So I'd been itching to run up some 4e action lately, for no real reason other than I've been playing Dragon Age: Origins, which has a lot of what are often derided as "kewl powerz" for every class to engage in. I was sort of itching for big tactical mini fights with roleplaying on the side, which is definitely not everyone's taste (or, as should be obvious to even a casual reader of this blog, not even always to my taste), but it's certainly what 4e is great for, as noted in many places.
The funny thing is that I say DA:O helped get me in the mood for 4e, and it's true, but the true germ of the idea rests in wanting to introduce a co-worker to D&D, and while we rolled up a Labyrinth Lord thief for her, I also had her make a 4e version of basically the same character (with the addition of being an elf), "just in case" (and because, lacking any D&D experience, I thought she might get a kick out "kewl powerz" and not dying at low level- which, yes, is again not for everyone, especially in our damn new-fangled video game age.
Well, the plan backfired, but a time was had by all. Before I even started playing Dragon Age, I had the idea of a 4e campaign that would be as player-flexible as my Labyrinth Lord campaign. The dissolution of my previous 4e campaign, Aquea, was due to us only playing when the whole party was present, every time. They were travelling and roaming as a band, and we always wanted everyone represented. This new campaign is going to break with traditional 4e levelling. The PCs are all members of the Dusk Watch, a secretive-but-not-secret organization founded centuries ago to seek out and destroy the curse of undeath. The similarities to the Dusk Watch and the Grey Wardens of Dragon Age was actually an accident; I was brainstorming this campaign before I even read the Wikipedia entry on Dragon Age. I don't even pretend to claim my idea is original, but it certainly gives a good basis for interchangable squads sent on specific missions. And everyone loves smiting undead! (Although, of course, undead will not be the only foes or villains of the campaign.)
How it will work, is, the chapter of the Dusk Watch that the PCs are assigned to will gain the experience and level, and all the PCs will be at the level of the chapter. Yes, some players might only play two or three times in the whole campaign and have a character of level equal to people who put in the time to play every session, but that's fine with me. It wouldn't be for an old-school campaign, but this is a decidedly new-school campaign, meant to be accessible, quick, and creepy and dangerous, but not outright lethal- I kind of want people to get attached to their favorite character concepts and wailing with it- while allowing for PC death when it happens.
And- the best laid plans, eh? I designed the first mini-dungeon with four players in mind, but knowing that I may only have three. It was sort of on the hard side for three PCs, especially with one being totally new to D&D, in terms of combat; however, I did not expect it to go the way it did. And that was, the entire party was dead in a matter of rounds, at the hands of a small skeleton encounter that was on the lower end of a level-three encounter for their party. Two levels higher than party level is definitely rough, but not impossible- but rolling maximum damage almost every hit for the monsters while the players whiffed or hit light definitely helped. First the elf rogue, Only-He-Stands-There, dropped. Then, the half-orc warden dropped. Then, finally, the warlord fell to the skeletons.
It was horrible. It was over so fast, the new player didn't even know what had happened. One moment she was lining up sneak attacks and the next, she was lying in a pool of blood, gurgling as the warlord stressed over whether to patch up the rogue or pad the warden's HP to try to slog through the encounter. And then it didn't matter because they were both down, and then the failed death saves started rolling up while the warlord made a desperate but futile last stand.
The players loved it, though, and commented on the setting (after an introduction about their quick, dirty training in the Dusk Watch, they were sent to a one-man outpost in a far northern, remote, snowy region in the dead of winter. Their commander, as it were, is a half-mad halfling named Bix who takes his Dusk Watch status very seriously, but also has gone a little bit kooky from long winters alone in a log cabin, waiting for the undead to strike the nearby populations for years.
So we decided we'd ret-con it and run it from the beginning in December, with the same PCs, when we can have more players. If somehow we don't get more players, I'm going to dial the encounters back a bit, at least until the players start getting all their synergies down pat.
It was fun, but it was a massacre. We had much better survival rates in our Labyrinth Lord session a few weeks back, but then again players are very cautious when they know any hit could be lethal and monsters sometimes roam in packs far outnumbering them. 4e PCs are definitely robust, definitely tough superheroes, but they are not invincible. I think maybe the veteran players even had invincibility in mind when they got into the fracas, thinking of our last campaign where only one PC died in six levels of play.
So now I'm looking forward to both campaigns. The free-form megadungeon of Labyrtinh Lord and the basically more plot-driven adventure paths of this Dusk Watch (hopeful) epic.
And with that, Happy Thanksgiving!
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