Battlestar Galactica Demo

Whoops! I forgot to mention that I will be running a demo of the Battlestar Galactica Board Game by Fanatasy Flight Games on Saturday, January 10, at Imagine Games. Demo starts at 1:00, and will run about 2 hours. If there’s enough interest, I will run a second demo after the first (around 3:00). If you’re interested, come on down and help save the human race from the cylon menace! Or help save the cylon race from the human menace! Either way!


[[EDIT: Changed the date of the demo to avoid conflict with a Flames of War tournament at Imagine Games.]]

Running a Demo

Last time, I talked about building an RPG game demo. This time, I want to talk about running it.

Now, the last post was pretty long and in-depth. That’s because you need a fair bit of prep work to put together a workable demo. Running a game is almost an afterthought once you’ve put in the work ahead of time, so this article is going to be shorter, just a list of tips and tricks and advice about running a demo game.

My basic assumption is that you’ve run games before. If you haven’t, then you probably want to get in some practice with a group of friends before you strut your stuff in public.

So, what’s my advice for running demo games?

  • Be prepared. Have all the notes and play aids you need ready ahead of time. This is sort of the whole point of my last post.
  • Get there early. Often times things come up at the last minute before the game start. If you’re there early, you’ve got some lead time on set-up.
  • Make an attractive table. Set out character sheets and figures, lay out battle mats, put up your screen, display the books, whatever. The goal here is to make people want to come over and see what’s going on. Then you can talk them into playing.
  • Be friendly and polite. Smile. Talk to people. Be inviting. Laugh and joke. Make the prospect of gaming with you attractive.
  • Answer questions. When people ask you something about the game, answer them. Let them know what they need to buy to start out. Answer rule questions. Recommend other games.
  • Invite people to play. They may not know you’re doing a demo, so invite them to sit in if they seem interested.
  • Take rejection graciously. It’s not personal. Some folks won’t be interested, and some folks won’t have time. If they say no, then it’s no. Don’t badger or hound. Thank them, and let them get on with their day.
  • Talk to the participants. Find out if they’re first-timers or old-timers. See if they have any other experience with this game.
  • Teach to the audience. Once you know their level of experience, teach to that. If they’re all veterans of the last three editions of the game, then you don’t need to explain about dice – just on the new rules. On the other hand, if they’ve never played before, you’re going to have to teach them how to read a d4.
  • Remember that you’re in public. If you’re in a game store, you are also seen as a representative of the store. Keep that in mind before graphicly describing the murder of a child or the content’s of the Mad Duke’s box of bedtime toys.
  • Remeber that this isn’t your regular group. Shorthand, in-jokes, and assumptions about play style are not necessarily going to pan out. Pay attention to what’s actually going on at the table.
  • Get into it. Let yourself go. Have fun. Use the funny voices and the colourful descriptions of combat. Make other people wish they were having as much fun as you are.
  • Watch the time. Make sure you get to your climax, even if you have to cut other stuff short. If the particpants are looking at their watches, you should be moving things along.
  • If you’re playing in a game store, shill. Point out the books the participants should buy to get started. Show them where the dice are. Show off new products. Be willing to talk about the game and get people enthused.
  • When the game’s done, thank the participants. Tell them you hope they had fun.
  • When the session is done and you’ve got another one starting, reset everything. Set the table up the way it was at the start of the day. This means you need to leave yourself a little time between sessions, but that’s not such a bad idea, anyway.
  • When the day’s demos are done, pack up quickly and clean up the area. Thank your host for his or her hospitality.

Yeah, a lot of this stuff isn’t new, is it? Be friendly and polite. Be a good representative of the hobby, the game, and the venue. Make sure everyone has a good time.

One last thing: sometimes things go south. Maybe you wind up with a really annoying participant, or with no participants. What do you do then?

Suck it up.

One of the downsides of running a demo is that you don’t get to pick who you play with. Others decide if they want to play with you. Don’t take it personally; a lot of folks don’t like to game with people they don’t know, because it’s outside their comfort zone. If no one shows, hang around anyway, and talk to people. Some may have questions, some may want to tell you war stories, and some may just want to pass the time. Relax. Enjoy. Interact.

And if you wind up with that annoying gamer stereotype sitting at the table? So what. Have fun. Play and enjoy. Just remember that you need to be as attentive, friendly, and helpful to the annoying ones as you do to the fun ones. If someone’s being a jerk, don’t be a jerk back. It never helps. Just remember that you get to walk away at the end of this, and go back to your regular players.

So, there you have it. Questions? Comments? Leave ’em below.

Building a Demo

Okay, if you’ve read my blog in the past couple of weeks, you probably know that I’m running a couple of D&D 4E demos at Imagine Games on November 29 and December 13. If you’re in Winnipeg and want to try out the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, come on down and play. Games start at 1:00 p.m. There’s limited seating, so show up early if you want to guarantee a spot.

Anyway, I’m working this week on putting together the demo, and figured that I’d talk about the method I use. It’s the method I’ve used in other demos in the past, and it works fairly well, so I’m not changing it this time around. Here’s how I go about building a demo.

There are four things you need to put together in order to have a solid demo:

  • Venue
  • Adventure
  • Characters
  • Play Aids


For me, venue is the easies thing. I run my demos at Imagine Games, the local game and hobby store run by my friends, Pedro and Wendy. How do I set up the venue? I say to Pedro, “Hey. Want me to run a demo on Saturday?” Easy.

If you don’t have such a handy venue available, you may have to scramble a little. Having said that, most game stores are generally pretty open to having someone come in and run a demo – it’s free advertising for them, it generates some traffic, and it helps build the hobby. You may have to convince the manager that you’re the kind of person he or she wants to run a demo, so remember to be friendly and polite.

If you don’t have a local store available or willing to support you in this, check out the local libraries and community centres. They often have function rooms that you can use, sometimes free, sometimes for a nominal fee.

Wherever you wind up running your demo, keep in mind that, unless it’s your own personal venue, you’re a guest there. Find out what rules your host has, and make sure everyone follows them. That makes it more likely that you’ll get to come back. Remember: friendly and polite.


Once you’ve got your space, you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to run. This is going to involve a number of factors you need to consider; it’s not like putting together the adventure for your regular group. You have to keep in mind:

  • Time. How much time have you got to run? If you’ve got a whole afternoon, you can put together a much longer adventure than if you have a two-hour slot. This may be set by the venue, or it may be set by the number of participants you’re expecting.
  • Participants. How many people are you going to have at the demo? If you want to limit the number of seats, you have to make sure that people know that seating is limited. Be realistic about your ability to manage the group size, and keep in mind that more players means the adventure will take longer to run, because it will take longer to cycle through each of them. If you’ve got a large number of people interested, but a game that works best with smaller numbers, consider running multiple shorter slots instead of one longer one. Run two two-hour sessions instead of one four-hour session. You don’t need a new adventure for this; just repeat.
  • Purpose. What are you trying to accomplish with your demo? If you’re trying to attract new players, you will want to run something simple and basic. If you’re trying to showcase a new release, you’ll want to make sure you use two or three of the coolest things from that release in the adventure. If you’re trying to appeal to more accomplished gamers, you need to run something a little less straightforward. Figure out what your primary goal is, and keep it in mind.

So, I’m going to have all afternoon for my demo. It’s D&D 4E, which is tailored for 5 players out of the box, but it’s pretty easy to adjust up and down on the fly, especially if I prepare the adventure knowing I might have to do that. Turn out for some demos at Imagine has been overwhelming, and for other demos it’s been underwhelming, so I think I’m going to build two two-hour adventures that can be crammed together into a larger four-hour adventure. That gives me the flexibility to stop after two hours if there’s another group of people who want in, or if two hours is all a group wants to play, while letting me stretch out the session to four hours if I only get one group of folks who want to play all afternoon.

I’m aiming the game at people who are new to 4E, if not D&D or RPGs in general, so I want something with a basic format to it, but a couple of twists along the way. Specifically for 4E, I want to show off the way character powers work, how interesting the monsters are, and skill challenges. I’ve previously done demo adventures based around a goblin raid on a caravan; I think I’ll start with that premise and see where it leads me.

Now, you don’t have to build an adventure. Using a published one is fine, and lots of companies even provide demo adventures in their products or on their websites. In fact, I still have the Into the Shadowhaunt demo kit Wizards sent out for the launch of 4E. Why am I building an adventure? Couple of reasons. For one thing, I find it pretty easy and quick to do in 4E. For another, most of the other adventures have a little too much exposure for my taste – I want to offer something fresh to the participants, and not have someone who has, for example, read the Kobold Hall adventure in the DMG bored because that’s the adventure I’m running.


 You need pregenerated characters for a demo. The time needed to create characters with the participants as part of the demo is just too great – it’ll overshadow the actual adventure. The only time to have character generation as part of the demo is either a multi-session continuing demo (I used to do a four-session Learn Dungeons & Dragons demo, and character creation was the entire first session) or if the character creation system something important to the actual play of the game and you want to show it off (games like Spirit of the Century, Dogs in the Vineyard, and 3:16, for example).

Keep the complexity of the characters in synch with your primary audience. If this is an intro game, keep them simple. If you’re trying to show off a new feature from a supplement, make sure it’s highlighted.

My demo is aimed at people new to 4E, so I’m going to go with first-level characters, and I’m going to use options only from the core rule books. I was planning on doing up a set of characters with the DDI Character Builder beta, but there are some issues with it on Vista that are still being resolved, so instead I think I’m just going to use the characters from Keep on the Shadowfell.

Play Aids

This last bit is kind of weird. You wouldn’t think so, but having the right play aids can do more for your demo than pretty much anything else. If you choose wrong, things slow down, participants get frustrated and bored, and you can wind up with a great adventure that no one actually enjoys.

The key I’ve found to play aids is to think about them in two flavours. One is something that makes the game flow easier, and one is something that makes the game more cool. And never forget that the aids need to help you, too; not just the players.

So, for making the game flow easier, the two big things are character sheets and the adventure text. Make sure both are readable, both are easy to understand, and both have all the details they need. Do the math ahead of time when you can, so that players don’t need to figure out their bonuses every time they roll the dice, and you don’t have to fumble around with the monsters the same way. If you are going to have multiple versions of some parts of the adventure, like adjusting encounters for different numbers of players, do the work ahead of time so it doesn’t bog you down at the table. You’re going to be busy enough running and teaching the game without trying to rebuild encounters on the hoof.

Also, if you have any quick rules handouts, bring them along. Wizards did a great two-page sheet for the D&D Experience this past spring that I’m going to print out, for example. Make sure you have a copy for each of your players.

Here’s a little tip about printed material: if they’re going to be used by multiple groups, make them sturdy. Either print them out on cardstock, or spring for some clear page protectors and a box of dry erase markers. It’ll save you time and heartache between groups.

Aside from the printed materials, make sure you’ve got enough dice and writing implements for everyone. Don’t expect your audience to bring what they need – anticipate what’s needed, and provide it.

As for play aids that make the game more cool, you can go as nuts as you have time for, here. At a minimum, I’m going to be bringing a miniature suitable for each PC, and suitable minis for the monsters. I’m also going to lay out the encounters using my Dungeon Tiles, possibly with a home-made battlemap for the final encounter that I put together in Dundjinni. That, plus my DM Screen and combat tracker pad – both of which fall into both categories of play aids.

Put everything – adventure, characters, play aids – together into something you can carry easily. Check it all, and make sure you haven’t forgot anything. Specifically, make sure you haven’t forgot your dice; trust me when I say that it can happen, and it sucks.

That’s the way I put together a demo. Of course, building a demo and running a demo are two different things. Next post I’ll talk about how I run the demos.

Dungeons & Dragons Insider – So Far, So Good

Before I get rolling in my assessment of DDI, I want to remind folks in Winnipeg that I will be running D&D 4E demos at Imagine Games on Saturday, November 29, and Saturday, December 13. Games will start at 1:00. Sessions are limited to 6 players, so get there early if you want to guarantee a seat at the table. I’ll provide minis, pregenerated characters, and dice, so all you need to bring is yourself.

There. End plug. Let’s talk about Dungeons & Dragons Insider.

I, like a lot of people, was a little bit leery of the new digital initiative over at Wizards. The idea of having to shell out a subscription fee for electronic access to more D&D content struck me, initially, as pretty distasteful.

When I thought about it for a bit, though, I decided it wasn’t that bad. I was already shelling out 20 bucks a month buying Dungeon and Dragon magazines from the local game shop. Spending that on electronic versions was a bit much, but when you tack on the extras, it started to look a little more reasonable. Of course, this was before any pricing was announced. Currently, if you subscribe for a year, you get the two magazines at $4.95 a month, which is pretty decent.

Now, the price is going to go up as more and more tools come online for the system. I’m okay with that, as long as the tools they build are useful and functional, and the price stays in step with what I feel they’re worth.

Anyway, I subscribed.

I’m not totally sold on the whole thing, though; I think they’re off to a pretty good start, but I’m withholding final judgement. Here’s my thinking on the various components so far.

  • Dragon Magazine. Dragon’s doing a really good job of providing extra options for characters. That’s been my one reservation (well, my main reservation, anyway) about 4E – it’s early in the product life span, so there’s just not as many options available. Dragon’s helping to ease that concern, and the look at playtest files for things like the Artificer, Barbarian, and Bard classes gives me a better idea of the kind of depth of support and development Wizards has planned. Overall, thumbs way up.
  • Dungeon Magazine. This I’m not as enthusiastic about. The articles are pretty good, but I find that the adventures are a little less than thrilling. Sure, it’s early days yet, but the folks at Wizards just don’t seem to be taking any chances with their adventures. Pretty much everything is a dungeon crawl, with a few encounters on the way to the dungeon crawl, and maybe a few encounters on the way back from the dungeon crawl. While I find the adventures very useful for seeing the way encounters can be put together, and they can be stripmined for new monsters and traps, I just find them very bland. Safe, I guess, in that they are aimed at the very basics of the game. In comparison with what Paizo’s doing in the Pathfinder line, they really come out second best. Most specifically, the Scales of War Adventure Path just doesn’t compare to the Pathfinder Adventure Paths in terms of variety of activity and interesting options. Ah, well, as I say, it’s early days. I’m willing to give them a while to start stretching themselves.
  • D&D Compendium. I haven’t really used this much, though I can see it being useful. It just hasn’t come up so far. I think it’s a good idea in theory, but I really can’t say more about it than that.
  • Encounter Builder. I can see this becoming more useful to me as I learn the game more. Right now, I find it more helpful to page through the books looking for the right mix of monsters, because I don’t know what all of them do, yet. Still, it’s very handy for figuring out the XP budget for each encounter, and telling you whether it’s an easy, average, or hard encounter for your target party. I like it, but haven’t used it extensively.
  • Ability Generator. This is okay, but I’m assuming that it’s going to be superseded by the Character Builder. As a stand-alone thing, I don’t much see the point.
  • Monster Builder. Building monsters in 4E is a lot quicker than in other editions (and I know what I’m talking about: I built 30 3E monsters for the Penumbra Fantasy Bestiary). This little tool makes it even easier. The one catch is that it doesn’t seem to do Elite or Solo monsters, which is disappointing. Having said that, it does all the heavy lifting, math-wise, for normal monsters, and the explanation in the DMG of how to improve them to Elite or Solo is pretty straightforward. It’s good, but not perfect. Also, I’ve yet to be able to get the formatted stat block view to work. Still, it shows great promise.
  • Character Builder. This is currently in closed beta testing, and only goes up to 3rd level. But I have to say that it’s pretty sweet. There are some weird things about it and a glitch or two, but this is a beta, and that’s to be expected. I’m not going to talk about the problems here, because I have every confidence that they’ll be corrected before release (the one-day turnaround time on the Vista x64 issue fix shows how serious they are about fixing things). What I will say is that I’m going to be using this tool to create all the pregen characters for my 4E demos, and it’s going to take me about a quarter of the time of using one of the form-fillable character sheets out there. When this is finalized, it’s going to be worth the price of admission all on its own, I think.
  • Upcoming Features. The three other things they’re talking about adding to the DDI offering are the Character Visualizer, the Dungeon Builder, and the D&D Game Table. I’m not all that interested in the D&D Game Table – my game schedule is full enough, without trying to cram in virtual sessions. The Character Visualizer seems like a neat toy, but I’ve been unimpressed with the quality of the art that I’ve seen in the previews. I’m guessing it will be better in the release, but it’s still not something that really draws me, though I’ll probably spend some time playing with it. The Dungeon Builder seems to be the item that I’d use most, especially if it has the option of printing out battle maps, but I don’t see that on the list of features. We’ll have to wait and see.

So, there it is. In general, I like where DDI is headed, though I have a few reservations. I’d like to see a broader variety of adventures in Dungeon, and I’m anxious for the extra features they’re developing. I’m tentatively sold on it. We’ll have to see how well it lives up to its promise.

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 – 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.