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Lair Assault
Design & Development
Greg Bilsland

E arlier this month, Chris Tulach discussed the design process for the D&D Lair Assault program. This week, we'll explore the design and development process that went into creating the Forge of the Dawn Titan challenge.

By now, any of you who have tried D&D Lair Assault have had your chance to be mangled and burned to a crisp. Of course, that's all by design, but the difficulty was getting the challenge to have just the right amount of mangling and burning.

In our design and development process, we always have back-and-forth between the designers and developers. We learn from playtest feedback and make changes. With D&D Lair Assault, we learned that this process required a lot more time and energy.

The first two iterations of the D&D Lair Assault challenge had some fundamental problems, and both ended up getting scrapped. They taught us some valuable lessons, though. Eventually, Mike Mearls and I stepped in to help bring the challenge to fruition. Mike put together a rough map and a short synopsis of the challenges in each room. We had been mulling over the idea of how to improve repeat playability (beyond just the encounter being super-challenging), and that's when we had the idea of giving the Dungeon Master an element of customization to counter the players' abilities to reconfigure their characters. The cat-and-mouse game helped give both the DM and the players a reason to come back to the table. Still, I wanted another reason.

With D&D Lair Assault, we had to abandon many of our assumptions about a traditional game of Dungeons & Dragons. The game is different things to different people, and this part of the game was aimed at a specific segment of the audience—the same segment that loves the convention delves and the D&D Championship at Gen Con. To that effect, we added the glory system, to help give a competitive edge to the event, while also making it so that melting in lava didn't suck quite as much.

What did playtesting teach us? It's a fine line that separates too hard and too easy. We needed to make players' chances of success increase each time they played the challenge, so we tried to make lots of experiences that the players could learn from. These experiences were both punishing and benevolent. Some other interesting lessons I learned from designing and running the challenge, as well as from the playtesters, included the following points. I've tried to keep the spoilers here fairly light.

  • In this program, there's going to be a loser, and if it's the players, someone is bound to be unhappy. You can mitigate the bitterness of loss with a tale of glorious death: "I died charging across the lava to get to the villain."
  • Consumables need a level restriction. Originally they didn't have one, so people spent their cash to buy paragon-level consumables.
  • Even optimizers and power gamers want story. Players and DMs both wanted to know why the characters and the villain were there.
  • Vulnerability at low level is brutal. Trying to figure out the right amount was a challenge.
  • Limit rare items. We originally weren't going to put a restriction on item rarity. A few runs-throughs with characters chock full of rare items showed us otherwise.
  • If players can see the map, they'll pick the shortest path to their goal. Balance the difficulty accordingly.
  • A map aid is necessary. We added the "mini-map" to the D&D Lair Assault package about halfway through the playtesting process, because the map flip made tracking creature locations a pain.
  • Account for corner cases. Any terrain that characters might interact with needs to have descriptions and associated DCs. Don't leave anything to the DM, when the DM's role is to antagonize the players.
  • Balance for the median, not the outliers. Sounds like a "duh," but it's easy to fall into the trap of wanting to challenge the most highly optimized and knowledgeable D&D groups. If you balance for the best of the best, then the average player is going to feel so crushed that the experience will be a drag.

Having now worked on two of these challenges, and played through all three currently out or in development, I can say that each one is a different beast. The next season of D&D Lair Assault is designed by Logan Bonner and developed by Chris Perkins. While running it, I had to abandon many of the assumptions from the first one, and the players did as well. Each environment is different, and each mix of creatures and challenge brings different character options to the table that need to be accounted for.

With all that said, I'm sure there are plenty of problems that have come up. Our players are creative and adaptable. D&D is a cooperative game, and even in a program like D&D Lair Assault, we rely on everyone being polite and agreeable, and remembering that the challenge is supposed to be fun. No matter how much we nail down the rules, D&D is not a board game, and the game has too many moving pieces to account for every corner case. We have to try to accommodate as many groups as possible and trust the DM to challenge players while still letting them have a good time.

Do you have questions or feedback on the Lair Assault rules? If so, please send your comments and questions to with the subject line, "Lair Assault." You feedback will help us create an FAQ and improve future D&D Lair Assault challenges.

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