Wednesday, February 25, 2009

2/21 Actual Play: The Rat Mother One-Shot

This past weekend I ran a one shot, attempting gritty low magic 4e. It could be argued that 4e's very nature is against this, even outlawing all but Martial classes is not enough, since some of the things they can do are so over the top.

We did not outlaw any power sources. In fact, I scrounged preview material from around the web, and brought it in case anyone wanted to give them a shot. Since the plan was to roll 3d6 in order it made sense to provide a larger number of classes, hopefully accommodating any wonky rolled scores.

We were short, it was me, Jesse, Dan, and Chris. I had prepared a few 4th level and higher combats for our 1st level characters with 5 PC's as baseline. I did not pull punches. To me gritty means overwhelming odds and a sense of despair and inevitable failure. This is why I do not prefer gritty games. I don't like feeling like a . . .torturer, I like facilitating awesomeness.

Anyhow, rolling went well thanks to Jesse and his suspiciously well rolling dice. I had pre-rolled a Human Sorcerer, Jesse rolled up a Dragonborn Sorcerer, Dan rolled a Half-Orc Barbarian, and Chris had a Minotaur Warden. We were all members of a nomadic group of nomads, traveling travelers if you will. We were headed North with our 11 wagons to begin the Spring portion of our trading and festivalling with the cities there. We used Jesse's large 1" grid pad of paper, and I had cut out 2x3 'wagons' the night before. Each wagon was pulled by an ox. Despite their appearances. Although I sometimes wish I had 11 Large Oxen in my minis collection, I used what I had.

Due to some unforeseen delays during their trip the caravan was running late. The sun was setting when they drew within sight of their first city. A few moments later three individuals emerged from the brush. They were quite disturbed that the caravan had arrived just now and told them that for their own safety they needed to turn around right now and not come back. Unfortunately, time was not on the side of the party, and with the sun going down and these people insisting that they did *not* want to be here after dark, the party was left with no choice but to circle the wagons.

I let them arrange the wagons in a circle however they wanted. Jesse did it, and chose to leave the animals near their wagons to aid in a quick getaway. This seemed like a bright idea at the time, but was in hindsight not so great. One of the folks who had leaped out ran off to get help from the farmstead where they all stayed, and the others watched the road to the town nervously.

Sure enough, the sun had gone down but the sky was still purple with sunset when some creatures burst into sight. Two wererats, two human rogues, and two rats attacked the caravan. Right away there were problems. Dan, who is sometimes a spotty roller (I know, its the dice. It is random. There is no outside force. It is not his or anyone else's fault. But this happened with the first edition of Arlarond in our current campaign. Sometimes he is hot, and sometimes cold. Right now our melee striker was cold) was rolling on the low side, and my wild sorcerer only rolled even when he rolled like, 6es, and that was pretty often. Jesse's Dragonborn Sorcerer was the Dragon build and had quite a bit of success. He had Con problems like my sorcerer and getting close to do damage was dangerous, but he did quite well.

It was those damned wererats and their regeneration. At low levels that is such a tough thing to overcome. After the rats and wererats had breached the perimeter and killed the two outsider NPC's, as well as a couple oxen, they managed to infect Dan and Jesse's PC's with filth fever. For a one shot this is not world-ending, but since Jesse only had something like 4 surges to begin with it was kind of. . . mean of them. The next stage of the disease only triggered on an extended rest, so I though we would be safe for the rest of the session. It is not like you can get *double* filth fever.

I deliberately did not mention Chris' Warden because I want to separate him from the rest of the riffraff. He was stellar. I outlaw the oversized weapon property when I run, so it was not that, it was his huge pool of HP's and his AC of 19. He was pretty much invulnerable. He only got to activate his mark once or twice, but it was his powers that healed him and his daily. . .I'm getting ahead of myself. Also, more foreshadowing: they found a couple glass vials of silver used to coat weapons for combat against lycanthropes.

With no locals left to give them any sort of direction they party healed up (nobody chose a Leader, so the caravan included a few herbalists and lore masters who healed them between encounters. In a low magic way) and waited. A few more commoners arrived and told them what was up. Awhile ago the city was besieged by these huge rats, and their bites turned the victims feral. A few people sought refuge outside the city and kept their location as secret as they could.

Some of them took turns watching the road and warning travelers away. They hoped to complete their ultimate weapon and kill the source of this infestation, and the caravan had arrived with just the tools they needed to complete the job. They had build a huge ballista, with a bolt made of silver. All they needed was a bit more silver and the opportunity to fire it and they could end this all. Jesse went to work preparing his wagon for the ballista.

After a few hours they were attacked again. This time, rather than just a group of scouts, the attack was intended to cripple or kill the caravan entirely. The fire elemental marks the location of the large bonfire they kept roaring in hopes of keeping the enemies at bay. Jesse also mounted torches on the outside of all the wagons, keeping the whole area illuminated.

The first attack was a pack of Dire Rats and 2 feral halflings with slings. From the shadows around the caravan glittery eyes watched, and a few rushed from the sides. Jesse, Dan, and Chris all focused on the main attack, and I had the rear all by myself. The halflings were deadly, and could launch 3 stones each when their power recharged. Chris closed with them, and they would shift back and hit him again. So he used his daily. In addition to giving him another point of AC, it made all the spaces within 2 of him difficult terrain. No more shift-attacks for them. Dan took out the two minions on his side, raged, and charged at the main pack of rats. He had a power that added 7 temp HP each time it connected, and these rats broke their teeth on that temp HP.

Meanwhile, I was getting harassed. . .by two crappy little rat minions. 16 HP and a super low AC meant that I was just meat waiting to be eaten. I kept shift-attacking, but could not land a hit. These are *minions*, all I needed to do was hit them. Jeez. Chris, who was playing his defender to the hilt withdrew from the halflings and charged across the battlefield to save me.

He arrived just in time to help me kill them, and killed one of the rat minions on the way. The consequence was dire, though. The halflings, now free to sling stones again, turned their wrath on Jesse and Dan. The NPC's had long since died. They were soon joined by Dan's character. He went to negative HP's and fell. This is not the first time this same Half-Orc barbarian had died quickly in an unheroic fashion. His first appearance was as a an NPC in a 3.5 game run by Dan. Josh convinced him to scout ahead with a glowing falchion, and he was pin cushioned when he rounded a corner. The picture shows Dan, dead (the Ramborc) and the dead NPC's.

While Dan rolled dice for his next PC we struggled to finish the fight with us as winners. Most of the rats had died, and only one minon remained (whiffing as he tried to chew the leg off of an ox). Chris once again shut the halflings down and we won.

Dan rolled up a Halfling Bard and was filling in the numbers as dawn approached. An hour or so before daybreak the rest of the survivors showed up. They had the broken down ballista strapped their backs, and three of them helped Jesse mount it on the top of his wagon. Three more went to work smelting the silver to try and cover the rest of the ballista bolt.

Again, like clockwork, the rats attacked before the party was ready. I prefaced the attack with a metagame discussion. The rats and feral humanoids were all minions. The Large mini was the Rat mother, gravid with young. The NPC's told the party they needed at least one more minute to finish setting things up. The party had to protect the caravan for 10 rounds. NPC's are minions, too, and each one that dies lengthens the challenge. Firing the ballista is an auto-win, so the goal was to protect.

I underestimated the lure of killing minions. Jesse rushed in with his area attacks and killed quite a few in the first round. We all did our best to wipe out minions in the first round. The next round, 4 more appeared on our flank. The round after that 4 more appeared. With everyone in the same spot they just walked right in to the camp.

Of course, the Rat Mother was not just sitting back an allowing it to happen. She had reach, and as soon as she could, she grabbed Chris and kept him from going anywhere (for one round at least), and mauled the crap out of Jesse. This is where I took the picture. Jesse is bleeding out. The camp is filled with minions (The fiery bird thing is the ballista, and the elemental is the fire. The pale dude with the stick is me, and the halfling there is Dan. Chris is the Minotaur. Jesse is the blue dude lying down at the top.) Jesse shouted to one of our friends to grab the vial of silver from Dan's character and just dump it over the bolt. He went to do it and was flanked by two minions. I was almost dead. Minons kept arriving, swarming the wagon and killing our helpers there. Our friend managed to get the silver, get it on the bolt, and run it to Chris. All while being attacked. The other helper rolled an assist to help Dan take his second wind, and he used his multi-class cleric power to heal Jesse. They were both beat down again, however, leaving Chris as the sole remaining PC. He climbed up to the ballista. Rats were swarming up the front, clawing at him from the rear, and he rolled the shot.

And he hit. The bolt smashed through the Rat Mother. The remaining minions went into a frenzy and began tearing each other apart. Chris was able to go and save his teammates.
Chris is the only PC in that picture. He was swarmed.

That was all. I thought that will all new classes and no handy power cards we would take a lot longer to get through the encounters. It turns out that when half of the PC's are bleeding out combat goes pretty quickly.

I feel less need to separate my random thoughts from the narrative with these one shot write-ups, but I still have a few things to ruminate on.

Here is the invincible rat mother

Clearly, either the party would have had to focus fire on her or go through my hoops to kill her. Her tactics, which she stuck to, were to stand back and use all of her actions to command minions. When she was approached she used frenzy and grabbed the defender to keep him from helping his friends and clawed the crap out of Jesse. Later in the fight she was dazed by me, which was a help.

She was a Soldier. I don't like that. This is what triggered my rant last week. In the end it really does not matter, but it can still bother me.

The Warden was sweet. Not so much for his marking, which we didn't really see, but because of his powers. They kept him standing. They kept the ranged enemies locked down. He had probably as much HP as the rest of the party. And the highest AC. Very cool. My Sorcerer was fun, but I only chose that build because of the numbers I had. I hate the random aspect. Jesse's build seemed cooler on paper, but is kind of scary. Low AC and lots of powers with close range is a disaster waiting to happen. Proper coordination with a defender should mitigate this somewhat, but I'm not sure I would jump to play one. . .yet. The Barbarian seemed fun. More rages to choose from will be cool, and higher levels where he can just about rage every fight will be nice.

The Bard was disappointing. Granted, he was only up for 1/2 of a fight. Less than 6 rounds. But, when you need a leader most is when you are bleeding on the ground, and the Bard just did not pull through there. Maybe the preview info we had was glitched or wrong, but there was not class ability that healed. His powers were cool, kind of. His at will that enabled him to mark for an ally has so many uses, and skill challenges or non-combat encounters will be his bread and butter. I was really hoping for a viable Bard as a class, not so much for my sake, but for Dan's sake. He wants it. When 4e came out my standard for it not sucking was the Half-Elf Bard also not sucking. Please don't suck Half-Elf Bard, not like 3.5.

So . . .the $64,000 question. . .is 4e gritty? It can be. Even with magic and fantastic races (Dragonborn Sorcerer is not gritty) I think we had a gritty feel. Low magic enemies and no magic gear helps. I think a campaign that attempted gritty would be well served by limiting classes or power sources. Swordmages would be out, but I think Artificers properly flavored would fit in well. Limiting the party to humans might work well, too. Keep magic items out and just give static bonuses to compensate. Rolling dice though. . .I think playing a character long term might make it less viable. Limit point buy to 18 or something if you really want to keep power down. No 20's for starting stats. As much as I hate houserules (I have one 4e houserule, no oversized weapons) for gritty to work you might have to consider some.

Next week should see the continuation of our main campaign. . .



Jay said...

Stupid formatting problems. This will be fixed later.


Samuel Van Der Wall said...

I had a question. How long have you been using the large pad of paper from Office Depot to create your miniature maps? My friends and I have used that for several months. We've also explored other options such as creating our own erasable map out of foamboard, purchasing actual battlemaps, and a few other not-so-successful ways. A lot of times, we find ourselves just falling back on good ole' paper like you have. Use it, and toss it.

Jay said...

While I would love to take credit, I must give Jesse full props for finding this paper. We have only used it a couple of times, but I like it a lot. The paper for some fights, and the dry erase board for random or unexpected encounters seems to be where we are headed.