Common Problems in 4e D&D Adventures

I’m getting ready to start reviewing the adventures published in Dungeon magazine during the 4e period.  Generally, they follow the same format and have the same problems.  Rather than engaging in repetitive lengthy reviews which explain the faults in detail every time, I thought I would call out the common problems here so that I can call them out in shorthand later.

I will probably add to this list as I go along.

Overuse of Combat Encounters:  Grognards like to complain about the duration of combat in 4e, but the real reason it feels like a grind is the frequency.  Using Moldvay dungeon stocking, there was a 33% chance of a room containing a monster in Basic DnD.  Appendix A of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide gives a 25% chance.  I would estimate that with 4e adventures the chances are about 100% for a delve or side-trek, and 80% for a bigger adventure, with the balance being skill challenges and the odd “role-play” encounter.  In early-edition DnD you could often trick, avoid or talk to the monsters, but in published 4e adventures they invariably spot you, attack, and fight to the death.

Combat is a big deal in 4e; it would be a bigger deal if it was rarer.

Using Skill Challenges for Uninteresting Game Elements:  If a task is inherently uninteresting, it does not become more interesting by dragging it out with a bunch of die-rolling.  Skill Challenges are frequently used for parts of the game that should just be summarized.  If it would be a montage in a movie, it should not be a skill challenge in the game.

Using Skill Challenges in Place of Interesting Game Elements:  If a game element is inherently interesting, it should not be abstracted by a skill challenge.  You can identify these when the SC actually eludes to interesting challenges in the Skill descriptions.  For example, in a travel montage which includes an Athletics check to signify “crossing a river or scaling a cliff”, it would be more interesting to put a river or a cliff in front of the party and see how they handle it.

You might ask, if you should not use Skill Challenges for uninteresting encounters, and you should not use Skill Challenges for interesting encounters, when should you use Skill Challenges?  The answer is rarely, and only in situations where you expect that the resolution of an encounter will require at least four successful skill checks, and where the players have real choices about their approach that can have an impact on the outcome.

Do not add checks just to turn an encounter into a Skill Challenge, and do not use them where “alternate approaches” are limited to choosing different skills.  This probably requires some explanation, which I will try to get to in a future article, but an example would be during a combat encounter, when there is a real choice between the resources you apply to fighting team monster and the resources you apply to disarming a trap or closing a portal.

Linear Dungeons:  Not necessarily in a straight line, although those happen.  I am talking about dungeons where the party either has no choice about where to go, or the choices effectively don’t matter.  If it is a fait accompli that you will explore each branch of an intersection (which it usually is), and the order in which you explore them doesn’t matter, then there is only the illusion of choice.

Contrast this with a dungeon with loops and changes in level that may allow the party to skip sections with a poor risk-reward ratio, or to approach a given room from different directions or different angles or different amounts of cover, or that have discoveries in some areas that will help in others if you choose them in the right order, and you should see the difference.  Bonus points if you include some small clue to let the party know that their choices will made a difference.

The Alexandrian has a decent series of articles relating to this issue which you can find here.

Linear Plots:  At least the constraints in linear dungeons are logical because, you know, walls.   Worse than that are adventure-writer plots that take place in the wide world, supposedly unconstrained by any physical barriers, and yet force the party to experience one location or event after another, irrespective of any player choices.  The problem is exacerbated by a lack of overview maps and NPC rosters, because there is no support to the DM for situations where the party decides to do something else.

The Alexandrian also had articles for addressing these issues which begin here.

Lack of Transitional Devices:  Its bad enough that the plot is linear, but could you at least tell me how to get from one mandatory scene to the next?  Sometimes this is a problem of dividing information between the summary and the tactical detail pages, but much of the time there are no transitional elements at all.  You have a combat encounter at a location.  And then you are at another location, where monsters attack you and fight to the death.  The problem is even worse when it occurs in the rare adventure that is not linear; how do your players know where to go if you can’t describe their options?  Note that a decent overview map can work as a transitional device.

Lack of Overview Maps:  I have alluded to this already with respect to problems with linearity, but it also arises in the few adventures where there are choices as to where to go next.  The GM has no framework that helps him to place the scenes or locations in relation to each other, or to help him adlib if the players choose a different direction.  Even if there is no map per se, a flowchart of areas or scenes showing what choices lead to each would be very helpful.


3 thoughts on “Common Problems in 4e D&D Adventures

  1. As someone who played Pathfinder and hasn’t played a single 4e game ever, it’s interesting to see a detailed break down of why people speak so negatively about the published adventures.

    Is your intent to illustrate that these adventures can be ‘saved’ by converting them to Alexandrian like systems (3 clue rule, don’t prep plots, jacquaying the dungeon et al) and applying OSR gameplay? Or simply as a deconstruction as to why they did not work?

    I found your blog via the trackbacks on The Alexandrian FYI!


    1. For the most part I wouldn’t say they don’t work; they generally work just fine for the style of play they promote. What I want to do is reveal how they reduce player agency and increase the DM’s cognitive load, and how things might have been done differently.

      From that point of view, I’m not sure that very many of these adventures are salvageable. In-encounter fixes are easy, but between-encounter problems require a lot of work from the DM. I mean, you may like building NPC rosters, drawing overland maps from scratch, and completely redrawing dungeon maps while making sure they fit pre-existing encounters; but at that point you may as well just lift the elements you like and start over.

      My overall goal for the site is to show people who cut their teeth of 4e (and 2e and 3e for that matter, they aren’t much better) that there is a world out there they probably haven’t seen. And do it without the curmudgeonly OSR grognard baggage. Go ahead and sit on my lawn if you want.

      For everyone else, I am hoping to give 4e a little legitimacy by showing that the reason you dislike it may have more to do with presentation than system. There are flaws, and Justin Alexander’s complaints regarding dissociated mechanics are valid, if a little blind to where the same issues crop up in other editions. But in my opinion the mechanical issues are far less responsible for people’s negative game experiences than are the published adventures they played in order to learn the system.


      1. Interesting! I’ll be sure to follow along 🙂 I get what you mean about having to basically just strip out nothing but the key plot and rebuild from the grounds up to make them work… that’s unfortunate.


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