More on the DDI Virtual Table, Breaking the Encounter Format

What are they calling this thing? The WOTC Virtual Table? The DDI Virtual Table? If you happen to be a beta tester (which I am) I think it’s just called the “Virtual Table”

Anyhow, Monday evening I wrapped up my 9th game via the DDI Virtual Table and I’m actually very impressed with it, in general. One thing that occurred to me is that there’s a mode of play in the virtual table that is not that possible in real life.

Allow me to explain: You can have a lot of room in the table for multiple battle maps.. and an unlimited amount of dungeon tiles. The battle maps themselves are quite large– much larger than the area covered on a typical real life battle mat. Also , the battle mat is persistent- I can import and export maps however I like, and save them from session to session. And I can annotate them with secrets and public notes.

The “delve format” that became popular in 3rd edition is the one where you have sort of a miniature section of a dungeon mapped out, and the encounter and tactics are sort of combined into a package. “Grells are going to appear near this waterfall and attempt to drag their victims underwater..” (and there’s helpful diagrams). Which is all very tactical.

But here’s this new thing: On the virtual table, you can lay out an entire dungeon level- a large one- I’m talking 50+ rooms all at once– and then shroud the map so that the players can only see the area they are immediately in.

Wait, why is that, cool? you may ask. So Now I got 50+ rooms. All at once. All laid out, with staircases and rooms and interconnecting passages and so on. Whatever!

What this means is: now you can break the encounter format. You can break it in interesting ways. And I’m about to tell you this totally counter-intuitive thing that you are going to disagree with in a second, so get your +2 scornful-face of derision ready.

With all due respect to most of my fellow 4th edition DMs, the idea of making every single encounter this package deal that is tailor-made to leave the group bloodied but alive and victorious after a grueling yet satisfying combat… is a short sighted way to manage a D&D game. There’s no music to it. There’s no dynamism. Living Forgotten Realms works this way and whenever anyone tries to address it, the admins (of which I am also one, at least as a point of contact) think “aha, we’ll fix this by making the encounters even harder” (Which accomplishes nothing). No- make them smaller and easier. And include more of them, and make them ALL optional and avoidable if the players are smart or sneaky enough. There’s no way to do that in Organized Play because we have to serve up tons of adventures to tons of DMs all at once, but YOU, you talented individual DM.. you can handle this.

If you want to make encounters interesting, make most of them easier. Use the appropriate level of monsters, but use half as many. Then create twice as many encounter areas.

Laying out the entire dungeon is a way to accomplish this, and I discovered it by accident. See, when you lay the whole dungeon out, you can sort of put the monster areas together, and say “ok, these hobgoblins live over here, and that’s where the hobgoblin chaplain is with his pet dire wolf, and those living statues are over in the alcove on that side…” and it all makes sense. But players are also free to aggro or not aggro (depending on their abilities- are they sneaky? can they bluff? can they scout ahead?) however they like. And of course, sometimes it makes sense to isolate an area where it only has a few monsters that are not technically a “tough, challenging encounter”. Players can use their smarts to divide and conquer. They can lead the hobgoblins into the pit trap area they discovered, or create ambushes. Often the players (if they are smart, and the best ones obviously are) will figure out a way to fight encounters about half the size of a normal one.

So some of you are shaking your heads in disbelief and derision because that’s not challenging at all.

And I’m telling you this: You get encounters that last 20-30 minutes, and you get 4-6 (or more) in a night. And now you have to really manage your healing surges, because by the end of the delve, you will all be running low.

Also, in order to not be predictable, I think it’s ok to throw some over the top stuff in there. Because once the agency of whether to fight and how is back in the players hands? It’s ok to place monsters that are somewhat higher level back in the mix. So toss a pair of wyverns in a cavern on that 1st level dungeon. Let the players come up with a way to fight or avoid those guys on their own.

Here’s the second thing I learned: If the dungeon is persistent (which means– I save my dungeon battle-map layout from week to week): and the players continue to level up, eventually they are able to clear dungeon areas, even when the encounters are lower level. And they seem to like doing that.

Third thing: The fog of war- I have this gigantic battle map dungeon layout thingy, but the table only shows the areas that have been explored. This makes players curious whats around the next corner, trying to guess where passages link together.. what’s in the unexplored areas? It’s a top down map, so players only get to see the overhead layout (the rest is shrouded in the ‘fog of war’). One bit of metagaming that I have kinda winked at is when players say.. “hey guys.. there’s a big blank space in here.. let’s check for secret doors..”

With each session they expose a little more until they uncover the whole thing. And then they have “beat” that dungeon.

Pro Tip: Make that “beating the dungeon” thing a quest reward. In fact make a minor quest reward for each subsection of the dungeon – the crypts could be a quest, the hobgoblins could be a quest, and the wyvern cave could be a quest. Also random dungeon features like “wreck the demon arch on level 2” could be a quest. Throw tons of quests at PCs. I’ll explain why in a future post.

This single thing about mapping out an entire level seems to move the focus of encounters from tactical back to strategic: I’ve reintroduced hallways traps and eerie messages and clues to the “seemingly empty” parts of the dungeon, and that in turn has driven a renewed interest in using rituals (like Comprehend Language and Last Sight Vision to figure out clues, Detect Secret Doors and Comrades Succor since the PCs know they aren’t doing just a 3 encounter run and then done..). If PCs want to take an extended rest, they have to find a room and spike it shut. If PCs run from one area into another, they aggro all of the monsters they encounter. This returns players to a state of acting like adventurers and gives them agency.. They have options. They are physically reminded each time they reach a T intersection that it’s up to them.

I have a dungeon on Monday 6PM EST campaign (Tanglemire if anyone wants to get in on it.. it’s usually full up, but I have a slot open from week to week) that is actually detailed with full maps down 3 levels. In concept it goes down 10 levels. There is also at least one sub-level (a vampire’s nest – which is about 12 rooms) that sits in between level 1 and 2. Pcs are just now hitting 4th level. Drop ins are welcome if there’s room. Feel free to check it out if you happen to have beta access!

But seriously, I want to advise you try out this lay out an entire dungeon and use smaller encounters throughout thing. Just try it. You don’t need the Virtual Table for that.

Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Nunya!

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