Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Build Your Adventures in OD&D

As those of you who follow me on Twitter might know, I wrote up a dungeon for OD&D to run at this year's D&D Experience. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to run it at the con. However, I learned a useful lesson going forward: From now on, when I design an adventure I'll first approach it as if I'm running it using OD&D.

This approach might seem a little weird, but it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. OD&D keeps characters simple. They don't have loads of spells, abilities, or magic items. The monsters are built in a similar way. An orc swings its sword or fires its bow at you, and that's about it. Critters like beholders and dragons are a little more complex, but they're the exception, not the norm. There are no skills to roll, just descriptions of what a character tries to do.

When you pull those things back, you're left with only one option for making a dungeon or adventure interesting: Compelling locations, mysteries, puzzles, weird phenomena, *stuff* that the PCs can poke, prod, and inspect. These are all the things that make D&D compelling. They show off the spontaneity, immersion, and creativity that arise in the exchange among players and DM.

In Search of the Unknown is a great example of this effect in action. The dungeon in that adventure is empty of monsters and treasure. The DM is supposed to add that stuff. Instead, it features an overgrown garden of massive mushrooms, a chamber of mysterious pools, hidden chambers, details and color that suggest the dungeon's history, and other elements that make it an interesting place to explore. Reading the adventure, even without monsters and treasures, is fun. You want to know what's in the next room.

That's what this approach embraces, creating a dungeon environment that's interesting without any monsters around. It builds an environment that encourages the players to think of the scene from their character's point of view and act appropriately. It adds enough detail to get things started, and relies on the players choices, rather than the mechanics of skill checks or powers, to drive the action.

Once you have those details nailed down, you can then go back and add in monsters, treasure, skill DCs, and what not as appropriate. If you are running 4e, this approach has probably already yielded some interesting dungeon features that the monsters (and the PCs) can use when a fight breaks out, but you should also have plenty of areas for exploration and experimentation, nice changes of pace from the funhouse effect of one fight after another.


Unknown said...
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Tom Allman said...

Great advice Mike. At one point I was preparing 15-20 hrs for a 3 hr session, and wondering why I wasn't having any fun.

Unknown said...

So true. I wish more of the recent published adventures that I have played followed this advice.

nextautumn said...

Over the years, I've become convinced that you understand better than most the elegance, utility, flexibility and sheer imaginative power of OD&D (B/X, etc.). If I thought there was any hope, I'd ask you to pass that knowledge and enthusiasm on to your bosses. I'd ask you to convince them that it's still, after all these years, an awesome game. An accessible game that doesn't require a lot of buy in up front. A game one could market to young newbies, curious twenty-somethings and foolish, nostalgic old grognards like me.

Windjammer said...

"nice changes of pace from the funhouse effect of one fight after another."

Well, while I'm easily among the top 3 people most PISSED about the 4E DMG propounding this dogma in so uncertain terms ("Wheel the players to the next fight and on to the fun! Fun! Fun! Leave out trodding in dungeon passages inbetween the fights, that's boring!") I think you potentially sell 4E short here.

Looking at a lot of stuff in "Revenge of the Giants", or even the first short delve in "Draconomicon 2", 4E modules of late really start to shine when it comes blending all those extra elements of dungeon exploration INTO the fight scenes. The initial design idea to involve traps and terrain in fights (as opposed to delegate them to separate "scenes") was the first step on this road. I'm running "Revenge" shortly because I was impressed by your efforts to disentangle the dichotomy of old sc. 'either it's a fight or its a scene which will unravel the plot and have the PCs do some roleplaying with NPCs' (e.g. the encounter where the PCs find out mid-fight about the giant being drow-dominated - brilliant glimpse into what's going on plot-wise).

That said, a blog post like your current one gives me hope that perhaps one day we'll say greater diversity in the design ethos fuelling published 4E modules.

I keenly remember a similar blog entry of yours in 2008 ("Borderlands Style Adventures") where I asked how much of your ruminations would have an impact on shiny stuff we can buy for our 4E games. You said back then,

"As for design going forward, I can't say anything definitive. It's definitely a design path I'd like to explore."

So how about designing adventures in what you call the OD&D mold? Any chance to see this in your future work?

- Windjammer

jrl755 said...

So essentially create dungeons in the same that that us old gragnards have been doing it our whole lives. ;-)
In all seriousness though it's nice to see a discussion about more than stat blocks and tactical maps for adventure design. While I'll admit to not caring much for 4e, I have bought several of the WOTC published adventures and have been disappointed with what I see as an almost clinical focus on set-piece combats with not much effort put into making the places themselves interesting. It's nice to see people getting back to discussing the essentials of creating interesting locations rather than just interesting combats.

David said...

i swear i didn't see you at our last session but it sure seems like you might have been there.


Michael S/Chgowiz said...

Mr. Mearls,

That's an interesting post of yours and one that neatly sums up why good DMs can make hay with just about any game. You know, if this little Red Box goes to making itself B1/B2'ish, you might have a very nice little set there.

Anonymous said...

I can vouch that this worked splendidly for building a tournament adventure (Race for the Residuum Mine). Greg Tito, Eytan Bernstein, and I started the design process in 4E and had a playtest that fell flat. I then ran it at a local gameday using OD&D and found myself both free to throw in crazy elements and required to, since interacting with the mechanics took up so little time that I had to improv some new stuff for the PCs to fool around with.

Taking this adventure back to 4E at Gen Con was a real education in the strengths of each edition. The giant orbiting artifact with its own gravity I invented for OD&D was originally conceptual eye-candy; a fight on its surface mostly changed the way I described the melee, not its resolution. In 4E the artifact translated to a soccer ball placed on a stand above the battlemat, such that we could count out how many squares people could be pushed before being sucked onto its surface (where we'd hold them on with blu-tak and use the soccer ball's hexagons as 5' squares). 4E contributed extra rigor and granularity, making questions like "will I fall onto the sphere" more exciting and gameable. OD&D contributed imaginative freedom, not just for me but for the players as well. Not knowing what was going on with that weird soccerball encouraged them to take an imaginative approach instead of a rule-bound one - for example we saw many more creative uses for powers beyond what was written on the PC's card in this encounter.

One of the players from that game has since run the adventure at the Recess gameday using Spirit of the Century; it'll be interesting to hear what that system contributed!
- Tavis

Keith S said...


I've struggled with this on and off over the years, taking the "In Search of the Unknown" approach and lovingly crafting environments that my players just had no interest in.

Flip that around and throw them meaty 3e combats, an epic struggle in a mega-dungeon, and they crapped out on that as well.

So, after 20+ years of DMing I'm trying to shake up my style, looking to incorporate stuff that works. Whether or not there is a magic formula for this, I don't know. But I suspect that it contains elements of all the popular systems out there. OD&D for the reasons you cite; 4e for it's elegant mechanics; and a bit of the indies for innovative storytelling mechanics.

Thanks for posting about your quest for "the way".

ChattyDM said...

I could not agree more. I love dungeon crawls but I've found that I had more fun playing/making ones for S&W than I had planning one for 4e.

And I wondered why that was... I thought for a time that with fights taking so much longer in 4e than 0th, random encounters in Empty rooms had to be gauged (I got rid of them).

Now I switched back my thinking and I make all rooms have something that is potentially interesting (trusting rule 42 for the unexpected). Some rooms are set-pieces, like old modules.

Others are devoid of obvious interesting content but have 2 short paragraphs:

Good outcomes (If Players are clever or roll successes on skills)

Bad outcomes (Dangerous/stupid actions, Skill challenge sucesses)

With an emphasis on Bad - a complication that makes things more interesting... :)

Anonymous said...

D&D's Rule 42 came up pretty early - I'm sure the mermaid in the back of the 1E DMG isn't the first but it's a contender!

Steve said...

Alas, maybe at another con. No complaints, though; I had a fantastic time at XP.

In the early '80s when the version of the game we were playing was still relatively close to OD&D, this sort of exploration was the norm for us. I always thought it was my cousin being devious (this is the guy who used to trick me into trusting his NPCs, then use quivering palm on me and steal all my stuff), but come to think of it, his inspirations and resources came from those early modules. Loved being a player back then because the mystery of weirdness of the environment was so captivating to me.