Quick Thoughts on Class Level and Appropriate Difficulty in Encounter Design

Quick Note: I’ll be splitting the Albany Game Day play post into two. I ran two games and each is long enough to be a post of its own! They will be up soon-ish (one of them anyway). Please be patient as I am very, very busy at home and work lately.

Meanwhile: I want to get back into writing the Wumpus delve, which means that I’ve been thinking about encounter design again. That was inevitable anyhow as I just ran two Fourthcore delves back to back last week. I’ve also been thinking (idlely) about the role of class levels in D&D 4E and how I might stream line things a bit if I were to run a home-brew version of D&D.

This post mashes up a few of the chaotic thoughts that have been flitting through my head the last few weeks. I’ve had a hard time finding the concentration to address them fully. If anyone can recommend some reading (or listening, I like podcasts) based on what I wrote, I would love to hear about it.

Fourthcore delves generally* use the base 4th Edition math for encounters, which is skewed slightly to the player’s favor. It uses standard XP budgets, defenses, attack bonuses, and damage expressions. (* @SaveVersusDeath corrects, “@StephenChast While it’s true I use the core math when I can, it’s worth correcting that I play fast and loose with XP budget and damage.”) In my opinion, the perceived difficulty of Fourthcore doesn’t come from the math, it comes from the following:

  • There is a notion of the appropriateness of certain effects as consequences for failed saves, failed checks, or as the result of a hit. This varies for different tiers of play and the general idea is that Fourthcore’s penalties are too harsh and are anti-player.
  • The difficulty of the game outside of encounters. My impression is that puzzles, riddles, and the need to pay close attention to dropped hints are somehow out of vogue since the advent of 3rd edition, perhaps as a result of the shift in how skills are handled.

I may be wrong. I don’t exactly hang out in forums digging this stuff up.

There are certain things that you apparently shouldn’t do at first level, that seem to become acceptable once the players gain access to the means to circumvent the penalties of failure. It certainly doesn’t have to be that way if I and my players don’t want it to be.

For me, class levels are no longer important for the incremental improvements in the character’s statistics. The gap between different PC’s attack bonuses, defenses, and hit points have never been narrower. Encounter design can be scaled to a character level within such a degree that it’s not the actual levels that matter, but the difference between them. In that manner, Wrath of Ashardalon and it’s sister-games measure the difficulty of all the challenges against a level 1 character and it works.

So all that class levels are necessary for are at the moment are:

  •  To measure out the number of character options.
  •  To provide a context for scaling the math during encounter design.

My thought is that, going by the numbers alone, you can design any sort of encounter you like for 1st level characters so long as the math is appropriate. Certainly, clearing out a kobold nest doesn’t carry the same risk as facing a marauding dragon but, I think, that both are appropriate goals for low-level characters if that’s what the players want to do. Because it is so easy to scale the math accordingly, players could set out to defeat a balor for all I that I care. Just give me 10 minutes to adjust the numbers and make a reality check on the non-numerical options–then we’re good to go!

As I resume writing my own adventure, my approach is pretty much going to be this. I’m going to try to envision the encounters that I want to see, regardless of the intended level of the adventure. I will include as few or many complications as I am comfortable running at once and I will include what I feel to be appropriate consequences for failure. I will only worry about the math after the encounter ‘feels right’ and even then, probably not until I’m ready to run the event. The result may not be Fourthcore and may not follow the party line on encounter design, but I’m willing to bet that the result will be engaging and fun to play none-the-less.


~ by Hunter Rose on September 9, 2011.

2 Responses to “Quick Thoughts on Class Level and Appropriate Difficulty in Encounter Design”

  1. You’re definitely on a track I approve of: never let the limitations of the games rules (both those expkicit and implied) get in the way of you telling your awesome story.

    For my own game, I was *this* close to revising our House Rules so that all the crunch behind levelling (bonuses to hit, HP, defenses, skills) were thrown away.

    Essentially, the characters at 10th level are identical to those at 1st level, with the exception of picking up more variety of attacks. Monsters, thus, are ALL between 1st and 5th level in terms of game math. I relented on this approach ONLY because I was already being fiddly with House Rules and I didn’t think some of the players would be able to keep up.

    • I nearly suggesting just throwing out that crunch but I know that some powers and magic items have been balanced against the increasing HP of monsters as you go up in level. You might need to do a few re-writes as you go to bring the PC’s damage output back in line.

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