Lessons from the Tomb of Horrors (Part 1)

A few months ago, after a fun afternoon 4e Delve session, a friend and I were discussing D&D, adventures, and the spectrum of challenges from pure role-play to skill encounters to tactical miniature combat. Ultimately, the infamous Tomb of Horrors came up, I ended up volunteering to DM a crawl through the infamous dungeon. In no time, my friends were assembling a rag tag team of mercenaries and meeting up in my living room, while I cackled from behind my screen as they began to uncover its secrets.

The whole point of the affair, aside from giving people a chance to play one of the most well known dungeons in D&D, was to explore how "old school" adventures played, and add some perspective to my experience of having been weaned on 3rd Edition and onward. Thus, I've been making some notes on things I've observed from running ToH, either in how it compares to "modern" 4e adventures, or just observations about the adventure design itself. I'm going to try and do a post after each session with any points I thought were interesting. I will strive to keep it spoiler-free, but fair warning to anyone who might want to delve the Tomb that parts might end up being ruined by implication.

Anyways, we had our first play session this weekend (which climaxed with the party running head-long into of one of the most infamous traps in the dungeon) -- what follows are some of my observations so far:

Sometimes it's Fun to be Tied Down
Lesson: Plan broader rather than deeper for a session, and stick to your guns; they players will find a way to make it work.

I've always run either wholly custom adventures/encounters, or heavy adaptations various adventures (either 4e, or updates from older editions), and often there's a concern in the back of my mind as to whether what I produced is "balanced", or whether the appearance of imbalance or the DM going out of his way to make things hard is hurting my players fun. Thus, I'm sometimes tempted to change the encounters or dungeon layout on the fly, or buff/debuff some skill check DCs, etc. This is not always the case (and its great when things go as planned) but DMing "reactively" can simultaneously be very difficult, and yet also remove some of the excitement because I am not able to respond to unexpected players actions as well (since I don't have a huge set of alternative consequences planned out).

Running a very fleshed out dungeon, where I'm free from worrying about players dead-ending or getting frustrated because I *know* there's a solution somewhere, is a huge relief in this sense. I don't usually "fake it" as a DM, but having a set if interactions and consequences set in stone really lets me be a lot braver in challenging the players and in doing horrible things to them if they make mistakes in judgment. This also ties into my next point.

Failure is Always an Option
Lesson: Feel free to allow (and in fact, plan on) players to fail, a lot.

This might not seem immediately obvious, but after some thought it makes perfect sense. D&D is really about two things: Characters, and Dice. If players are always expected to succeed at certain challenges (or if the adventure falls apart if they thoroughly fail) then neither of those really matter, and you are just wasting their time with the dice rolls. The tomb gives the player plenty of opportunities to fail -- some of which are damaging, some of which are severely disabling, a few of which are outright deadly, and a bunch that simply mean the players have to keep exploring.

It's very easy as a DM to fall into the trap of "railroading" your players. First, you design a few encounters that are meant to warm your players up. They roll through them because the DCs are laughably low, and everyone just yawns their way through the first half of the dungeon. Your rogue is checking his Facebook, your ranger and cleric are chatting about work, and no one is paying any attention to the Crypt of Ultimate Annoyance you've painstakingly crafted. So, you design a new set of challenges,  enough to make your players sweat but still well within their means. Then, sadly, everything goes wrong -- they miss a door somewhere, can't manage to solve a puzzle you spent hours creating, roll four critical misses in an encounter, and now they're either stuck, lost, or about to die to a rat swarm.

You've got to leave statistical room for failure; however, doing so means that you have to expect they're going to fail eventually. Instead of letting that jam up your session plan ahead -- account for the fact that players might fail a challenge in a specific area, and decide what failure means. Do they dead end? Do they make it through, but with some negative effect? Do they have to complete a second, harder challenge (or combat)?

Two Paths Diverged in a Yellowing Dungeon...
Lesson: Always make sure players have multiple, distinct options.

D&D is nothing if not about choices, the core manifestation of which is the path players choose to take in a dungeon. Tomb of Horrors has several rooms where a few paths seem immediately apparent and where, after a little investigation, even more are revealed. In my game, every fork in the road became a painful and debated decision point, causing everyone to become more invested into the entire experience. What the Tomb does, which is key, is present a variety of distinct options. It's not just that the players have the option of going through doors A, B, and C -- the tomb asks them if they want to climb through the statue in the wall, go through the mysterious glowing portal, or explore one of the two secret passages they found (each with their own sets of ominous markings). Even though mechanically they may just be links between adventure areas, their nature gives each of them a psychology that makes them more or less appealing to a given player's approach to the dungeon.

A Little Menace Goes a Long Way
Lesson: Use various traps, hazards, and encounters to control the pace for a room.

The Tomb has, obviously, a bit of a reputation as what the Germans would call ein Todesfalle -- not the kind of place you want to take casually. In fact, I was rather amused when my players actively refused to enter the very first room without spending about 5 minutes trying to explore it from outside the front door. I'll admit, it's a lot easier to DM when the dungeon does all the work of setting the tone for you. To my players' credit, the first vault did turn out to be a trap-ridden gauntlet (although the dangers were nothing compared to what lay deeper within). However, it's interesting to note that, despite its reputation, the Tomb is not just one long chain of perception checks as the party advances through the dungeon 5ft at a time. In rooms where it wants players to slow down and take a chance to inspect the murals and portals and whatnot, it throws a lot of "lurker" traps. The first blundering step puts the players on their guard, and causes them to pay attention to their environment. It then mixes up the pace, from slow and careful to fast, with either a combat encounter, or a sudden and lethal hazard, or some sort of time/round-based challenge that has the players focus on solving a specific problem rather than searching.

So, like any good game, the Tomb does an excellent job of story telling by varying the pace from room to room. I've found some of the "modern" 4e adventures are a series of combat encounters, strung together by skill challanges and maybe incorporating a puzzle or two. The new edition has been criticized for being a bit too "action movie" oriented and, while I don't know that I agree with that criticism, I do think there's something to be said for older-style adventures and their pacing.

Ur Dungen Haz a Flava
Lesson: Get your players to interact with the environment by having the environment interact with them.

Speaking of traps and hazards, the Tomb also does a good job of getting players to explore and manipulate the world by providing some great flavor descriptions, and then having the features described matter. Anyone can describe a fresco painted on the wall of a hallway, and sure while the gruesome scene of human sacrifice depicted may give the PCs the willies, it be forgotten by the next room unless the players have a reason to remember it. Maybe there is a clue to how to navigate the dungeon hidden in the figures poses that the players can find, or maybe there's a warning about a trap -- or bait to lure the players into one...

At any rate, the Tomb does a good job of making its flavor matter, while at the same time not making it obvious or a one-off trap/feature. There are a lot of repeated themes in the dungeon, and a lot of thought seems to be paid not only to designing interesting rooms, but playing off the psychology of the players based on how they may have arrived at that room. Are they going to be thinking twice about running through that portal/opening that secret door now? Should they be rewarded for bravery, or punished for hubris?

I could probably go on for a little while longer, but I might as well save some ideas and see how they mature when we enter the Tomb's second act. This has been a pretty punishing adventure so far, but I take it as a good sign that my players are already eager about dusting themselves off and diving back into it!


Minions, Minions, Everywhere...

If nothing else, D&D is a game about epic battles in a fantasy setting (of whatever magical flavor and level of grim grit you prefer). When people think of grand fantasy battles, their minds are often filled with visions of ancient red dragons in colossal cavernous lairs chasing the party down, culminating in a duel to the death (and probably a few singed wizards). This is certainly a valid opinion, and indeed some of the best moments in D&D involve nothing more than a single, well-designed monster taking on the whole party inside a single, well-designed area. However, bigger isn't always better, and sometimes killing 32,000 orcs as you defend a hilltop fort is just as empowering and fun as destroying the Ancient Dracolich of Ultimate Evil.

Unfortunately, while D&D has always catered well to the first type of encounter, making the second work well has been a problem. The DM can't just throw dozens of at-level monsters at the players without overwhelming them (or giving them some serious Deus Ex Machina) and due to level scaling mechanics, the can't simply use a horde of under-leveled creatures and expect them to provide any sort of challenge (due to them being unable to actually damage the PC). Fortunately, 4th Edition introduces a fantastic tool to work around cases where the DM wants to increase the body count while still keeping the encounter reasonable.

For those not familiar, minions are a special class of monster in 4e that serve as, essentially, cannon fodder. They are creatures with defenses and damage scaled to a specific level, but with one key weakness: they only have 1 HP, and go down immediately on any direct hit. Because their attack and defense are scaled at-level, they present a credible threat to the players and are still somewhat of a challenge to take down; however, because they go down so quickly, they're very satisfying to kill and not nearly as dangerous as a full monster of their level -- so long as the PCs don't ignore them!

But they die so easily! Why should I bother using minions?

The main strength of minions is that they provide an easy way to add bodies to an encounter without unbalancing it (for easier or harder). The most obvious reason you'd want to do this, as alluded to before, is to throw a horde of them at your players and create an altogether different flavor of encounter. Killing lots of things for their own sake is a perfectly valid reason to use them in an encounter, but there are more practical reasons you might want to add creatures as well.

Minions as Control
Consider your typical 8-by-8 room encounter in 4e. If you have a 5-player party, an even level encounter is going to have between 4 and 6 regular monsters (possibly fewer if you have elites or a solo). Depending on how much interactive/hindering terrain exists in the space, that leaves a lot of open area for the players to run around in that isn't necessarily all that interesting. This gives the players a lot of freedom to move around -- or to just huddle up in a corner and gang up on the monsters one by one. By trading one or two creatures for a half-dozen minions, you've now doubled the number of squares you can block and threaten in the room. Minions can be thought of as dynamic, persistent, movable area effect that can help to control the space and force the players to either divert their attention from the "main" foe, or surrender mobility.

Minions as Damage
If you look at the Monster Manual 3 On a Business Card, you will notice that brutes do a lot of damage and can soak up a lot of attacks, but have low defenses and so are easy to hit. Given enough minions with the right kind of abilities, a horde of minions can be just as dangerous as a single brute, while at the same time challenging the party to deal with it in an entirely different way (see below).

Minions as Defense
All monsters can be used as a "meat shield" to some extent; however, minions are specifically adept at this, because they can occupy a lot more physical space. This is especially powerful when combined with a "damage sharing/target switching" ability, such as the Goblin Hexer's "Lead from the Rear". This synergizes very well with minions used to control space, too.

Giving Different Players a Chance to Shine
Big monsters with a lot of hit points that do big damage may be cool, but they're also a Striker's bread and butter. It's perfectly fine to let the player have their fun and get to roll a dozen damage dice most of the time -- after all, that's probably why they picked the Striker to begin with. Sometimes, however, you need to let the Wizard or Warlord feel like a hero as well, and not just part of the Ranger's entourage. Minions accomplish this because, though they go down in one hit, they still require a full attack, and so can really slow down characters build to put out massive amounts of damage to single targets. Area effects, on the other hand, are tremendously effective against minions, because they go down even if the damage is not that great (so long as the attack hits -- minions take no damage from "half damage on miss" effects).

So how do I use minions effectively?

Aside from the above use cases, here's some specific advice for taking advantage of minion properties:

  • DO gang up on players with minions. Their ability to surround and gain combat advantage via flanking is key to making minions do effective damage.
  • DO use minions to shape the encounter on the fly. Since they're worth so little XP, you can throw two or three into an encounter to, for example, force that cowardly ranged PC out of the doorway and into the fray. Or if the players do rather poorly on a stealth check (for example), feel free to toss 4 at-level minions into the next encounter to boost the difficulty by one and give the feeling that the enemy was "prepared".
  • DO feel free to use just one or two minions to "pad out" an existing encounter. Even if they go down quickly without doing any damage, you've tied up a PC for at least one turn while your main monsters go to work.
  • DON'T clump the minions up too much, too early. Ganging up is useful, but one good AoE attack will wipe out your entire squad prematurely if you're not careful. Sometimes you should just roll with it -- the players deserve to feel like they've gotten the better of the DM on occasion -- but for the most part you want the minions to do at least a little damage or blocking before they all get knocked out.
  • DON'T make it obvious that they're minions! Sometimes this is unavoidable, and players will usually figure it out into the encounter anyways; however, minions should play and feel like threatening monsters that happen to just not be as resilient as the other creatures on the board, not "giant rats in disguise" that should be ignored. Scattering them around with other creatures in the encounter is a good way to make them feel like a natural component.
  • DON'T use a ton of minions on their own (unless your party lacks a lot of at-will AoE attacks). Minions are useful, but 20 of them does not necessarily make for a good encounter -- it will go too slowly, and they generally won't be able to do enough damage on their own to really threaten the players (only so many can surround a PC at one time, after all). If you want to use a lot of minions, consider mixing in a Controller or Artillery creature of some sort -- maybe even an Elite. 

Hopefully these guidelines will help spark some creative minion usages out there! If I have the time, I hope to do a sequel article down the road about designing interesting minions from scratch, and some other miscellaneous minion tricks.


You are in a twisty maze of D&D blogs, all alike...

Welcome to the inaugural post on Half-Damaged, the clever name I came up with for a blog I will occasionally be posting to to collect and share the various bits of wisdom I've accumulated from across the internet about Dungeons & Dragons. I'm currently running a D&D 4th Edition campaign and (despite some minor complaints) generally really like the edition, so the content here is going to focus mostly on DMing a 4e campaign.

Hopefully this blog will contain some real original content at some point (carefully censored for my players benefit, of course!) but for now the main motivation has just been to collect the variety of truly helpful information I've found online over the past year, in the hopes of directing more aspiring DMs to it. Within the next few weeks I will hopefully add some posts on things like House Rules and Skill Challanges, since I have put a lot of thought into those topics that I would love to share and get feedback on.

Everyone roll initiative!