Hunter’s Dream – Building Encounters (Actually)

This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.

When last we spoke about Hunter’s Dream back in May, I wanted to consider the material constraints of a physical book. The volume of content that goes into the book creates a potential problem for how much room I have to make that content, which is something to bear in mind. But I’ve covered that, and talked about the material needs of a physical book in a physical space, and the management of a TTRPG as a physical property for the kinds of encounters I was talking about which

Isn’t quite the same kind of concern now.

Now, Hunter’s Dream is and probably will always be a slow-release project in context, but I think right now, the idea of worrying about managing another book at the table when that’s not a pdf or epub is a bit of a concern for another time. Rather than focus on that, though, I’d like to talk a bit about the kinds of encounters I want Hunter’s Dream to enable, based on the source material.

Here then are a few principles of encounter design.

Limited Sequence

There’s a vision of Dungeons & Dragons where when you go down into a dungeon, you are going to have encounter upon encounter upon encounter, moving five feet at a time, carefully, until such time as you run out of resources, and have to retreat, or you win. In some extreme visions of this, you have to manage your departure too – you turn around to go home when you hit the half-way limit of your resources because you might get ambushed on the way in.

This is a type of gameplay that you can do, but I don’t like it much and I don’t find it interesting. It’s a valid way to treat the resource flow, but I’d much rather work with those resources spread amongst a smaller number of specific encounters, especially if that means those encounters get to be more interesting and exciting.

Rather than a big endurance match of a dungeon where you’re carving of an unknown scale of problem, and leaving when you’ve had enough to recover, like you’re trying to finish a vast cheese of uncertain edibility, I prefer to design combat encounters which are much more like a well-cultivated meal; there’s going to be a building action, climax and resolution. Typically, a Hunt should be about 3-4 combat encounters; if it’s more than that, it’s probably a big deal, or an ambush, or a climactic boss battle with something campaign-important.

Some people dislike this idea because it means that the resource management angle of the game isn’t stingy. Personally, I really like the idea that when the players get ready to go hit their target, they’re picking a target they can hit extremely hard up front. There’s a threat there, too – if you have to try and have an endurance battle with the Dread in Hunter’s Dream, you probably aren’t framing the Dread right.

So: A Hunt is 3-4 combat encounters.

Simple Pieces, Rearranged

If you’ve never studied older videogames like Super Mario Bros you might be surprised to realise how many games wring extensive iteration out of a very small number of pieces. In many levels you deal with one or two types of enemy, just arranged in different sequences and inviting different play patterns. In a tabletop game, everything is much slower, and players don’t tend to have the luxury of dying and reloading to learn how enemies interact with them.

A set of encounters in Hunter’s Dream then should be trying to use a small handful of monsters from encounter to encounter, with only one or two minorly different changes in each encounter, using environment and composition to make those combats interesting. Sometimes all you need to make a combat meaningfully different is to start enemies behind a piece of cover, or on a platform where they can break line of sight.

So: Include a section on map elements as the encounter design.

Linked Mechanics

If you throw a werewolf and a zombie and a yuan-ti archer together in an encounter, mechanically, you’re going to have something that works, but they’re going to feel weird interacting with one another. But if you have those three as all say, corrupted humans with a shared viral infection that is puppeteering them and demanding they work together, and then you have a linked theme that also can key into the Dread.

You need to make sure that the Dread isn’t just a nameless ‘more stats, more HP’ on your monsters. You can use the Dread to create a mechanical link between groups of enemies, while also allowing you more variety in the enemies you’re using.

So: Templated mechanics that you can ‘snap on’ to enemies that feed the Dread, rather than Dread-specific mechanics for each monster type.