The Magic Tree


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By Christopher Bradley

I ran a session of D&D 4 yesterday, and some notes!

The game is with adapted characters from D&D 3.5. I only have two players in the game. In D&D 3.5, one of the characters was a complex sheet of three different character classes - two regular classes and a prestige class - and the second was a paladin with a prestige class. They got folded into her being a rogue and him being a paladin. There was some concern that they'd "feel different", but I don't think that's a big problem because now by "feel different" we really mean "much more interesting combat than they were". Which is all we did - combat, hehe. We had two, as I called them, "contextless combat encounters" so that when we played the game on normal adventure stuff they wouldn't be overwhelmed by the options that their characters presented. There are quite a few options, might I add. Heck, you can just go to the wiki and see for yourselves. Antarah's sheet, in particular, is "verbose". His word. :) The character sheets are pretty rugged but I've always felt a little dissatisfied with how pedestrian D&D characters feel in terms of natural ability and don't inflict it on my players - so they're probably about a level or maybe even two "better" than their actual levels suggest.

The first encounter was the sort of generalized, fairly disorganized encounter that is de rigeur for 80% or more of D&D encounters. Y'know. The characters come on the scene with an erratically placed group of monsters and they fight. In this case, two wyverns, an ettin marauder and a poison-eyed basilisk. What were they doing in a snowy field? Who cares. Contextless combat encounters, hehe. The encounter was a normal encounter for a group of players that size.

The second encounter was a couple levels lower, but it had characters in an entrenched position - down a corridor and up some stairs to a room. The stairs had been covered with rubble to slow the characters, and at the top of the stair there was a picket. And before the rubble there was a pit trap. Whackiness ensued.

The first fight they basically just rolled over. They crushed it. In playing D&D 4, that's been my experience with encounters of equal level - the PCs generally tear through them pretty easily. The rogue sneaks ahead, gets a surprise round, probably gets a couple of sneak attacks before anyone can freakin' move to carve out a big chunk of hit points from a foe, and they're already in a position to flank with the rest of the party. It was like a meat grinder.

The second fight, despite the encounter being two levels under the level of the PCs, by far proved the more challenging encounter (a couple of orc bloodrager brutes, two tiefling heretic artilleries with a couple of levels added on them and a foulspawn grue controller). They used up virtually every healing resources they had - all their encounter powers, all their daily healing powers, almost everything. And because the enemy were alert with sentinels and a tightly controlled initial environment, the rogue couldn't do any of her tricks. They had considerable difficulty getting past the pit - an NPC was captured in the pit for, like, three turns - and over the barricade. Even once they broke through, the melee was initially contained by the monster melee fighters. It was not a meat grinder. Indeed, if the monsters had been the same level as the player characters, it might have been a meat grinder in the other direction. Which was indeed sort of the point - I wanted to see how, y'know, intelligent enemies in a fortified position would do, but weak enough that the PCs would be almost assured victory.

We played the combat encounters on our laptops using MapTool 1.2 from RPTools. It's a free Java applet that allows me to make a map on my computer over here and then they can both connect to my computer and we can move tokens on that map, etc., completely replacing a traditional battlemat. And the Internet has allowed me to download roughly two hundred maps, too.

The players said they had fun, which is good. They both liked that their characters had a lot of "things to do". The powers for the various character classes also pretty strongly give themes to the classes. Adrienne said it, herself, "All a rogue's powers are so selfish." Whereas the paladin's powers aren't. They're all about helping allies, drawing fire and such.

From the GM's perspective, when going into D&D 4 I was deeply concerned because a lot of the monsters have been changed - esp. the high level ones - to remove a lot of their supernatural powers. Almost all spells and spell-like effects are just gone. But in play, I found I didn't care - when a monster has a laundry list of supernatural powers, well, you don't end up using most of them, after all. And for non-combat purposes there's always GM fiat! Rather than saying the monster used their charm person spell, I can say they charmed the person some other way. And the monsters are divided into roles that make it easy to build a "monster party" with the soldiers and brutes protecting the artillery and controllers. Additionally, adding in the concept for minions, elites and solo monsters provides even more utility and flexibility for the monsters.

This is where the game has been most obviously influenced by MMOs, too. Minions allow a GM to create trash mobs while elites and solo monsters allow one to create mini-bosses and bosses.

And I LOVE minions. They can be of any level, but they are dispatched by any successful attack executed by them. So you can finally have the king's elite guard be all 12th level fighters without all the burden that brought in previous games - like the rogues' being unable to incapacitate them in one blow, which made stealth-based games almost impossible. Guards rogues could kill in one blow wouldn't ever notice a rogue and if a guard saw a rogue, there was simply no real way for a rogue to stop that guard from alerting other people. But now a rogue can get spotted, and if they win init most of them can be removed in one quick strike. You can now sorta play, y'know, Sam Fisher characters, and everyone should know how I have a boy crush on Sam Fisher!

So, all in all, I think that - at least in terms of combat - D&D 4 is simply a clear and obvious improvement over D&D 3.5.


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