Friday, July 1, 2011
DM Notes on the Silver Pyramid Sessions
I had several goals when designing this part of the campaign. I wanted to touch on the idea of the Sorcerer's Isle and the pyramid found there in the old Gold Box game. It was a fairly big plot point as it was polluting the river that runs through the city and had to be cleansed and stopped . There was also an element of mutation there with some mutated forms of normal monsters being part of the encounters in and around the place. In that case though it was a mad wizard behind the trouble which I did not want to reuse but I liked the general theme. So I turned up the mutated weirdness and turned down the pollution element. I also needed to resolve the Spear/ Pool of Twilight hook and an nincursion from the Far Realm was what I had planned from the start.
I also wanted to use a non-conventional dungeon and play up the atmosphere more than I typically have, using imagery other than "ruined city" which has dominated the campaign thus far. I wanted it to feel like an alien environment, not another cave or building. A lot of that feels comes down to descriptions and language which I know I am not always great at using on the fly unless prompted by one of my players who looks at the ceiling or something. I fight that weakness by writing up some descriptions in advance and trying to remember to use them during the game. The other part of the feel of a place is the map design. Putting the party into a large room then getting prrogressively smaller and more cramped makes it feel like you are moving towards something and hopefully that the tension is amping up. Finishing up in another large room but being constrained by energy barriers and other weirdness should feel like the climax of the adventure. I don't know how well I did this but the players seemed happy with it so I'm calling it a win.
As far as theme I wanted horror and weirdness. I don't think you can really do a true horror adventure during a game of largely by-the-book D&D. The most you can do is theme the location and the descriptions and the monsters within and try to get your players to notice. D&D is much more "Aliens" than "Alien" both mechanically and thematically but I like to take a shot at some spookiness and weirdness every once in a while just for a change of pace and I had a really good time with this one. Plus I got to throw some Star Trek into my D&D which can only make it better.
Setting it up: So how do I drag the party out of the city & ruins and into a somewhat remote self-contained location for an adventure? Well, the players already had a fairly strong hook from the Ogre King adventure and knew the spear was connected to the Pool. They asked around and found out the Pool was in the Silver Pyramid. Sooner or later they were going to want to go there. I also had a backup option to use the pollution from the pyramid as a growing threat that must be stopped, much like the original gold box game, so I wasn't wed to a single connection.
One of the things I saw as a weaknesses that has turned out to be a strong point for 4E is the 10 encounters per level formula. In 4E XP is set up so that 10 encounters of the same level as the party gives enough experience to level up. This gives a nice way to plan out adventure locations and dungeon levels while knowing pretty well what level the party will be when they get there. It also means that as I design options for the party at each level I end up with unused outlines, encounters, and ideas that mean I could run another party through Phlan and not have them overlapping into the same adventures. I just re-sketched out how the party is likely to finish out this first stage of the campaign (Heroic Tier) and realized one of the major areas I had been planning to use at higher levels has been squeezed out - and I'm not upset! It means I have a good focus for the NEXT group to run through the area, whether that's next week or next year.Actual play is generating a sandbox campaign area for levels 1-10 without my actually intending to do so!
Mechanically things have gone pretty well. The party started the run at 6th level and levelled up to 7th when they finished it. We haven't run into any holes in the game and the players and I agree with the general consensus that a) missing sucks and missing with a big daily power really sucks so dailies with a "miss" effect are much better than those without, b) daze and stun conditions are painful for players as they get to do less during those rounds but they are better than being dead as in some older versions of the game and c) this system just seems to work really well - fights take longer than say Basic or 1E or 2E but they are more interesting with a lot more going on in each round and a lot more interplay between the payers and characters during a round: a monster misses an attack, the bard uses a power to grant an ally a free shift or a free attack, that character uses a power and hits, then another character fires off a different power triggered by that action - it's very cool in play.
Fights lasted an average of 6 rounds, with the low being 3 rounds for the "Brains on the Bridge" and a high of 12 for the finale, though that was divided into 5 rounds for the Mind Flayer and the Gibbering Mouther followed by 7 for the Thing from Beyond, so it should almost count as two separate fights.The fighter regularly takes a beating and mostly stays up. The barbarian does firghtening amounts of damage but goes down if he becomes the focus of the attackers. The wizard does OK single target damage and a ton of area effect damage and other area effects. The Warlock does a ton of single target damage and some nifty, almost afterthough area damage effects (e.g. "Daughter's Promise"). The bard is a very versatile leader type - he can heal, he can grant extra moevement, he can do ranged attacks, and he can move enemies on his own turn in ways that are quite annoying to the DM. Everyone seems pretty happy with their characters and roles as far as mechanics and that's a good thing.
Magic items are important (like in older editions) but do not dominate the game or radically change what a character can do (unlike 3E). They are definietly nice to have and do end up as a sort of signature item for some characters (Kordan's Armor and Sun Blade, Uthal's Spear and Horse) but they are not viewed as critical for optimization the way stat-boosters and a wand of cure light wounds were in 3E which is a wonderful change and feels much more like the 1E/2E days which is pretty much the opposite of what I expected. There's a lot less of the "Level X FIghter should have this, this, and this" kind of metagaming talk around the table - maybe it's more common online but in our experience the choice of magic items is much more about flavor and a lot less about choosing the optimal combination of gear.
Next up: what happens next!