Saturday, April 14, 2012

D&D Encounter Whiteboxing!

Greetings.  I’ve been busy testing away at Microsoft Game Studios for almost a year now.  With my contract soon coming to a close I’ve started up the job hunt in full force.  I’ve been feeling the need to do some more personal work in various 3D programs to help round out my portfolio.  Therefore, to start off, I plan to do some white-boxing of a few encounters I recently ran for a D&D group as a DM.

I’ll give you some back-story on the campaign first.  The campaign was short and sweet, meant to be a self-contained module that could serve as a branching off point for future sessions if the players were enjoying themselves.  Our group ran through the campaign in 3 nights, but more experienced D&D groups could probably burn through it in 2 nights.  The campaign was run in 3.5 rule-set  with 4 level  7 player characters. 
I focused pretty heavily on creating some interesting tactical battles in the environments without making it seem like the environments were crafted for this purpose.  The majority of the campaign took place in an abandoned castle and church, and I didn’t want the level designs to feel crafted.  I wanted encounter layout to feel natural in the setting, yet still provide interesting combat choices.

With that said I’ll be working on white-boxing each encounter space, and I will do some storytelling  of how my particular group tackled each encounter, accompanied by an analysis of whether the encounter worked as intended or not.  Without further ado, I give you the first encounter!  This encounter had very little actual combat, so the encounter space was very simple as you can see from the images.  However, below is the whole set up for my campaign with some design notes on why I started things off the way I did.
Encounter 1: Getting the Band Together : Forest Clearing

Every D&D campaign begins with the issue of: “How do the players meet each other and what hooks them in such a way that they decide to work together toward a common goal?”  I kept things fairly simple yet mysterious in my session.  I gave each player a copy of a letter, signed by an anonymous writer, summoning them to the edge of a forest at midnight on a certain date.

Once our players gathered at the forest and made awkward introductions, a small nonthreatening ball of light approaches them coming from the forest.  It stops by the group, pauses, and then begins to float back into the forest.  Naturally the players follow to investigate, though some are wary of a trap.  The light always travels at a decent pace, waiting for the group if need be.

Design Note: I used this part of the campaign to gauge my players.  Are they heavy role-players?  Will they make elaborate introductions to the other players?  Who is curious in nature and follows the light?  Who is suspicious in nature and prepares for a trap?

The light eventually leads them into the center of a simple yet large forest clearing, and then winks out.  The players are left puzzled for a bit.  Why are they here?  What’s going on?

Design Note:  Naturally at this point the suspicious players, or sometimes the more seasoned D&D players, suspect a trap.  They’re exposed in the middle of a clearing, at night, with miles of forest around them on all sides.  As a DM, I get to see which players go on high alert, which players take charge about what to do next, and which players barely have a care in the world and decide to just sit about.

Before the players take any serious action they start to hear heavy thuds and crashing in the distance.  The ground begins to shake with each thud as it gets closer and closer.  Not sure what is about to happen, some players hide, others draw weapons.  Then, giving the players a bit of comical shock, I had a naked gnome burst into the clearing screaming for his life!  The gnome sprints through the clearing screaming at everyone to run or they’ll die!  Meanwhile the thundering gets dangerously closer and closer.

Design Note:  This is a “fight or flee” moment against unknown odds for the players.  Something is chasing the gnome, but they don't know what.  The DM gets to see who stands their ground and who does not.  Does the group act as one, or do they split up in an emergency.  All of this is useful info for the DM later in the campaign.

My group immediately split.  Two ran with the gnome and two stood their ground in the clearing.  The gnome, seeing that only two had followed him, stops and insists everyone run back to save the two players in the clearing or none of them stand a chance!  Thus everyone ends up back at the clearing just as an enormous giant emerges on the other side, trees snapping under it like twigs. 

I let the players get the first volley of attacks, only to make it quite clear that their weapons are useless against this foe.  The giant laughs at their attacks.  In return the giant nearly kills the team’s main fighter with one hammer swing!  But wait!  The gnome rushes in and begins casting multiple spells, as protective shields spring up, and magical missiles fly from every finger into the giant's chest.  The naked gnome is not what he seems!

The players rally around the gnome and launch everything they have at the giant!  Yet still the attacks only cause the giant to stumble a step back… and the gnome begins to show signs of fatigue.  The players hear more thundering to the left and right and soon two more giants burst into the clearing.  The players are now in panic mode.  Chaos ensues as every player sees their teammates get squished, torn apart, or eaten alive in gruesome fashion!

But suddenly the giants shimmer and disappear!  Everyone in the group is alive in one piece, and the naked gnome is suddenly clothed....laughing hysterically rolling on the ground.  The players meet their first NPC, a master illusionist named Jove.  Jove just so happens to be the a master prankster as well.  The players soon find that Jove is the one who sent each of them the letter, summoning them to the forest.

Once the gnome finally regains his composure, and apologizes halfheartedly for the prank, he enlightens the heroes as to why he has brought them together.  He needs them to investigate an abandoned castle and church that rests in this forest.  Jove senses that an old friend’s spirit is not at peace in this castle, an Abbot that ran the church years ago.   Recent reports from travelers or the lack thereof, warn of undead horrors from the castle roaming the woods at night.  The hero’s are tasked with investigating the castle and church, laying the Abbot’s spirit to rest, and ridding the castle of any threats so that trade and travelers may use the forest roads again.  Before leaving to attend more urgent matters, Jove supplies the group with some tools/supplies to fight various undead threats, and a map to the abandoned castle.

Did this encounter work?  For the most part yes.  I ran this encounter very “on the fly” because I was not sure how players would react to what I was throwing at them.  I had to adapt in a few places, notably when the party split up, I had to find a way to get the group back together.  I also was not expecting to see the players attempt to stand their ground once the giant was in view, but they did.  I learned which players enjoyed roleplay, and which wanted to see action.  I learned which players will flee to fight another day, and which will fight to the death.  And the anger they showed at a DM killing off all their characters in the first encounter turned to amusement and laughter when they discovered they had been tricked by a gnome.  This encounter was also very short, sweet, and can be tacked onto the end of a group character creation process, if desired.

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