There’s a good group of D&D players at my D&D/board games FLGS (there’s another one that does wargaming) and we usually have two full tables for the weekly  Encounters games. I’m playing in the current Neverwinter season, but I agreed to DM the follow on adventure Evards Shadow, a continuation of the Shadowfell season. We ran the game Wednesday and our first reaction is that this adventure is brutal.

At the table there was a Blackguard, Hexblade, Warpriest, Binder, and a Thief. There was some good role playing during the first skill challenge, but we always find skill challenges to be slightly awkward. It’s hard to disguise the mechanical nature of them. They succeeded on the challenge, but only one character spotted the hiding wraiths.

The party handled the zombies well, with the blackguard and the binder controlling the zombies effectively. The wraiths were a different matter. One of the two waited until the second round to attack, so for the test of the fight the wraiths were staggered in their appearances (one this round, the other next round, etc). With their at will power to turn invisible and teleport after taking damage they were impossible to lock down. Add in the insubstantial quality and it was a nightmare for the PC’s.

The first PC to die was the Warpiest, as he got critter by their special “when invisible” damage. The next round the other wraith finished off the unconscious warpriest. The wraiths used the same tactic when they dropped and killed the Hexblade. The Binder was their next focus fire victim, buy the party killed the wraiths before they could finish off the unconscious Binder.

Using the Encounters rules for dead PC’s the warpriest and Hexblade spent 4 healing surges to come back to life, and then had to spend more to heal themselves. Those two characters are almost out of healing surges and there will be 3 more fights before they can take an extended rest, unless they flee and run back to town.

The players had fun, as did I, but I’m seeing at least one TPK in their future before the adventure is over.

Last night at D&D Encounters my group steamrolled through the fight. We had 2 warpriests, 1 druid, 1 hexblade, 1 thief, and a paladin. In other words, 3 leaders, 2 strikers and a defender. It didn’t even feel like a challenge. I was playing one of the warpriests and between me and the other warpriest we gave the party enough temporary HP’s, bonuses to defenses and resistance to damage that only one person in the party spent a healing surge. That was me, and the only reason I took enough damage to warrant spending my second wind was that I moved around enough provoking opportunity attacks to give my allies flanks. Of course when I spent my second wind I got temporary HP’s and my allies got some more as well  (the Disciple of Light & Disciple of Stone feats).

The fight lasted 4 or 5 rounds and I think during each round nearly everyone in the party had some amount of temporary HP. Everyone had boosted defenses and at least 1 person every round got the damage resistance from either mine or the other warpriests Blessing of Battle. The druid? He just attacked the enemies with his wolf. All total we had 8 different ways to heal (6 healing words, 1 resurgent strength, and the druids healing acorn)…and none of them were used.

This encounter is similar to last weeks fight at D&D Encounters in that we had stacked up heavy on 1 type of role. Last week we had 3 controllers, 1 leader, 1 defender and 2 strikers at my table. Yes, both weeks we’ve had a large number of PC’s, but that’s the same at the other table. We get between 8 and 12 people showing up every week and don’t have quite enough people for a 3rd table yet, so we stack up on the 2 tables. It’s been interesting for me as it’s a chance to observe how the roles in 4th edition are tied tightly to how an encounter runs. In last weeks fight the 3 controllers sat behind our shieldwall of the warpriest, knight, and fighter while the thief skirmished across the line and back. We destroyed the waves of zombies before they could mass a large assault, and the zones dropped in front of the shieldwall reduced the zombies effectiveness so much that it was just a mop-up.

I’ve been intrigued by the concept and execution of roles in 4th edition ever since I started playing. It’s probably the most interesting meta-aspect of the game to me and I think that the typical, balanced party would ideally consist of a controller, leader, defender, and 2 strikers. I’ve seen what happens with excess controllers, leaders, strikers and I’m imagining what would happen with excess defenders. The controllers and leaders examples are from the D&D Encounters recounted above, while the Dark Sun homegame I play in seems to be Striker heavy. Although we’ve had heavy PC attrition (4 PC deaths in 2 months) the group usually consists of a leader, hybrid striker/controller, striker, striker and my defender-in-name-only Mul gladiator fighter. I say in name only because he was the first real 4th edition character that I made and I didn’t really grasp the idea of a defender fighter, so I took the powers and abilities that make him hit harder instead of forcing enemies to attack him. He’s basically a high HP striker and more than once has been the last character standing tall after a fight thanks to his high HP and number of healing surges. But I haven’t been playing him like a defender at all, so our group is about 3/4’s strikers. We put out some serious damage but we also get hurt a lot. Did I mention that we’ve had 4 PC’s die in 2 months of play? It’s a brutal game, but it’s great fun and I think it’s maybe how dark sun should be run. I think too much safety and protection (i.e. an actual defender, an additional leader) would take away some of the great risk that we play with and enjoy in the game.

More on roles later.


After the Encounters game I came home and my friend Jack came over to the house to help me test some wargame rules I came up with. Thanks to helpful D&D nerds on twitter I got pointed to a bunch of 4e wargame type material. Unfortunately the really nice stuff costs money (Soldiers of Fortune & Hard Boiled Armies to name a few) so in the time honored fashion of gaming on a budget I made up my own rules.

I took some advice from others and treated a collection of units as a single group. Using the Monster Builder I created 4 different types of groups; the Shieldwall, the Infantry, the Archers, and the Medics. There are a few differences between these stat cards and regular monsters, otherwise they run the same way. The HP value doesn’t represent Hit Points. It represents the number of units in that group. When a group gets attacked and takes damage, the damage value is how many units it loses. So if the archers shoot the shieldwall for 6 damage, the shieldwall loses 6 units.

Though it didn’t print on the cards, each unit has 1 healing surge that revives a certain number of units within that group. The healing surge value is standardized at half the bloodied value. That’s pretty much it. Other than those changes they have the stats for a 3rd level monster, with a few exceptions. I hand adjusted their Defense values and during the playtest it became obvious that some numbers needed to be changed.

The basic setup is that of the enemy warbands attacking a small town. There’s a wide river and stone bridge that crosses it and the PC’s will be the town’s defenders. Here’s the aftermath of the battle . The units on the left are the enemy archers and medics, and the enemy infantry has pushed its way through the PC’s shieldwall and decimated their infantry. The playtest was a loss for Jack who was running the PC’s side, but it did highlight a number of things that needed to be changed and things that I hadn’t thought of.

The damage values worked out okay for the most part, but the archers armor class was way too low and their damage output was too high. So I’ll adjust their damage to a flat die roll and boost their AC to 16 or 18. The shieldwall couldn’t hit anything with its attack, but it’s defenses worked out great, especially when combined with the medics aura.

As far as Jack’s tactics went, the first thing he did was to divide the 20-man shieldwall into 4 groups of 5 units each. I hadn’t planned on that but it worked out fairly well. I’m going to change the cards to have smaller unit sizes, so instead of handing the PC playing the shieldwall a single card with 20 figures in a huge block formation, the PC will get 4 cards with 5-man formations that he can move around. Breaking up the large 20 and 25 man units was a good part of Jack’s strategy and something I’ll incorporate in the next version of the cards.

Jack had 1 type of each unit, while I gave the enemy an extra archer and took away their shieldwall. The battle went pretty straightforward, with my archers focusing on his archers and then his infantry, while my infantry pushed their way across the bridge. If he had kept his shieldwall locked on the bridge instead of moving them back and let his infantry come in and fight on the bridge it would have been a different fight. As it was his infantry got shredded and my infantry pushed past them and surrounded his remaining shieldwall and medics.

The battle took a little over an hour to play, so I was real pleased with that time. I’ve got a 4 hour slot at the game store and I want the battle to take about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, something that is big and exciting. A normal D&D fight that lasts that long would be tedious, but because this is basically wargame D&D I think it’ll work out pretty well.

Encounters went very well tonight. The material finally arrived so we were able to start the story line and 12 people showed up to play, including my friancee Bre. It was her first time playing 4th edition and we converted her old 3.5 druid over to the Essentials druid.  The two DM’s ran two separate groups of six each and it ran for about an hour and a half.

The group composition at our table was the first time that I’ve played in a 4th edition game where all of the roles were represented and I really got to observe and enjoy how the system of class roles works together.  We had a Hexblade, Wizard, Druid, Paladin, Slayer, and Cleric (me). In other words, 2 strikers, 2 leaders, 1 defender and 1 controller. From a tactics perspective our group worked together really well. We faced two large sized creatures and the paladin pushed one of them away from the party, then the slayer charged it. For the rest of the encounter the two of them piled on to that one until they killed it. It never escaped away from them to come back and harass the squishier party members, but they stayed close enough so that I could heal and buff them without leaving the other group.

The Hexblade, Druid, her wolf and I formed a line against the other ochre jelly with the wizard hanging back behind us. The jelly didn’t even try to get past us as we kept it busy, and the wolves aura meant that we didn’t even have to flank it in order to get combat advantage. We lined up and traded blows with the jelly until the paladin and slayer finished theirs and came over to put ours to bed. During the course of the battle I spent both of my healing words and the druid spent one of hers. None of the characters had to use their Second Wind.

There are two points that I want to draw from this combat encounter, two things that can make or break an encounter for a party.

1. Tactics. We all knew our roles in the party and used our abilities to their fullest in fulfilling those roles. To borrow from a common MMO, the paladin tanked and generated threat while the slayer pounded it. The other party members formed a solid line that the jelly couldn’t get though to reach the Wizard in the back; it would have had to go around, provoking an opportunity attack from 4 players. That would have carried serious hurt.

As an example of bad tactics I’ll use the random encounter we played the first week of Encounters when the material wasn’t there. The party started out in the bar when lizardfolk appeared outside the bar, surrounding the common square. Instead of trying to draw the lizardfolk into the bar, creating a choke point, we all rushed out into the open and charged whoever we could reach. The problem was that the enemies were in little groups of 2 and 3  and spread out in clumps in a vague semi-circle around the courtyard. From round 1 we were divided, with each character going after different clumps of enemies. I won’t relate the whole battle, but it ended in a TPK. In that battle we had a Slayer, Thief, Paladin, Hunter, and Wizard. Yep. No Leader. Which brings me to my second point.

2. Dual Leaders. There aren’t too many options for 1st level Essential characters, but I choose the options for my cleric with the design goal that all my abilities should help the other members of the party. I choose the Disciple of Light feat so that if I have to Second Heal my allies get a short buff as well, and other abilities like the at-will attack that grants a saving throw. So my cleric was designed to be the party band-aid. The druid (spring) was a mix of healing and offense. She didn’t have as many small healing abilities as my Cleric, but her two encounter uses of Healing Word, combined with the at-will that granted an ally temp HP, really helped out with the duty of keeping everyone alive. Not once did a character drop below 0 HP. I think only 2 characters even got bloodied, the paladin and the slayer.

I’m not advocating that a party should have 2 leaders. After tonight’s session I think it’s almost something of an over-heal (zing!). While the first weeks TPK showed the dire need for a Leader, tonight’s session didn’t have that, “Oh man half the party is bloodied, the fighter is unconscious and the cleric is out of heals! Drop that monster fast!” There wasn’t a point where I felt that we were going to lose. I’m not saying that every combat a party has they should feel like they’re almost about to all die, but in tonight’s encounter I barely felt a sense of danger. Sure, there’s always the danger of the uncertainty of the dice, will the strikers hit or miss, is this creature going to crit the hexblade, etc…but I didn’t feel like any of the characters were threatened. In short, it didn’t feel like a challenge, and I think a successful combat encounter should be one where the players were challenged (though not necessarily to the brink of death each time).

The players that are going to be in my Friday night game (which I have dubbed Break the Iron Circle)were in attendance tonight at Encounters. I chatted briefly with the players, mostly just reinforcing the starting time as we had pretty well hashed out who was playing what over e-mails. I’ve got 5 players for sure (including Bre) and 1 maybe.  I’m excited about getting the game started and am glad that I’ve been going to Encounters to get a better feel for how the mechanics of the game have changed. My DM hat isn’t too dusty (ran a short D&D 3.5 Mask of the Red Death/New Orleans game last fall) so I’m not too worried about breaking out old DM skills. But I am a little nervous about the second 4th edition game that I’m going to DM, which will be the next day (Saturday).

I’m going to run the Fourthcore delve Revenge of the Iron Lich on Saturday, starting at noon. It’s 16th level, comes with pregens, and from the talk around the internet it’s hardcore. I’d give you an example but I don’t want to ruin the adventure for those who want to play it.

To recap: On Friday night I’ll be DM’ing my first 4th edition game. The party will be 2nd level and it’s a fairly balanced adventure published by WoTC. The next day I’ll be running a hardcore adventure for 16th level characters that I’m sure will test both their wits and mine.

Nothing like the old trial by fire I suppose.


Good gaming!

Good morning, internets.

Got a relatively busy day today. Breakfast at Wall St, physical science test in my first class, then class the rest of the day. But tonight is Encounters night! Woot.

Last week I played a Cleric (warpriest) for the first time and I was really pleased with the difference from 3.5. Instead of simply using my actions to cast cure spells on the party in combat I was attacking and providing short buffs, whether it was a healing surge or boost to defenses. It was pretty cool to have the party form around the cleric, sort of like a mobile defense station. There were 8 people and 2 DM’s last week at Encounters and hopefully they’ll all be back tonight.

Should also get the chance to talk to my players more about the game Friday and get some close to final notes about what the party composition is going to be. We’ve been in e-mail contact for the past week and so far it seems that the party will consist of a Gnome Bard, a Half-Orc Paladin, Elf Druid (spring), and an Eladrin Psion. There’s another player that has expressed interest but I don’t have his e-mail so I suppose I’ll find out tonight what he’s playing. If he hasn’t decided I’m going to recommend Cleric, because while the party will have a Druid for some healing, my experience last week showed me that it’s important to have a character that is dedicated to healing. Well, I suppose I could say dedicated to a single role in order to provide the most benefits of that role to the party.

To explain that further let me talk about my weekly Dark Sun game. There’s a Human Warlord in the party that at first was built half & half, and by that I mean the player roughly divided his abilities between powers that affected other characters and powers that enhanced himself. After a few sessions of play and some retraining he changed the majority of powers to effect other characters. The difference was really noticeable and a big jump in our effectiveness. There’s no healer in the group, so the Warlord does that as a side job, but his main deal of granting attacks, and attack and damage bonuses, really turn the tide for us in battle. So while the Druid will be able to heal some, I think the party will have a better chance of surviving if they have a dedicated healer.

I’ll report back on Encounters and how the party is shaping up later tonight.

Good gaming!