Tuesday, 2 March 2010

I, Dungeon Master (1)

Starting a series of posts in which I talk about various lessons learned in the course of DM'ing the Cradle Plain campaign.

Scarily, it's coming up on 2 years since the latest edition of D&D was released. Through hard work and no small amount of good fortune, I've managed to build and sustain a weekly campaign for most of that time. This is a big deal, because the last time I managed it, I was 13, and in those days, Saturday afternoons were for playing D&D, and Sunday afternoons were for planning next Saturday afternoon. Those days may have gone, but the nagging dreams of weekly D&D and long-term campaigns never did.

The game, and those who play it, mean a great deal to me, and for the first time in just about ever, I've been roleplaying regularly enough to start ironing out the creases and actually evolve a campaign which responds to its players.

To celebrate this, I humbly submit Wedge's Top Tips for successful role-playing, in no particular order. Bear in mind that we haven't hit Paragon yet, so I can only vouch for this advice in the Heroic tier (and it would be very interesting if the advice changed tier-to-tier).

#1 - Monsters Take 10 For Initiative

PC's with good Initiative scores (those with a healthy Dex, and feats or other external factors) will always have an Initiative in excess of the average monster at their level, and on the whole can expect to act first. Strikers will want to get in there before the bad guys have lifted a finger and exploit Combat Advantage; Controllers will want to pin them to the spot and delay big-hitting melee enemies from closing as long as possible; Defenders will want to make themselves target numero-uno; and so-on.

Simply put, you should always aim for them to do this.

This tip has a couple of solid mechanical justifications (for example, a good surprise round can reduce the chances of the fight deteriorating into an unwelcome grind), as well as a few healthy player-upkeep justifications (chiefly, groups looove catching the bad guys with their pants down), but most importantly one supreme, all-governing gameplay ramification: it tends to stop your combats getting bottle-necked.

You know the drill, I'm sure. You've planned a nefarious encounter area, with multiple subtle terrain features, strategising opponents, and deadly defenses; the party approaches, kicks in the door, and boom! You roll the villains' Initiative and groan inwardly as you realise, most of your guys are going to go first.

You have a couple of choices in this situation. First, you could outright lie. Frown, tut and shake your head at the clattering dice before the screen... then ignore the 19 that came up, and jot down a 4. We'll assume that egregious dice-fudgement is out of the question though, so moving on...

Second, you could have your guys delay or ready. For melee creatures, this tends to look horribly contrived unless the circumstances warrant it (say, an ambush); it may have looked good for Neo, but having brutes and soldiers thumb their noses at the PC's instead of charging in to get the first attack while their opponents are stuffed into a cramped corridor suggests less intelligence than I usually want to give them credit for.

If you're lucky, you have an encounter group where an enemy Controller can spend a round buffing his allies. This looks good, seems like intelligent behaviour, and provides opportunity for trash-talk, all points in its favour.

In my experience though, more often than not in these situations, you will have a melee contingent in the encounter group, they will gain a strong advantage by rushing the PC's, and it would make no sense for them to not to. So they do, and your carefully-planned milieu is reduced down to a 4x2 square zone just inside the door, neatly excising from the encounter one of the main combat improvements that make 4E what it is: mobility.

Cue static 3E-like combat, the unleashing of terribly uninteresting At-Will's, and the hilarious scattering of miniatures as you struggle to apply your magnetic markers to a wizard surrounded by nine kobold miniatures, all with spears.

I exagerate, but the point is that you should always strive to get the PC's into your encounter area before you engage them. Let the Striker sneak round the back... all the better, because when he gets into trouble, he'll have to call for help. Let the Defender mark his foe and get toe-to-toe with him... he'll probably have stepped through the front rank to do so. Get the protagonists in places where they can strategise, look for synnergies, and really exploit the fluidity of a good 4E encounter.

Everyone will thank you for it, friend and foe alike.

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