Friday, September 24, 2010

Five Things 4th Edition Does Poorly

Since the theme of the week seems to be 4E I thought I would share some of the parts I dislike about 4E - it's good but it ain't all sunshine and rainbows.

#5 - Marks. What the hell does this represent in-game and why do we need it? I have a whole near-rant here so I won't repeat it but it is a "seam" in the game for me.

#4 - Nitty-Gritty: I don't see many 4E characters buying 10' poles, caltrops, flaming oil, darts, spikes & hammers, or any of that old dungeoneering equipment we all used to get in the Basic/1E and maybe even 2E days. No one worries about who's the "mapper". There's not as much expedition-preparing or equipment-preparing anymore. I have yet to see or hear of a 4E party buying a mule. It's not a huge issue but it does affect some of the feel.of low-level play.

#3 - Gritty: There was a lot of talk about minions when 4E came out, monsters who die in one hit. Hell, in 1E every low-level character and monster is effectively a minion - able to be killed in one hit. It instilled a healthy sense of self-preservation and reinforced "the run" as a viable solution to an encounter. In 4E low-level characters and monsters often have 20+ hit points to start with meaning nobody dies in one hit. This has brought the concept of "grind" to a prominent place in discussions of 4E combat, sort of the opposite of what is supposed to happen in a game with "mook" or minion rules.

#2 - Henchmen & Hirelings - There are some kinda-sorta rules in the DMG2 for companion characters but what if I don't want a companion? Maybe I just want a couple of men-at-arms wearing leather armor and carrying spears working for 1gp a day.  Maybe I want a couple of war dogs to help out. There are kludges but it's not easy to do.

#1 Verisimilitude - A lament in 3 parts

The Bard in my main campaign has a power called Vicious Mockery. It's an at-will, so he uses it a lot. He has killed people with it.How exactly does that work? He doesn't speak Kobold (Draconic), yet he can apparently string together enough curses in Koboldish to make the poor little buggers' heads explode! yes I know you can visualize it however you want but that's not always a feature - sometimes it's a bug. If it was a daily I could get through it as pulling off the perfect zinger or the Killing Joke but it get used multiple times in every combat!

Fighters have Daily powers. He can swing a sword a certain way that will do triple damage, knock the guy back 3 squares, and leave him stunned, but he can only do it once a day. Why? It's a Martial Power - it's not a magical power or a magic item that lets him do it. It's not coming from a god. It's specifically described as training, natural talent, or a trick he knows. How come if he uses it against some bandits on the road he can't use it on the orc barbarian when he gets to the dungeon? Some people used to gripe that wizards forgetting spells as they were cast was stupid and unrealistic - now we have fighters forgetting their signature moves as they are used. how is that better? At least before you could say "it's just magic and that's how it works in this world." Now we can't even use that.

Treasure comes in "parcels". now I ignore the groupings myself and just total up the amount and "parcel" it out as I see fit but this is tougher to do with magic items. Magic items are all assigned a level now which should probably make them easier to arbitrate and hand out but  there are versions of just about everything for each of Heroic, Paragon, and Epic tiers. So you don't just have a "Sunblade" anymore - you have three levels of them now. Seems to make them a little less special if you know you got the "starter" version. Then there is the whole push to let the players choose their magic items just like they would choose and buy regular equipment. - it's a big change even from 3E as the characters can "disenchant" items and use the byproduct to increase the enchantment of another item. At least it's a way to avoid the "magic store" using game mechanics.

So anyway there are some of the wrinkles I have found with 4E - won't keep me from playing it but like every other edition of D&D it ain't perfect.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

4E Campaign Ideas - Some Breakthroughs

I've been working on getting my campaign binders organized this week and I've ended up with 5 major campaign ideas I would like to try in 4th edition D&D. I like the new ones enough to go ahead and start campaign binders for them even though it will probably be awhile before they see action. I like having a physical thing to keep my ideas in and I probably do over-organize to a degree. The upside is that I have some material ready to go when the opportunity arises.

First up we have "Return to the Ruins of Adventure" - it's up and running and going well. I will say it's inspired by the old gold box game but it's not a direct conversion by any means.The PC's explore a ruined city discovering all kinds of problems and threats, both ancient and new. It's set in the 4E Forgotten Realms and we started at 1st level.

The new second 4E campaign is 'The Guardians of the Vale" which is my grand tour of WOTC's published 4E adventures. This is also set in the Realms and is also starting at 1st level with new characters. This will tap into a lot of the Nentir Vale stuff that's out and is coming out in the next year. One reason I'm doing it is that I really like the "touchstone" aspect of published adventures like Keep on the Borderlands or Against the Giants back in the old days and I think it's important to have some of those shared experiences with other players down the road. The players are currently all family members - lots of schedule flexibility that way - but there may be some guest appearances from the Phlan campaign above.

The third idea is "Lost Empires" set in Greyhawk's lost prehistory between the fall of the big human, dragonborn, and tiefling empires and the rise of the Suel and Baklunish nations. Placement-wise I'm ripping off the Hyborian Age and I'm totally happy with that. I have more about this concept here and this is the one that would likely end up as a pure sandbox campaign similar to the West Marches. Originally I had thought of using the published stuff here but I want this to be my own thing. It would use the default 4E deities and cosmology as the now state but the expectation is that the players would aim to make some changes. This might be a good place to work in some 1E module conversions too if I go that route.

Idea number four is the "Age of Heroes" campaign set in ancient Greece. I wrote some about it in an earlier post but the basic idea was to make some changes to baseline 4E races and deities and then just roll. It's more of a flavor change than anything else but it might make a decent sandbox too. Heroic = working around one Greek city, Paragon = working around Greece as a whole, possibly uniting the cities in a league, and Epic = dealing with the gods and their interference in mortal affairs ala the Trojan War.I would run it with less planar travel at paragon and epic, more focus on changing the world the characters live in.

Idea five is the newest one and I'm still working through some of the details. After reading through the Manual of the Planes, a short scan of The Plane Below, and reading through some of the published paragon and epic adventures a certain theme began to coalesce in my head. Call it..."Plane Trek". I would start the campaign at 11th level - PC's can be from any campaign world, any race, any class, etc. They are heroes on their home world, at least in their village/city/kingdom. They are then recruited into an organization based out of Sigil (most likely) that explores the planes and deals with threats that involve more than just one world - the Big Threats. The organization sends them out on planar ships to explore, map, and deal with these kinds of threats. I'm not sure how formal to make the organization - more rigid command structure and ranks or more loose almost like a pirate crew. If I could keep it somewhat episodic - this week the ship has detected an astral dragon heading for a githyanki fortress and is moving in to investigate - then it would make it very easy to drop in onetime players in a sort of sandbox, sort of mission-based delve format. At paragon they would be the lesser officers on the ship but once they hit epic they would be the "bridge crew" and in charge of their own travels in a big way.

It's definitely not a traditional D&D campaign but I can see some potential in it and some value in a change of pace if everyone gets tired of playing knights & wizards & castles & dragons after a few years. I won't be running this in 2010 and maybe not next year either but I will definitely be making notes and stealing ideas to stick in the campaign binder for when I do.

This is pretty typical of what happens when I feel like I'm getting a handle on a system's mechanics - all of a sudden the campaign ideas start to sprout and I end up with pages of notes on stuff I will likely never run - not because it's not good, but because I will never have enough time. When it comes to actually running a campaign it takes a fair amount of time and there are only so many free evenings or afternoons in the week. For most of us, sustaining one ongoing campaign is a major feat. keeping two or more going is very difficult. I have managed it in the past and had the most success when the second campaign was run as a "limited campaign" with a defined start, a set mission (maybe you're just trying to complete a particular module), and a definite end. Doing it this way the second campaign will do alright but will run in short bursts rather than trying to sustain a long open-ended schedule commitment. For me, now that the kids are reaching an age where I can cheat and play with them whenever time allows I can call that my second campaign.

This leads to another little piece of advice for anyone reading this: I used to come up with some cool ideas and think "I'll use that in my next campaign because it will fit much better." DON'T DO THIS! If you have a campaign running now and come up with a cool idea use it now! Don't hoard it! You may never run that next campaign or the system may be different or you may forget it or lose your notes - go ahead and find a way to make it work in this one. You will likely think of ways to make it even better for that "next" campaign and you will have the advantage of having tried it out. Go ahead and drop an asteroid on Waterdeep. Go ahead and let the PC's see Skywalker die at the hands of the Emperor. Destroying canon in a big way at the start of your campaign is very liberating for players - they realize that while the world is still familiar, things are up for grabs, and they may finally have a chance to do all the things they want to do.I may take my own advice and have my PC's join an inter-planar federation of explorers and problem solvers once they have helped save Phlan - I'm not sure yet and it will take us awhile to get there. Heck maybe my Vale Guardians will decide that Fallcrest can go to hell figuratively while they go to it literally and they sign up for ship duty. Either way they will have options down the road and I will be gathering material for the next cool thing even as I run them through the right now cool thing.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Second 4E Campaign - The Apprentices Take On 4th Edition

Last week's 4E game went really well and some of it was due to extra preparation on my part. Between that and the good feeling after the game I realized a few things.

1) I have achieved a sort of plateau with the 4E rules - I feel like I know them pretty well now. If I'm not sure my instincts are proving to be right most of the time. This is a big deal for a DM with a new set of rules as it means I can focus more on the other things and worry less about getting a call wrong. Plus, I don't feel like I am the slowdown with looking things up anymore so the game moves faster.

2) I really like the idea of the old-school campaign with multiple groups adventuring simultaneously in the same game world. Having picked up two new players through EN World's Gamers Seeking Gamers and with a 3rd inquiring about joining I decided 6 was my max for players for now. But...what if I started a second campaign? Place it near enough that the two groups could cross paths if they so desired and a lot of interesting possibilities open up. The main limiting factor here is time - I'm not sure I could schedule and run another regular weekly/biweekly session reliably and I don't want to try it and fail and waste a bunch of people's time. I am keeping the idea open though - if I decide to do it I will post in on GsG as well as here.

3) I like 4th edition. There, I said it. I've been running the apprentices through some Basic D&D modules and still love the simplicity of that system. I still intend to run a 1E Temple of Elemental Evil for whoever wants to play it. None of that changes the fact that I have always been a fan of multiple systems. The bookshelves next to my computer have 4E rulebooks, books for 3 versions of Star Wars, Savage Worlds, Mutants and Masterminds,  Hero System, Basic D&D, Space 1889, DC Heroes, Silver Age Sentinels, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. 1E lives in a china cabinet in the living room. 2E lives in the garage with 5 editions of Traveller, Deadlands, GURPS, Battletech, a bunch of other RPG systems and uncounted thousands of minis. I have never been a one-game kind of guy and I'm not going to start now.Being immersed in 4E for the weekly game though means I look for other chances to use that investment - the time spent learning it, the mental energy devoted to planning it, and the $ investment in the books. Running a second campaign lets me play more of a game I like and get more out of those investments. It also exposes me to more situations and keeps me sharp for both games.

4) I started off wanting to create and run my own adventures as it's not something I did much of during 3E and it was a selling point of 4E that it was easier to build and run your own material. I have done that with my Return to the Ruins of Adventure campaign and I am very happy with the way it's turning out. For a second campaign I am interested in using some of the published adventures for 4E just to try them out and see how they work. I have avoided reading any of the adventures up until now but I have been picking them up as cheaply as possible in anticipation of running them one of these days and I am comfortable enough now to go ahead and use them in Campaign #2. (Campaign #3 will probably involve conversions of 1E/2E/3E adventures but I'm not there yet.)

Now my alternative to running a new game for new players came up after another round of 40K apprentice-badgering as they tuned and tweaked their armies for a game we ended up not getting to play. I like 40K quite a lot but it's a fairly big operation to pick out, set up, and play even at home. Despite more regular kid schedules things still come up on short notice that can wreck plans requiring 3 or 4 of us to be together for a multi-hour block of time. But...4E has a bit of wargamey feel to it in combat; the powers are somewhat akin to what some 40k characters can do, namely special rules that break the general rules; encounters can play out like short combat scenarios and don't take a long time to set up or play out - so let's try out letting the Apprentices play 4E again.

Some of you may remember  that's where my 4E experiment started and it didn't go well. A lot of it was that I didn't know the system and also that they didn't know how to play D&D. Now that they have been through all or parts of 3 old-school D&D modules and have read the 1E & 2E PHB's in addition to their Basic D&D rules, they are a lot more ready to try a new version of D&D and I'm a lot more ready to run it for them.  So the plan is to start them off in the Forgotten Realms and use the Nentir Vale material and Keep on the Shadowfell  as a starting point, places in the Thunder Peaks just south of the Dalelands which puts them close enough to the Phlan campaign to allow for some cross-party interaction if things go that way but keeps them out of each other's hair for now. Lady Blacksteel may join in too but that's still a little up in the air.

The Basic campaign will continue as will the d6 Star Wars campaign but the next few weeks will probably see more 4E than anything else to help get things rolling.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 6: Kuto's Well

After the fight at the kobold roadblock the party returned to the civilized section of Phlan to pick up their wizard and recruit some additional help to clear out Kuto's Well. Meeting at the Dragonskull Tavern that night, Kordan (human fighter), Mikal (human warlock), Javanni (half-elven bard), and Althea (eladrin wizard) make the rounds and end up recruiting two new companions: Uthal (goliath barbarian) and Tavar (deva invoker). They are briefed on the mission and soon the whole party heads back out of the west gate and into the ruined metropolis.

Nearing the roadblock all seems quiet other than the scattering of beggars skulking through the ruins. As they close in however, the sound of many scrabbling feet is heard. Most of the party ducks into cover but Tavar is having none of that and boldly rounds a corner and faces off with 15 kobolds in a rough marching formation.

As Tavar begins blasting one group of kobolds charges him head on. Fortunately Kordan is waiting behind a corner and he steps out as they rush by, diverting some of the attention. Several of the more dangerous-looking kobold warriors move to surround and engage him while the mass rushes forward to attack the invoker who is suddenly in a more dangerous position than he realized. Mikal and Althea move up and begin blasting away at the scaly ones, thinning their numbers, as Javanni opens up with a barrage of harsh language that startles the deva as well, as she speaks draconic and can understand every word. Uthal begins weaving a path of destruction through the party, leaping and smashing kobolds aside with his mighty hammer.

Two kobolds remain at a distance. One is armed as a warrior but the other wears green robes and begins hurling orbs of sizzling green energy in to explode amongst the heroes. As members of his patrol begin to fall the robed one moves in close and unleashes a blast of poisonous vapor that hits much of the party. A renewed sense of urgency comes over our heroes and the wyrmpriest and his bodyguard are soon dispatched, along with the last of his minions.

Pausing to catch their breath, the team realizes that despite their small size these kobolds are quite dangerous and the original four members are glad they brought along some additional help. Renewed and recovered, the group moves on towards the ancient keep now in sight over the nearby ruins.

As they approach the keep that surrounds the well the party circles around through the ruins, looking for sentries and more patrols. Though the walls of the keep are crumbling they are still quite high and mostly intact, with only 2 possible points of entry through gaps and both of those are watched by a kobold warrior and some kind of watch-lizard. There are also two large gates but both appear to be securely closed. After a brief debate the group decides to attack one of the breaches, hoping to take out the sentry quickly.

The party launches several ranged attacks, hitting the guard. Wounded, he sics the guard lizard on the invaders then staggers back inside the walls, presumably to go for help. Overwhelming the beast in a flurry of strikes, the team pursues then stops, dealing with a somewhat unexpected sight.

Inside, the keep is one large open area with the remains of several wooden structures now in ruins. In the center is what must be the well, a large stone platform with a circular opening a good 20' across. Around it is some kind of wooden contraption of uncertain purpose. More surprising though is the large number of trees inside the keep, some of the quite large. Through the trees the party sees two more kobolds leading two more guard drakes towards them at a run. The team prepares for battle.

The fight is short but intense - the drakes have a fierce bite, the guards are tough, and the trees interfere with some ranged attacks, but it's not enough. The fighter, barbarian, and warlock all have nasty close-combat abilities and the bard, wizard, and invoker back them up quite effectively.

Looking around after dispatching the guards, the group determines that there are no more watchers or traps so they begin to investigate the well itself. There is an ancient, weathered stone platform about a foot high and about 30' x 20' that is topped by a circular stone wall about two feet high that surrounds the well itself. The lip of the well is inscribed with some ancient scrollwork that looks elvish but no one is sure. They can see water about 50' down but the well is very dark.

The unusual construct has some kind of platform that can apparently be lowered down the well - not a bucket or basin but a flat disc of wood suspended by ropes. The whole thing looks rickety but  should be able to bear their weight. The group decides to investigate - five of them climb on to the platform while Uthal works the winch to lower them down. Descending, the magically sensitive members of the party feel a tingling and realize there is a powerful source of magic nearby, coming closer as the platform lowers. The group soon sees a set of wooden doors set into the side of the well shaft and begins to draw some conclusions. Kordan kicks the door from the swinging platform but it fails to break and the group pauses to consider their options.

DM Notes: This was a great session after last week's getting-back-on-track game. We added two new players, I had more time to prepare and re-balance the encounters for six players, and everyone arrived more focused and ready to play. I didn't drag out the introductions because all of the players knew the plan and because I have portrayed Phlan as a bit of a melting pot of adventurers and groups so finding new help is not difficult. Combat went well as the DM spent more time reviewing his monsters in advance and the players spent some time with the character builder reviewing their abilities. The new players fit in really well, maybe the smoothest integration I have ever seen for new members of a group thrown into combat fairly quickly.

We managed to get through 2 encounters this session. I would like to get that up to 3 per session but it may take awhile. I have built most of Phlan to have 9 encounters per level plus a major quest (which gives XP = to one encounter) so that if we can do 3 per session then the PC's will level up every third session. With the schedule we  typically run that would end up being about a level a month and I think everyone would be happy with that. Adding 2 new players did not ad appreciably to combat time as far as I can tell - in fact I expect it to speed things up as the barbarian and the invoker kill things fast.

One interesting note: A book was hardly cracked this session. The extensive 4E character sheet combined with the powers  printed from the character builder means that the players have everything they need right there at hand - they don't need to look up modifiers or power details or spell ranges or any of that other stuff - it's right there on the sheet and it's easy to spot. This is a massive change from 3E. It's true that earlier editions had things like Spell Cards but they didn't have your stat modifiers and level modifiers and racial modifiers built into them built into them - it seems like a small technical detail but it greatly increases the efficient use of time in play.

Next session they should penetrate the kobold lair and we'll see how that goes - my expectations are high.

Monday, September 20, 2010