Monthly Archives: July 2012

Rebuilding the D&D Adventure Board Games: Encounters

One of the recent game projects I have is consolidating the components from the various D&D Adventure Boardgames (Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, and Legend of Drizzt), into one ‘best of’ set, featuring all the things that are awesomest of each one.

So, the first step is the encounter deck.  I feel the encounter deck has a lot of flavor as to what perils the heroes will run into.  So first, I looked at the various sets and what percentage of the encounter deck corresponded to what kind of card:

Castle Ravenloft: 60 encounter cards

8 Environments (13%)

7 Traps (11%)

15 Attacks (25%)

30 Events (50%)


Wrath of Ashardalon- 53 encounter cards

18 Events (34%)

4 Traps, 3 Hazards (13%)

6 Environments (11%)

8 Curses (15%)

14 Attacks (26%)


Drizzt- 42 cards

19 Events (45%)

9 Attacks (21%)

6 Traps (14%)

8 Curses (19%)


A couple of things noticeable here:

The deck gets smaller each explansion.

Events take up half the deck in Ravenloft, less in Ashardalon, and swing way back up in Drizzt.

Traps and Attacks vary a little bit between sets, but stay pretty close to 12% and 25%.

There are no Curses in Raveloft, and no Environments in Drizzt, and the Curses in Drizzt are lame.


The aggregate totals: 155 encounter cards

Events: 67 (43%)

Attacks 37 (24%)

Traps (and Hazards) 20 (13%)

Environments 14 (9%)

Curses 16 (10%)


My target deck is going to be 50 cards, with the following layout:

Events 19 (38%)

Attacks 12 (24%)

Traps/Hazards 8 (14%)

Environments 6 (12%)

Curses: 5 (10%)



Besieged, Bubbling Cauldron, Cave Fisher’s Lair, Cunning Disguise, Cyrus Belview, Frenzy, Lief Lipsiege, Mists of Terror, Occupied Lair, Overrun, Reinforcements, Revel in Destruction, Rockslide, Thief in the Dark, Treasure Chest, Voice of the Master, Volcanic Explosion, Volcanic Spray x2


About a third of the events straight up damage the hero/heroes. (In this set, that’s Besieged, Mists of Terror, Overrun, Rockslide, Volcanic Explosion, and Volcanic Spray)

About a fifth to a fourth of the events bring more monsters into play. (This is Cave Fisher’s Lair, the hilarious Cunning Disguise, Cyrus Belview, Occupied Lair, and Reinforcements)


I don’t like most of the ones that give benefits (like do this and draw a card), but people seem to have fun with Treasure Chest and Lief Lipsiege, so those go in.

All of the ‘draw a bunch of cards and look for a certain flavor of monster’ ones got nixed.



Animated Armor, Concussive Blast, Earthquake, Gray Ooze, Green Slime, Howling Ghost, Lurker’s Strike, King Tomescu’s Portal, Patrina Velikovna, Phalagar’s Lair, Spellweb, Sulfurous Cloud,


About a third of the attacks target the active hero, and about half target all heroes on that tile. I wanted to keep this ratio.

(Howling Ghost, King Tomescu’s Portal, Lurker’s Strike, and Grey Ooze are the single-target attacks, and two of them involve movement- fun! Animated Armor, Concussive Blast, Green Slime, Phalagar’s Lair, Spellweb and Sulfurous Cloud are the this-tile attacks. Earthquake and Patrina Velikovna are nasty attack-everyone attacks.)



Alarm, Crossbow Turret, Force Trap, Poisoned Dart Trap, Rolling Boulder, Sliding Walls, Volcanic Fault, Whirling Blades

My favorite traps are the ones that do more than just damage. These include ones that move around (Rolling Boulder, Whirling Blades) and ones that move heroes about (Force Trap, Sliding Walls). Crossbow Turret is there because you gotta have one really nasty trap.



Blood Fog, Cackling Skull, Deadly Shadows, Hidden Snipers, Music of the Damned, Surrounded,

The best environments are the ones that encourage people to play differently. Hidden Snipers and Deadly Shadows encourage players to either bunch up or spread out. Cackling Skull makes powers riskier. Blood Fog makes combat deadlier for everyone- it’s just fun. Music of the Damned and Surrounded increase the monster threat level, which means more fighting, which is fun.



A Gap in the Armor, Bad Luck, Bloodlust, Dragon Fear, Wrath of the Enemy.

These all penalize the hero without being overly unfun.


Mark of Lloth just isn’t interesting enough. I’d throw one in the deck, but then it becomes completely boring after triggering.


So, 4th Edition is coming to an end. Fifth Edition is coming up, but no one really knows (not even the designers) what it will actually look like; the design goals seem to be “make everyone happy” and “sell books to everyone,” not necessarily in that order.


Which opens the door for the 4th edition retroclones/heartbreakers.


While 4th edition was the gorilla in the room, there really wasn’t any point to making a crunchy, tactical gamist game. However, since 5th edition is not going to have focused design, that niche is going to be open. And we can take what we’ve learned from 4th edition (which I think is a lot.)


The Best Things About Fourth Edition

*Combat is genuinely fun, and an awesome tactical challenge. The rules fully support this form of play.

*Everyone is awesome. The Role system ensures that everyone has a clearly defined niche to pursue.

*It’s pretty easy on the GM. Encounter budgets are extremely helpful; with an expansive enough list of monster the GM can come up with level appropriate challenges on the fly. The fact that monsters and NPCs are not built with the same rules as players makes them easier for the GM to create. (As a GM who ran an NPC-antagonist intensive 3rd edition game, I can’t convey how important this is.)


Worst Things About Fourth Edition

*Too Many Choices in Character Creation. The bloat of powers and feats means that character creation is a time consuming task, even at 1st level, and especially at higher levels. Differentiation between characters is good, however too many choices can make those choices less meaningful (and as the number of powers for each class approaches infinity, the distinction between classes approaches zero). Feat bloat is probably the worst offender here, since some feats are absolutely killer, and others are only small bennies, and this increases the chance of “newbie traps.”

*Too Many Magic Items: Remember when WotC said they didn’t want 4th edition characters to be defined by their gear? High level optimization seems to be all about finding broken gear-feat-power combos. And even if you don’t want to play that way, when making a higher level character, damn do you have a lot of money to figure out how you’re going to spend.

*Too Much Optimization is a Bad Thing. This is the consequence of points one and two. Players who are willing to spend the time to seek out and find these broken combos create characters that are much more effective than those who don’t. And then we lose “Everyone is Awesome.” Optimization is fun, but it can enter brinksmanship levels with the GM, who has to create ever absurder threats to challenge the party (and since we’re in Gamist mode, challenge is absolutely essential.) The harder one optimizes, the harder it is for you to be challenged.

*Combats can drag. During the paragon tier, monster hit points tend to outpace character damage output (which catches up again during the epic tier). I’ve had sessions with combats that took all frigging night (some which were designed to, so those don’t count). Contrast to some low-level sessions where I regularly fit 3 to 4 combats in a single session.

*Some characters don’t have enough choices. Particularly at low level play, a character has two at-wills, an encounter, and a daily. This looked like a lot on paper (especially compared to those 3rd edition characters), but in practice once you use your encounter, you’re choosing between two at wills each turn. And if one of your at-wills is situational, you’re always going to be using the same at-will turn to turn. This is a problem.

*The Skill Challenge system needs work. It’s a solid core, and an innovative idea, but it needs some polish.

Building a Better Fourth:

So, how do we solve these problems?


*Replace Powers with Stunts.

Each character has access to a certain number of Stunts, or effects that can be applied to attacks. (A fighter might have “extra damage,” “mark,” and “push.” A wizard might have “area of effect,” “elemental keyword,” and “slow,” for example.) These Stunts have a point cost attached to them. Want to use a Stunt? Spend the points. How do you get these points? X points per encounter is one way, but if different classes got points in different ways, that’s another means of character differentiation.

*Character Class as Ability Menu
Your character class writeup becomes much tighter. It’s a menu of Stunts and other constant abilities, like playbooks in Apocalypse World. You pick a certain number of Stunts off your Class, and get more as you gain levels. Some classes get certain Stunts at cheaper levels than others, and some don’t get access to certain Stunts at all. Our first level fighter might have had a chance to pick from “slow” and “prone,” but have chosen the ones in the above example. The wizard might have been able to pick “ongoing damage (low),” “forced movement,” or “damaging zone.”


You can have a certain combination of stunts that you have locked in. These stunts have been predefined, given a fancy name, and have a reduced point cost to use. These are your signature moves. Yup, you can get a cost down to 0 with this, making it the equivalent of an at-will.

Characters should have at least 3 Rotes to start, giving them potentially 3 at-will options, and on the fly more expensive combinations.

*Feats as something special.

Feats, if present at all, should do something special. Get rid of all the minor feats. But at the same time, make them rarer.

*Players Choose the Level of Challenge

Taking a page out of Land of Wealth and Peril, Beast Hunters, and Sword of the Skull, players have opportunity to choose their level of challenge- and therefore the level of reward! This is an explicit numerical value, not a nebulous “gee, that area was really tough.”

*Fewer, but Cooler Magic Items

Players do not get as many magic items, and high level characters roll for their items, not purchase them. Your magic items give you a cool flourish, instead of you being defined by your kit.