Monday, May 10, 2010

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 0: Prologue

So on May 1st our new D&D 4th edition game kicked off. Here's an intro to the situation and some thoughts on starting the game up. This is a long post, so bring a snack.

Being an old-school gamer for the most part but not having a lot of system hate for any game prior to 4th, I was a little shocked at the changes from 3rd edition and put the game away before I could even finish the PHB. My group continued with the 3.5 game I was running at the time and ignored 4th. By the end of 2009 however, I was a little tired of having only that campaign (after 18 months) and looking for something to run with the family. I thought I would re-examine 4th with the idea that the kids don't necessarily need to start with old-school stuff - why not free them of all that legacy material and just start them off with the current version of D&D?

I managed to read all of the rule books this time and saw some good ideas in there. So during Christmas vacation we tried it out over 3 sessions and I decided that I was wrong, they did need to start at the "start" and newer is not better in this case. I started a red book basic D&D campaign that you can read about on this blog. It is still going and probably will be for some time to come.

By the start of 2010 my 3.5 campaign ended as well and I took some time off from running anything to recharge my batteries. We had some group dynamic issues after 8 years of playing together and everyone went their separate ways for a while.

I reconvened some of the 3.5 group in April ready for something new and we started up the Savage Worlds Necessary Evil campaign that is also still ongoing and which is also written about here.

But I was still looking to do something else as we still had some free weekend time and I have a lot of games. I brought up trying out D&D 4 and the group went for it as a tradeoff game with NE, planning to alternate sessions from week to week.

We used to play on every other Saturday night, no exceptions, and if too many people couldn't make it we would just cancel altogether and pick up on the next "other" Saturday. This worked for a long time as I typically had 6-8 players and schedules being what they are meant that someone was almost always out. This time we are playing on Friday nights and scheduling the next session at the end of the current session, with a general goal of playing weekly as much as possible. We have left Saturday as an option when it's needed too. This has cut down on the schedule stress a lot, as under the old way missing one time meant 4 weeks between sessions, which is bad in many ways.

We have also cut down to 4 players, with the recent addition of a 5th. This has made a huge difference as there is no room to sit back and let others take the reins while doing nothing, which happened fairly often with the larger group and leads to boredom, random actions after being bored too long, and general dissatisfaction with the game. It's also not as easy to squeeze people out as the party needs everyone to contribute. There's also less role-overlap or niche-stealing as you aren't likely to end up with 2 of the same thing - especially in 4th edition's classes-gone-crazy world.

Starting in March I began reading up on the new rules and picking up the books where I could find them at severe discounts - Amazon, eBay, and Half Price Books are amazing tools for the modern gamer. I have paid an average of about 8$ per book including taxes, shipping, etc which is awesome for current material that has a cover price of about $30 average. There's no scribbling in them, no torn pages, no funny smells, and none have been lost in shipping or anything else. It's the way to go when picking up a mainstream game like this, especially when you are unsure how much use it will get.

Reading the rules one thing has hit me sort of after the fact - it's simpler, but it's not simplistic or lacking in options. Most of the hard rules of the game are in the PHB - the first one - and most of that book is not rules. It's a surprisingly small amount compared to almost every other game I have (other than Savage Worlds) - Character Creation, Skill Use, and Combat. That's really it. The DMG has encounter-building, Traps, and XP numbers, but it's a pretty small part of that book too and not something players have to learn. So learning to play the game really only requires the PHB and that's it. Compare to 3rd where the Monster Manual saw a lot of use with summoning spells and the various Complete books added new classes that used different subsystems and added new subsystems to existing ones - look at all of the things someone could do with Turn Undead by late 3.5, and look at how some of them require feats, some require rolls, some have other prerequisites like losing a level to an undead creature. Options are good but there were a lot of little things one had to keep track of in the game. God Forbid you tried to use Book of Nine Swords on top of it...

I have about 15 books on my shelf for the game now and most of them are not rules - they are more character options but importantly they do not add new subsystems to the game - they add new powers and feats and sometimes classes within the existing framework, and the power creep is almost non-existent. This is a huge win in the new player department. using Lady Blacksteel as an example: She is new to gaming, having started in the middle of the 3.5 campaign in 2008. To make her Druid for that game she had to use the PHB, the MM for animal stats, Complete Divine for more skills and feats and spells because may of those were just better than the original PHB versions. For 4th, all of the information needed to do something is contained within the power descriptions and she can build her Wizard completely within the PHB and it doesn't suck - even though she didn't use Arcane Power or the PHB2. Those other books exist, but she doesn't have to read them at all, or if she does, she doesn't have to sort through a bunch of stuff that doesn't apply to her character. She is finding it a lot easier to make what she wants and does a lot less book-flipping, even though we're all new to the system.

Some of this ease of use is organization, some of it is formatting (the powers are a huge win here) and admittedly some of it is that it's a newer game and has less material than some editions, but I would say when it comes to player options there are a lot more in 4th at the 2-year mark than there were for 3rd, and probably 2nd (I can't remember the timing on the brown books) and certainly 1st. The almost modular approach to classes and powers in this version makes a lot of this possible too. Power sources, roles - formalizing these turned me off at first but seeing the benefits to the system from doing it - well, I've changed my opinion pretty drastically. The 3rd edition started a lot of this, but 4th has really made it universal. I do call that an improvement.

So I did see a lot of good points to the game, different as it is. I also wanted a somewhat old-school feel to the campaign so I am using the old Pool of Radiance module and computer game as a starting point. You can read more about my campaign thoughts in my earlier posts here, here, and here but I settled on Phlan as the best start for my group and our first run at this edition. I think a lot of the feel of a game comes from the tone set by the DM and the players will pick up on that and run with it. So I am using mainly traditional D&D monsters, especially in the lower level sections - no digesters or really weird undead here - it's mostly goblins, kobolds, orcs, ogres, gnolls, and Dragons of course. There are humans in the ruins as well, and there are other adventuring parties which can make for some interesting roleplay experiences. I will also say that I am using the encounter and XP structure presented in the DMG but I have not read any published 4th edition modules and this is on purpose. I want to see if the system works as written and interpreted by me and I don't want to copy what's already out there. I do like the codification of the different types of terrain and the emphasis on using them to make things interesting - that's a good move in my opinion and I am adding it in where it makes sense. Ruined cities should be interesting to move around, and this one will be.

One note: I am not using the DDI right now other than the free downloadable character builder. I really don't like the idea of needing not only a computer to run a pen and paper game (a complaint leveled sometimes at Hero System) but an internet connection and a monthly subscription! I see what they are doing and I see some advantages to having tools and a rules database online but charging a monthly fee for it just turns it into something I can't endorse. I can kind of see it if you can look at it as being like a magazine subscription to Dragon and Dungeon in the previous editions. I can almost get there - but it's a lot more expensive than those and if I want to read it off-line I have to print out all the material I download, adding to my expense. It just sets a bad precedent for the hobby and I just can't bring myself to do it.

Final Note: This is heretical crazy talk in some quarters but running overlapping campaigns I may be in a unique position - running 4th edition feels a lot like running Basic D&D. The change from 3rd edition's concept of everything should be built using the same rules system (which I loved when it came out) to the approach that PC's use one system, NPC's and monsters use another is a huge difference and is a lot more like old-school D&D than original flavor d20 ever was. Even the powers for monsters is a lot more like old school monster stats - Basic doesn't give you that the Orc has a 16 Str and a battle axe which you then translate into 1d8 +3 (x3 crit) - Basic says the Orc hits for a d8+1 or a d6 or whatever the monster requires and typically doesn't specify a weapon.. 4th edition follows a similar path with the powers. It may be identified as having a spear, but the power tells you everything you need to know about the critter's melee attack and doesn't have to match up with some set weapon damage or take into consideration what a Gnoll's spear attack might do - it just does what it says, period.

This ties into something I only recently realized - that D&D4 plays a lot different than it reads when you have experience with 3rd edition. There were a lot of assumptions about timing and effects and complexity after my first read-thru of the rules that just melted away after my first couple of sessions. I think someone coming in fresh might not have that problem but I have 30 years of D&D legacy material in my head and apparently reading it does not filter that out the way that playing it does. It's the first time I've run into this with a game an I suspect it's largely because it's named D&D and this pulls down all kinds of things into my brainspace that another game would not. Reading it, it looks as far away from old school Red Book D&D as you could get, but running it...well, it's a very different experience. I'm not saying they are the same, but the ease of setting up and running is quite different than I expected and my post-game combat notes look a lot like my notes for our Basic campaign.

That said there is a 1st edition game in the future for me and the Apprentices and maybe a 3rd edition game too down the road. I am not going to tell people that they need to convert to 4th - I wouldn't have liked that myself a year ago. All I will say is that if you come across an opportunity to play it and are in an open frame of mind, give it a try. If you've seen some of the rules, download that character builder and play with it a bit. I do not plan on selling my 1st, 2nd, or 3rd edition books, or any others, but this is a game I am getting to like for its own sake and my players, most of whom started with Basic or 1st edition are starting to warm up to it too.

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