Monday, 30 June 2008

4ed Campaign -- Session 1 -- 28th June 2008

In which many kobolds meet their maker, the power of area-effect attacks against minions is strongly felt by the DM, and the afternoon seems to be over all too quickly.
So last Saturday was my first actual, honest-to-goodness session of 4th Edition with what I hope will become my regular group. Unfortunately, a brain-fart on the part of one of my players meant he turned up at exactly the right time but on the wrong day (doh!) so we were down to two players and myself, your wholesome DM. Reluctant to call it a bust, we ploughed straight into Keep on the Shadowfell. I'll be treating this as a standalone adventure before dropping the players into the larger campaign, so don't expect too much background. That'll all come later.

Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 1
Berend - Dwarven Fighter 1
Alarik - Dwarven Rogue 1
Krakd - Dragonborn Cleric 1 (DMPC)

The King's Road, west of Winterhaven. Four souls, brought together by common need, watching the shadows play in the trees as they walk, hoping that their short journey will be free of incident. Fate, it seems, has other plans.

Berend's acute senses warn them of the impending ambush as a cadre of small reptilian humanoids detaches itself from the rocks on either side of the road and rushes to the attack. Kobolds! Alarik immediately slips into the bushes and out of sight as Berend presses forward to protect his companions, taking a flesh wound from a hail of javelins as he unleashes his throwing hammers upon the enemy. Elumai moves up the road behind him, searching for signs of movement, and spots a group of kobolds emerging from cover a few tens of feet away. Clearly having no time for games, she unleashes her most ferocious spell in their midst, an explosive cloud of frigid air from which there is no escape.

Alarik tries to maneuver into position but the shifty dragon-kin are almost impossible to pin down. Meanwhile Berend finally charges into the kobolds' midst, shrugging off attacks and dealing heavy damage with great, cleaving sweeps of his battle-axe. Marking his targets and rooting the combat on the road, Alarik moves up in his wake and starts to strike effectively at the enemy. From there, it's only a matter of time before the party is victorious, with barely a healing prayer from Krakd.

Their first entanglement successfully dealt with, the group wastes no time looting the bodies (dwarves and adventurers being what they are) and, taking a few moments to cut the tails from the creatures as a trophy, they push on towards town. Finally Winterhaven comes into view.

Settled atop a small hill and surrounded by farmsteads, Winterhaven is obviously equipped to defend itself. The town is surrounded by a stone wall and protected by a hefty gate. Patrols along the pallisade indicate an active guard, but the strangers have little trouble gaining entrance. A few minutes spent getting their bearings leads them to the dwarven smith - Thair Coalstriker - who is more than happy to exchange the looted armaments for some of his stockpiled silver, but it's to the inn -- Wrafton's -- that they eventually make their way.

Drinks and food inevitably follow, but Berend has no time for subtleties. Climbing onto their table, he slams the haft of his axe onto the wood and solicits for work right then and there. Many curious looks ensue, but a robed genetleman -- Valthrun the Prescient, as he later introduces himself -- beckons him over and indicates that Lord Padraig, the patron of Winterhaven, might have work dealing with the kobold infestation of the King's Road. Something has happened this year, he confides... something has got the redskins organised and more dangerous than ever.

Meanwhile, Alarik's attention has been grabbed by a wiry, leather-skinned old farmer standing at the bar. Noticing his blatant derision at whatever Valthrun has to say, the rogue sidles up to the old-timer and offers him another drink... much to the chagrin of inn-keeper Salvana, who tells the man -- Eilian -- that he should be at home tending his fields, not frittering his meagre funds away getting drunk at her bar. Uncomfortable at this, Alarik removes Eilian to their table before pressing him further on Valthrun, but it turns out the old man is just frustrated the the self-appointed master of the Winterhaven tower seems as impotent as everyone else at solving the problems of the road and of the poor crops this season. His hatred of the sage is obvious though, and Alarik cuts the conversation short as Eilian's drunken temper threatens to get them all into trouble.

The party settles in for a few hours to await the arrival of Lord Padraig, by all accounts a regular at Wrafton's. Sure enough he arrives with two guards in tow and, ordering an extravagant meal while the adventurers look on, he negotiates a 1 SP bounty with them per kobold tail returned. His 'man', captain of the guard Rond Kelfem, will see to it, and he declares them all potential saviours of the town of Winterhaven if only they can hunt down the source of the kobold infestation and rid him of that most vexing problem.

Rond is all too happy to pay the bounty on the 8 kobold tails already collected. He has tried -- and failed -- to persuade Padraig to raise a militia to hunt them down, but the Lord of Winterhaven has always insisted that the town's defenses must not be compromised, so with something akin to hope, he provides the adventures with directions to a likely haunt of the beasts: a set of caves half a league to the east of town...

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Hi is this where the party is?

I feel noobishly out of touch but I've only recently discovered the joys of Critical Miss, surely one of the funniest gaming web-sites in the whole wide world. Do yourself a big favour and take a dip.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Review 2: Character creation

So, recently my brand new 4th Edition group sat around my ever-so-slightly-too-high dinner table and rolled up a bunch of characters for the impending campaign. Here's how it went down.

First to go were the standard array and the various point-buy options in favour of the rattle of dice on table-top, albeit with a couple of ground rules in place to ensure no-one was too gimped. The result? A bunch of powerful characters with slightly more flaws than they might otherwise have had in the ability score department. This is fine by me as I'm going to be running a campaign with a less-than-optimal 4-player party, so powerful PC's will reduce the amount of work I have to do in tailoring adventures to account for the missing 5th man/woman/monstrous humanoid.

Second on the agenda, class decisions. Pretty much everyone at the table arrived with expectations about their favourite class, but were willing to compromise in the interests of covering the four major roles... a very good sign for the campaign, I think. Result: a dwarven rogue, a dwarven fighter, an eladrin wizard, and (my own character) a dragonborn cleric. Ironically, I was ready to fill whichever role was left over and I ended up with the cleric... which is the class most people associate me with when it comes to D&D. No problems there (and the 4ed cleric just rocks the big one).

Then it was time for the PHB-shuffle as everyone started deciphering the rules and filling in their sheets. I took a bit of time at the start of the session to walk the character sheet and give the run-down on whatever rules were relevant, which ended up being a pretty good method of introducing the guys to the new game. They took to it all very quickly. Comparisons to previous editions, and of course the inevitable comments about WoW (mostly from me, despite the fact I banned the name from the table!), were rife, but it showed everyone was keyed up and getting into the new rules. Any doubt I might have had about whether these D&D veterans would take to 4th Edition quickly evaporated as the various squawks of delight and random exclamations of "Cool!" erupted around the table during this process.

A couple of quibbles about the layout of the books. First, the index is a bit of a failure, which isn't surprising considering that three-hundred-plus of pages of pretty crunchy stuff is indexed on just one side. Really, in this day and age, this is unforgivable. The 3rd Edition index was like a Heward's Haversack of info... no matter what I looked for, it always seemed to be there, and the 4th Edition version is sad in comparison. Second, not listing the powers for each class in either a combined or class-specific table somewhere in the book is a major error. Neither of these sacrifices to the dark and infernal gods of page-count should have been allowed to reach their diabolical end.

Next, some of the early character choices are very tough if you choose not to go with the suggested character builds. On the one hand, this is obvious. New players will undoubtedly go with the builds presented, and probably even assume they're mandatory, so it's hardly a fair criticism. On the other hand there was a lot of combined D&D experience around the table that day so I wasn't surprised to find that my players wanted a bit more freedom. With every class having three prime abilities, and with powers dipping liberally into all three of them for both attack and damage/effect rolls, optimising your first few characters will take time. I couldn't help but feel that the power descriptions could have helped here, simply by stating prominently which abilities were relevant and removing the need to read the power descriptions in detail, perhaps in the non-existing powers table I mentioned above. To be fair this is really a small criticism which will become increasingly irrelevant as we gain the all-important rules familiarity.

Other small editorial tidbits slowed things down too: for example, items have weight but the information on what you can carry/push/drag etc. is not tabulated, and the word encumbrance seems to have been excised from the game entirely. It sounds pedantic, but this is gamer terminology that's ingrained in our minds and its removal seems unnecessary. I also think that the section on reading the 4th Edition character sheet, which is a particularly dense example of the species, should have been much longer and clearer. It took us ages to work out what the 'Attack Workspace' section was for, but I'm more than willing to put that down to us just being thick. What is even less forgivable is the complete lack of a downloadable 4th Edition character sheet from the Wizards of the Coast web-site; instead we had to make do with a reasonable but nevertheless inferior scan from the back of the PHB. Come on, guys. Digital content is a headline selling feature of the 4ed product line. Not to have even this simple download available at launch is absolutely crazy.

The positives far outweighed the negatives here, though, and are much easier to define. Choosing powers was a gloriously exciting exercise, with each class presented alongside a smorgesboard of fun and blood-letting. The simplified skill system takes seconds to get to grips with (and the same amount of time to re-do after you buy armour with a check penalty!). The equipment and armaments section is concise and to the point. Choices at first level are varied enough to give individuality to your creations, but limited enough not to overwhelm. A completed first level character seems just loaded down with potential, screaming to get onto the battlemat and into the minds of the players. I can't help but admire what's been achieved in that respect.

To close up this portion of the review then... is character creation a fun exercise in itself, or is it a laborious grind that gets in the way of the actual game? Definitely the former, which for me is an important tick in the long list of things 4th Edition must get right to earn its place in D&D history. 8.5/10

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Review 1: Look and feel

So, this blog's first informed review of 4th Edition is going to be purely about presentation and aesthetic. The books themselves feel as chunky as the 3rd Edition core rules, with very nice matte covers incorporating pleasing spot varnish effects, and all of them are hefty tomes packed with good stuff. Page counts are pretty meaningless without seeing the content for yourself, but I never shy away from stating the meaningless (just ask anyone who's every talked to me), so the PHB runs to 300+ pages, the DMG to 220+ pages, and the MM to 280+. Your first impression, as you lug the combined weight of core 4th Edition away from your favourite retailer, is that you get your money's worth. With many places offering them at under 20 quid each, you can't really go wrong. That's amazing value for what could turn out to be thousands of hours of entertainment.

When it comes to the interiors, the first thing to hit me about them was how white they were, as opposed to 3rd's very pleasing textured page backgrounds, which I felt added a lot to the overall feel of the books. 4th is much more clinical, with lots of bold colours, larger text, a highly regimented, reference-like layout, and an obvious eye to making its information as easy as possible to look up during a game. This is a laudible goal, and probably an improvement over 3rd, but I can't help but miss the sheer impact and style of the 3rd Edition books. It might have become staid by the end of 3rd Edition's shelf-life, but it blew me away to begin with.

The artwork runs the normal gamut from gorgeous and evocative all the way down to the mostly bland but still well-drawn. We all have our favourite artists (Michael Komarck being mine... just look at the Monster Manual's 'Monsters A-Z' splash), and there's certainly a wealth of different styles to choose from here. In 3rd, the core art had a unified feel, with all of its sepia undertones and meticulous detail, and while it was superb technically, it was ultimately unstimulating when it came to the game. In 4th, there's almost always something to flash-inspire an adventure hook or a character concept, and I can't help but think they've nailed the artwork about 85-90% of the time. You can check out a lot of it for yourself at the Wizards of the Coast web-site.

On the flip side, the art is very rarely integrated into the text, and there are a lot of rectangular pieces just stamped unceremoniously down on the page. This is a pity, as I like the art to flow naturally with the text (again, 3rd Edition, I'm looking at you), and in 4th it sometimes just feels tacked on. There are exceptions, as you'd expect: the piece alongside the Skill Challenge chapter, of a Duke receiving whispered advice from his shifty-looking advisor is a bona-fide classic (and was part of Wizards 4th preview on Skill Challenges here), even if, as a friend of mine pointed out, the guy in the background looks a little too much like Eddie Izzard. The various splashes adorning the chapter headings across the series are also brilliant.

Overall? I prefer 3rd Edition's overall look to 4th's, but I have the feeling that in the long term the improved readability of the new layout and design means I'll get over it. 7/10

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Your fingers have corrosive oils!

I have the books. That is all that need be said for now. :D Oh, and I changed the theme to this rather nice blue/tan number. It was time.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

New poll: is 4th Edition your bag?

Simply what it says on the tin. Opinion is divided amongst pretty much everyone I know that plays D&D, so it would be interesting to get the views of the tidal wave of gamers that surge through my blog each and every day.

Has it been a year already?

Because 4th Edition is pretty much here, and not only that, but it seems to rock very hard indeed, D&D is consequently featuring very heavily in my head-space.

I need to be careful about letting its shiny newness blind me to the system as a whole, but from what I've read, and from what I've surmised, and from even the little I've played, the whole thing seems like a triumphant mix of fun, modern design features coupled with the unique fantasy feel that still makes D&D such a standout game even some 30+ years plus after it was devised.

The books should arrive on Friday, fingers crossed, so I'll have more to blather on about over the next few weeks. It'll be interesting to talk about the challenges of the new system from the ground up, and I should certainly have plenty of opportunities to play it. Two potential new 4th Edition campaigns have opened up, one of them weekly, and on top of that I will be developing and playtesting the Greyflood series of adventure modules with a very talented friend of mine for publication in the Autumn. I'll be sure to talk about all of that here, exclusively, on this very channel. :)