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.