Saturday, February 13, 2010

First Time DMing 4e

Last night I took over the DMing reins of my weekly 4e group - our previous DM wanted to "take a vacation" so I volunteered at the 11th hour.  So there I was, 7 o'clock PM the night before the game, suddenly faced with running a game that I have only played before with less than a day to prepare.  I turned to my large RPG collection and pulled down the Jungles of Chult, a 2e adventure/supplement detailing a dinosaur filled jungle.  This made me think of a setting I had created but never got to run back in high school, so I pulled down my old D&D binders and found the relic from 1995.

The setting is basically a rip-off of the age of discovery; a "new world" has been found, ships laden with gold have been coming back from it, there is a vast amazon-like rainforest with a huge river running through it.  This makes for a great set-up for beginning a campaign because the players meet on the boat on the way over, and would have had a month or two at sea to bond and form a connection before they set foot in the new world.

In my setting, the boat the players were on was mostly filled with convict slave-laborers destined for the gold mines in the mountains.  When they arrived, the mayor of the small town of New Hope greeted them and expressed gratitude that they had arrived, as "few have been brave enough to come across the waters now that word of the White Death had spread."  This got the players attention, and they soon learned that a deadly and highly contagious fever had recently decimated the population of the settlers.  The contagion seemed to have abated, but in its aftermath there were plenty of empty houses, unused fishing boats, abandoned farmsteads, and jobs available in all sectors (guards for the gold shipments from the mines, hunters, swamp trappers, fishermen, etc.) as there were simply not enough people that had survived.

Beginning a campaign in an environment recently ravaged by disease makes it extremely easy on the PCs to do whatever they want to do - in short order, the group had secured a large abandoned townhouse, a farmstead and a fishing boat.  They bought three convict-laborers at the slave auction, including one who they had noticed on board the ship because he seemed to have established himself as the leader of the slaves.  This charismatic hob-goblin was obviously one of the better physical specimens among the lot, so the party tried to discourage the representatives of the three mines from bidding on him by subtly revealing that he was an instigator and troublemaker who was likely to lead a slave revolt.  This tactic worked, and the party was able to buy him on the cheap.  The party next freed the three grateful slaves and employed them as paid laborers on their farm, making the erstwhile leader of the slaves the foreman of the farm, a position which seemed to suit him to a tee.

I sprinkled too many plot hooks to go into detail on all of them, but here is an overview:  A city of gold in the center of the swamp, nestled in a crater with glossy black sides and guarded by snakemen; some problem in one of the mines that led to no shipments of gold for several months and the mine buying nearly all of the slaves at the auction; a crazed doctor who had disappeared into the jungle when his family died of the White Death only to appear later, claiming to have crossed the mountains and bearing strange herbs that cured the fever, stopping the epidemic (for now - he is out of the herbs...); fragments of pottery and copper disks bearing strange glyphs that turn up in the sand and in the swamp; a ring of large stone heads around the swamp, facing into its center; a rumored curse on the farmlands that has led to increasingly poor harvests; jungle demons that snatch people from the river; and rumors that as you approach the mountains, the plants in the jungle take on a life of their own and attempt to strangle intruders.

The party talked to the crazed doctor and one member joined him in drinking a mashed up brew of vines and roots that induced instantaneous vomiting followed by intense hallucinations.  While under its influence, the party member, a minotaur Warden (sort of a druid/ranger cross if you don't know 4e), examined the stone heads and realized that she could see through all of the heads and that they were arranged in a protective circle to keep something evil from leaving the swamp.  She also saw flashes of the past and incoherent glimpses of rituals being conducted in front of the stone heads.  A vision of a great serpent also visited her, entering her body through her mouth and filling her with a sense of being at one with the land.  The party then agreed to help the doctor on an expedition in a week to cross the mountains and gather more of the herbs in case another outbreak of white death happened.

The party also spent quite a bit of time taking measures designed to prevent infection from disease - they procured netting and covered the doors and windows of their town and farm house with the netting, and bought hammocks to sleep up off the ground in case the disease was spread by insects.  They also discussed the drinking water situation, deciding to boil all of their water.

One thing that really cracked me up was how ready the group was to dive into a "the Sims" type of gameplay - hours had passed, and they were setting up their farm, teaching their new hirelings the basics of crop rotation and fertilization, bartering for seed, setting up a deal to buy waste from the fish market to use as compost, patching up a boat, going fishing, and generally doing an awful lot of stuff not generally associated with D&D as a genre.  In fact, when the wife of our host called during the game, she asked him what was happening.  "Playing D&D," he said.  She told him that she meant what was happening in the game - he paused and sheepishly said, "We are farming.  And fishing."  I could hear her laughing over the phone.  One player is playing a Warforged Barbarian - more or less a robot animated by magic for those unfamiliar with 4e.  He walked along the bottom of the bay, attached by a rope to the boat above, and held a light which attracted fish, making it easy work to net a decent haul.  He also stumbled upon (literally stepped on) a giant halibut, and while it was not easy to bring down the 300 pound beast in its environment, he eventually killed it, leaving the group with hundreds of pounds of delicious white bottomfish meat.  Searching through the sand on the bottom of the bay, he also came upon two intact ceramic jugs sealed with beeswax - these turned out to be full of Agave nectar, so the group started working on recipes for smoked halibut cured with agave.  They dream of putting this delicacy on a stick and selling it at the market!  What an industrious group of adventurers!

Of course, they had also done a lot of talking with the locals and getting information in the tavern (the Engorged Serpent, with a sign in the shape of a constrictor in the aftermath of a very large meal), some of the most interesting of which was a first hand account from the two swamp trappers who had survived when they and a third, less lucky, companion had discovered the crater that contained the City of Gold.  No one else put much credence in their tale of a city with walls made of solid gold, but the party was VERY interested.  Of course, the snake-men that killed the third trapper sounded terrifying, but a city made of gold?  Very tempting...

The party also managed to get on the good side of Sayra, the beautiful red-haired representative of the Steam Pit, the mine that had been undergoing some kind of mysterious difficulty of late.  Rumor around town, which the PCs had already heard, was that an outbreak of the White Death had occurred in the mine, explaining the lapse in shipments and the need to buy over a hundred convict laborers.  Sayra vehemently denied this but was strangely reticent to reveal what was actually going on.  She eventually hired the PCs as extra guards for the boat trip back to the mines with the slaves - she reluctantly revealed that she would normally just have hired soldiers from the town but none would agree to accompany her this time, probably as a result of the rumored White Death outbreak.

During the boat ride upriver, two huge green apes began following the boats in the treetops alongside the river.  When the boats entered an area of deep, calm water, the apes began throwing large fruit pods into the water, and several enormous crocodiles erupted up, snapping at the pods.  The slaves began straining against their manacles and Clay Guido, the captain of the first boat, was hard put to keep the boat afloat.  While the party was attempting to distract the crocodiles, which were now angrily swimming at the boat after realizing that the fruit pods contained no meat, the two green apes leaped onto the boat and attempted to abduct Sayra.  A furious fight followed, and the apes revealed a propensity for biting the faces of their opponents.  They also seemed to speak some kind of foreign language and were wearing silver armbands over their biceps.  Eventually the party managed to kill the apes and hacked off their legs to throw to the crocodiles, which succeed in distracting them enough to allow the boats safe passage.

When the silver armbands were removed from the apes, they transformed before the astonished onlookers into regular human bodies.  The armbands seemed to be magical, but the party was unable to figure out all of their properties.  They did discover that the armbands would extend the lifespan of anyone who wore them, so the barbarian and the warden decided (foolishly?) to put them on.

So ended a (in my opinion) very successful session of D&D.  I think I proved to myself that despite the criticisms sometimes rained down on 4e that it is little more than a glorified board game, marching from one tactical combat to another, the right DM and group of players can make 4e every bit as much of a roleplaying heavy, discovery and exploration oriented RPG as any previous edition.


  1. That sounds like an amazing session. I love all of the non-combat action.

  2. It seems to me that more or less everything that happened in this session could have happened in an Old School game - correct me if I'm wrong but that's the impression I got. So I wonder to myself if it's more the playing style rather than the edition that marks out 'Old School' as such. And if it is the gaming style, then I wonder why those who play 4e do so - what is it about that edition that attracts them, rather than 1e, Basic or the retro-clones?

    Any thoughts? I'm curious...

  3. Wow. Just..... wow. Now that's a game I'd REALLY love to take a part in!

  4. The 4th edition has it's great parts.

    There are some really cool things about 4th edition such as my sorcerer, rouges, and the whole at will, per encounter, and per day powers setup.

    Where it goes wrong is too many modifiers, too many hit points, not enough damage done to monsters, too long of combats as you go up in levels.

    In fact last night it took 9 hours to do 3 encounters.

    It's a completely different play style from any other version of D&D.
    There is no fear of death as your character can mow through most encounters.
    You have no need for NPCs and if like in the old days one would hire NPCs the DM would have lot's of trouble running the monsters and NPCs.

    In S&W, Basic and OSRIC I can run HUGE combats with a party of five, plus ten NPCs against 20 orcs with no slow down of the story.

    I am trying to convince my group to try OSRIC in an old school dungeon crawl as they did not dig S&W or BFRPG. I got dungeons ready to roll just need a few more overly long sessions of 4th to convince them.

    Don't get me wrong there are some things I like about 4th edition just liking the system less and less every game.

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  7. Sounds like a really fun campaign!

    I just DMed a totally combat-free session of 4e yesterday. It happened mostly by accident - the ranger rolled very high on her nature checks to get to places without running into anything nasty, and then the few chances the players had for a fight, they avoided. There was still plenty of dice-rolling, it was just mostly bluff and insight checks (the palasorc was up to his old tricks).

    "I wonder to myself if it's more the playing style rather than the edition that marks out 'Old School' as such. And if it is the gaming style, then I wonder why those who play 4e do so - what is it about that edition that attracts them, rather than 1e, Basic or the retro-clones?"

    It seems like you're asking, "Why are these people playing 4e when they could get a similar experience in an old school game?" I wonder why you aren't asking, "Why am I playing old school games when I could get the same experience playing 4e?" I'm not saying you should switch from a game you like to one you haven't played just based on a blog post, but I do wonder why you'd rather have other people switch. I, personally, like the 4e mechanics for just about everything a lot better than the 1st edition ones.

    By the way, Carl, you should turn on name/url commenting. It makes things a lot easier- there's plenty of times I won't comment on an interesting post of someone's because I can't be bothered to sign in with my AIM account, and I'm sure plenty of people feel the same way.

  8. @ the demonillusionist - thanks for the suggestion, I will enable that - hadn't even really thought about it!

  9. @DaddyGrognard - to answer your original question - Yes, nearly everything that happened in this session could have occurred in any edition of D&D. The exact way some of it happened (i.e. so skill checks, etc.) would have been different, but I am used to running systems sans skills so it would certainly not have been a deal breaker.

    To answer the second part of your question - Yes, I do feel that it is the play style and not the edition per se that defines old school. As to why anyone would play 4e if they could get a similar play experience out of an earlier edition - well for one, many people are not looking for that kind of gameplay. This group obviously was, as they dived into the sandbox setting and plot hooks with gusto. That being said, several members of the group LOVE character creation in 4e, and come from a background of tactical video game combat like Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XI (online MMORPG) and WOW. They want to be able to have a number of powers and abilities that are defined on their sheets. They like being able to play off of each other's abilities in combat - I don't know if you are familiar with 4e at all, but for instance, the Minotaur Warden has an ability where she "marks" opponents. While they are marked, if they attack anyone else she gets a free attack in at them and can knock them prone. While she has opponents marked, the rogue runs up behind them and stabs them in the back (using one of several at will powers which work well with sneak attack) and runs off - if the monster/opponent tries to get an attack in on the rogue, then the minotaur gets the free attack.

    Obviously, you and probably many people could care less about tactical combat. If combat is something to be gotten through quickly to get back to the exploration and story, then 4e should be abandoned for a more rules light edition.

    On the other hand, what I am interested in proving to myself and this group is that they can have both- when combat does arise, they get the very tightly designed and pseudo-board gamey minis combat that 4e excels at, but they also get the kind of roleplay heavy, explorative gameplay that old-school games have as a result of their simple combat engines.

  10. As you know I have my own reservations about 4e -- just for myself, NOT that I think it's inherently evil -- but you are starting to make a convincing case here. The more I analyze this for myself, the more I realize that there is a strong "nostalgia factor" for me -- I want to play the game as it felt during the TSR glory days. But good on you for this!

  11. Wow, you've really inspired me! I'm about to start my own campaign and have been having a lot of anxiety about it. I'm prone to anxiety, though, so that's no surprise. What is surprising is that I feel a lot more relaxed about it all having read this post (thanks Daddy Grognard for turning me on to this blog!). I feel like I can handle it and that the rules of 4E aren't going to cramp me. Plus, Carl's comment above made me feel like the "computer gamers" in my group are going to dig the combat. All told, I'm feeling very good right now.

    @Daddy Grognard - some of the things that people have said in answer to your question, I agree with, although less confrontationally so. But the main reason I will be using 4E for my upcoming campaign is that it's what is commercially available now. I know that old-school-type stuff exists that I could buy, but the D&D brand name is sufficiently common enough that the total RPG newbs I invited to play won't be put off by something completely foreign to their minds. So I bought the core stuff for 4E, paid a membership to the DDI website, and here we go! :)

  12. @ eabod

    Have fun! In my experience, 4e has actually been really easy to run. I'm glad you found my blog, it is good to hear that I am easing the worries of potential DMs out there!


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