By my own standards I’ve been a terrible DM lately. When my latest campaign began, I didn’t give my players the normal pre-campaign survey. I haven’t been asking players to build levels for me. I haven’t been designing all encounters via my normal pluses and minuses mechanic. But in my defense moblins don’t breath fire.
The reason I’ve been skimping on my normal process is because I’ve been running my second Legend of Zelda campaign. Set in an unexplored land just outside Hyrule, it tells the tale of travelers who ventured to the area and got caught up in reuniting a scattered arrangement of towns who used to trade and communicate through now-defunct teleportation portals. It’s been running in D&D 4E for about eight months with the same five players, and we’re currently somewhere in early-middle Act 2*.
Since I’m running the campaign in an existing setting, I’m limited in terms of what I can do. One of my goals is to make a Zelda campaign feel like Zelda, which means a focus on dungeons, items, and recognizable monsters. We’re not spending a month meddling in local politics because that’s not what Zelda is about. It’s about going underground, fighting some things, getting a new piece of gear, using that gear to fight a boss, getting distracted by side quests, getting underground in a new place, and repeating until a princess likes you.
So I didn’t use my campaign survey because of lot of the answers were obvious: focus on fighting over role-play, clear hero/villain demarcation, leaning but not heavily rural, and a PG rating (and we did discuss this during Session Zero). I don’t ask my players to describe rooms or monsters or characters live at the table because I have to have the puzzles, challenges, and progression flow in a certain way and there’s only so much variance in how tried-and-true monsters look and act. I don’t intend every encounter to build up some players and knock down others because I’m more interested in the monster design aspect than how those monsters make one player shine.
This isn’t to say I’m ignoring my methods completely. When I put together a monster I do note what makes certain characters succeed or fail against them, and I don’t (often) put together a fight filled with monsters that make a specific player unhappy. But my first priority is to make the monster fun, second to make them recognizable, third to make them fair, and only fourth to allow a member of the party to show off. (Besides, it’s 4E. They’re showing off plenty on their own.)
And this is the big difference I’m finding between monster design for this campaign and monster design for every other campaign: if the players don’t know what it is, I’ve done it wrong. For the most part I can’t say “this is a strange magical creature you’ve never seen before, so maybe it will sprout a third head”. Players have to be able to recognize that this an octorok, and it’s going to run around and spit rocks but not be terribly interesting in melee, while this is a beamos, and it’s wholly immobile but its defenses are high and its attacks are annoying. I’m not targeting the play experience as the only goal, or play experience and party balance as shared primary goals. There’s a new goal of resemblance, and it’s a fixed target with clear success/fail criteria.
This is a limit, but it’s a fun limit. To me, “design a L10 skirmisher” is an insurmountable challenge because it’s too vague. “Design a L10 skirmisher who teleports and uses a fire attack” is much better; I can stop focusing on all the ways a creature can be a skirmisher and zero in on making a flying teleporter interesting and scary. “Design a L10 version of a wizzrobe” is right up my alley. Integrating weak points is even more fun. If a monster is weak against arrows, I have to express that in a way that lets players recognize and exploit it.
I have allowed myself some creative liberties, with player permission. Video game monsters only have so many abilities as a limitation of the medium. For example, moblins are really, really boring. They’re basically orcs who sometimes charge and sometimes throw a spear. It’s up to me to come up with powers that give them options and challenge the players, like letting them charge a second time in the same turn once per encounter or gain bonuses when they fight adjacent to their allies.
And I have to mess with things further by the nature of running pen-and-paper. In a video game, you can kill a monster with one hit and killing fifty of those monsters is visceral and satisfying. In D&D, we call those “minions”, and fighting fifty is mostly a slog. I also can’t put a fight in every room of a dungeon. In a video game a player can end a fight in seconds and move on. At the table it takes longer than that just to roll initiative. But in general I’m focusing on making things feels like Zelda, which means some of my normal table tricks are taking a back seat.
One thing I am doing is non-binary DCs, and the players seem to like it. The biggest places this applies is in our monster knowledge rules. The normal system isn’t that great. The Monster Manual has a small section for each monster with DCs and a few sentences. If the players roll high enough they get to know, for example, that earth giants are brutish and live in mountains, and if they roll even higher they can learn that earth giants sometimes enslave dwarves who turn into galeb duhrs. None of this is helpful in fighting them, and when a player meets a giant in a canyon they probably already know that giant lives in that canyon. The exception is what’s interesting (“An earth giant? In my underwater bank vault?”), not the actual information.
So we use a different system. Players roll a knowledge check, and I apply that to a DC of the monster’s level. For every five points by which the player beat the DC, they get one of the following: the monster’s highest defense, lowest defense, role, resistances, vulnerabilities, or signature power. So far the winner has been signature power, and the loser has been highest defense (hint: it’s usually AC), but beyond that the players get to decide what information they have based on what they need.
I’m trying to work in more skill challenges using the “choose X of Y” system, and so far it’s really fun. At first I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with enough interesting options (there’s a reason Apocalypse World and similar systems tend to give a hard-coded list for any given action), but if I repeated myself too often nobody called me on it. And since Link usually solves skill challenges via button-skill minigames or hiding from guards I don’t have a problem with this particular break from the source material. I’m sure it will all go south at some point, but it hasn’t yet.
Besides that I’ve largely been ignoring my own advice for session building, and for that I apologize to my players. I may have been able to give you a better campaign than I have been if I’d done things as I normally do. But I might not. Perhaps this is good, in that it’s letting me try new things and walk away with the bits I like. So in that sense I also apologize that I’m using you as guinea pigs. Well, more than normal.
I’m not going into the specifics of adapting Zelda monsters into 4E because that strikes me as an incredibly boring read. I can’t imagine many people care why my peahat is level 4 (though, if you must know, it’s because the players were L4 when they reached the forest dungeon) or how many different ways I found to phrase flyby attack. Maybe when the whole thing is done I’ll just post my Monster Manual. Then I can play in someone else’s Zelda campaign with the least Zelda-esque character I can think of. My current players have set that bar pretty high.
* — In case you missed it in the middle of other posts, I try real hard to make my campaigns follow a three-act structure. I’ve come to label them “Act 1: What Color Is the Carpet?”, where the players learn about the setting and central conflict, “Act 2: Uh-oh! The Enemy Have Started to Move!”, where the antagonists take action, and “Act 3: One and Fifteen”, where the players fight back. Going over the names is a blog post unto itself.