Friday, April 24, 2009

4/18 Actual Play, and rumination on group size

Rumination is where cows rechew their food right? So that word seems appropriate since I feel like this subject has been talked to death in our group lately, in person, through email, and posted publicly on our group. I'll get to that later.

We had a few cancellations last week, some last minute, and so it wasn't until about 30 or 40 minutes after the appointed start time that dan, colin, chelsea and I decided to scrap the planned continuation of our main campaign and run a one shot. Colin volunteered to run a module and the three of us sat down to put together some last minute characters together.

Another ringing endorsement for DDI follows. Colin found a module, and we started making characters using the character builder. Jesse showed up a bit later, and with colin printing out the module and the four of us making and printing our characters, we were ready to play in about an hour. We played 9th level for an 8th level module since we were one short. I can't imagine making 4 3.5 characters even with heroforge in that amount of time. I can't imagine making 4e characters without the character builder in that amount of time. It was very nice.

We ended up with a Goliath Barbarian, Half-Orc Ranger (2 weapon), Dwarven Warlord, and Dwarven Warden. We began in the Warwood. I immediately thought of a party of warforged, a warlock, warden, and warlord, all adventuring in the warwood (incedentally, that party is not only viable, but sounds kind of awesome.)

Since it was a one shot I don't really feel the obligation to set down the plot and structure of the battles for posterity. I will still give some thoughts on the session however. Firstly, our party was very spiffy. Secondly the adventure was a learning experience for me (and somewhat for others, it seems). Thirdly, a party of four adventurers is about twice as fun as a party of eight, proving the inverse relationship between the two (to a point. I do not think that a party of 1 is 8 times more fun than a party of 8, so the statement is only valid for groups >3 or so).

Chelsea played the Goliath Barbarian. The barbarian was kind of the star of the show. She wielded a pick (irony for a goliath there), and chose the rageblood path. Our session was only long enough for 2 combat encounters, which is kind of sad for a 9th level barbarian, and I am pretty sure she never used the rage strike. She was a great striker, and her in-your-face presence kind of created a defendery aura, too. The disappointing thing was that I never really got to see what a goliath was like out of combat. . .how would she be roleplayed, what were her skills like, what was her racial power, things like that.

Jesse ran a Half Orc Ranger. He dual wielded bastard swords, which is awesome, and had the highest damage output. Chelsea had some awesome moments, but Jesse had chosen his powers wisely and was able to wring quite a bit out of what he had. He was less *flashy* though. While the barbarian was charging across the battlefield, as far as 10 squares in one instance, Jesse was quietly doing 30 points of damage consistently.

Dan played our leader, the Dwarven Warlord. Dan had played a female dwarf warlord before, as a DMPC, but this one seemed much better at her leadery role. Not only did his healing keep Jesse alive, but he gave a few free attacks to Chelsea, and during the second fight his White Raven Onslaught is probably what saved us from cold zombie death. From the beginning I always like warlords a hair better than clerics, and this is just more confirmation for me. Clerics may be better at a lot of things, but warlords are certainly the anti-controller of the battlefield. Anti-controller as in, move allies and subtract status effects as opposed to move enemies and add status effects.

I played the Dwarven Warden. I have kind of been itching to play one since I first flipped through PHB2. Yes, it is another defender. I appear to be stuck in a rut. I built him with the reach weapon cheese that a Warden encourages. The Verdant Lord Paragon Path outlines how I feel. Become a tree. Control the battlefield. With a greatspear and turned into a tree, the Warden can have reach 3, which is a 7x7 piece of the battlefield, or 48 squares. A regular player controls 8 squares.

This isn't what I liked most, though. I didn't really take advantage of my reach much. I liked his defender/controller feel. Wardens mark all adjacent allies as a free action once per round. I chose the power that is reach 2 and pulls one. With that power, you can pull an enemy one, mark him (and any others next to you) and shift back. Eventually, during the first fight I found I had managed to pull a group of enemies away from the pack after a few rounds of this. I feel like an Elf Warden would be very superior at this, able to shift no matter what. While the Warden's mark is surely not as cool as the Fighters, since it uses your immediate action and can therefore only be done once a round, it is a basic attack rather than an opportunity attack, so you can make it at reach.

Enough about the warden. The session cast us as a group of mercenaries traveling through the Warwood. We see a procession in the distance, traveling the opposite direction, and we discern that it is a funeral procession. As we step to the side to allow it to pass, bandits attack and we leap to the defensive. The first fight was us vs 8 4th level human bandity types and 2 6th level casters. We were 9th level. Surprisingly the fight was not a steamroll. Sure, after a few rounds Jesse and I figured we could only miss on a 2 or less, but the fight was dynamic, and rather than having a couple of equal level brutes to lock us down, or a nest of minions, they split the difference. It worked. There were enough that we could not easily get away without provoking (and they still hit hard, when they hit), but they weren't minions and dead at the drop of a hat.

We prevailed and fast forwarded through the roleplay (the gist: we agree to help the creepy procession retrieve their coffin, which was stolen during the fight) and set up for the second encounter. This encounter started with us on one side of a frozen river, and our enemies on the other. Again, we faced lower level opponents, 5 4th level and 4+ 6th level. I will explain the plus in a moment. Chelsea bounded across the ice but failed her acrobatics check to not fall over, and ended up prone in the middle of the river. So did Dan. So did I. Jesse did not run, so he did not fall. We started engaging the enemy as they moved to the river to fight us, and that is when the terrain feature became something more than just difficult terrain. Every time someone was wounded (per the module) an icy zombie burst through the ice next to them and began attacking the nearest target at random. These zombies were tougher than the mooks we were fighting, and Colin quickly had to rein in the rampant zombie creation and we ended up with 5 or 6 total. Dan made it to the other side and hit with his White Raven Onslaught, enabling us to slide our allies across the ice. This one was closer, with Jesse out of surges by the end and Dan out of healing, but loads of fun. With enemies 3-5 levels lower than the party. Who knew.

I guess that is the learning experience part. I tried to make tough encounters with higher level enemies, and now I feel like while those have their place, throwing in tough encounters with lower level enemies, or easier encounters, can still be a lot of fun. I need to revise my thinking.

My last comments will be on group size. A lot of talk has been generated on this subject over the past 2 or 3 weeks. We currently have 10 semi-regular players, which is quite a lot. It is more work and less fun for everyone, but we are playing a game with friends, how do you decide who stays and who goes in an equitable manner?

The first knee jerk proposal was a split into 2 groups. This appears reasonable on the surface, 5 players each is ideal. That was our number last week. What about those kinds of situations? If we had been split up, neither group would have been able to play. With some members of the group not confirming their attendance until the day of the game (if at all) it would be nearly impossible to plan to meet together if the same happened. And it does not solve the problem of who decides. Do we split by age? Experience? Region? Draw lots?

While this option was never dropped *officially*, it has not seen much discussion lately. Discussion that I have had lately has focused on a couple things:
1 - Helping the DM. We have had someone helping unofficially with initiatives, but expanding this into a more helpful position will make things easier on him. I suggested tracking conditions as well, and looking up rules disputes. This has not been agreed upon.
2 - Paying attention. This is a horrible feedback loop that must be stopped. The longer combats get, the less inclined folks are to pay attention, and the longer the combat gets. It is self causing, and it's solution is . . .to pay attention? If the DM (or his assistant, see #1) has to explain to every player individually, when it is their turn, that the ogre mini is in fact a centaur, and that the red marks are his flaming arrows, it takes up a huge chunk of time. How do you encourage paying attention? One good suggestion has been to give a time limit. If you aren't ready to go when your initiative count comes up, you delay until you are ready. Enforce this in an impartial manner, such as with a tiny hourglass, and I think feelings are more likely to be spared.
3 - Respect. This was my contribution. I feel there are a lot of reasons that having less respect slows the game down.
-Realize that the DM likely spent upwards of an hour or two preparing for this session, and will not get to play his character. Show some respect for the thought he has put into it.
-Respect that we all have lives, families, other hobbies, and we chose to get together to play D&D. For most of us this *is* our social interaction for the week.
-Respect each other and our time by not wasting it by interrupting or ignoring, but try to pay a little attention to what is going on.
-Understand that most of us can take time, as little as 30 seconds during the week, to let the DM know whether to plan on us attending. We are all in this together, and the better prepared the DM is, the more fun we will have.

These are not . . . public suggestions, these are things I have thought about and told a couple folks, but things that I think any gaming group with our problem can use. It is easy to take the excuse I took above, that we are friends getting together to play a game, what is the big deal, but I think that shows a general lack of consideration for the people who have spent time to make this game fun, and if what you desire is a group of friends getting together to play a game with no pressure or strings attached, maybe this game is not for you. That is what makes gaming fun, is that there is pressure, there is group effort, and the more we work together and respect each other, the more fun we can have.

This highlights something that I will begin explaining kind of backwards. My mother in law does not understand D&D. She thinks it is kind of silly that we all get together and play, every week, and nobody ever wins. To her, game=win. She is a non-gamer. Some people are gamers, some are non-gamers. If you do not grasp some of these things about being a considerate member of a gaming group, and you feel like perhaps this is all a little serious for just a game, perhaps you are a non-gamer. This is not a bad thing. I am a non-athlete and I have led a full life. You can still game, but you might have to take into consideration some things you think are ridiculous, like RSVPing every week for a casual get together. Par for the course.

That got a little ranty. Please don't be offended.


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Actual Play 3/28: The Guild of Thieves, Again.

Colin ran this session, and had a large party to deal with. All of the prospectives and maybes showed up for one grand session, and plan on returning. We could have a 10 people gaming group, 9 PC's and 1 DM. It should be interesting.

Our first session at 6th level. Those in attendance:
Colin, DM.
Jay, Therryk the Dragonborn Paladin/Barbarian of Erathis.
Josh, Wry Wit the Drow Sorcerer and former jester of the Dwarven court in Hammerfast.
Jesse, Halma the Human Rogue, now back from mysterious business.
Jessica, Sanbrielle the Halfling Warlord
Joel, Nightshine the Shadar Kai Avenger of the Raven Queen, who insists he looks just like a regular human.
Chris, Zamir the Genasi Stormsoul Swordmage. Now the best defender we have.
Chelsea, Ana the Half Elven Cleric of Bahamut and daughter of Lord Markelhay
Lucan will fade away for awhile, and Arlarond's player, Dan, was absent this week.

We had brief introductions first, since this is the first session (since the inaugural one) with such a large number of PC's. Colin jumped right in...

Following the defeat of the Red Champion by the Heroes of Fallcrest, they were rebranded the Heroes of the Nentir Vale. This is due in a large part to the sheer impact of their victory. Aside from their earlier accomplishments, the Heroes had just averted war between the Humans (and their allies) and the Eladrin (and their allies?). They had turned the tide of the war with the Legion of the Chimera, and sent them packing. Their efforts on the behalf of the Eladrin in Southember changed them from the defenders of just one city, to the defenders of the entire region. Of course, the Heroes have yet to voyage too far from home, and have not visited any of the other settlements in the Vale. They may dispute this title...

Their triumphant return to Fallcrest was followed by a euphoric fortnight of winding down and enjoying the fruits of their labors. Not all of the party basked in the adoration of their charges, with Arlarond sequestering himself in his Master's tower, and Lucan rejoining his work with the guard. They were currently engaged in building up the defenses of Fallcrest.

In the midst of this, Halma returned and began seeking out his friends. He was fairly certain that he could find Ana in her home at the Moonstone Keep, and started there. Ana was happy to see him, and he was filled in on the events of the past few weeks. She introduced him to Zamir, who had remained with the party and was spending some time at the Keep, and the three of them started making rounds to gather the rest of the party together. Therryk was performing some rites in the Temple to Erathis, and Sanbrielle and her parents were there worshipping (and a little tipsy). The priest of Bahamut was happy to see Ana at the shrine, as she had not been exactly devout, lately. He extracted a promise from her to return the next day and perform some of her priestly duties that she had been neglecting. Therryk volunteered to find Lucan and Nightshine, as they had been spending some time together since their arrival in Fallcrest.

We all met in the Lucky Gnome Taphouse, Halma's favorite dive. The whole group of us began catching up and discussing our next moves, when we were interrupted by a figure in a cloak. When he pulled his hood back, we were surprised to see a drow, walking unmolested through Fallcrest. He asked us if we knew Halma. Uncomfortable silence followed, and Halma finally spoke up and identified himself. The drow reached over his shoulder, throwing back his cloak, and revealed a knife in his back. He pulled it dramatically forth, and tossed it at Halma. "A gift from Sogol". Of course, we as a party were immediately on alert, even after Halma quickly discovered it was a trick dagger, with a collapsing blade. After that icebreaker, the drow introduced himself as Wry Wit, Drow raised by Dwarves and prized feather in Sogol's cap. He was sent to deliver this 'message', and to offer his services. We were immediately suspect of this offer. Several tense minutes later, the mood was darkened even further when Halma collapsed into the table.

He fought off the poison in his system and tossed the dart that had pierced his neck onto the table. Zamir caught sight of a shadowy figure darting from the Tavern, and we launched into action. Zamir pointed and shouted, and we started towards the door. The small crowd that had gathered to watch the fight between us and Wry Wit were now in our way and slowing our way to the real fight. While some pushed through the crowd, being slowed by the close quarters, Therryk shoved his way through, heedless of the people in his way. Ana shouted for their assistance and asked them to stand aside, and Sanbrielle skirted through their legs.
We rushed from the door to try and stop him (or her) from getting away, but our rush was in vain. All of us got out in our own ways, only to have the shadowy figure disappear before our eyes. Our disappointment in our inability to catch him was quickly forgotten when he reappeared and began stabbing us with his poisoned short sword. Usually, our large numbers and two defenders in such small spaces would have made this fight a cakewalk, but this opponent did not follow our rules. He teleported past the real melee threats and attacked our tender flank. Nightshine kept his Avenger's mark up and was able to follow him no matter where he went, but not before he managed to poison a handful of the party.
Even with him surrounded he popped out of the flank and over to stab some other people. Still, we had him bloodied, and victory was relatively assured, since none of us were to terribly hurt. Then he disappeared. . .and did not reappear to stab us.

One good development was a little trust developed with Wry. During the fight he did not hesitate to come to our aid, and had plenty of opportunity to stab (or blast) us in the back. We warily accepted him into our ranks.

The attack had us shaken though, and we began to bend our efforts to uncovering this possible plot against us. Halma was able to arrange a meeting with the Thieves Guild for the following morning, and retired for the evening.

We met with Ervan Lances, much to our chagrin. Ervan has a history with Halma, and more recently had some dealings with us. Although the arrangement ended satisfactorily for all parties concerned, we still had reservations about meeting with him. Reservations founded in reality, we found out.

Ervan Lances was polite and cordial. He did not know anything about our attacker, but had heard of our fracas the night before. When we accused him of being behind it, he let slip that one of his own had been injured, but not in Fallcrest. He proposed a deal. He would bend his considerable resources to finding information about our mystery man, and we would do a favor for him. The injured man was one of his couriers, a man named Devon. He had disappeared on his regular route between the Harkenwood and the Fiveleague House. All he needed us to do was travel his route and see if we could discover what happened to him.

Again, we were loathe to get in bed with organized crime, but could see little other option to get what we needed. So, the Heroes of Fallcrest again went to work for the Thieves Guild. Our plan was to travel East to the town of Harkenwood, and ask after his wife, Sandra. She might have more detailed information about his last known whereabouts and would direct us on the next leg of our journey, most likely to the Fiveleague house.

We left immediately. Therryk insisted on taking their wagon (secretly fearing that no horse could long bear his weight), and the party mounted up and started East.

One uneventful day of travel later, we set up camp with a few miles to go before we reached Harkenwood. We stayed within sight of the road, and divided into watches for the night. Sometime during second watch we were attacked.

Therryk and Wry were on watch. Wry was busy creating a shadowplay on the wall of Halma's tent, and Therryk must have been at least a little distracted by it, since with no warning at all 3 large wolves and a handful of their beastial looking allies padded silently out of the woods and charged before we could raise an alarm:
Wry is not built for hand to hand confrontations, but the wolves and shifters may have been distracted by the shadow play as well, since he did not die in the initial attack. They also singled out Halma, in his tent, and Nightshine who was sleeping under the stars.

We could have died, with the surprise attack going the way it did. The wolves were able to knock us down if they connected with a hit, and the shifters were able to follow us if we tried to shift away. Fortunately, the Gods (or Spirits or what have you) were generous and we were able to avoid a lot of the attacks on us. Our first fight with some of our new allies with a large force allowed us to see what they were capable of. Wry pinballed a bolt of psychic energy that hit every enemy, and careened towards the party before fizzling out.
However, be it due to our greater numbers, or due to our recent training, the fight was over quickly. Had we been awake when it started and able to better focus fire, it would not have presented much of a challenge at all. We finished there.


Colin was in for the opposite surprise this week, than Jesse had last week. Jesse anticipated as many as 9 players, while Colin prepared for less than 7 players. So he was stuck trying to ramp up his encounter on the fly, and we still kind of steamrolled it.

I did mean encounter, not encounters. The first encounter was an on the fly invention by Colin. He saw the need for an encounter there, and found an appropriate challenge using the Compendium, and ran it with his laptop. It worked really well. In fact, with some world building notes and a quick wit, I imagine creating on the fly encounters like this are perfectly doable. If you wanted the sandbox to end all sandboxes, you could kinda do it this way.

I think I will stick with thoroughly planned setpiece encounters mixed in with semi-random encounters that I have thought out ahead of time.

The second encounter was too easy, I think we just overwhelmed them. Partly due to some of us using dailies right off the bat, and partly due to Colin rolling really, really badly. He is pretty streaky, rolling 20's and 1's, and the video of that old dude that sells precision dice came up. I like that old guy, but I would have to do some convincing to get the wife to be cool with paying that much for dice....

After the session we had a conversation about our group size. Seven PC's is a lot, but not a crazy number of people. It was still enough of an increase that combat was noticeably slower. I'm not sure if anything was decided, but we talked about giving the DM at least a day's notice, so he had some concrete numbers to plan for. We talked about paying better attention to what is happening so you don't require a recap on your turn. Once in awhile this is not an issue, but if everyone has to be told what is going on at the beginning of every turn, it seriously subtracts from the fun of everyone else at the table.

Sadly, I won't be able to comment on the short term effect of these discussions, as I will be out for the next two weeks. I do not know if anyone will be up to posting a short synopsis for me to copy and paste here, and I am not sure how the game will progress, but I will endeavour to keep this site updated with any information I have.

In an effort to at least keep up with 1 post/week, I will have to sit down and do some thinking about what to post. I am not sure that I have the most stunning insights into gaming, so the subject of these posts could be about. . .anything, I guess. Gaming related.