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?"


Mike Karkabe-Olson said...

Yes, it is definitely crucial to pick the best at-wills possible for a particular PC... and for the party as a whole. At-wills, in fact, require as much thought, perhaps more thought, than what goes into picking daily and encounter powers... simply for the fact that they are used so often. A daily (at least in our group) usually gets used rarely (when a PC and/or party are in desperate straights) and the encounter powers generally are used right away then the PCs are forced to fall back on the at-wills. So the little advantages found in the various at-will powers can actually add up to having a huge importance in most fights. Good to see that you've also come to realize this. Game on!

Anonymous said...

I competely agree with MKO above.
One of the advantages of the Human race is an extra at-will, and only at the high Paragon Tier does it decline as a distinct advantage.
A Human Staff Wizard I played for a few sessions was extremely effective (at 1st and 2nd level) with just Thunderwave, Cloud of Daggers and Scorching Burst (pre-Arcane power). During one combat, I blocked off an entrance with Cloud of Daggers - effectively prevented the minion reinforcements from entering the combat for a couple of rounds. Thunderwave was great for repositioning the enemies within the two defender's reach after they'd broken ranks, and Scorching Burst for when the defensive line held the enemies at bay.
At Epic level, the at-wills come in handy again, since they now do 2 dice damage. Some at-wills will certainly be retrained, but an at-will forced-movement or free save or shift is great for all levels of play.
One of our fighters in that game was an Eladrin with Eladrin Soldier, a Greatspear and Polearm Momentum. Using Footwork Lure, he could essentially drag an opponent 2 squares, do lots of damage, and knock them prone. That's at-will. It made him a melee controller.
At higher levels, with the right build, a Dragonborn can do something similar and with Draconic Arrogance, adding extra damage every time he pushes or knocks an enemy prone.

There's even a melee-warlock build using Eldritch Strike and a certain weapon that adds it's enhancement bonus to slides, which also works similarly.

At-wills are very important.

Terry said...

I don't know about this, I see it in the other sense. Your one comment kind of surprised me because after my one primary experience with 4e (a little 1, lots of 2, lots of 2.5 (skills and powers), some 3.0 and lots of 3.5 experience) I'm not sure how you can "use up all your healing surges."

In case you couldn't guess, I was the party healer. (Cleric, skills with Heal for everything.) From the looks of things, each character has one second wind per encounter (or the healer can do a heal check to allow the second wind) but can't do both, since the heal check uses the second wind.

Beacon of hope was nice because it gave 5 hp, plus any healing afterward was +5, BUT it was a daily, so probably isn't used early in the contest.

Twice per encounter, I could use Healing Word (uses surge, +1d6+4 in my case). Once per encounter, Healing Strike uses 1 surge. Also, once per encounter I could do Healer's Mercy, although it weakens me but does use one surge for each bloodied character.

Beyond that, my at-wills (assuming I could hit which definitely wasn't 100%) would add 2-4 points of healing.

So, each character in the encounter can second wind, or if I can get close, I can give it to them, so 1 surge per characters. Healing word gives 2 additional, one for Healer's Strike and an unknown (but probably not nearly all) for Healer's Mercy. The at-will stuff generally seemed to heal 3 or give 4 temporary hit points.

Now, I'm used to a Healer (from Miniatures Handbook in 3.5) and even at first level, it sure seemed like I could heal a whole lot better than that! Twice, we can VERY close to a TPK, once with a single character left, once with 3 on their last legs. (Party of 5.) My healing just couldn't keep up with the damage the monsters could generate!

Seemed like my Healing Words were gone early (to keep the fighter-types standing) with the rest falling much too quickly too. Assuming I stayed standing (I was down in both potential TPKs), the 2-4 points that I could help a fighter wasn't a dent in what they were losing...

Did your players just use all the healing surges between battles? With the maximum of 2 generally allowed with one character with the cleric, I don't see how they could use them up any other way...