Wednesday, June 9, 2010

KotS Post-Mortem Discussion

Given that I had posted in the blog a small project plan before starting our KotS adventure I thought this was a good opportunity for the group members to have a discussion about how they thought things went and as the DM to get any feedback that might be forthcoming. I guess you can consider this our post-project review or a project post-mortem.

Overall I thought things went very well. Given that we have played together as a group for ~20 years the role playing part of the game was something that didn’t need to be taught. But obviously the new game mechanic took a little awhile to get running smoothly. The group consensus was that we were just going to take our time, make our mistakes, and to just play and have fun and make our corrections and tweaks as we went along.

The Keep on the Shadowfell Adventure – The thing to remember here is that this was the first Wizards 4E adventure. It was targeted not only at experienced players like us that were making their first foray in 4E, but also at new players who had never played DnD before. The group felt the level was appropriate for what it wanted to do – to let players walk through the new mechanic with a base-level type of adventure without a lot of real weirdness or oddities. For instance, there were no random encounters along the way, they were all scripted.

The group felt the adventure as a whole was very encounter heavy, but the players were warned they could expect a little more variation in Thunderspire Labyrinth (TL). Two encounters in a three hour period were about our max, but even that would mean we would likely have to start off the next week actually closing out the second encounter with room inspections, magic, and secrets, etc.

Time-wise it was pointed out that it took us five months to complete the entire KotS adventure. I expect TL to be similar in size, but the group is finishing two encounters some nights now so I expect that play may move along a little faster. Of course there are vacations and other absences to be accounted for, but I suspect we will wrap up in the September or October time frame.

Skill Checks – As the DM I understand the mechanic, but often it is so easy it seems to be pointless. I don’t want to make it impossible either, but with a party of seven people it was almost impossible that no one would have seen the Gelatinous Cube, for instance. Also, the mechanic for detecting secrets seems to not be well-defined. This will be something to discuss as we move into the next adventure.

Skill Challenges – The value of this mechanic is not quite apparent to me yet, and some of the players voiced the same concern, i.e., the issue of "role-playing" versus "roll-playing." There will be more of these in TL though so we’ll continue to test them.

The DM – I really enjoyed DM’ing our first 4E adventure. I enjoyed the project preparation, I enjoyed the story telling and the encounters, and I enjoyed the ongoing discussion as the party wrangled the finer rules points. The idea of someone beside the DM handling the initiative cards seemed to work well also, although why Dave repeatedly kept overlooking Brian that one night is still a mystery.

However, as an inexperienced DM I soon realized how difficult it was to keep track of the actions and damage and then to also play the monsters competently. The monsters did get more complicated as the adventure moved along, and while the book does give tactics for the monsters to follow, at some point the real tactic was to just “shut up and swing.”

I tried to be honest when I made my mistakes and as a group we were able to work through them (e.g., not being able to stack aura damage). Most mistakes were rather innocuous, but the biggest was the “re-animating minions” fiasco during the big final fight with Kalarel. Even then there were several times when the DM had characters on their last legs – three different players were temporarily knocked unconscious, but all relatively early in the adventure.

Encounters - The adventure was written for 5 players, and not the 7 we are playing with. Each encounter was therefore scaled up from a given encounter level of XP (and GP) to a value worth 7/5 of that amount, with enough monsters added to account for that difference. Many of the additional monsters were minions, which worked well early because the party had trouble killing minions originally, but that problem seemed to dissipate as the characters levels increased (except for that one ever present super-minion that refused to be killed). Of course in TL the encounter levels will undergo the same 7/5 level of adjustment, but I may do things a little different going forward with regard to how the monsters are added, i.e., maybe 1-2 additional minions instead of 4-5 and substituting in a tougher creature (or two).

Maps – My primary concern when this started was how sharing the maps with Mark was going to work, but the shared spreadsheet maps worked very well. Given that the group has never made an extensive use of maps before, much less any sort of grid/movement system, it was just part of the process of learning the new game mechanic. Players do still occasionally need to be reminded to let Mark know where their character moved to, but it happened a lot less as we progressed. Most of the location confusion happened when a player changed their mind at the last minute and there was a lot of cross talk and Mark didn’t get the real final destination. This was easily corrected once discovered.

While the printed maps worked well, I often thought the players were sometimes just looking them as a flat piece of paper with various colors on it. That most likely meant I was not doing a good enough job of describing the scene, but it also means I probably need to do a little more with the maps themselves. I have added a lot more text descriptions in the TL maps to hopefully help overcome that.

I had originally resisted the idea of cut/pasting in pictures of items onto the maps (tables, chairs, statues, etc), but am reconsidering this going forward. For instance, in the trap room the idea was to have players attempt to climb and disable the statue. A large gray square just didn’t really give that inspiration.

Secret Rooms - I am also still pondering ways to reveal secret rooms without giving away that they are there in the first place. The overlay section of map that we used with the last undead encounter seemed to work well. As mentioned previously there was also some discussion about the “detect secrets” mechanic being weak – something else for us to work on.

Large maps versus small maps – I did a little bit of both in KotS. The problem with small maps is that the cell address’s change on every new map. The problem with large maps is there really isn’t enough space to keep a large map on the table, and the mere existence of the “fog of war” often reveals as much as it hides. I have created several very large maps for TL, with the intention of slicing them up for use on the table. This is something we will continue to experiment with.

Miniatures – There are never enough of the right types and number of miniatures for every adventure. Even if I went with some sort of multitude of mounted cardboard cutouts the logistics would be overwhelming at some point. Overall I thought this went well though – I do need to number both sides of my minion tokens though.

DDI Tools – You certainly do not need the CB tool to create and/or update your character, but it really, really helps. Wizards may have a lot of issues with their lack of previously promised tools, but they have done a good job ensuring the CB tool is kept up-to-date with all the new options and updates. Honestly - where else can you get this in one place? Even if you bought every single book and annotated every correction and update, you would still have all the data spread all over the place. I think everyone has it installed now but Dave, but he is using the tool at least to research options for his character.

Blog – I have enjoyed doing our little blog. While I understand not everyone can read it every week, everyone has said something nice about it and it is appreciated. When suggestions were asked for the request was to include an XP/GP scoreboard section with each week’s recap – consider it done. According to my blog tool this is my 50th blog entry - Woo-hoo!

Thanks – Thanks to Leo for building our map table, thanks to Mark for helping me work out the map issues, thanks to Rich, Joette, and Leo for taking turns hosting and working with Mark to set-up our video connection, thanks to Brian for leading the way by being the first to get a DDI login, thanks to Dave for asking the questions that make us dig out the answers, and thanks to Scott for talking me through different DM topics on the ride home every Sunday night. I am sure I am forgetting something, but it should be obvious this was a real team effort and I am looking forward to our next adventure.

DM Notes - Our discussion brought up two game play reminders:

Please remember to inform the DM if you are inflicting a specific type of damage (i.e., radiant, poison, fire, cold, etc.). Some monsters are vulnerable and some are resistant to certain type of damages. For instance, not all of our Cleric’s abilities deal radiant damage, so I can’t automatically assume every time Mark does damage it is by default radiant damage. I will add/subtract the appropriate level of damage according to what I am told, and I will try to do the same when my monsters do damage to the characters.

As the players move up in levels and with higher levels of magic items there are benefits that can grow during an encounter, such as temporary hit points or temporary armor bonuses. Sometimes my monsters are affected, i.e., a lower to-hit number for some reason. I am not even going to try to keep track of these for every player – please do so yourself and try to keep the rest of us honest.

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