Winging It in D&D: Is it Back?

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Hey guys, how long have you been winging 4e, especially encounters?  Or are you not quite there yet like you may have been with previous editions after three years?

I'm curious as to how comfortable you are winging parts of or whole sessions now that 4e has been out 3 years.  3 years already, I know!

As usual, let me know either here or over on my D&D blog, Leonine Roar.  I'd love to hear how my DM brothers and sisters feel about this in 4e:

Winging It in D&D: Is it Back?
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The preperation for my sessions can usually summed up with something like "Oh man, it'd be awesome if they'd fight a Lich today".
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It never left. Players have never stopped doing unexpected things, so DMs have never stopped having to improvise. I find improvising in 4E very easy, but it's done (whether the GM wants to or not) in every version of every system.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Running a 'reactive' game is all about winging it.  My players have not heard "you can't go there", "you can't do that", "sorry I'll have to get back to you about that next week" from me for a long time.  This is not because I'm the world's bestest DM evarr, it's because 4E is so easy to run.


Worried you need to "stat out" a random city guardsman for his Perception and Insight modifier to detect a PC's stealth or bluff?  Fuhgettabout it .. just use a medium or hard DC for the guard's level. Done!

You can tell your players want a fight but you've got nothing written down for 'going to the dungeon' stuff.  Just flip open a monster book and pick something within 2-3 levels of the party.  It helps if you know the XP budgets for the levels by heart but if not it's easy to look up, quick, or just use 1 monster per player.  Done!

The party rogue just pickpocketed a random NPC .. and flubbed the roll ... oh noes!  Do you want a fight, you can do that.  Does the player run to the others and then they're being chased by angry guards?  Suddenly it's a skill challenge ... 4 successes before 3 failures aka a Complexity 1 challenge just pops out of your head.  You'll need thievery, stealth, bluff, and so on.  Done!         

I personally find it next to impossible to wing 4e with encounter balance being as delicate as it is, in my experience every encounter needs to be planned. Besides even when I am putting encounters together as part of my prep time, it takes me a half hour just to put them together, and I will not take thirty minutes out of my player's play time because I was unprepared. But again, that's my experience.
I personally find it next to impossible to wing 4e with encounter balance being as delicate as it is

This is probably better left for another thread, but I'm not sure what you're talking about.

I don't think anyone would say that it's easy in any edition to throw together an encounter that is likely to give one result or another (cue someone contradicting me on this) but it's easy to throw together 5 creatures of the party's level, or with the right challenge rating, or however that system worked. Or more or fewer, depending on how the DM feels the party's doing, if that's a consideration the DM likes to make.

, in my experience every encounter needs to be planned.

Or else what?

I will not take thirty minutes out of my player's play time because I was unprepared.

As you say, that's your experience, but if that were my situation, I'd work up some stock encounters that I could use to buy time when the PCs did something unexpected.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

As I stated, it is just in my experience, but I have always found that encounter balance is really delicate. I've often thought I have a balanced encounter, only to find out it was way too weak or way too strong, but yet I used the XP budget. Everything needs to be carefully thought out. Monster group composition, the level of the monsters, what powers they have and such. Just because a level 5 artillary would fit into an encounter against 3rd level characters, doesn't mean it should be put it in there. 

I just encountered this with the Bozak Draconian (changed to fit the MV stats), and it dropped two of the four people in my group. Everything else in that encounter were minions or below level to them, and that was one of the hardest encounters they had ever come across. They have blasted through everything else I threw at them, including a soloized Gel Cube, with little to no problems. This what happens when you don't have a balanced encounter, near TPKs and I try to avoid those where possible. A friend of mine ran into the exact same problem when he put us up against an undead soloized owlbear, in two rounds he dropped the fighter and had the cleric hurting, and the barbarian (me) near death as well. 

Not only that, but how the hell do you keep track of two or three different types of creatures on the fly like that? I mean between having monsters that would make sense, make up a good encounter with a good mixture of types, and such, coming up with all of that quickly is hard, let alone finding them in the books and knowing what they can all do. I'm not saying it can't be done, I'm saying I can't seem to do it. If there's a trick, please let me know, I would be happy with anything that would allow me to run things off-the-cuff more often. 

Also for reference, I find that having two or three books open, for me is really distracting and makes it hard for me to focus, but then I've never been good at multi-tasking I guess. In fact I scan the books to print off monster cards as I need them for my adventures so that all I have is two or three cards in front of me per encounter. 

Working up some stock encounters would be a good idea I think. Thanks for the suggestion. 

Anyway sorry for the longish post, and I hope this isn't derailing the thread, but I am honestly looking for help so I don't have to plan every little thing. Prep time for me is a killer right now. I'm literally working right now, 2nd day in a row on a single adventure from level 6 to 7.   

          

I see.

Not every encounter has to be a balanced challenge, nor should it be.

Err on the side of easy. If it's not an encounter you planned, then it's likely an encounter that doesn't need to happen, and so it's okay if the party has an easy time of it. Think of it as part of the atmosphere of the world rather than something that's really going to make the group sweat. This way, you should have some very easy encounters and some just right encounters, rather than easy and too hard.

In general, though, take TPKs off the table for yourself. The main way to do this is to give the monsters goals other than the destruction of the party. This depends greatly on why the party is having the encounter, but it's usually plausible to assume that monsters would prefer not to fight, and aren't interested in the reprisals killing a PC would be likely to bring. They've got some job and they want to do it and get out of there. Even if they're guarding an area, there's plausibly a plan for them to raise an alarm and fall back behind defenses, and it's very plausible that they wouldn't chase down a party that fled. Since we're talking about encounters you didn't expect the party to have anyway, all you have to do is only wing encounters when it's plausible enough for you that the enemies wouldn't go in for the kill. That way, you can pick whatever you want, and if it's too tough then the PCs don't die they just fail whatever they were trying to do and will have to try something else.

As for having monsters that make sense, I have three words: Reflavor, reflavor, reflavor. Be aware of what's available around their level and give a thought or two to how you can make them into what makes sense for your game.

Finally, consider not using monsters at all when the PCs throw you a curve. Lots of situations, even types of combat, can be created by using two or more concurrent skill challenges. It's part of not making monster killing the point of the encounter, but some other goal or goals.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.


Not only that, but how the hell do you keep track of two or three different types of creatures on the fly like that? I mean between having monsters that would make sense, make up a good encounter with a good mixture of types, and such, coming up with all of that quickly is hard, let alone finding them in the books and knowing what they can all do. I'm not saying it can't be done, I'm saying I can't seem to do it. If there's a trick, please let me know, I would be happy with anything that would allow me to run things off-the-cuff more often. 



Yes, there's a trick. ;)
Whatever the edition, you just MAKE S**** UP as needed.

That's right, make it up.

Because you're the DM & you control the horizontal & the vertical in your world and probably already know (or have an idea of) what/how you want things to happen.
So really all you have to do is add some description & the sound of rolling dice.
Heck you don't even need to open a single book.


Thanks for the suggestions and advice guys, believe me when I say I will keep everything said in mind when things like this come up. I guess in some small ways I am blessed with players that generally take my story hooks and run with them, but I think they know I have a weakness when it comes to running things off the cuff in any game I run except WoD. Hopefully in the current game I'm running I can surprise them with something a little more on the fly at some point and show them that it's something I'm trying to work on. 

I will definitely look to making unplanned encounters on the easier side as well as using impromptu skill challenges, I'll just have to print up a quick cheat sheet with the DCs by level and complexity charts from the DMG2 to help with that. When it comes to reflavoring...I should have thought of that since it's one of the big benefits of 4e that I keep praising to my friends that prefer PF over 4e, so thanks for the reminder.

As for the TPK situation, I usually try to come up with some way for a group to survive. If an individual player dies, fine, but the whole group kind of ruins story continuity, so I usually have a back up plan (they get captured, or wake up in a strange hermit's cave etc). Usually if the group runs I let them get away, because I do sometimes throw encounters at them that they aren't supposed to win, but survive and run away so I want to encourage them to run if things look like they're going south.  

@CCS - You're correct I do know what and how I want things to happen, especially since I am running my own setting. I'm just so used to running pre-made settings that I get twitchy about making stuff up. A habit I'm going to have to break now. 

Again thanks for the help and advice.
Thanks for the suggestions and advice guys, believe me when I say I will keep everything said in mind when things like this come up. I guess in some small ways I am blessed with players that generally take my story hooks and run with them, but I think they know I have a weakness when it comes to running things off the cuff in any game I run except WoD. Hopefully in the current game I'm running I can surprise them with something a little more on the fly at some point and show them that it's something I'm trying to work on. 

I will definitely look to making unplanned encounters on the easier side as well as using impromptu skill challenges, I'll just have to print up a quick cheat sheet with the DCs by level and complexity charts from the DMG2 to help with that. When it comes to reflavoring...I should have thought of that since it's one of the big benefits of 4e that I keep praising to my friends that prefer PF over 4e, so thanks for the reminder.

As for the TPK situation, I usually try to come up with some way for a group to survive. If an individual player dies, fine, but the whole group kind of ruins story continuity, so I usually have a back up plan (they get captured, or wake up in a strange hermit's cave etc). Usually if the group runs I let them get away, because I do sometimes throw encounters at them that they aren't supposed to win, but survive and run away so I want to encourage them to run if things look like they're going south.  

@CCS - You're correct I do know what and how I want things to happen, especially since I am running my own setting. I'm just so used to running pre-made settings that I get twitchy about making stuff up. A habit I'm going to have to break now. 

Again thanks for the help and advice.



Remember there are updated Skill Challenge numbers in the compiled errata for the DMG2, if you are using the higher damage expressions, it makes a natural jump to use them as well.

The stock encounters are a good idea, and Im ashamed to admit that I haven't really hit on that one yet. My group is also pretty forgiving of my rails, though, as three of the six are Storytellers, two of those are also DMs, and my two Powergamers are easily distracted with waves of minions and a couple of big brutes. That just leaves my Watcher, who is the girlfriend of one of my Powergamers, so she tends to just follow along...
So many PCs, so little time...
I think the main point the OP seems to be making definitely matches my experience.  That is that winging is becoming easier and more common amonst DMs in 4E because of familiarity with the system and availability of useful resources to help.

Early on, I absolutely would not wing an encounter in 4E (something I often had done in earlier editions).  I feared for the balance issues, and felt that encounters must be planned, skill challenges required preparation and plotting.  But as time has gone on, I wing it sometimes to the point I am now completely comfortable doing it - almost as comfortable as I was in earlier editions.  The only "real" obstacle I find now is that the game relies heavily on minis and therefore you need a good map to play on.  So I have been working on accumulating a nice collection of maps and dungeon tiles and always make sure I have some extra locales handy to use if needed.  

So now I feel I am back to being able to quickly wing an encounter and make it dangerous but not cause a TPK.  I've DM'd for thirty years and have NEVER had a TPK  - lots of techniques can avoid this - different topic but I find the key is not to wait too long to intercede in a subtle way - characters have died, of course, but not very many.

But winging it?  Yeah, every DM needs to spread their "wings" every now and again...

I have always been a "wing it" DM, even when working from published material. But 4e has made it easier than ever for me to do so. Then again, 4e has made it easier to wing every aspect of the game, including adding an unexpected and unprepared player to the game.
Here are the PHB essentia, in my opinion:
  • Three Basic Rules (p 11)
  • Power Types and Usage (p 54)
  • Skills (p178-179)
  • Feats (p 192)
  • Rest and Recovery (p 263)
  • All of Chapter 9 [Combat] (p 264-295)
A player needs to read the sections for building his or her character -- race, class, powers, feats, equipment, etc. But those are PC-specific. The above list is for everyone, regardless of the race or class or build or concept they are playing.
Hey guys, how long have you been winging 4e, especially encounters?  Or are you not quite there yet like you may have been with previous editions after three years? Winging It in D&D: Is it Back?

Winging it in 4E is a doddle to do, you can take any creature and reskin the thing to something else. You want tough barbarians or brigands of the right level, you take some orcs or hobgoblins (+ a bugbear) and TADA you got some different brigands for the streets of Waterdeep. Make one a wrestler by giving them a grapple attack (attack vs Fortitude) that does damage and the target is grabbed or drop in a martial artist who can once per encounter perform an attack that Dazes the target.
Change the effect damage to a different damage type to fit the creature but if it's against a Defence other than AC then it takes a -2 to the attack.

Overall it's awesomely easy to do although you need to make sure you don't throw ad-libbed overpowered encounters.
Overall it's awesomely easy to do although you need to make sure you don't throw ad-libbed overpowered encounters.

Which you do by not making the encounter about killing the PCs, but about interfering with their quest in an interesting way.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Overall it's awesomely easy to do although you need to make sure you don't throw ad-libbed overpowered encounters.

Which you do by not making the encounter about killing the PCs, but about interfering with their quest in an interesting way.



There is a charm about the party fighting for their lives, though.

Anyways, sometimes it's just unavoidable. If the story has them trapped in a dungeon and they stumble upon a gelatinous cube, that thing just wants to eat. And to eat, it has to kill. Unless the party gives it it's food, but a gelatinous cube wouldn't stop eating the PCs, spit them out, and grab their backpacks once the PCs fall unconscious.

I do agree that encounters that aren't all about killing the PCs are usually the more interesting ones. 
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Overall it's awesomely easy to do although you need to make sure you don't throw ad-libbed overpowered encounters.

Which you do by not making the encounter about killing the PCs, but about interfering with their quest in an interesting way.

There is a charm about the party fighting for their lives, though.

Sure, but it can get old, especially if in order to get them to fight for their lives you have to risk actually costing them their lives.

Anyways, sometimes it's just unavoidable. If the story has them trapped in a dungeon and they stumble upon a gelatinous cube, that thing just wants to eat. And to eat, it has to kill. Unless the party gives it it's food, but a gelatinous cube wouldn't stop eating the PCs, spit them out, and grab their backpacks once the PCs fall unconscious.

It could still have other goals. Maybe it's ready to undergo mitosis and is actually more interested in just getting down the hallway toward its spawning ground. Maybe it's diseased and in pain and is trying to hide. Maybe it's injured and hunted and is fleeing. The party's in the way, but if they can just get out of its way it'll leave them alone.

Or, sometimes the enemies ARE out to kill the PCs, but the PCs have some other goal than killing the monster. Maybe combat will bring guards. Maybe the cube is just too tough for them. Maybe there's something worse trapped in the cube and they don't want to release it. Then the party must flee or find some way to get the cube to go away, rather than risk fighting it.

I do agree that encounters that aren't all about killing the PCs are usually the more interesting ones.

Hear, hear.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

I don't think winging it has ever left the game.  Players will always challenge a Dms imagination with the possabilities of five or six other minds contributing to a DnD games unfolding narratives. 

I am more confident with winging it, using the 4e challenge resolution and combat system than in any previous edition.  Confidence comes with experience and after 30+ years I am really confident in how I Dm.   I have evolved as a Dm with the various editions over the past 30 years.  I have played and Dmed through 30 years of DnD.  So I have a good view of how the various editions and my understanding of them has effected my Dming through out the years.  So for me I am confident with winging Defence and Offense stats, i.e. AC, reflex, attack bonus, damage, etc.   I have experienced how the game has evolved over the 30 years and so I am more confident with winging it using the 4e edition.
As far as combat goes:
I always keep 7 encounters in stock. These encounters come from the following for types:
a) Regular (two skirmishers, two soldiers, two artillery)
b) Fireworks  (loads of minions, maybe a leader. Something to give me twenty minutes to come up with a solution, while the players hack & slay through easily controlled groups of monsters)
c) Wild Animals (Wolf Pack, Bears, something I don't have to bother explaining storywise)
d) Bring 'em back (an encounter so overpowered the players have to run away from it so I can get them back on track)
Of the first 3 types I always have one for [partylevel] and [partylevel + 2] stated out. Type d is kind of an emergency break and it's always [partylevel + 4]. If I have to use one of those (which becomes more and more rare as I get to know the typical behaviour of my players) I refluff it so it will fit the setting/story I currently need.

But you can also wing the other parts of the game. But winging NPCs is system independent and I never prepare for that. If I need to make up a character I will just copy one from a movie/novel/game I know and alter his/her name a bit and make him behave like the original version would. This has the advantage (or disadvantage, this is for you to judge), that if a halfling like "Bolbu Bigguns" appears my players know he is not to be take to seriously. On the other hand there once was a goliath barbarian named "Juhn'Mac Layne" who ended up getting a lot of face time because he was fun for me and the players (he grew more aggressive and stronger as he got damage, something like +4 damage for every quarter hp missing, my players at one point beat him up so he could fight better)

Best,
Chilhelm
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