Thursday, July 31, 2008

If a Medium Size Minotaur Knocks Over a Large Dragon, is it Silly, Cool or Both?

a.k.a. Kobold Hall, Part 3

With the kobolds defeated, the rogue found the convenient note and key on the leader.

Area 5 - The True Threat
I replaced the map in the adventure with a long, cold sloping passage into the Frostfell Rift map from Fantastic Locations: The Frostfell Rift to make the terrain more interesting. The party crept in slowly, caught a glimpse of the dragon in the distance, and tried to talk to it, giving it time to circle around behind them. Once the fight was fully joined, the weakening breath seemed to worry the party a lot, especially when it scored a critical on the paladin (frost breath in your face, defender boy). The slowed, weakened minotaur fighter used goring charge to knock the dragon prone. This gave the rogue combat advantage, which she used to hit the dragon with her Easy Target exploit, and that allowed her to keep combat advantage for the rest of the fight.

I want to focus on the goring charge. Here's the relevant text from the minotaur entry in the back of the Monster Manual:
Special: You must charge as part of the attack.
Hit: 1d6 + Strength modifier damage, and the target is knocked prone.

We also have to look at 4e charging:
Movement Requirements: You must move at least 2 squares from your starting position, and you must move directly to the nearest square from which you can attack the enemy.

Slowed simply reduces movement to 2 (still far enough to charge), and weakened reduces damage (and says nothing about extra effects). The text of goring charge says nothing about the relative size of the attacker and the target. So by the 4e RAW, a slowed, weakened, medium-sized minotaur PC can use her goring charge to knock over a large-sized (or even bigger) dragon, making it prone and thus subject to her rogue ally doing Very Bad Things to it.

Realistic, no. Can be glazed over with action-movie-style description, yes. Player glee while recounting the moment repeatedly, priceless.

Are you the kind of DM who would:
1) Point out that even though no rule prohibits it, so many factors are inhibiting this action that you overrule the RAW and let the dragon keep its feet.
2) Run with the rules as written while describing the minotaur, a cloud of icy shards flying off her in all directions, running at the dragon in sumptuously-filmed action movie slow motion and bowling it over with a supreme effort of strength and will.

I'm #2 and fine with it. The player of the minotaur talked about this event almost daily for the entire week after it occurred, and with a grin on her face every time. The charge was probably the turning point in the battle - once the rogue nailed the prone dragon with Easy Target, she kept dishing out sneak attack damage every round while the paladin kept it marked so it couldn't effectively get rid of her. The teamwork displayed was inspiring to watch unfold. Three rounds later, the dragon went down under a pile of massive punishment.

Kobold Hall, Part 2

Now that the dead PC had been replaced and the borrowed wizard swapped out, the adventure into Kobold Hall continued.

Area 4 - The Big Boss
As DM, I found the rolling boulder confusing and weird. The battle map indicates that it should roll in circles around the room, but that makes no physical sense (and physical traps should obey physical laws, even in worlds with wizards and dragons). Instead I had it come around the corner and head down the entry passage as the party entered. This had the interesting effect of keeping two party members (the warlock and cleric) out of the room for the first few rounds of combat.

Lots of action ensued. Slingers rained down stones while dragonshields and the spiretop drake engaged the party. The wizard pushed a dragonshield closer to the wyrmpriest so the dragonborn could catch both in his breath weapon. Hatha attempted the first improvised attack of the campaign by trying to knock a slinger off the wall with a ladder - one Str vs. Reflex check later the outcome was decided, nice and simple. Near the end of the fight, a couple of party members attempted to daze or knock down the remaining enemies to give the rogue a chance to finish them off with a sneak attack. By this point all the kobolds were low on hit points and these attacks kept killing them instead, much to the rogue's chagrin.

Keeping two characters out of the room for a few rounds created an interesting dynamic - it allowed the fight to initially go pretty well for the bad guys, but also let the good guys get back on top pretty dramatically once their prodigal members returned. I didn't use the spiretop drake as effectively as I could have - he never used Flyby Attack, instead just landing and slugging it out with the paladin. Apparently even the simplified "all right there for you" 4e stat blocks still aren't simple enough for me.

Introducing New Characters

When we last saw our first band of intrepid heroes, Garback the Stabber had just been slain by guard drakes.

Since this was mostly intended as a mini-campaign, I was flexible with how Garback would be replaced. Jason elected to keep the same race, but changed classes to give the party two defenders instead of two leaders. Jen, having decided she liked the wizard class, also wanted to replace her borrowed wizard with one of her own creation (in fact, this is why Pele, the wizard in the second party, was originally created).

Jen came up with the amusing scenario that would swap out the PCs. Since the borrowed wizard was sent on his quest by the high level NPC wizard, and it had already been established that the NPC had access to a teleport circle, she thought the wizard should do it. Wwyzzarr's quest would transfer to Jen's new wizard, and off they'd go.

So, the next time we all met, on July 13th, the first thing that happened in game was that two new characters teleported into the party's midst. One, a dwarf wizard, told Wwyzzarr that the NPC "wanted to see him", and before the eladrin could say "Wait, what?" he was teleported away. Garback's body was also teleported away to save the party the trouble of figuring out what to do with it. This seemed like a great idea until it was pointed out that Garback was carrying the only treasure they had found up to that point. Oops.

Garback the Younger, dragonborn paladin

Vistra Frostwarden, dwarf wizard

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oh Gnome!

On July 4th, the 4-girl party was gathered again to face a den of evil...

The map: The Black Library from Fantastic Locations: The Frostfell Rift
The foes:
4 gnome skulks (downstairs, level 2 lurkers, 500 xp total)
1 more gnome skulk (upstairs, 125 xp)
2 iron defenders (upstairs, level 3 soldiers, 300 xp total)
1 gnome arcanist (upstairs, level 3 controller, 150 xp)

The set up: The group happened to be near the library when a bookish human came running out, calling for help and raving about "the giggling". After trying without success to get more details, the group crept cautiously inside. Once inside a quartet of small beings jumped them with fearsome battle cries of "I'm a monster! Rawr!"

The gnomes were hiding among and on top of the bookcases and in the stairwell, and used their Fade Away and Shadow Skulk abilities to great effect. Another thing that hindered the party was the wizard's specialization in fire spells, which she could only use very carefully with all the books around (I hadn't even considered this effect of fighting in a library - Jen pointed it out to me and then spent the entire fight trying to find ways around it).

Once the quartet of gnomes was defeated, the fight quickly moved upstairs. At this point both girls' dice turned completely against them. Between poor rolls and the arcanist's aura of illusion it took them what felt like forever to make any headway, and by the time they took out the skulk and bloodied the arcanist they were in a bad way (and the iron defenders were barely scratched). In the end they managed to get around the defenders anough to finally land a killing blow on the arcanist. At that point I ruled that the defenders, with nothing left to defend, simply shut down. It would have been seriously anti-climactic to have the brainless automatons TPK the party after they had defeated the BBEG.

The downstairs fight went pretty well from my point of view. I remembered to use Fade Away to get wounded skulks back to a better position where they could snipe with Shadow Skulk. I was well on my way to my goal of making 4e gnomes into feared adversaries for this party. Then the upstairs battle turned into a horrifying mudbath of bad luck. Also, I probably should have replaced one iron defender with something a level or two lower. In the end I think instead of coming out with a good hate on for gnomes, the girls hate, in order:
1) Their dice
2) Iron defenders
3) Gnomes (at least they make the list)

TPK, Near TPK, and the Memorable Session

After spending the afternoon defeating the 4e version of The Burning Plague, we discovered that the characters hadn't quite earned enough experience to reach level 2. The girls wanted to play more, so I broke out a tough encounter I had on hand.

Brief (hah!) explanation: Before I ran 4e for the group, Jen and I tried out the mechanics by creating some characters and running some combats where we each ran two characters and I also ran the monsters. I would build encounters based on the guidelines in the DMG, pull out whatever battle map I could lay my hands on, and away we'd go. We ran a few of these, and this was where Jen discovered that she didn't think running two 4e characters was very tough. (I thought running two characters and the monsters was a bit much)

Anyway, one encounter had resulted in TPK twice. The first time we blamed it on poorly-optimized character builds, so we rebuilt two characters so their classes no longer played against their racial advantages and tried again. After that try also resulted in TPK, we started to wonder whether the encounter was just too tough.

The encounter was:
1 bugbear warrior (level 5 brute, 200 xp)
1 hobgoblin soldier (level 3 soldier, 150 xp)
3 goblin sharpshooters (level 2 artillery, 375 xp total)
Map: Caves of Chaos from Fantastic Locations: The Frostfell Rift

It's my understanding that 725 xp worth should be tough for a 4-person 1st level party, but not a guaranteed TPK. However, the monsters used the central cave entrance on the map as a choke point, letting the two bruisers very effectively keep the PCs away from the sharpshooters. This turned out to be a pretty devastating tactic.

So, back to the girls, they were feeling like their new party was a well-oiled fighting machine after their success at Burning Plague. I gave them a story about how two parties of adventurers had met utter defeat at the hands of some goblins, but the lord of the town felt that the newly-minted heroes who had spared the town from plague could take them easily.

This is getting a bit long for my taste and I'm just past the setup. Fortunately there's not much left to tell. The girls slugged it out with the goblins, and in the end they were all still standing but with hit points in the single digits almost across the board. I can't remember a damn thing about that combat, and when I asked Jen she couldn't either. Maybe near TPK isn't a sure recipe for a memorable session. There goes the whole premise of my blog....

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Burning Plague 4e, Part 2

After clearing the kobolds out of the big cave, the group came to the other exit. When they found out that the exit passage was the same size as the entrance and continued to slope downwards, they decided to push the big rock into it and see what they could crush. Since (as they pointed out) a band of kobolds had apparently pushed the rock up the other passage, I couldn't very well set the DC to get it moving down this passage very high. A few strength checks later the rock was on its way to the ritual pit.

The rock wasn't as effective as the girls had hoped, threatening two skeletons and only damaging one. The blazing skeleton was a tough customer, dealing out a lot of damage with its fiery aura. This turned out to be the one fight in the adventure that had them worried.

After dispatching the skeletons, they proceeded to the final battle. I had been really looking forward to this one - I'm a big fan of the 4e hobgoblin warcaster and his abilities that move PCs around the field. I figured I could do some cool stuff with him...

...if he could have rolled any number on 1d20 higher than 5.

I'm pretty sure the only damage the warcaster did during the entire combat was one force pulse that damaged the warlord, and that was just because force pulse does damage on a miss. After that he spent the rest of the combat running from the wizard's flaming sphere and missing with force lore attacks. The rest of the hobgoblins did all right, but without their leader landing a single blow they didn't have a chance.

It's painful when your dice turn what should be a kickass bad guy into a laughingstock. I guess I should be grateful it wasn't Jeff Rients' fire buddy chasing him around the field. Other than that, these fights went pretty smoothly, probably because there wasn't much to them that I could screw up. The skeletons just attacked whoever was closest, and the hobgoblin soldiers closed while the archer and warcaster fired ranged attacks at the party. I even thought about, each round, where the warcaster would shove his target if he hit.

Cast of Characters, Second "Campaign"

Kiro, eladrin warlord

Mazzil, elf ranger

Mardred Stonemaiden, dwarf paladin

Pele Tempest, tiefling wizard

Burning Plague 4e, Part 1

After our first 4th edition session, Laurel liked it enough to request that we do it again the next weekend. Jason was unable to attend, so on June 29th the girls made two new characters each and we started a second "campaign".

  • Kiro, eladrin warlord
  • Mazzil, elf ranger
  • Mardred Stonemaiden, dwarf paladin
  • Pele Tempest, tiefling wizard
Last spring I downloaded the fan-created Return of the Burning Plague 4e adventure from enworld, so I used it for this session.

The first kobold encounter was unmemorable. The second elicited giggles about how all those minions fit in the pantry, and what they were doing in there anyway. Overall both were pretty straight fights involving lots of blasting from the fire-focused wizard and slashing/bashing from the ranger.

The rules noted in the encounter text about jumping up on tables to gain combat advantage went unused because the kobolds heard the party coming and flipped the tables to gain cover. This was a pointless maneuver in hindsight - none of the kobolds initially in the room had a ranged attack at all, and would have been better off getting on the tables to gain combat advantage. No doubt this is what the module author was expecting. In my defense, there is no explicit statement of this tactic being useful for the kobolds in the text.
Also, I really need to pay more attention to encounter text once fights start. The minions came out of the pantry and simply charged the party instead of throwing flour. Considering the presence of a fire-focused mage, the flammable flour would have made the encounter much more interesting.

The ranger succeeded at the Perception check to spot the boulder trap. The module text states that "It is so massive it cannot be disarmed however." I either missed or ignored this sentence, but the party didn't really disarm it so much as activate it and follow it down the passage into the big cave. The ranger stormed the ledge and chased down the kobold slingers with some fire support from the wizard. The nearby room with the wyrmpriest played out separately when the ranger stumbled into it. The wyrmpriest did an admirable job against the party, shifting away every round to use energy orb or into position to catch most of them in dragon breath.

Again, really need to pay attention to the encounter text. The ramp up to the ledge should have slowed the ranger down, but I missed that it was difficult terrain. The wyrmpriest and his minions should have appeared earlier instead of sitting in the adjoining room waiting to be slaughtered.

To be continued...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Kobold Hall, Part 1

Once the party had been hurriedly teleported to the dungeon entrance, they got down to business.

Area 1 - Sludge Pit
I added one extra kobold slinger to this encounter since we had a 6-PC party. Like the introductory text says to expect, this was a pretty straight slugfest. Wwyzzarr tried to thunderwave a kobold into the sludge pit, but he made his save. I don't recall much else of note.

The kobold slinger in the barred hallway should have escaped to warn his friends in area 2. I was afraid the party would focus on chasing him to the point where they would effectively turn the first two encounters into one long one, and I had read that doing so could often spell TPK. Unfortunately, in retrospect I think it would have made area 2 a better encounter.

Area 2 - The Tomb
The kobolds won initiative and I got too excited over it. The kobolds charged the party instead of following their prescribed tactics. The party, even though they hadn't really gelled into a unit yet, destroyed the kobolds without much effort.

With the addition of the escaped kobold above and more attention to tactics, this would have been a much more interesting encounter.

Area 3 - During this encounter the party started to gel. They had figured out some effective teamwork tactics like using the cleric's Lance of Faith or the warlord's Commander's Strike to get more damage out of the fighter or the rogue. Jen discovered she likes the 4e wizard class when Wwyzzarr ruined the kobolds' day with a mage hand that disabled their weird trap thing by untying it from the ceiling. The other memorable moment of the battle was not as good for the party - Garback the Stabber was cut down by charging guard drakes. He discovered too late that leader classes should lead from the rear.

Despite the death of Garback, I think this encounter went fairly well. When Garback fell, Hatha was glued to the floor and having trouble freeing herself, so the situation looked pretty grim. Fortunately she freed herself before the drakes could turn any more party members into kibble.

Cast of Characters

Rhaen Farearitil, human rogue

Maersai Catalpacircle, elf cleric

Revis Hatha, minotaur fighter

Wwyzzarr, eladrin wizard

Garback the Stabber, dragonborn warlord

Modrothep the Unfinished, tiefling warlock

Kobold Hall, Introduction

On June 22nd, I ran 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons for a group larger than one player for the first time.

There were three players, each playing two characters:
  • Rhaen Farearitil, human rogue
  • Maersai Catalpacircle, elf cleric
  • Revis Hatha, minotaur fighter
  • Wwyzzarr (a character she borrowed from me), eladrin wizard
  • Garback the Stabber, dragonborn warlord
  • Mordrothep the Unfinished, tiefling warlock
I was running Kobold Hall, the sample adventure in the back of the 4th edition Dungeon Master's Guide. I used all three suggested plot hooks, giving one to one of each player's characters (Rhaen got Dragon Hide, Wwyzzarr got Terrible Secret, and Garback got Kobold Bounty). The wizard who gave out the Terrible Secret hook offered the use of his teleport circle to send the whole party straight to the dungeon entrance.

In retrospect, I rushed the teleport quite a bit. I wanted to get the party into the action and try out the 4e mechanics ASAP. We'd also just come off a campaign that seemed to constantly drag while everyone waited for someone else to move things along, and I was determined to not let that happen on my watch. Because of my too-aggressive pushing, Rhaen initially got teleported into the dungeon carrying nothing but a sword, so we had to retcon her spending her starting gold once they arrived. No real harm done, but not the smoothest DMing job I've ever done.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

First Post

My blog title is from the second comment made to this blog post where donny mused that if he started blogging he might call his blog "The fine art of the TPK". I thought about this and decided there's really no art to a TPK. If the DM wants an entire party to die, there's not a lot they can do about it - "Orcus and 500 high-level undead attack your 5th-level party en masse. Roll for initiative."

No, the art is in the near TPK. A good way to have a memorable game session is to bring the party to the brink of defeat and have them still pull out a victory.

How can a game master pull this off, reliably and repeatedly? I dunno, but I hope if I use this blog as a campaign journal for a while and chronicle a few of those moments (we've had a couple in the past few weeks so I have some catching up to do), maybe I can figure it out.