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Delve Format A Dud?

One of the joys and agonies of writing for WotC is seeing the latest formats and design instructions. It's a joy because you see some WotC moves early; it's an agony when the playtesters, for example, HATE THE FORMAT TO DEATH.


So, let me point out first that the new Delve format has already generated a fair bit of interest on the Paizo boards, and has its partisans and detractors. Despite my quibbles and criticism, ultimately it's just a different format, not a change to core rules. And since WotC swaps formats out at a steady rate, so I expect this format will be superceded as well, and sooner rather than later. I've enjoyed experimenting with it, but ultimately I think it's fairly cumbersome to design for outside a dungeon crawl context.

Obvious Problems
1) It's a space hog. Writing an encounter in delve format eats a minimum of 800 words and one page of the book, and for encounters of any complexity it goes to 1500 words and two pages. It's still possible to do "throwaway" encounters without the Delve format in a Delve book, but I suspect that will be rare. The thinking will be that if the encounter isn't important enough for a full workup, why include it at all?

2) Complex encounters suffer. Above a certain level, the format breaks down and requires some biggish tradeoffs. As stat-blocks take up more and more space (with templates, class levels, and complex abilities), setup and tactics get squeezed into less space. More detail on this below.

The playtesters and I agree on one thing: separating each encounter into two sections is a dumb idea, with a capital "dumb". Deciding where to put the break between the main body of the plot and the breakout section, without too much redundancy, is a bitch. I found myself moving text back and forth between the adventure matrix/plot section and the tactical sections fairly often.

The "Setup" section assumes a single trigger, and that's not always the case. This was especially apparent for city encounters, where the same locale might be visited several times, any of which could trigger combat.

Ultimately, I settled on using the "roll for initiative" moment as the divider to go tactical, but it's an awkward situation with several encounter types: stealth, diplomacy, role-playing that turns into combat, and chase scenes all suffer in this format.

Good Points of the Delve Format
What I love about the heavily-codified Delve format is that it practically guarantees ease of play for combat-only adventures. Miniatures gamers and inexperienced DMs are going to love it. The emphasis on callouts for terrain and maps means that encounters will require less interpretation. If that play experience makes an otherwise cumbersome design worthwhile, I'm sure adventure-buying DMs will clamor for it to stick around.

Second, I never worried about giving too little combat information. The standardization there forces designers to support combat in a systematized way. That's pretty comfortable from a design perspective (at least as long as you are writing combat encounters). It doesn't exactly encourage risks, but the odds of failure are also low. I can see this being a good format for a company looking to farm out much design to freelancers.

Third, from a design perspective, the Delve breakouts use a simple setup/readaloud/callout/stats/tactics/conclusion. That style's been around since 1E in one way or another, so I'm sure no one will have any trouble with it. What's new is 1) separating the combat elements into a separate section of the book and 2) trying to shoehorn this into standard one or two-page chunks. That gives it the same pluses and minuses as the 2E MC format, which forced monsters onto single or double pages. Sometimes it led to padding out a monster. Sometimes things get trimmed (or in this case, moved to different section of the book).

Finally, I appreciated the new freedom to drop core rules into the text, whether it was a rare feat, a spell reference, or a combat modifier that gets more frequent use. The format guidelines ask for designers to build in support for beginning and intermediate DMs — and the result speeds up play even for experienced DMs. In prior formats, those text blocks were page references to another book, forcing the DM to stop play to look it up.

The Problems with Delve Format
The constraints? Well, although the format is miniatures-focussed, the small size of the tactical maps is frustrating for epic and specialized encounters. Running an encounter such as a chase using these maps is awkward at best — 5' squares don't work for chases. But then, support for chase scenes in D&D is not great to begin with.

But maybe an example will really make the issues clearer.

Example: the Wild Hunt
Also, it's quite difficult to string encounters together neatly. For instance, a rising-tension Wild Hunt encounter clearly breaks the format. If the encounter starts with, say, mood and atmospheric text (wolves howling, horns sounding, wind blowing), that's probably in the main plot section. The party may have some time to prepare — and may move around, such as climbing trees or putting some brush together for defense. Then the DM tells the party that many animals are running through the woods, as if fleeing a fire — they may try to grapple one or shout questions. Still main plot section. Then the hounds of Cernunnos arrive: that's clearly tactical, as the hunters seek to cut out their victim from the party and carry him away.

After a couple rounds, Cernunnos arrives mounted on a huge stag, with centaurs or satyrs at his side. Well, your breakout encounter is now well and truly broken. The hounds, Cernunnos, stag, and centaurs/satyrs all require stat blocks. They won't fit on a one-page or two-page Delve spread. The intro section is printed some distance from the stats (with other intros in between), and the stats are not all on a single page. There's a LOT of page-flipping, as a playtest DM pointed out repeatedly.

Why not call it two separate encounters? Because the point is that it should all works together.

An encounter doesn't even have to be staggered to break the format. Picture a frost giant chieftain with barbarian levels, his warriors, their mammoth mounts, and their smilodon hunting cats — complex but doable. In Delve format, the four stat blocks on two pages approach leaves little room for the rest of the format. The most I managed in the Impossibly Huge Project was three stat blocks in one encounter, and that may yet drive the typesetter to distraction.

So, complex encounters don't really work in this format, for a variety of reasons. I find that pretty disappointing, because for me, those complex encounters are the most memorable finales, and they are something the tabletop RPG does really well that MMORGs don't.

Prospects for the Future
Paizo and Dungeon magazine have already announced they aren't picking up the format. For them, it's obviously a space issue; the magazines need to optimize space, and Delve is at the far end of un-optimized formatting (to the benefit of ease of play). It's also an issue of layout and production requirements. Most companies, especially deadline-driven magazines, can't burn production cycles on complex boxed layouts.

On the Impossibly Huge Project, I initially tried keeping role-playing encounters out of the Delve format, but I found that many of them had a combat possibility (either through failure in negotiations, or just as the natural outcome of the RP section). As a result, I recast almost all of those into a role-playing section (on one set of pages) and a tactical section as the required Delve breakout. This seems like the right approach, but it doubled the wordcount for those encounters. And it again split the encounter into different sections of the book, which the playtesters hated.

Constructive Criticism
So, Delve has some real challenges to overcome, especially outside miniatures or wargame-focussed play. When writing for the format, my recommendations would be:
  • City encounters should be minimized.
  • Role-playing encounters should be minimized.
  • Chase and stealth encounters should be minimized.
  • Encounters with 3 or more stat blocks should be avoided entirely.

Unfortunately, this leads to a uniformity of encounter types, and doesn't play to one of the strengths of table-top gaming, namely role-playing. If your layout thinks everything is a dungeon encounter, all your encounters start to feel like dungeons.

Overall, my recommendation to freelancers is to make your scenarios fit the format. I tried not to do that, and it cost me space and time. Frequent duplication of text was just the most obvious problem. Do gamers really want the same terrain stats called out twice, much less five times? That's what the format calls for, but it feels really redundant and wasteful.

Ultimately, the game-buying public will decide whether it's worth their money, or whether the old-school approach of less stats and more flexible design works better. I'm betting that the format is a one-year wonder, and by this time in 2008 I'll be talking about the next iteration of WotC encounter design: the return to 1E style with "hit-point blocks"!


( 11 sutras — Your wisdom )
May. 8th, 2006 09:03 pm (UTC)
Maybe after that we can see the return to THAC0?

(I can always dream...)
May. 8th, 2006 09:13 pm (UTC)
Now that would be funny. I love 1E flavor, that sense that the game is full of possibilities, and I think the recent trend in 3.5 has gone the other way, with a million rules for everything.

Maybe I should write an old-school adventure without stat blocks, just 1E style, and see what people think.
May. 9th, 2006 12:14 am (UTC)
You should definitely do that. And you should definitely make it available for purchase. Because it would be awesomeness. And my RPG shelf hasn't gotten any new awesomeness for a while.
May. 9th, 2006 05:40 am (UTC)
Well, thanks for the vote of confidence. At the moment I've got an Adventure Path to write, plus I'm designing an adventure to gamer spec over at customdesign. You could get a copy of that for just $5 (or $10 if you want to tell me what to write).

See, now you've got me thinking about the 1E, simple stats adventure. I could write that pretty quick, but I don't know if anyone would publish something like that with a d20 license, or what. Hm. Worth some thought.
May. 10th, 2006 11:59 am (UTC)
If you want an interesting look at 1st edition style and format with d20/3.5E work, check out Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics. Some very fun nostalgic style adventures in a format near and dear to our geekish hearts.

Seriously. I found I liked not having to go back to a Manual for monster stats. It was oddly comforting and convenient to have it all on the page in question.

But then, I'm a gaming dinosaur....

May. 8th, 2006 09:22 pm (UTC)
I have to read more about this before forming a real opinion, but I'm with you on the THAC0.

Reading that minotaur block reminded me HOW simple a stat-block could, and should, be. Again I find myself wondering if an old school AD&D game is in order.
May. 8th, 2006 09:12 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, this leads to a uniformity of encounter types, and doesn't play to one of the strengths of table-top gaming, namely role-playing.
I agree 100%.

I posit that combat remains the most important encounter in D&D. Therefore, any new format should cater to that encounter. It's up to other types to find a way into the new format.

Do gamers really want the same terrain stats called out twice, much less five times?
Yes. I want anything that reduces page flipping and references. I really don't like having to stop game play, which is exactly what it is, to look up rules during combat. It's bad enough that the core rules are split into three (or five) books. Whenever text tells me to refer to something else my dissatisfaction rises and my yearning to have a computer do it (in the form of playing a different game entirely) rises along with it.

That's what the format calls for, but it feels really redundant and wasteful.
Redundant yes, wasteful no.
May. 8th, 2006 09:16 pm (UTC)
Yeah, combat is the #1 encounter type. Roleplaying is #2, and chase, diplomacy, stealth are all down the road somewhere. I'd argue, though, that roleplaying encounters are often the most memorable, especially when *combined* with a combat encounter.

Ok, I can see that callouts that reduce page flipping are great. But the format itself requires page flipping for even mildly complex encounters. I'm not sure if the flip-reduction is greater than the flip-increase.

The playtesters, at least, thought the increase was the more annoying factor.
May. 9th, 2006 07:14 am (UTC)
I'm veeery curios to see how the public reacts to this format. One of the things I've come to learn working on Dungeon is that adventrues that are little more than a string of combats strung together are just not as popular as those with cool encounters with neat bad guys or adventrues with lots of roleplaying opportunities. I'm worried as well that the limitations of the Delve Format are too strict, and that it's going to standardize encounters so that everything more or less comes out feeling the same...

In any case, I'm about to start working on a Big Secret Delve Adventure for WotC myself in a week or so, as it turns out, and I fully intend to do my damndest to get some fun roleplaying/non-combat encounters into the adventure. Wish me luck! :)
May. 9th, 2006 01:31 pm (UTC)
Congrats on the Big Secret Delve!

It's certainly possible to write roleplaying encounters in any adventure; Delve just makes it harder than prior formats did. I'd recommend using the Delve format only for the straight-up combats, and a normal format for the more interesting encounters if you can.

May. 10th, 2006 01:47 am (UTC)
Why does this sound like an attempt to reduce a hyperlinked wiki to paper? Great in theory, horrible in execution. The day we all have tablet PCs (or whatever) that we can click through to the information seamlessly this may work. Otherwise, what's the point? I agree with you that the complex encounter is more interesting and more fun. I've certainly found that players recall those more and talk about those more than "orcs on the other side of a 40 x 30 room attack".
( 11 sutras — Your wisdom )

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