Game Mastery

Game Wrap – My experience with D&D 4th Edition

by on Aug.27, 2011, under dnd4e, observations, organization

As of last night, my 4e game of the last 20 months has come to a close.   I decided to challenge myself in this game by breaking a lot of the rules I’d set for myself.  It wasn’t that I was tired of my own GMing style, I just wanted to check that my assumptions and assertions made sense.  Over the next few days, I’d like to discuss the effect of some of those changes and of some of the events of the game in general.

First up though, I’d like to talk about 4th edition.  I’d played some LFR, but hadn’t GMed the system before.  In fact, none of my friends had GMed it outside of prewritten adventures.

I was very happy with 4e for the beginning of the game.  Heroic tier, levels 1-10, was excellent.  Low level characters were able to contribute in meaningful ways, but the party was at a scope that made sense to me.

By paragon (11-20), shenanigans were higher.  I like physical challenges and obstacles.  Taking an NPC hostage and putting a noose around his neck is my bread and butter.  It doesn’t work when all the characters have teleportation abilities.  I was able to work around this, but it was beyond my comfort level.

Epic was not to my liking.  It was too, well, epic.  Epic Destinies were especially offensive.  Upon reaching level 21, a player announced that his character had discovered the secrets of immortality, gaining all the benefits of Lichdom, without actually becoming undead.  This was something that just happened mechanically when we reached epic tier.  The mechanics were excessive too.   Everyone had abilities that triggered on death and returned the PC to life.

But we didn’t play epic too much and I’m sure someone else has already written a better criticism.  The end result of my experience with epic is that I resent WotC for telling players that they can expect to play a campaign from level 1 to 30.  1-20 is reasonable.  Epic is that weird set of rules that you can use beyond 20, but nobody should because they’re ridiculous.  Problem solved.

Solo monsters were problematic.  Too few actions.  Even when I gave them allies, it was too much XP budgeted into one action per turn.  Coincidentally the two best solos I used were Tiamat and Bel Shalor.  They get 5 and 3 initiatives respectively.  Tiamat even solved the stunlock problem by explaining that each of her heads acted separately.  A stun effect merely prevented the next head from acting.   If I run 4e again, I’d absolutely make other enemies behave similarly.  Solo creatures would get an additional initiative action per tier.  So at heroic they’d act twice per round, thrice at paragon, and four times a round in epic.  I have no idea if this is balanced, but it’s simple and elegant.

Other players aren’t fans of the new Forgotten Realms reboot, but I actually got some enjoyment out of it.  In 3rd ed, there was so much information out there that I could never keep up with some of the players.  In 4e there was little enough info that I was able to feel like I knew what was going on in the setting.  I also appreciated that it wasn’t so well defined.  There were areas that hadn’t been updated to account for the hundred years between 3e and 4e.  I still had material to work with, but was able to extrapolate what happened on my own.  Essentially I had a lot more wiggle room between what was canon and what was my own interpretation, and that worked to my benefit.

One of 4e’s advertised features is that it is better balanced than 3e.   I’m not going to pretend that the classes are evenly balanced, but the power spread between the high and low end was much smaller.  If you’re familiar with 3.5’s class tiers, instead of ranging in one of 6 power levels, 4e classes are all in the 3rd or 4th tier.  This was awesome.  I barely paid attention to what my players could do.  The system kept them in line with each other.  When I played 3.5, I had to check each character’s abilities and shenanigans when making challenges.  I didn’t want to use anything if a player could outright trump it.  Or anything that would completely hose the party.  In 4e that wasn’t an issue.

The best part of this is that since I wasn’t spending so much time checking player abilities, I could put more time into writing obstacles.  This worked out really well for me because when we did hit paragon and shenanigans took flight, I’d have so many obstacles lined up that it was okay if the players bypassed one of them.  It didn’t matter that the 45 minute puzzle I’d set up was dealt with in 2 minutes because I had an endless stream of obstacles.  Instead of coming up with a reason why the ability didn’t work or apologizing for a shortened session, I could congratulate the player for being awesome and then move on.

WotC’s electronic resources were a letdown.  I’d harp on them, but I’ve done that in other posts.  Long story short, WotC is not a software company.  You shouldn’t give them money for software.  They haven’t earned it.  That said, I liked the DDI compendium quite a bit.  Well, I liked my version of it.  I wrote a script that cached each page in the compendium so I could view them offline.  This was extremely valuable since I’m one of those horrible linux users who knows a million command line options for parsing text files.  Instead of using the web interface to find monsters, I could search for an undead controller between levels 5 and 9 with a dominate ability.  And because of the balance mentioned above, the creature it gave me would perform as expected.  Combats took 10-30 minutes to write (as opposed to 30-60 per enemy in 3rd ed, unless I wanted to risk TPKing the party with some unbalanced horror from the Monster Manual) which left me with time to plot.  From the GM’s side of the table, the game was extremely easy to run.

I did have to power up minions.  My party was AoE heavy and minions didn’t last.  Normally they’re considered to be a quarter of a monster.  One of my friends suggested bumping them up to 6 minions per regular monster.  I went a step further and put two minions in the fight for every one I budgeted.  That worked pretty well (except for the fight with the Dwarf Thugs, whose attack bonus is 3 points higher than average and who gain absurd bonuses when working in groups).

I would like to have seen more status effects.  The effects printed seemed reasonable at first, but we got bored of slow, prone, and dazed very quickly.  By paragon, most enemies used bigger effects with huge walls of text.  There were several fights where I ignored my own powers because it was too much to read.  I wish some of those effects had been standardized.  For instance, Shar (well, really Vecna, but there were no Shar stats) had a power that sent someone to another plane until their turn started.  Then they attacked a nearby ally.  Then they had to take opportunity attacks against their allies.  The amount of text this power had was ridiculous, but the power didn’t do all that much.  I think that if the planar effect had been Banished until end of next turn, with an aftereffect of hitting an ally, and the opportunity attack effect had been Turncloak (save ends), I wouldn’t have had to do nearly as much processing on Shar’s turn.  I’d love it if each new tier introduced new effects to throw at your players.  I wouldn’t even mind if all the new splat books offered new status effects, although you would need a way to update old powers.  (My suggestion there would be to allow comparable powers to be swapped, although they might have to use similar damage types or keywords.)  Oh and I’d really love to see an upgrade for ongoing damage.  At high levels there are too many granted saves for it to be useful.  I was doing ongoing 60 ; aftereffect on a successful save ongoing 40 ; aftereffect on a successful save ongoing 20.  Why not just make persistent ongoing damage an effect and save on the text later?

I was, and still am, a big fan of ritual magic.  To the players who complain that their wizard doesn’t have utility anymore, I say you’ve skipped the ritual section of the book.  Most players seemed to know of the same 2 or 3 obligatory rituals and ignored the rest.  And yet when I threw weird situations at the players, combining rituals solved the problems.

Encouraging ritual use was easy.  I made sure to give out rituals as loot.  And I made sure to offer up ritual books for sale.  This way I could put 10 rituals in a bundle.  One or two would be rituals the players wanted.  I’d charge a fraction of the actual price.  And the players put 10 rituals in their books.  Most of those would never have been rituals they asked for, but they still found ways to use them.  I also experimented with items that reduced the cost or casting time of rituals and distilled residuum that gave bonuses on ritual checks.  The players were very interested in these things, but the game ended too soon after I gave them out.

I still have mixed opinions on skill challenges.  I think their biggest flaw is a lack of support.  In other areas, the rulebooks were inspiring.  I’d read through them and get enthused about throwing certain game elements at players.  That never happened with skill challenges.  I think the rules are reasonable, but they never tell you how or why to use them.

I started out with SCs as obstacle courses.  That was way too rigid and I dropped it quickly.  Instead I started using what I called retroactive skill challenges.  The players told me what skills they wanted to use and what they expected to happen.  I took notes of the checks they made.  After the session I figured out how difficult the challenge had been and how much XP they deserve.  I liked this a lot better because it left things up to them.  Your players will be much more creative when allowed to implement their own solutions than when you tell them what skills to roll.

I would also consider adding more complexity to skill challenges.  As written, everything is one of the checks.  There’s no depth to it.  Were I running a social skill challenge, I’d have the players make checks outside of the challenge.  For instance, if you’re trying to warn the king about the incoming plague, intimidating the courtesan should not be a success.  Your roll against the king is a success.  Intimidating the courtesan is just a part of reaching the king to make your skill check.   Minor rolls like this should provide clues or access to reaching the actual checks.

As the players progressed though I found skill challenges harder and harder to use.  Physical obstacle courses didn’t make sense anymore.  Social skill challenges were bypassed by rituals.  And I never really liked knowledge based challenges to begin with.

Finally, terrain.  4e places a huge emphasis on terrain in combat.  Unlike previous editions, 4e just won’t work without a grid.  This isn’t a bad thing, but if you want to run verbal combats, choose another system.  I found out very early that when I phone in the terrain, my fights were boring.  When I drew up terrain they were interesting.  I never quite figured out what particular terrain elements worked, aside from placing archers in high, out of reach places.  My method ended up being to throw as much stuff on the board as possible and let the players decide which areas were interesting.  I think this is an area I could have improved upon.  I would absolutely buy a splat book of terrain elements.  I’m not so interested in hazards that exist in squares.  But I want to know how enemies behave in a 5 foot corridor as opposed to a 10 foot one.

My general attitude on terrain was to always give the enemies advantage.  I placed them as though they had all the time in the world to scout the terrain and set up an ambush.  But if the players were smart enough to scout, they could see the setup in advance or approach from another angle.  The reason for this was twofold.  First off it automatically gave me a way to reward scouting.  Too often, scouting just means that you see the fight before you enter it and there’s no advantage to gain.  This all but guaranteed that the players would have something they could do with the recon info.  The second reason was that I like battles where the tide turns.  My players wanted a challenge.  They got bored and complained when they weren’t threatened in a fight.  Giving the enemies tactical advantage made the fight more challenging, but didn’t affect the XP budget.  But when the players finally broke the tactical advantage, the tides turned and the fight was won.  Yay drama, even in combat.

At over 2000 words, this part of game wrap is long enough.  I’m sure I’ll think of other 4e elements to comment on, but for now they’ll go on hold.  In the next few posts I’d like to ignore the system side of things and try to look at some of the story decisions I made.

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