustrations they show at the beginning of the core book chapters and they are generally brilliant at stting the scene (far more so than an empty room or posing monster will accomplish).

Maps: I fully understand WotC’s reasoning behind using the maps they do, selling D&D Tiles makes good business sense. The maps themselves always look lovely. So whats the problem here? Maybe its just me, but the hand drawn maps always seemed a bit more personal. While isometric hand drawn maps always had to be admired for exploring the third dimension.

Solutions

The obvious idea would be to integrate more art into the Encounter Section of the adventure. This would be much easier to accomplish if the space allocated to encounters was variable, rather than the ‘choking’ double page format we are accustomed to.

As to the type of art, I’d love to see populated location shots. Not just Room #2 in its barren delights. But Room #2 featuring some adventurers fighting with the Spider-Dragons (or whatever).

I don’t see WotC changing their map format anytime soon and deep down I suspect this is just a personal issue I have with the maps rather than something that would be better if changed.

2. All Too Easy

Enemies in 4E adventures may as well have a big ‘L’ branded on their foreheads because they are patently designed to lose. Yes the PCs are supposed to win, but 4E really does seem to play things ridiculously safe. A cursory glance over the 4E adventures shows that the vast majority of encounters are in the -1 to +1 EL range for where your PCs are expected to be. That in itself throws up a few problems. Firstly, at Paragon and even more at Epic tier play levels, same level encounters are virtual formalities. The second problem is that there is little if any impression of heightened drama via upping the threat level. Facing the guards at the throne room of the big boss is generally as perilous as the bandit encounter you faced earlier in the adventure. Yes, the guards may be higher level, but so are the PCs now. My point is that adventures should get tougher as you reach the climactic culmination of the story…but they don’t. They’ll be the same +1 EL with the occasional +2 thrown in.

Solutions

Acknowledge five different levels of threat.

  1. Green = easy (-1 or lower EL)
  2. Blue = typical (+/-0 EL)
  3. Yellow = tricky (+1 EL)
  4. Orange = tough (+2 EL)
  5. Red = dangerous (+3 or higher EL).

Modify those ELs by +1 per additional tier (So a ‘Red’ encounter at Epic Tier is +5 or better).

Now divide your adventure into 3 Acts. Ensure that the encounters in Act #1 average in the Blue, those in Act #2 average in the Yellow and those in Act #3 average in the Orange.

e.g. If you have 10 encounters in Act #2 you might have one green, two blue, four yellow, two orange and one red encounter. While if you have 8 encounters in Act #3 you could have two yellow, four orange and two red.

Remember that if PCs are expected to go up levels during the adventure (and probably will every 8-9 encounters), you also have to increase the Encounter Levels to compensate.

3. Familiarity Breeds Contempt

4th Edition created its own functional style to represent encounters. That style presents all the information within a two-page spread, including: the statblocks, tactics, features and playing map. In terms of the ease of play its as concise as possible while still giving all the relevant details. So whats the problem then you might wonder? Several minor annoyances have just started to grate on me.

  • Sharing the Spotlight: Given that virtually every encounter shares the same format from lowly guard posts to end boss battles it means they all command the same attention. No encounter stands out as more important than any other.
  • Sterility: There is an inherent sterility to each encounter because they all look and read the same.
  • Too Much Information: Do we really need that much information for every encounter?

Solutions

Firstly, break encounters down into four groups (Half Page, Full Page, Double Page and Quadruple Page) ranked by importance.

  • Half Page = Trivial Encounter (Guard post etc.)
  • Full Page = Typical Encounter
  • Double Page = Important Encounter (probably featuring a named NPC)
  • Quadruple Page = End of an ‘Act’ Boss Encounter.

Secondly, play about with the backgrounds a bit, perhaps behind the text you could have semi-transparent illustrations of the monsters. Or possibly have the page border colour/design change depending upon the threat of the encounter. Dangerous encounters might have a red border to highlight the danger, while those with green borders will signify easy encounters (Green = easy, Blue = typical, Yellow = tough, Orange = very tough, Red = deadly).

4. Forgettable Villains

Lack of Personality: I touched on this with the Prince of Undeath review. None of the NPCs are fleshed out to any degree. In fact most are faceless mooks thrown into the meat-grinder that is the PC Party.

Conspicuous by their Absence: The vast majority of major villains you don’t get to interact with until the end of the adventure. Now that might be okay if the adventure is a short sharp 3-6 encounter fracas spanning 1-2 sessions of game time. But if you are talking some 25-30 encounter marathon then it could be months before the villain gets to appear or do something. 

Solutions

NPCs: Any named NPC in an adventure needs to be fleshed out with at least a paragraph or two detailing their background, goals, personality and so forth. This should be a no-brainer, but all too often NPCs are just stat blocks.

Recurring Villain: One of the main tricks used in storytelling (and underused in adventures) is that of the recurring villain. With initial encounters involving the heroes being forced to escape or with the villain escaping from the heroes. The former is better for building a strong physical villain, while the latter is more useful when presenting a scheming trickster or wizard type.

This approach establishes the villain early in the adventure so its not some faceless evil alone in a tower’s throne room somewhere. Of course sometimes you really do want the ultimate villain to be locked away somewhere or unseen until the climax. In such cases you want to introduce a key henchman and have them fill the role of menacing, recurring threat.

5. Lack of Verisimilitude

Instead of designing ‘the world’, or ‘the castle’ or ‘the dungeon’ and then letting PCs interact with it, all too frequently you get the impression that the setting/dungeon is designed around the PCs. This was especially apparent in the E-series modules where offensive and defensive forces seemed bewilderingly small for such monumental events.

Solutions

Understand the resources the BBEG can call upon. If that villain is ultimately Orcus then he will have millions of troops, and dozens of powerful subordinates. Instead he seems to invade the palace of the Raven Queen with a handful of wraithes and a bunch of skeleton mooks!?

As a rule of thumb:

  • Main Villain = Solo Level x
  • Lieutenants = Elite Level x (Numbers: less than 10)
  • Henchmen = Standard rank Level x-1 (Numbers: less than 100)
  • Elite Guards = Minions Level x+2 (Numbers: less than 1000)

Remember also that you can modify the rank to change the level (see No sense of Progression).

6. No Sense of Progression

One thing I noticed heavily used within the E-series was the propensity to fight higher level (yet still the same rank) versions of the same monster. So we get to fight the L23 Elite Glabrezu…then later fight the Level 26 Elite Glabrezu. What this does is take away from any sense of empowerment the Players feel from levelling up. “Why are we still fighting the same monsters we were 5 levels ago and they are still just as tough?” 

Solutions

Never use same rank versions of higher level monsters unless they are for critically important NAMED NPCs and thus unique monsters in their own right.

If you want to use the same monsters at lower or higher level then simply change the monsters rank as follows:

  • Standard to Minion = Level +8
  • Elite to Standard = Level +4
  • Solo to Elite = Level +5

Obviously reverse by lowering the level if you go the other way (ie. Elite to Solo = -5).

  • Level 35 Minion Glabrezu
  • Level 27 Standard (rank) Glabrezu
  • Level 23 Elite Glabrezu
  • Level 18 Solo Glabrezu

7. No Thinking Outside the Box

When D&D was in its infancy, there was more of an ‘anything goes’ spirit. Designers were not afraid to break rules or add new rules or just throw in crazy ideas. But somewhere along the way that spirit (of adventure?) seems to have been lost. I have forgotten the last time a WotC adventure surprised me. Thats not to say a given adventure cannot be good even if it doesn’t surprise me (I hope I am not turning into some jaded thirty-something ‘hater’). But they do for the most part seem to stick to a tried and tested formula.

Monster Variants: While I criticised the idea of monster variants above (albeit specifically when a monster is simply given a few levels), one annoying gripe for 4E is the propensity to use vanilla monsters straight out of the Monster Manuals. While its true this was also done in the past, the difference today is that monster stat blocks take up about a column of text, whereas in 1st Edition they were a less intrusive 4-5 lines of text. But the crux of this point is that if you include an Iron Golem (for example)  in a module, its much cooler to add some unique ideas than just plonk down the vanilla stat block. Take the examples of Maure Castle or Revenge of the Iron Lich, both of which feature imaginative variant Iron Golems.

I’m not saying every monster needs to be unique. But I think those of elite or solo rank would benefit from this idea.

Special Rules: I had become so brainwashed by official 4E adventures from WotC that it was a shock reading something like Revenge of the Iron Lich which completely threw the rule book out the window with off the wall ideas such as Condition Cards, Points Scoring System and a Time Limit. None of which made it any less D&D, but simply freshened up a format that was getting a bit stale.

Solutions

Don’t be hamstrung by convention. In fact if anything try and be as different as possible. If you want to make an adventure stand out, try thinking ‘outside the box’.

Do something different with every Elite or Solo monster. It doesn’t have to be a major change or even a mechanical change (the White Dragon is really an Albino Red Dragon for instance). I always wanted to put a Two-headed Beholder in an adventure.

8. Time Duration (too long)

I wonder if the typical approach of 25-30 encounters is too long a slog for a single adventure.  If you play twice a month then its going to take you about 4-5 months to get through one of those. While that amount of time investment is okay if everyone’s having fun, it seems like a long slog if they are not. Also what happens if one of the party get killed mid-dungeon, do you retreat (to get them raised) and have to plough through the encounters again, or do you fight on while that Player takes a month or two off?

Secondly, many modules this length seem to struggle to retain any sort of theme at all, plus how long can a given theme retain its interest. Do you want to be fighting undead and demons for 30 encounters?

Solutions

Don’t overstay your welcome. At best 6-8 encounters should be the maximum time investment in one location, preferably 3-4. If its a big Castle/Dungeon, then have maybe 3-4 per strata.

Pick two themes for each adventure/location. For instance Revenge of the Iron Lich would be “Undead meets Iron“.

9. Too Much Combat

I love 4E combat. However, too much of a good thing can be bad for you. One of the lessons I learned from Revenge of the Iron Lich is that if you give a greater variety of encounters you make the eventual combat encounters stand out more. That adventure has a healthy mix between combat, exploration, puzzle, skill challenge and trap encounters that not only keeps the players guessing whats coming next but also keeps each element fresh.

Solutions

Already solved in Revenge of the Iron Lich. Simply have a greater variety of encounter types. Ensure combat encapsulates no greater than 50% of the total encounters.

10. Too Scripted

With 4E adventures (more often than not) designed around individual encounters rather than the more freeform sandbox style. There seems to be an inherent railroading of PCs along the path the designers want them to take, rather than PCs influencing the story of their own volition.

The majority of official 4E adventures follow an A to B format that parallels the story the designers want you to follow. But the problem with this inflexibility is that it removes a lot of the impact of decision making from the players who are basically jumping through hoops.

The reason for this is probably so that as little effort as possible gets wasted. If a module provides several different paths through it, then some might get missed by a large percentage of the audience. While this was perfectly acceptable in 1st/2nd Edition modules, the amount of effort (double page spread) put into each 4E encounter means that designers will want everyone to see every encounter.

Solutions

Small Scale Approach: If you are familiar with 4E D&D modules you will probably have heard the name Irontooth. Irontooth was a goblin who became notorious for Total Party Kills in Keep on the Shadowfell. The reason being that Irontooth and his cronies were summoned as reinforcements from an antechamber 3 rounds after the initial battle started, meaning PCs invariably ended up facing two encounters in one. As such WotC never seemed to repeat this trick – which is a shame because the idea of “Summoning More Guards” is a staple of the genre. In my opinion the game can only benefit from these more fluid combats.

Larger Scale Approach: The idea of wasting time on encounters not everyone will get to see is overturned by applying the idea of having encounters of different importance given the appropriate page space to match (as per the Familiarity Breeds Contempt point).

I am a fan of the idea of giving players multiple paths to take to get to the ultimate goal. I also like the idea that your actions during the adventure can affect the outcome.

So each adventure would have a Start, a Middle and an End (or Acts One, Two and Three if you prefer). 

  • Act #1 would be inflexible. Its the information dump part of the story. The bit where something happens and then the PCs react to that event.
  • Act #2 will have multiple paths/options/approaches to reaching the ultimate goal of Act #3.
  • Act #3 is the climax against the villain. The events of Act #2 can have a ripple effect on Act #3 (maybe the PCs killed the chief henchman during Act #2). The benefit of this approach is that the actions of the PCs have visceral consequences upon the story.

Lets apply that approach to E3: Prince of Undeath.

  • Act #1: The forces of Orcus lay seige to the Raven Queen’s realm. Orcus leads them himself and has the Shard of Evil with him. The PCs are defending the City at the start but the Raven Queen says Orcus cannot be defeated directly and suggests some ideas as to how they can weaken Orcus enough to give her a chance of winning.
  • Act #2:  The PCs have three impossible tasks. Firstly they can travel to the bottom of the Abyss, and somehow gain their own Shard of Evil to counter the one held by Orcus. Secondly, the heroes could destroy Orcus’ fortress Redhold and convince enemies of the Prince of Undeath (such as Demogorgon) that this would be a great time for an invasion. The third task is to travel to the Forge of Four Worlds where an artifact exists that can unmake the Shard of Evil.
  • Act #3: By the time the PCs do one of the tasks in Act #2, Orcus is at the gates of the Raven Queen’s palace. By the time they do two tasks, Orcus is battling the Raven Queen. By the time they do all three tasks, Orcus will have defeated the Raven Queen (but arguably the power of his Shard will be spent).

In conclusion…

I hoped you liked the article. It is by no means exhaustive in its detailing of problems or solutions but I hope its enough of a start to get people discussing it. Feel free to leave any comments below, whether suggestions of additional problems with 4E adventures or ideas for possible solutions to the problems I have listed.