So the party was all but wiped out in the hydra-dragon-vampire fight series with only the wizard fleeing the scene (after being revived by the fighter). "So What?" you might say. That's kind of what I said. I had even offered up the opportunity to take out some insurance against this kind of event by having the temple of Torm make a deal with the party: In return for services rendered, if the party left a lock of hair then the temple would raise them in the event of a catastrophe - at no cost. Since the party had already undertaken a mission in return for this, there was no further obligation. My thinking was that the team would return, take a short quest or two to rearm themselves against their known foes (perhaps there is a legendary weapon or two made to fight the lizard king and his undead legions) and then go set things right. That's not what happened.
First, Uthal's player decided to let him rest, as he was a pure Tempus follower and didn't sign on for this deal. Now there was enough gold available to have the ritual done if he had wanted to return, but he felt it was more in-character to go out in a big fight. No problems there. Then, two other players decide that they don't want to bring their characters back either. Now my basic philosophy is that players should be allowed to play the characters they want to play, but I have tailored this campaign a bit to this party. Losing 3 out of the 5 players changes quite a bit of this and reconciling things is tricky. I have been explicit that they are by far the leading/toughest new band of heroes in town and no one else is even close. This helped explaining their growing role within the city and its various groups, but it's a real pit trap when having to bring in multiple new characters at a level similar to the two remainders. Plus we have the question of the consequences of not stopping the lizard king's looming attack on the city which adds a time element to things now. I had also sketched out the final level's worth of encounters to be a little more of a narrative thing than I normally run and this was going to wreak all kinds of havoc with that.
So I thought about it and decided that if we were changing out 60% of the party anyway that something drastic was required to explain the changes. So I proposed a timeline jump of about 2 years and a level jump to move all existing and new characters to 11th, the start of Paragon tier. This would reflect the time and experience spent fighting the Lizard King and repulsing his attack on Phlan, giving a reasonable explanation for the presence of new heroes, changing out some NPC's, and generally going with a "Season 2" or next movie in the series feel for it*. Working through this process had me fired up again about the campaign as I admit the lack of interest in rezzing the existing party had taken some of the wind out of my sails. Unfortunately my players decided that playing through a war sounded like a lot of fun and that they didn't want to skip levels. I pointed out that most of the new party would be skipping a whole bunch of levels unless they wanted to play firsties again but to no avail. After the down-up-down-up-down cycle I was losing my enthusiasm for trying to continue this campaign. I did not want to run a wartime game because I had spent no time planning or laying the groundwork for it and it's just not a direction I wanted to go, in part because I was planning on doing that for a big chunk of Paragon tier. I typically try to stay flexible, thinking that over-planning leads to a loss of flexibility and that a good idea for today's game is better than a great idea for the "next" campaign but I really didn't want to short-circuit a great Paragon concept for a short-term problem in Heroic that I didn't want to run anyway!
There was a last ditch idea where I was going to have the characters come back as 20th level versions of themselves passing through time and planes to deal with another problem deep beneath the keep and incidentally raising the lower-level versions of themselves along the way with some funny scripted dialog to explain it (like the old Star Wars d6 read-aloud opening scripts) but it seemed to incorporate the worst elements of things such as forced raising of characters and forced playing of characters they didn't want to play anymore,and the more I thought about it I decided it was just too cute and too much DM fiat - I shouldn't be putting words in the mouths of their characters or forcing their actions to that degree, it's not nearly as cool as I thought it would be initially and I don't know how I would feel about it as a player. So instead of trying to shoehorn something into the game that both I and the players could stand I decided to just end it.
Thirty sessions is a pretty good run and I enjoyed it a lot and learned a lot. I like 4th edition just fine. There are changes and differences of course, but it still feels like D&D when I run it. Fighters still run around with +1 swords and b*tch when they miss a saving throw. Players still try to get away with crap they shouldn't - "Daily" means once a day, not "as often as I can get away with it until the DM notices"**- and have to be reigned in. I'm still drawing up maps on graph paper and picking out monsters to inhabit them. There are still mage guilds, thieves' guilds, and temples to various deities. This version lends itself to traditional extended campaigns just as well as the earlier ones did.
Downsides? Well it does play better with mini's and maps and if I was going without those I would just play B/X D&D rather than trying to cope with gridless AOE's and the like. Combat does take more time than older versions but it is a lot more detailed and interactive, keeping players involved even when it's not their turn. We were lucky to get through 3 encounters in one night and two was our real average. Would you rather have 3-6 fairly simple fights in a 4 hour run like in Basic or 1-3 detailed crunchy fights with 4E? It's mainly a matter of taste and mood. Minions help quite a bit, and remembering that every "Encounter" doesn't have to be a combat encounter helps too. Skill challenges are nice new addition too, after the kinks were worked out. I don't like the attempt at tying the game to an online subscription model via DDI either, but that's more of a publishing issue than a problem with the game itself.
Process-wise the way I ran this one was a reaction against the way I ran most of my 3E campaigns from 2000-2009. Those were mostly published adventures (there were so many...) and I actually flowcharted out possible paths from levels 1-20. Depending on how Adventure A ended up, the party might be driven more towards Adventure B, C, or D. I didn't spend a lot of time preparing the individual adventures, instead I spent time trying to make connections between them via legends, rumors, maps, NPC's, and enemies. It worked well enough but I was never 100% happy with the adventures themselves. With 4E there was not the glut of published material and it was reputed to be easy to prepare so I wanted everything to be hand made by me. For the most part I stuck to that (I did use some material from Dungeon Delve) and it was very refreshing to know my material backwards and forwards and it also makes it incredibly easy to improv when neccessary as you know what makes sense and what doesn't because you wrote it! So despite the ending I still see it as a successful tour of (most of) Heroic Tier 4E.
I think this experience is also what is driving my interest in converting old material to the new version. Even this campaign started out as a conversion of "Ruins of Adventure" theoretically, although I never intended anything more than some thematic similarities - you fight humanoids, undead, and lizardmen and there is a sorcerer's pyramid, and that's about it. The best of the old material is incredibly familiar in a general sense because I've been looking at it for 25-30 years. Things like White Plume Mountain and Against the Giants are part of the lore of D&D. Converting them to another edition forces me to look at them again in extreme detail (is this room physically big enough to hold these creatures?) and to think about how to make them a better fit to a new mechanical system. This makes them mine, all over again, almost as much as if I wrote them from scratch. Yet they also have the benefit of tying in to the legend - it's a pretty good sandwich for an evening of dice-busting.
So what's next? I'm not sure. I still have my 4E game with the Apprentices that we play when we can, and the other games too. I've run the main game on Friday nights for the past 2 years and schedule wise Saturday nights make more sense for us now so that's going to have to change and may cost me some players. I'd like to keep a "grown-up" 4E game going but I'd like to get back to Savage Worlds (Deadlands?) too and I'd like to give Star Wars and Mutants and Masterminds a real shot as well but I'm not sure I can juggle all of those at once. I have to see what my players are up for, now that they (and I) have had time to get over the end of RTROA.
*Yes this was somewhat inspired by the BSG "one year later" thing in the middle of that series. I thought that was brilliant and if I could get some mileage out of it here then great.
** It's funny that encounter powers are rarely over-used in an encounter but the limit on dailies are "forgotten" somewhat often.