Reverse engineering: using 4e adventure design techniques to create a 1e scenario

Author’s note: this is not an edition wars post. Trolls seeking to espouse one edition over another are invited to excrete their comments elsewhere, as they will be summarily deleted here.

While working on a future post, I had occasion to reference the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. The book had been undisturbed on the shelf for a very long time.

As it turned out, I spent far longer perusing the book than necessary. I stopped at most of the tables, at virtually every line art drawing, and at frequently referenced passages and monster statistics that, even after not touching 1e for the better part of 10 years, I could still recite from memory.

While I still play 4e when those rare playing opportunities arise – and 4e remains my system of choice, as it appeals to my inner wargamer while, in my own personal estimation, being a mechanically simpler game than any of its predecessors – reviewing the 1e DMG caused me to reflect on what 1e was that 4e isn’t – and the other way around. I found that I missed certain aspects of 1e, such as the variety of spells, magic items that are more than powered-up versions of their first-level selves and how successfully finding a secret door only told players that it was there, not how to open it. It was enough to make me want to run a 1e game to experience that sort of play again, and led to my decision to take up finishing an old 1e writing project that has patiently waited in a file folder these 10 years, now that my schooling is temporarily ended and work has calmed down somewhat.

While wondering how to proceed with finishing the 1e project, it occurred to me that the converse of that realization also applies: there are some things that 4e seems to do more efficiently, at least in this writer’s opinion. The focus of this post is how some 4e elements – especially those related to adventure and encounter design – may make 1e adventure design more effective, largely to explore how my experience with later editions will impact the conclusion of that project. (And 4e fans may be pleased to know that I’ve placed the topic of applying 1e tenets to 4e play on this blog’s internal editorial calendar.)

What 4e design techniques will make for a better 1e adventure? The following come to mind:

1. Breaking an adventure into smaller, easy-to-digest encounters. It is worth mentioning that 1e designers presented this idea in the Dungeon Master’s Design Kit, published by TSR in 1988, although it was never part of the core rules – and the idea certainly never found a home in the mainstream of published adventure design. Rather than move ahead with the 50-room dungeon setting so common in 1e – which often led me to make end-of-session notes about the campaign date and time, everyone’s current hit points and spells remaining so we could pick up where we left off – I think I’ll opt for smaller dungeons – or physically breaking up a larger setting so that game participants will find natural stop/restart points for ending sessions.

2. Be more thorough when describing effects of terrain and its impact on the battlefield, including special terrain and terrain powers. I like how 4e created certain types of fantasic terrain (like Blood Rock, for instance) that have a very clear impact on combat as part of the core rules, and that the general impact of terrain on combat seems to be greater in 4e. The fact that the 4e rules assume miniature use by all players certainly made it easier for 4e designers to magnify the impact of terrain and, while one can’t assume that a given legacy group will be using miniatures, it’s possible to mimic the effect of special terrain without miniatures by extensively describing the layout of the battlefield and the relation between the location of the special terrain and the villain’s forces. Mechanically, this is similar to creating one’s own fantasy flora, but different in that I would be reverse engineering a combat effect and translating it into terrain.

3. Varying monster statistics based upon their perceived combat role. While I don’t think assigning roles to standard 1e monsters in 4e fashion would be appropriate, I do think that making minor adjustments to a standard monster’s armor class, hit dice or equipment can better suit the creature to diferent types of combat, thereby making more interesting combat encounters. While a DM has always had the freedom to do this modification, I think approaching combat encounter design from a 4e minset will result in a distinctly different 1e encounter.

4. Having a 1e-compatible mechanic for 4e-style role-playing skill challenges. Both the 2e nonweapon proficiency system, which offered some abilities that could be measured in skill challenge fashion, and the 2e option to include “story goal” experience point bonuses for completing noncombat objectives would probably form the kernel of this mechanic, although I’m not sure what form this will take yet.

As I progress on the 1e writing project, I’ll be sure to post updates.


9 comments on “Reverse engineering: using 4e adventure design techniques to create a 1e scenario

  1. greywulf says:

    Interesting stuff, I’ll be reading your ongoing thoughts with interest. Every edition of D&D introduced something new to the table and I do think we can bring out the very best of the game by learning from them all.

    • Alric says:

      I agree, Sir, and thank you for your visit. I’m not sure how this is going to take shape yet, but it will mark a stylistic departure for me. The first 2/3 of the project was writeen in the 1990s, and reads very much like a traiditonal 1e module. One reason why I stopped was because I reached a point that I didn’t know how to mechanically make the game work with what I was trying to do. I’m hoping that looking at this through “4e glasses” may provide a new perspective.

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    Even if you don’t change the statistics, thinking about monster roles can help the monsters to think tactically. Most 4e encounters include a section on their usual tactics. The monsters have usually worked together and know the terrain (in some cases, made the terrain). This often helps remind me about odd powers and avoid the dreaded, “Doh! I should have used X two rounds ago.”

    • Alric says:

      I agree. Changing the stats was an idea I had to help the DM and players differentiate between what different opponents are trying to do; of course, I’ll need to playtest to see which way works better.

      Nice hearing from you again, Philo.

  3. […] Athanaeum gave us some ideas on how to “reverse engineer” 4e modules to be more like first edition […]

  4. […] posting continues the line of reasoning from this post on applying mechanics from the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons to first edition adventure […]

  5. Heya! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts!

    Carry on the superb work!

  6. Luella says:

    That’s a qukct-wiited answer to a difficult question

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