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 – After Play Musings

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.

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.