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A Pen & Paper Perspective

Author: 
Armin Wolff

Or: Things a mod designer might wish to think about before opening the toolset...

 

There are some ups to unemployment. Not many but some :-)… So apart from suing my former employer and spending my severance package I have been in the wonderful situation to have tons of free time at my hands lately. Lots of it has been spent playing Neverwinter Nights modules. Lots of them.

And while being amazed at the quality of some of the community-made campaigns, over time my desk has also developed some nasty bite marks and a deepening indentation, suspiciously similar in form to my forehead…

Over the last couple dozen mods I asked myself repeatedly “What the HELL was the designer thinking?”. Often enough, sadly, this was replaced by “WAS the designer thinking?”. And the answer, occasionally – even in some of the finest mods – was: No.

So I finally had the irresistible urge to write down some pointers, some food for thought, or lets call it “survival tips”. Because, honestly, dear designer community, many of you fine folks would die a painful, slow, agonizing, screaming death when even attempting to be the DM for my pen&paper group… :-)

Don’t expect this article to be unbiased, objective or well balanced. It’s intended as food for thought, as much as a little provocation to a certain faction of gamers and designers. If you can’t cope with some ranting and pretty harsh points made from my blatantly subjective point of view, go read something harmless... :-)

Remember: I’m an old fart (turning 36 this year), a scientist (PhD. in Cell Biology) have been playing since the 80’s and thus I’m arrogant, overbearing and think I know everything (no, worse, of course I DO know everything! :-)).

 

So here’s my thoughts on what to consider in advance, some things to keep in mind, consider, or at least KNOW before designing an adventure. Some ideas to take into account that might improve the quality of the average module by bringing some good old-fashioned pen&paper ROLEplaying feel back into NWN – and kicking out some of the Super Mario silliness…

 

 

THE BASICS

 

The first and foremost reason for creating a module will – and should – always be the fun factor. Mostly it is perfectly legitimate – and advisable – to create exactly the kind of module that YOU yourself have always wanted to play.

However (you knew there had to be a however, right? :-)), try to avoid the pitfalls of this. If you want your module to be played – and enjoyed – by as many people as possible, take the time to sit down and reflect about some of the automatisms that many fall prey to:

 

  • Falling in love with your own idea

I’m a biologist, working in research and development. Being a scientist, I have LOTS of first hand-experience with this problem. It is completely natural that this will happen. It’s OK, and its human nature to be enthusiastic about your own theory, your own concepts and ideas. It will motivate you and keep you going. It does, however, mean that you yourself are completely unqualified to be objective about your project.

The way out, in science and module design, is simple: get some objective input as early as possible. Objective usually means, NOT your best friend, co-designer, spouse (or husband). Minor adjustment, made early in the process after some neutral input, can lead to a HUGE improvement.

 

  • Project Blindness

Also something that comes completely natural. Plain and simple, there are things that you cannot see about your own baby, because you know to much about it. There’s no way to erase all the knowledge from your brain, even if you try to. But being aware of this problem is always half the way out. Especially when bughunting and playtesting (BALANCING!), know that you are the last person on the planet qualified to do so :-)

Gametesting should always be done by someone who is completely untouched by any knowledge about the module (MUCH more about balancing later…)

 

  • Trying to please everyone

This can be just as much the problem as creating a mod for yourself only. There are simply too many people and too many viewpoints to consider. Opinions vary, as do preferences. My advice is, listen to advice, be open, but stick to your own convictions in the end. If your own points of view develop in the process – all the better :-)

 

 

STORYTELLING

 

In my opinion – and I know I’m not alone with this – storytelling is the heart and soul of roleplaying. In pen & paper the DM’s job is to be the moderator and main storyteller, while all the players contribute their part and make up “the big picture” as they move along. In Computer games, the story needs to be much more set and less flexible. Some may think that makes the story less important. The opposite is the case. A good and interesting story is where everything begins.

The very best RPGs are those where I completely forget that I’m sitting on a computer. This is not achieved by creating maps, placing objects and scripting encounters. It can, however, be ruined by maps and encounters…

Most of the community seems to agree, as almost all of the top rated mods on NWVault are those with truly excellent storylines. Most great mods started with a good story, and most of their authors agree that they spent most of the time scripting dialogue…

So think of the story first, and try to remove as much as possible that deters from it. Endless backtracking, long walks through already explored areas, unmotivated respawning encounters, repetitive chores – OUT WITH IT! :-)

 

If I wanted to do chores I’d hover my floor, clean my windows or wash dishes. When I turn on the comp on which I have NWN installed, I want to be entertained. So, I’d rather have a 4 hour module that is filled with a sense of wonder, continuous suspense and a gripping story that never lets me go to the bathroom, than 20 hours of whacking random (and pointless) encounters, leveling up and collecting items.

 

 

COMMON COURTESY and thinking of your players

 

It’s the minor niceties that often make – or spoil – the first impression. I download some 300 meg of new mods and assorted hackpacks. I unzip them all to my folders, start NWN and try to decide which to try. And what do I still see occasionally? A 13 mb mod with 2 hackpacks “module description not available”…

AAARGH!

Folks, things like these make up less than 5% of the incredible amount of work that goes into creation of modules, so take the bloody time to make the thing user friendly! It’s just a minor inconvenience and at least in my eyes a mod doesn’t get a second chance to make a first impression :-)

 

Things to do when thinking of the intended player:

 

  • documentation

Many modules today contain excellent documentation, way above the necessary. In addition to the common readme some even contain walkthroughs, background stories, pictures, maps etc.

All fine and dandy. But the single most important part: the in game description – yes, the one that pops up when selecting mods from the NWN console – NEEDS to contain all the basic info. Feel free to add 19 pages of background and flavor text, but the headline MUST contain:

Single player or multiplayer (and if multi, how many players suggested)

DM needed / not needed

Suggested level (it also helps, if that is at least somewhat realistic.. :-))

Suggested/required/unsuited class (if any)

Suggested/required/unsuited alignment (if any)

Suggested/required/unsuited race (if any)

Suggested/required/unsuited gender (if any)

THEN feel free to add any additional info you may deem necessary, interesting or even amusing…

Infos like “Story is geared toward a single, male, melee character. All other options possible, but mages/sorcerers will have to rest often and a bard/rogue might wish to start 2-3 levels higher” will collect bonus points in my eyes and increase my confidence in the designer 10fold… :-)

 

  • ease-of-use

There are tons of things to make the playing experience more smooth and enjoyable. A few of the points I have come to expect:

 

Game time: there are really only 2 ways to handle this in my entirely unhumble opinion. One is unrealistic but practical, the other requires some extra work. Simply put, IF there is anything in your mod that depends on in game time (like shops only open during the day or NPCs only being at a specific place during certain hours) then there MUST be a way for the player to pass time easily. End of discussion. There is NOTHING more frustrating (and infuriating!) than having to wait 28 very REAL minutes for some bloody shop to open. Good examples: the mod “Cormyrean Nights” where the option “Wait until it opens” pops up in a dialogue window every time you click on a closed shop, or “Arandie”, where you can use a bedroll to pass time. So IF you go through all the work of scripting time-dependent things, there’s no way around this bit of extra effort.

 

Travel Shortcuts: Same as for game time – if I want boring downtime I can go get an Evercamp account :-). Try to include as many ways as possible to shorten unnecessary backtracking. Possible ways: multiple choice area transitions (like in The Lord of Blight trilogy IIRC), dialogue-triggered transport systems (Morrowind style, like Cormyrean Nights again), items that trigger area transitions to already visited places (the map in the “Orcs” adventures being a good example). Basically all this just serves the same function as telling the DM “Ok, we head back to town and plan our next moves…”

 

Speed over style or eye candy: One of my main quibbles in this area: shopkeepers that don’t just stand around in that boring way but do something nifty and in-character… like working the forge. AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!! STOP IT! Stop it! Stopitstopitstopit %$&§?*’#

THINK about what the average player in the average module has to do. I have to visit the standard stores dozens of time, doing boring everyday micromanagement. Iwanttogetoveritforheavenssake!

Whats the bloody point in having to click the stubborn bugger 3 dozen times just in order to do some everyday shopping? I have been known to blast the #*$%§& to smithereens, then massacre the entire town for going hostile and loading another module in extreme cases.

Reduce. Every. Action. That. Is. Not. Immediately. Important. To. Telling. The. Story. To. Its. Absolute. Minimum. PERIOD

 

Ease of use over realism: Unless absolutely required by the story, make ALL standard items freely and easily available as close to the action as possible. Make excess loot sellable anywhere unless absolutely necessary for the story. Again, the game is about the story, NOT about running errands and doing chores. Things like healing kits, torches, AMMUNITION, crafting components, and even the standard armor and weapon types should NOT require more than a few moments to come by, unless part of some quest. The same for selling. BLAST stupid realism! I want to get on with the durn adventure and not search minutes for a store that buys weapons! And for heavens’ sake, include a bag of holding somewhere ASAP, there are people who play characters with strength of 8 you know :-) Also, don’t flag every second item as “stolen” or if you do, at least don’t forget to let at least the damn thieves guild storekeeper buy stolen items… (I really don’t know how often I ran across this joke… a shopkeeper in some designated thieves guild area that won’t buy stolen goods… OUCH!)

 

Length of day: A minor quibble but nevertheless a little suggestion: in many modules I have the feeling that I spent most of the time in the dark. Frankly, the NWN graphic engine looks MUCH better in daylight. The sense of exploration and sightseeing (not to mention, enjoying the areas YOU put together) is much improved if I can SEE beyond my torch/light radius. So unless explicitly used to set a certain mood, give the player some light :-)

I personally hate it when the sun rises at 8 and sets at 1800. 8 hours of dark per day is more than enough IMO…

 

  • minimize file size

At least try to. I luckily have DSL connection and a huge hard disk, however, my NWN folder already has reached 9 GB! Many hack packs IMO achieve very little for a HUGE increase in download time. And yes, I know a lot of people who have to do with a modem still :-) Think twice, if some eye candy is REALLY necessary or if the difference something makes is really THAT huge that it justifies excluding many modem users from your potential players…

Also, on another page, hack packs seem to increase crashes and bugs exponentially, especially after a new patch or two have gone by.

 

  • Whats wrong with WinZip?

A simple matter of fact: Everyone has WinZip. Not everyone has WinRAR (I do but only because of NWN in fact :-)). As WinRAR offers the option to create a standard .zip file, why not stay with the option that will work for everyone? Yes, I KNOW that WinRAR is the better technology. But simple realism says: Winzip users: 100% (at least among WinXP folks), WinRaR user: way below 100%. No point making some matter of faith out of it…

 

 

GENERAL DESIGN DECISIONS

 

Once the main story stands and before putting together really starts there are many choices to make that will influence the entire mod. What rules to use, how to deal with death and respawning, which rest rules and other options.

Here are my random unwanted 2 cents to some of these options:

 

- resting restrictions

As a DM in my pen & paper campaigns I vigorously enforce a restriction on where – and when – it is possible to rest. Resting in the middle of a dungeon will most likely get you killed, retreating from it and resting elsewhere will see you in dire trouble if you return – the enemy will have prepared as well naturally.

In NWN modules I have seen very few where I would not have removed the resting restriction without further ado. When in doubt, don’t use them.

Simply put, the NWN campaign way of being able to rest anywhere anytime might be ridiculous, but imposing any type of restriction needs a lot of thought and experience on the DM’s (=designer’s) part. Being blunt, most designers I have sampled don’t do it well :-)

There’s a vicious circle in place that is not easy to overcome. When resting is unrestricted, there’s a certain type of player that WILL rest after every second step. And the same type of player (lets call him CRPG-only-powergamer, or, simply “geek” :-)) will then complain that the game is WAY too easy. So the encounter difficulty slowly migrates to the point, where it’s completely INSANE – unless you rest every second step. The way out is NOT to put in place some artificial rest restriction and let the encounter balance the way it was…

Things to remember when considering the how and if of rest restriction:

Resting restrictions are unbalancing classes. Fighters and Rogues need no rest at all. A potion of heal restores them to full capacity. Rangers / Paladins / Barbarians / Monks only need to replenish some limited-use-per-day abilities. Without those they still function pretty well. Clerics (can fight and wear heavy armor) and bards (still has stealth and limited fighting capacity) that run out of spells are still marginally functional. Druids and especially sorcerers and wizards that are out of spells (or limited use abilities) are completely out of order. Period…

Resting restrictions are easily overcome by sheer tedium. Just came back from that – again. Played the “Devotion to Darkness” trilogy. Story is great, fights are completely broken. Either tedious and ridiculously easy, or – if you just don’t want to do the tedious chores – insanely difficult bordering undoable. Large “No Rest” zones, battles that require a full contingent of spells and abilities – every single one, all 3 steps. So whats there to do after a fight that drained all your capacities? Simply walk back through 3 areas, rest and return (yawn!). Or with time restriction, just wait the blasted 8 (or more!) minutes (double yawn!).

Nothing stops players from restricting rest. If you WANT to restrict resting as a player, no one will force you to hit that “r” button… :-)

In the end, putting in any kind of rest restriction is no matter of simply implementing the script. It means to change the area design, encounter difficulty and encounter number AND the entire area layout and style to match. In pen & paper it’s the backbone for strategy and tactics. Trying to do a given area or mission with one set of your party’s resources. Knowing when to use and when to save your spells and how and when to use them to best effect. If you really think you’re up to it – think again. And is you’re still convinced THEN feel free to try. I haven't seen many who managed :-)

The gold standard IMO is still – after over 10 years – held by the old “Dark Sun” games from SSI. Resting was restricted to certain places with a fireplace symbol. Reaching those was always possible – but sometimes bloody tough – with one set of party resources. The problem in NWN is, you don’t have a standard party that you can plan for. From a single bard to a party with all main jobs covered – catering for all possibilities is hard to balance. The NWN game designers chose to leave rest restrictions out for that reason I think. They had a point…

 

  • respawning monsters

Hate them. Plain and simple. Nothing is more boring and frustrating than having to do a job that you already did AGAIN. Don’t know how many of you have any military experience. But I had to do my basic conscription time back in 1988. And each and every time I have to whack though endless repetitions of random respawning pointless critters I see some stupid drill sergeant's sadistic grin telling me “once more!” just because he can.

It’s generally uninteresting, time-consuming and tedious. Like doing laundry. If I wanted that I’d pay 20 bucks a month to be Chewbacca’s hairdresser in Star Wars Galaxies… :-)

Please keep respawning to an absolute, story-related minimum. It’s Ok to drive home an important point like “this area is being overrun by enemies, I have to hurry to point XY or will certainly by overwhelmed”, Apart from that, please, come up with something interesting :-)

 

  • hardcore rules

There are various sets, with various degree of sense and sensibility…

Personally I wouldn’t bother too much, as IMO the actual difficulty they make doesn’t really justify the extra effort :-)

The one thing I’d like to see implemented more often is the hardcore hitpoint recovery on rest. THAT would go a long way against the resting imbalance for fighters or barbs… Rulebook recovery is 1 hp per day per level. A 200+ hp barbarian recovering ALL hitpoints by 20 seconds of rest is a bit… silly.

 

  • item level restriction

Why bother? I always have this turned off. It’s silly, it’s artificial and if someone want to spoil his/her own enjoyment by bringing in uberequipment – not your problem. BUT: having a look at an items level restriction might help to decide where to put it (or not)

 

  • ROLEplaying possibilities

Roleplaying is about making choices. And while this is probably the most work-intensive thing to script, try to reflect that in your modules. Players like to have options to choose from, and players HATE being forced into a certain way to act by the DM (trust me, I know :-)).

So try to add some options. In most cases they can be pretty cosmetic in fact. Illusion of free will work surprisingly well. With my Tuesdays nighters I have a pretty good idea what buttons to push. With a NWN module, you don’t have that luxury. But try. The players involvement with your mod will improve to no end.

Be cautious, however, when dabbling with the player character. Especially with alignment changes. Getting told “You are now evil” because my summon attacked some random hostile passerby (probably turned hostile for some dubious reason, too) before I could stop it is a show stopper for me. Try to separate actions from reasons. Helping people is not automatically good, and a slightly sarcastic dialogue choice should not push you 10 points toward evil :-)

 

  • Realistic” shops

Get rid of those. End of story. There is a VERY good reason why shops are ridiculously overstocked, bordering on silly in the official campaigns. The beauty of NWN is that you can experiment with character builds. No,limits, no time constraints. In pen&paper I’ll play my character for months to come, and I will be stuck with my choices for the whole time. On the computer, I can try something new every day. I WILL try something new (sometimes something silly and quite out of the ordinary and especially out of the cookie-cutter munchkin way) every day. YOU (the designer) have NO way to know what I and others will come up with. So unless you make a mod for a specific class or specific character build, the point of the shop is to allow those out-of-the-much-traveled-path characters to sell the useless drops and exchange them for items that THEY can use.

Nothing is more frustrating than having to stop playing a module just because you cannot equip your character. Ever played a Barbarian /Champion of Torm with exotic 2-handed weapon focus that couldn’t find a single set of decent medium armor, NO magical weapon to fit his style and NOTHING else to counter the insanely overpowered enemies that were perfectly equipped and beat him like a redheaded stepchild?

So, realism to hell, even the most remote backwater shop in a stinkin’ trailer park at the edge of nowhere NEEDS to offer a complete selection of all possible items up to the level required to beat the encounters. Especially if you include critters immune to everything but +x weapons, then there absolutely MUST be a weapon of +x enchantment available from EVERY type that players can choose. You know how it feels having spent FOUR damn feats (exotic weapon proficiency, weapon focus, weapon specialization and improved critical) AND the weapon of choice ability and THEN having to do half of the module with a stinking +2 mace just because the designer j***ed off on realism? #+&§%$

 

  • Freeform” adventures

Total freedom of choice what to do and where to go next does not agree well with a very strict level system like D&D. There’s simply areas where a level 3 character CANNOT go. Finding out by having to reload is pretty frustrating and a real storykiller. Be careful about making the game TOO free. A few electric cattle prods and some mild nudging the players into one direction or the other can go a long way. In most cases, illusion of free will works just as well, if not better, than total liberty.

 

  • Thinking of the „lesser“ classes

They fill me with joy and thankfulness, the rare occasions on which, in a module NOT designed for a specific class, I discover a little extra chance to make some gold with a rogue or some extra exp with a bard. When there's a quest especially for a druid or ranger – or even as little as an extra dialog option or a shop offering some specific items.

Many of the mods that have completely silly fights would be doable with a rogue for instance, if there was some chance for the poor AC- and Attack-bonus-challenged scoundrel to make some extra money to spend on scrolls, wands and trap kits... Usually THAT'S the thing that balances the classes in p&p. But in NWN the rogue needs to spend just as much money for weapons and armor (often more, as a full plate +1 is relatively cheap but good armor for rogues starts at +3, also the rogue needs the best weapon he can get to offset the lower strength and attack bonus...) and generally has NO way to earn more than the other classes. Pick pocket usually yields 3 gp and burglary isn't supposed to happen...

Even the chance to gain some exp by opening locks, disarming traps or in fact ANY other way than doing quest and killing things would be more than welcome. The fighter ALWAY collects all the exp. He can „clean house“ in every dungeon, as he doesn't need rest or resources and most modules are badly balanced in favour of the tank. Each time the rogue or bard or magic user needs to skip an encounter by stealth or magic he/she loses exp and gets drawn into the vicious circle. Less XP than the fighter, lower level later, even LESS suited for the insane encounters...

A simple dialogue choice based on class or alignment brings a smile to my eyes, the ability to solve some problems by less-used skills like persuade, bluff, intimidate etc. would be a real blessing. Remember the underdog :-)

 

 

BALANCING

 

Now we come to my favorite quibble, and the thing that most often goes terribly wrong… be prepared for some ranting :-)

A few things first: I do NOT design NWN modules. I hate working on computers. I love playing on computers, and use them as a tool for writing, creating graphs or doing my science (while employed anyway :-)). But I refuse to learn a programming language or anything that comes close. Computer logic gives me the creeps.

I design campaigns for pen & paper. That means I have to present what I have done at a table, with 6 adult human males (sadly, no women atm) within easy reach of fist, foot and heavy objects. They are more than me. Some might be stronger. Almost all are faster. So when designing an encounter for their beloved characters, first thing to consider is “will I get away with this”? :-)

This would be one hell of a well-working principle for all of your design choices, when making NWN modules. Think “If I would present this type of fight to a group of human players, would I survive it?”

If you’d for instance present a level 12 paladin as an opponent (final battle or anything) for a single supposedly level 7 character (any class it said in the mod description), at our table that would put you inside a large bag. Together with the family cat. A big one. Starved. Mad as hell. With freshly sharpened claws…

And, despite the fact that I LOVED the wacky humor and intelligent storyline of the penultima series, had the author been within my arm’s reach during me playing the spellcasting-penguin-infested caves In PR 3 (4?) then today I’d have a Steven-Gagne’s-head-shaped dent in my desk. A deep one…

Don’t get me wrong. I like my games difficult. And if you think I don’t like a challenge: I’m the complete nut who played a Beyond Naked Mage to level 50 in Diablo 1 (if you don’t know Diablo and what a BNM is, you don’t want to ask :-))

But what most people designing NWN mods seem not to grasp is the difference between “difficult” and “tiresome” or between “challenging” and “tedious”.

 

Most encounters in NWN mods I criticize here are NOT difficult, and NOT challenging. They are simply completely out of bounds, silly, and only doable by massive AI exploits and creating the ultimate boring munchkin characters.

A difficult encounter in a roleplaying game is one that needs good planning, strategy & tactics and some thinking on how to combine your assets to best effect to overcome. Things that do NOT constitute strategy and tactics are:

  • Reloading a saved game

  • Respawning

  • Making a saving throw (or, several in a row that is)

  • Rolling 3 critical hits in a row

  • Using better equipment

  • Leveling up

  • Use of “positional advantage” (i.e. exploiting the artificial idiot)

  • Divine knowledge (from the 20th lvl spell “load saved game”)

  • Building your character in ONE specific way (MinMax Munchkin)

 

Seriously, a fight that CANNOT be done without reloading at least once is COMPLETELY broken. As a rule of thumb, EVERY module should theoretically be possible to be done without a single reload or respawn. Death of the character should be the consequence of either extreme bad luck (a single critical hit rolled by a enemy or a single failed saving throw is NOT extreme bad luck!), major error by the player (fleeing into unexplored territory, attacking an enemy you were not ready for when there was AMPLE warning in advance, unnecessarily pressing on when low on hitpoints etc.) or a genuinely unforeseeable series of events. This will happen often enough. No need to force 2 dozen more reloads by mathematically highly improbable encounters.

 

Reloading/respawning KILLS the story. And remembering the story is the heart and soul of roleplaying – is there really any redeeming point to “and then I managed to overcome the evil overlord by reloading 7 times until I got his goons stuck behind a wall and scored several lucky hits in a row after he finally failed his saving throw…”

Any of you ever read “And Conan charged the hordes of Tulsa Doom, felling many and wreaking havoc, when an unlucky hit with a large axe killed him. Conan reloads and this time dispatches the axe-wielder with a mighty blow of his sword. Then, however, a failed saving throw kills the hero yet again and Conan reloads, attacking the enemy spellcaster is his next attempt and hoping he will fail his concentration check despite all probability…”

Or “After Aragorn stumbled into the Nazguls’ ambush and got killed easily, he reloaded a saved game, this time circumventing the witch king’s forces and taking them by surprise…”

Honestly, would ANYONE read such a bullsh*t?

Then why design it?

 

Things to consider and remember, from the perspective of over a decade as a player and DM in pen & paper roleplaying:

 

There’s no way to save yourselves from some mathematics

Sorry folks, but at it’s core, any roleplaying system is in fact, nothing but a mathematical simulation. A model that predicts the outcome of imaginary actions based on numerical values and very basic probability calculations. The dice bring in the random elements and the stats determine the probability distributions. No matter how much you hate maths (I certainly do, but hey, a biologist can’t dodge it :-)), if you don’t want to bother doing some very basic number crunching then face it – you’re unsuited for designing RPG modules.

Luckily, D&D is an enormously EASY system for number crunching. The D20 has the simplest possible probability distribution, a straight line with every number exactly 1/20 (5%) likely to come up. Nothing compared to the bell curve distribution that governs GURPS or the nonlinear multifactorial nightmare that is Storyteller (Vampire etc.). 90% of the calculations necessary can be done with your bloody fingers, so there’s no damn excuse for not doing it! :-)

 

  • calculate some averages and write them down for reference:

It really helps to have some quick numbers to fall back to. Like: what attack bonus will an average lvl x character have? Be realistic.

Example: average level 5 fighter. Base attack 5, str bonus +3, +1 from weapon, +1 from combat feat = +10. Chance to hit AC 20: 55%; chance to hit AC15: 80%. Misses AC 12 and below only on a 1 and hits AC 30 and above only on a natural 20.

Alternatively for the same char: average will save bonus: + 1 base, +0 wisdom, +0 racial = +1. Chance to make a save vs. DC 14: 40%. Chance to make save against DC 16 (3rd level spell from average equal level spellcaster): only 30%. Chance to save against DC 18 (4th level spell from major villain 2 levels higher): lousy 20%. One in FIVE attempts…

 

  • look at the bloody tables!

There’s so much tables around for reference, USE it for Torm’s sake (enter deity of choice before :-)). Check what the numbers are for other character class, other level, other races. The info is all there!

To pick up the above example: Can you use an enemy with AC 20 against a level 5 character? Answer is, after looking at some tables: NO. Unless the char is an above average fighter. The average fighter only hits slightly more than with every other attack. The average rogue’s chance to hit drops to 45% from base attack alone. Probably to 35% or less from lower strength and to 30% from missing combat feat.

However, the average monk/cleric/druids probability to make the above saves will be 65% against DC 14, 55% against DC 16 and still 45% against DC18…

 

  • draw the conclusions!

Above example: In a multiplayer game, I can have ONE enemy with AC20 against my level 5 group. The above average fighter can handle that. The rest of the encounter should have lower AC, so the bard/rogue, multiclass ranger or whatever other chars with not-so-perfect attack bonus have something valuable to do. I can have ONE spellcaster throw a disabling spell at 4-6 characters, chances are good that 2 or 3 will make their saves and be able to aid those that didn’t or handle the enemies.

In a single player module, none of that. Building an enemy to be tough for the ideal fighter means ALL other characters that depend on physical damage are screwed. Building an enemy so that even those with high saves will not be able to ignore him will kill those with weak saves. You WILL have to find other ways to make a fight difficult than by numbers. Numbers are cheap anyway. Making an enemy impossible by the sheer numbers is a matter of some mouse clicks (or some scratching of the pencil). The easiest thing possible for you as the DM. Other ways require thought.

 

  • learn how probabilities add up!

It’s baffling how little most die-hard roleplayers know about how even the most basic statistical math works.

Trivia: If the average lvl 5 fighter from above, in single player, enters a room with 3 lvl 3 clerics, and each of them throws a hold person spell at him (DC 14), what are his chances to survive (as being held is pretty much a death sentence in SP)?

If you can’t calculate – guess. Then read on.

The char has a 40% chance to make the will save. As only ONE failed save means death, all 3 MUST succeed. In this case, all 3 checks need to be successes, so the probability for a success needs to be multiplied three times.

0.4 x 0.4 x 0.4 = 0.064

There is only a 6.4% chance that the char will live. About one in SIXTEEN attempts will work. An average of fifteen reloads to beat the encounter? Blatant AI exploit? Use of divine knowledge (like, returning with a potion of freedom)? None of the solution seem very satisfying. Yet this is the kind of stupidity I encounter every day…

The other way round:

A party of 4 lvl 2 chars runs into a mage casting color spray at them. If a single one makes the save, the party should be OK, as in close combat, the mage stands no chance. He could, however easily kill the unconscious characters if none would stop him.

How does this add up?

Probabilities to make the save (DC 14) are 60% (cleric; +5), 45% (ranger/sorcerer; +2), 30% (barbarian; -1) and 35% (rogue, +0)

AT LEAST one must make the save for the party to live.

Guess or do the math again…

If your answer is 170%, then go stand in a corner and never design anything for an RPG again :-) (this is the most common mistake made in statistics I guess. Probabilities do NOT simply add up)

The correct way to do the math is to calculate the opposite of your success definition (the statistic opposite of “at least one success” is “no success at all”) and subtract that from 1 or 100%.

So, whats the probability that NO ONE makes the save? Take the probabilities that the chars fail (their chance for success subtracted from 100%) and multiply them:

0.4 x 0.55 x 0.7 x 0.65 = 0.1001

1 – 0.1001 = 0.8999

Probability that the party lives is 89.99%

Sounds pretty OK, HOWEVER there is a very REAL 10% chance, that the simple, silly level 1 color spray will actually finish the party. I’ve seen MUCH stranger things happen, once the dice start rolling. But that’s the spectacular bad luck that in cRPGs the save game spell is for. :-)

 

Consider the math carefully, especially when including a “save or die” situation. In single player there are a TON of “save or die” situations… (more about that later).

 

When you know the math, apply some common sense:

There’s a TON of examples where common sense failed miserably, even in the official content. I can only provide some examples, in no particular order, for you to get a feeling for what I mean:

 

  • the standard Orc is NO enemy for low level chars!

STR 15 (+2), great axe (1d12), base attack 1. Average damage: 9.5(!!).

This average damage KILLS an average level 1 sorcerer, wizard, rogue and bard. Monks, Druids and Clerics with high constitution bonus have a chance to survive the average damage. However, chance to kill an average level 1 fighter, ranger or Paladin (12 hp) in a single hit is still 33% (on a roll of 9, 10, 11 or 12 on d12).

Only a barbarian with 18 or more constitution CANNOT be killed with a single normal hit at level 1.

A critical hit (average damage 28,5) will usually kill all uninjured level 2 characters, most uninjured level 3 characters and many uninjured level 4-6 characters in one blow. Critical hits DO happen.

If you want to use Orcs for level 1 or 2 chars, change their weapon to a rusty scimitar or short sword. Use a club. That’s still dangerous enough for low hp characters.

 

  • the standard goblin should NOT have poison arrows

As an enemy for level 1 characters – again – apply some math. The poison arrow might not do hp damage as written in that stupid text tip, but it DOES lower hitpoints. 1d4 constitution damage costs one average hitpoint per level. The mild poison arrow is thus actually slightly better than a +1 arrow in damage terms. And 1d6+1 that’s 4.5 AVERAGE damage. Kills level 1 sorcerers and wizards, pretty damn dangerous for level 1 bards and rogues. And they are almost impossible to avoid for those low-hp chars, as - unlike against melee attackers - running away won’t help.

 

  • realize that critical hits always work AGAINST players

No matter how enthusiastic players can get about rolling a critical hit, the cold, hard truth is that crits are of little to no use to them, but extremely dangerous FOR them. Looking at them from an objective POV, a crit for a PC only speeds up whats deemed to happen anyway – that the PC wins. The fight might be one round shorter, but that’s it apart from a certain warm and fuzzy feeling :-)

How often is the average enemy attacked? His role is to be in one fight and get killed… But how often is the PC attacked during his/her career? Hundreds and hundreds of times. An enemy is rarely suffering from more than one or two critical hits. A PC suffers them continuously. A crit on the enemy shortens the fight a bit but should NOT turn it around (a fight designed to be won only on extremely lucky die rolls is broken in the first place). A crit on the PC might very well tip the scales. And most important, The PCs win once the LAST enemy dies, the enemy wins once the FIRST PC dies.

That in mind, critical hits work against players anyway. It’s bad style to increase that even more. Especially, since there is almost NOTHING the PC can do against being hit critically, while among monsters it sometimes seems that everyone and their mothers are immune to them…

Keen weapons and improved critical should be the privilege of the PC and very rare, MAJOR villains thus.

 

 

Blatantly obvious things that still seem to be pretty unknown…

 

  • don’t match tanks with tanks

In military terms, this stupid concept died during the late 60’s. During the cold war, in it’s early days, the west (NATO) stubbornly tried to put one tank against every Warsaw Pact tank. Until someone realized the bloody obvious: tanks are NOT the tanks’ natural enemy. Helicopters are, Ground support planes are. Mines and rocket-propelled grenades are.

Strange enough, roleplayers – intelligent and creative people otherwise – seem to be 40 years behind this simple truth. I keep finding enemies in NWN modules that are specifically designed to match a melee fighter with the same. Are you all so spectacular ignorant to think “Oh, dear, oh dear… the AC of that enemy is WAY too low. A well built single class warrior will hit him almost all of the time. And if I don’t give him an insane strength and some hackmaster +12 axe he won’t hit the well armored warrior very often either. And that wouldn’t be a challenge, would it…?”

I have some breaking news for you: For a single class warrior character, IT’S THEIR BLOODY JOB TO HIT THE ENEMY. As well as it’s the full plate wearing, shield-using character’s job NOT TO BE HIT. If you try to make their jobs bloody tough, you’re SCREWING all other character builds automatically. How shall a rogue/bard/melee cleric deal with a character that was built not to be hit by a fighter? How often will a barbarian in medium armor or a ranger in light armor be hit by an enemy that was built to hit the full plate & shield warrior most of the time? Are you nuts?

The natural enemy of the fighter, what makes an encounter hard for him, is NOT another fighter. It’s NOT the enemy that attacks his strengths. It’s the ones attacking his weaknesses. And the weakness of the fighter are: slow speed when in heavy armor, low will and reflex saves, no area effect whatsoever and limited ranged attack capacity.

 

The very same goes for the other classes. A silly enemy designed to resist the spells of a single minded specialist is just as stupid and frustrating. Yet everybody seems to design them with only one thought in mind: “Hey, I MUST – all ALL costs (up to breaking the rules) - prevent the epic wizard with spell penetration, greater spell penetration, epic spell penetration and epic spell focus from simply magicking my BigBadBoss away…”. Enter completely stupid spell resistance and beyond ridiculous saving throws that absolutely NULLIFY all magic cast by a halfway “normal” character. Get in into your skulls, that you serve as a DM here, and your players, who invested half a dozen feats into it, DESERVE that their feats were not purchased in vain. The spells of a specialist with ALL possible feats invested should generally work MUCH more often than not, just as the single minded fighter should generally HIT more often than not. It’s their bloody job. Adjust your numbers accordingly and think about a better solution for making an encounter interesting. Design enemies for an average character, NOT for the single minded specialist. Actually, don’t design enemies against ALL possible single minded specialists at once.

Making the final enemy “hard” by giving him insane stats and equipment is cheap and boring. Making the encounter interesting by adding some genuine strategic element into it is more interesting and more satisfying AND does not autokill two thirds of possible character builds. Attack the characters weaknesses, do NOT try to nullify their hard-earned strengths.

 

What’s the more interesting fight? A single level 15 BigBadBoss with out-of-bounds AC and resistances, insane strength, killer equipment (that he probably won’t even drop :-)) and artificially blown saving throws (probably even immunities not covered by the rules…), or a sensible, doable level 9 villain, flanked by 2 level 5 rogues, covered by 2 lvl 4 crossbowmen (not easily reachable on foot, for instance) and a lvl 3 cleric that casts hold person?

The latter offers tactical choices for ALL character classes. Problems for all character builds. And needs a solution, not good die rolls :-)

 

  • enemies with healing potions are bad style and extremely unfair

Now what the hell is he talking about NOW? It would be absolutely NO challenge if enemies had no 3 potions of heal on them, no?

A little thing to think about: the villain faces a fighter/weapon master in melee, is very low on hitpoints and tries to drink a pot. WHACK, attack of opportunity with perfect base attack bonus, 22+ strength, weapon focus, weapon specialization, magical monsterbasher +5 etc. Dead. Faster than without the pot in fact, as the PC got a free attack.

Same villain low on hitpoints, because a bard/arcane archer/red dragon disciple used up ALL her limited use powers on him, has been dodging around with her low AC for MINUTES and nearly died 2 times, because with low AC and pretty few hitpoints the minions were hitting her pretty bad. Villain drinks pot, needs to be killed AGAIN. Maybe AGAIN yet…

So why the HELL does the cookie-cutter melee character, once again, get to ditch the villain (in LESS than one sitting in fact), while all poor rogues, bards, sorcerers, clerics, druids etc. need to kill him three times?

Did anyone ever think this through?

Migrate Wizard: 
First Release: 
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Enzo TAJE

Author's logic here is worthy, based on experience of crunching the numbers in PnP adventures, as well as playing the cRPGs. It should be READ & UNDERSTOOD by EVERY module-maker / attempter-of-module-making.  
​Article is also humorous and entertaining. Spent this evening reading this instead of playing a module, and it was well worth the time, as I will remember its arguments far longer for doing so...! 
I will refer to this article (Bookmarked it for that purpose) every time I sit down to improve my modules.

A Must Read... 

Thank You, Armin Wolff, for the time spent in its writing: You made my Month!  Huzzah! 

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Jimdad55

Just come to this. A great read and full of common sense !

I have tried to PM you about using sections of this in an introduction to module building for a computer Games Design class which I'm about to start and about crediting this original article.   However, the message was blocked :(

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