Dec 17, 2008

My 4E game.

The 4E game I am currently running, has been an absolute blast to play so far. That said, I thought I would share some observations from a DM's POV as to what worked and what didn't.

If you have been reading this Blog for long, you may remember that I had pondered writing an adventure path / campaign, and self-publishing it. It has been tenatively titled "ASSAULT ON THE LIGHTLESS DEPTHS" and was a 4E reboot (of sorts) of one of my all time favorite 2E boxed sets Night Below.

As I am new to 4E, I decided to make it a slightly longer term project, and playtest it as I wrote it. Unfortunately, my game only runs every third weekend...yeah, it's been rough.

Anyhoo, with three sessions down, the party has finally reached 2nd level! We have:
  1. An unnamed Water Genasi Warlord (I call him big blue)
  2. Meeshan, a Dragonborn Fighter
  3. Ned, a Shasar-Kai Warlock - Multiclass Wizard
  4. Two warforged Rangers, Cyhper and Cyther. One is ranged, other is two weapon.

Eventually we will have one more player, but she is one of those who holds an irrational hatred for 4E because a messageboard told her it was lame. She'll come around : )

So the setup:

The party, is a group of the Runeborne. (Thank you Justin Alexander @ the alexandrian for the idea.) These are folks marked for a place within the prophecies that have, and continued to shape this land. Being stronger, faster, and just plain better than everyone else, they naturally rose to prominence as leaders and villains extreme.

After a boatload of wars fought by the Runeborne - thinking that they alone knew how to fix the worlds ills, the people insisted upon the creation of a guild to "watch over" them. Thus was born the Guild of Runes.

The guild of Runes exists to maintain political neutrality within it's ranks. It does so, by keeping its members from congregating in large numbers. IT does this by assigning it's members to explore, map, plunder, guard, and fight for it's patrons.

Long story short, the party is a disparate group of Runeborne, on assignment to the Merchant's guild. Their job is to protect a seasonal caravan headed up into the remote northern vales that make up the fringes of civilization. Not exactly glorious work, but what do you expect for a 1st level character?

We opened up with a goblin ambush. Two CR3 waves of goblins, a mix of cutters and warriors, led by a lvl.3 Elite warrior. The party rocked their socks, and then some.

OBSERVATION 1 - Watch out for those damn strikers, they really change the flow of combat.

After winning the fight, they noticed that the goblins had oddly stained bluish green feet, hands, and mouths. Also, they were emaciated and acted like desperate animals. No treasure is found, and even the gypsies following the caravan wouldn't touch the crap they called gear.

As evening falls, the caravan reaches the relative safety of a roadside inn called THE WINDING ROAD. The innkeep, Priam, welcomes them before offering up a fireside tale about the colorful history of Hogger's Vale. The party learns that:

  1. Priam's Father was a retired war hero, who died two summers back from a goring at the tusks of a monster hog living near Whsker Lake.
  2. The valley was settled by an alliance of Men and Dwarves near 400 years ago.
  3. 50 years ago, a great necromancer laid claim to the vale, and set about building an army. Eventually, another army led by the Dawnbringers advent. co. came and did battle with his forces for months. Apparently nobody survived the final battle, on either side.
  4. Wagon traffic has slowed to a crawl in the last month or two, there should be at least 5 a day hauling Iron ore and finished craft out of the valley.
  5. The Valleys protectors Jerrol and Karl the rangers, are a week late on their rounds.

After a lengthy bit of role-playing and exposition, Priam excuses himself to get some rest. As the party begins hunkering down for the night, Howls sound from all directions in the distance, and a panicked pounding echoes up from the common room.

First to investigate are the rangers. They identify the sounds as belonging to hunting dogs or wolves of some kind. Opening the door, an older man in tattered purple rags falls the ground in front of them. "Please! Help me! They mustn't take me back! They want the stone!" HE then promptly passes out.

Hot on his heels, are a pack of 5 gray wolves, led by a dire wolf. The party (all awake by now) close and bar the door, and begin upending tables to make a defensive position. With not a moment to spare, the doors come crashing down, and a wolf the size of a cow comes through the door.

OBSERVATION 2 - While the Dire wolf was always the center of battle, it wasn't the TPK I was afraid it would be. The designers aren't kidding when they say that favorable circumstances and good planning could let a party take down a beast 4-8 levels above the group.

This beast was joined the next round by 5 smaller grey wolves. These worked well against the party. The only thing better than the heavy use of knockdown in 4E is the relaxation of the rules allowing you to stand as a minor action with no AoO. After a spirited fight, ANOTHER pack of wolves busts in!

OBSERVATION 3 - I have so far found that successive wave attacks work very well in terms of challenging a party with lower level critters and minions. In this particular case, it was two successive CR4 encounters. The party took some hits, but was able to prevent any serious casualties.

After disposing of the wolves, the party gets a short rest, as they tally up the damage. The old man is malnourished (heal check) and covered with bruises. His rags (insight) appear to have once been fine satin wizards robes. Unfortunately, he is in a deep torpor (a coma), and will be answering no questions anytime soon.

A few short minutes later, there are sounds of combat outside! Goblins are attacking the wagons and their crews over at the stable! The Fighter immediately charges into the fray with her greataxe, Warlord and Rangers in tow. The party is immediately suspicious of some arcane chanting coming from out of sight behind a wagon, but cannot get through the crowd to identify it. After carving up the goblins, and one more dire wolf, the party is in dire peril. With no cleric or Paladin to help, they have already used their second winds, and are low on hp again.

The warlord does a fine job, leading from the front, when he is felled by a goblin axe. Time stops fr a moment, as the chanting reaches it's crescendo! And the bodies of the fallen teamsters rise up again as 4 skeletons join the fray, led by their summoner - a goblin hexer!

The despair in the room is palpable, as the skeletons advance towards the warlock and bow ranger. Only the intervention of the inkeeper (crammed into his dad's full plate) is able to slow them enough to allow these two to reach the relative safety of the roof.

As the skeltons continue to harass and annoy, the hexer and the bow ranger enter a shoot me / shoot you contest (ranger wins!). Finally, the tide of battle turns, and the party is victorious...only to find that their leader, big blue, had bled out and died during the last part of the fight.

So there you have it. My first three sessions in a nutshell. This group has always been a little light on the role-playing, so the tight tactical combat worked VERY well for them. To them, combat is combat, role-playing is what you do when NOT trying to gut someone : )

No skill challenges yet. I am trying to incorporate them into my encounter matrix. About every 4th or fifth encounter should be IMO, a skill challenge.

OBSERVATION 4 - Combat isn't any faster at all. In fact, it felt like it took a little longer than in 3E. However, the rounds themselves went by about 3-4 times faster, averaging 45 seconds per character, unless there was research involved. For the first time in years, the DS's stayed closed, and the knitting was left undone. If you fall asleep during 4E combat, you are a narcoleptic : )

One of the players later found a strange stone with an unknown rune seemingly etched into it's smooth surface. It radiates incredibly strong universal magic, but defies identification (oh, to be 1st level, lol!). The character has kept it quiet : )

OBSERVATION 5 - With the RP rules trimmed back, the biggest issue I am finding, is that some folks have a hard time actually DOING it without the rules telling them how. I am fairly sure we will see a lot of development on that side as new material is printed up. They are, in the meantime, getting more comfortable with the "wide open" experience so far, it just takes getting used to.

So there it is. The first wobbly steps of my 4E campaign. The players love it, and there is already talk of one of the other games (3.5 age of worms) converting to 4E as well.

My intent is to contnue posting the exploits of these "intrepid entrepeneurs" as they buble about, and eventually save the world. One of them (Jeremey, I mean you!) has been invited to contribute here as well. I plan to continue a once or twice a week posting schedule at least through the holidays, we'll see how ambitious I feel next year!

Anyways, back to the topic. My take on combat was that successive waves of CR appropriate (N +/- 2) seems to work out better than using a single higher level challenge. This is definitely the case in any battle involving lots of minions or low level squishies. Not so much with elites or brutes. As a design rule, I have been reducing the HP by 10-20% of the suggested value, in order to shorten the battles a wee bit. Brutes are the worst ones to adjudicate, as the HP are central to their schtick.

Anyone else try this? We trash games a level 8 encounter for a lvl.3 party, and it was a wipe. Close, but not quite. Until next time, good gaming folks!

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