This post comes out of a conversation I was having in the comment section of a post over at Dungeon of Signs. I had mentioned that I was running the sort of game I run in 4e, and Gus L said
I can respect the effort it must take to run a sandbox 4e game and if you enjoy it, that’s great.
The thing is, it really isn’t any more work. At all. When I played 1e, and by action of the dice or decision of the players we ended up in a fight with 1-6 orcs, we just plonked our minis down, the DM would mark the location of the orcs with a grease pencil (minis were expensive), mark any relevant terrain that occurred to him, and we would run the fight.
Technically each orc could have a different weapon which did different damage and theoretically had different speed factors and bonuses or penalties against various types of armor. But I think we ignored all that: “DAMAGE/ATTACK: 1-8 or by weapon type” meant 1-8 damage. So all the orcs were the same but for having difference hit points from each other.
And there weren’t that many different types of creatures, and orcs are listed as “common”, so the PCs could expect to encounter orcs over and over again in the course of their careers. And we never really got bored of it.
On the other hand, when you play with published 3e or 4e adventures you get used to set piece battles with the gorgeous battle maps with terrain carefully (actually, generally poorly) designed to make the battle unique and interesting. And the battles often have a mix of creatures with complicated mechanics, again intended to make the battle unique and interesting. Generally you don’t encounter the same mix of creatures often within a given adventure.
Added to this, the 4e DMG goes on at considerable length about the importance of mixing up the terrain and different types of terrain, and how this maintaining a mix of monsters in an encounter group will make your encounters better.
So you dutifully keep your players entertained by
spending investing time in elaborate battle maps and a great variety of monsters with different abilities, and your players rarely have to deal with the same type of monster more than a couple of times, and never has to deal with the same mix of monster twice.
At which point the temptation arises to nudge your players toward the set-piece you worked so hard on because it irks you to have that effort wasted.
I think, like a lot of people, I got sucked into that for a while. Until the frustration as to how much time it took me to design adventures, in relation to the amount of time I got to spend actually playing them grew to the point that I started looking for another way.
I spend so much time reading OSR blogs I don’t know why it took me so long, but I eventually realized I could just run things the way I used to run them. If a battle with 1-6 identical orcs on an improvised map was fun then, why wouldn’t it be fun now? Random encounters are not usually meant to be epic battles, they are meant to be potential resource wasters, the increased risk of which is the cost of certain types of choices by the players.
You can run them, and plenty of other battles, on an improvised battle mat. You can use only one kind of creature – and by one kind of creature I mean, for example, 1-6 Orc Raiders, not 1-6 orcs comprised of a mix of Orc Raiders, Orc Berserkers, and Orc Eyes of Gruumsh.
You can use that same kind of creature over and over again, partially because figting Orc Raiders in a room is not the same as fighting Orc Raiders in a corrider, or fighting Orc Raiders in a forest, or on a bridge, or attacking them in a fortified camp; but also because if the PCs fight Orc Raiders several times the players are going to get good at it, and players like to get good at things. Fashions in 3e and 4e encounter design really rob players of the opportunity to get good at things.
And you as the DM will get good at running Orc Raiders, which then frees up your brain to do other things, like adjudicating your game using common sense instead of slavish adherence to the rules, or encouraging and adjudicating crazy player schemes on the fly. After you have started to get a handle on Orc Raiders, you can throw in Orc Berserkers, or an Orc Eye of Gruumsh, or an Orc Chieftain, and give it your full attention, because Orc Raiders are easy for you now.
You don’t have to take on the cognitive load of running a handful of new monsters every time you run a fight. You have a group of players who have customized their characters to one degree or another, know their abilities well and have experience with the best strategies for using those abilities. And yet in every fight you have to process and develop strategies for two or three new monsters with new abilities and cobble that into a challenge for the players? That is not a lot of fun for most people.
So when you introduce a new category of monsters, pick a particular monster in that category and run with it for a while. Don’t add a new one to the mix until you are comfortable with the old one. If the type of monster includes a skirmisher, start by using the skirmishers; they usually work well with each other as a group and are not dependent on support from monsters with other roles. If there are no skirmishers, brutes and soliders will do. Then add other roles over time, never adding more than one type of monster that you are not comfortable with at a time.
So the first level of your dungeon does not have kobolds and goblins (among other monsters), it has Kobold Quickblades and Goblin Warriors. There may be the odd Kobold Wyrmpriest or Dragonshield, or goblin Hex Hurler as a commander in one of the rooms, but the wandering monsters will all be skirmishers.
Also go for simple battle maps without a lot of embellishment, and with only relevant features marked. Ever have the problem with beautifully rendered maps that, since everything looks like difficult terrain, the players treat none of it as difficult terrain? Or they infer something from the map details which you did not intend, because the only reason the mapmaker put it there was to look cool, or because you cribbed the map or the object from another source? That can be avoided if the floor is blank except where you have marked trees or rubble, or other things that are supposed to be interacted with.
This can be hard to do on the fly if you use a virtual tabletop and you are used to finding exactly the right object to convey your intention. But when it comes to terrain, you really only need a few symbols, and it is more important that they be legible than pretty. Take it from an old-timer, you don’t need pretty battle maps to suspend disbelief. In terms of terrain, if you have a way to mark difficult terrain, water, big trees, little trees, undergrowth, and a few different types of zones, you are pretty much good to go.
You can do a lot with simple paint tools: This large red square is a bed, the two blobs beside it are nightstands, that bigger blob is a dresser, and the blob at the end of the bed is a chest. The blue blob is a pool of water. The area marked with difficult terrain markers is mud. The blue wavy line is a stream. The brown wavy line is a road.
One final tip: most tree symbols mislead players and DMs as to how the terrain should work. A tree is normally portrayed as a trunk surrounded by a thick mass of leaves, but players and DMs always seem to forget that the leaves are above the PCs’ heads, not surrounding them or under their feet, and seem to think the leaves are either difficult terrain or grant concealment. They are not and do not. You are better off with a light brown circle to convey “tree” and its only mechanical effects of difficult terrain (in the trunk’s square only, not under the entire canopy of leaves) and providing cover.