The Straitjacket of “The Adventure”

One of the design features of later editions of D&D that really bugs me is the idea that there should be some formula for determining how difficult an adventure is, based on the total levels of the player characters. That is, if the player characters have a total of X levels, that means that “the adventure” should have Y total hit dice of monsters (or CRs of traps, etc.), and a concomitant amount of treasure. I bring this up because of something Mike Mearls said in today’s Legend and Lore column, talking about the upcoming 5E:

The DM needs rules that can allow for adventures with as many fights as
needed, from a single big brawl to a number of shorter fights. I’d like
to see an adventure design system that gives me a suggested total XP
value for monsters and traps to use so that I can push the characters to
the limit of their abilities. I can then spend that XP for one battle,
lots of little battles, or just sprinkle monsters in an environment as I

I object to this idea on several levels.

First, it treats the dungeon master like an imbecile, implying that he can’t design a fair adventure without some sort of mathematical formula to guide him. While it is very true that most older modules carried with them an indicator of the intended level of player character for whom the module was written (“An AD&D adventure module for levels 6-8”, etc.), those were not derived from any sort of tallying of the total hit dice of the monsters therein, but rather were a subjective measure to assist the consumer. If the player characters in your game were all 3rd level, you didn’t want to spend your hard-earned module money on Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl

Second, although I’ve not heard of this happening, I could see it being used by certain rules-lawyery types to complain that a given scenario was not only “unfair”, but was actually “against the rules”. It’s just a hypothetical, but I can really see someone saying “Hey, you shouldn’t have put two xorns in that cave; that put it past our maximum allowed challenge level! I want that last battle re-run with only one xorn.”

Third, though, is both the most objectionable and the most insidious. By treating “the adventure” as a unique, distinct ideal for how the game is played, such a system actually makes it difficult (if not impossible without ignoring that part of the rules) to play in a style of campaign that’s anything other than modular and combat-oriented. How does one calculate the challenge level in a sandbox-style campaign? Or a megadungeon-based campaign? Part of the challenge of such games is the players realizing when their characters are over matched, and retreating in order to come back later when they are more experienced, have had a chance to gain intelligence about the enemy, etc.

If everything is based around “the adventure”, then the game becomes by implication an episodic affair with distinct objectives that the players are expected to meet before moving on to the next. While I have absolutely nothing against such adventures, and myself designed and DMed hundreds of such, I don’t want it to be something that is forced by the rules. When “the adventure” is made up of whatever plot threads the players decide to pull this week, or whatever encounters they find (pre-planned or random) in the wilderness hex they decide to explore, mechanics for determining the challenge level of “the adventure” become meaningless at best.

Too, the very notion that everything revolves around XP for slaying monsters flies in the face of not only one of the OSR’s chief conceits (XP for treasure, which encourages imaginative play and tactics that allow the PCs to grab the loot by distracting or otherwise avoiding the monsters), but also those of those more inclined towards storytelling games (where XP is gained by successfully interacting with the NPCs, in order to obtain whatever goals one has). I see the value of all three ways of doing things, depending on the circumstances, and wouldn’t like to see one become the de facto standard way of play by rulebook fiat.

Lest it be thought that this is going to be one of my posts that gets tagged “grognardish grumpiness”, I should point out that the larger points of Mearls’ post are ones I can agree with. The very notion that one can roll up characters and complete a full module in an hour is one I, and I think many of my fellow OSR travelers, can embrace. I am also on record as saying I like the notion of varying levels of complexity being able to be played at the same table, even if I may be a tad skeptical as to how it can be implemented.

But if they really want this new game to be something embraceable by fans of many different versions, I hope they don’t cripple that goal out of the gate by baking a particular style of play into the rules.


Also, please take a minute to check out the Adventures Dark and Deep Kickstarter campaign. Help make the ADD rules supplement, suitable for use with all 1E-compatible games, a reality!

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

24 thoughts on “The Straitjacket of “The Adventure”

  1. This seems like an extension of the problem we saw with 3e and 4e (the horrific Challenge Levels) and, like a lot of these problems, seems to be a rules patchwork to make up for bad DMs.

    The entire modern gaming situation, really, seems to be a reactionary blowback from DMs that were power-hungry or didn't understand their role as neutral arbiters and, as such, bungled it to such a degree that players needed a "bill of rights," as it were, to protect them.

    I tried to address this in the Delicate Balance, but I am thinking of perhaps writing a more specific piece on the nature of referee respect and reactionary changes made to the system.

  2. Second, although I've not heard of this happening, I could see it being used by certain rules-lawyery types to complain that a given scenario was not only "unfair", but was actually "against the rules".

    Happened to me, when I was running 3e. I explained to the rules lawyer that I didn't use 3e's system for tailoring encounters and that the damn thing was poorly designed, anyway.

  3. Challenge Rating were one of the reasons I never played 3e, let alone 4e (and its videogaming roots). They were considerably more comprehensible in Pathfinder but I don't like designing an adventure around a mathematical formula. It feels too constrained in my mind (the encounter is challenge rating X so it's worth Y experience points, open the monsters manual and find creatures worth that much).

    This is one of the problems with 3e and 4e, I think, the needlessly over-complex crunch, all the tiny little bits to cover all the angles that overburden the system.

  4. Maybe I see it differently, but as a GM, having a way to accurately gauge the power level of an encounter makes it easier to design adventures. I don't see those rules (which aren't new, that's 3E/4E encounter design) as a straight jacket, just as a way for a GM to know roughly how tough things will be.

    As it is, the statement Mearls made is actually a loosening of the structure from 3E/4E. Instead of having specific XP allotments per encounter, he's saying use an XP allotment for the entire adventure.

    As for sandbox play, that's easy enough to use the above systems. I find it useful when planning the encounter charts to know that 2d6 goblin warg riders can end up being a level 2 challenge, averages a level 5 challenge, and maxes as a level 8 challenge (or however it works out.)

    Being able to accurately gauge difficulty is a tool for GMs. It's useful for any style of play, and I don't really see it ever going away.

  5. Excellent article. I've always been a strong advocate of designing a world and letting the adventures explore what is there. The recent (3e/4e) trend of customizing the world to suit the adventurers baffles me. I'm disappointed to see that the 5e designers lean that way.

  6. @Deinol, you are viewing the XP budget as a guideline, which I personally have no issue with for what that's worth. It would be nice to know, for instance, that my dungeon was significantly over/under XP'd for my own reference.

    I think the objection here is codifying the CR system into 5e. I also ran into this while DMing 3e. To be fair, CR was very helpful during WotC's reinvigoration of Organized Play in 2000 via Living Greyhawk, which I believe brought many new players to the game and was wildly successful. CR was a major enabler of such an accomplishment because it allowed a multitude of content providers to scale their dungeons on the same scale, imperfect as it was.

    Outside of the Organized Play environment, I object to CR for the reasons Joe states, not the least of which is the wargaming kill-all-the-monsters incentive.

    If I like 5e and want to run it, I would use its version of CR as a guidepost and nothing more. No experienced DM needs such training wheels. I think we just would like to see different DM styles supported.

  7. Excellent post. And just happened to me recently with a player about took my head off because an encounter that took him by surprise was deemed "unfair" because he didn't know how to deal with it. He about word for word quoted Mearles' statements in my face and then ran for it out the door.

    I'd actually add on to this that it creates bad (or at least careless and thoughtless) players as they go into things expecting certain things and use that to cushion themselves when, in fact, a bit of common sense exercised can insulate them against a lot of the worst. Rather than relying on their own sense, intelligence, and good play to succeed, they rely on the rules to make heroes of their characters.

  8. All the more reason, Hamlet, to be clear with our players about the kind of game we're running. I think players coming from a 3.x/4e mindset would need a short 'detox' period to acclimate to OSR gaming.

    I recall killing a squishie PC in 3.5 with a barrage of manticore quills (the critical did not help), and the gist of the player's complaint was that the encounter was unfair due to the manticore's inaccessible location — that the "encounter level" was greater than the monster's apparent CR due to its tactical advantage.

    To which my answer was: "The monster has an advantage. What are you going to do about it?"

  9. Gene: Your point is entirely correct. However, I bring up the situation, mostly, because the situation shocked me because of whose mouth it came out of rather than it was uttered at all. This came out of the mouth of a long time AD&D 1e DM who, for lack of a better term, "should have known better."

    And yes, I did say almost exactly "the monster has an advantage in this situation and has abilities that it is using to good effect, so why are you treating it as if it were just another orc?" Lead baloons.

  10. @Gene that's what they've always been, guidelines. More particularly guidelines to help teach new GMs how to design adventures. It's all well and good if the experienced grognard can tell how many ogres a 3rd level group can reasonably tackle, but there's got to be a way to let new GMs know that too.

    If a player complained about an encounter being "unfair" to me, I'd simply ask why they didn't run away then. But I usually try to give some warning signs before combat really gets going. But I want to know myself as the GM how tough to expect things to be.

    Also, at least in 3E, there were much overlooked rules that "defeating" an encounter can be anything from sneaking past, talking your way past, or any other creative solution. Social/Goal based XP was less well defined, but they are in the rules.

  11. There certainly is something to be said for guidelines for novices, particularly in a world where some players and DMs are prone to ignore the spirit of the game and act like jerks. I play primarily in a club environment so at times I must interact with players I would not normally sit down at table with. Jerks are out there- its a fact, so guidelines do have their place.

    Longtime DMs do have a certain advantage in attitude, though, that renders such guidelines irrelevant. Their long experience has left them well equipped to run a game in a sophisticated fashion- so that when the players are getting out of their depth a subtle change of gear gives the PCs a chance to NOTICE that they are getting out of their depth. In my Monday night game, my PCs are considering taking on some cultists they have been wanting to get at for some time- but the cultists have in fact been wiped out by a pair of Umber Hulks. Now I know very well that those creatures could well lay a TPK on the party. If they decide to go there, I will simply use some foreshadowing to provide the clues – if my players ignore the splattered viscera and carnage throughout the complex, the choice to face a dangerous unknown quantity is theirs and theirs alone. I don't know for a fact that the PCs couldn't take those Hulks down- and if they do they will be swimming in treasure- I don't underestimate my PCs either.

    The point is that my setting feels as though the PCs are NOT AT THE CENTRE OF EVERYTHING. So they respect it.

    This rarely occurs in modern versions of the game if too much attention is given to "suitable" CR. The PCs in a game like that would like as not decide that despite the carnage, the monsters MUST be defeatable, because the CR system has taught them as much. This makes a world seem prefab and fake, and babys the players. It is frustrating on every level, because the converse of the above situation is true also. Having obtained high levels, the PCs in a game like that never get to feel like awesome heroes, because everything they meet is around about as tough as them. In this way, any conjuring up of a convincing setting is dissolved. It plays a bit like a boardgame.

  12. I don't think the problem is killer or bad refs. It's bad players, who think they're good at the game. The 1e PHB had a section on successful adventuring, which discussed the importance of avarice and cowardice. The players were outright told that fighting should be, if not a last resort, at least a considered one.

    2e didn't have that. I don't actually recall any advise to the players other than a suggestion to learn the game by playing Basic.

    3e and 4e went the whole hog and structured the game so that 'hack and slay' would solve most problems – and for those it won't, there's Min/Max.

    In my group, the worst players are those with a substantial history in the hobby. The newbies aren't that much better, they just have an ounce of caution. The most skilled players are long time war gamers.

  13. You have my sympathies, Derrick. I am gradually learning not worry too much about these issues. The best lesson for players like that is for them to simply see the consequences of their ill- considered actions.For years I was concerned that being too hard on scornful or rash players would simply drive players away from my game. Now I have come to realise that by and large my reputation as a fair and fun DM (earned through years and years of NOT acting like a jerk) means that I don't have to worry about losing jerks from my game. Plenty of nice, appreciative players around.

    I am lucky to have a good pool of players locally to start with, however…

  14. Back in the day when I played AD&D, our DM once did a short dungeon that was some level below the player levels. It was great fun smashing up the place with nary a scratch!

    But he made a good point by doing it – why shouldn't high level players come across a 'low level' dungeon and vice versa ("Lets get out of here").

    How strange – if you think about it – that all dungeons are populated by denizens that are just tough enough to create a sufficient challenge for the current level of players.

    Surely there will be a place the players come across that – at this time – they are clearly unsuited to take on (as they discover) but provides a place to return to in the future ("we'll show 'em!").

    Or wouldn't there be a dungeon full of dead creatures of different types – killed by the highest level denizen(s) that has / have taken over the place (the players need to avoid the killers while scooping the loot which could lead to some exciting scrapes).

    Or one where the players find (as we did) an area filled with feuding low level denizens who the players can side with one faction (or find themselves ganged up on by all sides). The takings aren't up to much but there is fun to be had by a 14th level MU lining up some goblins with his extensive spell book of hurt. Or the 17th level fighter wandering into a room of kobolds ("Just give me a minute or two…")

  15. I think the most troubling thing about Mr. Mearls' article is the idea that WoTC is once again using focused play to "fix" aspects of the game.
    In the little oxygen tent that these things appear to be tested in, such things may look like an improvement. 4E may've simplified some aspects of a player's life, but I didn't feel 4E did anything to simply the DM's lot (just whipping up a monster with whatever powers/attacks was a nice step, but then adding status tracking, power recharge rolls, and trying to squeeze this in to an XP budget made bookkeeping worse than in 3.x, IMO).
    I worry that there will be "targets" set for game design – specific targets such as "the one-hour game", "the three-hour game", and the "full-day game". If a game doesn't fit these targets, goes my thinking, it will be an edge-case that isn't really covered by the rules – and there were a lot of edge cases in the revised 3e rules.

    I made a big investment in 4E when it was released – I tried it at one of the Strategicons and really enjoyed being a player in the system. I ran a couple of 4E games at following Strategicons, and enjoyed those games as well. It wasn't until the 4E campaign I ran when I started to become dissatisfied with the true complexity of keeping an ongoing campaign that incorporated a variety of play styles, and the on-going rules arguments with some of the players over "rules as written" (regardless of the disclaimer at our first meet-up that I ran a mish-mash style game and spelled out rules changes for the campaign).

    I relate this because I want to establish that I'm not immediately hostile to new games, but I have concerns about the ways these changes will be used in the real world once the game is released into the wild. This approach to the same sort of targeted testing that brought about 4E (as opposed to the "open" style testing that was done on the 3e rules) doesn't fill me with enthusiasm that this modular ruleset is going to actually work outside of the targets that are being tested.

  16. I think that we have to separate the concept of "challenge Rating" of a monster, of a "encountrer level". I think that the first is very useful, and it was a much more streamlined way to define how much XP a monster should grant.
    But, a method to quantify a encounter is a very diferent thing. Some players enjoy RPG has a balanced tactical encounter; other, as a intellectual challenge that include handicaps and the certain possibility of defeat in some situations. This formula is useful for the first group (Combat as a sport) but not for the second group (Combat as War). That is ok, because I think that if you have to reach to a large market of player, you need to give some goodies to a each camp. Since the Combat as War group always works with a lot of improvisation, DM's fiat and tangential thinking, it is hard to create hard rules that help them (But fluff is their food and drink, I think). So, if you doubt in include a rule that would be used by some and not by other, and it is a rule hard to recreate by a GM, it is ok to include it. It could have been labeled "optional", but in fact, 3rd tried to not label anything optional since people had a lot of "optional" overload on 2nd edition.
    I think it is not wise to complain about a rule if it was not designed for you, but it is designed for the fellow gamers.

  17. Exactly, right on the mark. How the hell can I tally up the XP of the monsters and traps the PCs are going to face in the next session if I don't know what monsters and traps the PCs are going to face in the next session?

  18. @Ragnardbard: Thanks – and yes, consequences should be a fine teaching instrument!

    My main struggle is how to deal with players who insist that nothing that goes wrong is their fault. (The flip side of the Monty Haul games they've been playing: they think that success and failure is totally up to the ref.)

  19. You're very welcome Derrick. Mmm. Yes- it is true. Some players are almost beyond redemption. The concept that the game is NOT a contest between themselves and the DM is lost on them. Perhaps it would be more fruitful to reward the sensible behaviour of the better players to try and get the hint across. The best options is to lose the destructive, disruptive and negative players, but I understand that such is not always possible…

  20. Older editions are pretty balanced: The DM sets a level for the dungeon, and uses the HD of the monsters to see what monsters are appropriate for that level. When using higher HD monsters, he lowers the # of appearance. The guidelines in the rules work well, and it's much easier to roll 2d4 to see how many orcs are in the room, than it is to calculate XP values.

    Also, the 5E designers don't seem to realise that in classic D&D it's the players that set the challenge level. The DM places the monsters, but it's up to the players to make the decision to engage them in combat. In 3E and 4E, no such decision is necessary, because combat is the default assumption.

  21. The idea of spreading out XP or concetrating them makes no sense. If a party of 1st level PCs fights a series of 20 battles with a single Orc each time, chances are they will clean up. But, if they meet 20 Orcs at once, chances are they will get clobbered. The concept is flawed at the start for that reason, and the zillion other ones brought up already.

  22. @Jasper –

    The linearity of 3e/4e dungeons feeds the mindset that the referee is setting the challenges, rather than the players strategic choices. If there's only one way through a gauntlet, then the adventurers' choices are indeed limited. Old school dungeons are rarely so constrained.

  23. @ Black Vulmea: True, that's part of the problem.

    PCs are expected to face (and defeat) all monsters and to "clean out" the dungeon. When playing with that assumption, it doesn't really matter if the dungeon is a linear design. The only choice the players get is which order the group faces the encounters in.

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