A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

11Mar/11Off

Overly Complex Encounters

"Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge" - Winston Churchill

Part of my problem designing a D&D 4e module is that I haven't played a live table top D&D game in over ten years. During that time, all the games I've been involved with are "play by post": I'm currently DM-ing several online games, and playing multiple characters in many more.

And the reason I can do so many concurrently is because of the nature of "play by post". The advantage of PbP is that all the mechanics involved in managing encounters is transparent to the players, so the players may not be fully aware of the amount of work the DM has to do. Since all my games are PbP and I have a multitude of utilities in order for me to do that management, I have the luxury of making some rather complex encounters. These may not translate well to a table top setting.

Several of the encounters in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of my campaign involve NPC allies. If it were one ally that's not a problem, but I use them a lot, and in once very specific case there are five PCs, five to six enemies and - last time I counted - twenty-three allies and/or non-combatants. I can't imagine what it would be like to handle the status of thirty-four creatures using pen and paper, dealing with things like rolling initiative over a dozen times. Heck, most people might not even own that many miniatures.

So there's my problem... I really like some of these encounters (the one I mention above is my favorite in the entire campaign), but some DMs might take one look at them and think "No way I'm going to deal with all that!" For the sake of publishing, I think I'm virtually forced to modify them so that they are manageable, so that DMs won't be dismayed at running them and elect to either reduce the complexity or skip the encounter entirely.

Another option I'm considering is possibly including two versions in the module, or at least enough descriptive text to explain how to simplify a seemingly complex encounter. But that would feel kind of odd... Including a "normal" version and a "use this if you're crazy" version of the same encounter.

But something interesting happened relating to all this... In addition to all the 4e campaigns I'm active in, I'm also active in one rather epic 3.5e campaign (also PbP). In that campaign we are a group of eight 8th level players currently fighting over ninety orcs, most of which are minions. As a player it doesn't appear that overwhelming, but I can see the amount of work involved in managing such an encounter. Even dealing with all the markers on the digital map is quite daunting sometimes.

But in 3.5e it seems almost... normal, as if that level of complexity was expected and commonplace. In 4e, it's ludricrous. I assume that's simply due to the nature of the 4e mechanic, and the new level of number crunching involved.

So has anyone out there run these sort of "epic" encounters where there are few against many, or perhaps a normal encounter that has a lot of NPCs just waiting to be turned in to collateral damage?

Part of my problem designing a module is that I haven't played a live table top game in close to fifteen years. During that time, all the games I've been involved with are "play by post": I'm currently DM-ing several, and playing multiple characters in many more.
And the reason I can do so many concurrently is because of the nature of "play by post". The advantage of PbP is that all the mechanics involved in managing encounters is transparent to the players, so the players may not be fully aware of the amount of management the DM has to make. Since all my games are PbP and I have a multitude of utilities in order for me to do that management, I have the luxury of making some rather complex encounters. These may not translate well to a table top setting.
And there's the added benefit of time. It's much easier to do that much die rolling and encounter management when you don't have five people sitting across from you at the table wondering "well? Are you done yet?"
Several of the encounters in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of my campaign involve NPC allies. If it were one ally that's not a problem, but I use them a lot, and in once very specific case there are five PCs, five to six enemies and twenty-three allies. I can't imagine what it would be like to handle the status of thirty-four creatures using pen and paper, dealing with things like rolling initiative over twenty times. Heck, most people might not even own that many miniatures.
So there's my problem... I really like some of these encounters (the one I mention above is my favorite in the entire campaign), but some DMs might take one look at them and think "no way I'm going to deal with all that!" For the sake of publishing, I'm forced to modify them so that they are manageable, so that DMs won't be dismayed at running them, preferring to reduce the complexity or skip the encounter entirely.
I've been interested in getting a feel for live games once again, even if it was simply observing and not an active player. Maybe then I'll have a better idea of whether these encounters really are as complex as I fear them to be.
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