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.

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3 Responses to Actually Playing 4E

  1. Rechan says:

    When it comes to combat length, I found that combats go longer rounds, but the amount of real-time it takes is about the equivalent of a fight in 3.5. Meaning, that you spend the same amount of real time, but fights last longer than 2 rounds. 😉

    Although I’m running a game with three people, so Elite monsters really, really suck up damage and take forever to ill.

  2. Karla says:

    The ease of monster use/creation is what really sold me on 4.0 as well. Not only is it quick and simple to build encounters, but it’s dead easy to create new monsters or beef up low level ones if your campaign calls for a bunch of human opposition, for example. The minion concept is a fantastic one, in my opinion, allowing for large scale fights and Thermopylae style battles without overwhelming your players, not to mention making your wizard feel like a big man when he can drop whole crowds of them at once. 😉

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