Saturday, January 15, 2011

Random Saturday Notes - Session 2 of 4E as a Player


Well last night was the second session of our one-shot 4E side campaign and it was one long fight. The party:
  • Dragonborn Paladin of Torm "Divine Sanction!"
  • Human Avenger of Oghma "I'm Bookman"
  • Half-Orc brawny rogue "Hit with my dagger...24 points"
  • Dragonborn Dragon Sorcerer "I'm bloodied - Heal Me!"
  • Human Battle Cleric of Tempus (Me)
  • Tiefling Enchantment Mage - new this session played by Uthal's player
Since there were six of us this time we assumed things would get easier. We were so very, very wrong.

Last time we were deep in a swamp on a mission to retrieve a local merchant's daughter. Having fought through a bunch of crocodiles and a bunch of giant frogs we were now in the middle of a ruined keep watching a ceremony where a girl was chained to an altar in the middle of a bunch of frenzied dancing cultists.

As we observed the scene, there was a loud crumbling noise to our left and as the mist dissipated we saw a tiefling sprawled in the muck near a still-crumbling section of wall. Great. Dance stops, cultists look around, evil high priestess shouts "kill them", battle ensues.

It didn't look so bad at first. We were in a nice tight battle formation - Avenger-Paladin-Cleric-Rogue forming a front line with the sorcerer right behind. the tiefling was probably screwed but hey, we didn't know him. Two of the cultists peeled of to deal with him while the majority of the horde charged us.Predictably, most of them were untrained and posed no challenge to us but they dd manage to surround the Paladin and hurt him a bit. They also managed to injure the Rogue, though when we struck back half of them fell to various weapons and dragon breath attacks. The Cleric healed up the Rogue and the fight went on.

Round 2 saw the injured Tiefling running for his life although his impressive ability to make the cultists hit each other was good for some comic relief. Fortunately he was smart enough to run towards us where there was some chance of aid. The rest of the cultists went down although again they managed to injure the rogue and again Brutalus healed her up

Round 3 opened up and saw only the evil priestess, the half-ogre drummer, and some other human cult member still standing. Thinking that victory might be near the party spread out to finish off these threat and was rewarded with a generous helping of pain as the priestess fired off some kind of magical area effect attack and half the party went bloodied. Brutalus fired off his Channel Divinity heal, weakening himself but helping most of the party.  About this time though a crazy dwarf rushes out of a nearby pile of masonry firing a crossbow and leading a pack of crocodiles, including a big momma croc that led the charge.

Compared to the high of last round, things looked pretty iffy on Round 4 and got worse from there on. The Avenger dropped from a crossbow bolt, I dropped from a croc bite before I could heal myself or the Avenger, The Rogue dropped (she was bloodied every round!), the Wizard ran off briefly but returned so that he and the wandering Sorcerer were able to eventually finish off the half-ogre drummer who had been pursuing them all around the battlefield, although both were bloodied by this as well. We did manage to drop the other human cultists during this time but the evil priestess was still up and throwing out damage and the dwarf and the crocs were chewing us up even though the Paladin was trying to keep Momma Croc busy. It wasn't looking good.

The Paladin managed to maneuver over and perform a Lay On Hands on me, getting the Cleric back in the fight. I fired off Beacon of Hope,  healing everyone up and letting them get back up. The Paladin and the Rogue managed to finally take out Momma Croc, but the EHP dropped the Avenger again. Seeing that we needed to finish her off fast I asked the Rogue to delay her action so I could set her up with combat advantage on the EHP. I whipped out the sword and charged and having saved my last big encounter power for a worthy target I unleashed shining fullblade death upon  her with a mighty cry  of TEEEEEEEEEMMMMMMMMMMMMMMPUUUUUUUUUUUUSSSSSSSSSS and promptly rolled a 1.

Clearly abandoned by his god the Cleric rolled up in a ball and just laid there in the mud.

The incredible half-orc rogue ignored this massive failure and used a power of her own to make a deft strike and slashed the priestess open for 24 points of damage with her (clearly Vorpal) dagger, slaying her in one hit - and she wasn't even bloodied!

Out of healing now I realized that the Avenger was down and dying and had already failed his first death save. Resolving to do what I could the Cleric ran to the Avenger's side and tried to stop the bleeding. I failed.

The rest of the party finished off the crocs and closed in on the dwarf.

The Avenger failed his second death save (on his second roll) and I made another Heal check. I failed. Again.

The Paladin, Sorcerer, Wizard, and Rogue brought the dwarf to bay and battled him.

The Avenger failed his 3rd death save (on his 3rd roll) prompting an instant house rule of "You don't actually die until your  next turn - but that's it I'm not giving out freebies here". The Paladin pulled back and healed him just in time. Brutalus hung his head in shame.

We then released the sacrificial girl, told her to stay put as she told us about a madman working some kind of evil magic deeper in the ruins. We found a scaffolding leading up to a tunnel in the upper level of the ruins and moved in.

Mechanical Notes: Dice do weird things sometimes. A normal save has a 55% chance of succeeding. My Cleric's Heal skill had a 60% chance of stopping the death spiral. Yet we failed 3 saves and 2 Heal checks in a row which has a ridiculously small chance of happening. This of course was right after rolling a 1 on a big attack and after having rolled a couple of single digits on attack rolls earlier in the battle. Fate was just not with me.

This was my first session as a real healer and even with 4 healing powers (2 healing words, the channel divinity, and the Beacon) I still ran out! Guess my level 2 power will be Cure Light Wounds. I think part of it is running in a party that has 3 melee strikers which means low defenses and not enough hit points, especially at level 1. That seems to mean that they rush in and kill half the enemy in one round but they end that round bloodied. Thank goodness the Paladin has some backup healing capability.

The other issue was tactics. This matters a lot more in 4E than in older editions as the classes are made in such a way as to feed off of one another. It can be a s simple as "concentrate fire on one target at a time" which we did NOT do very well, but neither does my usual group, and "don't run off by yourself in the middle of the battle" which was also a problem in this fight. We had 2 characters fighting the half-ogre by themselves and out of range of my healing powers while the Paladin tied up one target and 3 of us attacked another target - great, 3 enemies bloodied, none of them dropping - it's a recipe for disaster and it nearly was.

Ah well, we will learn. Even with bad rolls and flawed strategies it's still fun to see it from the other side of the screen. Next week should see the finale of this little expedition and then we'll be back to the ongoing campaign.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Atomic City Stories - a 12-Issue Limited Series

Work continues on the campaign and I thought I would share a few ideas.

Structure - I'm thinking about writing up this first round as a "12 Issue Limited Series", deciding what the main plotline or big events will be for each one and planning to keep each issue to one session. I haven't seriously tried this before but since our sessions tend to be on an irregular schedule I think it's worth considering.

Villains: I want to keep it to a small number of regular bad guys for this first round along with a small number of opposing organizations. So far I have:

  • Baron Zero - a medieval lord who was frozen in the Arctic for 1000 years after a disastrous expedition. He will thaw out in Atomic City with powers of ice and cold and become a recurring threat. He has a more complicated back story than this and he is one of those villains with a specific agenda that happens to break some laws or threaten innocents as a side effect rather than just being generally evil. A new villain, the PC's will be called in for his first appearance so he will grow along with them. He will have some magical overtones.

  • Doctor Jurassic - a genetic researcher attempting to study the DNA of creatures from millions ago. A disastrous accident will lead to a swarm of Velociraptors running amok and seeing his accidental creations harmed will drive him over the edge leading him to become a recurring villain who always seems to have some dinosaur-themed scheme in play. He will also be making his first appearance during the campaign so the players will have some influence over his development. He will represent the "science gone amok" type villain.

  • Mechanon - a killer robot originally created by superheroes as a guardian and butler for their base. Something happened and he went insane and began trying to wipe out human life instead of serving drinks to capes. His origin will happen before the campaign and he will be a somewhat famous menace already so that when he shows up the police commissioner can say things like "It could be  the work of the villainous robot Mechanon!". Unlike the first two Mechanon is an old published Champions villain who has evolved quite a bit over the years. I'm going to start with his old look from the 80's version so that when he is eventually destroyed he can come back in the more spectacular 90's version and so on. He will represent the "technology gone wrong/man's creation turned against him" type of villain. Plus he's a good source for Giant Killer Robots.

  • The Black Hand Ninjas - these will be a recently-arrived threat that is determined to carve out a place for themselves. Ninjas are pretty much required in a supers game sooner or later (especially when your players have seen all of the Ninja Turtle movies and cartoons) so I'm getting them in early.  They will mostly be concerned with attacking the other organizations but if the superheroes get in their way they will take them on.
  • The Sorvino Crime Family - this is the other staple of superhero stories, the traditional mafia-style organization. The Sorvinos have been running things in Atomic City since the 50's (when the city sprung up) and they are not interested in sharing. They will have their ups and downs over the decades but their big challenge as the game begins is the new import from Japan mentioned above.
  • Viper - yes the traditional bad guy organization of Champions will be lurking in Atomic City too. Considering I have over 500 pages of material on them I just can't ignore the boys in green. Plus it's pretty easy to bolt-on any wild idea that pops into my head, moreso than the Ninjas or the Mafia groups. They can cover the AIM/Hydra/Cobra role in the campaign world.
 On the friendly side the main allies will be the Atomic City Police Department. There will be no local superteams (creating an obvious void) only some local lone-wolf types. I'm thinking of making the main one The Catman. I know there's one in the DC Universe but he's a fairly minor player and this would be my Batman ripoff/homage who's the longtime hero of the city who has seen everything and fought everyone. Plus personality wise I see him as a lot more like the 60's Batman than the brooding avenger of the last 25 years. It gives the PC's a potential rival, source of information, limited ally, and makes the city seem a little more alive if there's another hero out there working too.

My thinking is something like this:

Issue 1 - Doctor Jurassic! The heroes gather to stop a disturbance in a local park and are attacked by Velociraptors! Through some detective work or police contacts or the power of Science! they track the creatures back to a corporation and to one scientist in particular. He claims no knowledge but by watching him/mindreading they track him to a secret warehouse laboratory where he is breeding dinosaurs from recreated DNA. A big fight ensues and in the end the dinos go to a special zoo, the scientist has a mental breakdown, and the lab burns to the ground.

Issue 2 - Baron Zero! A disturbance at the Atomic City Museum of History leads the heroes to a melting block of ice and some frozen researchers. Looking around they are attacked by a cold-blasting armored figure who rants at them with archaic language until he is subdued and they learn his backstory. They can then decide whether to turn him over to police or let him go or exactly how they want to handle him. It's possible another villain (or villain group that likes to wear green) shows up and recruits him by promising to aid in his revenge.

Issue 3 - Ninja Attack! The heroes intervene in a simple mugging and fall into an ambush as one of the leaders of the newly-arrived Black Hands decides that the heroes are too much of a threat and attempt to eliminate them directly. Running fights and ambushes fall throughout this issue until the true leader of the clan arrives and puts a stop to it.

Issue 4Sky Pirates! The well known villain group attacks the Atomic City Airshow where a new type of engine is being demonstrated. They swoop in from the air and make off with the device, returning to their cloaked heli-carrier mothership unless the heroes stop them. Lots of air battles, a "dashing rogues" type enemy group, and a potential raid on a massive flying fortress.  

Issue 5 - Rampage! Dr. Jurassic escapes and injects himself with genetic material that turns him into a T-Rex - but he keeps growing. Soon he is rampaging through the city and must be stopped. Once restrained he will be subjected to an experimental treatment to try and control his growth.

Issue 6 - Strike Force! The Family, battered by ninja attacks on their business hire a group of low-rent supervillains to come in and take out  the Black Hands. As reports come in, sooner or later they cross paths with the heroes and violence ensues. The Sorvinos put the heroes on their "enemies list". This is a chance to use a lot of low-level villains from Champions and M&M lore - Black Claw, Blowtorch, Lazer, Utility, etc. It also could set up some rivalries or enmities for future sessions.

Issue 7 - The Return of Baron Zero! The new solar power satellite has been commandeered by Baron Zero! He has taken control from a secret command bunker and plans to redirect the satellite to the arctic, using it to melt the ice cap and take his revenge on Lord Winter, the being who froze him in  ice for 1000 years. The players must locate the bunker, break in, and stop the Baron before his fiendish plan can succeed. Note: this is a direct rip-off of an old Captain America storyline from Tales of Suspense back when he shared a book with Iron Man. It's an old one (it's older than I am) but I like it and think it's pretty cool and relevant today.

Issue 8 -Show me the Money!  Every bank in the city is robbed simultaneously by small heavily armed groups of men. When the heroes respond they discover that the robbers are actually robots and that there are many more of them than first realized. Even the Sorvinos and the Black Hands begin attacking the robots but there is much confusion as they look human, until the heroes create a "robot detector" to help them identify the imposters. it turns out it's a plot by Mechanon - this is a first run, and he plans to rob every bank in the country next, causing an economic collapse and turning the humans against one another, doing his work for him.

Issue 9 - Maximum Security! In response to the mass robberies, the Mayor announces that the city's police duties will be turned over to a private security organization. Suspicious, the PC's determine that the mayor is mind-controlled and once that control is broken the new security firm (and the power behind the mind control) is revealed to be Viper! A fight breaks out and Viper retreats.

Issue 10 -  Body Double! A famous media star disappears while in Atomic City, baffling handlers. The heroes are brought in to help and eventually discover that the Brain in a Jar (still working on a good name for him) is behind the kidnapping because it wants a new body - the star's! Negotiations may be lengthy or short but some kind of conflict will likely break out and a nice little fight in a warehouse or office building takes place. In the end the Brain swears revenge in a Dalek-like voice that it "just wanted to be pretty".

Issue 11 - Family Business! The head of the Sorvino family disappears and  one of his children asks the heroes for help, both to find her father and to avoid a civil war within the family. Obvious suspects include the ninjas and Viper but they are not behind the disappearance - instead, a new villain may be on the rise.

Issue 12 - Destructor! A giant robot attacks the city! The heroes, the police, other heroes, maybe even the ninjas join in to try and help stop the thing before it gets to the Atomic City Nuclear Plant which appears to be its main target. It's a big running fight with a chance for some rapid research, rescues, and unexpected team-ups. This is a good opportunity to let other people join in for a one-shot appearance. In the end, a message from Mechanon lets everyone one know who was behind it, but there is something different about him - he doesn;t look like the one the heroes just fought. So the season ends with a massive fight that leaves a bit of a mystery hanging for next volume.

That's the outline anyway. The main goal was to mix up a lot of superhero standards and try to work them all in  rather than having one long-running plot-line for a bunch of sessions. I think it's a pretty god mix and it should be fun to play and run.

Also, If anyone has a good name for a "brain in a jar" type supervillain I am open to suggestions.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Epic Level Campaiging - Idea #3: Godlike

The last of my Epic Campaign Trilogy ideas is the New Gods campaign.

  • What if the reason that the gods have no stats is because they have faded away?
  • Why do we assume that the gods are more powerful than the Level 32 or 33 demon prince, or a level 34 elemental lord?
  • What if upon assuming an Epic Destiny the character is actually filling an empty slot in the pantheon? Or what if they are all empty?

One of the posts in the thread that inspired this series of posts mentioned the Norse myths that feature Thor and Loki going out on adventures - drinking with giants, etc. Some of them read very much like what D&D characters might do. So what if the "Gods" are really just level 30 characters? Norse, Greek, and even Egyptian gods exhibit very human behavior, interact with mortals in some very direct ways including getting caught up in their politics. They also wander the land and the planes at times, fighting mortals and monsters and getting wounded and occasionally killed. That doesn't sound much like the modern concept of a "God" as an immortal all-powerful entity - that sounds like a high-powered mortal.  Star Trek and numerous comic books and probably many other sources have postulated the idea that ancient gods may have been advanced alien beings worshiped as gods by primitive peoples - why not use all of that?

My proposal for using this in Epic pretty much requires that you be OK with using the planes as an adventuring option. If that's OK then let's roll forth. Some  assumptions:

  1.  As long as there are intelligent beings inhabiting the world then there are divine forces driven by their thoughts and passions and beliefs - this is a "gods are powered by belief" point of view, not a "gods are powerful in and of themselves" point of view. Each of these things combines to create an energy in the universe - Divine Power (think white light). Each of them also empowers its own specific power source - War, Music, Sky, Sea, Motherhood, Love, Wisdom - pretty much anything you could be a god of, has a separate stream or "color" of the divine spectrum.
  2. The energy created by each of these individual forces looks for a focal point, and that focal point is a always a particularly powerful mortal that is attuned to that particular energy. A Barbarian who chooses Demigod as his epic destiny at level 21 becomes the focal point for War. A Paladin who chooses Glorious Spirit becomes the focal point of Honor. A Wizard who chooses Lorekeepeer becomes the focal point of Knowledge. They don;t have to be divine characters, that's just how it works. To put it in more D&Dish terms, the epic level character becomes an Avatar or that force, kind of like how gods in older editions could send an avatar off around the planes to take action. In this world, one of these forces is what allows a mortal to proceed beyond level 20. Without choosing an epic destiny, mortals top out at 20, so by definition (again - for this world) an Epic level character is a god, the personification or anthropomorphizing of a belief. It is this extra power that pushes him beyond what mere mortals can achieve.For whatever reason, this tops out at 30 - you can go no farther in your current form. Beyond level 30 the character becomes one with their force and no longer has a physical form - all they can do is manifest as a spirit and give warnings or advice - think "force ghost" like Kenobi in Empire Strikes Back and you have the right idea. Another angle: "Strength" is eternal, the God of Strength is not.
  3. There are physical beings in the universe more powerful than level 30. Some of these are Elemental Lords and they powerful because they were born with the universe and have been in it since day 1. Some of them are demon or devil lords, and they are powered by the souls they claim from foolish mortals when they die - mortals who worship a particular force (in the guise of whatever god they believe in) join with that force, but those who fall to evil outsiders go to power them instead. Long ago (say, in 1st edition ) they were weaker but over the centuries they have grown immensely in power and now may be strong enough to overcome the gods themselves. In any case, 30 is a mortal limit, and these beings are not and never have been mortals.
  4. People worship the gods who long ago ascended to become one with their force because they don't know any better - mortals are not  educated in the technical details of life beyond level 20. These old gods can still appear to their worshipers and they can still see what's going on in the universe but they can no longer affect it directly, which is why mortal followers and champions are so important. The gods tend to rise in groups (aka pantheons aka adventuring parties), remain in power for a time, then grow more distant from or less active in the world (as they hit level 30 and begin to fade out). This explains the different representations of gods over time but since it is tied to a particular force much of the religion remains consistent over time, with only the physical representation really changing.
  5. This means that the power of a religion, or a group of religions, or even Divine Power in general, tends to be cyclical - Heroes ascend to Epic, take a very active role in the universe damaging things, repairing other things, and just making waves in general. Then they hit level 30 and though they may hang around for a time they will eventually merge with their force and then things quiet down for awhile. Until a new set of gods arise. Often, the spirit of the previous god of that force will take a very active role in selecting a new one through prophecy, dreams, and direct communications with priests and champions of the faith. Maybe the reason those new gods come about is in response to some Demonic or Chaotic stirring in the universe - Orcus starts to upset the balance of things and heroes begin to ascend in response (which is why there's a plot waiting for them at level 21). In short gods arise to solve a problem, but once that problem is solved they tend to get bored and eventually merge with their force out of boredom if nothing else.
Just to state it clearly, my goal with these ramblings is to come up with a system of divinity that fits the game mechanics rather than trying to reconcile two existing, set things. If the gods are "Level Infinity" or off the scale, then a demon prince at level 34 can never really be a threat to them in any way within the game system. That means the reasons for the whole "we have to stop Orcus or the universe dies" start to look a little contrived and it relegates the players to sidekick status at best, even at Epic levels, which is exactly when they should NOT be sidekicks. Instead, if it's "Nope, you're the God of War now, good luck" then they have a whole new level of responsibility and might even feel something of a burden and fear of dropping the ball. That's how Epic should feel  - there is no higher authority.You can't radio Starfleet and ask for help. You can't wait for Superman to show up.You can't assume Elminster is going to clean up your mess.  Using this approach, if the universe dies it truly is your fault.

One fun thing to do - and I would be tempted to wait until the players ask about it - would be introducing them to their Astral Domains. Every god has one, right? So one day they wake up and they just know how to get there. When they do they are greeted by their angels or archons or elementals or whatever type of servants they have, led around the realm by their majordomo, taken to their citadel and shown their throne, and generally made to understand that this is real - they are now the god of X and this is their place. They can learn to reshape it in the form they see fit (maybe as a skill challenge the first time they try) and they can decide who to allow to enter and leave.

There are some problems with this idea. For one, it pretty much means you can't use any of the published campaign worlds as written. I'm thinking if you want to go whole hog with the idea that the Spellplague REALLY messed up the Forgotten Realms you could try it there - the gods faded with it and no new ones have arisen but it's time now. Purists in your game will probably scream, but they probably already screamed when the 4E Realms came out anyway so why not? The default D&D world could work too - maybe one of the reasons  the Empire of Nerath fell was because Erathis faded out and no one replaced her. It might also work in Dark Sun too, but you're talking major changes if you run a campaign set after the ascension of these new gods. Secondly you want to keep it secret from your players, or at least I would. The look on their faces when they hit 21 and pick a destiny and you tell the wizard "OK, you're now the god of magic" should be priceless.  However it means the gods can never physically manifest in the campaign prior to the big moment and for some campaigns that might not work. Thirdly it is quite a different take on things than most Divine hierarchies in D&D so it may not work for your group - that's OK I'm not sure it would work for some of mine. The idea that Thor is someone's 28th level barbarian and Loki is a 26th level rogue might blow too many synapses. But I'm going to do it, sooner or later.

As always comments and criticism are welcome.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Epic Level Campaiging - Idea #2: JLG

Idea #2 is "Justice League Greyhawk" - Looking at 4E, Epic level characters have amazing powers and are very hard to kill. Maybe we need to stop looking at dungeon crawls and start looking at other genres for inspiration - especially other genres that feature high-powered Superhero comics, movies, and games! If Heroic Tier corresponds to street level super heroics, and Paragon is similar to something like the X-Men, the Epic means you're one of the heavy hitters.What's more Epic than saving the world? Some staples of superhero campaigns that translate fairly well are:

  • Alien invasions! So, instead of aliens use demons, or elementals, or dragons. Maybe Elemental Lords have decided to destroy the material plane to return it to the elemental chaos. Maybe the demons have breached an ancient gate and are pouring out of it en masse. Maybe Dragons have been rare in your game before but now they start showing up in flocks like birds - where are they coming from and why? 
  • Defeating the evil megalomaniac mastermind .is a pretty common thing in super stories too.  What if an evil god has had enough of "balance" and finds an artifact or spell or forms an alliance that gives him the power to lock away the other gods?  By level 20 or so Divine PC's would be fairly big players in the gods' organization on the plane - they might get one last urgent message hinting at what is happening followed by silence. When things start to change they will take action. When's the last time your 20th level cleric was on the run from something, hunted by enemies who know what he can do and want to hurt him? If you're hurting for plot think "what would Lex Luthor do? What would Doctor Doom do? What would Apocalypse or Darkesied do? The ideas should come soon enough.

  • The War in Heaven - In some comics two alien races may go to war and that war eventually spills over into earth. This works a little differently than the invasion plot (or it could be used as a precursor to the invasion plot) in that the aliens are not interested in controlling the planet - it just makes for a convenient battleground. The PC's will probably not like random battles between an Earth Titan and a Pit Fiend wrecking their home town, especially if they are running things. They may start off like a fire brigade and try to stomp out individual threats, eventually realizing that that's not a long term solution. Instead they have to try and end a conflict between two alien races - and that's a whole different kind of problem than "Kill Orcus". Think of the ways this could be accomplished: 1) Try to arrange direct negotiations between the leaders of both sides 2) pick the side they favor then help them eliminate the other one, with the PC's as valued allies and captains among the force 3) Create an alliance of other parties (maybe other powerful characters or even some other outside race that hates both of the warring races) and wipe out both sides, or devastate them to the point they stop fighting. This allows for the possibility the new allies go too far and begin exterminating the now-weakened warring factions which ends up forcing the PC's the switch sides to maintain some kind of balance. Your aliens here could be demons, devils, elementals, dragons, giants, slaad, or some kind of undead.
Now some of these would benefit from the laying of some groundwork at lower levels. Say you want to make demons a part of Epic play.

  • Sometime in the Heroic levels your party is hassled by demonic cultists and their annoying high priest (a recurring enemy) and eventually tracks them down and wipes out a temple to Demogorgon.

  • In Paragon play a new powerful force arises on the fringes of their home territory and it turns out it's led by one of the 12 Death Knights of Demogorgon. Skirmishes ensue until the final confrontation with the army and its leader at the climax of the paragon levels. Maybe in one battle their old enemy turns up having been recovered and raised or maybe he's a demon now and leads one of the fights against the group. At this point the PC's may wonder why a demon prince is taking such interest in their homeland - a stealthy approach back in Heroic and now a more direct approach in Paragon. Maybe there's a resource or an artifact the prince is after? Or maybe he's secretly after on of the PC's and trying to lure him into a fall?

  • In Epic the demons start popping up, and causing trouble,  maybe kidnapping an important NPC ( a love interest, an apprentice, an heir),  forcing the characters to pursue to the Elemental Chaos and eventually to the Abyss.  The party must fight through a horde of demons before facing off with the big bad himself. If you just want to have a big fight, let the party face off with the remaining 11 Death Knights of Demogorgon first, before the big bad enters the field. At this point you could go for a straight up fight or maybe there's a twist - the prince doesn't want to fight the PC's, he wants their help in defeating some other evil that's too strong for him while he's holding off his rivals. Tharizdun, elemental lords, a titan - there's something else out there that he can't beat so he's looking for help the only way a demon can. There are all kinds of possibilities here with the party having to decide if they want to help a demon prince out, whether to take him out first, or if he's even telling the truth.

One of the challenges at Epic is filling out 10 levels worth of action. One of my solutions if you are going to feature a Big Bad or Bads is to make the lieutenants interesting (and powerful) so that it makes their leader that much more impressive. Maybe the deathknight Vorthax is known for having a skeletal appearance, wearing burned and blackened plate armor, and wielding a greatsword that burns with green fire.His powers use a lot of fire and he mostly fights with his personal Nightmare and a pair of corrupted fire elementals. A different knight might have blue skin and live in a fortress in the frozen north, having a lot of cold powers and fighting with n army of undead. The others would have their own quirks and flavor and be of varying power levels. Think "Supervillains" here if you run out of easy ideas, it could restart the creative engine.

In the example above you could detail out each of the 12 Knights and have the newest and weakest member be the climactic opponent for Heroic tier, the one they face in the final battle that takes them to 11th level and sets them on their path for Paragon. A rationale here could be that rather than living in the Abyss  each knight has to build and maintain a fortress on the material plane and that's what this one was trying to do when the PC's stopped him.

During the Paragon adventures there could be several quests involving contact or conflict with the Knights until at Epic levels the group realizes they are the key to defeating Demogorgon and targets them systematically. They wouldn't be the focus of the campaign until early Epic, but they lend both continuity to the campaign and a sense of accomplishment as these long-term evils of the campaign world are slowly extinguished  The characters become mighty heroes righting wrongs and establishing themselves as the defenders of the world, then face off with a major threat - the master of these immortal terrors himself.  At that point it could be a straight-up fight or the DM could throw in some twists as outlined above.

Overall I think it's a valid approach to running Epic adventures. It could begin as a more reactive approach to things - superheroes tend to be more reactive than proactive anyway - but it doesn't have to stay that way for long. Once the threat to the city/kingdom/world has been identified then they can go on the attack to resolve it, hopefully leading to a satisfying ending to the campaign.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Epic Level Campaiging - Idea #1: MANG!

I've been reading this thread at EN World about Epic Tier play and there is an interesting mixture of opinions in it. There also seem to be a few people throwing up their hands and saying they can't see how to make it work due to campaign impact, lack of enemies, or a disinterest in planar themes for their game. I had some ideas on all of those so I have outlined three ideas for Epic play, the first of which is below.

Note: If you have been running a campaign for 20 years and have players that have been running the same characters for that long then you may not want to do any of these. I think that after a few years a campaign achieves a certain comfort level and those involved, players and DM alike, would be loathe to upset it too drastically.  Also, Epic play is designed (in 4E anyway) to have an end point. This is a totally different attitude than many old school campaigns that were intended as an open-ended sandbox kind of thing that had no planned ending - as long as someone was interested, the campaign would keep rolling along. Neither one is wrong, they're just very different and I would say incompatible at a basic level unless people are willing to risk shaking things up. This particular one is a concept that the world could recover from though - read on:

For those who really don't like the extra-planar element, how about this:  Your PC's have achieved level 20, defeated major evil, and secured a comfortable life for themselves as rulers or leaders of the kingdom. All is good and no one is terribly interested in attacking the Abyss or baiting Tiamat or giving Ogremoch a bath. Then one day a large chunk of rock floating in the sky is sighted off the coast of the players' continent. It moves inland, casting a shadow across the land, then disgorges all manner of flying creatures and ships that begin terrorizing the kingdom, then a magical projection informs the populace that they are now part of the Empire of Mang the Unmerciful. Cue dramatic music and player reaction!

Yes, this is Epic Idea #1 "Mang the Unmerciful" or the invasion from across the sea.

First, who is Mang? Mang is a higher-level Epic character who has chosen the path of the Dynast or the Empire Builder and is working hard to make it come about. He has legions of troops from all kinds of races the PC's have never seen. He has strange magic they have never encountered. He has seen it al land done it all and nothing will surprise him. He has a destiny to fulfill and nothing will deter him, either.

Alternatives: none really. You need to make this guy up, probably just like a level 30 PC. You could have a ruling council instead of a single leader, but  then you lose the epic destiny angle. unless you make it an adventuring party. Heh. That would enable a series of smaller climaxes as each one is confronted and defeated leading up to the final defeat of the last few characters at the end. It could be a fun alternative if you're had a lot of singular bad guys at lower levels

Second, How does it start? If you want dramatic build-up, let Mang start with a neighboring kingdom, maybe an ally, or maybe an enemy. Let him make an example of them. This should be an alien threat and it should use none of the conventional featured monsters of the campaign thus far and it should utterly dominate. Later, conscripted conventional forces will add a little horror to the campaign as the defeated are added to Mang's unstoppable war machine. The initial actions of the PC's are likely to be reactionary - gather forces, gather information, find out what's going on - but at some point will become proactive as the invasion proceeds. There could even be an initial setback as the PC's kingdom is conquered, their cities are razed, and their armies defeated. They may have to retreat and regroup.

Alternatives: If your world is completely mapped then Mang is from one of the moons. Your world has moons right? It's right there in your notes - it's just that no one cared enough to ask about them before. If not then maybe he's from the Hidden Moon that no one speaks of - clearly an evil place, perhaps tainted by the Far Realm.. Going there is probably dangerous. If he conquered it then he is clearly a major major badass and probably has powerful backing.

Third - Resources? Say you're playing in a normal campaign world like the Forgotten Realms. Well then Mang's troops include a whole bunch of Warforged ala Eberron and a bunch of monsters and races from the Dark Sun books. Banned the PHB 3 in your campaign? Make the enemies Psionic! The main thing is to give the warlord's forces a feel of being totally alien. Imagine a group of players fighting Drow for the first time ever in the form of a 20th level hit team coming to assassinate the king. Darkness dropping everywhere, plentiful use of poison attacks, female leaders - it's a whole different thing from say orcs, ogres, and giants. Plus, if the divine figures prominently in your world then the Emperor may have whole pantheon of gods backing him - alien gods the PC's know nothing about, or a pack of Elemental lords, or even an Infernal or Abyssal power.I like the Alien Gods idea best  - keep the players guessing. Make it a Far Realm power and blow their minds.

Alternatives: What, you don't want to drop a bunch of Warforged Battleminds on your PC's? Ok, then use extra-planar race but make them non-extra-planar. Githyanki would be great here - alien, powerful, and mean. They don;t have to be specifically from the Astral plane - they are from "a distant kingdom". Mang defeated their lich-queen and forced the entire race into servitude which the race hates but they have no choice. this easily leads to an adventure to rescue the lich-queen of the githyanki, setting the race free and robbing Mang of one of his most powerful troop types. heck, they might even join the PC's army with a good diplomacy roll...

Fourth -  What do they do? The players have to get away from the initial invasion or turn it aside then either join it or try to stop it. This is about the time they should be choosing their Epic Destinies - Demigod? Maybe you are the "Fist of Ares" chosen to lead his armies. Archmage? Maybe you are the Arcanist Supreme, defender of the world against the threats of the corrupted magic of the Far Realm. Trickster? You are the Ultimate Rebel, focal point of the forces of Chaos to resist this eruption of Law and restore the natural order of things.  Once destinies are chosen then the players should be full of ideas - teleport to Mang's homeland and find out his enemies and weaknesses; Gather a force of dragons and make a direct assault to capture one of his smaller floating fortresses to begin fighting him on even terms; craft a magical artifact capable of blowing his floating fortress out of the sky; unleash the tarrasque to give him a different problem  to deal with; Rally the faithful across the entire continent to gather an army as large or larger than his -there are all sorts of options so let your players do some of the lifting here. It should be epic - think Star Wars, with Mang's floating fortress as the Death Star and you're on the right track..

Alternatives: If they decide to join him then the campaign then just got really interesting. The PC's get to pay back all those other power=players that snubbed them in prior sessions. The Epic destinies could be tied up with recruiting allies to join the fight -the abyss, the nine hells, archons, elemental lords, the primal spirits, etc. Other sources of inspiration here involve anything that covers a struggle against overwhelming forces: Babylon 5, Lord of the Rings, Terminator movies (hey time travel), Space Cruiser Yamato - inspiration is everywhere.  Think "missions" rather than wandering around type adventures and it should be good. 

Fifth - How does it end? Well it could end with the last surviving PC having a sword-duel with Mang on the top of his fortress as it slowly falls out of the sky, but that can be hard to arrange. It could be a raid on dragonback to fly into the interior of the fortress and destroy the magical engine that powers it or infiltrating the rock, drawing off the elite guard, then facing off with Mang and his second-in-command inside the palace. Perhaps Mang is slain as the apparent climax of the campaign then the alien god that lent him its power manifests over his dead body and an even bigger fight is on for the finale at level 30.

Alternatives: A lot of this will depend on what your players do but there does need to be a way for them to win and it does need to be more than poisoning Mang's drink IMO. Serious damage should be done, depending on how much you want to hit the reset button at the end. This is a good way to "change the map" and set the world up for a New Age, which might even be the next campaign. Maybe one of Mang's lieutenant's escapes with a smaller fortress and some troops and becomes the main threat for that next game at the lower levels, becoming a permanent part of the new landscape, along with new races and new magic types and items.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 13:

Our heroes:

Mikal, Level 3 Human Infernal-Pact Warlock
Althea, Level 3 Eladrin Wizard
Uthal, Level 3 Goliath Barbarian
Jovanni, Level 3 Half-Elf Bard
Kordan, Level 3 Human Fighter

Hiding in the ruins for the night after the battle with the Zhentarim the party rested their bodies and refocused their will on the upcoming ambush. Their preparations were complete and they expected to begin combat sometime before dawn. Soon enough, the slightly muffled tramp of booted feet can be heard approaching. Peeking out of their positions, the heroes take in the sight.

The hulking form of an Ogre leads a small procession. Behind him a half-orc in black plate armor carrying a shield and a massive flail appears to be the leader of the band. He is accompanied by another half-orc in chainmail and bearing a shield with the symbol of Bane and carrying a mace. Five orcs escort them with heavy armor, shield, and battle axe while hovering over them is a flaming green skull that darts back and forth, scanning the ruins. It looks like a tough bunch, and a hard fight.

(DM Note - it was. This was the longest fight of our 4E campaign at 14 rounds)

With their extra preparation time the party achieves surprise and opens up with ranged attacks and some repositioning. The Ogre is the primary target and he roars in pain.

After the initial surprise though, fate turns against the party as almost all of their attacks go wide or are deflected by the now alerted Banites. The Flameskull moves into optimum position and begins flaming party members, eventually dueling at range with the wizard. Kardon the fighter has to fight through the orcs to engage and slays two of them as he does so. The cleric becomes a target after firing off a nasty spell and he goes down quickly. Mikal the warlock concentrates on the Ogre until his infernal feedback loop (Hellish Rebuke) takes down the Ogre when the Flameskull blasts him and this turns the tide. Uthal the Barbarian fights through orcs as well and engages the half-orcs but is hit by a spell and has trouble shaking it off. The fighter keeps the Banites busy until he can shake it off and then things thin out quickly.

In the end, the Half-Orc Hand of Bane stands through it all with the flaming green skull keeping overwatch near him as he duels the barbarian and the fighter. Both of them take beatings from the leader but he is eventually overwhelmed and falls. the flameskull takes one last shot, nearly killing the bard, then turns to run but the barbarian finally lands a hit on it and shatters it forever.

While the rest of the party catches their breath Kordan searches the bodies and eventually finds a large sack on the leader. He opens it and finds the armor rolled up inside.He unrolls the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd as sunlight shines down and dramatic music swells in the background, and realizes his destiny is now set.

That's when he hears a small voice call out to him from the ruins

"Well I thought we might have been too late to the party but I see you've saved us some trouble.  Now hand over the armor and we'll let you live."

The party glances around and notices a lot of heads popping up in the ruins. Small heads. They appear to be surrounded by halflings, and they wear the colors of the Fire Knives.

Uthal Commentary

DM Notes: This was a session-long combat, our longest by far, but it was pretty dynamic with a lot of movement back and forth, ranged attacks, and some minions that actually survived more than 5 rounds. The warlock, the wizard, and the bard all took pretty good beatings too, which is unusual. Even a single tough fighter type, assisted by a buffing buddy and a ranged combatant and some minions to hold off the concentration of fire, can be a challenge for the party.

Round 2 saw an almost 100% miss rate by the party so Round 3 saw 3 action points being burned which helped turn things back the cleric was killed by this extra effort. After that there was some effort to focus fire on one target but it was not totally successful as even if 2 or 3 characters focus on one target it's rare for the entire party to do it on one. This will be a theme that shows up in future summaries too.

This was a level 8 encounter, 5 levels over the party, and they handled it - it was tough, but no one died and they did slaughter all opposition. I think same-level encounters may be too easy for them (and I haven't done many of those after 1st level) but I am encouraged that a +5 encounter was something they could handle. This gives me more options down the road in terms of opposition.

It was long and it was tough but I think everyone was happy with it. I thought the nastiness of it served as a pretty good test to acquire the armor but I didn't want them to just walk away with it, so another group has been watching and plans to move in now to seize the prize while they are (theoretically) weakened.  The party was concerned but not afraid. More next time.

Bonus Monday Post

Just as a special bonus post, here's some more 4E character talk. This is a potential backup character if the Tempus Cleric goes down unexpectedly.  First, some fluff:

For the Realms one of the big "evil" areas is Thay. The Red Wizards of Thay have been a threat to the Realms since the 1E version of the world. Now in 4E the leader of the region is a super-lich who has imposed his will on the formerly somewhat fractured nation. The leaders of the region are known for magical power, evilness, and intriguing against one another.

Also in 4E Tieflings are now a standard player race. Since they are both somewhat tainted by evil as a race and somewhat magically inclined I think an association could be made with their ancient homeland of Bael Turath (mentioned frequently in the 4E default world setting) and the current Realms nation of Thay. That is, perhaps whatever was there before the Red Wizards took over was the center of the old Tiefling Empire. Tieflings might now be in a somewhat subservient role to the interloper humans who moved in after the collapse and took over. Stealing some easy references, they might operate somewhat like the Narn in the early seasons of Babylon 5 - a race dominated by another and chafing under the yoke. I would also envision their society as being somewhat like Klingons from Star Trek, though not the Samurai Klingons of the Next Gen era but the Cold War Klingons of the original series - ruthless, calculating, deceptive, not afraid of a fight but preferring to have the odds on their side, but not humorless drones either. Note that I don't see this as "all Tieflings"  are this way, I see it as "this particular group of Tieflings" is this way. Other groups might be more like the later Klingons, while others might be more like Ferengi, to continue the Trek references.

One new class for 4E is the Swordmage. This is an Arcane class that is mainly a melee fighting class that goes with light armor and uses magic for defense and mobility. It's portrayed as an Eladrin thing but there's no reason to think they're the only ones who started this. I can see an ancient order of tiefling mage-knights who wield nasty blades and light armor and go teleporting around the battlefield.

The outcome of these three ruminations is Kor Koloth, Tiefling Swordmage. Let's look at a 4E character line by line:

Kor Koloth, level 1
> Yeah it's a trick name but I like it.

Tiefling, Swordmage
Build: Assault Swordmage
Swordmage Aegis: Aegis of Assault

> Simple enough. There are 3 types of Swordmage - one that shields allies, one that pulls enemies to them, but I choose the one that goes after the enemy.

Background: Thay (Thay Benefit)
> This is key - the "Thay" background lets us use Int as the base score for hit points instead of Con and this is huge as you will see in a minute.

Str 14, Con 10, Dex 10, Int 20, Wis 9, Cha 12.

Str 14, Con 10, Dex 10, Int 18, Wis 9, Cha 10.
> Tieflings get a +2 to Int and a +2 to Cha. Intelligence normally affects Reflex defense, Armor Class, and some skills. For Swordmages it is also the primary attack stat - almost all of their powers are "Int vs. something". For this character, with the Thay background, it also is the base for hit points. So by making these choices we have made Int by far the most important ability score and thus it's worth getting it up to a 20. Normally I'm fine with an 18 primary, even with a racial bonus, but this is too good to resist.

AC: 20 Fort: 12 Reflex: 15 Will: 13
> And here is one reason why: Swordmages get a +3 to AC id they have one hand free and are in cloth or leather armor. So AC is Base 10 + 3 for the class feature, +2 for leather armor, +5 for Int modifier. Starting out with a 20 AC is  huge for a front-line melee combatant. For comparison, a 1st level Paladin in Plate + Heavy Shield is also AC20. it's about as good an AC as a starting character can have. His other defenses are alright, with Reflex being pretty good due to the Int bonus.

HP: 35 Surges: 8 Surge Value: 8

> Here is the other reason we wanted a 20 Int - it means we start with 35 hit points! That's as much as a starting character can have short of taking the toughness feat and that's probably gong to show up down the road. Defensively this character is a beast, with a very high AC and very high hit points - for a frontline defender this is awesome, and for one who could be teleporting around the battlefield away from healing it is even more beneficial.

Arcana +10, History +10, Diplomacy +6, Athletics +7

>He's likely to be the party authority on Arcana and History, he's not terrible at Diplomacy, and physical challenges are no problem either.

Acrobatics, Bluff +3, Dungeoneering -1, Endurance, Heal -1, Insight -1, Intimidate +1, Nature -1, Perception -1, Religion +5, Stealth +2, Streetwise +1, Thievery

> Well everybody has a wekness and his is here. He's OK with Religion but the 9 Dex and its -1 modifier hurts him on some important skills. The penalty can be erased down the road but he is by no means a skill-monkey.

Level 1: Intelligent Blademaster

> This feat allows him to use Int as his attack stat on Basic attacks. This is important because some swordmage abilities allow him to make Basic attacks when triggered. Basic attacks also come into play with Opportunity Attacks, and as a melee defender class he will see more than a few of those.  Taking this lets us ignore Str for attack bonuses and maximizes the use of our 20 Int.

Swordmage at-will 1: Luring Strike

>This is a normal attack that lets him shift himself and the target if he so desires

Swordmage at-will 1: Greenflame Blade
>This one will see a lot of use as its a normal attack that does Str modifier damage to all enemies adjacent to the main target. This is one reason to raise Str to a +2 modifier even though we've focused on Int for our attacks - that Str modifier boost shows up in a lot of Swordmage powers and 2 points is enough to slay minions. If he gets swarmed while all by himself he can clear out a bunch with just one hit. It also has the Fire keyword - more on that below.

Swordmage encounter 1: Flame Cyclone
> This is a close burst attack that does 1d8 fire damage + Int modifer + Str modifer. It's another minion sweper, basically, but with the double modifer it does enough to hurt a group of non minions too.  This also has the Fire keyword.

Swordmage daily 1: Frost Backlash
>This is a single-target attack that is an immediate interrupt , so it fires off when Kor is hit - it does triple damage + Int mod so it's pretty nasty and it doesn't burn up one of his own attacks - on his turn he can act normally.

Future deelopment here would be to take Hellfire Blood at level 2. This is a Tiefling-only thing that adds a +1 to hit and damage to all attacks with the Fire keyword - and there are a lot of Swordmage Fire attacks, starting with one of the at-wills and the encounter power chosen above. This means that using a longsword Kor normally has a +8 to hit with his Int-based attacks. When he advances to 2nd he will get a +1 level bonus, and if he takes this feat he would then have a +10 with most of his attacks when a +7 or +8 is considered pretty good. He would also have a pretty nice damage modifier.

Also down the road could be proficiaency with the Bastard Sword (for the d10 damage on a 1-hander) and maybe Toughness (+5 hit points at heroic) to enhance one of the already strong parts of the character. With a feat at every even level he could be very nasty and very tough by 6th level - as if he wasn't already.

So there you have it - I like the concept and actually had it before I had any mechanics down beyond "Tiefling Swordmage" and wondering how that would work. Once I got happy with the idea I discovered that mechanically it is very potent both for offense and for defense - always a nice discovery. Personality wise I would probably play up the Klingon thing - calm, calculating, and not afraid to bervally taunt his enemies.

Anyway I don't typically spend a lot of time here on mechanics and that is not likely to change - I just wanted to run through it once to show some of my thinking when working up a new character.

Motivational Monday