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D&D Lair Assault
Design & Development
Chris Tulach

T  his month we premiere the newest D&D play program at stores worldwide—a grueling, deadly, and devious slew of challenges known as D&D Lair Assault. While you can get the details on the program through the official page, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at its genesis and the decisions involved in its creation.

Your D&D Fu Is Weak: The Convention Experience

By the end of 2008, 4th Edition had been chugging along for several months. Players were developing mastery of the rules engine. Our initial adventure offerings through our published adventures and play programs like Living Forgotten Realms were designed for more of a middle-ground gamer—someone who had some familiarity with the system, but played casually (once a week or so). There were a couple of “special” adventures that were a bit more challenging, but for the most part, the tactical experts and character optimizers were hungry for something more.

At that time, I was talking with David Christ, our convention organizer for some of our big shows, and we agreed that we wanted to have a sort of “challenge” experience to really sate the needs of the growing audience of rules masters. We had a Dungeon Delve at cons that was a short play experience, but we were finding that it was more and more suited to casual play (and those groups of gamers didn’t mix too well together, either). Out of these discussions, I created the Ultimate Delve – a convention experience designed to amp up the threat level and provide a time-sensitive mechanic to really make players sweat.

With the Ultimate Delve that summer, we created a six-encounter adventure that had a 45-minute-per-encounter timer on it. Your team could bring any group of characters they wanted to the table, using all available 4th Edition options. Teams did not compete against each other—they were racing the clock and attempting to avoid getting squished along the way. It was a huge success that summer. We had over 400 teams attempt two different Ultimate Delves at various shows, and less than 30 made it all the way through. Those that did complete an Ultimate Delve earned it, and were part of an elite group.

(In fact, the format got ported over to the D&D Championship in 2010 and is now the default format for that tournament for the foreseeable future. But that’s a different story.)

Pitching the Idea: Creating the Store Program

After the summer convention season in 2009, we were in the midst of planning our suite of store program offerings for 2010, determined to provide much more robust support for D&D play at our retail locations. D&D Encounters was the first program on the agenda—we needed to create an accessible, weekly play program that helped stores grow their communities. But the D&D Lair Assault program wasn’t far behind. It was actually pitched as a part of a suite of programs alongside D&D Encounters and D&D Game Day.

There were some changes I wanted to make so the program would be easier for stores to schedule and run. It had to be a shorter play experience than the Ultimate Delve. Play time was targeted at 2 to 4 hours instead of 4 hours or more. In addition, I looked at it being more like the “boss” encounter in a fight, rather than a bunch of smaller battles. Essentially, something you could play on one map rather than switching out maps after each encounter. And finally, it had to be a play experience that you wanted to play again. We wanted stores to feel like they could run it over and over, letting players develop mastery until they had defeated the challenge or had their fill.

In October 2009, I decided to spring this program on the perfect group of guinea pigs—employees here at Wizards that loved to play D&D. We had Employee Appreciation Week coming up, and I was asked to provide a D&D play experience for it. Thus, the very first D&D Lair Assault was cobbled together based on my program outlines and an encounter I selected from Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons. The encounter was “Zanathakla’s Wrath” from pages 106–107 of that book. Of course, that encounter is set at level 9, and the players were asked to create 5th-level characters. In fact, here’s the handout I gave to the employee DMs that volunteered to slay their coworkers on that fateful evening.

We ran eight tables, and two groups succeeded in the challenge (although one sort of cheated by having too many pieces of ammunition). It was a glorious bloodbath for most. And afterward, over a dozen players still lamenting over their lost characters commented that they wanted another go at it.

I knew we had something good.

From Paper to Reality: R&D Gets Involved

We spent a good portion of 2010 getting D&D Encounters launched, tweaked, and stabilized. While that was going on, we started to firm up the launch date for D&D Lair Assault. We were shooting for a mid-2011 release at that point. In the fall of 2010, R&D got passed the program specs and started working in earnest toward creating a polished play experience. Several initial drafts of the first challenge were floated around, and before we knew it, 2010 was just about over and we were at crunch time.

By January 2011, we had firmed up September as the program launch date. We moved it back to spend a little extra R&D time on design to get things just right. After a few design passes, Mike Mearls got involved in the design process and provided a new design specification that turned out to be the “missing link” for the program—creating a customizable experience on the DM’s side. Up until that point, the DM essentially ran the D&D Lair Assault challenge as written. With the new design direction, the challenges would create a cat-and-mouse game between players and DMs, keeping both groups interested and excited to participate in the challenge over and over.

It was at this stage that Greg Bilsland moved into his new role as producer, and part of his bailiwick was coordinating R&D’s contributions to organized play. He put the “cherry on top” of the program by working on the glory award system that was part of the original program specs, adding just the right element of fun and cool to the types of awards that players could obtain through play. In addition, Greg plugged the first challenge through his new product and program playtesting cycle, collecting feedback and making subtle tweaks along the way.

It was now April 2011. We had announced the program and had a nearly finished product, but we still wanted a little more for D&D Lair Assault. While the stores had the ability to post each player’s glory totals on the poster that would be included in the play kit, we wanted players to be able to tout their accomplishments online. We wanted the system to be reportable through the store organizer, but realized that there were significant technical hurdles to get it programmed into our reporting software. Greg and I approached Michelle Brunes, our Wizards Community project manager, to ask about creating a badge system and an online tracking system for D&D Lair Assault. We worked on designing a self-reporting method that earned badges for each installment of the program you played, and would exist on your profile like the D&D Insider Subscriber badge or the Playtester badge.

Kits were completed by Gen Con Indy, and we showed it off to retailers at Trade Day the day before the show. They loved the format, and we even had a few players come back for a second session immediately after playing it once. This was going to be good . . .

The program was ready to roll. The first D&D Lair Assault, Forge of the Dawn Titan, ran out of kits for the first time in D&D program history. Players, DMs, and stores were excited to give the new program a try.

How about you? Have you tried out D&D Lair Assault? Let us know what you think by posting in the forums or heading to your local store to give it a go. We think you’ll be back for more again real soon!

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