Wednesday, June 03, 2009

D&D 4E Initial Thoughts

Ok, so colour me skeptical. Part of my problem was that I had spent so much money already on 3.5E and you know that game works. We've house ruled it just the way we like it and so why would I want another version of the game? Well a couple of factors led to my purchase. First, there is no denying that the game is, at least in some ways, simplified. So when we hatched the idea of running a game for kids 4E seemed like an option worth looking at. Second, I did a bit of work for Wizards of the Coast and they paid me enough to pick up the new set (plus an extra book). I like to support the company that produces such a fine game so in went my Chapters order.

The books have mostly sat on my shelf since then. My local barista, Ric, has been after me to run a game for him and his boys. He plays 4E, being a young'un, and has this silly notion that writing the odd piece for Wizards gives me some DMing cred. I would say that I do have some DMing cred, but only because I've got quite a few years DMing under my belt. So I pitched the idea of running a 4E version of Richard Dufault's thoroughly enjoyable Dungeon Crawl. In that game I played a Warpriest named Marvin. It is a pure dungeon crawl, so the DM is free to level the dungeon appropriately.

Well, one of the biggest hassles for a DM is all the preparation she/he has to make before running the game. I know back in my own youth filled days Advanced D&D had rules for random dungeon generation - 4E brings some of that back but I find it isn't that good for spontaneous sessions as the original. But I'm not sure I'd find those random sessions fun anymore - I sometimes use randomly generated dungeons in my 3.5 game, but with heavy modifications. (My players like to tease me about the infintely thin walls!) But here is where 4E really delights me - it is very easy to put together.

The hurdles first, there are a few. I use DM Genie for 3.5 to create stat blocks, it is amazing. There are tools for this in 4E, but you have to pay a subscription for them and they are online. I am sure DM Genie will have something, if it hasn't already. But until then it is not easy to customize monster stat blocks. How the designers compensate for this is to have lots of examples in the Monster Manuals. For now that is a great option, but it means buying more books - something I'd rather spend money on than a subscription! The other hurdle is that everything in the rule books seems to lean towards highly leveled encounters that favour the players reliance on combat to solve problems - an experienced DM can easily recognize and reject this ideology. Part of the fun of D&D is creating a role playing environment where all different types of gamers can have their moment to shine - not just the combat tacticians.

So the boon is that putting together adventure materials is so easy. It took me no time to understand what was required for an encounter to function. Monster stat blocks are actually quite impressive, and so is the emphasis on tactics for each particular foe. I made up a MS Word template for the stat blocks, believe me I tried to find something useful online - if you know of anything that isn't subscription based please let me know. And then I banged out a quick and dirty process. Create a random encounter chart - I actually didn't like the way they do this, encounter decks are something I liked for a while, but not flexible enough on the fly. So I created 12 variable (in numbers of critters) encounters that are ordered based on XP ranges.

Second step is to create the treasure parcels. I was skeptical of this, but it is really an improvement. Treasure is tied to a particular level and not a specific monster. This way I can spread it out or even pile it up with just the level boss! As treasure is placed in rooms, with encounters, it simply gets scratched off the list. Nice.

Third step is to map out and populate the dungeon. I stuck to the 8-12 room range, the theory is that 10 rooms should be a level. That's a good ballpark for what I am doing in the dungeon crawl - each level ends with a boss (usually a dragon). Populating the rooms is then quite simple. I write a bit of flavour text about the level in general (halls, doors, etc.) then I list the rooms. I've named each one, but that is just for my own amusement - Layover at the Roxbury is one of my rooms - and each one has a bit of readable flavour text. Then I list the Features of the room, including Perception and Thievery DCs needed as well as gp values for items that the party might take the time to remove. The next step is to list the monsters present (if any) and then the treasure (if any). Voila you have a dungeon!

After I have a list of all the possible monsters, both random and pre-planned, I then create a second file that is the stat blocks. Keeping these handy for fights is my main concern. A level works out to two pages of text, a map and 3-5 pages of stat blocks. Now that I have a bunch of blocks done it is pretty easy to put that part together. I just wish I had better action symbols! Anyone got a font out there? I found a nice font for re-charge dice.

The next step is to see how this plays. I am thinking Saturday night at my place. I want to limit it to six players, there might still be space if you are interested in a bi-weekly dungeon crawl - 4E style! I'll let you know how it goes.

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