Friday, January 28, 2011

A Tale of Two Trolls

In praise of randomness and  the difference between old-time D&D and 4E

A comment from last post involving sandboxes and NPCs got me thinking about how an encounter from our last game session would have required such a different approach in our 4E days. 

The Old School Approach
Last game, the characters were trudging overland in the Joten Mountains.  On the hex map, I have a key with the major lairs, ruins, and strongholds, but I make liberal use of the random encounters in the Cook Expert book for D&D.  The guys are currently a mix of 2nd and 3rd level characters.

The party descended into a shallow valley; from somewhere down the length of the valley was coming a noisome stench of decay - a cave mouth.  Emerging over the far side of the ridge was a large troll; it saw the group, howled a war cry, and came bounding and snarling down the side of the valley to where the characters were taking a momentary rest.

The players had 2 rounds to respond while the troll hurtled towards them; the fighters formed a defensive wall while a few of the shooters tried peppering the troll with arrows.  The magic user cast invisibility on the thief, who snuck to a vantage point where he'd have a backstab attempt once the troll went past him.

When the troll engaged the front line, the thief stepped in and scored a 20 on his backstab, maxed his sword damage, and killed the troll with one epic thrust.  The table erupted in cheers.
The characters were almost surprised by the second troll coming out of the cave lair behind them, but the thief was looking that way and alerted the others.  Thinking quickly, the magic user blasted it with his wand of paralysis, and the troll missed the save.  They quickly doused the bodies with oil and started a fire.

The 4E Approach
First off, a basic Troll is a 9th level monster, and 2nd and 3rd level characters shouldn't be facing one; level appropriate challenges for an encounter should be in the N to N+4 range, where N is the character level .   The main issue is that armor class, attack, and damage all scales in 4E,  so once the monsters get too far ahead of the party, they become unhittable and too damaging.

Of course, if the DM picked a Troll encounter, they could always scale the Troll down a few levels so it would be level-appropriate for the party.  One or two trolls wouldn't be enough for an encounter - a 4E encounter would be a mix of monsters covering different monster roles, such as brute, leader, controller, artillery.  (Trolls are brutes).  Or the troll could be beefed up to be what's called a "solo"- a single monster tough enough to take on a character group without support.

Much of this is hypothetical - 4E doesn't have or use any wandering monster tables or random encounters whatsoever.  None.  If I wanted to orchestrate a Troll encounter during our 4E days, I would've planned it in advance, built a challenging and interesting level-appropriate encounter with a mix of monster roles (brutes, soldiers, artillery, leaders, etc) and I would've introduced this as a faux-random encounter at a time of my choosing.

Wow - I'm sitting here re-reading how different the two experiences are from the DM's perspective.

In the old school approach, I have no idea what the party could meet out on the road.  Fights could be easy, they could be tough.  A pair of trolls for 2nd and 3rd level characters seems on the tough side.  The game emerges for the DM at run-time just as it does for the players.  Who knows what will happen?  That is very, very entertaining.

When running 4E, the encounters were pre-planned, and the difficulty level was pre-set - I almost always knew how an encounter would go.

I don't recall seeing this particular distinction - that the randomness inherent in older game systems keeps the game just as fresh and unknown to the DM as it does to the players.

So here's to random encounters, reaction rolls, morale rolls, and treasure generated on the fly!


  1. This is exactly why I have no real desire to Referee 3e+ because the part I truly love about running a game is the surprise that I get from rolling for those random encounters, reaction rolls, morale rolls and random treasure. There are entire plots and sub-plots that exist in my current campaign because of random bits of goodness that I rolled on these tables. Without those rolls, I never would have dreamed any of them had I to plan them all out ahead of time. I much prefer the fun of not knowing what will happen every time I sit down at the table.

  2. I was gonna say something all witty and inimitable, laden with trenchant observations on the virtues of randomosity and the benefits thereof, but FrDave beat me to it! I'd quote him for Truth, but that would be repeating his entire post, so: see above. :-D

    4E seems more and more like a miniatures skirmish game the more I read about it.(Though minis aren't necessarily required, just encouraged....)
    Interesting post on 4E Vs. Your current game.

  3. Further evidence on the awesomeness of the older DnD editions as opposed to their new school counterparts. My group and I made many a memory on random encounters too.

  4. Yeah, I know it can seem at times we've flipped over to the 4E-hate; that's not entirely true. It is a pretty fun table-top skirmish game, it just has very little in common with how older editions play and feel.

    The main thing is I'm giddy with how much fun is a free-form sandbox game. I'm going to have to develop a mantra lauding randomization to go right up next to X is for Killing.

  5. It's the random surprises that keep me coming back as a DM. I never realized until recently how much fun I have *improvising* at the table. Thanks for the great post!

  6. Just wondering though, if you ignored "official" 4E theory and hit a party of 4E characters with a very tough monster or two (something equivalent to the trolls and your 2nd/3rd-level party) what would the outcome be?

    A pair of trolls in OD&D could cause a TPK for a low level party, or the party could get lucky. Might the same be true in 4E if you didn't worry about balanced encounters. I guess what I'm asking is: if you ran 4E the way we used to run OD&D and AD&D what would happen?

    Which makes me wonder ... the first official 4E adventure I read had a small white dragon as one of the encounters for a 1st level party. My first reaction was, "WTH ... well I guess the party can run away or at least half of 'em are rolling up new characters."

  7. @JBM - that's a good question. You certainly could run 4E with anything goes, make up your own random tables.

    What will happen is in a higher level encounter, the party will only hit on a natural 20, and the monster will only miss on a very low roll - like 1-5. AC and attack bonuses scale.

    It makes the game unsatisfying as a simulation when you extrapolate that out to how the world works - for instance, a single war troll would be nigh unhittable by any of the mooks in the town guard. In regular D&D, if you get enough town guardsman together, they can probably keep some of the larger predatory monsters "honest" because the AC's are in a narrower band of values.