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.

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.