Actually Playing 4E

I know! Two posts in two days!

So, despite my resolve to wait until there were more options out there before starting a 4th Edition D&D game, I broke down and started a 4th Edition D&D game.

Those who know me are not surprised.

I wanted to get some practice running the game, get familiar with the rules and things, while I prepare the campaign I’m going to launch some time next year. This would give me a chance to build some proficiency with the new system, and get my head around what sorts of things a campaign needs that can be best modeled by the new rules.

Now, because I was coming in green, I wanted to use a pregenerated campaign, and Wizards of the Coast graciously provided their Scales of War adventure path. That made it easy. So, I sent out invites to eight gamers I know, hoping for four or five acceptances.

I got seven.

And then one of them asked if they could bring a friend. Back up to eight players.

Well, I decided, I wanted to see how much faster these rules were in play. This would give them a damned good stretching.

So how’s it going? First, some observations about the adventures.

  • They are (so far; we’re at #3 right now) fairly well-written. There are some nice encounters, and some interesting decisions to make.
  • There’s plenty of dungeon crawling going on. Too much? That’ll vary depending on your group, but it’s pushing the limits of my tolerance.
  • There are interesting little links, mainly using skill challenges, that break up the dungeon crawl monotony.
  • Starting especially in the second adventure, there’s plenty of opportunity for improvised little side adventures and extended roleplaying. Not so much in the first, which tends to drop you in the middle of the action and then give you a time-sensitive mission.
  • The editing on the second adventure is really sub-par, with missing labels being one of the more annoying aspects.

Now, as to playing the adventures:

  • After character generation, we had a tiefling warlock, a tiefling rogue, a dragonborn fighter, a dragonborn paladin, a human cleric, a human wizard, a half-elf ranger, and a half-elf fighter.
  • There are issues with running this large a group in any system. These were exacerbated in this game because none of us were overly familiar with the rules. Things dragged, no one got enough DM face time, and little timing misjudgements I made snowballed into huge problems.
  • Two players bowed out after the second session, saying that the group was just too large. They were right.
  • Six is much more manageable.
  • Leaving your rogue out front with no back-up in hostile territory will do bad things to the rogue.
  • Skill challenges have a lot of potential, but some practice is needed to run them as something more than a non-physical combat. Also, having skills that automatically grant failures seems designed to punish players for trying to stick to what their characters are good at. Skill challenges should encourage players to take risks, not devolve into a guessing game to see where the booby-trapped skills are.
  • Combat encounters still take a fair bit of time to run. Now, part of that is lack of experience with the system, and part of that is the fact that monsters have significantly more hit points on average, which makes the combats run a larger number of rounds.
  • The new system actively rewards you for co-operating in your party and playing to your strengths. After some shaky combats, the players started to see how to make their characters work together to support each other. The last fight of the last session was a complete slaughter of the monsters.
  • Adding Campaign Coins to the game has been fun.
  • Doing up customized cards for powers and magic items can greatly speed play. You can check out some templates here. Personally, I use the Power and Item Cards by JFJohnny5. Thanks, Johnny!
  • I got some Alea Tools magnetic markers to track bloodied, marked, and cursed conditions, but they were too attractive to each other, and wound up being more trouble than they were worth. Apparently, if you have a magnetically receptive play surface, they don’t push and pull your figures around nearly as much. I’ll have to see what I can find, but for now, I’m looking for a different way to handle this. Any suggestions are welcome.
  • Speaking of marked, I like what this condition is trying to do, which is make enemies attack someone who is very much a threat to them, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a less fiddly way of handling it. It can be a bit of a challenge to keep track of whom has been marked by who.
  • There has been some comment that combat seems very repetitive, because characters use the same powers over and over again. I find this confusing to me, because in 3.5, characters just used the same attacks over and over again, and the people complaining didn’t find that repetitive. Maybe this is an artifact of the low level limited number of powers; we’ll have to see how things change as the game progresses.

So, what’s the verdict? Among my players, it’s that 4E is a good system. It’s not the second coming, it won’t end world hunger, or bring about peace in the Middle East, but it works for what it sets out to do. Mostly, anyway. It’s easily as good as 3.5, and if there are places where it doesn’t quite measure up, there are also places where it outshines the former system significantly.

And my opinion? Well, let me put it this way. The adventure path I’m using is written for five characters. When I found out I was going to have eight, I went through and beefed up the encounters to be appropriate for that number of characters. The guidelines in the DMG on how to do this are very, very clear. The process is very simple. It took me under an hour to update over a dozen encounters, and that includes a couple where I had to increase the level of the monsters, rather than just add extras. When two players dropped out, it was even faster to adjust for that. And I’ve been getting faster with each adventure. This means I’m spending my prep time fleshing out background, making props and cards for treasure, updating power cards for the players, and reading the next adventure.

This, I like. This is what sells me on 4E.

Catching Up

Man, I have got to get on a more regular blogging schedule. Sorry for the neglect, folks.

Been a bit of a busy time round my place the past few weeks. Here’s what’s been going on:

Dresden Files RPG

Not a lot happening on this front. I’ve been lurking on the Burner list, and reading some blogs, and of course reading the new cut of the rules. The only real rules bit that’s come down so far has been the city creation stuff, and it’s pretty similar to the version we Bleeders saw. It’s nice to read the list and see that a lot of the Burners are having as much fun with it – and discovering as many cool things about it – as I did.

Mutant City Blues

I’ve had a few people say that they’re interested in trying this, but we’ve had scheduling issues. Summer is actually a pretty hard time to schedule games in our group. Especially pick-up games or one-shots. Many of the people I play with have kids out of school, and vacation trips, and all sorts of other things that come up in the summer. They’re willing to schedule around the regular, ongoing campaigns, but trying to shoehorn in a one-shot is difficult. Hopefully soon.

D&D 4E

I’m working on putting together a 4E campaign to start next year some time, probably after the Player’s Handbook II is released so that there are plenty of option for my players. However, people have been asking me to run a campaign – even a short one – and I wanted to try out the rules and get some familiarity with what works for me and what doesn’t. So, I started a campaign.

I sent out invites to eight people, hoping to get four. I got seven of the eight, plus one person asked to bring in a buddy. Yeah, I’m running with eight people. It’s a real crowd.

We’re using the Scales of War Adventure Path being published in Dungeon Magazine. We probably won’t finish it by the time I’m ready to start the new campaign, but it’ll give everyone a chance to have a taste of the system over a longer term than demos and one-shots. And I’ll get better at the game.

I’m not going to talk too much about the game – we’ve only had one session, and that was very combat heavy. What I do want to mention is the ease with which I was able to beef up the adventure to match my party. The adventure is written for five character; I have eight. It took me no more than an hour to go through and upgrade it to be a fair challenge for my larger party. Mostly, it just involved adding a few extra monsters, but I did have to add some traps/hazards, and I had to level up a solo monster to be a good challenge.

Under an hour. Sweet.

I also had to increase the treasure the way it talked about in the DMG; that took a little more guesswork, because the adventure had 14 treasure parcels to hand out, not the normal 10, so I had to increase the default numbers in the DMG to figure it out, but it was easy.

Anyway, it looks like it’s going to be fun.

The Dark Knight

Man. I love this movie. The performances, especially Heath Ledger’s Joker, are very good. The look is a little (well, a lot, really) brighter than Batman Begins, but there’s still the same sense of urban malaise that you need for Batman.

But the realy treat is the writing. The Nolans just get Batman. They get the rage and the obsession, which are easy, but they also get the hope and the diappointment, which are harder. Lots of times, they don’t come through.

But they do in this movie. You ache for Bruce Wayne fighting against the obsession that is overwhelming his life, all the while knowing that he has to give in to it if he wants to be able to live with himself. There are several moments throughout the movie where he reaches up to the light, hoping to leave the darkness behind, but, in the end, he always goes back to the darkness. He chooses to go back to the darkness. This is especially apparent in the last scene of the movie.

And the twisted, co-dependent relationship between Batman and the Joker is spot on. The Joker even sums it up at one point, saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “We’re going to keep doing this forever. You won’t kill me because, well, you don’t do that. And I won’t kill you because you’re too much fun!” There are also a number of “jokes” by the Joker that simply happen and don’t get commented on, like the burning fire truck and the sign on the side of the semi trailer during the Harvey Dent assassination attempt. I like that the Nolans trust the audience enough to get these jokes, without having to shine a spotlight on them.

All in all, a great movie. If you like Batman, go see it. Even if you don’t like Batman, this movie may change your mind.

The West Wing

After talking to Jane Brooks, of, at some length about Aaron Sorkin series, I started rewatching The West Wing. I’ve just finished the second season, which ends with one of my favourite episodes: Two Cathedrals. It’s a very powerful episode, with a lot of different threads coming together, and it ends with Jed Bartlet about to announce that he’s going to run for another term. The last eight or so minutes really stand out in my brain, because it’s set over the Dire Straits song, Brothers in Arms, and ends without Jed announcing that he has changed his mind and is going to run.

Another instance of Sorkin’s genius with storytelling, in my opinion. He often doesn’t show us the moment, because that would be anti-climactic. He shows us how you get to the moment, and then backs off to let us finish the job ourselves. He has the skill to lead us along with him, so that we know exactly where he’s going, and the trust to let us go the last distance on our own.

I love it.

GenCon Indy

My friend, Clint, and I are leaving very early tomorrow morning for the drive down to Indianapolis. We’re going to GenCon. Now, this isn’t something new for us – this will be our eighth trip down together, I think – but it looked for a while that I wasn’t going to get to make the trip. It worked out that I can, and I am almost as excited for this one as I was for the first one.

Anyway, I may be able to do some updates from GenCon, so check back. Of course, I may not be able to, so you might be disappointed. But I’ll try. And if any of you happen to be at the show, come on by Booth 1701, where I’ll be doing booth weasel duty for Pagan Publishing and Dagon Industries. I’ll be happy to say hello, and try and sell you some Cthulhu-related merchandise that you really don’t need, but really really want.

That’s about it for now. I promise not to take so long to post again.

D&D 4E – Mine At Last!

Last Friday I got my copies of D&D 4E from Imagine Games.  On Saturday, I ran several sessions of the Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day adventure, Into the Shadowhaunt. On Sunday, I rested and finished reading the rules.

First off, I want to thank Pedro and Wendy at Imagine Games for letting me run the demos at their store and taking such good care of me while I was there. It was a blast.

I also really want to thank everyone who came out to play. You folks really made it a fun experience; I hope you enjoyed it, too.

The adventure was pretty good – a nice collection of four encounters that ran about two hours and included combat, traps, and puzzle solving. The support from Wizards of the Coast was awesome! The box we got contained five copies of the adventure, five sets of dice, five poster maps for the encounters, five sets of player minis, five sets of monster minis, five sets of pregen characters, twenty-five giveaway d20s, and five sets of trivia and other games to play. With only me running demos, and only time to get four in on Saturday, we sent everyone who played home with their character sheet, mini, a free d20, and sometimes a few of the monster minis, as well.

Kudos to Wizards for a great launch package!

The one question I had was if anyone out there managed to see the other Game Day adventure, which is supposedly called Against the White Dragon? It’s mentioned in Shadowhaunt, and I’m curious as to whether it was sent out this time, or if it’s being used on the next Game Day. Anyone know?

Now, I’ve read the rules and I’ve run the demos. What can I say about 4E?

  • Overall, I like it.
  • The books are very nice. The mix of satin and gloss finish on the covers works well, they’re colourful and attractive, they seem very sturdy, and the interior art is fantastic. In particular, I liked the spread that opens the Skills chapter of the PHB, which shows you what facing a trap can feel like in 4E. I got the collection with the slipcase, and that seems a little sturdier than the 3.5 collection slipcase, but that could be my imagination.
  • Also layout and design. I don’t like fancy layouts; I like clean, easy to read, easy to use layouts that still look attractive without detracting from the content. That’s what we’ve got here.
  • In general, editing is pretty good. Can’t think of any errors I spotted off-hand.
  • I really like the way the information is divided between books. Everything a player needs is in the PHB, including magic item stats. The MM is just monsters. All the tools the DM needs are in the DMG.
  • I still love the way monsters work. I love the way the rules support the flavour of different monsters without huge, multi-page stat blocks. I love the way pretty much every creature has some neat little trick to use in combat.
  • Expanding on that, the section in the DMG for customizing monsters is very clear, very simple, and very easy. No more spending an hour applying a template and extra hit dice to create a custom monster. I figure 10-15 minutes, tops.
  • As with, I suspect, everyone who reads the book, I was somewhat nonplussed by some of the choices of monsters to include and omit in the MM. The ones that specifically made my brow wrinkle will be different from others, most likely, but that’s the danger in a new MM, right? Everyone’s going to be asking, “Why this and not that?” So, I’m writing that one off to personal preference.
  • Skill challenges. They rock. It looks like they’ll take a little longer to set up than combat encounters, at least until I get used to them, but I like the way they’re structured, and I like the flavour they have. The samples included in the DMG show off the wide variety of things you can use them for.
  • There are different ways to disable traps, beyond just throwing a rogue at them. They make sense, and they add to the excitement of any encounter that features a trap.
  • Combat flows. When you get into it, it flows very well. And quickly. It’s fluid and exciting, and everyone has interesting things to do on their turn.
  • I was worried about the roles; now, I am less so. In the demos, I had people who played to their roles, and they were very effective. I had people who didn’t, and they were very effective. The one real benefit of roles is that when all the roles are filled, and everyone plays to his or her role, the party is a juggernaut.
  • Rituals. I like ’em. That’s just personal taste, there; the mechanic is so compelling that I go, “This is great!” I just like the flavour and idea of them.

So, that’s a lot of positive stuff, and I haven’t addressed all of my concerns. Let’s talk about the unaddressed concerns, and then the one thing I’m less happy with.

First concern: Is it going to feel like a video game? Yes and no. There are some things that have been learned from the MMORPGs and incorporated into the game design. The idea of powers, for example, and the way some powers work. I’ve decided I have no problem with the implementation, because it lets me colour the effect enough to make sure it fits the feel of my game. And really, I have no problem with things being taken from other sources. It makes sense to look at other successful games, see what’s working for them, and see if those things can be adapted to your game without losing the core of what your game is. This is, I think, what Wizards has done with 4E, and I think the game is better for it. And if you run across something that feels a little too WoW for you, it’s easy to change the flavour.

Second concern: Can I build a light-weapon-using, agile fighter, or a wizard who whacks people with a sword? Yes, but not the way I expected. If I want to build my swashbuckling fighter, I don’t use the fighter class. I use the rogue class. I wind up with the exact type of character I wanted, but the name of the class is different. As for the sword-and-spell-wielding wizard, the multi-class feats make that pretty simple, too. You can build against class role within the class if you want, but you may find too many cool things drawing you toward the class’s stated role. I found that I was better off considering the role of my concept first, then picking the appropriate class based on power source. It takes a bit of rethinking, but I’m happy with the flexibility.

Now, for the one somewhat negative thing about the new system. Not enough choices right off the bat. Oh, I realize that this feeling is a product of the wide variety of options available over the life-cycle of 3.5, and I know that it’s going to get addressed in supplements, but I still feel that way. I want more powers for each level of the classes. I want more feats, more weapons, more rituals, more magic items, etc.

But what I really want are more classes. This is where I think the game is weakest.

See, there are eight classes. Four of them use the martial power source, two of them use the divine, and two of them use the arcane. There are two defenders (martial or divine), two leaders (martial or divine), three strikers (two martial, one arcane), and one controller (arcane).

Ideally, what I would have liked to see is character class using each power source in each role, so that there would be a martial, divine, and arcane defender, leader, striker, and controller. Twelve classes. Failing that (and I know that would have added at least forty pages to the book), why not two of each role? There’s only one controller option right now, and three strikers. Why not two of each?

Well, these are rhetorical questions now, and I’m sure they were discussed at length during the design and development process. I’m not saying that the choices are wrong, just that I want more. Call me greedy.

Anyway, overall, 4E gets a big thumbs-up from me. I’m just going to hold off starting a campaign until a few more options are available.

Demo Discussions

Next Saturday is Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day, the official launch of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. For the past two weekends, I’ve been spending my Saturdays at Imagine Games and Hobbies here in Winnipeg, running demos from Keep on the Shadowfell and answering what questions I can about the new system.

It’s been a lot of fun.

The more I run the new system, the more I like it. In the quick-start rules, anyway, it’s wonderfully clean and flows nicely. Situations are very easy to adjudicate, factoring in the various defenses and abilities. Low-level combat has a much more dynamic feeling than in 3.5, with lots of shifting for position and more movement overall. The lack of iterative attacks speeds things up immensely.

And the way monsters work is just beautiful.

The fact that kobolds have flavourful tactics and abilities that make them stand out from goblins, for example. Kobolds get to shift one square as a minor action instead of a move action. Good for bugging out of tight situations. They also get a +1 to attack rolls for every other kobold adjacent to the target. Great for mobbing folks. Together, it adds up to a fairly cowardly creature that will, nonetheless, swarm you like a ham on an anthill if they get the chance.

Goblins, on the other hand, get a free one-square shift every time someone misses them with a melee attack, giving them the feel of quick, agile little buggers who are constantly running around you to evade your attacks.

Minions also work nicely. They talk in detail about them here. You get to throw a whole fistful of monsters at the characters, have them be a real threat, but not overwhelm them. It was great last night to see the looks on the faces of the 3.5 players when I put 13 minis on the battlemap for one of the encounters.


Next Saturday I’m going to be back at Imagine for the last round of demos. This one is a little different, though; Wizards of the Coast sent out a big pack of free stuff for folks who come down to play. There’s a new adventure, new pregenerated characters, minis, dice, maps, the whole shebang. The adventure looks to be about a 2-hour run, so I figure start at 11:30, and see how many we can cram into one day. We’ve got enough stuff that I think everyone who comes to play will be able to take home their mini and a d20, at least. Maybe we can sweeten that a little.

The adventure, though short (four encounters), has a neat mix of things, and should give everyone a bit of a taste of the game. There are, in fact, two different fighters in the mix of pregens, with different builds that show the kind of variety you can get, which I found very interesting.

So, if you’re in Winnipeg next Saturday, come on down to Imagine Games and Hobbies, try the game, and take home some free stuff.

It’ll be fun. Promise.

Keep on the Shadowfell – After Play Musings

Last night I got together a few folks from my regular gaming group to run through the first few bits of Keep on the Shadowfell in preparation for running demos today. We had fun; the new system works nicely, the fights were pretty interesting, and people liked the things their characters could do. I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers, but some might creep in, so be warned.

The group numbered three, and the characters were the halfling rogue, the dragonborn paladin, and the tiefling warlord. We ran through the initial encounter, got the party to the village, and had them head out on a mission. I skipped the next encounter in the adventure, because it was very similar to the first one, and I wanted a chance to try out something more varied – we only had time for two encounters. That meant I encouraged the party to follow up the dragon grave plot thread, and they complied.

So, how did things go?

  • You seem to fight more monsters per encounter in this system – the designers have been saying that all along, but it’s nice to actually see it in action. I like this; it’s always seemed somewhat less-than-heroic to me to have a gang of four adventurers mobbing a single humanoid creature. Having the party outnumbered – both encounters featured eight creatures – appealed to me, thematically. And it made the players feel that their characters were more threatened.
  • The fights seemed to last about twice the number of rounds as in 3.5. This is just an impression based on what I saw in those two encounters, but the first fight, when everyone was still trying to figure out what their powers could do, ran 11 rounds, and the second fight, when everyone started working together in a tight, effective group, ran 8. I like this, too; it gives more time for both the heroes and the monsters to do more interesting things. Nothing worse than having a creature with a ton of neat abilities go down before it can use even a quarter of them.
  • In real time, the fights lasted about as long as in 3.5, with a little more time spent on the first one as people were getting used to what they could do. I think that, with practice and familiarity getting folks past the learning curve, fights will probably run half to three-quarters as long as in 3.5. I like this, too, because it means you can fit more into an evening of play.
  • There is a learning curve on the powers and the system. Never doubt it. But it’s not as steep as it might have been. By the second fight, the players were looking at different ways their powers could interact, and how to tactically support each other with them. Still, it’s going to take some time to completely leave behind 3.5 assumptions; people were slow to start using their healing surges, for example, and opportunity attacks work a little differently, and a stack of powers can be hard to sort through, when you come in cold.
  • The monsters are fun to run. Every one, right down the kobold minions, had a little something interesting and special that they could do that made fighting them different from fighting other things. And the things they could do were not terribly complex or tough to keep track of; just little things like kobolds being able to shift five feet as a minor action rather than as a move action, or the guard drakes being able to do more damage if they’ve got an ally nearby. It changed the flavour of the encounters nicely.
  • The battlemaps with the adventure are very nice. I understand that some are recycled from other products, but they still make nice additions, and the fact that you get three double-sided ones in the adventure is particularly nice.
  • The tactics of battle seem at least as deep, rich, and varied as in 3.5, but they are different. The three flavours of action resources, the different kinds of movement, the ability to use powers to move your opponents or allies, the way combat modifiers work, the way different powers interact – it all lends itself to fun tactical play in combat, but you have different tools, and different effects than in 3.5. Again, there’s going to be a learning curve.
  • Tactically, the fights had more shifting and jockeying for advantageous position and less stick-and-hit than 3.5. Most of the moves were small, creating a sort of revolving, swirling kind of scrum where the paladin anchored the enemy, the warlord backed him up and supported him, and the rogue looked for the best spot to dole out the pain. This may change at higher levels or in different set-ups (both encounters had natural choke-points that the characters rushed to hold), but that’s the way it was in our test.
  • With the emphasis on character roles, there are some real shifts from 3.5 in the basic assumptions. The rogue was consistently doing the most damage, not the bigger, burlier dragonborn paladin, for example. Again, I’m a little concerned that the roles may be more restricting than I like on the various classes – can I build a fighter that concentrates more on dishing out damage than on soaking it up? Can I build a utility wizard, with more non-combat powers and less “blow stuff up” emphasis? Basically, can I build a class against role and still come up with a viable, playable character? I really hope so; if the roles are too restricted, I can see it producing a glut of core classes, each of which varies just a little, to allow players to create their ideal – very similar to the prestige class glut of 3.0/3.5. I don’t want to see that happen, mainly for aesthetic reasons. It appeals to my sense of elegant design to have fewer, more customizable classes than many very specific classes.
  • And, just as in any dice-based game, nothing can save you if you can’t roll for crap. This afflicted one of the players and two of the most threatening (on paper) monsters in the game last night, and brings home the old adage, “Systems come and systems go, but a crappy roll is a crappy roll.”

There were a lot of questions that came up during play that we couldn’t answer with the quick-start rules. Things like delaying or holding actions, the details of which dice get maximized in the case of a critical and which don’t, the cost of items, options for fighting defensively or all-out defense, etc. Of course, we all assume that this will be covered in the main rules, but the adventure did a good job of making us want the books now, now, NOW!

The acid test? One of the players is very new to gaming – she started in my Dresden Files RPG playtest, carried on in my Brockford House CoC one-shot, and now this 4th Edition teaser. She picked up the basics quickly, had fun, and wants to play again.

Seems like a positive sign to me.

Keep on the Shadowfell – First Impressions

I’ve read through Keep on the Shadowfell now, and I want to talk a little about it. I’m going to do my best to avoid any spoilers, so this should be safe for everyone to read.

Overall, I think it’s a pretty good introductory adventure. It seems to cover pretty much everything I wanted to see, though combat gets the spotlight.

Physically, it’s a nice package, reminiscent of The Shattered Gates of Slaughterguard – you get a cardboard cover/folio, with two booklets and three double-sided poster battle maps. One booklet has the quick-start rules for players and five pregenerated characters, while the other has quick-start rules for DMs and the adventure itself.

Interestingly, Fiery Dragon has released a free download of counters for all the characters and monsters in the adventure. You can get it here.

The paper of the booklets is a little flimsy, being light-weight glossy paper of the sort you find in magazines. After a single reading, both of my booklets are already looking rather worn.

So, what’s in the adventure?

  • Background and synopsis.
  • Three potential hooks, two with alternate takes, and all with quest rewards.
  • A fight to kick things off.
  • An overview of the village of Winterhaven, with lots of information and opportunity to interact with the inhabitants.
  • A few more fights, not directly tied to the Keep, but good practice and providing some clues and links.
  • More information and conversation in Winterhaven.
  • The Keep itself, with backstory, overview, maps, and nineteen encounters, counting one interlude back in Winterhaven. These encounters include:
    • 18 combats
    • 7 traps and other hazards
    • 2 potential interaction
    • 2 puzzles
  • Several bits of DM advice scattered throughout on pacing, playing NPCs improvising, and other important skills.

The encounters use a slightly modified format based on what we were seeing in adventures nearing the end of the 3.5 run. Each encounter gets its own two-page (sometimes three-page) spread, with the level, XP award, setup, read-aloud text (including special text for succeeding at certain skills, usually Perception), monster stat blocks, description of area features (including treasure and how to use the furniture to make an interesting fight), tactics, and a small map showing the layout and initial monster placement. It’s all very clear and easy to use.

The stat blocks are nice. The longest one in the game (a level 8 elite controller) takes up a little over half a column on a two-column page, and that covers everything. All the attacks, all the defenses, all the powers, all the rules, everything. I could print it out on a 3×5 index card with about a 6-point font, and fit it on one side. It would be a little small, but it would fit.

Every encounter has something interesting going on in it, whether it’s tactically, or terrain-based, or another hazard thrown into the mix, or whatever. The encounter areas are larger than we’re used to in 3.5, often encompassing multiple rooms, and there seems to be plenty of excuses to move around that area, as opposed to stick and hit. The mix of hazards into the combats looks to make for some particularly interesting fights.

Not only that, but the numbers and mixes of monsters makes things look far more interesting than in low-level 3.5 adventures. There are a few encounters where the monsters number over a dozen, usually mixed between 3 or 4 different kinds. It allows the DM to get into the fun of different tactics for the different types of creature.

There is one encounter that really shows off the interaction rules that I’ve been wanting to see for so long, and they look nice. They’re obviously pared down and simplified in this adventure, based on the excerpt that was posted online, but it still makes it nice and clear, and it looks like fun.

Same thing with the traps. One encounter is essentially a deathtrap room, and it’s no longer just sitting around waiting for the rogue to disable device. Everyone gets into the mix.

One of the things I was worried about was that the vaunted simplification for the DM would lead to a dumbing down of creatures, and I am pleased to say that this doesn’t seem to be the case. Things just get a lot more focused. For example, the main villain in the piece is a spellcaster. He doesn’t have a list of ten or fifteen spells that he can cast (but probably won’t have time to) – he’s got a list of 5 powers, including his basic melee and ranged attacks, that each have a specific flavour and effect that can be summed up in no more than three lines. Yet the fight will feel like battling a powerful spellcaster.

There are a few problems with the adventure, though:

  • The stats for some of the monsters make reference to the “grabbed” condition, but this is not explained in the quick-start rules.
  • A few of the labels on the encounter maps for the monsters use the wrong letter to indicates some of the monsters. This is only in about 3 situations, and it’s easy to correct.
  • It makes me even more anxious to get my hands on the actual books.

The first two problems are proof of my maxim as a technical writer and editor: “Everything always needs another editing pass.”

The last is just my own problem, and it should be relieved in the early days of June.

This adventure has gone a long way to assuaging some of my doubts about 4th Edition. I’m going to be running demos at Imagine Games and Hobbies here in Winnipeg over the next three Saturdays, so come on down and check it out for yourself.

D&D 4th Edition Demos

Check out this link.

So, yeah, I’m going to be doing D&D 4E demos at Imagine Games and Hobbies over the next three Saturdays. For the first two, I’m going to be running excerpts from Keep on the Shadowfell, the first 4th Edition adventure, which goes on sale Tuesday, May 20. The adventure comes with a quick-start rulebook and pregenerated characters, which is what I’m going to be using. Two demos a day, as long as I get players; first one starts at 1:00 pm, second one starts around 5:00 pm. On Worldwide D&D Day, Saturday, June 7, I’ll be at the store all day, running demos out of whatever launch package they send Pedro. If you’re in Winnipeg, and you’re interested in giving the game a try, come on down and play with me.

Okay, the plug’s done. Now I want to talk about what I know about 4E, and what I think about it.

First off, I want to stress that all the information I have is coming from that immense mixed blessing, The Internet. When I was down at Imagine today, I got to look at the sealed Keep on the Shadowfell, but that’s it. It’s not on sale until Tuesday, and I have no special access.

But there’s been a lot of stuff written about the new game coming, and I’ve been doing my level best to read it all. Sites that have been really valuable for insight:

  • Wizards of the Coast has been posting regular updates and teasers and art previews for some time now.
  • ENWorld, which was born in the rumblings before 3E, has once again become the place to check for news on the newest edition of D&D.
  • The Chatty DM, who stops by this site every now and then, has posted an extensive review of Keep on the Shadowfell.
  • Some months back, Ain’t It Cool News posted a three-part review from one of the playtesters, but I can’t seem to find it now.


The point I’m making is that I really don’t know any more than anyone else about the game, and less than many. So why am I talking about it?

Because my hopes are high. And they’re high for specific reasons.

Unfortunately, I also have some serious reservations. And again, they’re very specific.

Let’s talk about why I’m pumped, first, then we’ll talk about why I’m worried.

The changes I’ve been reading about in the stuff that’s been posted online has shown me that the new game seems to be hewing close to one of my personal design goals when I build games – just enough complexity to make the game fun, and no more. For every new system I add to a game, for every time I come up with an idea that means a die roll, I try to ask myself, “Does this add to the fun?” If the answer is no or, worse still, that it detracts from the fun, I toss the system and start again.

It took me a long time to learn that lesson, and now that I have, I cling to it with both hands and all of my heart. Make sure that every time a player picks up a die, it’s adding to the fun. Make sure that players are excited to roll a die, not just going through the motions.

You can’t always achieve that, of course. The world’s not perfect. You need some complexity to make the game able to simulate what you want it simulating. But the complexity should serve the game, not the simulation.

And this seems to be the view taken by the designers and developers of 4E. In a lot of the interviews, they talk about how the game moves faster, especially in combat, while the characters all have interesting choices to make every turn. Some of the pregenerated characters and monsters have been posted on the Wizards site, and it looks like they’ve been paring away excessive complexity to focus on the fun stuff. That’s my kind of design.

They also talk a lot about how much easier it is for DMs to design and run adventures. Now, I generally spend about 30 minutes prep time for every hour of play in campaigns I run. One of the designers talked in an interview about how he never spends more than 30-40 minutes putting together a full evening of gaming. They say it’s much easier to build encounters, to adjust monster stats, to set up skill challenges, to create treasure, all the mechanical stuff. That leaves more time to building story, description, NPC quirks, building props and hand-outs, and all the other fun stuff.

The designers also say that it’s far easier to run the game. Looking at the monster stat blocks that have hit the Web, I’m starting to believe it. The one that really swayed me was the Pit Fiend stat block they posted. Instead of a laundry-list of special abilities, most of which never get used in combat, there are a set of powers that look like they work well together and a set of tactics to show you how to use them.

I just finished running a high-level D&D 3.5 campaign. This is so much nicer than the high-level threats I had to keep track of there, without losing flavour.

I mentioned skill challenges a couple paragraphs back. The new game integrates a system for handling non-combat challenges that rely on the characters’ skills, but don’t come down to single die rolls or rely on only one skill. They talk about it here, and it sounds pretty good to me.

They’ve also done a lot to try and address that age-old bane of verisimilitude, the 20-minute adventuring day. You know: the party gets up, heads out, gets into two fights, and has to rest for another eight hours to heal and regain spells. Well, they’re doing a number of things to deal with that, and I hope it solves the problem.

So, that’s what’s got me hoping.

Now, here’s what’s got me scared.

First, Wizards has obviously taken a long, hard look at the MMORPG phenomenon, and wants to grab a chunk of that market to play 4E. They’re emphasizing party roles, handing out more video-game-style powers, reworking some sacred cows like random hit points, and so on.

There’s a reason I don’t play MMORPGs. Actually, there are several, but stay with me.

I like the way D&D has traditionally done some things, and I don’t like the way a lot of MMORPGs seem to do things. I don’t want to play a table-top version of World of Warcraft.

Let’s talk roles, first of all. D&D has always been a class-based system, so roles have been an intrinsic part of it since the beginning. What I’m worried about now is the emphasis on the roles, and whether that leaves room for a graceful, elegant fighter or a wizard who likes to mix it up with a sword. I want it to, but I’m not sure it does.

As for the powers, a lot of it is going to depend on the jazz that goes with it. We’ve seen powers where a Paladin hits a foe and heals an enemy – how is that explained? What’s the logic behind it? Can you justify it in the game world without resorting to MMORPG terms? I hope so.

Y’know, really what it comes down to is that I really want to like this game, but there have been some big promises made and I don’t know if it will live up to them. I like the things they say they’re changing, but will I like the way they change them? When Mongoose released the new RuneQuest, I was so pumped. I figured that if they could deliver on even half the things they were promising, they’d be golden.

I don’t even want to get into how disappointed I was with the game once we playtested it.

I just really don’t want that to happen again. I’m leery of getting my hopes up to high.

But I can’t help it. I’m just really looking forward to the release, to trying it out, and to playing it regularly. After all, I was a real nay-sayer when they announced 3E, but it won me over big-time. They did it once; I’m sure they can do it again.


Anyway, to get back to the point, demos at Imagine for the next three Saturdays. Come down and try the game out with me. It’ll be fun.

In the meantime, I’ve got this idea for a 4E campaign – The Phoenix Covenant. Maybe I’ll talk a little about it next time.