Thursday, 24 July 2008

New Poll: 4E Prep Time

So a somewhat lacklustre showing from the more recent poll, but with the 'Up to two hours hours per four of game time' option winning out. One poor soul is doing three hours of prep per four hours of gaming... this was along the lines of what I was having to do for my old d20 Modern 'Blue Pill' campaign, and is one of the reasons why it folded. I certainly can't be doing that these days, with my own vote going in the 'Up to 2 hours' bracket.

And now, the first point of comparison. I've raised the same poll, but with respect to 4th Edition. Let's see how the numbers pan out in the brave new world, shall we?

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

4ed Campaign -- Session 3 -- 19th July 2008

In which some salient lessons about the conservation of Daily powers are learned, the party's dice fail to escape the doom-curse which seems to have been placed upon them, and the brilliant power of a minion mob is made evident.
Roster
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 1
Berend - Dwarven Fighter 1
Alarik - Dwarven Rogue 1
Krakd - Dragonborn Cleric 1 (DMPC)
Bolstered by the activation of the arcane circle, the party turns their attention to the waterfall. Alarik slips through the curtain of water into a convenient shadowy corner on the other side, there to spy a walled complex hammered out of the granite and lit by flickering torches. Kobolds lie in wait there... lots of kobolds. Alarik is spotted by an armed kobold skulking in the shadows nearby, and retreats towards his friends, hoping to pull the creatures out into the open... but Berend has other ideas, charging into the cave with a battle-cry falling from his lips. He is quickly surrounded by skittering, stabbing kobolds, and the rest of the party has no choice but to engage the enemy.

The mob applies egregious wounding to the dwarven fighter, darting in and out of range of his weapon and creating opportunities for their more powerful allies to flank him and attack him even more viciously. Berend is laid low within just a few seconds, collapsing to the ground in a chaos of kobold bodies and flashing blades.

More kobolds pour from the complex to engage the intruders. A Wyrmpriest shuffles out of the shadows, muttering entreaties to Orcus under his breath and bolstering his allies, and then finally Irontooth himself appears, a heavily armoured hobgoblin wielding a massive battle-axe. He goads the characters and raises a cheer from the assembled kobolds as he charges into combat with Krakd, the dragonborn dangerously exposed by his efforts to keep Berend alive.

The subsequent appearance of kobold Dragonshields, who have quietly flanked the party and are now poised to attack Elumai, signals impending doom for the characters. First Krakd, then Alarik fall under the relentless assault, bleeding slowly to death on the cold stone. Elumai abandons the heroic notion of dragging one of her compatriots from danger when it becomes obvious she is the last one standing and now faces multiple enemies -- including a barely injured Irontooth and his priest -- without any hope of rescue or aid. She has no choice but to escape back through the waterfall, leaving her friends to whatever dreadful fate the hobgoblin has in store for them.

Not even stopping to catch her breath, she retreats to town and arrives at Winterhaven exhausted, but intact. She immediately throws herself on the mercy of Rond, begging for aid even as the honorable warrior calls for assistance. He is quickly convinced by her charms, and agrees to arrange a meeting with Lord Padraig in order to persuade him that her friends are alive and only await rescue.

Elumai and Rond are accepted by Padraig's butler, and enjoy a private audience with the town's patron in a comfortable drawing room. Padraig refuses at first to budge from his stated position: an assault on the kobolds would leave the town recklessly undefended against other dangers... or against a kobold counter-attack. However, Elumai's cunning grasp of local history, Padraig's reluctance to be spoken of in the same breath as certain other foolish councilmen, as well as her demonstrable power at conjuring a map of the kobold lair in the very pile of his carpet, are enough to persuade him otherwise. He agrees to raise a militia of guardsmen and certain willing farmers, to set off the following day.

Meanwhile...

Alarik, Berend, and Krakd are awoken some indeterminate amount of time later as the freezing waterfall washes over them. They have been stripped of their equipment and weapons, bound at the hands and feet, and placed in the back of a rolling cart. Carefully looking around, they see that they are being led as part of a large procession consisting of hobgoblins and kobolds, with Irontooth overseeing, towards the standing stones of the arcane circle.

With utmost precision, Elumai chooses this moment to attack. The six men under her command stream forward through the trees, distracting the hobgoblins while the wizard executes what is becoming her signature maneuver: a pre-emptive Freezing Cloud. It dispatches a few kobolds immediately, giving her friends the opportunity to slip their bonds and grab a weapon. Berend grabs Irontooth by the throat, and the two of them lock in a sinew-straining struggle, the dwarf attempting to immobilise the hobgoblin while dodging blows from his massive axe. Despite the relative inexperience of the town guard, and the compromised positions of the characters, the fight appears to swing in the party's favour.

However, it's around this moment that one of Elumai's command takes the opportunity to kill the kobold he is facing... spilling the dragon-kin's blood into the sacred circle. The runes immediately flare into life, throbbing with unearthly energy which more than one character recognises for exactly what it is: a summoning ritual. Elumai orders one of the farmers accompanying her to attack the circle, and he overcomes his own terror to obey her orders, bringing his pitchfork to bear on the glassy runes buried in the earth. Energy spits and crackles from the runes as he digs... desperate to prevent the arrival of some new monstrosity...

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

DM's Covenant

One theme that comes up a lot during discussions about D&D on-line is the theme of DM vs. players. In other words, is the DM an adversary of the players, or is everyone there to 'find the fun' and an adversarial relationship is therefore unhealthy?

I'm going to set out my stall on this provocative question with a clear, decisive answer, and that answer is: it depends.

Here then, is my promise.
Dear players.

During combat, I might not be your friend. I want your PC's to be challenged; I want you to explore as many options as possible in combat; I want the situation to remain unpredictable and dangerous, even if you think you're down to the last foe. I want your enemies to make the most of their abilities -- and yes, that means blowing encounter and daily powers sooner rather than later -- as well as use whatever tactics are appropriate to their intelligence and goals. I will give the bad guys a similar level of situational awareness as you, and as much tactical thinking as I can get away with. I will give them a sense of self-preservation, and a dirth of outright stupidity. I will have them turn tail and collect reinforcements if all else is lost. I will have them dance on the bloodied remains of your shattered bodies, if that floats their boat. I will, in summary, play them as if they actually wanted to survive an encounter with a party of adventurers.

But fear not! I will not be cruel, or punitive, or spiteful. I will not coup-de-grace helpless PC's unless there is a very good reason for doing so... and said reason will be rendered moot if there are still viable, dangerous members of your party still to be dealt with. I will not try and catch you out with Gotcha! monster abilities, although I will take advantage of the sheer newness of 4E monsters and lay a surprise or two on you if I can. I will not manufacture situations that couldn't reasonably happen within the rules, although I may bend the rules on occasion for drama. These occasions will be overwhelmingly in your favour, but sometimes... very rarely... not. I will be as consistent in my rulings as possible, and when I fail in this duty, rest assured it will always be for the good of the game... not for the good of my own ego.

My goal is not to kill you. My goal is to challenge you, and for all of us to have a good time doing it. I'm at the table too.

Out of combat, I'll be nice. I will not hide clues from you or require you to make credibility-stretching leaps of logic to get from one encounter to the next. I will say, "Yes!" much more often that I will say, "No!", but only if the game is served by doing so. I will account for all of your characters and give them as much screen time as I can. I'll reward energy and imaginative thinking at the table even if I didn't account for it when I wrote or prepared the adventure... which will be most of the time, no doubt. I'll put life into the campaign and as much work as necessary to bend adventures around to your way of thinking. In short, I promise to make the game as fun and invigorating as possible, using the time I have available for preparation, and our precious hours around the table, to their best potential.

Best regards,

Your DM.

Claiming that there can be no adversarial relationship between the DM and the players is, if you ask me, nonsense, and yet many commentators seem to think this is the case. In any situation where there is a potential for failure, it is the DM's default responsibility to execute the challenge to the best of his ability. This will most likely be a combat, but it could as well be a skill challenge, a tricky bit of diplomatic roleplaying, or a trap. Whatever the situation, you do your players a disservice if you don't use all of the options at your disposal, and use them well.

This means preparing the encounter, learning about the abilities of a monster, and sparing a few minutes of thought for group tactics and the best execution of these abilities. 4E, more than 3.5, requires this of the DM because monsters are so varied now, with so many exceptional attacks that can change the nature of a battle quite significantly. If the players are steam-rollering their way through encounter after encounter, they will get bored, even if some of them won't admit it. One thing is guaranteed, the DM will get bored, and frustrated, and more and more inclined towards unhelpful and even spiteful behaviour in pursuit of the simple task of getting to play an encounter to its potential. Sometimes the DM might have to design encounters that accentuate the weaknesses of a party, and the players may balk at this, feeling unduly punished for maximising their characters. This is fine. Ask them if they'd rather just level their characters to 30th now and cut out the middle man, and see what they say.

The DM-player relationship, like any relationship, is a complicated one defined by context; the bottom line is that in D&D, rewards without challenges are dull for everyone involved. If they weren't, the game would consist of time-trials to see who could build a 30th level character fastest, instead of the complicated dance of mutual story-building and butt-kicking that the game is renowned for.

The DM's job is to provide the challenge. In this battle of wits, it's 5 against 1, and he needs all the help he can get.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

4ed Campaign -- Session 2 -- 5th July 2008

In which a bold attack outwits a cunning defense, the dice continue to hobble the sturdiest of dwarves, and the rogue's potential damage output starts to make its presence felt...
Roster
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 1
Berend - Dwarven Fighter 1
Alarik - Dwarven Rogue 1
Krakd - Dragonborn Cleric 1 (DMPC)

The party spends a quiet night in Winterhaven and by morning, it seems that word of their impending assault on the kobolds has already spread around town, as they enjoy a delicious free breakfast courtesy of innkeeper Wrafton. Wasting little time, they strike out south east, following the rarely travelled path marked out on the map given to them by Rond.

Unforuntately it seems that their friends in Winterhaven are not the only ones to have gotten wind of their travels, as the party is accosted once more by a clutch of kobolds lurking in the undergrowth near the road. Only Alarik is attentive enough to spot them, calling out to his compatriots as the kobolds rush to the attack. The ensuing combat is a canny, drawn out affair, with ranged attackers on both sides of the fight looking for openings while the melee specialists hack at each-other amidst the fray. Alarik demonstrates his skill at finding weaknesses in his opponents' defense by dropping one of the kobold defenders in almost one hit, and although the party is victorious, a series of lucky hits from kobold short-swords brings Berend to the brink of unconsciousness before Krakd is able to heal him. In the final moements of the fight, one of the kobolds makes a break for it but is brought down by a deadly accurate bolt from Alarik's cross-bow.

Masking the fight as best they can, the party rests up, tends their wounds, and pushes on. Soon they come upon another suspicious scene: the remains of a wooden cart, smashed to pieces in the road with what looks like its contents strewn about the place. The party approaches cautiously, fearing another ambush, but remain unassailed as they search the remains of the cart, only to find the dead, hewn body of a hobgoblin. A quick scout around the scene turns up a second set of cart and hobgoblin tracks moving away along the road to the east.

In time the group notices the tracks veering off the road into the trees to the south. They can hear the sound of a crashing waterfull somewhere distant, but are unsure which way to head. After a brief discussion they decide to follow the tracks, hacking their way into the undergrowth in the wake of the cart, and after a few minutes come upon the overturned vehicle, undamaged and salvageable. Eyes alight with potential coin, they stow the cart in the undergrowth while Alarik's keen senses discern new human tracks amongst the hobgoblin ones they've been following.

In no short order the forest begins to thin and the party emerges into a clearing. Many kobold voices are heard from behind a broad thatch of trees, and the group can see a ring of standing stones with glowing blue runes inscribed onto the ground, in which a single kobold stands, exultant as hidden onlookers cheer him on. A sheer cliff face supports a crashing waterfall nearby.

Although unsure of the odds, the heroes decide to fall back on a trusted strategy, and drop a Freezing Cloud right in the midst of the circle.

The frigid, explosive gasses lacerate both the kobold they can see, and at least one other, and Krakd clearly hears a panicked order to attack being given by a hidden voice. A wave of kobolds bursts from the trees to assault the interlopers, cut into more manageable shape by a concealed Alarik but enough in number to mob Krakd while Berend charges into the tree-line and Elumai ducks into cover. Berend is quickly surrounded by three dangerous-looking kobolds, and hacks away at them with his axe, giving them little opportunity to focus their attention on the more vulnerable members of the party. The tactic of drawing the kobolds through the tree-line and away from their defensive position works well, and the fight is over suprisingly quickly... however, the group is unable to prevent a single kobold from escaping through the waterfall, an ominous pronouncement on its lips: "Irontooth must be warned!"

Unsure of what's waiting for them behind the curtain of water, the party decides to take stock of the situation before following. Elumai pulls on the furthest corners of her arcane expertise and deciphers the incantation needed to activate the runes, giving all of the characters a boon in the process. Now they stand poised, ready to assault the kobold fortress and deal with Irontooth, whomever -- or whatever -- he may be!

As always, check the comments for more DM-related observations.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Oh My Giddy Aunt

Okay I've had one of those moments. A moment of clarity, you might say. I've realised, all of a sudden, that not only have I been running something wrong in 3rd Edition for like ever, but that in doing so, I've probably been sucking about 20% of pure fun out of every combat I've ever DM'd. (And played as it happens, since both of the guys who've DM'd 3ed for me have done the same thing.)

Readied actions. Yes, the rules state that you can Ready a Standard, Move or Minor action... but they don't say you can't take the rest of your turn beforehand!

How have I been playing it, I hear you ask? Well allow me to elaborate. I had assumed that Readying reduced your flexibility in combat, that it limited your options... that you were so focused on the trigger, that you robbed yourself of some of your awareness. In other words, if you Readied an action, that was all you could do in a round.

No. There's nothing stopping you moving, and then Readying an action. Nothing at all. No rule. Technically, if I was to get all defensive (moi?) I would suggest that the rules could be clearer, but at the end of the day, this is just me. Being thick. And now Readied actions are absolutely lethal, and I shall be using them with reckless abandon.

Passive? Aggressive!

One of the things I was most looking forward to about 4th Edition was the baking-in of passive perception checks into the game. We never really internalised the 'Take 10 on Spot and Listen to make it passive' pseudo-rule in 3rd Edition, which resulted in a lot of needless and aggravating die rolling outside of combat (and in, who am I kidding). Cue 4E, the new Perception skill, and a passive score for both that and Insight noted right there on the character sheet. Sounds great!

Or not.

Cue Keep on the Shadowfell. Kobold ambush. Third paragraph:
Have the players place their miniatures on the road near the western edge of the map. Allow each character to make a DC 25 Perception check.

Argh! What the hell? This is the very definition of a passive check. The PC's are strolling down the road. Sure, they might be alert, as usual (they're adventurers after all, and paranoid about their loot being nicked), but they're not actively searching every boulder, shadow, bush and twig along the way in case there's a kobold waiting to put the kaibosh on them. Why, Wizards? Why is there an active roll here?

DMG, p.36:
Compare the [Stealth] check result against the passive Perception checks of the creatures that might notice the hiding group, or the active checks from alert creatures

Oh for heaven's sake. What is 'alert'? Are adventurers alert if they're travelling along a road? How about in a dungeon? A city street? Why even allow the option? Isn't the point of passive checks to cut down on tedious die-rolling? The game appears to have just allowed meticulous players an out, returning us right back to chez-3rd-Edition.

Triffic.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

New poll: 3ed prep time

In what some commentators are already calling "24 more people than the last one", 29 respondents offered their valuable opinion on 4th Edition as follows:
Not my cup of tea: 8 (27%)
I'll be playing it alongside some other systems: 16 (55%)
Just too good... it'll be that or nothing: 5 (17%)
4th what now..? 0 (0%)

No real surprises, with the vast majority (including myself) likely to play 4th Edition as part of a wider set of games, and a much lower -- but surprisingly similar -- number of people planting their flag either side of the like it/loathe it demilitarised zone.

For the next couple of polls, I'm going to start soliciting opinions on whether the design goals of 4th Edition appear to have been met.

First I need to establish a baseline, and this is a bit of information I'm interested in anyway. Just how long did it take you to prep your 3rd Edition-era games? Only by drawing our line in the sand for 3ed can we gauge whether one of the stated goals of 4e -- reduction of DM overhead -- has been achieved.