Monday, September 29, 2008

Shouldn't combat be fun?

Crwth’s last post got me to thinking. Namely his allusion to the onset of tedium in the official WotC module we’re going through.

I’m not privy to the details of the module, and as much as I’d love to, I can’t go and read through to see if we’re just in a combat heavy section, or if it opens up into more roleplay heavy section soon. I dunno.

I would like to give the benefit of the doubt to the module though. The storyline so far has been intriguing (although I’ve had to suspend reality a lot when it comes to the design of the keep. Just the physical layout as we’ve seen it strikes me as really stoopid for a defensive fort.) The recent plot twist of another group in the nearby mountains definitely grabbed my attention. The encounters have also been very interesting with terrain and monster powers being put to great use.

That aside, I’ve been feeling the slogging tedium of late. It's so bad that I almost dread combat now and find myself pushing for the group to ignore obvious XP and loot farming for avenues that I hope will lead to furthering the story.

I love XP and loot!

So what the hell is going on here!?

My current theory lays the blame on the powers. Especially the “At Will” ones. For me, they have just about sucked every ounce of fun from the game. There’s no more resource management or planning involved. It’s just a matter of looking at the grid, picking out a cluster of bad guys, and dropping a Scorching Burst. Next round? Same thing. Or maybe I’ll toss out an Encounter Power just for shits’n’giggles.

As much as I love the glut of feats our characters get, and the ritual system, I’m really missing the old 3.5 feats and spellcasting system. It was just, more fun. Fourth edition, for all it’s simplicity, and for all the huge improvements, isn’t as much fun for me.

I want to hold out and give 4e longer than the three months it’s had. I want to see the next round of books (and my glimpse at the Player’s Guide to FR was encouraging) but I don’t know if I’m gonna make it. Right now I’m almost to the point where I’m ready to push for a d20 Modern campaign. Or a return to 3.5.

Or, I guess I could blame the DM. ;-)

Is this all there is?

We had another gaming session on Friday night, and it went well enough; no one died, new creatures were encountered and their "special traits" were seen. The players (and characters) used some good tactics, but weren't taxed - it was a good night for experience gains.

But it was also a night of combat. And combat. Oh, and a little clue found there in that pile. But that's it, and that's what this module has started to feel like - just a dungeon crawl.

Not that there's anything wrong with a dungeon crawl; fighting monsters, especially ones that are new, or that challenge you to fight with some strategy, is definitely something core to 4e D&D. And, yes, the characters assume that there's a reason they're muscling through the area, seeking the right wrongs and such, as heroes often do.

And I know that previously, I've commented that these combats have been welcome, because we needed to learn the new combat system of 4e, to get a feel for moving from saving throws to defense attacks and for the plethora of powers we now have to manage.

But I want something more. Yes, this adventure has a story in it, and there are hooks that have the characters' motivations fueled, and they have a goal, and a name of some baddie out there, but it just feels very off-balanced towards combat combat combat. We had some roleplaying in earlier sessions, but there's only so much you can do with a mindless opponent, one that doesn't seem ready to parlay.

I know that, as the DM, I can add whatever I like - but I'm trying to follow this adventure as close to written as I can, just to leave it in someone else's hands to invent this time around as we all learn the new rules. I guess I had hoped that a published Wizards of the Coast module would be a little more balanced in such things, since they're the professionals. I like to think that my own adventures mix things up a bit. Perhaps the characters are just going the wrong way, the hack-and-slash way, instead of mixing it up the way the adventure expects.

That's right - always blame the players.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Not-so-Portable Document Format

It has been a bit quiet around here, because of time crunches (September heralds in a new semester), illness (children are germ factories) and a missed weekend of play. But with all of that, I should be able to comment on all of the good, new material coming out out Dragon magazine, right?

Yes, if I had time to read all of the tantalizing articles, but I find I've barely been able to keep up with the wizardlinks indexes. Still, it got me thinking about the fact that I've read very few of the articles that have appeared in Dragon since the magazine went online.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that I prefer to read away from the computer, in my armchair or in bed. Sure, I read my general RSS feeds online and that keeps me informed, and lead to the occasional full article being read on-screen. I read digital books for work purposes, when a hardcopy isn't at hand. But when I have spare time to read (and I do try to make that time), I realize that I'm reading OTHER content -- Scientific American, Wired, National Geographic, Dr. Dobbs -- instead of any D&D material. Dragon and Dungeon magazines used to be part of that pile of magazines, but no longer.

Do I need to train myself to read at the computer, to decide that "those magazines" are part of my regular circulation? That's difficult, as I usually go to read when I'm tired of sitting in front of the computer. Should I read them as they appear? That's also difficult, as I'm generally at work when the RSS feed informs me of a new article, and I make time to update my index and to pop the PDF up in a new tab -- but I don't have the time at work to sit there and read it, even if that tab sits open for a week or more (until my browser crashes or the machine gets rebooted).

Do I print it out? Possible, I suppose, though I don't know that I'd enjoy the printer-paper version nearly as much as I used to enjoy the glossy magazines. Also, do I just print out individual articles as they appear? Or do I wait until the whole issue is compiled into a single PDF, giving me one complete issue, but making me wait until the end of the month before I get a chance to comment on it?

Of course, at this rate, I'm not commenting on any of it, as I'm never getting to it.

I had mixed feelings about the move to online content before, and I still do. I like that the new content is going to be added to the Compendium, though that's not really something that the online version enables -- it could have been done with a paper issue as well. But I see how the push to a full digital layout drives this setup.

Perhaps the solution is a tablet PC.

Anyhow, I'm going to try to be more diligent in reading this material. If I succeed, don't be surprised if I post about material from a few months ago...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A not-so-brief summary (after 3 levels)

Having just hit 3rd level I figured it was time to sum up the things that I love and the things that I hate with 4e.

The Good:

Everything to do with Encounter design. I just love this. Everything from the mixing and matching of monsters, to their roles (as an aid for the DM only), to the use of terrain. It’s all just good shit. I mean it. WotC knocked this one out of the park.

The skills system. I was lukewarm on the untrained vs trained thing at first, but I’ve really grown to love it. It’s simple, elegant, and best of all dumping ranks in doesn’t outgrow the curve of the DCs, making what should be an incredibly difficult show of skill (ie, tumbling around a dozen ninja warriors without getting hit) into a can’t be failed exercise in boredom (ie. that DC 15 never goes up).

Racial abilities. They add a nice little kicker to choosing a specific race. Great idea.My only knock against them is that they just don’t go quite far enough. I’m putting this under a good thing, with the presumption that future books will push this great idea to the heights it deserves.

The monsters. Another homerun for WotC. From the foundation of their design being for one encounter (ie. no more abilities/spells that won’t be used during a fight) to the stat block layout, it’s all much improved. A special favorite of mine is the use of signature powers for every monster. The kobold’s free shift and the goblin’s shift after a miss etc... Just awesome.

Races. Love the new races. The Dragonborn are a perfect addition, and the split of the elves into Eladrin and Elf is beautiful. The Tiefling... well, three out of four is pretty damn good. And the re-tooling of the other core races are all very nicely done.

The Bad:

The multiclassing (or lack thereof). Part of the fun in DnD is mixing and matching existing classes to whip up my own perfectly tailored “class”. Was it powergaming and unbalancing? Sure. Was it potentially nerfing yourself if you took the wrong class or feat? You betcha! But it was fun and challenging and I loved it. (The added perception that they nerfed multi-classing solely to justify the creation of future books, as in “don’t make up your own class, buy this book which has a bunch of new classes that almost fit your concept instead”, well, that kinda pisses me off.)

Spellcasting is just boring. It’s all just different powers now and that, in some vague way, robs me a little. Okay, my wizard can drop “Scorching Bursts” every round, but whoop-dee-doo. It’s dulls-ville.

Action points. It took me a while but I’ve decided that I hate the way they implemented these. When they first appeared in the 3.5 Eberron world, I thought they were quite cool. A nice little 1d6 boost to any roll to change defeat into success strikes me as “heroic”, which was the intent. In 4e getting to do an extra action in a round might be heroic, if you fighter uses it to make an extra attack and topples two ogres at the same time. More often than not the result of the Action Point is pretty mundane. A healing surge gets burnt, or a bad guy gets hit for an extra 5 damage. Yawn. Worse yet, I’ve used an Action Point for the extra move to get away from danger. Yeah. That’s “heroic”.

The magic items. I know they felt that players were far too dependant on magic items. But so what if they are? At least it gave us something to aspire and save up for. Something to quest for even. Now they’re just lame.

Retraining. WotC should take this concept and shove it up their ass. I hate it. 'Nuff said.

The “yeah buts”:

The assortment of powers. I like them overall, and the fact that every class gets them is both a good and bad thing. It makes every class unique in way, which is good, but it also (in an admittedly weird way that I have trouble defining) makes every class feel the same. I wish I could elaborate on this but it’s just my subjective feeling.

The feats will surely fill many a book (while emptying many a wallet) and every character gets a shitload of them, which is good. I suppose. But I’ve yet to see anything that I want to aim towards. They’re just so watered down now. A piddly bonus to a pair of skils, or the ability to wear armor and such are just... blah. Where are the Whirlwind Attack type feats that required levels of planning and then provided an exciting in game payoff?

The overall streamlining of the game. This came really close to being up with the good, but for one thing. There are times where I get the feeling that “time wasters” of the past (ie. confirming critical hits etc...) have simply shifted to new time wasters. This could be simply because our play group hasn’t gotten a complete grasp on the rules and powers but everyone’s action starts with opening the PHB to check on the details of our char’s powers. I’d rather be rolling dice thanks.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Solo monsters

Last night the party faced its first solo monster, and I have to say that it fits the bill nicely.

Without giving anything away, in case readers are adventuring through the same quest as we are, this solo encounter also made good use of terrain, one of the directions that 4e is putting more attention to. I think the creature's early attacks let the party know quite quickly that this wasn't a trivial encounter, and the action points and daily powers got spent a little more freely. Additionally, the "benefit" of fighting a solo monster is that you're pretty sure that ANY time is the right time to use your encounter powers.

The party survived, though we had one member drop unconscious, and even with the complication of the terrain, I think the battle played out well. I also think that this was the most cohesive battle this party has executed, though again that might have been because there was only one target for everyone to concentrate on.

The party has just hit level three with this encounter, so we've certainly not done 4e full justice yet, but I'll admit that with each session, there's that one little thing that 4e does right that gets noticed. That's not to say that there aren't some 4e things that still irritate us, but as we play through, into higher levels, some of the design decisions we may have questioned or failed to comprehend are becoming clearer. Specifically, how to use powers to turn a creature into a Solo foe was revealed -- well, to the DM, anyway.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A little more on the FRCG

Right to it then.

I’ve gotta say that I like a lot of the remodeled cosmos and pantheon. For starters the exarchs are very cool and give my epic tier character something to shoot for (as 'godhood' has always struck me as a little unreal. I mean, how often does the apprentice blacksmith say to himself that someday he'd like to be a god?).

On the other hand I always liked the Mulhorandi pantheon and I’m saddened to see it go. Sure it was a little out of place, being nothing more than the Egyptian gods and goddesses. But it was one of my faves.

I suppose we have the Norse gods and their fans to thank for this. “If our gods aren’t in the Realms then why did those Egyptians get in?” Answer: because they’re cooler by far. All you Norsemen have are big beards and ravens. (Okay, Sif is kinda hot.)

Back to topic, my biggest peeve by far is the lack of a entire world map. I can’t tell you how much I hate that it’s been excluded from this book. Instead of flipping to a page to see where in Toril that Aglarond is, I’ve not gotta unfold that massive (albeit nice looking) map that was glued to the back of the book. If I don’t have the room or inclination to unfold that fucking thing, I’m left with a disjointed mental map of the Realms until I stumble across it later and have an “oh! So that’s where that place is!” moment.

The entries themselves are great so far (thru the A nations anyways). I’m a big fan of the Knowledge this or that checks sections at the start of each entry. Those are nothing short of awesome. The inclusion of the potential adventure hooks is another thing I really like, and I’m very glad to see it int the 4e FRCG.

Too bad about that map though.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Dying for the first time

As Griff mentioned, my character was the first character to die in our 4e adventure, not for lack of trying to take that paladin down!

Even though I'm the DM, I'm playing a character for a few reasons: first, so I can get a feel for the player side of things as we all explore fourth edition; but also because the new standard party size is five characters, and when we started, it was me plus three, so I figured a fourth character would be helpful, especially because no one else seems to play a cleric. Now that we've added two other players, we've actually got a party of six.

I think it's a good demonstration of the new balance of 4e, that my character died. He had a little bit of damage, and was taken down with two high-damaging attacks from creatures that have a synergy-like damage bonus when fighting together, and these attacks came with no time between for Crwth to use one an encounter healing power, which he did have available. This goes to show that Leader is Leader, not Defender, and even when clad in armor and shield, you can't necessarily act as a meat shield.

4e definitely makes it easier to bring back lost party members, however; the cost is much lower than in 3rd edition, and the penalties aren't anywhere near as bad as they were. The fact that a second-level party could afford to bring back their party member is definitely good for the party and players, but it does change the idea of a "dangerous encounter" - excluding a Total Party Kill, the only danger is empty pockets. Had another party member died, we would have been strapped for cash; as it is, Crwth just owes some money to everyone.

The illusions begin to crack

Four encounters. Maybe five.

That seems to be the limit for a second level party. A party of six mind you. At that point we were utterly drained. No more daily or encounter powers and precious few healing surges.

It was the latter, or more precisely the inability of anyone in our party to allow anyone to use a healing surge (outside of a Second Wind), that had us arguing over whether to retreat or press on.

I was the one who most wanted to press on. In part for roleplay reasons. My dragonborn isn't one to back down from a challenge. Plus I didn't want to leave the keep and abandon all the progress we'd made (assuming the bad guys re-group and are ready to meet us at the gates, or worse, set up a bunch of traps).

Mainly however, I wanted to test the theory that 4E is supposed to encourage parties to adventure onwards without "resting" after every other encounter.

Sure, we were down to our At Will powers and one Second Wind per encounter, but in 4E that's supposed to be enough. I mean, isn't that the point behind all the At Will powers and HP we get?

Maybe not, as the death of our Cleric seems to prove.

Not that he wouldn't have fallen regardless. We might have been at full power and it still wouldn't have saved him. He took a lot of damage in just a couple of rounds. Then again, with the ability to use a healing surge or two, he might have stayed on his feet.

The point is, we all felt an urge to retreat and "rest" to regain our powers before moving deeper into the cultist's keep. Yet we'd only been through four or five encounters (with the sixth being decidedly deadly) and being only mid-morning in the game world.

Is this evidence of poor module design? Flawed game design? A bit of both?

More importantly, how was this different from 3rd edition? Instead of falling back on a crossbow or whatever, my wizard had his scorching blasts and thunderclaps. The others all had an array of "cool" things they could still do. But in the end, none of those "cool" things made a difference. We still ended up retreating to town to kill several hours before getting our six hours of sleep and our full array of powers back.

I suppose that's the difference right there. Instead of just the wizard crying over his lost spells, it was the entire party. Welcome to the club warriors and rogues. Welcome.