I usually don’t do this because I try to keep my advice general but my friend Drew is running a 4e D&D campaign for some of his friends as his last hurrah for 4e Dungeons and Dragons before putting that game away for just about good. I told him I’d share some of the things I’ve done over the years with him so I thought I’d share them with you too.
What I mean by rolling encounters is encounters that roll from one into the next. I’ve run plenty of sessions where the game felt like one huge encounter. I do this using primarily these three methods:
- Reinforcements showing up.
- Changing the objective.
- Changing the terrain.
I consider each of these three things an event or something that happens to change the situation. For example I had a battle on a bridge as the PCs were trying to move from one tower to another. All around them battle was raging in the skies as dragons and their allies battled with the occupants of the towers of Darkenspire. On the partially enclosed bridge the PCs had run up against the Followers of the Sacred Lady, a holy order who worshiped one known as the Sacred Lady. As the battle progressed more and more members of the Sacred Lady came from the far tower to help their allies. The idea of reinforcements changed the nature of the battle. Players didn’t want to unleash their most powerful abilities or press to far forward because they weren’t sure what was coming out of the door next and how many were left.
The next thing I had going on during this encounter was a dragon was hit by a lightning bolt and was going to crash into the bridge. This was going to change the terrain. I had the passive perception set higher than anyone’s passive since they were in the middle of a fight when the dragon was hit by a lightning bolt and crashing into the bridge. The thing I did to give the players hints to the event was by throwing specific flavor text into the fight about things happening around them. I use a lot of flavor text in my combat sequences so this wasn’t unusual. During the second round of the fight I mentioned a dragon was struck by a lightning bolt. All anyone needed to do over the next three rounds was say they look to the right or mention they check on the dragon. Someone did the initiative count right before the dragon hit the bridge so they were the only one who got a chance to move before the dragon hit the bridge. I had a flip mat with the bridge drawn on it. I had it folded over so when the dragon hit I marked where everyone was, flipped the mat, and had a drawn crashed into bridge with the dragon on it. Some people were crushed by the dragon, some buried beneath it, and the crashing into the bridge almost knocked a couple of people off who were on top of the bridge.
I always enjoy changing the objective or at least adding something to the objective of an encounter or an adventure. During the last part of the Drakenspire arc I ran (It was something like 8 to 10 sessions) they were in a tower where energy was being gathered and focused for some nefarious purpose through several crystals in the tower. Up to this point the PC’s were just trying to get to the last tower to kill a mind flayer named Quat Lilarack. They hated it for various reasons. In any case once they got to the last tower they learned of this energy, found one of the focusing crystals, and figured out how much time they had left before the energy needed to do whatever was happening was gathered. This wasn’t at the speed of plot. I had an actual doom track, taken from Arkham Horror. The track went from 1 to 7 and every five minutes it would gain a tick. Basically every short rest was a tick and after any 3 encounters I threw a tick up there to take into account exploration and fighting time. I also threw a tick up there if I felt they had used up 5 minutes worth of time. The thing was they could gain ticks back if they messed up the focusing crystals, which they did. It also made them conserve powers so they could skip short rests here and there to cut down on their time. It changed the objective from just killing Quat to stopping Quat from doing whatever it was he was doing. If anyone is curious he was gathering the energy from a pair of “gods” trapped beneath the mountains Darkenspire was built on to open a portal large and stable enough to allow the King in Yellow to come through from Carcosa, one part of my version of the Far Realm.
Setting this up changed the encounters and scenario from getting through to the top of the tower where Quat and the energy being gathered was to a timed situation where making stops to mess with the crystals and resource management became very important.
So I’m not a huge fan of solos, I’ll talk about them in a bit, in D&D but I do like elites and I like encounters where some NPC’s are dependent on other NPC’s. Linking them up together or giving them abilities which make them work together in synergy. Two examples:
In one encounter I had a knight who had two men next to him at all times. As long as those men were next to him it increased his defenses so it was easier to take out the side guys first then go after the knight. The second example is a two-headed dragon with a caster who used primarily ice attacks. One of the dragons was a white dragon who could frost up the battle field. This was in an open field but the ice mage and the dragon were creating terrain with icy spots which the ice mage could teleport to and from as a move action while also being able to teleport back on top of the dragons back. This goes back to changing terrain but also shows how two different adversaries can work together to create an interesting situation for PC’s to deal with.
Mike Shea has an invaluable tool on his website Sly Flourish. It is a chart with every level of damage expression, hit points for monster type, and DC’s for skill checks. I have one of those screens where you can slide in paper inserts. It’s a great tool to have if your players go off the cuff. You can ad lib encounters from it. It’s like having wire frames for any possible thing you can think of.
Staying with Mike Shea I stole an idea he started applying to solo monsters. I always give any solo an ability where they can shake off any single effect at the beginning of their turn but they take 10, 20, or 30 points of damage depending on the tier of monster. Now there are a couple of variations you can put on this idea. Instead of shaking off an effect you can have them ignore it for a round so it has the potential to happen again the next round. You can apply some penalties to the monster along with the damage. Instead of Stunned the monster is dazed. Instead of immobilized its slowed and takes a -2 to its attack rolls. You have some options but my preference was always the monster shakes off the effect but takes damage for doing so. Now I only ever did this for things like stun, daze, and immobilized because the action economy in 4e is a very important part of the game. Having an extra action, extra attack, extra turn or even an extra move is very powerful and taking away those actions is just as powerful, especially when you’re a solo and only have a few actions each round. Having the choice to shake off a status for damage fits in with the mechanics of D&D pretty well. You’re not getting everything you want but solos should be scary things that can pound through your abilities and status effects. Making it cost the monster hp gives the mechanic some “balance”.
If you’re looking for more 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons tricks I would suggest reading Sly Flourish. It’s quite good.
The Healing Surge
The healing surge is a resource which is very plentiful in my opinion. Players have a lot of them and I have implemented a few house rules which make them a little more interesting and useable:
- If you miss by one you can spend a healing surge to put forth that little extra effort in order to succeed on what you’re doing. I always ask for a little descriptive flavor to go along with it.
- I implemented the use of second wind three times. Once as a minor, once as a move, and once as normal each encounter. This rule is excellent when you have situations where there isn’t a leader.
- Sometimes I’ll tie healing surges into player’s special abilities. For instance one of the characters in a game could wreath themselves in a blue magical fire which made them more powerful when using magic (+2 to hit, +5 to damage) but it cost a healing surge every round it was activated and it required a saving throw to turn it off. Of course when it ran out of healing surges it would start dealing healing surges of damage.
This is the last one and isn’t really a D&D 4e trick but one that can be used in any game. You have the players come up against a situation where they have to make a choice and the choice isn’t good or bad but will push the story one way or another or give them a difficult decision. For example one of the PC’s had just ripped an abnormally large amount of aberrant energy out of an angel of death. They decided to help this angel of death instead of killing her. The problem was the energy didn’t dissipate due to not rolling quite well enough so instead the PC had a choice. Absorb the energy or let it randomly fly about which might get one of his allies, possibly the angel again, and maybe it would just disperse. He chose to take it into himself. He made the choice which drove the game forward. Now he has to deal with this energy which basically makes him the incredible hulk. Giant aberrant rage monster once he is bloodied twice in a fight or knocked out once.
The thing with the choice is whatever the decision is it needs to have a consequence that is visible to the person who made the choice eventually, otherwise the choice becomes meaningless.
Please feel free to throw out some more interesting tricks and hacks you’ve thrown on your 4e game to make it play better.
Good Night and Good Gaming,
Chris “The Light” Sniezak