A collection of rambling posts about gaming, running, and politics. (and, in 2009, photography.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

D&D Session 3: Escape from the Goblin Warrens

We had a small snafu with one of our character sheets, but we were all present at 1, and ready to game. Its funny, in previous game groups I've seen anywhere from ten minutes to well more than 30 minutes spent initially, chatting and catching up and so forth. And I haven't seen that as much. I'm not sure if its the game, and everyone is just ready to sit down and roll some dice, or maybe that some of the gamers are still a little new to each other, or what.

We picked up where we'd left off last week, having just dispatched some goblins and a couple of cave chokers. In the junk, the party found two interesting items, an amulet, and some gloves. They were quickly able to tell that the amulet was a +1 amulet of protection, and it took a little longer, but the gloves are gloves of thievery. They seemed a little excited at getting their first magic items of the campaign. I mentioned that I was relying on the players to police themselves with regard to handing out magic items. Tangentially: new D&D takes a very different approach to treasure and magic than 3.5 and older. While the older editions approached it very much in a simulationist stance, (this monster has this kind of treasure, that monster has that kind of treasure, if you were lucky enough to kill a monster with a neat sword, you got a neat sword), while D&D4 takes a very much more gamist and frankly, MMORPG based approach. The difference from my perspective is one of balance. In older D&D your DM might skimp on magic stuff, which was fine, except that it put the characters behind the monster Challenge Rating curve, or they characters might be particularly enterprising, and might end up with a huge collection of +1 swords that they use to build giant animal sculptures from. D&D4 takes the very scheduled approach of saying that a 1st level party gets x magic items of y level. While that sounds dry, and unfun, I think that it just relies on the DM to keep the verisimilitude going, and keep his list handy, and hand out stuff from it that seems appropriate. It works for me. Moving right along. The group kept going on their trek through the seemingly endless caves. They came to a ravine, their path led to a narrow stone bridge that spanned a black void. They began to move across the narrow bridge, when from the darkness across from them, a large rock, fastened on the end of a rope, like a pendulum, swung toward them from out of the darkness, the rock as large as a man. Behind, another rock swung out, this one smaller. Both missed, and the party began to run across the narrow bridge, which was short enough that they were able to cross most of it with a double-run movement. (note to self, next time, make the bridge two or three times that length ;)) Maddie, playing the paladin, wanted to know if lying down and bellying across the bridge would help to eliminate the threat of the rocks. it was a clever idea, but her party members checked and saw that it should be possible to run across the bridge in short order. The party tied up with the goblins that were on the other side of the bridge, who were the ones swinging the stones across the chasm. Krissi's character, hanging back at the other end of the bridge, wanted to wait until the rock swung by again, and leap onto it, and ride it home. She waited and finally the big and small rocks swing back out of the darkness, the small one swing toward our wizard. He sidestepped it, but Krissi's ranger took the full hit of the big rock. Its effect was to cause damage and push the target 1 square and they'd go prone. Her ranger was near the edge, so i was going to push her off the edge, and have her roll checks to try to scramble back up onto the bridge, instead, she wanted to absorb the hit, and grab the rock, as she'd previously stated. So I let her, cause it was cool. In retrospect I should have upped the damage just a little, since she just took it... 4e D&D is sometimes a battle between gamism and verisimilitude, for me... more on that leter.. So Krissi's ranger leaps onto the rock, and swung across to where the gobling were, and just as I prepared to have her make an athletics check to leap off of the rock. she used her Eladrin *bamf* to make it to the ledge. And we were all locked up in combat. The players fought well, and I fought for the goblins, moving them in a way that attempted to match both with their printed tactics, with their abilities, and with the concept that I had for t he encounter. The party was victorious... eventually, when only one or two were left standing, with but a few hit points each, I told them that they wrapped it up. I saw this on another gamers blog, once the party has the fight, it may not be necessary to carry it the extra 2-4 rounds that it would take just to mop up. So the bad guys flee/die. After this, they pressed on into the caves.. soon coming to a section of cave that I began to detail on the grid map. I wonder sometimes if this takes a little of the mystery out of the game, and makes it more of a final fantasy game, in which they "explore" and are sometimes interrupted by me drawing some combat stuff, and putting minis out and then some combat happens. Anyway, it was a young purple worm (customized monster). It burst from the ground beneath them, coming up right beneath Andrew's character (decided by a random dice roll), the rest of the characters, in their close formation, were pushed back a square, and the immediate adjoining squares to the large (2x2 grid) monster became difficult terrain. The monster had its surprise round, and then the rest of the party started in on the beast. I created a custom power for the (solo) worm, a "thrash" power, an immediate reaction, each time it was hit by a successful melee attack, it would attack that person back for +7 vs reflex, and 1d10+3 damage, plus on a hit it would push the target one square and knock them prone. And this power worked great. Without it, the fighters would have just gathered around it and whaled on it. It gave it a complication, which is tons of fun. And at least one player said at the table, that it was his favorite fight so far, and that it was tons of fun. Within the first round, I think, Jason's Fighter used a daily power that let him move an ally two squares. He hit the worm and used the move on Andrew's Rogue. I was hesitant about this - Andrew's character being locked in the beasts maw. But we moved him, and for two reasons, that are sort of the same reason. I'm out to let players use their powers successfully whenever possibly. its a game about them, and the cool stuff that they do. And second was that I was battling with verisimilitude. I was quickly able to figure that Jason's dragonborn fighter hit the worm so hard that it hurled the rogue from its maw. That's one of the main quibbles that i have with 4e, is verisimilitude, and mostly I'm able to reconcile it, but I need to keep an eye on it. Soon, Maddie's Paladin had marked the worm, and so on the next round, it grabbed for her, and hit, getting the paladin in its maw. The next round, it swallowed her. She was still alive, though badly hurt. A couple of minor problems came up. Can the paladin use her two weapon Scythe inside it? No the monster description says only one handed weapons or natural weapons. So that kinda sucked for the Paladin. Can the cleric heal the paladin, while the paladin is in the stomach of the purple worm. The healing effect that Jerry's paladin was using was a ranged effect, so, again for the sake of "the players win", I quickly said "Sure." Soon enough, the worm was down. Also, they picked up a +1 holy symbol of life.

They pressed on and eventually came to a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge cavern, and started exploring around the edge, still very determinedly looking for an exit to the surface. Eventually they encountered a goblin herder, tending a flock of fire beetles. The goblin was opportunistic, and was happy to offer directions to the surface in exchange for some cash. She told them that there were two routes to the surface, either via the "Chimney", or via a goblin fortress that they'd have to pass through. This was where I'd decided to give the group some options about how to get to the surface. The chimney was to be a tough, nearly straight-up way to reach the surface. It would have been a skill challenge, and I'd have dragged it out for a bit, making it more than a series of dice rolls. Could they have done it? Probably. Would it have been tough? Oh for sure. The party barely considered it. I mentioned to some of them, after the fact and for future reference, that it would have given them XP. But they headed for the goblin fortress. They reached it, and found that the entrance was a 50 foot shaft that led up to the fortress. My players can thank games like "Dwarf Fortress" for giving me a wicked understanding of underground fortifications. To make a medium story short, the characters faced a terrifyingly difficult assault on the fortress. D&D forces me sometimes to strike a delicate balance, as I mentioned last session, about the uber umber hulks... While I do want my players to trust me, I need to be able to drop things in front of them that cannot (or at least, there are better ways) to solve than by the sword. That reminds me that an eternal weakness of a D&D group is sneaking around stuff. My party doesn't want to sneak anywhere, because half of them wear big time armor. Note to players: consider removing armor and sneaking. is it scary? sure. is it dangerous and exciting? well, what are you here for? So, tangentially, I am glad that my players trust me, and hope that they continue to do so, but I'm glad that its not a blind faith, in which they just assault everything that they see, trusting me to make it a "balanced encounter".

The party brokered a deal for safe passage from the opportunistic goblins. After much nervous haggling, the party, sans most of their weapons, made it into the fortress. Another few tense minutes were spent by me (and the party), making their way, under guard, through the fortress. The party waiting for a trap from the goblins, and me waiting on one of them to say "oh fuck it, I attack". We made it through,. money changed hands, and they proceeded toward the surface. Now, two quick things, one combat, and some encounter planning, and the other, some underlying economy mechanics. The combat: I'd setup a number of cool encounters for the session, more, I knew, than we'd get through. As the party rolled out of the goblin fort, they'd gotten a warning about being careful for cave spiders. I'd noted t his encounter up in advance, and had planned it either as a "punishment" earlier in the session, or to just be thrown in later, cause I thought it was pretty cool. So they were leaving the goblin fort at 5PM our time, which is quittin' time. I described the passage up out of the underground, and the side passage, and *oh the glint of gold, reflecting the torchlight, from down there somewhere!!!* and of course, there were some webs there. To my surprise, my awesome, but sometimes busy and time-crunched group, without a comment, debated fighting spiders or not, and decided to go in and liberate the cave from those nasty spiders. So charge in, they did. Another fun fight, in my opinion. Like the earlier goblin fight, I thought that something that I'd prepared got nixed a little. In the goblin fight, I only got to swing my rock swingy trap things like twice. It worked out fine, but of course I wanted to use them more. In the spider fight, I'd made up some rules regarding burning webs, deciding that flame applied to a web will burn one square of web plus one randomly decided adjacent square, and cause 2d6+3 damage to anyone in a burning web square. The cave had some web around the edges, and at the back, a ton of webs, and sword (for bait). The party made it deep into the cave, Jeremy Younger's Wizard burning huge swathes of web. Finally, rolling poorly on their stealth rolls, the spiders struck, one big mama spider, and a bunch of Swarms. Swarms are tough to hurt with melee or ranged attacks, or anything that's not "close or area" attack. And the mama spider had an ability that I'd made up, to *cough* shit more 3x3 squares of web. Now, something happened that I should have anticipated, but failed to do so. Web got shit onto the party, and the spiders moved in (getting movement bonuses on web), and started biting, and then the Wizard and the multiclass wizard characters started dropping napalm right onto their colleagues, to burn the web and the spider swarms. The burning was just too much, and dispatched the spiders. The party gathered the gold, and prepared to move on to the surface.

Now, notes:

The party did very well in all three combat encounters. They held their own, they used their abilities, they moved around, and they rocked, which is at least half the point of doing this, so it was awesome. My players rule, and all of them are deserving of honorable mention, though at the moment, Jerry's Cleric is a crazy healing machine, Maddie's Paladin is a crazy aggro-pulling machine who gets eaten by purple worms, and John's Warlord is a tactical machine, giving other characters extra strikes and moves and so forth.

The two non-combat encounters went much as I hoped that they would. The goblin herder dragged on too long, mostly my fault. I took the tactic of playing out their exploring, and his stalking them, and eventually contacting them, instead of saying "You hit a huuuuuuuuuuuuge cavern, which you explore for 3 hours before a goblin beetle herder offers to give you directions." Also, the party haggled fairly with the herder, instead of intimidating, or killing, or otherwise forcing the issue. Same for the goblin fortress. I had it planned as a non combat encounter, with some contingency plans in holding, but I was hoping that the PCs would be able to make their way through it without fighting, and they did!

quick Cut scene vs long and played out cut scene: just for observation and documentation sake: after the game, when directly requesting feedback from my players, one said that they had initially felt that they were trapped in this underground "dungeon crawl", going from one encounter to the next, separated only by a few words to set the stage for the next combat. The player said though that it seemed that wasn't the case, and was looking forward to getting out from underground. Another player said that they did not like the long cut scenes between encounters. During the conversation, I mentioned that I was going for something between the extremes of "quick cut scene between combats", and "Here is your geology lesson". I do not want the game to be just combat followed by combat, with some small filler in between, but I'm also not out to bore my players with long blah blah blah quartz geology blah blah coal vein blah blah, oh look at the time. I'm trying to give due diligence to evoking mental images, and some basic emotional responses, but totally not trying to drag it out. I'll keep working on it. I think it may be a little different once we're out of the underground. I have to compare though, to books, in which authors are sometimes allowed to go on for pages, setting up a scene or situation. I'm just trying not to gloss too lightly over stuff.

Money - so the players spend quite a bit of cash, paying goblins. And, for the record, I'm proud of them for doing so. On the other side of the coin, D&D4 has a somewhat tight economy, and what I mean is that, as I've mentioned, the rules lay out "Give players X amount of gold per level, and give them Y magic items". Which some people have complained long and loud about, but I think its good. Now, I'm not trying to follow it like a road map, but I'm interested in keeping it going. So, when I give the players 200 gold for the whole party, and then turn around and have the goblins charge them 140 gold for the whole party to pass through their fortress, I feel like I'm giving and then taking away.

DMing in general - holy cow, DMing for D&D 4 is such a breeze. I love it. I can create custom monsters in just a few minutes, with cool powers that create awesome combat scenes. I can still do most or all of "all the stuff you do in D&D", people can climb, jump, haggle, intimidate, etc. Its just so smooth. Sure, we're still getting used to it, but I feel like very session works a little smoother from a mechanical approach. Also, thanks to Jerry for having fully digested the material and having a solid answer to 4 out of 5 questions :)

XP: I've put up for discussion in the group the idea of doing 3 sessions per level, and ditching the xp thing. D&D is structured in a way that a "typical" group will level about every 4 sessions. D&D is built around giving XP for killing monsters, and D&D4 has some alternatives, but it seems to solve a couple of problems at once to look at just a flat advancement rate. 1- it provides a flat, standard and easily understandable rate of advancement. 2- it eliminates the argument "well, lets kill them. its XP, right?". 3- if I want to do this for 30 levels, we're talking 90 gaming sessions.. which is a long time investment. Not that I'm trying to cut anything short, but I do want to... um.. get there.

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