by Mike Shea on 21 December 2009
4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons has a clear focus on "encounters". Each encounter usually (not always) consists of a setting, like a big room, with a bunch of creatures carefully calculated out to meet the challenge of the party. This is the style we're used to in 4e, but it doesn't have to be the only style.
Today we're going to look at three ways to make your adventure feel more old-school than a typical 4e encounter-focused adventure. Many of these tips come from the most excellent article called Zen and Old-School D&D. Let's take a look at some tips:
Use Puzzles, Not Challenges
An old-school adventure uses puzzles that must be noodled through by the players at the table rather than skill challenges that must be overcome by the characters and their skills. Instead of a statue that requires five successful arcane or athletics checks to defeat, you have a statue that must be struck by the four swords of the four other statues in the room. Instead of a door with a tricky mechanical and arcane trap, you have a riddle. Old-school adventures focus on the minds of the players rather than the statistics of the characters.
More Battles, Less Monsters
4e encounters typically follow a series of kill rooms with a big pile of nasties that total to the player's level + or - three. For that old-school feel, ignore the experience budget and throw out fewer monsters. Let the battles go fast and furious with a single high-level elite or a small pack of four minions and their underboss. You might have to houserule some of these smaller parties to make sure the group doesn't simply storm through them all the time, but a whole pile of these will still do a good job wearing folks down. Try running an elite five levels higher than your party with some minions as backup.
Pay Attention to Mundane Gear
Did the party remember their 10' pole and their 50' of rope? Do they have enough torchlight to keep the place lit? Get rid of those sunrods and go back to the way things were when a dwarf had to sacrifice a shield to hold a lantern and life and death balanced on whether the party brought enough oil. Make sure to let your players know before you're going to start being a hardass about their mundane items.
Run Some Battles Without a Battle Map
4e is a game clearly focused on tactical battles using maps and miniatures, but not every battle needs to be that way. Build a mix between a skill challenge and a traditional battle and throw away the map for this one. Have the PCs focus on skills as well as attacks to defeat their enemies. Perhaps the battle happens on the back of leathery-winged drakes or between two runaway mining cars. Maybe the party is hanging from ropes leading up into a secret chamber from a drop two hundred feet below. Set up some radical situations and return to the imagination as your battle map.
These tips aren't meant to completely overwrite 4e's typical system, but every so often you might want to try some things out and see how the old-school style feels to you and to your players. Give it a try!