Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Making Characters Put in an Honest Day's Work

Next to slow combat, one of the major complaints about 4E is the 15 minute work day. This is the common strategy of entering a dungeon, using your most potent, limited use powers and abilities immediately in the opening encounter, and then retreating back to safety and civilization to rest up to full power. Return to the dungeon the next day, lather, rinse and repeat.

The rules were balanced to have players run through a series of encounters, slowly whittling away at party resources, until the last fights were either much easier or more difficult depending on how the earlier fights went. Players deciding to use extended rests between each encounter shifted the balance to characters with fewer, more powerful resources (ie. strikers) and away from characters with endurance and stamina. (ie. defenders) There were no rules to prevent this abuse, so obviously the designers missed something and the game is completely broken.

Or not.

Not for D&D Only
Somehow, the fact that players in every game in every RPG system can exploit the 15 minute work day has never come up as a flaw with any other game. In Dungeons and Dragons, wizards have been glass cannons since the days of 1st edition. And yet, we never heard stories of how a party of 6 wizards walked through Castle Ravenloft and Tomb of Horrors feeling refreshed and booking spa days throughout their adventuring careers.

No matter what game you play, the optimal strategy for any encounter is to use the best resources available. And if time will allow you to recover those resources, (buy more ammunition, heal wounds, memorize spells, etc.) then the optimal strategy is to take time between each encounter so those resources are always available. Unless the rules somehow prevent you from gaining resources back, this is the best way to progress through the dungeon.

Some people will try and tell you that the rules are just fine and it's up to the DM to put pressure on the players and use the story to force players not to take extended rests. That would be fine, except for the fact that your typical dungeon crawl/mega dungeon doesn't take this into account. There are no time limits on most of these dungeons, no guidance on how to use the story to prevent the 15 minute work day. And there's no advice in any of the Dungeon Master Guides to design anything but a series of encounters that allow players to take advantage of the 15 minute workday.

So the designers did miss something. At least, they didn't give people the advice they needed. 

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Dungeon
The 15 minute work day became a popular criticism in 3rd edition, but was not an issue before that. And that was because of the wandering monster.

In earlier editions, every adventure had a wandering monster table. This was built right into the rules about how adventures were to be built. The wandering monster represented creatures that traveled throughout the dungeon instead of waiting in a keyed encounter room guarding the poorly locked chest. Any party that tried to rest for too long was inevitably interrupted by a 1-2 carrion crawlers, a gelatinous cube, or 2d6 goblins. Trying to take an extended rest anywhere in or around the dungeon would only serve to beat you down.

You could travel back to the nearest village and sleep in an inn where you could lock your door and probably get through an entire night without a dozen giant centipedes swarming you. Except that the nearest town was a few days travel away. Sometimes the path also had wandering monster encounters, so it was a risky option. Most of the time, though, going in and out of town to restock supplies was expensive. Unless you managed to defeat enough enemies to gain some significant treasure, you were losing money with every visit back to the city. I've run into a few parties who stood along the side of the road begging for supplies.
Will work for bat guano and 10' pole.
You had only a few options in this case. First, you clear out a significant portion of the dungeon such that monsters would stay out of your way for a while and let you take a sleep. This occurred after you cleared out an entire area or level of a dungeon. You could find a treasure trove and go back to town to spend you wealth. This was often after facing a major villain or monster, so you deserved that reward. Or you could push yourself until a horde of angry bugbears is chasing half the party while carrying the unconscious forms of the other half of the party. In any of those three situations, the DM would often let the wandering monster table slide since the players had put in an honest day's work and deserved their break.

The Attempted Fix
Since 3rd edition removed the concept of wandering monsters and money problems, the 15 minute work day evolved. 4th edition made an attempt to fix the problem. It started with 4th edition and they've been trying to patch it ever since:
  • healing surges, milestones and encounter powers: The first attempted fix was by trying to allow recovery of some of your less powerful resources as you kept adventuring. This didn't solve this issue; it only made you feel slightly less of a sucker for working longer days.
  • Gamma World: Take away all limited resources. Full hit points in every fight and all your powers available. Fun in many ways, but it means there's no consequences outside of each encounter, and it would be difficult to rebalance the classes to use this system.
  • Encounters series: You can rest when I SAY you can rest. Take the choice away from the players and decide when they are allowed to rest. If you're going to do this, then the concept of a rest is irrelevant. Let the DM tell you what you're allowed to recharge and when because the characters don't get to decide.
  • Castle Ravenloft board game: Though not an RPG, it uses a lot of the same system and tactics as D&D. In this case, you can't take a rest because you lose the game if you leave. Put another way, if you rest before you accomplish your goal, you lose.
  • Lair Assault: Like Castle Ravenloft, this has the same goal- finish the adventure in one shot or lose. As an added twist, the adventure is built to change on each expedition taken.
As time went by, the solution began to be removing the player's ability to choose when and how to rest. For an RPG, removing choice, removing the ability to "say yes", defeats the whole point of playing an RPG.

The Adventure is the Encounter
In the process of removing extended rests, designers began moving toward building adventures instead of a series of linked encounters. The important difference is scope. The goal of an encounter is to defeat the encounter. In this type of adventure, you take on one encounter at a time, independent of one another, until there are no more encounters. If you need to run away from an encounter, you've failed that encounter. You retreat, rest and come back again. Eventually, you work through all the encounters and everything is fine.

The goal of an adventure is to defeat the entire adventure. If you need to run away from the adventure, you've failed the adventure. Failing the adventure might have consequences that means you can't retry. This is the story based approach. If you didn't stop the cult of Orcus from turning your gold dragon ally into a dracolich, then you can't go and give it another shot. However, you are still alive and you can go and try to destroy the dracolich before it can be unleashed on the nearby city. While taking an extended rest in this case may not be ideal, it's still a choice the players can make.

If you can go back to the adventure, your progress could be entirely erased. Reinforcements have arrived, new monsters have moved in, new traps have been set, etc.

In either case, the adventurers are choosing safety and an extended rest over completing their task. In these cases, the extended rest is not a reward for the characters; it's a penalty they take for deciding not to take risks. This concept of an extended rest accruing a penalty can be implemented in different ways.

Continuing the above example, the party needs to find the secret lair of the Orcus cultists before the cultists can complete the ritual. The players are involved in a skill challenge to follow clues to the lair, which includes a few combat encounters mixed in. Over the next 15 hours, the cultists build up their power until they can assure their success. If the players can get there before the 15 hours are up, the cult will have no choice but to cast the ritual immediately while the PCs will try to fight their way through and defeat the cultists. The earlier the PCs get there, the easier it will be for them to disrupt the ritual. During the investigation, they can take an extended rest if they like. While it will make the fight against the cultists that much more difficult, it would also let them recover and better able to handle it. That's a choice they will have to make.

Changing the Rules
Besides outright forcing the players not to take an extended rest, we can make some minor changes in the rules of 4E adventure design (or any game) to make the PCs earn an honest day's work. Here's how:
  1. Return of the wandering monsters. In any adventure, set up an extra 3-4 encounter groups per section of your dungeon. These can be used to harass the players if they dally too long or to track down a party that camps near the dungeon entrance. Use them whenever you decide. These groups may get little or no use, so don't spend much time on them- a simple note saying who is in the group (3 goblin skirmishers, 2 goblin warriors and 8 minions) is enough.
  2. Respawn the encounter. If an encounter is defeated without reaching a breakpoint,(see below) that encounter area should be restocked if the party takes an extended rest. This is a great use for your wandering monsters in step 1- insert them into the vacant room. These represent new troops, monsters that were away from the dungeon, or perhaps guards that would normally be posted elsewhere that the PCs don't know about. A few quick changes like adding new traps, setting up an ambush or moving the encounter to a previously empty area will keep things fresh. This is your chance to improv.
  3. Raise the alarm. After each failed expedition, the dungeon should get harder for the PCs. Guards on alert will be harder to surprise. Nervous guards will stick close to the exits to yell for help, and that help will be faster in coming. (another use for wandering monsters) If the monsters expect the same PCs again, they'll try to develop tactics to specifically deal with the characters. If players decide to take an extended rest, the monsters will use that time to strengthen their own position.
  4. Define Breakpoints. Breakpoints are times when the party has smashed the dungeon to the point where it won't easily recover. If you kill the goblin leader, that's not someone who will be easily replaced. Infighting occurs, some troops are killed, others are run off and everyone is dealing with their own issues more than worrying about outsiders. Taking down a significant portion of the goblin population can have the same effect, as the rest can no longer hold their territory and must retreat back to a smaller area. In either case, perhaps the goblins are willing to negotiate a truce to avoid further hostilities. When a breakpoint happens, parts of the dungeon become cleared out and won't be restocked. Parties can now venture farther into their depths without fighting their way through the goblins first.
  5. You don't get paid until the job is done. An encounter is usually considered over when the monsters are defeated. But if every time you take out the goblin guard post it comes back again the next day, have you really defeated anything? If you want to defeat that encounter, you need to beat it so it doesn't come back. And that means hitting a breakpoint. Just like Lair Assault or Castle Ravenloft, you don't win until you can accomplish your goal for the adventure. (or section of the adventure) When the party hits a breakpoint, then you can hand out XP and the players will have earned it. This is also a good time to make some treasure parcels available. Spread an entire treasure parcel among your wandering monsters and the rest of the encounters up to your breakpoint. For the rest, stockpile them up with your breakpoints. Besides making the players earn their way, they'll also find it much more exciting to find large treasure troves. But until the breakpoint, the players haven't won anything and they shouldn't get anything for it.
Now players can choose when and if they want to take an extended rest. An extended rest should be as much of a penalty as a reward so that taking the extended rest becomes a real choice for the players. It's only after they put in an honest day's work that they should be allowed to sleep peacefully.


  1. "Return of the Wandering Monsters"

    Man, that takes me back about two decades...

    Fun times :)

  2. Ah, yes... there was definitely something about the random Wandering Monster and all those glorious tables from prior D&D editions.

    While few sessions should ever be dominated by them, especially today (just not enough time for everything!), they definitely served several positive purposes that I miss.

    A delightful surprise + quick visceral combat = win. Plus tons of room to creatively make it not-so-random after all, if you wish.

    Tiny Encounters, as I called them once, still have a place in 4e - you just have to make a few more adjustments so they're actually reasonably *fast.*

    The other point I really like that you make is within your mention of Castle Ravenloft. There should be consequences to extended rests, at the very least. And no, that doesn't have to mean automatic, total failure - well, not all the time. Sometimes, sure, the adventure "fails" like in CR.

    But more than that, there should simply be real costs, real complications, real developments, as often as you'd expect it - like in any story or the real world when a delay or large block of time goes by, whether it's hours, weeks, months or years.

  3. @Tourq: Fun times for the DM anyway. :) I don't think I ever heard my players exclaim, "Thank God, wandering monsters!!!" But you can't deny the magic of rolling on a random table to see what you get.

    @Kilsek: I agree, we don't want wandering monsters to take over the session. It's more like a nudge to get the players to not take the dungeon for granted. I hadn't thought about your tiny encounters, but they're a perfect fit for wandering monster encounters. Thanks for mentioning that.