Back in the 4E Saddle Again…

Last night marked the return of my “Nobilis Draconic” campaign for 4E D&D. The PC’s returned with their original characters, now 17th Level, with about 10 years progressed in the time line. Ten years was flexible enough for the characters to go off on their own travels and tales, and for their world to develop and change a bit while still maintaining some “adventurer” functionality. When we left off, they had finished off the daughter of Tiamat, stopped an invasion by the Chromatic armies, and the heroes (or should I say, paragons) saved the day and became the big shakers and movers for the Empire.

The characters reunited last night for the 10th Anniversary of the Fellhaven Festival, after receiving letters from Heddro (now a Sheriff of the town turned small city) inviting the founders to return for the celebration.  The characters met up in the familiar old Tavern where they used to stay, drank themselves stupid and agreed to partake in the arena tournaments for old time’s sake. The group’s Wizard, Lola, had recently opened a school for the Arcane Arts in Fellhaven. She thought this was a perfect opportunity to promote her school and library, by hosting a “Caster’s Duel” between her and the other professors.  Meanwhile, the Scion of Arkhosia, Kriv, accepted a challenge for a rematch by his old Arena opponent (the Warforged known as “Atrak”), and the Warlord Iceborn accepted a challenge from the old Elite Guard leader, Trueflame, for some “War Games.”

Last night was also an opportunity to bring in a new player: My buddy Josh (of my “Late Night Crew”) has joined the campaign. He’s in sort of a scary role here: I made his character for him, gave him a great back story and everything. Still, it’s a pre-made, and I know the intimate bonds with your character aren’t always there with a pre-made.  Still, I wanted to work in a character that everyone would accept into the party, and not just some other adventurer whom they never met that just happened to be as billy badass as them (the champions of the known world, really.) I based his character off the young boy they rescued early back in the Heroic tier, whose family was killed and left orphaned and adopted by the players. The boy had grown up after the war, and has become an important figure. His “uncle” was the dwarf who martyred himself in order to retrieve Moradin’s relics in the last campaign, which was a major pivotal plot point in the war. In the 10 years since, I had developed his legacy into Sainthood. The young lad, who had been raised not only by the Heroes but also taken in by the Dwarfs and offered schooling and training in their ways, has grown up to become the first Paladin of St. Ogleby.  By the time he was 18, the lad had his fair share of battles driving rogue Chromatic dragons out of their layers in the Mountains, as well as assisting in pushing back the denizens of the Underdark from the Dwarven cities. When his character arrived at the Inn, the heroes were amazed to see him and welcomed him to their table.

Running an Arena Game

The idea for last night’s session was to help get the players back into their character’s skin after a long hiatus. Last time we touched these characters was about February, and haven’t really had any regular game play since then. We’ve had a couple Heroic tiered adventures in the Realms, played a few one-shots of other games; so coming back to Paragon Tier 4E was something I knew we’d all need a refresher course on. Especially since I’ve been playing more “rules lite” games like High Valor mixed in with 1E AD&D. And of course, I wanted it to be a way for Josh to get to know his new character and all of his scary new powers. He’s barely even touched 4E, and rarely has seen the higher levels of any D&D game.

So, figuring I had this great map from the Bloodsand Arena module from Free RPG Day, an Arena session would be good practice for everyone. The Wizard’s duel was pretty fun; handled it by rolling up the other “instructors” in the Character Builder, and dueling to first bloodied. The one on one fight with the Warforged went different from how I expected…again, fight to first bloodied, but I upgraded the opponent to a Warforged Titan but scaled him down to a Level 17 Soldier, and only Large size. The fight was over in three rounds as Kriv went in and blew everything he had right away into the poor guy’s face. Definitely no pussy footing going on in that match.

The “War Games” match was the highlight of the session. I came up with an arena battle between two teams: Each team’s Leader was parked in an area at opposing sides of the map. The Leaders were allowed to do anything they could, but could not leave those zones. The goal was to bum rush the other team’s Leader and take him out. Again, it didn’t go quite as I expected but it was still pretty fun. The team I devised I simply made in the Adventurer’s Tools by editing various monsters and scaling them up and down accordingly. That aspect was pretty fun for me, and I think I’m gonna be kitbashing my own tailored critters a lot more often now. But at the same token, the players were able to bum rush and take out most of the team in only a few rounds. Apparently I under estimated the player’s capabilities, and I think Paragon tier is actually not as frightening as I felt it was. Maybe it’s because we’re at the higher end of it now? Who knows.

Observations on Combat Timing

It’s really funny looking at 4th Edition after running and playing AD&D.  First edition combat seemed to go so much faster, but character roles (to me at least) felt so limiting.  It seemed like the Exploration aspect was what ate up more time in AD&D, as well as calculating XP and treasure splits etc. And while a good AD&D game can handle stuff a lot looser and fast paced combat wise, it still involved remembering so many different charts and mechanics to operate. 4th Edition, on the other hand, keeps everything fairly streamlined. Initiative Rolls, Skill checks, Spell Powers, Base attacks….all pretty much based on the same roll. And yet it’s so much lengthier. I think where 4E gets lengthy isn’t the measurements and dependencies on miniatures (because, frankly, I can visualize squares better than I can exact measurements like in 1E.) I’m thinking it’s all of the Conditions and side effects to keep track of….especially when you get different things like players “marking” opponents for different effects. I kept the condition spamming minimal last night, and it kept the pacing pretty fast.

Combat still dragged a bit, but I think that was due to all my players looking over their power cards and trying to remember their tactics. Funny thing about that: The new guy, with little 4E experience, seemed more willing to dive in and go crazy using powers and action points right off the bat than the rest of the characters. Sure, he wound up getting down the bloodied level in 2 turns, but he sure did stir up the hornet’s nest and blew up on a good chunk of foes. The result was putting the other side heavy on the defense, and positioned in a vulnerable state.

The other players were able to come in and clean up and make the match over quick…but not without careful considerations and long, paused moments of thinking. It was like watching old men playing Chess in the park. Perhaps with experience, they were worried more about optimal tactics and positioning over balls-to-the-walls tactics. It’s not something to fault them with, but I think that’s why the combat drags at times. The strategies are now more involved, more defined, and it makes decision making in later levels a lot more risky. Running in with the metaphorical “guns a blazin” could be costly.

Something I’m seriously considering now is letting the players pre-roll their dice before combat. Greywulf posted about this a while back in his Speeding up 4E Combat article…letting the players make 5 pre-rolls, and spending them on their turns how they saw fit. This way they can decide when to use the high rolls and bite it on the crappy ones.  It’s a little gamey, but, I think it would help with them figuring out a chain of tactics as opposed to just waiting until their turn to decide on something.  I’m even tempted to break one of my own pet peeves — table talking — and allow them to briefly strategize a plan (as long as they work in some free actions to gesture and shout out to their comrades) just so they can all act together more as a group. It would also help the “downtime” between turns still feel involved while someone else makes their move.

The Next Adventures

Considering a big chunk of our campaign came from running a modified version of Keep on the Shadowfell, I thought it’d be fun (and easier for me to plan) to run them through P3: Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress and E1: Death’s Reach.  They’ve done great things to save the world, now it’s time adventure on into the Shadowfell and get involved with much greater threats. Although, I will say that I’m stretching out the events in Nightwyrm into a much longer series of sessions.  I didn’t really like the middle part being a big “Wall Crawl” to find all of the soul rings to get to the middle part….so instead I’m going to attempt to break them up into a couple session’s worth of encounters mixed in with some Shadowfell exploration and more Role-Playing. Not exactly sure how yet….but I think it’s doable.  Will post more on this when I get some ideas rolling.

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