A lot of people will put up with level grinding in computer RPGs – that is, repetitive combat against identical enemies. Imagine how easy it would be to run a D&D game for a bunch of those people! “You meet another group of 8 goblins. Roll initiative!” Everybody cheers!
It doesn’t work that way. Repetitive D&D combat gets boring way faster than repetitive computer game combat.
There are a number of plausible explanations for this: D&D players have higher expectations; they want to pack lots of fun into a limited weekly time slot; the social contract of the game means that you can’t quit the game when you are bored.
My theory, though, is that repetitive D&D combat doesn’t work because of other people’s turns.
In a CRPG, there is basically no dead time waiting for the computer players to go. The opponents either act concurrently with the player or, in a turn-based game, act very quickly. That means the player is always playing. Mindless activity beats inactivity every time.
In D&D combat, you’re actually playing (taking your turn) for maybe 15% of the time (assuming 5 other players and a couple of monster turns). The other 85% of the time, you are watching theater. So the theater has to be good.
In D&D, taking a swipe at yet another goblin isn’t a peak experience, but it’s pleasant enough: maybe about as fun as level grinding in a CRPG. The problem is, watching other people mindlessly level-grind is no fun at all.
Given the theater-heavy nature of D&D combat, it needs to be either interesting or short.
OD&D combat, for instance, is short. A random encounter with goblins is often a routine hack and slash, but with low goblin hit points and morale, at least it’s over soon.
The D&D edition with the longest combats is probably Fourth Edition. It puts all its chips on interesting combat. Every single monster has a unique attack or trait. There’s lots of tactical movement. There are no rules for random encounters, so each individual goblin fight is artisanally placed by the DM. Monster groups are mixed. And monsters are only threatening within a very narrow level band, so after you’ve used up the novelty of the Goblin Tactics trait, you’ll never fight goblins again (with these characters).
Still, in any edition, fighting the same old goblins gets boring after a while, which is why every edition has a market for more monster manuals, and why every DM invents new traps, battle locations, and monster powers.
All of this novelty isn’t primarily for the active player. I bet that in a one-on-one D&D game (one player and one DM), repetitive goblin battles would go a lot farther. DM inventiveness keeps the inactive players engaged. They don’t have fun dice to roll or damage numbers to add up. They need something to think about (“Oh my god, why did the goblin explode? What will happen to Frank if he fails his saving throw? How far am I from the nearest goblin? should I run away on my turn?”) or some new theater to watch (The look on Frank’s face when he takes 16 damage from an exploding goblin).
In WOTC-era D&D, with its long-form battles, there should be no repeat fights: that is, battles which are essentially identical to recent ones. It’s just too boring for the players. TSR-era D&D is more forgiving of repeat fights, though you probably still don’t want too many.
But what about when it makes story sense for the players to face identical enemies?
There’s a tension between a dull D&D “realism” – in a steading of hill giants, shouldn’t every encounter be against hill giants? – and an unpredictable menagerie with no internal logic. I’m not advocating for the latter. if you’re in the Spiderwood, you’re not immune to spider attacks just because you already faced one. But each spider attack can be a novel variation on the general theme of “spiders eat you.”
If your dungeon key or random-encounter table is heavy on identical monsters or patrols, you can jot down two or three twists to liven up repeat battles. Each such twist gives the players a new avenue for creativity, a new puzzle to solve. The players waiting for their turns will welcome the diversion.
As an example, here is a list of 20 goblin “random encounters” which I’d consider running, even after the players have used up the standard “vanilla goblins” encounter. None of these encounters are super bizarre or outre – they’re just tweaked enough to differentiate one encounters from another.
1 A bigger group of goblins than the PCs have yet faced
2 Goblins with unusual weapons: 2 goblins per pike! 6 goblins operate a ballista! Thrown bottles of poison gas! Bolas and nets! Lassos from above!
3 Elite goblin rangers that have been assigned the task of tracking and ambushing the pesky PCs
4 Goblins who are stationed near a trap, ready to spring it on intruders. (This encounter can be re-used once per unique trap)
5 Two different groups of goblins: opposing or neutral factions, or a group of reinforcements who will arrive after a couple of turns
6 goblins who have survived previous encounters with the PCs, and have prepared for the PCs’ tactics (Unarmed goblins with tower shields surround the fighter while others grapple and gag the wizard)
7 Goblins who don’t want to fight (they might be scared, or willing to change sides, or protecting wounded, or emissaries under a flag of truce, or children)
8 Goblins from a different tribe, reveling in the mayhem caused by the PCs and willing to help them. They might be a war party or captives
9 things which only appear to be goblins. They could be halflings in disguise, or decoy dummies, or nilbogs, or barghest
10 Goblins with obvious treasure (the players won’t mind that the battle is otherwise familiar!)
11 Goblins who run immediately
12 Goblins who are arguing with each other and can easily be ambushed
13 Goblins who can retreat to a place where they are difficult to reach (maybe a ledge, small hole, or armored vehicle)
14 mounted goblins (on worgs, carrion crawlers, giant bats)
15 A goblin with an interesting personality (a groveler who wants to work for the pcs, or an 18-intelligence Sherlock type who shouts astute deductions, or a Drizzt do’Goblin type, or an entertaining trash talker with lots of hit points)
16 one of the goblins is an illusionist
17 Goblins with hostages, destructible treasure, or something else that gives them bargaining leverage
18 grotesque goblinoid experiments created by the local goblin (or evil human) wizard: they have a super-strong third arm, or they’re a chained pack of leprous berserkers, or they are scorpion-goblin centaurs, or they explode for 4d6 damage when hit
19 sneaky goblins who follow stealthily from a distance, looking for a chance to loot treasure whenever the PCs are in battle with treasure guardians
20 Finally, the goblin boss and entourage! The boss actually uses his or her low-level magical treasure to the fullest: potion of fire breath, giant strength, growth, or invulnerability for flashy combat fX; poison or philtre of love to be slipped into a PC’s drink; cap of water breathing plus a nearby lake for a safe place to retreat; immovable rod to block doors, climb to inaccessible locations, and perform all sorts of skullduggery; decanter of water to drown the PCs; beads of force to trap PCs; a folding boat to terrorize the countryside with a summonable Viking longship!
A man built a temple to a woman who died. It became a shrine for those who lost a spouse too soon. Later. Much later. A young couple came. Their tribes warred so they could only marry in death. It was poison. Which angered her. They walk the temple ever since, cursed by a shrine spirit. She has a hatred of suicide only dead widows can know.
Heads Up: This adventure went through my Critique Partner service.
This is an eight page PWYW exploration adventure in a shrine/tomb that kind of channels the backstory of the Taj Mahal. It’s got great imagery and lots of little scenes that lend this wonderful vibe of mourning and loss to the various areas. There’s some great construction in this, making things work together to an overall effect. It’s dreamy, haunting, frightening, and does it all through interaction with the characters, forcing nothing on them. It tempts.
Eight pages with twelve rooms makes this a pretty focused adventure. A title page, a map page, a rumor/mechanics page, and then four pages of keyed encounters and one more half page describing a couple of more mechanical pieces. The adventure describes Coral Castle, an old shrine and temple. What do we know about it? Well “the superstitious lot of local muck dwellers have this to say about it …” says the intro to the rumor table. I’d like to note that one intro sentence provides more gameable inspiration about the local village than dozens of the throw-away villages I’ve seen. “Muck dwellers” … maybe on stilts, on the edge of a bog, muck, literally? Oh yeah. The rumors, twelve, add to the fun. They are written in a kind of folk manner, embedding some part of the teller in to their wording. Reading rumor nine “We were a proud people once …” it starts out. And you get, through it, a detailed image of the speaker in your mind. A mournful kind of person, maybe a bit in their cups, knowing what kind of people they once were and how they’ve fallen to what they are now. To be clear: there’s nothing more of the local village presented beyond this rumor table. And this adventure does not, in any way, need it.
The imagery in this adventure is great. Rot swollen door. Cherry blossom leaves fall in slight wind. Sky blue splotches of color bleeding through the coral wall. A bowl of rot. A floor dirt soaked and hardened with animal blood. But that’s only the static descriptions. The Crypt of Widowed Virgins, underground, as some water on the floor. Skeletons in the lower alcoves crawl through the water, making no ripples, attempting to drag players in to the lower alcoves and drown them. Nice stuff! Short. Strong imagery. Great play opportunities. In an alter room skeletons in frilly pastel trousers playing pipes and carrying a litter with a skeletal bride and fight the party to get her to the altar to marry. Strong use of language compliments the more dynamic room elements, that are themselves well done, to bring about this excellent picture built up in the DMs head.
I tend to harp on terse and evocative writing. I do this because boring and lengthy writing is a common problem in most adventures and making it terse and evocative is an easy contrast that can’t be confused. There are Other Ways though. You can write sticky. You can create a little element that, while longer, only needs to be read once in your lifetime and it will remain with you. Old Bay, the hill giant in the crab-men caves from Fight On #3 (itself one of the best dungeon levels ever) is one of those characters. Once read you will never forget the old crab-leg loving guy. Likewise there are at least three things described in this adventure, a little longer than normal, that you will only need to read once, maybe just referring back to stat at some point but never needing to come back for their character. You grok them. There are two lovers trapped inside the shrine, cursed. There is a maze that can appear between doorways and a “minotaur” in the maze. All three are sticky in the same way as old bay. The woman, Alaesis is determined. Steely eyed obsession. She refuses to feel despair. Aturio is panicked and worried, desperate for help. Knows he is hunted. Has died 86 times and is a broken man. The minotaur is their child (not A&A, but the Taj Mahal builder dude and his dead love) that was never conceived. Perfect-looking, 20, Strong, beautiful, intelligent, kingly. Never fails morals. He could have been anything. He would have been great. There’s more text for all three, but I’ve given you some of the highlights. VERY strong characterization for the DM to work with and expand upon, without having to refer back to multiple paragraphs of text.
There’s a great element of the weird in this. You can steal gems from the night sky mural on the roof of one of the rooms. “Afterward, looted stars no longer show at night. Ever.” Nice! Or w window you can crawl out of, in to the void you see through it, to see the UNDERSIDE of the castle … and the secret is holds. There’s no real attempt to explain this, or the stars, or other details. And there doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t fall in to the trap of trying to explain the WHY of the weird in a game where elves shoot fireballs. And yet it’s not arbitrary. There’s a story that can unfold, through the various rooms, if the party pays attention. They can figure out some of the secrets hidden away
The adventure relies on temptation for a lot of its action. There’s loot laying around. Looting, in what is essentially a large memorial crypt, while the deceased is present in spirit form, leads EXACTLY where you would expect it to. When you loot, or do other things to piss of the dead lady, some of the room ‘activate.’ IE: the cherry blossom trees in the garden have their leaves fall and blow … acid leaves that burn the skin. That crypt of widowed virgins? They’ve mostly got valuable wedding rings on … I love it when a adventure puts this sort of temptation in front of the players. Everyone knows something bad will happen. The players are making a deliberate and informed choice (implicitly informed, sometimes) and tus THEY control the action. And if it were playing I’d gleefully loot the place like a cackling madman. Consequences be damned, they only add to the fun!
It’s a good adventure. My critiques are nitpicks. Maybe a little more formatting for certain sections to make the Treasure and Activated sections stand out a bit more than they already do. There’s a maze mechanic that you have to read a couple of times to get ahold of it. If I were doing it I’d probably devote a sentence or two to the approach, to try and generate a mythic underworld transition and/or enhance the otherworldly aspect; maybe put it up high on a cliff with a narrow coral path and lots of mists and sea spray or something like that.
This was a solid adventure and the revisions to it have really kicked it up a notch. I think it compares favorably to the adventures Gus L does at Dungeon of Signs. Short/terse. Evocative. Punchy. Memorable. Not forced but presenting opportunities.
The preview on DriveThru is a little TOO good. It’s eight pages long. And the adventure is eight pages. Not cool if you believe people are jerks, but WONDERFUL for a Pay What You Want adventure. You’ll know EXACTLY what you are getting. Check out the last page for the minotaur description or page four for the Aturio & Alaesis description. Or the second to last page for both the wedding altar and crypt of widowed virgins.
Bishop: “I prefer the term ‘Artificial Person’ myself.”
Sometimes the Company needs to bring in a little something extra. That’s when it turns to special contractors.
Johner: “I’m not the mechanic here, Ironsides! I mostly just hurt people!”
In this Box Breaking Matt Takes a look at Munchkin Zombies. One of the things about this edition is you play the zombie!!
Munchkins eating brains!! It has to be fun.