With the release of 4th Edition right around the corner, now is a great time to dust off the classic modules you have in your collection. There's something iconic and exciting about facing the famous D&D villains of the past. By the same token, while a new dungeon provides a sense of mystery, a classic dungeon resonates with players new and old alike.
This article takes a look at some of the iconic encounters from classic D&D adventures. While it might seem simple to take the stats of monsters from older editions and replace or convert them with stats from 4th Edition, the conversion process requires a little more creativity from a DM. The classic adventures were more than just a series of monsters arrayed in rooms. They featured interesting NPCs, strange vistas, and other elements that go beyond the monsters. Some of 4th Edition's mechanics, such as the rules for traps and skill challenges, give you new tools to present threats to the party.
This article presents two encounters from previous editions with general notes on how to update them. The methods presented here are by no means canonical. Think of it as advice from one DM to another. You might find some of the ideas are perfect fits for your game, others might spur ideas for your own conversions, and still others might not appeal to you. Adventure design is more art than science. Your methods don't matter so long as you and your group have fun!
Keep on the Borderlands: The Minotaur Cave
Within the Caves of Chaos dwells a ferocious minotaur. While he at times serves as a mercenary to a nearby bugbear tribe, he prefers to hunt alone. The minotaur takes advantage of a strange, magical spell that bewitches all who enter his lair. Intruders lose their sense of direction, causing them to aimlessly wander the maze's seemingly endless passages. Meanwhile, the minotaur prowls the maze waiting to pick off lone adventurers or ambush weaker groups. Even worse, stirges and fire beetles infest the dungeon, feasting on the minotaur's scraps.
While Keep on the Borderlands breaks the maze down into four encounters, in 4th Edition it's best to bundle the entire maze into one encounter. There are two reasons for this move.
It makes a lot of sense for the minotaur to use hit-and-run tactics. The minotaur knows the maze, the vermin that infest the place avoid the beast, and the characters face a serious disadvantage in a running battle due to the strange spell the maze places upon them. If you think of the maze as one big encounter area, you can better see the possibilities inherent in exploiting the minotaur's mastery of the labyrinth.
Exploring a maze can grow boring unless the characters face a constant threat. The knowledge that a powerful, man-eating minotaur lurks around the corner helps increase the tension in the encounter and makes becoming lost all the more dangerous. The PCs lack a clear escape route against a deadly foe.
The one drawback you face is that, should you map the maze out with dungeon tiles or a battle mat, the place loses some its mystery. When you run the maze, use a combination of narrative description and tactical set ups, particularly if the monsters attack the party, trade a few blows, then retreat around a corner. Once the monsters are out of sight, pull away the tiles and describe the maze without miniatures and tiles. Laying out the map gives the players a sense of perfect knowledge, and that's the exact opposite of what you want in a maze!
Both the fire beetle and stirge have entries in the Monster Manual. You can go ahead and use them as presented. While fire beetles are low-level creatures, you can use large numbers of them to harass the PCs.
The minotaur is a trickier subject. The basic minotaurs presented in the MM work well enough, but this creature has the potential to become a fun, long-running enemy. In addition, you might want to make him elite so he can better face the party alone. Try using the rules for minotaur NPCs to create a minotaur fighter, probably around 5th or 6th level, along with a template from the DMG to make him a ferocious threat. The minotaur from Keep on the Borderlands carried a spear, and there's no reason he can't carry a few javelins to harass the characters with long ranged attacks. When allocating treasure, consider spending a parcel on a magic spear or a suit of magic chainmail for the minotaur. Finally, give him a name, some personality traits, and a few distinctive traits. His hit-and-run tactics might allow him to survive a fight with the party and return as a continuing menace. Perhaps he is a servitor of whatever strange gods the priests of Chaos worship.
Curse of Wayward Steps
Level 5 Trap
A sense of timelessness descends on you as you find yourself facing yet another choice of going right, left, or straight ahead.
Trap: The curse is an important part of the uncertainty and fear that the maze causes. The curse confuses its victim's sense of time and direction, causing him to wander aimlessly and blunder into traps, ambushes, and other threats. Even the most iron-willed adventurer suffers some of the curse's drawbacks. Only by leaving the maze can a character escape its effects.
Characters can't use Perception to detect this trap.
Any creature that enters the minotaur's cave is subject to this curse.
Immediate Reaction Melee
Target: The curse attacks each character in the maze at the start of his turn. The effects apply until the curse's next attack or until the character leaves the maze.
Attack: +9 vs. Will.
Hit: The target is dazed and takes a -5 penalty to Perception checks and a -2 penalty to speed. In addition, when he moves, roll 1d20. On a result of 9 or less, the character instead moves at half his speed in a random direction.
Miss: The target takes a -2 penalty to Perception checks and to speed.
Effect: In addition to the curse's attack, any group moving through the maze has a chance to travel in the wrong direction. When the group decides to take a turn, such as to the right or left, secretly roll 1d20. On a roll of 11 or higher, the group actually travels in the opposite direction.
The only countermeasure is to leave the maze.
Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain
Gary Gygax's G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain was the first adventure published for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. If you feel like kicking off a 4th Edition campaign in the paragon tier, it's a great choice to begin a campaign with a bang.
The steading requires smart play, careful planning, and the right mix of caution and aggressive action from the players. The hill giants are fearsome foes, and if the characters are too reckless, they risk calling down the wrath of an entire fort filled with them. Since 4th Edition is designed with an eye toward individual encounters, players who bring several encounters worth of monsters on their heads at once are in dire peril. For this reason, the steading is an excellent adventure for a gaming group that prefers tactical and strategic challenges mixed with intense combat.
The hill giant appears in the Monster Manual, providing the basic chassis for the party's enemies. In addition, the earth titan, dire wolf, various ogres and trolls, and storm giants all provide useful monsters you can use as you adapt the adventure. You might need to advance some monsters' levels, while the basic hill giant can use character classes to differentiate specific hill giants, lieutenants, and the hill giant chieftain himself, Nosnra. In particular, a template is a good call for turning a basic hill giant into the ferocious Nosnra.
The specific stats for the monsters in Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain are perhaps the least of your worries. The primary challenge presented by the adventure goes beyond a simple series of fights. As the characters venture into the steading, they risk alerting the entire complex to their intrusion. Fighting a few hill giants at a time is moderate challenge, but facing dozens of the brutes at once is a recipe for disaster. The characters must use stealth, careful planning, and a few well-used spells and exploits to avoid drawing the giants' wrath before they can whittle the brutes' numbers down to a manageable size.
You can handle this challenge in several ways. You might simply allow the giants in nearby rooms to make Perception checks if the PCs start a fight. While this solution seems like an obvious choice, it plays counter to one of the primary design conceits of 4th Edition. A single lucky Perception check could bring the entire fort down on the PCs. This binary outcome, either the PCs remain hidden or the giants attack, runs counter to 4th Edition's idea of slowing growing peril, as opposed to save or die spells and attacks.
Ideally, the players feel the tension and fear as their characters sneak through the fort. By tying their success to a single die roll, you deflate much of the drama and uncertainty of the PCs' situation. The characters are either safe, or they are in danger. In contrast, a skill challenge allows you to introduce variable levels of safety and danger. The characters must fail several checks, or the giants must succeed in several of their own, before the PCs trigger a wide-spread alarm. As the PCs sustain failures in the challenge, the giants become more and more active, forcing the PCs to change their tactics. The characters might become more cautious, or they could decide that acting quickly, decisively, and aggressively is the best response to the giants' growing alertness.
Skill Challenge: Sneaking Through the Steading
This skill challenge models the party's ability to move through the steading, plus battle the guards as necessary, and avoid alerting the place's guards and occupants. The characters can take actions that decrease the steading's level of alertness, such as using Bluff to convince the giants that any noise of combat they heard was simply a scuffle between giants.
Setup: The giants live in an armed camp. While they are lazy and would prefer eating, drinking ale, and napping to standing guard duty, once alerted they are a powerful force. The characters must avoid causing too many disturbances or the giants turn out in force to hunt them down.
Level: Equal to the level of the party.
Complexity: See Special Rules.
Primary Skills: Bluff, Dungeoneering, Nature, and Stealth. Whenever the characters start a fight or do anything that makes a lot of noise, they must come up with a plan to deflate the giants' suspicions. The primary skills represent the best ways to remain hidden, but as DM you should listen to and assess any skill use. If the PCs have a logical plan, allow them to make the relevant check.
While the giants are dense brutes, they are not suicidally stupid. If the party tries to do the same trick multiple times, the check to resolve it takes a -2 penalty for each time after the first. The giants can believe that the guards in the next room decided to fight over a keg of ale, but the second or third fight is likely to arouse suspicion.
Bluff: The characters can make noise to convince the giants that all is well, particularly after a disturbance such as a fight. For example, the PCs can push chairs around, clink mugs together, and mimic the sound of giants speaking or arguing. The giants in nearby rooms assume that the sounds of a fight were merely an argument or a brief brawl amongst the giants, rather than an attack by invading humanoids.
Dungeoneering and Nature: Both of these skills allow the characters to determine how best to cover their tracks. For example, the characters could leave a slain giant in a pose that makes it look like the brute fell asleep, slumped in his chair. The giants have poor organization and discipline. A giant guard asleep at his post is nothing new.
Stealth: When all else fails, the characters can simply sneak through the steading. The sound of a fight might draw attention to the characters, but the giants are slow to put forth any effort to track down hidden foes.
Special Rules: This skill challenge works a little differently when compared to the typical challenge. The characters gain defeats both for failed checks and for engaging in certain actions in the adventure, such as fighting giants or leaving giant corpses out in the open. In addition, the characters can never completely defeat this challenge. Instead, the challenge tracks the steading's level of alertness. The defeats accrued by the party measure the steading's level of readiness.
0-1 Defeat: Bored and distracted by good food and drink, the giants pay no attention to their defenses. The giants suffer -2 penalties to their Perception checks. They take no special efforts to patrol the steading or search for intruders.
2-3 Defeats: A few of the more observant giants worry that someone has entered the steading, but the tribe is not yet on a general alert. Nosnra assumes that any reports of suspicious activities are the result of drunk guards overreacting to nothing. Still, the giants no longer take a penalty to Perception checks and 1d4 hill giants walk the halls for the next hour. If these giants are attacked, they run to warn Nosnra.
4-5 Defeats: The giants reinforce their guard posts. They now believe that they face intruders, but are still too lazy and distracted to mount an active defense until they find indisputable evidence of an attack. The giants sent to patrol the halls move through each guard post, making sure the guards are awake. If they find evidence of an attack, such as slain giants, the characters immediately gain two defeats.
6 Defeats: The giants realize that intruders are in the steading and take active efforts to root them out. The giants all gain +2 to Perception checks. Any festivities, such as drinking, wrestling, or other entertainments, come to a halt. The giants ready weapons and armor, while Nosnra organizes active sweeps through the entire steading in search of intruders.
Important: This skill challenge is not meant as a crutch to replace logic or your own judgment as a DM. If the giants uncover clear evidence of intruders, the characters immediately go to six defeats in this challenge. For example, if the characters slaughter several guards and leave their corpses in plain sight, the next giants to enter the room sound the alarm unless the PCs stop them.
General Tips and Thoughts
Hopefully, the examples above give you some idea on how to approach converting classic adventures. Here are some more ideas and thoughts on how to go about adapting adventures from your collection.
NPCs: There are two ways to approach converting NPCs. You can simply create an NPC with the appropriate race and class. This approach works best if the NPC lacks any specific combinations of feats, powers, or abilities she needs to function within the adventure.
If the NPC does need certain spells or effects, you might need to design her as a monster, especially if those abilities lack a clear analog in 4th Edition. In this case, select the NPC's level, give her several powers from her class, and use the guidelines on damage and attack bonus from the DMG to adapt her feats, spells, or abilities.
Most spells can adapt directly over, while feats become exploits. You should design spells that eliminate a target so that they inflict a lesser version of the effect, and then the full effect after the target fails a save or two. In any case, avoid any effect that simply eliminates a target.
When converting, it is more important to capture the spirit and flavor of an NPC rather than to duplicate her statistics.
Encounter Areas: For editions before 3rd, most encounter areas throw multiple enemies against the party in each area. 1st Edition modules in particular feature encounters with dozens of orcs or goblins, especially in higher-level adventures. Your best bet is to rebuild these to feature minions led by higher-level NPC humanoids.
For 3rd Edition adventures, look at combining multiple areas into a single encounter to bring enough monsters to bear on the party. 3rd Edition assumed one monster fought the party, forcing you to combine encounters unless you are willing to design many solos. Other than monsters, pay attention to traps and encounter terrain. Traps in older editions tended to zap the party once and were then unable to keep attacking. Again, aim for the flavor of the trap and avoid attacks that instantly kill PCs.
For terrain, read over the encounter area description and think about arranging the terrain so that it becomes a dynamic part of the encounter. Keep on the Borderlands provides some good examples of this idea. In the temple of evil chaos, the whirling sigils that entrance and charm PCs can slowly take effect during a fight. A charmed PC might attack his allies until the PCs break the effect or drag their ally out of the temple.
Encounter Size: 4th Edition's scale of 5 feet to a square can lead to cramped, tiny encounters if you directly convert maps from older editions. Before you run an adventure, sketch out each dungeon or encounter area on graph paper and see how much room is available for maneuvering. Ideally, even when the party and their foes are locked in melee there is still space for creatures to move around the battlefield and threaten either side's back rank.
Large and Huge creatures present trouble, since they usually took up less space as miniatures in older editions of the game. If you have the time, draw encounter areas on your battlemat or set up Dungeon Tiles. Place the miniatures for the encounter on the area, along with minis for the characters, and see how crowded the area is. Big creatures need a lot of room to maneuver. Try to avoid situations where a single fighter or paladin can either lock down all of the monsters or set it up so that only one Large or Huge creature can make melee attacks against him.
Remember, when converting an old adventure the goal is to evoke the adventure's feel, engage the players with its story, and bring back (or create new) memories of the game. Don't mimic the adventure. Instead, find its most important elements and express them using the 4th Edition rules.