Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thunderspire Labyrinth Post-Mortem

After having spent the last year completing the Keep on the Shadowfell (KotS) and Thunderspire Labyrinth (TL) adventures our Sunday night DnD group is going to do a 2E adventure with Mark as the DM (here). After that Scott is working on converting his 2E Ravenloft adventures to a 4E format and we will likely do that next. We will probably finish this adventure triad at some point and do the Pyramid of Shadows (PoS) adventure. I have looked it over and I am looking forward to running it.

After we completed KotS I did a post-mortem (here) and I want to do the same here, although I am sure there will be some duplication between the two posts. Since this was our initial foray into the world of 4E I want to expand the post to include some general discussion of 4E as well. This was also my first attempt at DM'ing a DnD game of any version and I certainly learned a lot over this past year. All of the players were on the same learning curve as me though and that helped.

First of all I must say I am extremely pleased the way things went. I really did enjoy the adventures from my end of the table, although the 4E learning experience really did turn out to be a shared experience for the group as a whole. I think we got most of everything right eventually, even if that included playing something incorrectly one week and then correcting our play the following week. There were a few times when the DM had to make an arbitrary decision while he simultaneously provided a caveat that the DM had reserved the right to change his mind at a future date.

The maps and sharing them with Mark worked very well. The use of grid based maps was unfamiliar to us as a group, and with Mark in North Carolina this originally looked to be a real problem. The "maps on spreadsheets" solution worked very well. It was easy enough to create the maps, and then once they were shared Mark developed his own processes for hiding unexplored areas of the map and for adding and moving tokens for the characters and the monsters. Apart from having to remind players to let Mark know what cell address the character moved to this was actually pretty seamless.

For the KotS maps I used a lot of text strings, i.e., "Chairs" or "Tables", to denote items on the map. Originally I had purposefully avoided using artwork, i.e., a picture of a chair or table, but eventually I came to the conclusion it just wasn't providing the right aesthetic. I replaced most of the text strings for the TL maps with artwork that was cut/pasted in. The chairs and tables tokens occasionally required further clarification during play, I tried to be careful to identify everything in a room when the room was entered. The real difference here was that I was able to have pillars that didn't take up the whole square and could be angled past to save a movement point, but still provided cover.

Most of the individual rooms in TL were laid out on separate spreadsheet tabs. This worked OK to a point, but when the party moved from room to room the addressing of the individual cells would never match up. Starting with TL I created single maps on a tab with all of the rooms contained therein, and then I would print out small sections of the larger map, i.e., the individual rooms. While transitioning from room to room was a bit of a hassle, at least all the cell addressing lined up for those who were still behind in the previous room or hallway.

The use of the miniatures was easy once the maps were laid out and the movement rules were learned. The selection I had was sufficient, plus the generic black markers that I numbered worked well when dealing with minions. I did borrow some of Leo's miniatures as needed, plus it was Leo who built the mini-table so we could place the maps on the larger table and keep them away from the food.

The initiative cards worked well also. Brian and I had learned that idea at Gencon, and we were able to enhance it by cutting and pasting the character skills card from the character sheet for each player. We also utilized separate color cards for players versus monsters. Having a designated "initiative cop" for the evening to update and then run through the initiative order was helpful to the DM as well.

The "bloodied", "marked", and "other" markers worked very well. The colored foam cut-outs were just the right circumference and the right height for our purposes. I was never able to find a way to clean up the sloppily cut edges which still bugs me, but regardless, they worked. I will need to create larger markers for larger creatures for next time. Tracking these conditions and effects was one more thing Mark had to do via long distance as well.

I also printed out a character sheet for each monster for each encounter, using the Adventure Tools monster database. This provided me with the latest tweaks and corrections to the monsters themselves but also provided a place for notes and tracking HP per monster. With the maps already created, printed, and assembled, with the monster character sheets already provided, with all the necessary accessories collected, and with the adventure data taken right out of the book, preparation time was minimal once we got started.

The two adventures were very combat focused, but they were the first two adventure modules released after 4E was released, so there was no doubt some impetus to teach the new combat mechanic. I should have probably pushed more on skill checks. There were some skill challenges in the TL module, although I am sure I didn't do a good job laying them out for my players. I was sure there would be a proper treatise written on skill challenges by now, but maybe I just haven't come across it yet. Hopefully the Wednesday night DDE games will have more examples of how to use skill challenges.

As far as 4E goes, I like it. I like the maps. I like the miniatures. I like the movement rules. I like the character sheets as produced via the character builder (CB) tools. I understand that Wizards is still essentially in the middle of the development process, but none of the angst from the gaming community about the constant changes prevented us from playing our game and having a good time with it. Rules would occasionally change underneath us (i.e., magic missile), but we just rolled with it.

There was one particular rule I felt to be a bit egregious though. Let's say Krstic was standing near the door and in rushed six goblins. He would get an opportunity attack at every goblin as it rushed by him. Really? Six separate opportunity attacks as they each simultaneously passed by him? And if the monster Krstic was already was engaged with then tried to move away Krstic would get yet another opportunity attack? That's a bit much is all I'm saying.

As far as the length of combat encounters,well, sometimes they took a long time. Sometimes they took a real long time. There were several factors at play here.

First of all, this was our first exposure to any post-2E DnD version. We acknowledged there would be a learning curve for the players and for the DM, so we purposefully walked through the first several encounters to make sure we had a good feel for how to play our characters within the new mechanic. Things picked up from there of course, but so did the level of monsters and the increased player levels brought along increased options on their part as well.

Secondly, we had seven players, and then eight, for modules that were designed for five players. I upped the number of monsters and adjusted monster levels to ensure the proper level of encounter was maintained, but there were still a lot of turns between each individual players turn. And more often than not the action a player might have originally intended to use would be rendered moot by the time the turn actually rolled around to them, so they essentially had to start all over in sizing up their actions.

Thirdly, the culture of our gaming group is that we don't particularly rush through things to begin with. I would occasionally push people to hurry up when it would get to be 10:00 or so, but in general that's just not the way we play.

I suppose I could impose more on our "initiative cop" to remind the next player in the queue to be ready, but in general it probably it what it is. One of the things Scott and I talked about was the idea of doubling the damage a monster could do, but halving its hit points. In theory they would do about the same amount of damage, but do so in the half of the time. Another option is that Essentials characters are supposed to provide a more streamlined character which should speed up combat as well.

The other thing with adjusting the monsters encounter XP value by 7/5 (and then 8/5) was that it wasn't just as easy as throwing in more monsters. Sometimes the room size was a limiting factor, so I would bump some monster levels up to adjust. I would also break like monsters up into different initiative groups just to break up combat order a little. The adventure modules provided a section on monster tactics that I always intended to stick pretty closely to, but once combat started most of that went out the door.

When the evening was over sometimes I was would be pleased at how well the encounter went, but sometimes not. I am not sure there really is an exactly even balance to this - we do roll dice to determine our outcomes after all - but overall I thought it went well. I didn't want every encounter to be like our next-to-last one where almost every party member was really bloodied and beaten. If every encounter was like that we'd never get done. My goal for the regular encounters was to be able to push the players just that little bit, just enough so they knew they would have to work to succeed.

It was easy to adjust for any GP or Gems that were supposed to be in a particular room - I just multiplied the total by 7/5 (later 8/5). Magic items weren't so easy to scale, so I went with the "magic item as reward at the end of the adventure" idea to account for that discrepancy. That would mean the characters might be lacking some minor level of fire power during the current dungeon, but would guarantee them to be well compensated in time for the next adventure.

As far as including the NPC Renny as part of the adventurers, well, it wasn't part of the plan. Krstic opted not to kill him, and then the party spent a day or so to wait in the Chamber of Eyes, and that gave Eldred a chance to take pity on him, so it just kind of worked out that way. Mark and I worked up a fundamentally flawed character, gave him a little background as someone who wasn't evil, but through a series of misfortune and poor decisions had ended up working as a slaver. Mark and I had talked a few times about what to do with Renny, but I think I have decided that in the future any NPC interaction will be on a more short term basis.

In conclusion I suppose I can't consider myself a "Novice DM" any more. An Acolyte maybe, perhaps an Adept? Regardless, I am looking forward to being a player again, plus Mark does an excellent job with his self-produced adventures, so it will be fun.

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