Thursday, 29 January 2009

Cradle Plain: World Building and the Implied Setting

DM's love their campaign worlds. Well, you pretty much have to, else there's no real point in having one. It's been a long time since I've ever had the need or opportunity to create a campaign, but with a healthy, weekly game on the go, I finally had a good reason to build one. So I did: Cradle Plain.

If you don't mind, I'd like to occasionally bang on about it, starting today.

4th Edition D&D has what the developers call an 'implied' setting, a selection of people, places, and histories which are assumed to underly most games running in the 4E rules. The Gods fought the Primordials, Orcus is the Demon Prince of Undead, the Feywild and the Shadowfell exist alongside and are coterminous with the Mortal World... and so-on. Thematically, the rules also talk about a presumed 'Points of Light' (PoL) setting, a world where small pockets of civilization are continually at threat from the shadows of the larger World. All pretty good stuff, rich pickings for the game, and well-presented both in the core and subsequent expansions.

Many DM's won't care about the implied setting and will completely ignore it, forging new worlds with their own geography, Gods, origin stories, cosmology and all of that stuff. Others might not have the inclination or the time to engage in such world-building antics, and instead accept the implied setting for what it is, using the Nentyr Veil straight out of the pages of the DMG, and running published adventures almost verbatim. Most though, including your humble host, fall somewhere in between, so what does the implied setting mean to them... or more to the point, what does it mean to me?

When it came to building Cradle Plain, I didn't have the time to design and write everything from scratch, much as I'd have liked to, so I already knew I'd have to pull a lot of stuff from the various adventures and supplements published by Wizards. I also knew that a weekly game, which was something I hadn't had the luxury of for a long, long time, would afford me the delicious opportunity to forge a campaign with multiple stories and long-running characters which could grow directly from the actions of the PC's. We play four hours a week, which means, technically speaking, I only have to actually prepare four hours ahead of time; in practice, I prepare far in advance of that, but the further out I go, the more purposefully vague I force myself to get, in order to accomodate several PC's whose actions I couldn't possibly predict that far ahead of time. Although I would never go so far as to describe myself as a sandbox DM (I love my metaplots way too much for that), I did want them to feel invested in the world and to feel that they were driving the action.

So there I was, with the opportunity to build a dynamic campaign, but with the necessity to use pre-published material... books which would have the implied setting fully present and correct. I panicked briefly, then set to work.

I liked the Points of Light theme for conjuring a feel which wasn't at odds with my D&D experience; you could still have fantastic cities with mile-high towers, aloof mages and power-hungry Kings (the points of light, i.e. your cake) alongside the unforgiving, dangerous wilderness and the cold terror of the dungeon (the darkness in between, i.e. eating of said cake). So straight off I saw no reason not to import PoL lock-stock-and-barrel into the campaign.

Next, geography. I wanted a world a couple thousand miles across, a few weeks of hard travel end-to-end. This would give me enough space to brush in the Points of Light theme without being so big that the PC's were effectively locked into a small corner until the inevitable introduction of Paragon-level teleportation and overland flight rituals. I wanted them to be able spread their wings, travelling the land using good old shoe-leather first, so that when more convenient magic finally came along, they could appreciate it all the more. So this means we're in an isolated tract of fertile plain whose edge touches the sea, or as the campaign wiki puts it:
Shielded by the thick Midron Mountains to the north, sheltered by the branches of the massive Arubisath forests to the west, and harboured by the turbulent seas of the Greyland Wash to the south and east, Cradle Plain has existed as a somewhat independent confederation of lands and peoples, distinct from the massive turmoil which has repeatedly overtaken more distant regions of the world, or Outside, as it is known to the locals.

The campaign is enclosed, which in practical terms gives me some necessary control over where the characters are able to roam, but equally importantly, reinforces a feeling of isolation from the rest of the World. It has a good variety of terrain, magic coming to the rescue where semi-realistic climate patterns do not, several large ports of call for the adventurers to enjoy the feel of the area and pick up quests, and, I hope, enough intrigue to tantalise them into travelling far and wide without necessarily waiting for me to prod them in the right direction.

I knew I wanted to build the campaign around an earlier idea revolving around Citadels of power which were believed to mark the final resting places of celestial beings. This synergised immediately with the war between the Gods and the Primordials, and although that isn't spelled out in the common histories, it is assumed by Plain scholars that the Citadels are some kind of relic of that conflict. In any case, the imprecise history of the Citadels, what they are and what they're for, is one of the central themes of the campaign. The Primordials themselves are curiously absent from the accepted histories, consigned to a time known as 'Beyond Reckoning'. It's safe to say that, as a force even gods have to be fearful of, they, er, might well pop up in the future, but it was still a fortuitous and satisfyingly good fit for an idea that had been floating around in my head for the better part of a decade.

Pantheon-wise, for a long time now I have tired of building gods and portfolios, and normally don't apply much thought to this at all. I had also grown tired of the 3E divine healing paradigm and the classes that were intended to do it. In fact, the original 3E Cradle Plain idea was that there were no gods at all, with a lot of divine magic having been subsumed into the arcane portfolio, and healing magic itself transmogrified into a radically up-shifted version of alchemy or other 'technological' alternatives. I liked it at the time, but this was to be a campaign built off the launch of a new edition, and I didn't think it would have been appropriate to rip whole portions of the game out before I knew anything about how it ran. Shame really, since the new concept of Power Sources would have made it thematically quite easy, and the proliferation of non-magical healing throughout the game would also have drastically lessened the impact.

Besides all of that, Healing Surges actually make healing much less irritating these days; no longer do clerical healbots have to accompany the party and sigh as they substitute yet another utility for a Cure spell. Instead, Leader classes get to throw themselves right into the action, sometimes doing damage and healing their pals at the same time (the very idea!)... and you can get by reasonably well without a healer at all, if you need to (alright, you could do that in 3E with a curing wand of some kind, but that was crap).

So given that the ground-up change to D&D healing that I thought had become necessary in 3.5 simply wasn't required in 4E, it turned out I could relax a bit about the pantheon as well. Still, I didn't want to restrict everyone to the gods laid out in the implied setting, so the campaign wiki remained mostly quiet on the subject of which deities existed, other than that a few of them seemed to have been cast down during a time known as the Fall (and the Citadels that now stand at their final resting places carry their names: Emerandes, Phalax, Arranea). This gave my players the freedom to invent their own deities, and we could worry about who they are, and where they existed in the objective truth of the campaign universe, if, and when it became relevant. Are they aspects, or even Exarchs, of more 'famous' gods, or entirely separate entities, electing to show themselves only to a chosen few? Who knows, and it might never even matter to anyone except the PC that reveres them.

Next time: Cosmology, history, and all that good stuff.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Thoughts on: Druid Preview @ Wizards

The druid preview is a few weeks old now, but following on from my Thoughts On: Sorcerer Preview @ Wizards article, I thought I'd go back for another look.

Much like the sorcerer, the druid was an integral part of an earlier 3.5 campaign I played in, this time a long-running but now sadly defunct Forgotten Realms affair that came to a sickly halt last year after a near-TPK in the Temple of Elemental Evil. And like the sorcerer, the druid was a major force to be reckoned with in that game. Dire wolves, hippogriffs, unicorns, archons, all dropped unceremoniously on their heads while Dire Bear animal companions tore holes in entirely new and unexpected places... such was the fate of our hapless foes. Coupled with an armoury of what would now be considered a mix of Leader and Controller magic, the druid was an absolute tank of a class that regularly seemed to be able to handle encounters pretty much on its own. In fact, the general consensus around the table was that, although we felt the class was great, it had been over-cooked; the creatures on its summoning tables were too good, its spell list was too comprehensive, and it should not have been able to cast spells while wild shaping (really, was there any RAW druid out there who didn't take the Natural Spell feat?). Major kudos to my good friend Leon who repeated showed us exactly what a 3.5 druid was capable of.

Previous comments from the 4E designers hinted that they were taking the druid back to its shape-shifting roots, which I must admit I liked the sound of, but until now I've been a little uncertain how the class would fare on the levelled playing field of the new game, especially with respect to animal companions which have remained a bit of a mystery. The original classification of the druid as a potential hybrid role was also dispensed with in no uncertain terms a while back, and I couldn't have agreed more with that decision. Creating roles is pointless if you then proceed to dilute them with hybrids, which are notoriously difficult to balance in any medium.

As it turns out, there is a certain blurring of lines in the class as it stands today as well, and it seems like the druid has been a bit of a problem for the developers. How did it turn out?

Well we have a new power source for a start, Primal, where the natural world imbues its champions with ancient energy, and a new Controller as well. Although Controller is a role that desperately needs filling out after the Striker overload of the last few months, a bestial, wild-shaping, leather-and-hide-wearing druid never struck me as the type of character to manipulate things from the side-lines. I quite fancied the druid as a Primal Defender myself, but we'll with-hold judgement on that for now. Shape-shifting is in, big-style, but summoning and animal companions... well, they're simply gone. It seems the innocent dire badgers of the world have finally had enough of being launched unceremoniously into battle for some hippie dressed in bark that they've never met before.

Two thematic builds are presented, based on the Primal Aspect chosen at character creation. The Primal Guardian jams Con right to the forefront and pushes the druid towards a "secondary" Leader role, while the Primal Predator gives the druid added nimbleness (+1 speed, very nice) and pushes it towards the Striker role. This is the first indication that the druid is trying to be a hybrid without breaking the Role framework outright, and well, I can't say I like the idea all that much. Very few 1st-3rd level powers synnergise with the choice of Aspect (just four in fact), and Wild Shape, aside from the suggestion that your Aspect might determine the flavour of beasts you become, doesn't change at all.

In fact, nowhere is the 4th Edition paradigm more obvious than in Wild Shape. No rifling through the Monster Manual for you, young man; in the new game it is nothing more than an activation key for powers which have the new Beast Form keyword. This makes shape-shifting an almost entirely thematic feature; you can choose any form which you think fits your character (and your size), but other than that, the powers which you get access to are generic enough (claw, rend, etc.) that they can apply to any beast you might care to mention. The druid becomes extremely streamlined and easy to play by doing this, and roleplay-wise, Wild Shape is more of a blank canvas than it was before, but I can't help but miss the idea of a druid choosing just the right form, with just the right abilities, at just the right moment. In many ways this mirrors the reduction that 4E brought to the wizard, but for some strange reason, while I was entirely behind that change, to me the essential flavour of the druid seems harder-hit by a similar approach. Undoubtedly this is because I've always had a much greater affinity for the druid class than the wizard. From a DM's perspective, certainly, the druid is going to be much less of a headache from now on, but I can think of many players, including the aforementioned Leon, who are probably going to feel that the class has been overly-diminished in its migration to the new game.

The powers, in and of themselves, are excellent. Beast Form powers consist of a selection of relatively low-damage, very Controller-oriented melee strikes which put their victims in highly precarious positions, and the odd Psychic attack as well, which is... interesting. Utility powers would seem poised to take great advantage of Wild Shape, but as yet there's only one that actually does: Fleet Pursuit, giving the druid a Dex-based speed bonus. I hope to see more along these lines at higher levels.

In boring-old humanoid form, the Controller-side of the druid is writ large. Call of the Beast, for example, is essentially a ranged Mark, denying the victim combat advantage for an entire turn (superb for an At-Will, I can see this causing my guys a lot of trouble when I DM against a druid) and penalising him if he doesn't attack the nearest foe. Otherwise, the usual menu of slides, slows, pen-them-ins, and force-them-to-moves are all present and correct. Mastery of elements also seems to be a theme with a selection of fire, cold, and lightning-based attacks. There doesn't seem to be a power here that doesn't give the option of asserting some control over the battlefield, so if you're hankering for another Controller, you can't really go wrong.

To sum-up I'd say that the druid is difficult to get a handle on without actually seeing it in play. Ideally you'd want a player who fully embraced Wild Shape and used it to its fullest extent, and I do like the way that Beast Form powers really conjure up the image of a cold, super-intelligent, almost velociraptor-like predator... well except for the Psychic attacks which frankly seem a little out of place. What worries me though is that the druid's mish-mash of abilities seems pulled from several other, much purer and more focused classes, and that the druid's identity is a bit lost because of it. There's definitely a nagging feeling that they never really managed to take the hybrid out of the druid.

I can't help but feel that a feral avenger, who spent most of his time in beast form doing terrible and bloody damage to the flesh of his enemies, would have been a better direction to take with the class. In many ways, the recently-previewed Warden, a Primal Defender who I'll review later-on, is much more emblematic of the vestigial furies which I see driving the Primal power source... which is is a shame, because it's the druid, surely, that exemplifies Primal power in D&D, not these new interlopers (however good they may be, and the warden is very, very good).

As always, I'll update the blog with some revised thoughts once I get my grubby hands on the full class in the PHB2.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Player Conveyer

Some changes in store for my 4E group this year. At least one of our number -- Nick, who plays aspiring dwarven librarian Mord -- is unfortunately moving away to greener pastures in March, and there is talk of one other potential exit as well. Much like any DM would, I lost all rationality at this point and immediately had visions of the whole game crumbling out from underneath me, but thankfully the remaining two players have both informed me they're not going anywhere. Which is a relief, because one of them is my wife.

However, almost the same day that this news came to light, I received a prod from another couple of local guys who are looking for a stable, long-term game and thought that ours fitted the bill. We met them on Sunday for a social vetting, discovered they both wore goatees much like mine, so no problems there, and promptly invited them to the group. While we won't be playing this week, it does give them some time to roll up a couple of characters and peruse the new edition before joining us for the first weekend in February.

This is going to make things very interesting for a few weeks as we'll have no less than six PC's. What does this mean for the game? Well, first, very little elbow room at the table, and second, a bit of work for me to re-tool some planned encounters to accomodate the new characters. There was talk of a paladin and a ranger, both of which would be great additions to the group. Why? Because not only will this be the first real chance to see both of those classes at full throttle (Corrash has dabbled in ranger already), but also because the combination of the ranger's additional damage, and the Paladin's admittedly-limited-but-still-better-than-none healing abilities, should adequately fill the hole which will be left when we remove NPC cleric Romto from the group. Ideally, I would have preferred one of the new PC's to assume a Leader role, but I'm not in the business of dictating class choices to my players, so I'll work around it if those are the classes that get them excited.

Six PC's equals my own record for the largest group I've ever DM'd, which makes the next few weeks an exciting prospect. I can't wait to see the roleplaying dynamics between the various new faces and the established company, not to mention the tactical melange that fights are going to become with potentially three Defenders. I only wish this was a long-term change rather than a transitional one. :sniff:

Thoughts on: Sorcerer Preview @ Wizards

The preview of the new Sorcerer class is up on the Wizards web site, so I thought I'd take a few minutes to post my first impressions.

Thanks to my friend Guy's character Dizloray in the 3.5E Dragonlance campaign I intermittently DM for my oldest chums, I shall always think of the sorcerer as a permanent thorn in my side. Whether it's flying around the battlefield unleashing the very best of the wizard's blasty attacks, throwing Haste spells around like confetti and NOT getting old and decrepit in the process (damn you, 3rd Edition!), or dabbling in the hopelessly broken Dragonlance Warmage Prestige Class and giving the minotaur fighter a godly AC which I can never hit, Diz is a fantastically potent and entertaining PC who attracts more than her fair share of attention from the monsters, it has to be said. In 4th Edition's brave new world of re-balanced magic-users, what can we expect from the sorcerer now?

Completely in keeping with its heritage from my own campaigns, we find it's an Arcane Striker, so thumbs up there. I wouldn't have wanted to see the sorcerer competing for too much space in the Controller's playing field. Build wise the class is given a Spell Source with which it can branch into Dragon Magic, putting Strength right into the heart of the class, or, excitingly, Wild Magic, channeling power straight from the Elemental Chaos and somewhat randomly out into the world at large.

Dragon Magic, with its augmented damage and penetrative attacks, was a predictable spin-off from the suggested flavour of sorcerers in the 3E PHB, but the assimilation of Wild Magic into the new class is a brilliant and unexpected bonus. I always loved the Wild Mage from 2nd Edition's Tome of Magic and some of that flavour seems to have been re-captured here, whether it's in die rolls to determine round-by-round bonuses, mad augmentations to critical hits and misses, or powers which can give you secondary attacks out of the blue. Sheer randomness is the name of the game, the feeling that your grasp on magic is tenuous at best, and I love it. Flavour-wise, the Chaos Sorcerer's connection to the Elemental realms just screams story-hooks as well.

Which is not to take anything away from the Dragon Sorcerer, whose reliance on Strength as a primary stat makes it an interesting choice almost from the get-go. None of the powers listed in the preview use anything except Charisma on the attack, which definitely says to me that the Dragon Sorcerer's Strength dependence is there almost entirely to open up a couple of new and unusual multi-classing combinations (well, that and to get a global bonus to spell damage... can't complain).

Power-wise we see the customary split between Ranged and Close attacks, the latter of which almost certainly favour the Dragon Sorcerer bloodied AC bonus, and a good set of options when it comes to which Defenses you want to target, so no problems there. Stand outs include: Chaos Bolt, which in offering the Chaos Sorcerer a 50/50 chance per attack of getting another attack against a new enemy, holds out the tantalising possibility of spraying damage across the entire battlefield much like a Chaotic Chain Lightning; Chromatic Orb, which does a ton of damage of a random type, as well as applying secondary effects even on a miss; and Lightning Breath, a Minor-sustainable shield of crackling energy that causes attackers to be repelled whenever they hit you (too cool).

The sorcerer's powers are hard-hitting and and chuck big damage dice around; multiple d8's and d10's are common, and Dazzling Ray, a mere 1st level Daily, does a whopping 6d6+Cha, and half on a miss. It seems to me that the sorcerer is trading Controller options for damage in a big way. I can't see anyone who plays a sorcerer complaining about that, but other Strikers might, because their damage appears at first glance to lag behind the sheer firepower of the sorcerer.

Still, it's early days, and whether or not the sorcerer's damage is excessive, I think Wizards have captured the archetype of this character class perfectly. I might just have to bring my old gnome Wild Mage, Flem the Marvel, back out of retirement...

Friday, 23 January 2009

4th Edition DM's Screen - Review

A quick (and hopelessly late) review for a product that really only needs to do three things well: obscure the DM's crib notes to ensure that the players don't realise how little preparation he has done this week; look good on the player's side so that they have something to stare at while they're waiting for the DM to find his adventure notes; and finally show lots of useful, well-organised reference information so that the DM can give the false impression he's making difficult, rules-y decisions when really he's intending to wing the entire session.

Heheh, I jest (guys?), but that pretty much sums it up, and boy, did Wizards crack a boundary with this one. First, the physicals. It's made of very think, glossy card-stock, so I can't see myself ever having problems with it warping or failing to stand-up, and it's also landscape rather than the more traditional portrait screens of yore. This has the immediate advantage of making the thing lower, and wider; not so low that it doesn't protect the DM's privacy, and wide enough that it can pretty much embrace his entire workspace. I'm sure others hit on the idea before Wizards, but whoever thought of it first, I love it. And them.

It makes a huge difference in a couple of ways; first, I can see more of the table, so I don't have to loom over the battle-mat like some fickle god manipulating the lives of his little soldiers (although simply because I don't have to any more doesn't mean I don't like to); second, it reduces the DM's isolation from the rest of the table. The screen is high-enough that the essential superiority of the DM over his fellow players can still be enforced, but not so low that they might come to erroneously think, y'know, that they're on the same level of the D&D food chain as he is. Important, that.

Next, the content. I have practically no complaints whatsoever about the selection of reference material on the DM's side, and especially no complaints about the entire panel of conditions and their effects, which has been a god-send. Also included in the 'I often seem to need to know this' category are object hardness DC's, light-sources, DC's for common uses of skills, and many others, coupled with more predictable fare like combat actions, attack modifiers, cover, concealment, and so-on. There's the odd table which really isn't necessary (XP?), but it's all arranged very neatly and is extremely usable. It even includes page numbers for whichever core rule-book contains the rule. How good is that?

It's also worth noting at this point that, as you might expect, the first major 4E errata, with signifcant changes to skill DC's including to the 'p.42' table which is shown on the screen, has not been included. I can't say for sure whether subsequent print runs (if any) have incorporated these changes.

On the player's side, an absolutely stunning vision of the Underdark gives players something nice to look other than the glint of evil in the DM's eye and the permanent smug expression applied to his face. It's a fabulous piece of work, by an author whose name I should remember but can't.

Closing words then. There's a switch in my head, one that tells my brain to check the DM's screen whenever I might need to look-up a rule. Most screens I've used over the years have been so pointless in the matter of quick-reference that the switch has become somewhat stuck in the 'off' position. With this one though, I can definitely feel it slowly flicking to 'on'. In terms of price, durability, usability, and especially in terms of sheer class, this is hands-down the best DM's screen that I've seen in 25 years of playing D&D.

Score: 9/10

Not So Much Forward As Back...

The Jump subsystem of the Atheltics skill came up over the weekend. It all started excitingly enough -- troglodytes dug in behind a barricade about to retreat back into their lair, dwarven Fighter frustrated at not being able to engage -- and ended up with me in a cold sweat as I flashed back to the very worst moments I've had to endure while DM'ing 3rd Edition.

Okay 'endure' is harsh. It's not like I was crossing the Antarctic. 3E did though become famous though for certain exception-based subsystems that, to put it mildly, could bring the game to a grinding halt (Grapple being the most obvious). 4E has made great strides towards eliminating these problems, so much so in fact that cracking open the rule-book at the table has become something of a rarity. Not so, the Atheltics skill. Vertical distance! Horizontal distance! Running start! Standing start!

It's all a bit painful really. Surely this could have been collapsed down into a simple 'Easy/Medium/Hard' DC, and the DM asked to make a judgement as to which category the jump fell (ha-ha) into? As it is, it arrests the game, forces rule-books open, and on top of that makes the DM decide *exactly* how high his sodding barricade is... none of which are conducive to his overall contentment rating!

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

4ed Campaign -- Session 15 -- 18th January 2009

In which a dreary overland trek ends at a spectacular destination, Mord demonstrates a brand new method of ferreting out cheats at the card table, and the party prepares for a large laundry bill to get the stink of troglodyte out of their clothes...
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 4
Berend - Dwarven Fighter 4
Corrash - Dragonborn Warlock (Fey-Pact) 4
Romto - Halfling Cleric (of Pelor) 4
Mord - Dwarven Fighter 4

Only one item of business remains at Winterhaven, the delivery of a personal letter from Elumai to Rond. Unfortunately she is denied access to the manor, with Lord Padraig having asserted control back over his grounds now that Lord Riva has left, but the guard who greets her promises to pass on the missive. With that task complete, there is nothing left but to shake the hands of those who wish them farewell, and strike out on the King's Road.

The Road is semi-interesting in itself, consisting of an upper layer of what seems like petrified earth, solid as rock and carrying both the company and their chattel smoothly across the landscape. The first day is bright and airy, a welcome respite from their recent travails, and they spend a quiet night out under the stars. On the second day, the weather takes a turn for the worse, with a shroud of grey overhead and occasional insipid rain in the air.

Farmsteads along the route provide little clue as to country living on the Plain. Those closer to the road enjoy apparent protection from roaving contingents of the Kingsblade, although the company doesn't encounter any, and enquiries as to the level of banditry yield simple answers: "More'n sometimes, less'n others."

Eventually however they catch up with Lord riva's caravan, rolling at a leisurely place along the road ahead. Guard Captain Jilonto-Ressar immediately rouses the mage, by what seems like knocking on the inside of the empty green covered wagon which is pulled ostentatiously at the head of train. Riva appears almost immediately, welcoming the party and calling immediately for a rest for drinks and vittals.

Much conversation ensues, as Riva takes the opportunity, now that there isn't any immediate threat, to try to get to know the party better. Everyone is happy to contribute: Berend bluntly reveals that he is travelling to make his fortune, and if possible to track down distant relations; Mord waxes lyrical about his Uncle's travelling carnival, only to have the fib unsubtly betrayed by the quizzical comments from those around him; Elumai describes her need to contact her mentor, Parle Cranewing, a tiefling from her home Dyonosis; and finally Corrash describes his hunt for clues as to the fate, or whereabouts, of the spirit guardian of his tribe, the dragon Rhamish.

Riva confesses he isn't an expert on dragons, although in the words of a famous poet, he knows a man who is, but does explain that dragons are known in the Kingdom, being bonded with champions in great games held at a faraway Citadel (Corrash is singularly unimpressed with this notion). To Elumai, he offers hope of contacting her distant mentor from Emerandes, using the magics and technologies which will be available to them at the great city. By the time the camp is picked up and the caravan moves on, even the normally stoic Jilonto has taken an interest in what this strange company of adventurers has had to say for itself.

Two further days of travel go by. Lord Riva disappears into his wagon and isn't seen again until the party finally arrives at the first great obstacle in their journey; The Gash.

A great, star-shaped crack in the earth which intersects directly with the King's Road, this slab-sided chasm appears almost impassable, and yet, as they approach, the company sees that this is not the case. Perched precariously atop a thick pillar of rock almost a mile across and situated at the exact intersection of all four spurs of The Gash, the trading and mining town of Crow's Atoll offers passage across the abyss using wooden gondolas suspended by taut ropes. Passengers embark at tram-houses on either side, pay fees for both themselves and their haulage, and are pulled across the tramway by bemuscled labourers operating large pulleys.

The company take this all in their stride, of course, which is more than can be said for several other pale and wide-eyed passengers on their crossing from the western side of the Gash to the southern tramhouse of the Atoll. On the way they spy a strange separate 'island' of rock to the south west of the town, it's chiseled peak pocked with dark holes like mouths. Riva greets them as they disembark, and recommends they avail themselves of the local facilities while he "fetches a package" which he's "had on order for some time." Looking around, they see the town is quartered by two long, wide roads like highways, and combined with the tight, angular architecture and the otherwise efficient use of space, both Berend and Mord feel that it was doubtless a dwarf who planned the town.

Their efforts to sell some of the artefacts recovered from The Keep are fruitless at first, but they are ultimately directed to Nestor's Fineries, an establishment in the richer southern half of the town. Nestor claims he is practically emptying his coffers by ultimately offering 250g for two of the reclaimed rugs, now restored to dazzling splendour by Elumai's magic, but is unable or unwilling to buy the remainder. In any case, this seems like a good start to the day, and the party heads back up the road, intending to enjoy the local hostelry. On the way they pass a giant statue of a resolute-looking dwark carrying a huge pick-axe over one shoulder; the inscription on this impressive rendering reads, "Rock Was Friend and Foe, Teremoen Crow".

After an initial visit to The Wellhouse for a well-deserved scrub, the party retires to one of the local inns, The Bluff. Perched right on the northern tip of the rocky island, its most impressive feature is a wall consisting of a lattice of large windows looking out over the drop. Innkeeper Smitty Green is happy to serve mugs of his best export, Shent, a green-frothed ale fermented from the seaweed of his homeland, but the adventurers' attention is drawn to a noticeboard in one corner.

Several notices include offers for work from a local guild known as the Propspector's Union, and it quickly becomes clear that the mines hereabouts operate mainly on shift work rather than employ a large, permanent force of labour. One prominent note advertises for "Local manpower of strong fortitude, or transient labour of a similar disposition" to clear out some kind of infestation in Mine 6. Details are scarce, but the note is signed by the foreman of the Union, one Asimuth Royt. Underneath all these offers for work, the party uncovers an older poster, torn and stained, advertising a celebration in the town square for the ascension to power of Dewey Crow in the 5-yearly mayoral cycle. The date reads two months ago. There is a portrait of the attractive, straight-bearded female dwarf, and squinting at the picture, the company spots a small hole just above the bridge of her nose, as if someone has been throwing darts at the picture. The poster is duly taken down for later use.

At this point the party splits up. Mord decides to try his hand at this 'gambling' thing he's been reading about, and Smitty shows him to a dark, smoke-filled back room. The rest of the party cross back over the road to the offices of the Prospector's Union. Royt, a muscular dragonborn, takes the time to pay the wages of several men queued up at his desk before talking to the party, and he seems delighted that someone has at last volunteered for the job. Apparently the work at Mine 6 ground to a halt after a wall deep in the mind suddenly collapsed, killing one of the men there instantly, and unleashing a band of "stinking lizardmen" which the knowledgable adventurers quickly identify as troglodytes. Two more men were killed in the ensuing retreat, and two others were taken by the trogs. Royt offers the princely sum of 100g if the company were to investigate the mine and bring back evidence of retribution against the creatures. They accept, and determine to set out immediately, despite the lateness of the day.

Meanwhile, Mord engages his opponents, including a gnome, orc, and several dwarves, at one of the card games he has recently learned. He is quickly suspicious of the gnome, after watching him secrete a card from his hand up the woolen sleeve of his shirt, an act which he is sure runs contrary to the rules. He calls him on it, the gnome protests his innocence. Mord decides to unleash the latest trick he has hit upon to intimidate others: hammering a six inch nail straight through his hand and impaling himself on the table. "If I'm willing to do that to myself," he says, eyes watering with the pain, "imagine what I'm willing to do to you!"

This is too much for the gnome, who admits his deceit and is removed to an undisclosed fate by the orc. It's enough to garner the respect of his fellow players, and in the interests of friendship they limit their soaking of him to only 10g across four hands. Mord, perfectly satisfied that he has mastered this ritual, gives up only when his friends arrive to remove him.

Using one of the precarious cage-lifts which take drop the miners to their work, the adventurers descend upon Mine 6. The shelf of rock outside is littered with abandoned equipment, including an overturned cart, and a thin railway snakes its way into the mouth of a broad cave. Sconces hammered into the rock at irregular intervals hold aloft what look like large iron spikes glowing red-hot. Although they emanate no heat, they wash the area in a somewhat unsettling and infernal glow.

Following a map given to them by Royt, they descend into the mine, passing several side-passages, one of which, marked with a skull-and-crossbones by the foreman, actually has two sets of tracks merging with the main line. Eventually they come upon the location of the cave-in. It's a large, bulbous cavern. A large pile of rubble on the eastern side and a rough, yawning tunnel leading deeper into the rock obviously mark the site of the cave-in, and an outstretched hand clawing out from beneath seems to mark the resting place of the unfortunate miner caught in the collapse. Blood and signs of fighting are everywhere, but what catches Berend's eye in particular is the seam of rock which the miners were apparently working, a thin stratum of rainbow-hued mineral which stands out from the grey rock like the filling in a cavernous sandwich. An overturned cart nearby has spilled a full load of the stuff onto the ground, and being unlike anything he has ever seen, he takes a small chunk for later examination.

The party assembles into defensive formation, Corrash lights his staff, and they advance into the tunnel. Soon, they hear voices up ahead, and Corrash spies four silhouettes just out of range of his light... troglodytes, protected behind a makeshift fortification of wood, rocks, and metal. In coarse draconic, they bemoan that they've been lumbered with guard duty while there's a "match" going on.

The group engages them from a distance, but Corrash is punctured several times by a flurry of deadly javelins from the lizard-men, two of which taking up defensive positions behind the others, and the party is forced to advance. Elumai's Freezing Cloud does limited but useful injury to all four troglodytes, and as one of the front line is finally killed, the creatures at the rear sound a retreat, and head off down a side-corridor. This forces the party's hand, and both Berend and Mord charge forward, attempting to leap the barrier and engage the creatures head-on. Mord is the more successful, bounding over the barricade and smashing like a torpedo into one of the troglodytes, bloodying its snout and forcing it to stagger back several steps.

The two creatures who fled have retreated to a second line of defense -- another barricade similar to the first -- but as the dwarves break through the first barrier, they decide against a retreat and turn to face the party...

Friday, 16 January 2009

Keep on the Shadowfell - DM's Review

After more than a dozen sessions fighting through this adventure and the associated campaign-specific stuff I mixed in with it, I'm at last in a position to give a qualified opinion of it which, as it happens, is the same as my unqualified opinion was a few months ago. In the meantime though I added a bunch of stuff of my own, and I hope that the actual play experience for my guys (and gals) was better than the final, thoroughly average score which I'm going to give the module at the end of this review.

Speaking for myself, it's fair to say that I had a few, quite reasonable expectations of KotS when it was announced. It needed to showcase the new rules in their entirety, touching on all of the systems in some way or another; it should be a solid springboard into a new 4E campaign, perhaps providing the PC's with a base of operations; it should keep things straightforward for the inevitable rush of virgin players that the new edition was going to attract, but also be plunderable by more experienced DM's at the same time; it should play well, and smoothly, with a couple of memorable NPC's and one or two stand-out encounters; and finally it should ultimately feel like a microcosm of the new edition, showcasing its 'feel' and achieving what the designers spent so much time talking about in the preview books and in the DMG.

To be fair, that's a lot to put on one adventure. But it's the first one, and it has an important job to do: don't put people off the game before they've given it a fair shake. Unfortunately I'm not sure it achieved that, at least for some sectors of the DM'ing population.

Straight off, though, there's a lot to like. I loved the presentation as soon as I saw it, delivered in a medium-stock cardboard slip-case, with a handy quick-start rules-set, a bunch of solid, if non-optimal, pre-generated PC's, a thick and reasonably meaty adventure, and several high-quality 1-inch scale battle-mats. As it happens a couple of these were re-used from earlier 3.5 products, but that doesn't bother me enough to affect my view, and I certainly enjoyed rolling them out onto the table to a general chorus of 'Ooh-Aah' by the players. It's not the most durable adventure in the world, but after several months of heavy use, it's still in good shape, so no problems there. As more adventures in the line have been released, I find myself liking the slip-case more and more. Bravo to Wizards for trying something a little different there.

The plot, such as it is, makes a reasonable job of driving the PC's forward, but it is extremely superficial and populated with a ton of unmemorable characters. The 'find the incriminating note on the bad guy' schtick, which was grossly over-used years ago, is seen here in full force. Subtleties are lost amidst unforgiving walls of 'What the townsfolk know' exposition, a question-and-answer style of imparting information to the DM which, although it is a good way of communicating NPC character, buries key information in a load of pretty uninteresting dialogue. Having DM'd several mammoth Dragonlance adventures which use this same style of information transferral, I have to say that I would prefer simply being told what an NPC knows about any given subject, and take cues from elsewhere as to his personality. In fact I wish this convention would die-off once-and-for-all.

Encounter design? Well it's a mixed bag. Prior to the Keep, the party drowns in kobolds. I mean they're everywhere. Practically every type of kobold in the Monster Manual makes an appearance, starting with a wide open ambush on the most open of the battle-mat environments. On the one hand, opening a campaign with a fight isn't a terribly bad idea; it gets the players engaged straight away, gets the dice rolling, gets the game moving. On the other hand, opening a brand new system with not only a fight, but an ambush, which for me is a notoriously difficult encounter to get right, as well as in an area with tons of opportunity for the poorly-presented 4E Stealth rules to muck everything up, and then on top of that making it against a bunch of kobolds who possess a pinickity, interrupt-heavy array of shifting maneuvers... not so much.

This blunder sets the stage for the rest of the adventure, where encounters run the gamut from sadly predictable trap rooms, through monotonous droves of goblinoids, and somewhat endless undead. The big fights are pretty good (especially when they break the DMG's guidance on encounter design and seemingly TPK half the player-base, :ahem:), but what disappointed me in particular about those occasions when the battle-mats came out was that there was very little advice on making the fight dynamic. When there's no reason for the PC's to move across a room, they won't, and there are a *lot* of bottle-necks in the Keep. There are tricks that experienced DM's can bring to the table, but this is the introductory feature, and they should not be necessary. Kalarel breaks this mode with a nifty mid-fight teleport, making it a good diversion and a memorable encounter, where the much-lauded 'make the terrain an integral part of the fight' advice from the DMG actually seems to have been taken to heart.

So the plot is weak, most of the encounters are uninspired, but it's a pretty nice-looking package and reasonable value-for-money. It would also be fair to say that it does the job of a dungeon-crawl, which is to give the PC's a place to call home and spend/sell their loot and provide lots of fights in between, successfully, but with all-too-little little fanfair. It must also get credit for successfully creating 4th Edition's very-own Meepo in the form of Splugg the simpering goblin.

In the end I felt that, if I wanted to DM it for a bunch of relatively experienced players without feeling simply embarassed to be there, I had to do way too much to it, including layering a whole new subplot around Keegan and firing up all kinds of early signals about other NPC's in my campaign. Maybe my expectations were a little high, but I thought that even 'standard' dungeon crawls had elevated themselves above this level during the 3rd Edition era, and that perhaps Wizards should give new players a little bit more credit than they seem to have here.

Score: 6/10

Monday, 12 January 2009

4ed Campaign -- Session 14 -- 4th December 2009

In which friends are made, gifts are exchanged, and the road ahead becomes a little clearer.
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 4
Berend - Dwarven Fighter 4
Corrash - Dragonborn Warlock (Fey-Pact) 4
Romto - Halfling Cleric (of Pelor) 4
Mord - Dwarven Fighter 4

Wrafton's is a throng of drunken activity, mostly centered around the adventurers. As they push through the crowd, people both old and young, stranger and friend, are eager to shake hands and tell them what a good job they've done. Sylvana herself reveals the unsurprising instigator of the celebration: Lord Riva, who instructed her to arrange things and dropped hints about their victory at the Keep.

So it is that Corrash is persuaded to step up and recount tales of their derring-do to an enraptured audience. The dragonborn makes the best of it. There isn't a dry eye in the house as the story of Eilian's brave sacrifice is recounted, and a collection box does the rounds, raising a goodly sum for his widow which is held by Wrafton for later delivery.

Most talk that night settles on either the heroics of the company, or the wrong-doings of Valthrun, who has variously now been blamed for most of the ills that the town has suffered over the last few years. Two drunken fellows acting suspiciously catch Elumai's eye, childishly holding up their hands to shield their faces as they walk by, or pointedly staring at the ceiling whenever her gaze catches theirs. She uncovers their names -- Ettel and Spong -- two brothers notorious in Winterhaven for getting into petty mischief, and engages them in a bit of chatter and a drink, hoping to get to the bottom of things. Unfortunately, although they're undoubtedly hiding something, she fails to elicit the salacious truth.

No such problem for Berend though, who follows them out into the street when they leave and browbeats them into admitting the facts, that they've been spreading malicious gossip to a local bard who passed through before they returned to town. Kidnapping of locals, seduction of town officials, bribery of good and honest townsfolk to speak highly of their exploits... it seems the company have been very busy indeed. They don't have the brain-cells between them to remember the bard's name, but they do recall he rode off on a rather impressive white horse. Berend bangs their heads together and lets them go.

"Spong, perhapsh the firsht thing on our lisht of waysh to avoid them should have been to NOT GO TO THE PUB TONIGHT!" -- Ettel
"Quite right! A toasht to your clevernesh!" -- Spong

It's also at the pub that the party realises that another diminutive fellow seems to have joined their number: Sunrise Song, a cheerful little gnome in the permanent employ of Mord. Despite being regularly put-upon by the dwarf, Sunrise lives up to his name and never loses his cheerful mien, even as his duties extend to draught exclusion in Mord's room that night. Otherwise, he seems adept at two main things: staying out of the way, and carrying several times his own body-weight in books.

The following morning, the party answers a summons to the manor to speak with Riva. En route, they place a couple of orders with Thair Coalstriker to improve their equipment (and to make practical use of the iron chains that Corrash couldn't bear to see left behind at the Keep), although delivery won't be possible for a couple of days. Riva himself is his usual welcoming self, which is more than can be said for Lord Padraig, who stays well out of their way.

Riva informas the party that he will be setting off east at sunrise the following morning, on his way to Emerandes to report to his superiors the information he has been gathering in the wilderness for the last couple of years. When questioned about the party, he admits to setting things in motion, telling them that it will personally do him no harm for tales of their escapades to spread as far and as wide as possible. Finally he leads them to a courtyard at the rear of the mansion, where stand two wagons; the first is an ostenatious carnival affair decked in green, the second is a simple supply wagon on which an oiled cover hides the spoils of Riva's travels. He points the party at one of the piles, "evidence," he says, collected from Valthrun's basement, and says they may choose two items, "as further risk avoidance on the matter of my investment." After much debate, Mord takes possession of a magnificent magical craghammer whose haft is inscribed with a three-clawed slash from some vile beast (Craghammer +2), and Berend takes a suit of plate mail, on the breast plate of which is inscribed the legend, "In Vilifier's Shadow We Walk" (Dwarven Plate Armour +2), for later use.

The following day, Corrash finally succeeds in following-up on the supposed dragon's graveyard uncovered by wandering archaeologist and local laughing-stock, Douven Staul. Tracking the hire of a donkey to Delphina Moongem, soft-spoken keeper of the local stables, she points them in the right direction and after a short journey, the party arrives at the dig site. There they find obvious evidence of a large excavation, now apparently filled in. Several rough-looking humans and a dour-looking halfling watch as two massive dogs on leather leashes whine and paw at the mud, seemingly digging for something. The halfling is none-too-impressed with the arrival of these strangers, citing first-come-first-served salvaging rights over the site, but the company do not interfere as the dogs become increasingly agitated and eventually pull a thin and somewhat wiry-looking dwarf from a hole in the ground.

There follows a tense altercation where the party make it known that this the person they've come looking for, and the ruffians refuse to give him up. The stand-off devolves into a brief and bare-knuckle fight as the adventurers drop several of the men (and their dogs) with bleeding noses to the floor before the hapless mob give up what is obviously a futile fight and hand Douven over.

"No respect for the archaeological method, those fellows! No respect at all!" - Douven Staul.

Douven recounts his own tale, that he arrived at the site of the dragon's graveyard only to find several men, and a hobgoblin or two, already engaged in quite a large-scale excavation, and was quickly captured. When they left, they threw him into the pit and blew the supporting retainers away, burying him alive. Thankfully, one of the wooden walls collapsed in such a way as to create a void from which he had slowly been digging himself out with his trowel. As for what the dig uncovered, he guesses bones, massive, dragon-like bones from an ancient skeleton... although he's forced to admit he doesn't know for sure. He did, however, hear someone's name that may be of use, Saruun Khel, although he's personally never heard of him.

Tracks from the heavy cart are easily picked up, and the party follows them for most of the remaining day north east until they intersect with the King's Road and from there, with no evidence to the contrary, along the road to the east. Travelling back towards town, they encounter Lord Riva's wagon train heading out of Winterhaven. It's an impressive affair, with the two wagons they saw earlier being pulled by massive, sweating work-horses, and several guards dressed in the same purple garb as the two men who guarded Valthrun's tower just after Riva's arrival. The Captain of this caravan is chatty enough, suspicious at first but more open when he realises who these six strangers actually are, but he is forced to report that Lord Riva is unavailable for company at the present time. The party is happy enough with this, and promises to catch up with them the following day.

So it is that they return to Winterhaven for what might be the last time. Picking up their new weapons and armour -- excellent quality, of course -- they purchase a wagon and pony with which to cart their various loot across country, and prepare to head out east...

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

4ed Campaign -- Session 13 -- 13th December 2008

In which the scourge of the Keep on the Shadowfell finally pits its wits against our heroes, dwarven resilience saves Mord from a dire fate, and someone organises a surprise party...
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 3
Berend - Dwarven Fighter 3
Corrash - Dragonborn Warlock (Fey-Pact) 3
Romto - Halfling Cleric (of Pelor) 3
Mord - Dwarven Fighter 3

It is but a short 30-foot descent from the cathedral to the basement room where Kalarel, the apostle of Orcus who has engineered a dire scheme to unleash the forces of his master upon an unsuspecting world, awaits. Clambering down the chains, the adventurers find themselves in a large chamber. One wall is dominated by a massive statue of Orcus, and on the opposite wall, a circular portal constrains a suspended plane of inky blackness, behind which some distant, horned monstrosity pushes and strains to get through. In front of the portal, inscribed on the flagstones, a circle of glowing runes resonates with power, while across the room, Kalarel himself hunches reading -- or praying -- over some moldy tome. Opposite him, a gaunt, leather-skinned undead sniffs at two smaller statues of the Prince of Undead.

It's impossible for the interlopers to approach with stealth, a danger they have already been forced to accept in their efforts to deal with Kalarel. The cultist, however, in an unexpected demonstration of fair play -- or outright arrogance -- commands the snarling wight across the room to hold fast and allow them to descend. They do so, swinging to the edge of the pit of blood which simmers below the chains.

"What's this? Visitors at last? I will allow you to descend, as a show of charity." - Kalarel.
"We heard you had some problems with the plumbing, we're here to fix the pipes!" - Elumai.

The battle is joined. Mord rushes across the room to engage the wight: it calmly awaits him, and then attacks, unleashing bolts of necrotic energy to supplement its tearing claws. Their combat is a personal affair, each combatant using the statues as cover while searching for an opening, and with Mord panicking at the sight of the wight's profane visage more than once. Nevertheless he eventually prevails.

"Kill them, and drink of their humours!" - Kalarel.

The others charge into Kalarel. The Scion of Orcus is more than a match for them, and although Berend does copious harm to the cultist, he is weakened to within one feeble step of death such that the dwarf has to fight every ounce of his nature and actually withdraw from the fight, reduced to finding opportunities to help his friends prevail while staying out of range of the enemy.

"I am weak! That bag of bones Keegan has been dispatched, then. No matter!" - Kalarel.

All the while, Kalarel deluges them with vicious, enervating attacks. He takes a moment to recover his strength and activates an amulet which transports him to the circle of power in front of the portal, causing anyone who subsequently wants to put blade, axe, or hammer to him to have to put themselves in reach of whatever is struggling to break through from the Shadowfell into this world.

It is ultimately Mord who takes on this onerous responsibility, relying on his dwarven steadfastness to defend him against the creature. And indeed, although the entity has him in its grasp more than once, the sons of the Halls of TODO are not so easily moved, and he resists all attempts to pull him to a sticky death on the other side of the portal. Engaged in melee and beset on all sides by the skillful attacks of Elumai and Corrash, there is little hope for the evil-doer. As he is brought to within an inch of death, he is pulled through the portal, his pleas for mercy no doubt small palliative to the dreadful end which is the destiny of all those who fail a demon prince. The rod which had been his weapon for most of the fight tumbles out of his hand, its skull-tip smashing to pieces on the stone floor.

"No! My Lord... my master... Do not damn me for one failure! I beg of you... one more chance...!" - Kalarel, as he is dragged through the portal.

Victorious at last, the chamber itself can be searched. Corrash is delighted to find that the cold, gunmetal rod is a Rod of Corruption. Elumai finds a sophisticated mechanical scroll tube with a scroll of Detect Secret Doors contained within it, and is excited to discover that the circle of power inscribed on the floor is actually drawn in residuum, allowing her to both collect a stock of the valuable reagent and desecrate the evil inscription at the same time. In the jumble of bones at the bottom of the pool, which had sizzled and drained away when Kalarel was taken, the party discovers a fine dagger, wrought from a single large bone with keen, metal-shod edges on the blade. A selection of coinage - including Kalarel's personal stash of almost 1000gp - rounds off the haul. They do as much damage to the effigies of Orcus as they can, but the best they can do to the portal is defile the stone ring in which it is suspended, and although it is clearly diminished in power -- now no more than a vaguely opaque shadow -- it does not seem within their ability to destroy it completely.

Making their way back up and out, they discover that the remaining undead in the Keep appear to have 'malfunctioned' since Kalarel's defeat, walking in circles, or smashing their heads to a pulp on the nearest wall. They are put out of their misery. Elsewhere, there are signs that an unexplored section of the complex was home to large goblinoids, but the creatures within are gone. The party pauses just long enough to haphazardly seal up the room with the submerged jelly-like creature before vacating the Keep once and for all.

Another discovery is made on the way back to Winterhaven, however. They spot a small camp in the trees a short distance from the path. A single nearby tree appears to have been burnt to a crisp in some kind of magical fire, an immolation which left the rest of the campsite and forest completely untouched. Dropped and forgotten at the foot of the tree, a bracelet is found... the very same Keegan family heirloom which was given to Eilian before he left the Keep.

Filled with dismay at the thought of the old farmer's fate, the remainder of the trek home is a more sombre affair, especially when they arrive at Winterhaven to find that Goodrun has been unable to face living alone and has moved out of the family shack and in with a friend. None of the bold adventurers have the stomach to tell her what they found in the forest. They do arrive at Wrafton's however to find that a celebratory party has been thrown in their honour.

Who organised the soiree, and how they could have known there was something to celebrate, remains a mystery...