Set Pieces in D&D

I’ve said before that I like designing campaigns toward some sort of set piece, and I think there’s an opportunity to explain.

Here, a set piece is a significant encounter that doesn’t follow the normal flow of D&D. It’s usually a big deal but not quite a climax, usually leading to the climax as a direct result of the set piece. In a sense, it’s like a quick break from normal D&D right before the hardest part of the campaign. Smaller set pieces exist and most campaigns have them somewhere, like a flying battle on dragonback, but I like to design my campaigns toward (but not around!) a specific set piece near the end. It lets me do something special to make the campaign unique, and it allows me to end the campaign with normal D&D so the players can use their characters in the climax.

Explaining it is a bit difficult because I’ve never really quantified what makes something s set piece to me, or even why I like them. It’s probably easier to understand with some examples, so here are some of the set pieces that I’ve done in my last few campaigns:

  • The Eight Arms and the Shadow Invasion – In the penultimate session of the campaign, a city was taken over by an army of ostensibly good light-based creatures, who invaded as a response to the players’ efforts to stop them from performing a magical ritual. In response, an army of shadow-based creatures, led by the players’ ally but with a majority of forces intent on just wreaking havoc, also invaded. Counting the original inhabitants of the city, this set up a three-way struggle as each group loosely tried to kick out the others.

    I created a map of the city, divided into districts, on poster board, and the players moved about the city trying to gather allies, fend off enemies, and accomplish other goals like checking up on friendly NPCs. It wasn’t terribly unlike Risk, though the players didn’t know the forces in any given area until they entered it and investigated. I rolled three d20s, one for each army, to determine their strength whenever they went to a new district. This created some neat situations. One time, I rolled something like 19 on one die and 4 and 3 on the others, so that army had an overwhelming strength advantage and couldn’t be kicked out without significant effort. Another time, I rolled 10, 12, 2, indicating that two armies were battling it out and the third was barely present.

    The party ended up splitting into three groups, sending one to gather the baron’s forces, one to speak with the allied head of the shadow army, and one to gather NPCs and create a strong force that could take districts back. We didn’t do any turn-by-turn combat, opting to resolve most encounters will skill checks or abstract combat (“Make an attack roll. Well, you beat the average defender’s AC by 12 and they only beat yours by 2, so you fend them off but take some damage”). In the end, they rallied many of the shadow forces and all of the native forces together to force the light army back to the bay, were they retreated to a lighthouse for a final battle. I’m told that the whole event was pretty successful, though I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the giant poster board of the city I keep in my closet.

  • The Great Tower of Oldechi – This set piece wasn’t part of the campaign climax, but it was the end of a long-running plot. The party had spent the campaign (from levels 2 to 26) dealing with a group of NPCs who thought they had to break out of the campaign setting by force. Originally the players were allied with them, but as the campaign went on they learned more information and opted to only feign alliance. When the party arrived on Floor 26, the NPC’s base of operations, it was just in time to subvert their plans, and the NPCs reacted poorly.

    Here the set piece was a normal combat and a normal skill challenge, in that order. The sticking point was that each NPC had (and was named after) a theme song, and I set up a playlist that would run for the length of the session. At the beginning of the session, I started the playlist and let the music run in the background. Whenever an NPC’s theme song started, that NPC would arrive at the battle. Since each enemy was a level 26 elite who only went down when their hit points reached their negative bloodied value, the players had to kill them as quickly as possible knowing that the fight had a hard limit until it became as good as unbeatable.

    The players did end up killing four of the six NPCs before the session’s scheduled end time (we couldn’t run late, since I had a different D&D game to get to), but the session ended when the NPC’s leader entered the battle in a mecha, which was about 300 feet tall. It wasn’t killable in combat, so the next session was a skill challenge as the players tried to fight a creature fifty times their size. This fight was largely won by a combination of the party’s brute and their mobility specialist, but I can’t discount when the tank tried to shove the mecha over using only the power of light snowfall. I think this fight turned out alright, and certainly nobody complained.

  • The Eight Arms and the Conqueror Worm – This set piece was significantly less dramatic than the rest, but it was only a five-session campaign. The party had determined that a small group of demons and duergars was kidnapping craftsmen to build a war machine. The players were captured and fought their way out of the enemy base just in time to see the machine, a flying snake-like creature, take off. They managed to catch it, but then had to find a way to stop a city-destroying robot before it reached the city without incapacitating it to badly that it crashed, killing them all.

    This was, again, a fairly mundane skill challenge, except that any sufficiently bad roll on a sufficiently stupid idea was guaranteed to kill a character as they fell off the machine (except the the PC who could fly, I guess). Further, the robot itself got a turn in the skill challenge to try and dislodge the players, attack them, or heal itself. Oh, and it was in Pathfinder, a system without a skill challenge mechanic.

    The players mostly accomplished this by disabling as many weapons system as possible and stripping all the armor they could, which took about as long as the flight to the city. They finally felled the robot by chucking a sack of alchemical reagents into its mouth just as it was firing its breath weapon, which is one of those ideas so awesome that it works no matter what the dice say (though the dice rolled high, so the party also survived the blast). This led to the final confrontation with the robot’s driver, and everything went downhill from there. The challenge itself went fairly well, though it became clear that regardless of the characters involved, some players work better than others in my skill challenge system.

  • The Eight Arms and the Deed of Taiyun Gao* – During the campaign, the party was caught between two opposing countries willing and able to go to war over newly-disputed territory on their shared border. At one point, the party left to rally giants in neighboring lands to attack both countries, forcing them to work together and forget their differences. However, the party’s horses were eaten by a giant cockroach (no, really), so the trip took much longer than expected. By the time they returned, the countries were already at war.

    This set piece is unique in that it didn’t actually happen. My original idea was that the party would eventually choose one country or the other, and the climactic battle would take place as they lead troops against the enemy in a theater of war (I’d been playing a lot of Dynasty Warriors at the time). The players, though, wanted nothing to do with the actual conflict, deciding that preventing it wholesale was better. They were right, but it resulted in a face-to-face combat between two CR 20 creatures, which didn’t leave the L8 party a lot to do.

    In the end, a few lucky critical hits meant that the enemy boss was slain, though the allied boss had died a few rounds prior. The countries were united in adversity, but the spirit of the land was dead and the natural flora and fauna would gradually die, leaving a barren wasteland. The moral? Don’t screw with the set piece. (I’m joking here, because the players weren’t wrong to seek out a third option. But there was probably a fourth option neither of us though of that would have produced a happier ending.)

It’s worth noting that my first five campaigns ended with normal combat, and my last four were designed with set pieces in mind. This jump occurred right about the time I changed my DMing style to the one I use now.

I think that campaigns without set pieces at all are really missing something, because it allows us to push the limits of D&D and try mechanics somewhat beyond the d20-and-puzzles format. Sometimes they don’t work, like when I tried a battle using hexes in 4th Edition (remind me to write a post about that someday, with pictures), and other times they’re really awesome. I think as long as a DM is willing to branch out some and doesn’t shove bad set pieces down their players’ throats, there’s a lot of room for creative design.

One day I’m actually going to run that Dynasty Warriors battle, but it’s going to be a lot harder to run it using the pagoda pieces if I can’t set the campaign in Asia.

* – Yeah, it’s time to start abbreviating these campaign names.

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One Response to Set Pieces in D&D

  1. Eld One-Eyed says:

    Thanks for the advice. I’ve been looking through your site all day and a lot of what you say is very helpful. Also, thank you for being a Dynasty Warriors fan. There are not a lot of people in the west who play those games. Also, I was wondering if you ever tried to play Exalted. Some of its rules, like stunting, seem pretty cool, though I haven’t had an opportunity to test them yet. Keep up the good work on writing good articles.

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