Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pre-Session Self-Assessment

As an educator, I've recently been intrigued by the value of self-assessment. I am constantly analyzing my own approach to task completion, and have noticed a large part of my academic success comes from careful pre-assessment before turning in an assignment. This usually involves rereading the assignment, creating a checklist, and asking myself if I have completed each essential element. I might even add a few general elements not included in the syllabus.

When speaking with DM Jon, whose game I'm still loving, we talked about his frustration that his game isn't turning out as he envisioned it. Jon is trying to create a narrative game involving character development and engagement with the setting. However, the game has been a fairly brutal dungeon crawl so far. Personally, I don't mind such games, as long as it's a known quantity going on.

As Jon talked about his frustrations, my recent reflections on the value of self-assessment came to mind. I talked to Jon about it. I don't know if he's particularly excited about it, but I am. I think that I can really improve the quality of my adventure design and avoid pitfalls that have really damaged previous efforts by carefully pre-assessing my dungeons. Below is my initial effort at a self-assessment rubric for 4th Edition D&D Adventure Design (but it probably would work for most games). Note that encounters include combat encounters, skill challenges, and role-playing scenes.

Adventure Rubric

Each question is graded on a 4 point Likert scale (strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree). Ideally, all answers should be in the affirmative.

1. Each encounter advances the narrative
I have been reading new Dungeon Magazine lately and have been impressed with how tight the Chaos Scar adventures have been. There's a premise, 3-4 encounters, and each encounter advances the story. There's a little introduction with the plot hook, and encounter 1 introduces the enemy, encounters 2-3 introduce complications and twists, encounter 4 wraps up the one session story and hints at the next chapter.

2. Each encounter includes interesting terrain/context
Interesting terrain is the difference between a good encounter and a great one. Don't save interesting terrain for the BBEG, include a little something to play with in each room. Terrain powers in DMG2 are great for codifying what happens when players poke things. If you're playing in person and you're a bit crafty, emulate Gabe of Penny Arcade--I would love to do something like this for my next in person campaign. As Gabe advises elsewhere, make the action economy work with your terrain. Either tell the PCs how it works, or require only a free/minor action for relatively easy knowledge rolls. You might even consider requiring only a minor or move action for one-time only terrain actions to encourage people to use them. No point in putting there if people won't use it.

3. Each encounter includes a consequence for failure
I think too often the consequences are too extreme. In combat, it's usually TPK. In a role-playing encounter, it's usually wasted time. Ideally, it's most interesting if it's somewhere in between. In fact, TPKs probably happen too often anyway. I find they most often happen, as one of my players once said, to nameless thugs in basements (or in Jon's game last night, to nameless BUGS in basements). Often if you consider opponents' motives, they don't have a reason for total slaughter. PCs are heroes, and as such, are founts of information or make for valuable ransom. Against mindless opponents, usually the motivation of the enemy is food. I was eating rotisserie chicken the other day, and watching Animal Planet, and some things occurred to me. First, a pack of wolves doesn't TPK the gazelles, they kill just one. Running away from hungry animals should be easy once the first PC is down. Second, most animals don't WANT more than one body to eat. I'm a size medium human, and a size tiny chicken is nearly all my food for a day. If I killed five chickens, they'd probably go bad before I could eat them, if I was a mindless bug living in the dirt.

4. I have carefully considered other alternatives before including any “grindy” elements (Soldiers, weaken, insubstantial, stun, high level monsters)
It's all been said before.

5. This adventure is likely to lead to a satisfying session with a beginning, middle, and end (3-4 encounters)
See commentary on question 1.

6. I have performed reality checks on each element, insuring that skill checks are not too difficult, and no monster can deal enough damage to outright kill a player under normal circumstances.
It doesn't happen so much anymore in 4e, but it was always awkward to come to the table after rush preparation and realize that a monster was un-hittable, or it could one-shot the party monk. Sir Keegan is, btb, an appropriate encounter for a level 1 party, but is totally capable of taking someone a frail character from full health to truly dead (negative bloodied) in one round.

Well, that's a start. Anyone have other ideas for pre-session self assessment questions, or critique of what I've got?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Making Milestones More Meaningful

Been gone for a long time. Back into the hobby because of my new campaign (the campaign building blog is at

Anyway, I'm currently playing in a 4e campaign run by my friend Jon. We have been having a lot of fun, and he's done a great job so far emphasizing situations with meaningful tactical decisions. However, one of Jon's pet peeves has always been the short adventuring day. In all editions, you run out of hit points and spells within 4 encounters, and go to sleep. 4th Edition addresses this issue somewhat by reducing the amount of daily resources and the rewards/ability for nova-ing. Also, 4th Edition introduced the idea of receiving an action point at every milestone in order to encourage adventurers to go "one more door." Essentially, at any point, you've either just received an action point and are eager to use it, or you can get one by doing another encounter.

However, action points don't seem especially motivating. Once you are low on surges or dailies, you are, and more action points doesn't seem to ever motivate anyone to go further (rightfully so). Personally, I'm not particularly bothered by this. I think that 4th edition parties tend to be great at handling ~4 encounters, and that's really an appropriate number for a short term goal. Any more encounters, and you're talking about the goal taking more than one session to achieve. This is bad for continuity, narrative, and your player's interest. Everyone knows what it's like to hit week three of clearing goblins from the dilapidated moat house.

Jon hasn't spelled out his approach, but has offered additional healing surges at each milestone, and it seems restored dailies (or other options) at every other milestone. This has successfully extended the adventuring day, but it's not much different than saying every other milestone, you take an extended rest as a short rest. It hasn't hurt the game. It simply throws out the largely meaningless "do we have enough surges/dailies to open another door" choice (the answer's usually obvious) and instead has us resting when we need to go back to town anyway.

But, what if we wanted to maintain that "another door" choice and have it be meaningful, either as a permanent house-rule or as part of a special circumstance, how would we do so? Right now, your surges and your dailies drain away throughout the day, but you gain action points. Once someone is out of surges and dailies, action points are not enough to make you consider going on. But, if the milestone rewards were great enough, certain situations might become more ambiguous. What if the controller is out of surges, but others still have enough for one more. What sort of reward is enough to keep the party going?

First, an action point seems to be enough for the first milestone as PCs routinely pass it. After that, here are some options for additional rewards that might keep PCs going. They could either be mixed up or used alone. Note I have not included surges or dailies as a reward, as these are essentially just restoring the resource already lost, and not creating interesting choices.

1. Buff Action Points. +1/2 level damage on attacks made using this action point.
2. Additional Action Point. Gain two Action Points this milestone.
3. New resource, Recovery Point. As a free action, spend a Recovery Point to roll a saving throw against one effect.
4. Bonus Experience. All encounters after this milestone give 10% additional experience (cumulative).
5. Bonus Healing. Regain an additional 5 hp/tier anytime you spend a healing surge.

Just some thoughts. Anyone else have an idea?