Saturday, March 6, 2010

From play to design

While we take our hiatus from 4e, I find myself with more time to think about role-playing, not because we haven't filled the gap with a different game -- we've yet to start in Pathfinder, but have taken a side-step into the World of Darkness -- but because I'm not currently the Dungeon Master/Gamemaster/Storyteller. Griff has taken over that role for now.

The reason that I'm the DM so often, though, is because I like creating stories, like telling stories, and like causing pain and suffering in others (characters and players alike). Since I cannot fulfill these desires at present, I have to be content with just thinking about how I'll do so the next time I get the chance. And, on that note, I've been working on my latest campaign idea.

Since our 4e experience has so far been solely with the WOTC modules, I've never made any content in the current edition, not campaigns, modules, encounters or monsters. And, even though I've claimed to have forsaken 4e for now, I find that, because of the more recent exposure to 4e and the dwindling (though fond) memories of 3.5, that design thoughts keep steering to 4e concepts of encounters, roles and powers. Thus, I'm taking the challenge to write this campaign in both 3.5/Pathfinder and 4e versions at the same time.

This could be a disaster, of course. Refreshing my 3.5 knowledge is just going to cloud the 4e that I've only just gotten comfortable with, so it will be interesting to see if they can both co-exist at suitable levels in my head as I design this campaign. I haven't decided if it's going to be possible to design encounters in a way that, no matter what the edition you play, advancement is consistent -- that is, if the party survives encounters A1 through A7, they'll make it from 1st- to 2nd-level, in both 3.5 and 4e. On the one hand, it makes planning a lot easier if that was possible, but on the other hand, 3.5 goes to 20th level (before epic rules kick in), whereas 4e goes to 30th level "normally". So should that be the meter for advancement? Or does it really matter at all? One thing I haven't done is try to gauge what the comparable strength of nth-level characters are between the two versions, and perhaps that's what's necessary to determine the progression of each edition's implementation. So, by the time the party encounters Bossman Z, they should be of similar mightiness, not because I can't adjust the 3.5 and 4e versions of Bossman Z appropriately, but because the tone and spirit of the campaign at Bossman Z's point is such that the party should be suitably ... heroic. Mighty. Epic.

Anyhow, as I work on this, I'll occasionally post on how it's going, whether to complain about or praise 4e for how it is to work with from a designer's point-of-view, or to drop a few "well THREE POINT FIVE does this better than FOUR EEE does..."-type of posts. Or, admittedly, how 4e may very well be easier to design with than 3.5. But shh, don't tell anyone I said that.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


It has been a month since any of us have played D&D. Thus is the nature of the holiday season. But also, it has been a month since I've read any 4e material (to be honest, ANY D&D material), and I have to say... I didn't miss it.

Now that this new year is starting up, so too is our many attempts to get together to play. But this time, it looks like it might be without 4e.

We're giving Pathfinder a go. We miss 3.5, and it looks like 4e has failed to fill that void. As Griff commented to the group, it might just be nostalgia, and not any superiority or preference for 3.5 that's moving us back. We shall see.

As for this blog... well, it is a 4e blog, so it wouldn't make sense to talk about our 3.5/Pathfinder adventures and experiences here, unless perhaps as comparisons to 4e. I still have my subscription to, and time (or interest) permitting, Griff and I might still blog on that 4e content. And, if it turns out that Pathfinder doesn't fill that void for us, then we might very well return to 4e and have more "active" posts here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The importance of setting

As it becomes more and more obvious that our group isn't going to stick with 4E I've started to look back at why it failed.

Maybe "failed" is the wrong word. I don't want to imply that it's some sort of sweeping failure like the Zune. There are certainly fans of the game out there, people who love it and have a lot of fun playing it. To each their own. I've never bought into the whole "edition war". Everyone should play whatever game they find to be fun. Whether that game is 4E, 3.5, AD&D, Gurps, WoD or whatever else. It makes no difference to me what you enjoy playing. I certainly don't expect you to switch after reading my half-assed opinions. The bottom line is that games should be fun and DnD 3.5 was fun for me.

But why isn't 4E fun for me?

At its very core it's not really different from any other version of DnD. You create a character with some stats and a class, and you battle monsters in a world of swords and magic.

The really fun stuff is in the roleplaying. In becoming that burly warrior or busty sorceress (whaddya mean they aren't all burly or busty?) and overcoming all obstacles on the way to a goal. Really, roleplaying is completely independent of any gaming system. You could roleplay in a game of Monopoly if you really wanted to.

So my problem must lie with the mechanics of the 4E system. After all, roleplaying in a good and engaging story is not the only aspect of DnD. A big chunk of every game night is spent in combat, and combat relies almost solely on the character sheet and the game mechanincs. So, where did 4E go wrong for me?

Rather than re-hash the gripes from my various posts here, I'll put them at the very bottom of the post. Those who care to, can read them there. Those who don't care, I'll spare you the agony of scrolling past them. You're welcome.

There is one thing that's not really part of the game mechanics. In fact it's something that was almost totally within my own control. The game setting.

Granted, when 4E came out there was no official setting beyond a generic "points of light in the midst of darkness". Eberron was still there and unchanged. I guess. I never really got into Eberron as a setting. We knew that the Forgotten Realms were getting re-worked to better fit the new system. In hindsight, we could have simply continued to use the 3rd edition version of FR, if only for the names and dates. Instead we just gave a nod to the gray generic world and went with the standard storyhook in the first published module.

That was all well and good at the time, but here's that hindsight again, it really didn't do my character any favors. I never bothered to put any thought into his background. I just rolled him up and got swept away by the game mechanics. I was so blinded by making my storm themed warrior/mage work within the confines of the ruleset that I ignored the really important thing. His place within the world. His motivations. His hopes and hates. His family roots. In short, in my effort to create a unique character I ignored everything that makes a character truly unique.

So really, 4E was hamstrung from the start because I forgot about the most important part of the game. The roleplaying. I didn't invest in his background and so I never invested in him. At least, not in any meaningful way beyond making a set of stats and powers that worked for my concept.

Sorry about that 4E. Your failure is also my failure.


Here's that summation of my previous gripes as promised earlier.

Certainly in the very beginning I was turned off by the restrictive feeling of 4E. I always felt like the character I really wanted was either impossible or only vaguely realized after a series of roadblocks and compromises. That was somewhat fixed by the Hybrid rules, and the ongoing laxity in Implements seems to be improving. Give it a few more years and this might not be an issue at all.

Another peeve was with the powers. Not that it wasn't a novel idea or well done. It just wasn't executed quite right. I'm not even sure what that means but there's just... something... about the powers that bugs me. Maybe it's how they make all the classes feel like every other class, with only the overarching roles to really seperate one character from another. Or maybe it's just in the numbers of them you get. For the first 5 levels I definitely felt like I had a few interesting whammies but used my lame At-wills ninety percent of the time. That's not so bad at the Paragon level where the number of Encounter powers means that At-wills only become repetitious in the longest battles. Still, it made the first half of the Heroic level so boring that it was all but unplayable for me.

The neutering of Feats and Magic Items has also bothered me. Maybe I'm just too stubborn to let go of them, but I miss the days when feats and magic items meant something. Something more than a piddly bonus to a power or an extra healing surge. I want magic items that can be pulled out at the last moment and turn disaster into triumph. Feats that give a character a distinct flavor and make him something more than just-another-fighter.

There are a lot of good things about the 4E system too. I'm a big fan of how traps, disease, and poison are handled. I also like that monsters aren't handcuffed to the same rules as player characters. That makes encounter design easy and gives the DM more room to tailor battles however he/she sees fit.

The 4E experience begins to wind down

It probably goes without saying after such a prolonged silence (is it really almost December already?) but the end is almost in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel, and the first death knell for this blog, is in the Pathfinder RPG (aka DnD 3.75), which I think we'll be playing next summer. We've all agreed to give the Paragon level a fair shake first, and there's some hope that the PHB3 could be an edition saver. Otherwise, it's been nice 4E but while 3.# has numerous flaws, those flaws are better than yours.

Frankly, I was ready to turf 4E months ago. In fact my interest in all things DnD has been at an all time low for the last several months. I've been much more interested in White Wolf's latest edition of World of Darkness game even though I only get to play it via IRC which is not nearly as much fun as tabletop. While two in our group have shown some interest/willingness in trying an NWoD game, Crwth has made it pretty clear that he's not interested in learning a new gaming system. At least not one that falls outside the d20 family. I can respect that, especially given the strains on free time imposed by work, wives, and kids that we all have. We're lucky to play more than three times a month, so reading pdfs and learning a different RPG system is asking a lot. Not that it'll stop me from needling and pushing for it. (btw, if anyone knows of a good Play-By-Post site for nWoD, lemme know).

As mentioned, our group has had a lot going on in real life, so we haven't gotten together nearly as much as I'd like. Since our 5th levels were TPK'd we've only had one real session where all but one were present. That was a re-play of the troll encounter on the road, and it was great fun.

As a brief aside, I really like the Paragon level (at least my very early impression of combat at that tier/level). The number of Encounter powers available kept us from having to fall back on our piddly At-Wills which kept the fight interesting. My only big complaint, and one that mightily pissed me off, was that my monk couldn't use a spiked chain because none of his powers could be channeled through it. That's now been fixed (thankfully!) by the release of the finalized version of the Monk in Dragon #381.

Still, I don't see that one concession to flexibility and player choice being enough to save this edition of DnD for me.

As for the blog, I've probably got a few more posts to put up. One on setting is already in mind, and I expect to have a few as we get a little deeper in to the Paragon level/tier. I can feel the excitement.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


As I mentioned before, we had a party wipe, and the decision was made that we would start our new campaign at 11th level, to see what more-advanced 4e characters were like in this edition; note that we have been playing 4e since it was released, and we died at fifth level. That should give you a sense of our pace, and of the likelihood of us having ever seen paragon tier "naturally". In fact, for the last three or four sessions, we had moved to half-the-encounters, twice-the-XP, just to try to ramp up our advancement. So much for that.

So what have we learned about the paragon tier so far?

Well, making a character is easy, which we knew: levelling up in 4e is almost trivial, since you make very few choices as you go, and the range of choice, while growing with the splat books that are coming out, is still small. However: choosing is one thing, knowing what you've chosen, during play, is another. Starting at 11th level is far different than advancing to 11th level -- as you advance, you get to know your powers at each level, only introducing one, at most, as you go. Maybe a new feat. Maybe a new magic item with a daily power. But you still have a whole level of adventure to get used to this newly available power. When you start at 11th level, especially with a class you've never looked at before (and remember, we've all only played on other 4e character), you've got a dozen or more powers available to you. Additionally, starting at a higher level means you start with magic items, again, likely ones you've never seen before, so have new abilities and modifiers there.

I do wonder how much of our tardiness was due to the new class, and how much to the large clump of new powers. While powers do define what you can do, in the end, the class does define the role, and thus gives you an overall sense of how your character is likely best played. Switching that up -- I went from a Leader to a Striker -- is quite the change (until, I'm sure, you've played them all, perhaps a few times), so we might have seen the same lack of coordination if we were to have started at 1st level with these characters. But I think we'd all agree that we would have caught on a lot faster, with just a couple of at-wills to get to know.

Two of our group was missing last night, but we decided that the party, sans deux, would tackle the first encounter without them, to take our new characters for a spin; if they won the battle, well hurray for them -- the other two would join the party later; if they died (because they were only four in an encounter designed for a party of five), then we'd press Undo, say, "that was fun", and wait until the rest of the group was available to really start the campaign, and re-do that encounter (without any metaknowledge of course!)

The reasons I wanted to do this were to let us get to know our new characters (which, as I mentioned above, is a real necessity), as well as to see if, as I believe the intent is, a paragon encounter takes no longer than a heroic one -- it's just more interesting, more involved.

Because of our struggles with our new powers and items, it's hard to say whether that test passed or failed; as the DM, I can attest that these paragon-level NPCs were no more difficult or time-consuming to run, but that's only half of the equation. And, our heroic battles could take many hours anyway (I've yet to decide if that's just us, or the game).

In the end, we halted the battle because it was after 2am, and we weren't going to finish it soon. We weren't losing, we were gaining ground, and I think we certainly would have won -- but not before a few of us would be waking to our children. And if we thought we were fighting trolls last night, we could easily imagine the trolls our wives would have been had we been up 'til 5am fighting them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hand me my crossbow.

As Crwth mentioned earlier I equated being down to nothing but At-will powers and a handful of healing surges to "grabbing the crossbow". It was an off the cuff remark and I'll readily concede that it's not very accurate.

For starters, the At-wills are better than the old 3.5 crossbow-shot-and-a-prayer fallback. If not "better" at least they're arguably more interesting/engaging.

Our rogue trotted out two of his at-wills before finally falling. The paladin likewise. The warlord made good use of his Wolfpack Tactics and the ranger steadily used Twin Fanged Strike (or whatever it's called). Of course that was pretty much the only power the ranger ever used. Still, it's effective.

My fighter/wizard should have been even more versatile with the at-wills, and to be honest I felt like I had more options. I got off a couple of Thunderwaves to try to get some breathing room (one time it actually hit!) and otherwise relied on Reaping Strikes (damage on a miss! Love it!). So, all in all, no real feeling of "let down" when left with nothing else in the tank, so to speak.

Instead, the downside comes in the lack of options beyond powers.

At several points in the battle I wished that I could counter-spell those damn controllers. Or use a resist fire potion. Or a neutralize poison. Something to alleviate the feeling of being powerless under those enemy's whims. It was incredibly frustrating being completely helpless to resist being blinded or knocked down.

Simply spread out so that the controller's area of effect powers can't hit everyone at once? Good idea. In theory.

In reality, we were hemmed into a dead end room (admittedly a bad tactical blunder and probably the biggest reason for our TPK) with at least one enlarged Duegar taking up even more room. Frankly, once we allowed ourselves to become trapped in that room we were at the mercy of the controllers. As they thoroughly kicked our asses all player ingenuity was effectively nullified. We needed to get incredibly lucky just to push our way back out into the hallway. As impressed as I was by the enemy controllers, I was ultimately just frustrated by them, and that took away from an otherwise fine fight.

Sure the at-wills kept the fight interesting, but no more so than 3.5's relatively banal "pot shots with the crossbow". Boiled down, the at-wills are still strike me as basic attacks with some flavor text attached.

So, does this mean that 4E sucks compared to 3.5?

I love 3.5 for a variety of reasons, but I can't say that it's hands down better; regardless of how one defines "better". It's all so subjective.

I will say that 4E has alleviated many of my earlier knocks. The variety of classes has opened up numerous options, so multi-classing isn't missed as much. The upcoming Skill Powers looks like it's gonna be all kinds of awesome. The encounters are a lot of fun, and even dying is exciting.

On the downside, I'm still not liking the concept of Reflex, Fortitude, and Will as defensive scores versus saving throws. I know the math and all works out more or less the same. I just miss the empowerment of making a saving throw versus simply being blinded or knocked down.

I'm also hating the dearth of magic items. There's a decent variety of them, but their usefulness is minimal at best. I miss the days of having that one trinket/potion/scroll that can be pulled out to use in some inventive way, or simply to save one's ass. I also miss the facet of planning that magic items used to bring. Knowing that we were facing fiery and poisoning Duergar we would have stocked up on fire resists and anti-poison potions/scrolls/spells in 3.5. In 4E we had nothing but our powers and luck to rely upon. When the former dwindled and the latter ran out, the results were fairly predictable.

The Super Happy Fun Slide... of Death!

Dead at last. For the longest time I honestly thought that 4E was designed around the idea that a player should never have a character die. Ever.

Yes Virginia. There is a grim reaper. And he's surprisingly a lot of fun. In fact it was probably the most excitement I've felt while playing 4E.

Seriously. I'm not trying to be snide about it, but it was honestly a lot of fun. The death mechanic is really a good and fun way to go about it. I love the idea of a saving throw to stay stable or slip one strike closer to the death. Then there's the optimistic hope of rolling that 20 and coming back to the fray. It's awesome fun and better by leaps and bounds than the slow (read: banal) countdown to -10 HP.

I also enjoyed the fact that my dieing character continued to take damage, pushing him towards the -23 HP that would also kill him once and for all. If nothing else it kept me engaged in the battle. It also heightened the tension for that last round of saves. I had to make one versus poison, or take 5 damage that would put me at -23, and then still faced a possible 3rd strike on the death save. (Yet another 3 on the d20 made that moot. Just for shits'n'giggles I rolled the death save too, and failed. It was that kinda night.)

After that I had a great time watching the hopes for the other players rise and fall. It was a real rollercoaster ride. They were doomed. They were gonna make it. They were doomed. It was over. I loved it. By far the best fight of either module.

I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether the fact that dying is the funnest part of 4E is a good thing or a bad thing.