(A continuation of a discussion started here and 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. Not because of any implicit shortcomings in its design or intent, but because that design and intent has had an inadvertent effect on how the D&D game is played.
Nobody, myself included, wants to simply lose the tactical encounter spread. However, in the aftermath of an email i’d received in response to my Dungeon adventure “Test of Fire”, i began to think about ways that the tactical encounter format could be put to better use in adventures. The challenge was to come up with a way that contemporary adventure design could accommodate both the specific effectiveness of the tactical encounter spread with the more free-form, improvisational style of play that i’d started out with. Then Chris Youngs dropped me a line to ask if i’d be interested in writing a Netheril-themed adventure for Dungeon. Being an inveterate lover of all things Faerûn, i jumped at the chance — and decided to try to put some of what i’d been thinking about into action.
Since the advent of the tactical encounter format, the ability to let the PCs go wherever they want and do whatever they feel like has been hamstrung to a certain degree. Using tactical encounters as the foundation and framework for an adventure necessarily creates an overall shape for that adventure — a shape that limits the options of DM and player alike in terms of how many different ways the adventure can be played. Among the most serious complaints that i see on the RPG boards and forums about the current paradigms of adventure design is the notion of the “straight-through” style of play. Open a door, have an encounter; open the next door, have an encounter; repeat. Certainly, it’s possible to create an encounter framework that incorporates a certain amount of randomness, so that the players can undertake encounters in any order. However, that really just boils down to having five or six doors to open, and if that’s the only choice the players have access, it’s not much of an advantage.
So in my original notes for the project, i hit upon the idea of treating tactical encounters not just as the static foundation points of the adventure, but as “junction points” — an event important not just for its inherent challenge, but notable because it spins the adventure off in a different direction. The opening tactical encounter of the adventure would introduce the heroes to one of the NPC factions fighting to find the location of an ancient and powerful ruin (the site of a dead portal that both groups are intent on reactivating). In the aftermath of that encounter, the PCs have to make a decision about whether to throw themselves behind faction A or faction B — or to stay neutral and try to play both sides to their own advantage. Each subsequent tactical encounter would play out differently based on the PCs’ initial decision, as well as on subsequent decisions made during the course of the adventure.
The challenge was to figure out how to do that and still keep the story self-contained. The solution was described in my initial pitch to Chris:
I’d like to use this shorter standalone adventure to do things in a somewhat nonlinear fashion (though the adventure maintains a clear throughline). The flow of the adventure is flexible depending on whether the PCs make the choice to ally with one of the two Netherese factions searching for the scroll fragments, or whether they stay at arm’s length from both factions (and thus incur the enmity of both to a lesser degree). That initial choice plays into the initial encounters, each of which generates choices that inflect the final encounters.
To accommodate this flexibility, I’d like to pitch you on a specific format that will separate out the encounter spreads a little bit. For Encounters 2 and 3, there’ll be a traditional spread detailing the area and the fixed challenge (in Encounter 2, traps and hazards; in Encounter 3, a pack of banderhobbs). However, the two factions will have their stat blocks and tactics on separate pages, with the idea being that the DM will append those faction pages to the encounters depending on who the PCs are actually fighting. Though this mix-and-match approach isn’t possible in a printed adventure, I think the Dungeon online format lends itself well to this kind of flexibility.
Some feedback from Chris fine-tuned the approach, which ultimately became the foundation for Dungeon 180’s “The Spiral Gate”. You need a D&D Insider subscription to download the whole adventure, but here’s a taste of the underlying intent as pitched to the DM:
Enemies and Allies
This adventure is different than many others, in that it allows the players to decide who the “bad guys” are. Each encounter has a specific threat that the PCs must square off against. However, that threat is faced within the context of the party having established some sort of relationship or alliance with the Sand Kings or the Shadovar.
In the world of the FORGOTTEN REALMS campaign setting, the power of the reborn Netheril is widely seen as a threat to the stability of Faerûn. As such, a typical approach to this sort of adventure would be for the PCs to join forces with the underdog Sand Kings to make a stand against the powerful Shadovar and their hunger for even more power. If your players want to take this default approach, that’s fine. However, the adventure doesn’t force that alliance on them.
Once the existence of the two factions and their goals have been established in the aftermath of Encounter M1, the characters are free to choose their own path—allying with the rebel Sand Kings, throwing their lot in with the powerful Shadovar, or even playing both sides against the other as they seek the scroll fragments and the power they promise for themselves. Moreover, the PCs can pretend allegiance to one group while secretly supporting the other, or can even attempt to change alliances mid-adventure if they want to.
Later sidebars like this one talk about how the context of an encounter changes depending on which side the PCs are on. Beyond that, however, “The Spiral Gate” relies heavily on you and your players’ ability to roleplay, and on you using your improvisation skills to adjust encounters and bring the complex interactions between the PCs and both factions to life.
Each tactical encounter then features a short sidebar breaking down the three different ways the encounter might play out, depending on the previous choices the PCs have made.
Enemies and Allies
If the PCs have chosen one faction to ally with, they arrive at the encounter with that faction. The enemy faction is already here, and engaged in searching the tomb for the scroll fragment. The number of NPCs in each faction should equal the number of PCs. See pages 18–21 for Sand King and Shadovar statistics blocks. See “Everybody In” on page 8 for further guidelines on playing both factions in combat.
If the PCs are feigning allegiance to one faction or the other, use the same setup as above. However, at some point, the PCs are likely to turn on their supposed allies to fight alongside the “enemies” already here.
If the PCs have not allied with either faction, the Shadovar are the enemy faction here, and the PCs fight them alone. Set up a number of Shadovar equal to the number of characters in the party and yielding the appropriate experience.
I always keep an eye on the forums at ENWorld, RPGNet, and Wizards.com to see what people have to say about adventures i’ve worked on, and i’ve been doing so since “The Spiral Gate” came out. In addition, however, i’ve already gotten more direct email feedback on this adventure than i have on anything else i’ve so far written, and that feedback has been uniformly positive. Both DMs and players seem to like the challenge of an adventure whose throughline is completely determined by the choices of the players, and i think this suggests that the tactical encounter format can live happily within a much broader design context than it currently does. For me, at least, tactical encounters and the arguably more combat-focused 4th Edition of the D&D game are entirely compatible with the kind of freeform and improvisational play that Dungeons & Dragons was once all about.