Firestorm the Foundations

(A continuation of a discussion started here)

As has been said, i’m not crazy about the tactical encounter format that’s been the norm since the tail end of 3rd Edition D&D. However, the most important thing about the tactical encounter format is that its very creation has made it indispensable to the way adventures are designed — and, as a result, the way game play is conducted.

From a design standpoint, using the tactical encounter format takes a lot of work. Although there’s a certain amount of boilerplate and stat block cut-and-paste in the layout and construction of a tactical encounter spread, from a design perspective, creating a compelling tactical encounter is a delicate balancing act of form and function. There’s a lot of work that goes into a well-made tactical encounter — and as a result of that, the D&D game no longer has any room for tactical encounters as an optional choice. If i, as the designer, have gone to the trouble of crafting the tactical encounter, you as the DM or player are effectively obliged to run it.

From one perspective, tactical encounters take up a huge amount of design space. If i’m a designer writing a tactical encounter, i don’t dare to make it throwaway or optional, because doing so means that i’m cutting a significant amount of the limited space i’ve been allotted to craft my adventure. From another perspective (and from the other side of the table), today’s adventures consist mostly of tactical encounters by page count (often by a ratio of 2:1 or more). If you’ve paid for the adventure, you’ve implicitly paid for the tactical encounters first and foremost. As such, there’s no rational basis on which you can arbitrarily throw them out or let the players simply bypass them, because if you do, you’ve wasted your money.

And so tactical encounters have become the foundation of the adventure — the absolutely necessary points of play — on which the implicitly expendable nontactical material and backstory are draped for show. And this is a huge, huge reversal in terms of design philosophy. Once upon a time, adventure scenarios were crafted in a fashion that can lovingly be described as “sparse”. Once upon a time, adventures were a continuum of tactical encounters, nontactical material, and backstory — all of which was equally important and equally expendable at the same time. As a DM, you made choices at every stage regarding what was worth keeping, what had to happen, and what could be thrown away based on the whims and decisions of the players, and thus did the game progress. Now, the game progresses according to a tactical script for the most part — but the game should be more than that.

Here’s an example that i think is fairly telling. For the home game i run with my wife and daughters (yeah, my wife games; suck it up), i decided that it would be cool to create a campaign based around mostly-on-the-fly v3.5 adaptations of the large number of older AD&D adventure modules that i’d owned and read but never got around to playing (plus a few good enough that it’s always fun to play them again). One of those never-had-a-chance-to-play it adventures (because i wasn’t playing during the 2nd Edition days) was Bruce Cordell’s epically bugfuck (and i mean that as an extreme compliment) chthonic masterpiece “The Gates of Firestorm Peak”.

The initial encounter of GoFP is a classic D&D tactical scenario. A steep climb up a remote mountainside. A lone portal hacked out of the living rock. A passageway beyond. Invisible poisoned caltrops strewn across the corridor floor. A stone wall set with barbs and spikes that blocks the PCs’ passage. A force of twelve enlarged Duergar behind the wall, locked, loaded, hunkered down, and ready for anything.

In the end, the party walked through them without losing a hit point.

Arcane eye scouted out and noted the Duergar positions. Invisibility all around, with characters moving up connected by rope (because not having invisibility sphere, they were invisible to each other). Message for whispered communication. The rogue carefully sweeping the caltrop field, the sorcerer getting ready with the fly spell that let her lob multiple fireballs over the wall before the Duergar knew what hit them. It was epic. It was perfect. And it would never, ever happen — would never even be allowed to happen — if “Gates of Firestorm Peak” was converted to the tactical encounter format. Because the tactical encounter format says “You have to fight now.”

Dungeons & Dragons in any of its many forms has always first and foremost been about options. The entrenched reliance on the tactical encounter format reduces the options available to player, character, and DM. And for me, at least, the game risks losing something as a result.

(Next: I’ve Got Your Improv Right Here)