D&D General Orcs on Stairs (When Adventures Are Incomplete)

This is something I'm just fine with. Sometimes the PCs will either a) just get lucky and do the right thing without realizing it, or b) they'll trip on to the solution early through creative thinking. It's the sort of thing that would occasionally happen were the setting real, so no problem if it happens now and then in the game.
Yeah I'm fine with those scenarios, but the issue is when it's just extremely likely the players will go "Uh this seems messed up" when the adventure is written as if they'll be like "THIS IS FINE", and doesn't work if they don't react that way. This was actually more common in the past than now. I know some Shadowrun adventures that absolutely rely on you just going along with your dodgy orders and being in no way suspicious of the incredibly suspicious person who gave you them in a setting where you're supposed to be suspicious of your employer (and indeed just about everyone).
I don't mind this at all provided there's a rationale behind the crazy, even if the players never learn what that rationale is.
Yeah I'm talking about when there is no "rationale", it's just "the adventure writer didn't think this through". I know Keep on the Shadowlands specifically has multiple instances of this and H2 does as well, though thankfully enough time has passed that I no longer remember specifics lol. I suspect a lot of DMs do weird stuff with no rationale so routinely their players stop asking questions, but I always have a rationale, and I tend to prefer that it can be discerned with sufficient effort, so it's been 30 years and my players never stopped asking questions.

(Indeed I think this goes back to the very first adventure I read - which was written by my older cousin - she'd given careful rationales for every weird thing that was happening, and it made the whole thing way more engaging. So the first adventure I wrote I followed suit.)
Can't speak for H2 or H3 but I converted and ran H1 early in my current campaign. It wasn't perfect and didn't convert all that well but in general it didn't go too badly...until the final encounter, where the author ignoring some very obvious what-ifs left me hanging.
Yeah that's a good example. I ended up changing the entire end-bit of H1 because of that, luckily I caught it before I ran it.

H1 is one of the most shoddily put-together adventures I've come across from a higher-end RPG company. Pretty bad that it was the introduction to 4E.
 

log in or register to remove this ad


Lyxen

Great Old One
H1 is one of the most shoddily put-together adventures I've come across from a higher-end RPG company. Pretty bad that it was the introduction to 4E.

I honestly think it's not that easy to be the first to produce an adventure for a new system, for example the Sunless Citadel, Keep on the Shadowfell and Hoard of the Dragon Queen were actually amongst the weakest of their series. However, what is hard to stomach is that they fail not for technical reasons (although the bugs due to the MM coming out later than HotDQ were a bit fatal, assassins, I'm looking at you), but for mostly story and plot reasons and honestly there is no reasons for these to be worse, except the fact that it's usually a new team working on a new system. And it's really silly honestly, they should really put their most experienced people on the new scenarios, even with a new system, not only does it ensure a better quality scenario, but it's also a kind of "trial by fire" for the system and its implementation. At least that's the way I would do it...
 
Last edited:

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
I think "Orcs on Stairs" is being used to describe several problems in adventure design.

1) players who don't make actions anticipated by the writer. Given that there are many, many, many actions a group can take, and you can't foresee what classes or abilities they might have, this one is almost forgivable.

I was playing Fantasy Craft, and an enemy caster was up on a balcony while ordering his minions to and fro. I was able to target him with that game's version of command, and told him to approach me. He then stepped off the balcony and fell to his doom. Nobody could have foreseen that.

It's more when the players do something that seems logical, but the adventure doesn't take it into account. Back in 2e, we were playing DLE3: Dragon Keep. At the end of the adventure, Takhisis transforms her demigoddess daughter, Artha, into a chromatic dragon. She has the same stats as Takhisis/Tiamat, but if brought to less than 40 hit points, drops, then rises again the next turn.

The battle is supposed to be won by solving a puzzle. My Fighter (Cavalier Kit) had a Dragonlance, so I did what my honor demanded and I got into a fray with the chromatic dragon. Thanks to my high hit point total, I killed her like three times over before the party finally clued in, at which point it was something of an anticlimax. Apparently the mod writer thought the answer to the puzzle was super obvious, and that a player armed with a weapon that deals in excess of 100 points of damage and has multiple attacks per round, was going to have trouble with a 128 hit point five-headed dragon!

2) important details are missing. My Murder in Baldur's Gate campaign ran into this halfway through, when my party chose the "wrong" faction. The adventure never says this is the "wrong" faction- you need to read ahead to find that out, and I was running it week by week, so I didn't think I needed to.

After session 3, the adventure was totally off the rails because it no longer had any tasks for the player characters to do. Nor did it make it obvious that their employers were "the bad guys". Similar to point 1, the writer just assumed no self-respecting murderhobos would go to work for wealthy legitimate authorities. This now puts the onus on the DM's shoulders to troubleshoot the adventure for no good reason.

3) the players manage to "sequence break" the adventure. Most adventures are written with the idea that players will proceed from one area to another in a more or less linear fashion. Dungeons have their areas numbered, and usually, the higher numbered areas have the more dangerous encounters.

It's assumed the players will search the dungeon logically- and there's nothing really wrong with that, if the players skip areas, that's sort of on them. But a few adventures present barriers to keep the party from advancing- a locked door that requires a certain key, a missing bridge, a collapsed section of the tunnel. What makes this point different from point 1 is, the players might find a way to circumvent the obstacle with a lucky die roll, or worse, using resources in the adventure itself. I don't remember the adventure, because this was a long time ago, but I was playing with some friends, and we came upon a portcullis that was too heavy to lift or bend the bars (remember when Strength had a feature just to do this?) and the only way we could see to raise the portcullis was a level on the other side, out of reach. The adventure wanted us to take the long way around by eventually finding a secret door.

But after an early encounter, we discovered a potion of gaseous form, so the magic user cast invisibility on our thief, she turned into a cloud of mist, waited for the potion to end on the other side, then, naked but invisible, crept to the lever and opened the portcullis, allowing us to bypass 25% of the adventure. When we didn't have important information later, the DM said "well, technically, it was your fault for not exploring the lower levels before going through the portcullis".

4) the players break the narrative. This is, again, related to 1. During one of the adventures leading up to Lolth's attempt to subvert the Weave, we were on a pub crawl throughout the Realms and ended up in Shadowdale, where Elminster telepathically contacted us and asked us to pursue the bad guys because he was "busy".

In the final battle, there was a drow wizard on the other side of iron bars casting spells at us. He was the big enemy, and apparently, it's scripted that he is meant to escape to reappear in the next adventure. He gave his villain speech and said "hahahaha, you can't catch me!" and turned to go, whereupon which our Eladrin used his Fey Step to appear in front of him and cut him down. "Where do you think you are going?"

Needless to say, the DM of that adventure was nonplussed, but later said the guy was a decoy, obviously, lol.
 

edosan

Explorer
Dragon Heist is like a "how to" of how not to write an adventure. It's got all the things you're not supposed to do in it, including forcing your players down a railroad and having uber-powerful NPCs show up to resolve the climax while the PCs watch and all that jazz.
It also suffers from the problem of several uber powerful NPCs incapable of solving a problem so obviously if falls to a few third level tavern owners. Come on, why wouldn't they?

what does it matter if the fall is 500 feet of 5000 feet or exactly 2271 feet? That's a deadly fall, period, doesn't matter how much HP the character has. All falls of 500 feet or more can be simply handled as 275 points of damage (because there's no point in rolling 50d10), which is more than nearly all characters will ever possess. A fall from that height is effectively deadly, and there's no reason to specify further.
Rings of Feather Fall exist, among other things. It is also not unreasonable to ask why this particular fall is insta-death, no save allowed to see if you grab on to the ledge or just get knocked ten feet down the stairs into the apparently infinite abyss.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
It also suffers from the problem of several uber powerful NPCs incapable of solving a problem so obviously if falls to a few third level tavern owners. Come on, why wouldn't they?


Rings of Feather Fall exist, among other things. It is also not unreasonable to ask why this particular fall is insta-death, no save allowed to see if you grab on to the ledge or just get knocked ten feet down the stairs into the apparently infinite abyss.
Actually, given this is 4e, there is a save. If forced movement would put you in harmful terrain or knock you off a cliff, you do get a saving throw to avoid it.
 

Rings of Feather Fall exist, among other things. It is also not unreasonable to ask why this particular fall is insta-death, no save allowed to see if you grab on to the ledge or just get knocked ten feet down the stairs into the apparently infinite abyss.
I mean, the save is baked into the underlying rules, so I had assumed that was simply done as the rules say it should be. I get that this is a topic where clarity is important, but I would appreciate a more charitable reading of what I said.

As for the first bit: sure...but none of that requires specifying the height. I'm not a jerk DM, even if the player failed their save and the tower/mountain/whatever wouldn't make sense to be tall enough that time should be allowed to act in the rules proper, I'd still allow them to make use of something like that--feather fall potions, feather tokens, letting another player do something helpful, etc.

In 4e, feather fall is a free action, and a ring of feather fall simply works, it doesn't require any activation or items at all. You literally just do not take falling damage: "Property You take no damage from a fall and always land on your feet." So, again, there's no need to precisely specify the height here. The save to catch onto an edge is baked into the forced movement rules already, and all forms of feather fall just work automatically or with a free action.

edit: Note that I am not saying it is not possible for a module to simply fail to mention some very important, relevant details, perhaps even ones that are actually leveraged by the story itself. I just think this very specific example is a rather poor one. I think that both because (a) none of the things that 4e characters can do in response to this event require meaningful actions or time, so any "you get X rounds to do something" rules are pretty much irrelevant, and (b) any fall beyond a certain height is essentially deadly to all 4e characters, and that's something that the characters should be able to know about their world.

Like, let's give a toy example here. I wrote up a murder mystery for my DW game, but let's pretend it was for a published 4e module. I added various clues and suspicious details that could be discovered, and one of those clues was a murder weapon (in this case, a false clue planted by the real culprit). I was pretty specific about where the victim had been stabbed (in the back, between the ribs), and because I knew I had people in the group with just a little human anatomy training, I mentioned some important characteristics, like the fact that the area around the stab wound didn't have much blood showing. This was another clue, one overlooked by the real killer: they had poisoned the victim, and faked the body's position and stab-wound in order to plant false leads, but had not faked the amount of blood that should have leaked out if the victim had been stabbed while still alive.

If the module had been written in the (alleged) "Orcs on Stairs" way, it would say nothing whatsoever about the position or nature of the stab wound, giving no comment on the lack of blood etc. But then later the players would be expected to figure out that the victim had to have been poisoned, not stabbed. The critical clues indicating that the stab is fake were left out, but that the stab is fake is still a critical piece of information for cracking the case. That's a clear oversight of something needed, but for whatever reason not given.

Other examples others have given, like having a creature that theoretically is present for combat but has zero combat stats (not even initiative) are similar good examples.
 
Last edited:

Retreater

Legend
You take no damage from a fall and always land on your feet." So, again, there's no need to precisely specify the height here.
There absolutely is a reason. Once you fall, how far do you go before landing on your feet? You'll need to climb up. How much rope, how many Climb checks, etc?
It was vital information to the encounter, where every successful hit had about a 50% chance of causing this situation to occur (considering saving throws).
 

There absolutely is a reason. Once you fall, how far do you go before landing on your feet? You'll need to climb up. How much rope, how many Climb checks, etc?
It was vital information to the encounter, where every successful hit had about a 50% chance of causing this situation to occur (considering saving throws).
...if you've fallen 500 feet or more, there is no possible way you can climb back up fast enough for it to matter.

Like...come on man, you cannot tell me this is relevant. 500 feet is 50 squares. Characters that do not have a climb speed must both make Athletics checks every round to climb, and move at half speed while climbing (round down), meaning even very quick races (like elves) can only climb 3 squares per round. To climb 50 squares, the character must pass 17 consecutive Althletics checks without any failures, or 17 plus any "fail by 4 or less" rolls. That's 17 rounds of being out of the fight. There is no physical way that the fight will still be ongoing by the time the falling victim has climbed back up.

If the fall is essentially guaranteed to be lethal--several hundred feet at least--then it will be obvious that it would take too long to climb back up on your own.

Again: that information may be relevant later, and in general it is better to provide that information than to simply handwave it, because it's very simple info. But it is absolutely the case that even if you survive the fall, you aren't rejoining that combat. It will be over--and the group can try to figure out a way to get you back up more quickly--long before you could have climbed back up on your own.
 

Retreater

Legend
Like...come on man, you cannot tell me this is relevant.
Levitate. Teleport. Dimension Door. Fly. What about ranged attacks from down there?
And that's just about getting back into the fight physically.
You still have to contend with recovering the character after the fight. So that's the difference between 10 or 17 or whatever Athletics checks. Having enough rope. Etc.
It's important information.
Not to mention it's just DM fiat unless you have the distance (and damage) of a fall, which definitely flies in the face of D&D's design since the 2000s.
 

edosan

Explorer
Not to belabor it, but I feel like the "who cares how far the distance is" misses the point in this case - that based on the anecdote, there is a chance a character will basically be sucked into a Sphere of Annhiliation with no hope of return and no appeal. Nobody likes to have their character killed by narrative fiat, it smacks of Tomb of Horrors-style capriciousness - "you touched the wrong doorknob, you die, no save possible, too bad."
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
If something has a stat block, it means it can be fought. If it does not, it's invulnerable. The attacks have no effect.
Which in terms of realism* is jarring as hell, in that there's no such thing as an invulnerable creature.

Sure it might seem invulnerable to the PCs, what with its 4537 hit points and AC 63, but at least give me the damn numbers so I-as-DM know what I'm trying to run and how to narrate what happens to the archer's shots at it.

* - and yes I know 4e didn't give a fig about realism, but I do; and I expect adventure writers to give it some thought also.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Other examples others have given, like having a creature that theoretically is present for combat but has zero combat stats (not even initiative) are similar good examples.
Although my recollection of that specific example is that the creature isn't actually present. It's on the other side of the opaque interdimensional portal, and its presence is limited to an occasional tentacle poking through. The only effect it has on the fight is to try to pull through heroes who get too close to the portal.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I think "Orcs on Stairs" is being used to describe several problems in adventure design.

1) players who don't make actions anticipated by the writer. Given that there are many, many, many actions a group can take, and you can't foresee what classes or abilities they might have, this one is almost forgivable.
To a point, yes; but I'd like the writers to at least anticipate some obvious alternative PC approaches and account for them.

The one most commonly missed - as in, all the time! - is flight. It's a relatively low-level ability (and baked in from the start for some PC-playable species these days) yet writers of mid- and high-level modules almost invariably assume the PCs will approach on the ground. There's no mention of what happens should the PCs go in through the roof, or fly up the tower rather than climb the stairs, etc.; yet it's just so bloody obvious as a PC tactic! Grrrrrrr.....
2) important details are missing. My Murder in Baldur's Gate campaign ran into this halfway through, when my party chose the "wrong" faction. The adventure never says this is the "wrong" faction- you need to read ahead to find that out, and I was running it week by week, so I didn't think I needed to.
My bugaboo with missing details is where an author, probably writing sequentially, adds something in to a later part of the module that would have left clues in earlier parts - except the writer didn't go back and add those clues in.

An example I've actually DMed: an adventure where the PCs are following a hidden forest path to the enemy's hideout; it's the only way in. The author writes the track-through-the-woods piece, then later writes the hideout piece - and in the hideout includes description of horses and wagons used to supply the place but doesn't go back and note that said horses and wagons would have left obvious tracks and marks on the path! (never mind the path would have had to be made wider and smoother to accomodate their passage)
3) the players manage to "sequence break" the adventure. Most adventures are written with the idea that players will proceed from one area to another in a more or less linear fashion. Dungeons have their areas numbered, and usually, the higher numbered areas have the more dangerous encounters.
This is fine. The author lays out the adventure and the PCs approach it as they will.
It's assumed the players will search the dungeon logically- and there's nothing really wrong with that, if the players skip areas, that's sort of on them. But a few adventures present barriers to keep the party from advancing- a locked door that requires a certain key, a missing bridge, a collapsed section of the tunnel. What makes this point different from point 1 is, the players might find a way to circumvent the obstacle with a lucky die roll, or worse, using resources in the adventure itself. I don't remember the adventure, because this was a long time ago, but I was playing with some friends, and we came upon a portcullis that was too heavy to lift or bend the bars (remember when Strength had a feature just to do this?) and the only way we could see to raise the portcullis was a level on the other side, out of reach. The adventure wanted us to take the long way around by eventually finding a secret door.

But after an early encounter, we discovered a potion of gaseous form, so the magic user cast invisibility on our thief, she turned into a cloud of mist, waited for the potion to end on the other side, then, naked but invisible, crept to the lever and opened the portcullis, allowing us to bypass 25% of the adventure. When we didn't have important information later, the DM said "well, technically, it was your fault for not exploring the lower levels before going through the portcullis".
And this is also fine. Sometimes you really do need to go through B en route from A to C, even if it doesn't seem obvious at the time.

Were I the DM here I wouldn't say it's the players/PCs' fault; instead I'd let them figure out on their own that maybe - just maybe - they'd missed something somewhere, and they had to go back and find it.
4) the players break the narrative. This is, again, related to 1. During one of the adventures leading up to Lolth's attempt to subvert the Weave, we were on a pub crawl throughout the Realms and ended up in Shadowdale, where Elminster telepathically contacted us and asked us to pursue the bad guys because he was "busy".

In the final battle, there was a drow wizard on the other side of iron bars casting spells at us. He was the big enemy, and apparently, it's scripted that he is meant to escape to reappear in the next adventure. He gave his villain speech and said "hahahaha, you can't catch me!" and turned to go, whereupon which our Eladrin used his Fey Step to appear in front of him and cut him down. "Where do you think you are going?"

Needless to say, the DM of that adventure was nonplussed, but later said the guy was a decoy, obviously, lol.
I'm not a fan of the "decoy" idea here. I'd far rather let the players/PCs have this victory - I mean, hell, they earned it through smart play and risk - and then in the background as DM I'd have to think what would happen to that "next adventure" if the BBEG wasn't in it. Yes it's very possible this might see the next adventure turn out to be rather anti-climactic, but so be it.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
There absolutely is a reason. Once you fall, how far do you go before landing on your feet?
More importantly - and the DM would have to determine this on the fly - what is the wind doing, and how far horizontally do you get blown while feather-falling all those many feet? :)

(we long ago ruled that the way feather-fall works is that you in effect become the weight of a feather and that your fall speed is measured vs the air around you rather than vs the ground, meaning a high wind can put you in Kansas by the time you touch down)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Although my recollection of that specific example is that the creature isn't actually present. It's on the other side of the opaque interdimensional portal, and its presence is limited to an occasional tentacle poking through. The only effect it has on the fight is to try to pull through heroes who get too close to the portal.
The illustration shows it being considerably further through than that, and that's what I went with. (I covered over the writing and showed the illustration to the players so we'd all be working on the same description)
 


James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
To a point, yes; but I'd like the writers to at least anticipate some obvious alternative PC approaches and account for them.

The one most commonly missed - as in, all the time! - is flight. It's a relatively low-level ability (and baked in from the start for some PC-playable species these days) yet writers of mid- and high-level modules almost invariably assume the PCs will approach on the ground. There's no mention of what happens should the PCs go in through the roof, or fly up the tower rather than climb the stairs, etc.; yet it's just so bloody obvious as a PC tactic! Grrrrrrr.....

My bugaboo with missing details is where an author, probably writing sequentially, adds something in to a later part of the module that would have left clues in earlier parts - except the writer didn't go back and add those clues in.

An example I've actually DMed: an adventure where the PCs are following a hidden forest path to the enemy's hideout; it's the only way in. The author writes the track-through-the-woods piece, then later writes the hideout piece - and in the hideout includes description of horses and wagons used to supply the place but doesn't go back and note that said horses and wagons would have left obvious tracks and marks on the path! (never mind the path would have had to be made wider and smoother to accomodate their passage)

This is fine. The author lays out the adventure and the PCs approach it as they will.

And this is also fine. Sometimes you really do need to go through B en route from A to C, even if it doesn't seem obvious at the time.

Were I the DM here I wouldn't say it's the players/PCs' fault; instead I'd let them figure out on their own that maybe - just maybe - they'd missed something somewhere, and they had to go back and find it.

I'm not a fan of the "decoy" idea here. I'd far rather let the players/PCs have this victory - I mean, hell, they earned it through smart play and risk - and then in the background as DM I'd have to think what would happen to that "next adventure" if the BBEG wasn't in it. Yes it's very possible this might see the next adventure turn out to be rather anti-climactic, but so be it.
I didn't much care for the "fake drow mage" either, but really, replacing the guy with an identical "man behind the man" in the next adventure wouldn't be any better.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I didn't much care for the "fake drow mage" either, but really, replacing the guy with an identical "man behind the man" in the next adventure wouldn't be any better.
No, it wouldn't. Replacing the guy with another different person who would have been a logical successor, however, is quite OK. Often modules do take this into account (unintentionally) by noting who the second-in-command(s) are. In this case just promote a 2IC to (acting) commander, but otherwise leave its abilities etc. the same as they were; yes this weakens the adventure a bit but at least you'll still get to run it. :)
 

pukunui

Legend
My bugaboo with missing details is where an author, probably writing sequentially, adds something in to a later part of the module that would have left clues in earlier parts - except the writer didn't go back and add those clues in.
Yes, this is a pet peeve of mine too! An example I just noticed from Tomb of Annihilation: when you encounter the Red Wizards camp in Omu, it talks about how there are still four Red Wizards alive in the city. When the PCs rescued the scribe, Orvex, I had him survey the carnage in camp and explain to the PCs that there were still four Red Wizards unaccounted for.

However, when I read on, I discovered that one of the encounter areas contains the petrified remains of another Red Wizard, so I had to retcon Orvex’s info to be five Red Wizards unaccounted for.
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top