Giving Red Box a Try

Even though I swore I wouldn't play anything other than 4e, I'm giving the original Red Box a try. The truth is the game mechanics still make me weep, at least so far, but my fellow players are awesome and I really want to play with them. They're promising me a good time and I have no doubt that they will deliver.

Obviously the first thing I needed to do was roll up my character. My DM, @NewbieDM, gave me permission to change my ability scores a little, if necessary, to make a cleric work. With that in mind, I rolled my 3d6 in order from top to bottom. The rolls actually weren't too bad with the notable exception of Strength: Str 8 Int 10 Wis 12 Dex 14 Con 13 Cha 13. Sure, I wish my strength and wisdom were just a tad bit higher so I could wipe out that -1 penalty to attack and damage and I could get 5% more XP. But then I remember it's balanced out by lowering my AC by 1 with dex, an additional hit point with her constitution, and perhaps the ability to hire an extra loyal helper or two with her charisma. Besides, if I fudge the numbers too much, I won't be able to complain as much later when she dies.

Next up, determine hit points. If I remember correctly from the audio recording of the first game, the DM is allowing the players to take the max for the first round and then roll for each additional round. After doing that, I ended up with 14 hit points, not too shabby. Last night I thought it was 12, but that's because I didn't see the part where I get to add my con bonus every level. I'm feeling a little better about her already.

Now it's time to go shopping. Normally I would roll 3d6 and multiply it by 10 for my starting gold, but I think he's allowing us to take the maximum amount of gold and he is figuring we already have our weapon. This still leaves me a fair bit to buy, but I should be able to get everything I need:

* chainmail
* shield
* mace
* sling with 30 sling stones

* backpack
* long cloak
* boots, riding or swash-topped
* mirror
* rope
* holy symbol
* 2 torches
* tinder box
* 2 waterskin
* Clothes, middle-class

These are a good start, although I might refine the list before the game on Tuesday. Now that I have my equipment, I can figure out my armor class. We are using the descending system, so lower is better. My chain mail gives me 5 and the shield brings it down to 4. Once I add in my dex bonus, I'm down to 3. Not too bad.

Now I just have character story creation. Cassidy the cleric needs a god and reason for existing. More on that later.

There's No Role Playing in 4e

I hear this all the time, 4th edition doesn't lend itself to role playing. I blame it on not knowing any better, but my campaign tends to involve a fair bit of role playing. Last night was a perfect example, we spent the entire session doing just that. No combats. No skill challenges. All I had was my storyline and the Hammerfast book (I reskinned Hammerfast to fit Andernach in my campaign world). In fact, here were my notes for the session:

After breakfast Elessandra announces that the preparations have been made for their trip to Andernach. She tells the party that they will arrive in the temple of Pelor, headed by Sunspeaker Deldaran. Deldaran can answer their questions about the town and perhaps point them in the direction they need to go.

Conversation with Sunspeaker Deldaran

  • Residents of the tenements are going missing at night. He suggests that the party keep an eye on the tenements to see if they notice anything.
  • He also mentions that the person thought to have stolen the books is probably staying in the tenements.
  • If they ask about history, he suggests they visit the House of Memory.
  • If they ask about hidden knowledge, he suggests the Grand Library.

Mystery of the Missing Destitute
Tenements are never nice places to live and the residents of the one in Andernach have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Players can hang around the tenements to see if they can spot what is happening to the residents.

I tried to make the mystery of the missing destitute into a skill challenge before the session, but I couldn't figure out a good system. Figuring the mystery would pique the PCs' interest, I decided to wing that part of the game at the table. I'm really glad I did, because it opened up the possibility that they could just explore town.

They decided to explore a number of different options in town. The warlord Lady Alexa pretended to be an elderly lady seeking a room in the tenements. Skamos, the psion, and Birkalis, The Bard[tm], tried their luck at the Great Library. Berend, the dwarf paladin, talked with a humble blacksmith to get his take on the town. Finnan, the rascally rogue, met up with some of his guildsmen to get their version of events.

All received clues that confirmed most of the rumors they had heard and conjectures they had made. Not only was someone kidnapping residents of the tenements, others went missing as well. Word is all of the workers in one of the smaller mines near town are gone. The town's leadership was doing its best to keep the news secret, to no avail. In addition, it seems Garell, the rumored book stealer, did make his way back to Andernach. He went from living in the tenements to buying a house in a nicer section of town. Some think he must have made his money at the Hidden Coin, a gambling hall, but it all feels a bit strange. The head librarian also remembers seeing him and Ragdin, a rather wealthy dwarf of Andernach, in the library, trying to find the books on the Age of Legend.

Done with their exploring, they headed to the Arcane Inn, a place recommended to them by Sunspeaker Deldaran. While Birkalis and Skamos chatted with the innkeepers, Berend and Alexa arm wrestled and Finnan sat in the corner and watched. Sensing Birkalis' sleepiness, the innkeepers suggested that he take a walk around to waken his mind so they could continue their conversation. Finnan left secretly to follow him while the rest stayed behind. They recommended a walk along the battlements and while he was up there, Birkalis heard a heated discussion down below. Curious, he let himself down to the ground. Worried about his friend, Finnan did the same, and let his presence be known to Birkalis. They saw a boat moored under the bridge and an open door. Sticking to the shadows, he snuck up to the door and overheard a heated conversation where a rather gruff voice was demanding more money for services rendered, saying that the kidnappings were becoming too noticeable and it was harder and harder to find good candidates. The other responded telling him to be careful as he would make a fine candidate himself for inclusion in the army. With that, the inner door opened with a bang and the two continued their conversation while walking towards the boat. Finnan did the best he could, hiding himself in the shadows under the bridge and, fortunately for him, was able to escape their notice.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group became worried about their friends and set off to look for them. As they neared the bridge, they heard the raised voices down below. By the time they got down to the lower level, one had gone back inside and the other was rowing up the river. Alexa tried to follow him, but he quickly passed out of sight around a bend. After a brief discussion, they determined that the one who stayed was the half-orc, Urgak, who runs the tenements and the other was either Ragdin or one of his men.

Overall, I'm really happy with this session. Inspired by @NewbieDM's red box session, I really hammed it up for them. I made up a lot of stuff at the table, such as how Celdaran the Mad died defending the library.

Celdaran: So there I was. It was dark and I could hear the screams throughout the town. I rushed to stash away the most important books. Then I saw their shadows outside the windows. I walked up to the doorway. Remembering a story from my childhood, I yelled, "Thou shalt not pass." I even killed some of them too.

Birkalis: You killed some of the orcs? How many?

Celdaran: Well, one and it was a woman, but I took one of them with me anyways.

I can't take all the credit though. The Hammerfast book provides so much great content that can be used and reused in numerous different ways. And my players were great, getting into character and just having fun with it.

Holding Back

As a DM, I struggle with how much information to give at the table. My natural inclination is to just spill everything at once. Lately, I've placed safeguards against giving away too much. For example, I used rumor tables a few weeks ago. Last week, I did a few things to make sure the PCs didn't walk away the entire plot along with monster names, descriptions, stat blocks, and turn ons. To accomplish this, I used a weakened sage and a library with missing tomes. Instead of leaving with all the answers, the PCs left with a series of clues for where to find them.

The timing of Mike Mearls' article on sages in D&D made me laugh since last week the PCs met another great sage of Arcadia. Lilith, an eladrin who built a tower as a haven for those in need, lives even though she is well over 1500 years old. Born during the Age of Song, she has firsthand knowledge from the Age of Legends and the events that are of particular concern to the PCs. However, she is weakened from her advanced age and the main subject, the Shadow, causes her to faint if she gives it more than a passing thought. She is not useless to the party but perhaps a bit less useful than they desire. This weakness gives me a great in-story reason why she can't just tell them everything they would like to know and leaves them a little less frustrated.

In addition to the sage, the tower has a library with volumes going back to the Age of Song and the town has other residents who might be useful in some way. To frame their search through these resources, I ran it initially as a skill challenge and then allowed it to progress to skill checks for additional information. Some of the party went to consult the tomes. Others huddled around one of the Shadow Army collars, determining how they could be removed. I tried to make the players be as specific as they could, although the initial round was pretty generic. Each round built upon the last until they had a basic idea of what happened. They determined where in the library the books they wanted should be. Then they started looking through the books and found that the ones they needed the most to learn about the Shadow were gone. This led to questions to the staff and townspeople about where the books might be and, if they were taken, who might have taken them.

For those studying the collar, the progression wasn't quite as natural. The rogue studied the latching mechanism which looked much more complicated than it is. Likewise, the patterns of the arcane energy surrounding the collar seemed intricate at first, but ebbed and flowed in the rhythm of a popular children's song. This knowledge gives them a leg up if they try to remove the collars during combat. They also found that creatures without their collars will still be a threat, but they instantly lose the bonuses being a member of the shadow army gave them. In game mechanics terms, they lose the shadow origin and the bonuses to stealth and intimidate.

Overall, the result was great. The players seemed to enjoy the skill challenge. The PCs received valuable information, most importantly clues that they can investigate further. I didn't give away everything I have. This will mean less prep time for me in the future and gives the players some real decisions to make. Do they try to find the missing volumes when they get to Andernach or do they continue on in their quest, worried that each passing day means an increased likelihood that the kidnapped noble will die? Slowly getting the clues about what exactly the Shadow is sets the tone for the final encounter of this campaign arc and also gives me an opportunity to find out from them what their worst fears about it are. The guesses and jokes that result are excellent fodder as I nail down the final details of the upcoming encounters.

Arcadia Preview: Waking from a Dream

During the previous session, the PCs had a dream wherein their appeared like the former Defenders of the Light. More information about that session can be found in Dream a Little Dream of Terror. In this preview, one of the PCs gets a bit more info about the Defenders of the Light and a strange new prophesy.

A book falls from Birkalis' table, waking him with a start. It lands
hard on its spine and falls open. As he bends over to pick it up, his
eye is drawn to the illustration on the page. It depicts the door in
his dream and displays the same carving. In the foreground stands a
small boy, his shadow splashed across the wall behind him, taking the
form of a man wearing a crown. Before the boy's shadow, is another
one, kneeling before him. The source of the other shadow remains
unseen. Above the door is carved the words, "When he is born, even
the Shadow will kneel."

The illustration is in a chapter called The Sealing. While it
mentions the Shadow, it refers the reader to other books for
descriptions of the creature. Instead, this chapter focuses on the
eclectic band of heroes who gave their lives to ensure the Shadow
could not escape and wreck havoc on the land ever again. The prophesy
is repeated here as well, again with the dire warning that the Shadow
will devour the lands if it escapes.

The chapter also mentions one lone survivor of the group, an eladrin
who was able to use the sacrifice of his fallen friends to seal the
door and hold in the Shadow. Their sacrifice gave him the power
needed to perform magic far above his level. The experience also left
him mad, and after returning with the rings and other personal effects
of his friends, he founded a temple in the western woods dedicated to
the light. He spent the rest of his life making sure no shadow
crossed his path again, filling the rooms of the temple with light so
bright the sun seemed pale in comparison and day was never-ending.

When Birkalis is done reading this chapter, he tries to find the books
mentioned in the chapter, but empty spaces occupy the spots where he
would expect to find them. With the search fruitless, he returns to
reading of the elven history of Arcadia.

The rest of the party sleeps through the remaining night without
event. They awake the next morning to a chambermaid opening the
curtains in their rooms, allowing the sun in. The light feels warm
and comforting as it hits their skin. She also opens the windows, and
the gentle breeze brings with it the hint of lilacs. She informs them
that hot baths have been drawn and breakfast is being prepared.

When they assemble for breakfast, Elessandra takes them aside. She
mentions that Lilith is feeling a bit better, and may join them for
the meal, but they must keep their questions short and they mustn't
ask her about the shadow. With that, she opens the dining room doors
and the group is treated to a wondrous feast of fresh fruit, sausages,
bacon, lots of bread and fresh juice. The crew of the boat is there,
along with 4 dwarves who look familiar but were not members of the
crew. They announce they are the four dwarves who were petrified by
the coral and thank the party for rescuing them from the water's
depths. One of them presents an ornate key and says that it is one of
the artifacts the previous boat captain was attempting to smuggle out
of Andernach. He has no idea where it goes to, but it is the only
payment he can offer.

Going to Gen Con

To add to a year of firsts, Fred and I are going to Gen Con this year. I'm really excited about this as I'll be seeing some people I've met online and at PAX East and hopefully meeting a ton of really cool people. With my experience at PAX East, I know a bit more about what to expect.

One of the nice things is I've signed up in advance to judge for RPGA. A huge thanks to @Wolfstar76 and @Mudbunny74 for pointing me in the proper direction. Without their assistance I would have had no idea where to look. For those who are interested in judging at Gen Con, you can sign up on the Baldman Games website. The sign up process is simple and Dave is a really nice guy. Judges get rewards for running games and you get a chance to learn about a lot of different play styles in a compressed time period. An added bonus for me is knowing that I might be giving people who lack a home game a chance to play the game they love.

In the additional info section, I told Dave about my experience at PAX East and he thought I might be a good candidate for the Learn to Play sessions. These are the ones I really wanted to run at PAX East but they lacked enough kits to allow me to run one. So I'm pretty psyched about this although a little intimidated as well. Chances are the players at my table are either going to be brand-new players, perhaps even kids, or people who've played earlier editions and want to give 4th edition a try. To be honest, the former scares me a bit more than the latter, in large part because I have to help introduce them to the entire concept. Besides, I'm not much taller than the kids, so holding their attention and being an "authority figure" scares me a bit. I've dealt with my fair share of people who have a thing against 4e, so I'm not too worried about holding my own against any older edition players who want to show their ugly side. Besides, I just need to remind myself that the people playing want to have fun and I'll be wearing a super awesome DM shirt. Between those factors and my natural charm, I shouldn't get into too much trouble with maintaining the table. If I get challenged by someone, I just need to pause, take a deep breath and crush them with the monsters (mostly joking about that last part).

That just leaves running a great adventure. I won't be getting an adventure in advance, so that makes things a bit harder for me. But since it's learn to play, I can make some pretty good assumptions about the types of creatures they are likely to come up against. I'm also going to spend some amount of time with the PHB and the DMGs to make sure I have the core rules down pretty well. Recently passing the Herald Exam helped bolster my confidence in this area as well. And the rules aren't everything and the emphasis here is definitely on the fun. This means if I forget a monster power that nerfs the monster a bit, it's no big deal. I'm not promising them an adventure where the challenge is to just survive. Beyond that, I just need to be descriptive and be willing to roll with things. I'm really good at the latter and the former tends to be easy for me unless I end up in competition mode, which is unlikely. So all around, the odds seem stacked in my favor.

Beyond judging, I'm really looking forward to sitting in on a few seminars, playing a few games and hopefully even running one of my own creations. I've improved my skills since PAX East and if there is another DM challenge, I'm ready, willing and able to participate. I'm also looking for a few opportunities for chaos, although I'm not sure how yet. Another goal is to meet with some publishers about finding ways to get their adventures included in my RPG Adventure database. Somewhere in there I need to sleep and eat. Hopefully I'll make all my endurance checks. If you are going, definitely let me know!

What's Good for the Goose

With D&D it's impossible for the rules to cover every possible action your players will try. Given that, it's important to come up with a few easy to remember game play philosophies. One of my most central ones involves the idiom, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander." I try to say yes as often as possible to my players with the caveat that if they can do it, so can the NPCs. If they chafe at the NPCs being able to do something, that's a clue to me that their request likely is broken. This guideline helps forestall arguments and long periods of time spent combing through the rule books.

So what does this mean in terms of actual game play? Well, a couple of the PCs have powers that allow them to dominate a creature. This means the dominator gets to choose one action for the dominated party during its turn, with the limit that it must be something that can be done at-will (no encounter or daily powers here). In a recent game, the player decided that the creature should walk past each of the PC's allies, drawing opportunity attacks in the process. One could argue that this is a bit broken and decide to not allow it. But why do that? There is no clear rule and, in this case at least, I believe it's a daily power. So I rewarded the player who had the clever idea by letting him run with it, but made it clear to the table that this meant the enemies could use it as well. I have to say, it was a lot of fun when it played out at the table, with the poor monster running away from the group while taking hits from all sides. Now the players are just waiting to see when I decide to bring out the gander moment.

This guideline isn't a magic bullet. Some people really prefer that there be a real rule that is clearly spelled out and defined. This is not going to help with that. But for most gamers who can come to a friendly agreement, it can make things a ton easier and fun.

Dream a Little Dream of Terror

A DM needs to metagame. Beyond the rules and the story, the DM is the one who needs to watch the clock and check in on how the players are doing stamina-wise. In addition, the DM needs to make sure that there is fun for everyone during the session. My players like combat and so, while I'll occasionally run a session without any, I try to make sure every night has some. During the planning for last night's session, however, I was really struggling to come up with one. And then, the morning of game day, I had an idea. The PCs were going to be sleeping in a magical tower filled with the magic of Sehanine. Why not do a dream sequence? We had done an earlier one that went really well, so I know my players wouldn't hate me for it. So during lunch, I quickly came up with this encounter and I drew the map at the table.

Umbragen Shadow Walker [DDI]
2 Dark Smasher [DDI]
Seething Wraith [DDI]

At the start of the encounter, the Shadow Walker and Dark Smashers are at the table, planning some military maneuvers. The wraith is hanging out at the end of the mass of rocks to the southeast, on the opposite side of the cavern from the tunnel. The PCs can place themselves whereever they like in the tunnel to the north.

The Dark Smashers and the Shadow Walker work together to get the Smashers combat advantage. At the beginning, I just used the Walker's Double Attack but then moved to the Soulblade as things got interesting. A bit mean I know, but an interesting twist to the encounter.

This meant the tension at the beginning was focused on the wraith, with its aura that causes damage and dazed. The tension was amplified when one of the PCs, blinded by the Walker's Dancing Shadows, blindly walked down the eastern side corridor and ended right next to it. At the start of his next turn, the damage and effect came seemingly out of nowhere.

Room Notes
The white discs are light sources. The PCs have a magic item I made which gives them the following encounter power:

Encounter (Teleportation): Must be adjacent to a light source. Teleport up to 5 squares and end adjacent to a light source.

This magic item means that light sources, and their absence, become important elements of the terrain.

DM Notes
Dealing with stealth is difficult as always, and when the condition of blindness is tacked on, it becomes even harder. There was a bit of discussion of when the wraith would be felt by the PC walking down the corridor. I had forgotten that the PC was blinded and started to put the wraith on the board. Once I recovered my error, the player argued that his character would still know it existed because he was only blidned. While blindness doesn't make all perception go away (he might have still heard it for instance), a confluence of events led me to rule he wouldn't have noticed it right away. The wraith has a +14 to stealth and blinded gives a -10 to perception checks. I would have mentioned the aura, but after having to explain why the wraith was hidden, I just plain forgot.

The Soulblade power of the Shadow Walker is really, really mean. In addition to the amount of damage it does, a successful hit means the PC can't spend a healing surge until the end of the Walker's next turn. This can turn it into a PC killer, especially if you have other monsters around to give it buffs. For instance, the Kir-Lanan Voice I used in the mirrors encounter gives a +1 to attack rolls with its aura.

Also, I ignored the healing powers on the monsters. I guess I could have switched them out for something else, but I lacked the time. With the powers they had, the combat would be interesting enough and healing would have made the combat last even longer.

Group Story Telling

At my table, I like spreading around the story telling fun. Building off of each other not only takes the pressure off of me, but leads to some really great ideas. Fortunately I have a group that is likes to tell stories or is at least willing to amuse me. Tonight, we had a great opportunity for one of those collaborative story telling moments.

In the preview for this week's game, an NPC offered the group rings in exchange for taking up her cause as Defenders of the Light. She mentioned that she hoped that they would meet a better fate than the previous wearers of the rings. This set up a great dream sequence where the PCs would appear to be the former ring wearers. For simplicity, they kept their own powers and stats. I then gave them the opportunity to create the characters. What race were they? What did they look like? What were their names? This took a huge workload off of me and I can use the answers to those questions in the story going forward.

Not only did it help me, but I bet the players are going to be more interested in the story line from now on. I look forward to doing more of these experiments in the future.

Arcadia Preview: The Defenders of the Light

Last week the PCs dealt a blow to the shadow army in its attempt to raid the Tower of Lilith. This week, they will meet the tower's namesake and be asked to stand up against the growing threat. Here is the preview I'm sending the players.

The last of the shadowy attackers escapes through the mirrors. Almost instantly, the Mirror Keepers run forward and solemnly turn off the mirrors so they no longer act as portals. Elessandra and some of the Keepers rush to aide their fallen friends, attempting to bring life back to their limp bodies. While the calming presence of the tower is still there, it feels weakened and offers little solace.

Meanwhile, the double doors behind the chairs open and a tall, slender woman dressed in white dress with a long, flowing red robe steps into the room. Instantly, the room falls silent. Elessandra rushes to the woman and kneels at her feet, bowing her head.

"Your ladyship, you have awoken. We have been attacked!"

"Yes, child, I know. Once again Arcadia is under the threat of the shadow." She turns to look at your group, "And once again fortune provides us with brave and courageous souls. Please, come forward." Elessandra stands and takes her place beside the other woman.

The battered adventurers step forward. "I am Lilith, protector and Keeper of the Light. Arcadia is in dire need of your service. Someone seeks to use old and forgotten secrets to destroy the land and enslave its people. They must be stopped, no matter the cost." She reaches into her pocket and pulls out 6 silver rings. "These are from the last group who had your task. I pray their fate does not befall you. Will you become Defenders of the Light and drive back the growing shadow?"

Was Leeroy Jenkins Playing Boldly?

Since I started spreading the word of Chris Sims' "play boldly" philosophy, a number of people have asked me about Leeroy Jenkins. For those who might not have heard of this Internet meme, Wikipedia has a good summary:

The video was released by the World of Warcraft player guild "PALS FOR LIFE". It features a group of players discussing a detailed battle strategy for the next encounter while one of their party members, Leeroy, is away from his computer. Their plan is ruined when Leeroy returns and, ignorant of the strategy, immediately charges headlong into battle shouting his own name in a stylized battle cry. His companions rush to help, but Leeroy's actions ruin the meticulous plan, and all of the group members are killed.

While his actions certainly were bold, they really don't fit into the play boldly mantra. For me, the mantra isn't about playing each individual PC acting as boldly as possible. Rather it's how to turn the game from the monotony of dice rolling and regurgitation of mechanics that honestly can be done with a computer to a telling of legendary tales that will keep you and your friends entertained for years.

On one hand, the Leeroy Jenkins moment did that. In fact, it went from being a tale between friends to being an Internet meme to becoming part of our cultural literacy and being mentioned in a number of TV shows, movies and commercials. We love it because it illustrates a frustration shared by many players of MMOs. The difficulty of the dungeons in World of Warcraft caused groups to spend a lot of time on strategy. While some people really love these planning sessions, a fair number of people do not. For those people, the focus on planning was taking the fun away from the game. Leeroy Jenkins brought some of that fun back, even if it was only vicariously. Now, whenever someone insists on spending a ton of time planning instead of exploring or going after the bad guys, they can point to this cautionary tale of what can happen when one player decides to not go along with the plan.

However, for those who like planning and spent a lot of time and energy helping craft one, Leeroy's move was a bit of a dick move. Time is a valuable resource for people on both sides of the planning coin. If a player at my table left for 20 minutes, came back to the party standing outside of a cave and decided to just go for it, I would be a little upset. At that point, the game isn't about the party, it's about him and that's a bit unfair to the other players. Thus, while his actions could be classified as bold, he was not playing boldly.

So what does this mean for our tables? To me, it means that Leeroy Jenkins moments usually do far more harm than good. Most tables have a mixture of player motivations with few being comprised solely of those who like to just go for it. For most tables, an occasional Leeroy Jenkins moment might help break people out of a gaming rut. Even then, however, the occurrence might point to something deeper being broken at the table. Perhaps the planners far outnumber those who like to dive directly into the action. Or maybe there is a player who feels continually left out of the group decisions. If these sorts of problems exist, it's important for the table to recognize them and, hopefully, find a way to accommodate everyone's wishes. For DMs, mixing in some "seat-of-your-pants" encounters with ones that allow for planning is a good start. Likewise, trying to figure out something special about the PC of the player being left out and make that particular character play a pivotal role in the story. For players, it means checking in with the responsiveness of the other players to your ideas. If you really like strategy but see half the table not engaged in your planning, it might be time to back off a bit or maybe come up with plans that spotlight another PC. And if you find yourself bored by yet another planning session, speak up. By working together, you might just be able to create something as bold as Leeroy Jenkins without being a jackass.

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