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)


Tactical Breakdown

I love Dungeons & Dragons in all its myriad, varied, and mostly contradictory forms. In high school, i started with the Holmes Blue Box and graduated quickly to AD&D. I went all down-and-out-in-Greyhawk-and-Faerûn during 2nd Edition, but continued to read the game even though i wasn’t playing it. I was intellectually and emotionally revitalized with 3rd Edition and the idea of Open Gaming, and am now one of the few people lucky enough to be asked to watch over 4th Edition and (unless Wizards finally gets tired of me and fires my freelance ass) the implicit future of the game.

So here’s a confession — i really, really, really dislike the tactical encounter format. I disliked it when it appeared at the tail end of v3.5; i dislike it in 4th edition. I dislike all previous attempts to revamp it, to streamline it, or to make its fragmentation of the playing experience less obvious. (The one narcissistic exception to this is the RPGA Tomb of Horrors update that landed last month, for which i asked and gained permission to flow the tactical encounters freely within the overall text. However, that combat-light adventure is a specific corner case that can’t be automatically applied to adventures as a whole.)

Why i dislike the tactical encounter format isn’t for any of its mechanical features. Taken for what it is, the tactical encounter format does its job extremely well. Combat encounters are easier to play by far with a well laid out tactical encounter breakdown in front of you. The problem is that not all combat encounters deserve or need to be tactical encounters, but current adventure design is slanted so strongly toward the tactical encounter format that it creates a dependent relationship. Tactical encounters now define the game session as anchor points, where they were once simply part of a continuum of process and play that shaped itself in a largely gestalt fashion.

Well-meaning contemporary game designers like me are thus responsible for an entire generation of gamers (a generation of gamers being about half the life of any particular edition of a game, so figure five years on average) who no longer know how to conduct an encounter unless the tactical encounter breakdown is sitting in front of them. And, in my view, the basic style of gaming has undergone a sea change because of that, and not necessarily for the better.

I got an email shortly after my adventure “Test of Fire” appeared in Dungeon the beginning of this year, which read in part:

When I download an adventure I expect to be able to run it not have to dig out stat blocks. All these random encounters in the [“Through the City of Brass”] skill challenge, why am I doing your job?

I wept openly when i read this, and not just because of the comma splice, or because like all writers, i crave validation and the rejection of my work makes me suicidal. The bigger issue for me is that there are now countless D&D players —players of all ages, of varying experience — who don’t understand that improvisation is the heart of what this game is supposed to be about.

The tactical encounter format has done more than simply make certain players forget how to wing a combat encounter on the fly. The tactical encounter format has actively taught certain players that combat cannot be conducted that way.

The reason that there are random encounter groups tabled in the big cross-city skill challenge in “Test of Fire” is that the question of which of those combat encounters are necessary depends entirely on how the skill challenge progresses. Nothing is set; everything flows from the players’ decisions and the luck of the dice. And this underlines for me that the singular problem with the tactical encounter format is that it makes combat inevitable — and thus makes the expectation of combat inevitable. A tactical encounter format makes a tactical encounter necessary, and for all the wrong reasons.

(Next: Firestorm the Foundations)