After much planning, prepping and spreadsheet making, I ran a quick play test of my card-based D&D4e dungeon crawl concept. This is quite a long post, as I go into the design decisions I made and then the results of the test.
If you’ve got the stamina, read on!
Part 1: Dungeon Bash Board Game Design
Because of the way D&D4e is designed, each class is made up of a number of possible “Builds”, with each deck of Power Cards usually supporting 2 different builds. I embraced this and made each build into a distinct sub-class with its own specific power sets, e.g. Druid (Guardian) and Druid (Predator). For Fighters, I picked up a copy of the Martial Power deck, which supported two new sub-classes from that supplement: Battlerager Fighter and Tempest Fighter. However, it also had a number of specific powers relating to Spear/Polearms and others for Shields, so I used those to create a third sub-class: Hoplite.
Apart from the card-play rules, below, the other significant change I wanted to bring in was introducing a 13th Age Escalation die, to stop combat getting bogged down.
Each character is made by selecting:
- 2 sub-classes
- Race – the usual D&D races, with a bit of editing to balance abilities out
- Characteristic array – either [4,1,1,0,0,-1], [3,2,1,1,0,0] or [2,2,2,2,0,0]. Characteristics are rated solely in terms of their bonus value, not traditional D&D score. My character generation spreadsheet automatically allocates values to the priority attributes for the chosen sub-classes, but no reason why a player couldn’t over-ride that if they chose.
- Feat – each character chooses 1 Feat, except humans who have 2.
One design choice I made was to cut back the number of Racial Abilities and Feats. The trouble with these is that in effect they create “rules exceptions” – the define ways that a particular character operates differently to the core game. My aim for this game was to make it faster-paced than the original D&D4e and the last thing I want is players constantly having to check a long list of abilities to see which, if any, apply in any given situation. I kept abilities that simply affect another number that can be hard-coded into the character sheet (e.g. Weapon Focus; Improved Initiative). For the same reason, I also removed gaining Feats as characters level up – the range of powers available means characters will have plenty to do without introducing new exceptions.
The idea is that game play will be exactly like D&D, up until the point combat starts. That’s when the usual declaration of actions is taken up by card play.
- Each character has a hand of 4 cards
- Characters act in Initiative order (fixed value, no 1d20 roll)
- Characters get 3 actions:
- Standard – play a Standard Action card or discard any card to take a default Standard Action (e.g. basic Attack)
- Move – play a Move Action card or discard any card to take a default Move action
- Minor – play a Minor Action card or just declare a basic minor action (no discard required)
- Resolve actions
- Tidy up your cards:
- If you played a Daily action, it goes back in the box.
- If you played an Encounter action, it goes in your Discard pile
- If you played an At-Will action, it either goes in your Discard or you can choose to pick it back up
- Refill hand back up to 4 cards
The aim of discarding to Move is to burn through the deck more quickly and increase the chance of lots of interesting powers coming up and of discarded cards coming back around.
My original thought was that At-Will cards are discarded just like Encounter cards, but the trouble is some At-Will abilities are fundamental to particular classes (e.g. Druid (Predator) shape-changing into an animal), so discarding them would cripple those characters.
Part 2: Play Test
I used the very first encounter from the D&D4e Dungeon Delve sourcebook, a fairly simple encounter with a bunch of kobolds on a 10×10 map. The kobolds were set up as designed, with the PCs all entering from one corner of the map. The PCs were represented by:
The aim of the play test was to see how the combat card play worked, although checking the usability of the character sheets was also a desirable outcome.
It took about 7 rounds (I didn’t keep count) for the 4 PCs to dispatch the Kobolds. The Barbarian PC took a beating, but the Paladin fortunately drew his Lay on Hands card in the second round, so was able to bring him back from the brink. Other than that, it was all very straightforward, with the plethora of Encounter powers played meaning the PCs were at no risk of being out-classed.
From this simple test, I learned a huge amount about how to take this endeavour forward to completion:
- Card-play – generally worked well. Discarding to move was a tiny bit clunky, but I think it’s a necessary evil just to ensure the decks get well-used. Allowing player to keep hold of an At-Will power after it was played is consistent with original D&D4 rules, but severely reduces deck-cycling. Perhaps once played they remain face up in front of the player, effectively increasing hand size?
- Hand-size – four cards may be too few. Of the 4 characters we ran, over around 7 combat rounds, 3 times hands came up with no attack powers in of any kind. If making a basic attack is the optimal play, that’s not using the powers to their best advantage.
- Encounter design – this is critical. I used an off-the-shelf encounter, and it was boring. The setting was too small (every ranged power was automatically in range because of the size of the map) and there was a major choke-point which rendered dynamic movement virtually impossible.
- Monster design – this is also critical. Minions are fun in that they allow you to have large numbers of creatures that are killed in a single blow, but it’s anticlimactic to use a big power and find that you might just as well have done a basic attack. With more powers available, fewer monsters with more HPs are by far more interesting as opponents.
- Initiative – I decided to make Initiative scores fixed, removing the d20 roll. This worked fine. Only reduces one roll, but it’s one less number to keep track of.
- Weapons – stumbled across a design problem in my character sheet. Weapons have Proficiency Bonuses, and the character sheet combines that with the relevant stat to give a compound To Hit score. However, some powers use Weapons with a different characteristic, a value that the character sheet then doesn’t provide. Also, weapon-based attacks hit more often than magical powers, because they gain +2 or +3 from the weapon itself. This means that against Minions, who perish in a single blow, making a basic weapon attack is often the optimal choice over a more interesting but less accurate power.
- Missing is boring – there is nothing more dispiriting than playing a big power only to have it fail. Not only is it dispiriting, it’s boring. And non-weapon powers miss a lot, roughly 50/50. I’d rather powers hit more often but opponents have the Hit Points to suck them up. So Defences need to come down and/or accuracy needs to increase. I’ll probably remove Weapon proficiency bonuses and either give all characteristics a bump of +2 or +3, reduce defences by a similar amount, or perhaps widen the characteristic arrays (e.g. 6,5,3,1,1,0). Of them all, I think I prefer reducing the Defences, so the characters don’t look out of kilter if a player has D&D4 experience. This may imbalance the Powers, as it may be that Weapon-based power cards do less damage than non-Weapon-based to reflect the different accuracy: if so, I can increase weapon damage slightly to compensate.
- Escalation die – in this scenario, I didn’t use it. I’m not sure it’s actually needed if the encounter design is done right.
- Minor actions – only came up when there was a specific power that used a Minor action. I think they probably do need to remain though. Perhaps also need to discard when these are used, both for consistency and to maximise deck cycling.
- Monsters – bit boring really, they had nothing to do but stand still and slug it out. Either monsters or PCs need to have some objective to encourage dynamic play. Did think that monsters could be semi-automated using a deck of cards, but this would require a deck (albeit not a big one) per creature type and that would be a lot of extra work.
- Rolling damage – in a board game model, this may be an extraneous step. Fixed damage would certainly speed things up by maybe 10 seconds per successful attack.
Next Steps & Further Thoughts
A bigger piece of work is to re-evaluate the under-lying game design philosophy. What do I want this game to be? If it’s a slightly faster version of D&D4, then that aim is pretty much accomplished.
However, if I want to create a dynamic dungeon crawl game that is “powered by” D&D4e, then there’s actually a lot of additional work to do. Parts of game play are a bit clunky and there is a lot of clutter on the character sheets that either didn’t get used or was over-looked. Fundamentally, it is not very accessible for anyone without prior experience of D&D4e.
The powers should really sing out, and to do that I think I need to do even more to strip back extraneous elements.
- Class abilities should be converted into Powers or removed – I think 1 signature power on the character sheet is probably fine, but much more than that becomes unwieldy.
- Skills should become binary abilities with no skill value – you have it, or you don’t – and should probably have an associated Power card so its combat-use is clear (if applicable – e.g. Bluff).
However, this will lead to even more cards in the players’ deck, which means the issue of deck-cycling comes back up. The decision of “burn this card, but it’ll come up later” is very different to “burn this card, and it won’t come up again”. Part of the solution is to make combat last for more rounds, but it will probably take a minimum of 15 rounds for the deck to recycle unless more than 2 cards are discarded every turn, and this means PCs will be taking more damage. Theoretically there will be more healing powers out there, but the randomness of the deck creates a potentially vulnerability.
One thought on this is to tweak the Action economy somewhat.
- Every character has 3 actions: Attack, a Move and another.
- Each turn you play 3 cards, which you then reveal or discard each as necessary. E.g. if you have an Interrupt power, you need to put it face down and leave it there. Or you might flip over an Attack action, discard another for a Move, and leave the third face down to potentially discard to take an Opportunity Attack later on.
- At the start of your turn, any cards remaining go on the discard pile.
This would really get the cards cycling round, because every round you’d always be getting rid of 3 cards. Which fundamentally is the whole reason I came up with this hair-brained scheme to begin with – D&D4 powers are fun, and I want to play with them ALL!
And next time I should definitely take some photos…