Odds & Ends

I’ve done it. I’ve finished my long-running 4e campaign. 140 or so gaming sessions, 3.5 years. I feel I’ve squeezed every last drop out of the system, done everything I could have with it. I won’t be GMing it anymore, which means I won’t be writing about it anymore. That is, after I make a couple more final posts about everything I’ve learned. But worry not, my 10 or so regular readers, I have plans for this blog.

Now, then. Several small ideas, not worthy of a blog post on their own, presented to you in bulk.

All-star final battle

The time has come. Victory is withing grasp. Heroes rally their friends and allies, and mount an assault against the Dark Overlord and its minions. Or something to that effect. But how to handle that in-game? How to let these allies shine in their own right, while helping the PCs? How to determine who lives and who dies? Some may choose to model everything using standard rules. That way madness lies. Others may use mass combat rules or switch to an independent wargaming system and make an evening of that. Too much effort, unless everyone is familiar with said wargame, I think. Here’s what I did for our finale.

Each player got 5 highlights, to show how the NPCs they cared about contributed. At the end of each round of combat I called out for one highlight, from any player. A description of PCs’ friends being awesome in the grand melee – or elsewhere for that matter, often precluded by a brief flashback to them being recruited. Students of a magic academy founded by a PC, summoning elementals; dwarves in power armour originally designed by their previous king, a villain since replaced by another PC on the throne, digging up from below the ground; and so on. Just what they did was entirely up to the players to describe, no die rolls required.

As the battle progressed and we moved from encounter to encounter, rules would change up. Players gained the ability to spend an extra highlight to prevent a monster from reaching them on their own battlefield, or to score an extra success in the global skill challenge. Again, allies are useful, and it goes both ways: if the PCs are dealing with their objectives well, they can draw extra heat to themselves, and not use up the highlights too quickly. Because once everyone’s highlights run out, well, they still have to use them. But these highlights are no longer of just heroism. They are of heroism and sacrifice. A meaningful NPC has to die. No hard rules on what constitutes “meaningful”, beyond players going “awww, but we like him!”

To recap: players highlight NPCs they care to tell stories about, they participates in the final battle, and no need to invent or learn new mechanics. Worked like a charm. Just make sure to change up the conditions of the battle every now and then, 25 scenes of just fighting are tough on players. And 25 highlights in this case were picked so that there’d be some heroic deaths at the end, but not too many – choose the number according to your plans.

Dungeon Tiles

Official Dungeon Tiles by WotC sound good, but are too cumbersome to set up; hard to find the ones you need in the pile, even if you sort them; and keep drifting apart when in use. Poster maps; much sturdier, not to mention 3D, terraclips sets (my favourite!); and the ever-reliable dry-erase battle mat offer a better solution. But there is one use I found for dungeon tiles. They are great for dungeons with moving bits. A platform that swings from side to side on its initiative count. A boat sailing down the river. A trap that rotates exits from the room – or the room itself.

No rest for the wicked

Several ideas on improving the way short and long rest works. The first idea is very simple, and doesn’t need justification: short rests don’t require 5 minutes of inactivity, instead they automatically happen between encounters, even if less than a second has passed. So much more freedom for DM to structure events.

Next, daily powers. Current way they recharge (after a long rest) encourages hoarding them – what if the next encounter is even tougher? The other extreme it could lead to is a 5-minute work day, where the party blows up the first encounter they see with all of their dailies, then bunker down to sleep. An alternative: characters can use 1 attack daily power and 1 utility and/or item daily power per milestone. They can use the same daily power they used last milestone, if they so desire. This limit increases to 2 at paragon tier and higher.

Finally, another resource which relies on long rest: healing surges. Unless the party goes through 4-5 encounters in a day, they’re not going to be at risk of running out. But not every adventure allows for concentrated monster fighting. Instead, lets tie recovering healing surges to completing quests. If you use the DMG nomenclature, completing a major quest would let the whole party regain all of their healing surges, whereas a minor quest may let the character(s) who’ve completed it to regain some. This shifts the focus from the simulation of dungeon crawling further towards narrative. Note that “find a safe place to sleep” may very well be a minor quest, depending on the situation.

Alternative to dominate

Dominate sucks. There, I’ve said it. It robs the player of their turn, of the ability to make decisions. The player still gets to roll some dice, so it’s not as bad as stun, but it’s just not very fun, especially given how long turns tend to take. It doesn’t help that the best action by far the dominator can choose for its victim is to run around, provoking as many opportunity attacks as possible. Try the following alternative: the dominator designates a target for the dominated creature, which it must attack. The dominated creature has a full set of actions, though it can only use powers that attack its designated target. If that power allows it to make multiple attacks, it cannot use them to target anyone other than the designated target, however a power which targets multiple creatures, such as a burst or a blast, is fair game.

What does that achieve? The dominated player gets to make decisions again. In fact, they’re faced with an unusual tactical challenge. They could use a power which pushes their ally to improve their positioning. Or one that would target their strongest defence and hopefully miss. Or just toss a fireball their way. “Oops, sorry, boss-dominator-man”.

This makes dominate much weaker – but that just means you can give it to monsters without feeling guilty. Don’t bother changing the rules for players dominating monsters – monsters don’t get to have fun.

Killing them slowly

Yet another corollary to the post on creating meaningful encounters. Lets say you’ve come up with a cool idea for a fight that has an actual objective that PCs may or may not achieve, different from “kill ’em all”. The fact is, 4e is balanced for killing everything in the encounter. It’s the underlying assumption of the game: you will go into rooms and kill goblins there. While the rules for tactical movement and cunning powers can be used to achieve different goals, the game still expects total annihilation.

Based on that, monster hit points are such that they take roughly 5 rounds to kill. Which is perfect for an encounter about killing them, but paradoxically makes killing them in an encounter about something else a poor choice. It’s just not worth the characters’ time. So why not halve the hit points in that case, thus making it a more desirable course of action? The challenge is not in killing the monsters, after all. If you do that, make sure you’ve informed your players, so that they can make informed tactical decisions.

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5 responses to “Odds & Ends

  1. A game of 140 sessions running for 3,5 years? That is an achievement in itself! Great to read about the culmination of such an epic tale, and good luck with future campaigns! 🙂

  2. >> All-star final battle
    Well, may be my NPC’s suck balls or something like that, but most of my players have pretty indifferent attitude toward NPC’s. May be because of the fact that we usually play in the “PCs are the Stars of the Show” way. Only one of them bothers with NPCs and he prefers kinda specific NPCs.

    >> No rest for the wicked
    Well, I have to say that I GM games where combats are rare so my players tend to unleash all their resources if things looks serious.

    >> Killing them slowly
    I never managed to do a successful encounter with goals beside killing everything that moves. Stuff that looks cool in the movies tend to be a boring dice-rolling in the game. Chases are one notable example.

    • >> Well, may be my NPC’s suck balls or something like that, but most of my players have pretty indifferent attitude toward NPC’s. May be because of the fact that we usually play in the “PCs are the Stars of the Show” way. Only one of them bothers with NPCs and he prefers kinda specific NPCs.

      Doesn’t have to be about named NPCs, if players don’t care for them. Applies to organisations or other groups just as well. Or, if players really don’t care, why do you bother with including NPCs in the battle?

      >> Well, I have to say that I GM games where combats are rare so my players tend to unleash all their resources if things looks serious.

      Exactly! I know you use Anima nowadays, but I have no idea how it works. Most games handle renewable character resources, like spells per day, with a certain expectation of just often you’ll have to rely on them in that period. When you don’t meet that expectation, things go poorly.

      >> I never managed to do a successful encounter with goals beside killing everything that moves. Stuff that looks cool in the movies tend to be a boring dice-rolling in the game. Chases are one notable example.

      “Kill specific thing in specific manner”, or “get from point A to point B” tend to work ok in any tactically-inclined game. Chases are hard to get right, and don’t work on a battlemap.

      • >> Doesn’t have to be about named NPCs, if players don’t care for them. Applies to organisations or other groups just as well. Or, if players really don’t care, why do you bother with including NPCs in the battle?
        Well, they don’t care about anything that is not their organisation. And by “their” I mean “where they are in charge”.

        >> Exactly! I know you use Anima nowadays, but I have no idea how it works. Most games handle renewable character resources, like spells per day, with a certain expectation of just often you’ll have to rely on them in that period. When you don’t meet that expectation, things go poorly.
        Anima have bunch of expendable resources: Fatigue, Zeon (read: mana), Psychic Points (fatigue for psionics), Dominion… And the the rate at which they are meant to be spent is not mentioned. But anyway it is hard to quit from scheme where players either save everything to the last OR unleash alfa-strike Armageddon with maximum haste.

        >> “Kill specific thing in specific manner”, or “get from point A to point B” tend to work ok in any tactically-inclined game. Chases are hard to get right, and don’t work on a battlemap.
        Haha, I tried to incorporate “Kill specific thing in specific manner”. You had to see what immense, truly cosmic, I dare to say, sorrow shadowed my players faces when they understood that they cannot kill this thing by simply damaging it. It was as if GM humoured them personally.
        Well, I think that that party actually was composed of players who wanted to win rather than to bother with stuff like “story” or “challenge”.

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