In my previous post, I talked about the importance of three top-level adventure design elements: temporality, monster agendas, and overwhelming force.
Thinking about what makes a really good adventure, I thought of another key element: persistence of conflict. What this means is, really good conflicts are not just resolved in a one-room battle.
Setting these conflicts up requires the DM to think about "better", not just "more". Rather than just upping the ante in the "powergamer sweepstakes", the DM should get smarter, and more devious.
For example, to challenge your players, you could have 24 trolls hanging out in a cavern. In the next cavern, down a small passage, there would be, what... 8 wyverns? Or 3 ancient red dragons? Next to a cavern with a lich (15th level mage)? And 8 frost giants are hanging out in the adjacent cave... And 3 mind flayers in the next....
I don't know, I guess in my old age I am just looking for something more.... hmmm, not really "challenging" per se... I guess the word I am looking for is -- sophisticated.
I mean, what if the cave complex is not stocked with monsters in every cave? What if not everything wants to "fight to the death". What if the monster who lives in the cave is clever, and wants to live? So it sets up traps, and does a lot of hit and run type stuff? What if it refuses to be baited into a "final battle"?
That is what I mean by "persistent conflict". Giving the players the feeling they are having to CHASE SOMETHING DOWN. Or, perhaps the opposite, that they are being STALKED, isolated, cut off, picked off one by one...
Oh no, "spending the night" in the dungeon is hardly an option now, is it, poppets? How much sleep are you going to get, knowing "that thing" is out there, scheming how to do you in, waiting for one slip up....
Game Design Implications for XP
This is one of the reasons I am not a fan of the original XP reward system. If XP is only earned for monsters slain and treasure looted, the type of game design I am talking about is highly discouraged. If the players spend the entire session dicking around with one monster, they've gained nothing, in game turns, even if they finally end up defeating it.
If you are clawing up the "blood and treasure" ladder, a cavern full of 34 trolls is exactly what you want and need!
But if you are using my "successful adventure" metric (http://oldschoolpsionics.blogspot.com/2011/02/advancement-rules-easy-way.html), just defeating one foe may be enough, if he is played in a clever and dangerous fashion.