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.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Teepee, 'kay?

4e adventure: 1, adventuring party: 0.

We had our first Total Party Kill last night, in the second adventure in the official series (Thunderspire Labyrinth). This was our first 4e campaign.

The party had been infiltrating an enemy fortress (I'll leave details vague, in case anyone reading is, or will be, going through this module), and were already a bit tapped for resources, having used a few Daily powers and a bunch of the healing surges, before deciding to press even further forward to accomplish their mission.

Unbeknownst to them, their next encounter was to be with the "boss" of the fortress, whose cadre included a controller-type that they had encountered a few times before, and which had, in the past, lived up to its role very well.

The dice were running cold for the players, and the party of six struggled under the onslaught from the four enemies. It didn't help that the rechargeable powers that the NPCs had were recharging much more than probability says they should: the DM's d6s were hot, the players' d20s were not.

Things were looking grim for a while, and I was sure the party was doomed, but the tide turned, the boss took some heavy hits, and the controller fell. All but one Daily power was used, every Encounter power was used, and half the party had no healing surges left, but they had the boss worried enough that he fled via an escape route through which the rest of the party wisely declined to follow. Emboldened, the party worked to finish off the remaining foes. Until they heard the door in the hall slam open. Reinforcements had arrived, including another of the hated controllers that they had just dispatched.

At this point, I knew it was over. the party had only At-Will powers remaining, against a fresh group of enemies of the party's level. It would be slaughter. Or would it? The dice didn't really improve for the players, nor did they wane for me, the DM, yet... the party still stood. Damage was dealt out in both directions, saving throws were missed even more, yet the party still stood. The rest of the original NPCs were slain, then one of the new set -- and then the party finally had their first fatality (it would be impolite for me to point out that it was Griff's dragonborn hybrid, so I won't). Hitpoints kept falling, the few healing surges were dwindling, yet the party fought on, against all odds, using every idea and strategy that came to them, until it looked like there was a way to escape their doom, and the adventurers started to withdraw from the encounter. Then the boss returned.

It was over at this point. The party continued to withdraw, but one, two, then three more of the party were picked off while retreating. It looked like the remaining two would escape -- the rogue wisely split from the rest of the group to split the enemy's attention -- but he and the paladin were still under their cloud of bad luck, and fate (and their flying enemy) completed the slaughter. Some other party of adventurers would have to save the day.

But ... this blog is about 4e, not about adventure recaps. So why do you care? It's the second-last paragraph that matters: "the party had only At-Will powers remaining". At-will powers have always felt like the "I'll attack" from 3.5 combat, or as Griff puts it, "I've used up my spells; I'll pull out my crossbow" which was the 3.5 way that a sorcerer admitted he or she was now useless.

But when left with only at-will powers, the party showed that they were not useless, not automatically doomed. Whether it was the warlord's Wolf Pack Tactics, moving the party around strategically, or the cleric's Sacred Flame, trying to get extra saving throws rolled, these "useless" powers ... weren't that useless after all.

Of course, it wasn't enough. There was a point that I thought the party would defy all odds and finish this back-to-back pair of encounters on at-wills and no healing surges, with only one or two casualties. But as I mentioned, the dice were completely against the players, and it wasn't to be. But it was only because of (bad) luck, not the design of the characters, or 4e, that led to their end.

I have new respect for at-will powers, and will, on future characters, put a little more thought into their selection, thinking, "if I was in a party of characters whose players could only roll 3s and 4s on d20, with no healing surges and just my at-wills , what would I like to be stuck with?"

Saturday, October 10, 2009


I never did comment on Griff's previous post on the Githzerai, which is a bit odd, since they've been one of my favorite races/monsters for many years, ever since the Gith races appeared on the cover of the Fiend Folio. With the second Player's Handbook 3 debut article, the githzerai are reintroduced, and they're still as interesting as ever.

Quiet, terse and brooding? Check. Excessively austere? Check. A no-brainer as a monk (the one class that I always want to play, but never seem to)? Check. Racial history of oppression and rebellion? Check. What's not to love? Even the racial power, Iron Mind, is terrific, both representing the build of the race as well as providing a very useable, useful ability in combat.

The psychic/psionic links harken back to the original creature, as well as helping to fit even better with the 4e monk. I have to say, though, that while psionics have somewhat redeemed itself in Griff's eyes, to me, it's Just Another Power Source, becoming, in a sense, less unique than in previous editions of D&D.

The racial feats, as they do for many races, either modify or enhance the use of the racial power, which is something that I've really only noticed in passing, since I tend either play a race like human, which is lacking a racial power, or have so many plans for the feats in the character's build that I ignore/overlook what goodies might be available through my racial power. The githzerai's racial feats provide many interesting possibilities, which might actually be a problem, since the racial power itself is very nice as it is!

And after all that, I don't think I'd play a githzerai, nor allow one in a campaign I was running. The reason? Their alienness to the "regular" world. Sure, you can forgive one "odd" race once in a while, provided the rest of the party was "normal", and the githzerai took pains to hide his or her origin. Playing in a solo campaign would also work, with a background of outcast githzerai, travelling on the material plane looking for yadda yadda. And higher-level campaigns would also work, if they started in foreign planes, where the githzerai's appearance wouldn't be so odd. Okay, so I've provided a bunch of exceptions to my "no githzerai" rule, and they're all possibilities with my group, but I would be interested to see a 1st-level, non-planes-originating campaign containing a githzerai -- oh, unless the whole concept is "a party of misfit races in the regular world, trying to make a life, fulfilling their dreams, and avoiding further subjugation by mind flayers."

Skill Powers

Okay, let's see if I can remember how to do this blogging thing again. Having only played two D&D sessions in the last two months really has an effect on my D&D attention; I've not read an article for over a month, and feel so out of touch. I'm now making a concerted effort to keep active, even if our group doesn't, although now that snow has fallen, I think our usual summer distractions will soon be out of the way.

Last month's Dragon magazine had the third sneak peak into the Player's Handbook 3, regarding Skill Powers. In a nutshell, I think these are terrific. These provide powers whose prerequisites are based on your skill training, not on race or class. Long have I complained that every power in the game is chooseable by a single make of character, that there was no reuse of powers. If you wanted a fighter power, you had to be a fighter -- it wasn't going to appear in any other list.

But now, there CAN be some shared ability between otherwise very different characters. And since skills are an area where there can be some common ground between two different characters -- an acrobatic wizard or a diplomatic barbarian are both possible -- it perhaps makes a little more sense that it is in this area where commonality can occur. The stereotypically diplomatic classes (those with it available as a class skill) will seem appropriate if sharing the Cry For Mercy power, but if the party's fighter invests the time, he too should be able to exhibit some diplomatic prowess when needed.

But the ability to share powers across varied characters isn't the only attractive point about skill powers; the other is to make otherwise "worthless" skills useful. Now I'm sure I could start a debate with many people about whether this skill or that skill is "useless", and I assure you I could argue both sides. But these are some skills that, most will admit, are taken more for roleplay purposes -- "because she would have this skill" -- than for any utilitarian reason. D&D3.5 did the right thing by adding a lot of synergy bonuses to the worthless skills, and 4e did a better job by merging some and improving the others. And now that 4e has taken away the decision-making involved in ascribing ranks to skills, it was even easier to choose a few at character creation, and hope that those were the ones that needed Training in future skill challenges.

Now, with a new purpose to skills (if only to unlock access to these new skill powers), players might again put some thought into their skill choices beyond "I'm a paladin, I should probably take Diplomacy" or "the DM always drops us off of cliffs -- I'll take Acrobatics to be safe"; now the availability of skill powers might sway them to choices they'd otherwise avoid ("Religion? I'm no roleplaying paladin! Let the cleric worry about that."), or even better, might urge players to take the Skill Training feat, which I'm sure only sees use by roleplayers or heavily-themed builds.

Perhaps my favorite skill powers, I'll admit, are the at-will ones, which aren't many. Any time I look at "alternate" powers (racial or paragon/epic) to a class's regular set of powers, I always feel like I'm giving something up, losing something, instead of just swapping it. A bit irrational, I know, provided I'm happy with my choice. But this feeling doesn't occur if I'm gaining an at-will - and since skill powers are Utility powers, which generally aren't at-will, it feels like a gain if you can swap an at-will in. Two of my favorites are Agile Recovery (Acrobatics, Minor, "You stand up") and Fast Hands (Thievery, Free Action, "You draw or sheathe a weapon, pick up an item in your space or adjacent to it, or retrieve or stow an item"), both which can improve the effectiveness of your character in a very character-suitable way.