Dateline – Storm Point

We did a bit of character adjustment for the latest session of Storm Point. One of my players is on an extended hiatus, due to real-life demands that take precedence over gaming. While we thought that he might be able to drop in on an occasional session, we kept his character active, played by one of the other players. This was primarily so that, if he managed to make it out to a game, we wouldn’t strain credulity too much by having his character join the group*.

The downside of this is that there is always one person playing two characters, which can get burdensome.

So, before the party headed off on the latest adventure, the players and I had a talk, and decided that Milo was going to sit this one out. When his player comes back, he’ll rejoin with experience equal to the rest of the party, but this alleviates the two-character burden somewhat.

Anyway, my goal this session was to resolve the storyline with the ambassador, get the party the information they needed to pursue the shadar-kai angle they were looking into, and get them on the road to the site where the various humanoid tribes in the region meet every full moon to conduct some sort of ritual.

So, we opened with them talking about what to do about the ambassador and his latest attack. Taking their story to the authorities narrowly won out over storming the embassy and burning it to the ground.

They really hate the ambassador, it seems.

Not wanting to draw this out interminably, I decided that the ambassador was making enemies in other places, too, as he was a snobbish, arrogant, incompetent aristocrat, which doesn’t go over too well among the rough-and-ready frontier folk of Storm Point. The Captain of the Guard listened to the party’s complaint, told them that the man was on thin ice already with the mayor and council, and that the fact that he used fire magic in his latest attack in the largely wooden town should push things over the tipping point. He took the fragments of the magical device that had summoned the hellhounds and fire bats to the Wizard**, who charged the town a lot of money and then performed the necessary rituals to confirm that the device had indeed been used by the ambassador.

And so the ambassador was declared persona non grata and given 24 hours to leave town. He couldn’t take embassy personnel, and his private guards had been contracted only for local duty, so he was forced to take passage with a caravan heading back in the right direction. Our heroes watched him get the news, and scurry around trying to find a more luxurious way to travel, with big smug smiles on their faces.

They even wanted to hire on as caravan guards with the caravan the ambassador had joined, just to mess with him all the way home.

They really hate the ambassador.

I dissuaded them from doing that, basically by saying, “You want to what? What happened to wanting to find out about the shadar-kai? It’s not like I’ve got anything prepped for a caravan guard adventure!” They relented, rather than make me sulk.

Because when I sulk, I kill PCs.

So, instead of haring off after the ambassador, they went and had tea with his clerk, whom they quite liked. Said clerk delivered to them the information about an eladrin ruin in the Trembling Wood where various tribes of orcs and goblins met every new moon to do something that probably didn’t bode well for Storm Point.

They latched onto this adventure thread, and headed off into the wilds. As it got near evening, they were attacked by a goblin patrol that actually managed to put a bit of a scare into them when the inimitable Thrun the Anvil wound up dazed and prone, surrouned by a bugbear, a hobgoblin commander, and a dire wolf.

Yeah, it was a random encounter, essentially. I did up four or five encounters for along the road, and roll each half-day to see if they run into one. So, sort of mid-way between a set encounter and a random encounter. The encounter itself is set and statted, but the occurrence was random. It’s not a new idea, but I’ve been avoiding random occurrences in the 4E games because it makes it harder to see how many encounters occur before the characters level. For this game, I’m leaning away from that, designing it in the way I used to do, and trusting in the ease of customizing the encounters to level them up if necessary. Also, I’ve divided the level’s treasure into parcels and hand it out as seems appropriate at the time, rather than actually assigning it to an encounter in advance. That way, I can keep things a little more fluid and adaptive.

Anyway, that was Sunday’s game. The next game should see them to the adventure site, and then we’ll see what kinds of answers they get to their shadar-kai questions.

*”Hey, look! Milo somehow made it past the gauntlet of traps and the orc tribe to join us on our adventure!”

**I was stuck for a name, so I decided that this is the only name he uses, in order to protect his true name from enemies and rivals.

Dateline – Storm Point

It’s been a while since I posted anything. I blame the flu that’s still hanging on nearly two weeks later.

This past session of Storm Point, I wanted to try something a little different with the group. I wanted to give them a session where the optimal solution to their problems was not combat. Now, this can be a bit of a risk, because this group likes fighting. And bullying. And intimidation. And just generally being jerks.

But sometimes it shades a bit too close to them being an evil party, with the underlying assumption that they can do whatever they want because they’re tougher than anyone else around them*. So, I wanted to capitalize on one of their suggestions in the previous session, which was that they wanted to turn the captive eladrin who had attacked them over to the town watch and press charges of brigandry. For that to be effective, though, they would have to behave, at least for one session, less like brigands than the people they had accused.

The catch is that there still had to be interesting things for them to do, and challenges for them to overcome. I thought about setting things up as a skill challenge, but I wanted things to revolve more around their choices than around dice rolls. And yet I still wanted to give them an experience award for handling things in a non-violent manner.

So, I did what any GM worth his salt does when the rules don’t quite do what we need them to. I made stuff up.

Basically, what I did was set an experience point value for the various challenges based on the party level and the importance of the scene to the ongoing story. Then I planted a few moments in each scene where the party got to make decisions about how to react to something, how to proceed, etc. Combat was an option at pretty much every one of these moments of choice, so I built encounters based on the experience point value of the scene to spring on the characters if they chose to go for their swords. I also worked out the probable consequences of starting a fight in terms of the broader story and the situation in town.

So, for example, they got a letter from the head of the halfling clans in Rivertown, asking for a meeting to arrange a cessation of hostilities. The meet was set at a halfling tavern near the waterfront, and they were warned in advance that Granny Magda, the head of the clans, was going to have a number of guards with her, and that the party was welcome to come armed, as well. The discussion determined that the heroes had no plans to continue their vendetta against the halflings now that Jemmy Fish and his goblin connection were out of business, and that they had no interest in involving themselves in any of the “untaxed businesses” that the clans ran. They parted on relatively good terms, and earned a nice experience reward. There were a couple of moments where they could have reacted badly and started a fight with Granny and her boys, but they managed to control their tempers and not be complete dinks, so I didn’t have to trot out the stats for the fight, along with all the little surprises that were hidden under the floor of the tavern.

Using set-ups like that, we ran through settling the halfling feud, the trial and escape of the eladrin, and some arms-length dealing with the ambassador of the Empire Reborn, all without combat. But the ambassador is an even bigger jerk than the party**, and decided to make one last attempt to take them out using some summoned firebats and hellhounds. After the first round of the fight, I was worried that I had made things too tough*** – the auras of the hellhounds and the fiery swoop ability of the firebats dropped the dragonborn rogue on the first round, and bloodied both the sword mage and the fighter. But the group pulled things together, and won, though it was a tougher fight than I had anticipated, thanks to the stacking of the auras and the ongoing fire damage from the bats.

N0w they’ve got a real mad on for the ambassador, but don’t know what to do about it, because he’s got extralegal status in Storm Point, and has also hired a few local dragonborn mercenaries for personal protection.

I’m interested in seeing what they come up with.

*This is not actually the case, but they haven’t gone up against anyone tougher yet.

**Hard to imagine, but there it is.

***Three firebats and two hellhounds, 1200 xp, a level 5 encounter for 6 PCs. My group is level 4, but were fresh, so I expected the fight to be pretty easy for them.

Dateline – Storm Point

Not a lot happened in yesterday’s game – it dealt with the trip from the last adventure site back to Storm Point. Still, I got to apply some real pressure to the group, and I think they’re starting to realize that they aren’t invulnerable.

After the previous session, they had decided that they wanted to follow up on the whole “shadar-kai forming an alliance with the local goblins” angle. Unfortunately, they don’t have much of a clue as to how to do that – they haven’t found any real loose ends to start pulling at. So, Erik suggests that they go and see if the ambassador from the Empire Reborn has any information.

Now, the ambassador is a bit of a throw-away NPC that’s taking on a new significance in the game. He entered the game world by way of a little cut scene* I wrote, and then got used in a piece of player fiction**, which sort of established his character and role – a rather incompetent coward who is trying to use the adventurers to advance the plans of the Empire Reborn. He’s not good at it, but his clerk seems to be…

Anyway, after dropping a hint that they thought the Empire Reborn was in league with the shadar-kai, the heroes are hoping that the Empire Reborn will have done some digging into the situation, the results of which they can now intimidate out of the ambassador.

A plan so cunning it deserves its own Blackadder quote.

Despite their planning, they didn’t get to try anything. Still battered and worn down by cleaning out the goblin lair, they decided to make the three-hour journey back to Storm Point so they could sleep in beds. And, of course, predictable bastard that I am, I attacked them.

I used two griffons and two eladrin fey knights****, with the idea of one or two round attacks, in a hit-and-run pattern, harrying the heroes back to town.

First of all, the charging griffons and their riders hit like a ton of bricks. Man. Massive damage on the first round. And then they fight for a couple of rounds, and take off again. Good plan.

And, of course, the party decided they didn’t like the idea of running back to town, fighting off the griffon attacks as they ran low of healing surges. And Thrun, the dwarven fighter who is the primary defender, was right out of healing surges. Given that, they decided to find a place to hole up for a long rest before continuing back to town. Some pretty amazing Nature, Perception, and Stealth rolls got them a cave with a spring in it, under an overhang, with the cave mouth screened by bushes.

They set watches and took a long rest. During that time, the fey knights managed to find where their prey had gone to ground, and set up in ambush just outside.

This fight went a little more in favour of the party, mainly because they were at full strength, with all their dailies and healing surges. And they used most of them. Four 7th level creatures are a tough fight for six 3rd level characters. Still, in the end, they managed to put the griffons down and render the eladrin unconscious. A couple of judicious History rolls have turned up a tie to the Empire Reborn – the fallen Empire of Nerath used to have a unit of griffon-mounted eladrin air cavalry, called the 2nd Imperial Airborne, also known as The Immortals.

With their captives and the new information, they think they have enough to bring the law to bear on the ambassador. So, they’ve returned to town, turned the eladrin over to the local Watch, and went to get a good meal and some rest.

I’ve got some interesting ideas about where things go next.

*From time to time, about once an adventure, I post to our game forum a short piece of fiction that I call a cut scene. This is usually from the point of view of outsiders, commenting on what the adventurers are doing, and how it relates to them. It’s a way of providing a little more context and throughline for the game narrative.

**This bit of fiction was a sort of response to my cut scene and the events in the game. In it, the party confronted the (rather cowardly and incompetent) ambassador in his office, and threatened him*** for his part in the squad of Empire Reborn armsmen that tried to steal the goblin map from them. They also mentioned the shadar-kai, implying that they thought the ambassador was involved in that, too.

***Y’know, these heroes are kinda dicks.

****1200 xp, a level 5 encounter for 6 characters.

Dateline – Storm Point

Well, last night finished off the current adventure for the party in Storm Point. They made their way down to the last two big set-piece fights, and killed the baddies.

I stole the last two encounters from H1: Keep on the Shadowfell, changing a few details of the monsters to make them fit the current storyline of the game. This is remarkably easy, as I was able to keep most of the cool mechanics of the main characters’ powers, but changed the jazz a little to reflect a dedication to Vecna instead of Orcus. I also swapped out some of the monsters, trading the pair of human berserkers for a pair of bugbear warriors and the Orcus priest for a Shadar-Kai witch. That meant I had to drop one of the vampire spawn to keep the encounter in the right xp range I wanted, but still very easy to do.

I used the first encounter to deal with a concern I sometimes have with the heroes going to fight a tribe of humanoids: when they get to the lair/village/stronghold, what do they do with the non-combatants? What do they do with the goblin women and children in this case? Do they let them live, or do they slaughter them all like genocidal lunatics? Sell them into slavery?

Now, in some games, this can be very interesting roleplaying ground to explore – what are the heroes willing to do? Where do they draw the lines? How do the handle the aftermath of whatever choice they make?

This group, not so much. We play, in this game, pretty much a beer-and-pretzels game, focusing on the fun, cinematic aspects of the game, not on the introspective soul-searching. And I’m fine with that. I’ve got other games where I can explore questions like that.

But I dislike just ignoring inconvenient practicalities. So, I decided that the best thing was to take the choice out of their hand, and have the Shadar-Kai witch and the scion of Vecna sacrifice all the non-combatants in the ritual to open the portal in the temple. This did two things: one, it eliminated the non-combatants without forcing the heroes to make a choice that I don’t think was warranted in the game, and two, it showed that the bad guys were really bad.

Everyone was running short on healing surges by this time, and several had already used their daily powers, so these two big boss fights were pretty challenging. The Shadar-Kai witch’s aura power turned out to be pretty useful for me and frustrating for the party, and the toughness of the bugbears made them very good meat-shields*. The deathlock wight on the lower level didn’t even get a shot off, because everyone decided it was the best initial target. The scion of Vecna and the thing in the portal that he was summoning gave everyone a run for their money, what with the 3-square threatening reach of the thing and its ability to drag people toward the portal and heal the scion. And the skeletons were surprisingly resilient and hit pretty hard.

It was a good couple of fights, and everyone got to do something cool, which made me happy.

It also got a couple of the players trying to figure out what the connection was between the Shadar-Kai, the halflings, the goblins, and the black dragon from the first adventure. It looks like there’s a bit of a direction manifesting in the campaign**.


*One got lightning-lured into the open pit down to the next level in the first round of combat, and everyone grinned at how clever they were. Until he climbed back up a couple of rounds later and ganged up on the rogue with his buddy, putting him down in a single round.

**In most campaigns, I plot out an overarching story. In this one, I didn’t because the players wanted somethng a little more episodic, with more freedom of choice. So, I’ve built a number of different threads and starting points into the game, and I elaborate on the ones that the players pick up and pursue. This allows them to have more control over their choices and options in the game, while still building in some ongoing mystery and narrative direction. But it’s player directed instead of GM directed, which I think is important.

Dateline – Storm Point

This week’s game was a little different – normally, we play at Imagine Games on Sunday evenings after the store closes at 5:00. However, this week Pedro (the owner and one of my players) was unavailable, so we decided to play at my place, and to start a little earlier. This meant we were able to jam in three pretty action-packed encounters.

After everyone got settled, we picked up where we had left off last time: just outside (with a few just inside) the entry to the crashed Bael Turath floating watchtower full of goblins. One of the sentries up on the canyon walls had escaped the slaughter, so the party knew they were on a clock. Instead of just bulling on through the main entry most of the goblins had used, they decided to climb the canyon walls and try to find where the scarpered sniper had run to, assuming that there was a less obvious entry up there.

I hadn’t prepared anything for that, but it was easy enough to let them try and climb the cliff wall* and then scout the area up top for a back door. Of course, there was one – an narrow tunnel obscured by gooseberry bushes, and trapped with a collapsing ceiling**.  Getting past these obstacles let them come in on the goblins from behind***.

So, instead of walking into the killing ground of the ambush the goblins had set up, they popped out of the door at the other end of the room, twenty empty feet away from the chieftain and his entourage, with a surprise round working for them instead of against them.

The poor chieftain was dead before his first turn.

The sharpshooters gave the gang some problems, and the skullcleaver ability to do double damage when bloodied came as a nasty surprise, but the real goblin hero of the fight was a minion who was obviously looking for promotion. With some good luck and goblin tactics, he got up behind the party, and managed to bull-rush the cleric right off the ten-foot-high platform****.

Despite the little guy’s best efforts, all the goblins died. I have decided that he has pleased Bane, and will be reincarnated as a warrior or blackblade.

So, after killing the goblins and looting their stuff, they set off deeper into the tower to get to the bottom of the whole goblin-halfling-black dragon coalition they’ve seen developing.

I’ve started doing something kind of different with dungeons in this campaign. In our last campaign, pretty much everything was an extended dungeon crawl, with people trying to remember where they’ve been, figure out where they need to go next, and decide which branch to take at every intersection*****. While this gave a bit of the feel of exploring ancient ruins and confusing, twisting caverns, what it mostly did was eat up time with decisions that had minimal impact on actual play. About the biggest result making decisions in a fully mapped dungeon has is determining the order of the encounters for the party.

So, I don’t map out my dungeons anymore. Or when I do, it’s a very loose, relational map, showing a branching tree or web of the encounters, rather than the one-square-equals-five-feet precision of graph paper. I provide the colour and choice through description and offering decision points pretty much whenever I feel like it.

So far, this is working pretty well, though really this is only the second dungeon they’ve explored in the campaign. Part of the reason it works, I think, is that I got sick of dungeon crawls, so I’m making all the dungeons much smaller in this campaign – this one is about five encounters in total, and that’s the same size as the previous dungeon. Another reason it works is the ease with which the 4E rules support improvisation to fill in details if the players go a different way than intended, as noted with the above follow-the-sentry episode.

But there are two main reasons it works well: one, I can concentrate on atmospheric description to help make the locale come alive instead of focusing on making sure I’ve told them about all the branching corridors, and two, the players are as sick of extended dungeon crawls as I am.

So, they proceeded deeper into the tower, going down to the area that used to be the baths****** for the tower garrison. Now, the goblins use it as their garbage dump. This was my excuse to use a couple of monsters I’ve always liked but never really had the right opportunity to put into an adventure.

Carrion crawlers and otyughs.

Why baths? Because I wanted the whole thing to feel like the trash compacter scene from Star Wars, with the otyughs reaching out of the slimed-over, filthy bathing pools to snag people with their tentacles when they were distracted by the carrion crawlers.

Now, two otyughs and a carrion crawler are a level 3 encounter for 6 characters, but they’re all level 7 creatures. While I think that one creature of a level that much higher than the party is fine to throw in a mix of creatures of lower level as a sort of boss monster, having all of the creatures 4 levels higher than the party is a bit much. I looked at the math, and saw that, on average, the party would miss all the creatures and be hit by all the attacks. That seemed skewed too badly for an encounter meant to be the same level as the party.

I decided to drop the level of all the creatures to 3rd, which halved the experience for each one. That meant that I could actually double the number of creatures in the encounter to bring it up to a level 3 encounter again. So, more monsters, same level, easier fight. The lesson here is that, like 3E’s EL system, the level doesn’t tell you everything about the encounter. You’ve got to look at the monsters themselves.

Anyway, I described the lower-level crawlers and otyughs as somewhat stunted and sickly, with weird mottling on them. This, in addition to justifying the lower level of the monsters, has got the party wondering about what might have caused it. They didn’t spend too much time thinking about this, though, because the carrion crawlers were attacking. And  then the hidden otyughs started hauling people into slimy garbage pools for a little up-close, personal attention. Three of the party wound up with filth fever, which is going to make the next few days interesting for them.

After they finished off the creatures and took a quick look around the room, the doors at the far end opened, and an undead tiefling in rusted armour with a corroded sword came into the room and told them to turn back. I stole this monster from H1: Keep on the Shadowfell, using the stats for the undead knight in the tomb that can be convinced to help the characters********. I just changed the name and description. Have I mentioned that I’m greatly in favour of looting other sources for good game bits?

Well, he hit like a dump truck, had a ton of hit points, and wasn’t bothered by the slippery, slime-covered floors. He actually came close to taking out the mega-tank dwarf at a couple of points. He was a different enough threat that the party changed tactics, working to lock him down in a four-way flank, rather than their usual tactics of using their mobility and ability to move the monsters. I think they were worried a couple of times during the fight.

Of course, they won, and now are even more curious about what’s deeper in the tower. That’s for next session.

As an aside, one of the characters made a comment about how the account of the game in this blog differs from the short recap I post on the game’s forum for the players. In particular, he mentioned that, in the forum, I don’t refer to the players as whiny babies*********.

But the main difference is that, on the forum, I provide an account of in-game events. Here, I discuss the game session as a whole, looking at my prep, my expectations, in-game and out-of-game influences, and other stuff.

It’s also the reason that this post is closing in on 1700 words, and the forum is gonna get maybe 300.

Anyway. Hope that clears that up.

*Couple of minor mishaps, and one character wound up taking some falling damage, but they made it up.

**Off-the-cuff trap, with a simple Thievery check to bypass. The list 0f standard DCs by level in the DMG and DM’s Screen makes this sort of quick-and-dirty improvisation pretty easy.

***As a general point of game philosophy, I like to reward my players for coming up with interesting plans and executing them.  Reward doesn’t necessarily mean that they get what they wanted, or get a bonus, but something interesting happens. Basically, I ask myself what would be cool to have happen in regards to their plan – both succeed and fail – and then do that. I tell myself it encourages creative play, and maybe it does. It certainly helps me be more creative and puts more interesting stuff into the game.

****I used a battle map from H3: Pyramid of Shadows for this fight. I don’t remember what the room is called in the adventure, but it’s the large rectangular one with the balconies made of bone. I thought it worked for a goblin lair. I’m a big fan of scavenging anything that looks interesting from other products.

*****No, none of them bother mapping.

******None of the players asked about the hotsprings I described there in relation to the whole floating tower thing. How could there be natural hotsprings feeding the baths in a chunk of rock that used to float 200 feet in the air? It was a little disappointing, because I had actually put some thought into the question*******.

*******Of course, I’m a big geek. You couldn’t figure that out based on the fact that I write a gaming blog? 😉

********I took out the bit about him being willing to help based on a successful skill challenge.

*********I guess I hurt his feelings. 😉

Dateline – Storm Point

Another session gone by.

My players had been acting rather aggressively towards the local halflings, I thought, so I was ready for them to move on to fighting goblins. They had the time and the place for the next meeting between the halflng and goblin smugglers, but wanted to set a trap for the goblins.

I decided to run this as an impromptu skill challenge, because I hadn’t prepped anything in particular for it. They interrogated the captured halfling underboss, Big Sid, and got the details of the contact arrangement. They scouted the area, and found a small sea cave in behind a pile of brush to hide in. And they cooperated to bury the dwarf fighter in gravel so he could spring up behind the goblins.

So when the goblins sent one of their sharpshooters in stealthily ahead of the main force to set up a sniper perch, the players started whining at me. “What are you doing? No fair playing the monsters smart!

Well, boo-hoo.

I swarmed them with goblins. Eleven goblins against six PCs in the first fight, seventeen goblins against six PCs in the second fight. Of course, most of the goblins were minions*, but there were some tough guys hidden in there, too. Once the goblins started using their goblin tactics ability to shift after someone misses them, the PCs started getting a real hate on for the goblins, as well. Not as much as for halflings, but we’re getting there, and I’ve got a few more goblin fights lined up.

The fight on the beach went well, with everything going the PCs’ way for pretty much the entire fight. Right up to the end, when one of the goblin warriors decided to bugger off and warn people. That ended with a night-time chase through the rocky shore area, with the goblin running hell-bent for leather and the eladrin ranger chasing him with his bow. He managed to drop the goblin just before it made it out of range**.

After that, they backtracked the goblins’ trail to a ruin where one of the ancient Bael Turath floating watchtowers had crashed to earth, gouging a long rip into the ground. At the end of this rip, a doorway led into the mostly-intact tower.

Of course, the goblins had sentries. A couple of sharpshooters up on the canyon walls, a couple of warriors hidden in foxholes, a hexer just in side the doorway, and a whole mess of cutters to muddy things up. Combined, they trapped the PCs in a killing ground, and proceeded to go to work.

This was a tougher fight, despite the ease with which they put down the minions in large groups with area effect abilities. The hexer managed to keep the dwarf fighter immobile for much of the fight using stinging curse, and the snipers on the high ground were far enough away that the swordmage’s lightning lure couldn’t drag them to their deaths. The warriors hit the party from behind, and kept the pressure on the less-melee oriented folks.

Still, the PCs triumphed – mostly. One of the sharpshooters got away, so now the whole lair is on alert.

We didn’t get a whole lot done in this session. Certainly, less than I expected. This is a combination of a few things:

  • We got a late start. We didn’t really get rolling until just about an hour after nominal start time.
  • Several people were somewhat distracted by stuff going on in real life.
  • We broke to make a food run about an hour after we started to play.
  • We were down two players, which meant two folks were running double characters.

None of these things are neccessarily bad things. I know there are folks out there who hate having game sessions with such a lack of focus and intrusions and distractions. Sometimes, it gets to me, too.

But this game is played for fun. Part of the fun is the socializing, the tangents and digressions, and the opportunity to make Erik laugh so hard that blood comes out his ears. Jokes and banter flies fast and furious in the game, much of it out of character and only peripherally related to the current topic, never mind related to the game itself.

At the end of the night, if people go home smiling, the game is a success, whether we got through six encounters or none.

So, it wasn’t a full game, it wasn’t a focused game, and it didn’t progress the plot very much. But we all had a good time.


*Have I mentioned how much I love minions? Fighting against overwhelming numbers is so heroic!

**This was easy to run pretty fast and loose, thanks to simplified movement and range in 4E. One more round, and the goblin would have been beyond the long range of the bow.

Dateline – Storm Point

Another session done this weekend. After the previous session, my players decided to abandon their original plans, and try to figure out the connection between the halfling gangsters and the goblins outside of town.

They started by interrogating the prisoners they had taken last session, which I did as a sort of skill challenge. I’ve been constantly trying to modify the way I use skill challenges to fit with what I think they’re good at doing, and how they can fit into the group’s play style. I was intrigued when I heard Mike Mearls on the latest D&D podcast give some advice that I had already deduced on my own: don’t let skill challenges become a substitute for roleplaying, and don’t use them to quash good ideas that the characters have.

To that end, I’ve started structuring the skill challenges in my games a little differently. They are rarely all-or-nothing affairs: I hand out some benefits after a certain number of successes, some more benefits after some more successes, and the last (and usually greatest) benefit if the test is successful. With failures, I either dish out a little grief with each one, or just stop giving benefits when the challenge fails. But I also let the players do an end run around the skill challenge if they come up with a good idea.

So, for example, I had three minor skill challenges set up in this session. The first one was interrogating the prisoners, the second was casing the business locations to spot the runners making their pick-ups, and the the third was following the runners back to the counting house. I also worked up a few combat encounters in case my wiley party of adventurers got spotted or took a more active approach to gaining the information.

The interrogation worked well, and they got two out of the three businesses with direct ties to the organization, deciding to stake out the brothel first. They weren’t very subtle about that, and wound up fighting the brothel’s guards in the night streets*. Only the tiefling heretic managed to escape, using her magic cloak, and wound up negotiating with the characters from the window of a building. The party agreed to leave the brothel alone if the owner would give up the name and location of the organization’s number two man. This was acceptable, and off went the heroes to beard the lion in its den.

I wanted the location for the gang hideout and counting house to be something kind of interesting, but still fitting in the theme of the fishing town. I came up with the idea of a boat house and fisherman’s warehouse built out over the water, with the pilings underneath having given way some time ago, sinking most of the building below water level. Only the upper floor is above the water, and the windows are boarded up and lined with blackout curtains. There’s a nice ten-foot gap between the pier and the building, and inside the ceiling is only about five feet above the plank walkways and platforms that let the inhabitants move above the water level**.

This fight went on a long time, due mainly to the movement restrictions imposed by the terrain. Again, the stealth approach failed the PCs, and they wound up having to fight their way into the building, then along the plank walkways over the water, all the while being pelted by sling stones and harried by halflings****. Splitting the party did some bad things to them, and they almost lost the cleric, but they triumphed in the end, and it was a neat fight. At least four of the combatants went into the water, which was fun, and Big Sid, the halfling fighter, got to put some real hurt on the warlord*****.

Now, with Big Sid captured and interrogated, the party has found out about a scheduled meeting with the goblins a couple of nights hence, where Jemmy Fish’s gang was going to by some loot from robbed caravans. The meeting place is a small stony beach below some cliffs called Aylsa Crag. I’m guessing there’s going to be some disappointed (and probably dead) goblins.

*I used the Rackham Reversible Gaming Tiles for the battle map. The nice thing about these (besides the beautiful art) is that they have the area in daylight on one side, and a night time version of the same scene on the reverse.

**I was going to do up a map of this in Dundjinni, but I just ran out of time. I wound up having to sketch it on the fly on my Tact Tiles***.

***Apparently, BC Products, who made Tact Tiles, has gone out of business, which is a real shame. They made a damn fine product.

****Sounds like a Gloom card, doesn’t it?

*****The party reallyhates halflings now. There was some talk about burning the halfling boat neighbourhood to the waterline.

Dateline – Storm Point

Ran the latest session of Storm Point last night. It went quite well, but prompted a bit of a change of focus for the group.

Up until the game last night, they were planning on riding one of the floating islands in Lake Thunder through the perpetual thunderstorm in the centre of the lake to see what was inside the swirling clouds and lightning. However, when they got back to town after their explorations of the Arkhosian ruins, they found that Jemmy Fish, the halfling gangster they had embarrassed way back in the first session, had gone out of his way to mess with each of their lives in some fashion.

This, they decided, would not do.

So, they got together to discuss what to do about it, and were ambushed by a gang of halflings. They defeated them all, knocking most of them unconscious*, though a lucky critical by Ssudai** caused one to fall to his death. As they were tying up their prisoners, they noticed another halfling run off from a hiding spot, and gave chase.

What followed was a very successful skill challenge, if I do say so myself. Ssudai was using Acrobatics to run, leap, and swing across the rooftops and Stealth to sneak up on her; Soren was using History to remember shortcuts through town; Faran used his Perception to keep track of the target and his Diplomacy to convince her to stop; Milo and Thrun just poured on the juice with Athletics to catch up and Intimidate to slow her down; and Galvanys used a number of skills plus his Fey Step power to close distance. It all ended with a well-placed, leaping Thrun landing on their quarry on a barge in the halfling quarter of town.

What made the challenge work, in my opinion, was that everyone not only picked different skills to try, but also narrated what it looked like in game. It changed it from a simple exercise in rolling dice into an interesting, gripping chase scene. People got into it, and kept scouting their character sheet for different skills they might try. This is, I believe, the real strength of skill challenges. When everyone gets into them and lets themselves go with it, it turns into a very entertaining part of the game.

Anyway, rather than interrogate her in the midst of a crowd of increasingly hostile halflings on a halfling barge in the middle of the halfling neighbourhood while looking for a halfling gangster***, the party prudently decided to take her back to the militia’s holding cells for a little talk. Using Diplomacy and Intimidate to do a good cop/bad cop routine on their prisoner, they got the name of Jemmy’s boat, the fact that he was holed up there with about a half-dozen of his men, and that he had hired some extra muscle from the goblins.

So, they stormed the boat. Turns out the goblins Jemmy hired were a couple of bugbears. They gave our boys some tight moments****, what with their ability to dish out huge helpings of damage, along with knocking folks prone and dazing them. Really, the fight on the boat was everything I could have hoped for, with a couple folks (on both sides) going into the drink, and Jemmy taking to the rigging and sniping at the party, and others following him up. It was a blast, and showed off the cinematic quality of 4E combat*****.

Now, with the missing goods recovered, and Jemmy out of the way, our heroes are talking about postponing their little trip on the floating island in favour of trying to figure out what’s going on with the halfling-goblin alliance that Jemmy seems to have been building. I’ve got them discussing it over on our message board, so that I have some idea of what sort of adventure to build around their intentions.

And this is why I’m glad I’m not running an Adventure Path campaign with Storm Point. The party can explore whatever interests them in the setting, instead of following a breadcrumb trail from one dungeon to another. Depending on how they decide to proceed, we may wind up with an urban investigation and gang war, or a wilderness hunt for goblins, or some combination of the two.

I’m looking forward to it, whatever it is.

*And we all liked how easy this was in 4E. When you reduce someone to 0 hit points, you get to decide if they’re dead or just knocked out. No more fussing with nonlethal damage and stuff. Some things, though, I’ve ruled can’t be turned into a knockout: crossbows, arrows, secondary effects of spells, stuff like that.

**And when I say lucky, I mean lucky! He rolled a natural 20 to hit, and I invoked the halfling’s reroll power. He pouted at me, but rolled again. Another natural 20! Right there, in front of God and everyone! So, that was the Trick Strike power, which reduced the target to 1 hit point, and slid the target right off the rooftop for a 1d10 fall. Dead.

***I don’t know what it is, but pretty much everyone I game with just hates halflings, so I find they make a good underclass, outsider society in most of my games. It lets me riff on prejudice and ostracism.

****And I find my self consistently impressed by the way the healing system in 4E changes the resource management model. I don’t have to pull as many punches as a DM, because I know the characters have the hit points and healing surges to take it, but they still have to be careful because they may not have the time or the ability to spend a healing surge when they need to. I was worried that the prevalent healing might remove the risk from combat, but it doesn’t. It just changes it.

*****Which, I am the first to admit, may not be to everyone’s taste. There’s something to be said for the grim, gritty style of fantasy play. But I gotta say, for my money, I want the high-flying, swashbuckling, crazy-magic-wielding 4E feel.

Dateline – Storm Point

We’ve had two sessions since my last post about the game, and we’ve just finished the first full adventure. The party reached level 2 at the end of last night’s session.

There hasn’t been a whole lot new to report; we’re all learning the ins and outs of the new system, and seeing where it works and where we want to tweak it for our group. However, we have found out some interesting things, and we’ve been having fun.

In the session before last, I trotted out a couple of traps in the middle of a fight: a pair of spear gauntlet traps with four rat swarms. I decided that the rat swarms weren’t heavy enough to trigger the trap, but that they were valid targets when the trap went off. This allowed me to preserve the surprise of the traps while still allowing the PCs to use the traps against the rats if they could figure out how.

The fact that I used two traps in an overlapping pattern caused some consternation for the party, and it’s something I want to remember for next time. I found that they viewed the traps primarily as an obstacle to be avoided; they didn’t try to disarm the things during combat. They did work out the trigger pattern, though, and used it a couple of times to target the rats specifically.

The other encounter that session was with some zombies. Because the ruins were from the lost dragonborn empire, I described the undead as looking like rotting dragonborn, and the gravehounds as drakes instead of dogs or wolves. The battle took place in a little knot of rooms and corridors, with doors opening to surprise the party with more zombies, and the cleric wound up being cut off from the party while being savaged by a gravehound and a corruption corpse, but they pulled through. We all quite liked the zombie vulnerability to critical hits – it came up once or twice, and then everyone was hoping for a head shot. Very much in the vein of a zombie movie.

Last night, they faced off against a young black dragon. I advanced it one level to make it an appropriate level 4 enouncter for a party of 6 characters. At the start of combat, I began to be afraid that I had made things too tough; most of the party was down a few healing surges, and the dragon used darkness, stealth, and an underground river to get in a few pretty devastating attacks early on. Then the party fell back, regrouped, and did an end run around the river. They managed to trap the dragon away from the river, thanks to a plethora of readied actions and a very cautious advance, and proceeded to kick it all around the place. Thrun, the dwarven fighter, really started having fun with Tide of Iron, Footwork Lure, and Shield Bash, tossing the dragon around. Ssudai, the dragonborn rougue, came up with a neat Acrobatic stunt: grabbing the dragon’s tail on the backswing after the dragon had tail slashed another character and using it to swing around into a flanking position behind the dragon for a sneak attack. That’s the kind of thing I want the characters in my game doing, so I let him roll, and he nailed it, and unloaded with a pretty impressive helping of damage.

In the end, they took down the dragon, though Soren, the human warlord, fell during the fight. He didn’t die, though, so that’s okay.

The last encounter of the evening was with a shadar-kai witch, a chainfighter, and a couple of dark creepers. The players were feeling cocky after the dragon fight, and they’d had a chance to rest, so I didn’t pull any punches. The dark creepers got a surprise round, and the shadar-kai unloaded with everything they had. Level-wise, the fight was equivalent to the kruthik battle from a couple of sessions ago, though with fewer creatures. Still, whether it was because they were all fresh, or because they’re starting to work a lot better together, the fight was pretty easy for them. No one dropped, though Milo the swordmage came pretty close. The chainfighter even got to unload with two Dance of Deaths in the fight, though my bad dice luck minimized that advantage. The fight took a long time in real time, though, mainly becuase the dice were all tired and didn’t want to roll above a six.

So, we wrapped up a little late, but everyone was happy to level up, and seemed to have fun. I count it as a win.

Dateline – Storm Point

First off, I’m going to be running some D&D 4E demos at Imagine Games & Hobbies again. These will take place on Saturday, November 29, and Saturday, December 13. If you’re in Winnipeg, and want to try out D&D 4E in a friendly, non-threatening environment, come on down and bounce some dice with us. I’ll post more details here as I hammer them out with the store.

Anyway, on to the main topic.

I ran the second session of my new Storm Point campaign this past Sunday. Again, it went quite well. We were one man short, so one of the other players took over running his character for the session. These are the rules we hashed out at the start of this campaign, mainly to make my life as GM easier:

  1. I keep a copy of all character sheets.
  2. We run as long as four out of six players show up.
  3. The characters of absent players get played by someone who is present.
  4. No one ever plays more than two characters.
  5. No one ever has to double-up on characters twice in a row.
  6. All six characters get equal shares of the XP.

This set of rules prevents a couple of things that we ran into in the 3.5 campaign, when we would leave out the characters of absent players. First, I don’t have to try to adjust the encounters on the fly based on who shows up. Second, we don’t wind up with an XP gap between characters.

So, we had the full party when they got to the main adventure site. I threw a combat at them as they made camp for the night, a group of representatives from the Empire Reborn trying to take their map to the ruins by force. This was more of a challenging fight than they’d had up to that point, because the foes were of a more appropriate level, and were intelligent and unsurprised. They got worried a couple of times during the combat, which was good.

After that, there was a skill challenge to wend their way down through the treacherous chasm to the actual ruins of an Arkhosian outpost. Each failure they rolled produced some sort of setback: a rockslide, an attack by a cavern choker, etc. Also, each round of the challenge, they had to make an Endurance check or lose a healing surge from fatigue, random battering, bad air, etc.

Waiting for them at the bottom of the chasm was the toughest fight so far: a Level 3 encounter with a nest of kruthiks. Four hatchlings, two adults, and a hive lord. This was a close fight, with the cleric actually dropping at one point, and everyone rather battered and torn at the end, but they prevailed.

Again, everyone had fun, it seemed, and the various encounters worked well and were exciting. I’m gonna close this post with a quote from the player of Thrun the Anvil, dwarven fighter, who also ran Milo Tarn, human swordmage, in this session:

Lessons I learned:

– Thrun needs to pay more attention to protecting the healer.

– Thrun needs to stay closer to the pack in combat. I think what I *should* have done was to maneuver to force the critter he was fighting into the group via tide of iron instead of hanging out over by the pillar, just the two of us.

– I’d like to get/ask for/make a power card for Thrun’s challenge.

– Fighter’s challenge + enemies with reach = win. Thrun just hammered the crap clean out of that poor choker.

– Gaining healing triggers should be a priority for Thrun as I advance him through levels. Because of this, it’s also probably going to work better if I don’t burn the feat at second level to get him the craghammer and instead take a feat that extends his survivability either by mitigation (heavy armor or the like), or by endurance.

– Greenflame blade can be an awesome mook eraser.

– Aegis on one target at range + booming blade on a different, adjacent target = nice control.

– Aegis on one target at range + booming blade on a different, adjacent target = a big dent in my HP.

– Being hit by status effects sucks.

– For each additional status effect you are hit with, the suck amplifies as a product of cubes into the ultrasuck range.

Looking forward to the next game.