[4E] Scripted Encounters

edited November 2008 in Actual Play
(this was originally a response in a stale and lightly responded-to thread, but the encounter I'm describing was fun and it flowed from some earlier SG discussion, so I wanted to give it its own thread. Apologies to people for whom this is a rerun.)

I'm DMing D&D4E right now. It's a pretty traditional group, and our play is the typical mix of combat encounters and freeformy roleplaying. There's no thematic steering or other hippy stuff. Though there are player-generated quests to spice things up, I'm mostly responsible for the situation and encounters.

The game is a combination of a bunch of gaming influences. Savage Worlds showed me that large setpiece battles were possible in RPGs. Beast Hunters showed me how encounters are more interesting when they have multiple victory conditions. Frogger, RoboRally, and God of War (the PS2 game) made me want to present very dynamic pinball-like combat environments with lots of things to bump up against and different little sub-environments to explore.

The trouble is, trying to do all these things at once in an encounter is really, really hard. A big, sprawling dynamic battlefield that's full of antagonists and little subquests and whirling dingleberries is a lot of detail for a single DM to manage. So, when I read Andy's recent event scripting card idea, it kinda blew my mind. With scripting, I can embed all the encounter details in the script and, assuming my design-time judgment was sound, I can just execute them when they arise.

Our most recent D&D session was Scripting Experiment Alpha. In the fiction, a secret Orcus cult spun up a ritual that animated an army of zombie minions from the Winterhaven graveyard and sent them howling at the helpless civilians. The players were required to fight a desperate defensive battle to prevent the zombies from escaping the graveyard and wreaking havoc on the town.

I scripted the whole encounter on a stack of 60 pre-ordered event cards. I openly drew one card on initiatives 15, 8, and 1 of every round. In keeping with D&Ds organizational philosophy, each card contained the complete rules for resolving its action, so if any players had any questions about how they worked, they could just read the card.

Every third card was a Spawn card -- a pit would be blown into a random part of the battlemap and four zombie minions spawned within it. Every twelfth card was a Casualty card. Any zombies that had left the graveyard would inflict casualties on Winterhaven. If the town lost a certain number of casualties, it would fall.

Other event cards spawned ally militia minions on the map, made everyone save vs. falling down, knocked over some of the big graveyard statues, created NPC rescue objectives (with big XP rewards), churned treasure parcels onto the map from the graves underneath, lit fires or made them spread, and other things. My goal was to use the shiny to distract the PCs from dealing with the zombie minions, while being fair and explicit about how the zombies were the real threat to Winterhaven. Even the big well-guarded foozle that the ritual had spawned in the crypt was kind of a distraction, as killing it would only stop zombies from spawning, and not escaping.

The cards also served as a time counter for the encounter, as I'd decided that after the 60 draws / 20 rounds, the ritual would run out of power and the zombies would crap out. I figured that by then, the players would have run out of steam and/or time on the encounter.

The zombie minions moved by strict rules that I printed on another card -- they'd move to engage the closest good guy within four squares, or would double-run towards the gate otherwise. These rules allowed the players to help me DM, moving the minions whose choices were obvious or nonconsequential.



  • Play went smoothly from my POV. I could just relax, make monster decisions, and let the cards do the rest. The players did really well. Before any casualty cards came up, the warlord immediately understood that the zombies needed to be contained, and he led the fighter and some faceless NPCs on an effort to barricade the graveyard gates. The fighter covered the work party with his lightning axe while the warlord kept his men working at the Harper continuing-damage type skill challenge I improvised to cover the situation. (This was a good moment for me because it showed me that even though I'd scripted the encounter, I could still improvise within it.)

    Inside the graveyard, the wizard, ranger, and cleric backstopped the defence, mowing down zombies in job lots as they shambled towards the only other (unbarricadable) exit. The party spread itself all over my big 3'x5' battlemap -- I think the ranger visited every corner of it as he rescued NPCs, took charge of militiamen, and scouted the big boss. There was lots of motion and jumping and braving flaming squares; at one point the cleric was zeroed in a flaming square and the warlord had to break out of the boss fight and dash over to drag him to safety. Two of the NPCs were rescued and two were not -- both of the nonrescued ones died when pits opened suddenly underneath them, which provoked grim laughter. And there was a tense moment when a falling statue threatened the barricaded gate. The statues fall in a random direction when their cards come up, and luckily for the PCs, the statue fell away from the gate.

    In the end, Winterhaven survived. The town was saved, the victory celebrations ran long into the night, and the warlord scored some XP for his "I will lead a company of renown!" personal quest. I had a lot of fun and there was some positive post-play chatter, with one player saying that this was the first time he'd really dug on the tactical elements of 4E.

    So, is anyone else doing anything like this? I don't want to do something of this complexity again real soon -- the prep time is a bitch -- but I do want to use scripting to spice things up in the future, and I'd love to hear about how others have used these kinds of techniques.
  • edited November 2008
    I did something similar although not quite so elaborate in our last session.

    Azhanti, the groups Dragoborn Cleric was undergoing a test to replace his dying mentor as a religious Prophet. Part of the test involved descending into the volcanic depths of his temple and being accepted by the Clans draconic founder. The set up was a huge sprawling cave, lots of dangerous rocky bits, shaking scenery, volcanic gas and molten rock.

    The group was opposed by agents of the Dragonborn military leader who were trying to fix the choice of the next prophet. Both groups reached the cave but had to wait for the Dragon to open its mouth to get blessed/eaten.

    Naturally they got into a fight to try and nobble each others chances.

    During the course of the fight I had a series of potential events set out on a card - the room shakes everyone gets knocked over, volcanic gas spews throughout the cave, molten rocks bursts out etc. I only had six events which were decided randomly at the start of each round. I rolled a d6 at the start together with a second d6. If I scored a double the dragon opened its mouth and they could both go for the blessing.

    It worked well and added a lot of atmosphere to the fight. I do however like your card idea although I am not sure I have the time or inclination to produce 60 of them. I may well steal it for the final heroic tier confrontation which is fast approaching.
  • Andrew--

    That's a lot of flavor in an encounter for not a lot of effort. Nicely done.

    And having the encounter hinge on an event that's fixed in position but variable in time emphasizes maneuver in a cool way. Everyone will want to be close to the blessed position, but what if the blessed position is hard to reach or vulnerable or in the middle of a blazing fire or whatever? Do you camp the blessed spot and waste anyone who tries to approach it with missile weapons? Or do you set up close to it and try to defend it? That's got some tactical juice to that situation. I am definitely stealing this idea.
  • I was one of the players in Johnzo's scripted battle, and can confirm that it was a blast. Although he did get one detail wrong, the falling statue that created great tension was the one that almost fell on the RANGER. Who had like 5 HP at the time.

    One nice feature of the very automated setup was that once we (the players) understood the movement rules for the zombies, we were able to help move them, which means things kept moving along at a nice clip. Also the tactical elements of the battlefield were well set out in terms of their game effect (fire damage, DCs to jump pits, etc) which made it possible for players to strategize and execute without constant "mother may I". For example, I worked out a cool move that involved my fighter running through flames using his dragonshield, leaping a pit, and slamming Tide of Iron into a bad guy that had pinned the ranger down, allowing the ranger to get away. I was able to work out the feasibility and all the necessary die rolls while waiting for my go, so when my turn came all I needed to do was move my mini while explaining what was going on and then roll, roll, roll.

    The battle dominated most of a single session. It was started as a cliffhanger from the previous session. which means that Johnzo was justified in spending a decent amount of prep time on it (drawing up a cool graveyard on the battle map, making a Bloom of Orcus out of a TP cylinder and a plastic bag, building his encounter deck, etc), knowing that it was guaranteed to happen. It really showcased D&D4 at its strongest, which is the tactical fighty element.
  • edited November 2008
    wow, thanks Wil!
    Posted By: rafialAlso the tactical elements of the battlefield were well set out in terms of their game effect (fire damage, DCs to jump pits, etc) which made it possible for players to strategize and execute without constant "mother may I".
    Yeah -- every element (except for the monsters) on the board had a corresponding laminated card describing all its game rules. So when the evil bloom of Orcus barricaded itself behind a sarcophagus door I just tossed out a small card with the shove and break DCs for the door and moved on.

    Plainly documenting all rules is another technique I got from that very excellent Why 4th Edition Rules thread. I call it Senkowski's Rule: "everything concerning the encounter should be plainly in front of anyone."
    It really showcased D&D4 at its strongest, which is the tactical fighty element.
    I think 4E's real magic is in its rules organization. I remember my first look at the 3E monster statblocks, with each monster having multiple references to rules on other books and pages (feats and monster type powers and vulnerabilities and so forth). That put me off ever running the goddamn thing because of all the cross-referencing and overarching knowledge that would be necessary to play a monster competently.

    The 4E monster, power, and magic item statblocks are glorious things. Denormalization for the win!
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