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D&D: First Impressions

June 30th, 2008

As I previously suggested, I’m delighted with the new, 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. They represent a massive step forward for the venerable role-playing game, challenging old assumptions and greatly streamlining the system to make it more playable…and fun!

The greatest praise that I can heap upon 4th Edition is this: I’ve felt so intimidated by the copious rules of modern RPGs that I’ve run a mere handful of sessions in the past two decades, yet I felt so confident after buying the new Player’s Handbook that I was conducting a playtest adventure a mere week later. And now I’m gearing up for the first RPG campaign I’ve run since I was in high school.

4th Edition has been derisively called “MMORG, the RPG.” (MMORG stands for “Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game,” as in World of Warcraft.) And indeed, even a relative neophyte to the world of online RPGs can see the influences: clearly defined party “roles” (striker, controller, etc.), permanent teleportation circles in each settlement (to avoid those long trips back to home base), and the ability to “respec” one’s character to swap out outdated or ill-chosen powers.

Yet, what’s wrong with that? Back in the day, players came to 1st Edition D&D through fantasy literature (and perhaps a Ray Harryhausen film or two), so it made sense that the game primarily drew from Tolkien, Moorcock, Vance and Howard. But these days quasi-medieval fantasy is much more a part of pop culture, thanks to the Lord of the Rings films and World of Warcraft. Why shouldn’t D&D offer those coming from the wildly-popular MMORGs a familiar play experience?

My favorite innovation is the use of “powers,” which not only replace magic spells from previous editions, but also include special melee attacks and various “finishing moves.” Not only are they so much easier to adjudicate, they are more evocative than the old “I hit him with my sword” attacks. And, along with the tactical notes available in the Monster Manual, they gave the dungeon encounters I ran instant flavor and personality.

Adding to the ease of the new system is the spiffy new Dungeon Master’s Guide, which–gasp!–actually explains how to run the game. In clear, straightforward terms, it walks the reader through the steps of building balanced encounters, creating skill challenges, modifying monsters and even creating your own horrors.


Rob’s wizard wisely hangs well back from the Ochre Jelly.

My friends Rob and Lee submitted to my will for a recent playtest. To demonstrate just how easy it was to pick up and play, I devised a simple dungeon crawl of four encounters with less than a day of prep time. Instead of drawing a map, I built the rooms out of my collection of prefabricated “Dungeon Tiles” and photographed the results. (I literally used my digital camera as my map reference.) And I just cut-and-pasted the monster stat blocks I needed onto cheat sheets.

The roughly-sketched adventure involved exploring a ruined tower in search of a kidnapped farmer’s daughter. (Look, I’m saving the non-cliches for the campaign.) Arriving at the tower, the party encountered a slurping, gluttonous Ochre Jelly.

We saw this a lot.

This first fight went against the heroes, and not just because the Jelly could take a lot of punishment before going down. Lee had a truly terrible string of die rolls, whereas my own attacks hit frequently and ferociously. His paladin was taken out all too quickly, which was a problem given that he was the only healer.

Rob immediately declared his love for the new system, marveling at how his 1st-level wizard was not, as in olden days, a meat shield with four hit points and a single “Sleep” spell. While the trusty, old “Magic Missile” is weaker than before, being able to cast it every turn helps!

Rats!

Ultimately they prevailed and moved into the tunnels beneath the tower, where they were set upon by various giant rats. I was excited about being able to use my “Pile o’ Rats” miniature, as a swarm of vermin poured out of the ominous floor grate behind the party to cut off their escape.

They dispatched the rats without too much bother, but the hour was late and we had to put off the rest of the adventure until the following Friday.

(Insert unwelcome intrusion of real world here.)

When we resumed, the good guys entered a room in which several goblins were making their lair. Rob’s dwarf boldly stepped forward…and tumbled straight into a concealed pit, where he was soon set upon by a ravenous wolf.

Despite being given a week to work itself out, Lee’s streak of bad karma continued, and he rolled several more “ones.” Meanwhile, my goblins were happily tossing javelins and hitting more often than not.

Though one of the gobbos escaped through a curtain, the heroes defeated the remaining monsters and set off into a twisty cave passage. They ran afoul a spear trap which was hastily added on my part, and which probably needed to be better thought-out to be effective as a solo threat.

Then it was time for the main event: the lair of the goblin hexer who’d kidnapped the aforementioned daughter. As the final encounter, it was meant to be a more difficult fight. However, the peril was increased over what I’d intended for a couple of reasons. First, I’d decided that the goblin who’d escaped the previous fight should be present. Second, as I’d never written up proper room descriptions, I’d forgotten which type of goblins I’d originally used. Instead of using six “minions” (one-hit-point wonders which die from a single successful attack), I made two of them full-fledged soldiers.

The result was ugly.

At first I thought it would go okay. Rob’s wizard temporarily took out the goblin hexer with a Sleep spell. However, the adventurers made what may have been a tactical blunder of remaining in a bottleneck. On one hand, the goblin minions couldn’t flank them, but on the other, they couldn’t flank the monsters either.

A hobgoblin soldier and an orc skeleton held them at bay until the goblin hexer could wake up his sorry ass and cast an obscuring cloud over the area. Meanwhile, the goblin soldiers who shouldn’t have been there had another good run of luck with their javelins.

Rob’s wizard rushed forward to save the day with his “finishing move,” a Burning Hands spell that spread out in a cone to encompass most of the opponents. Unfortunately, he chose that moment to inherit Lee’s die-rolling karma. Subsequently, the dwarf fell unconscious, then the paladin was killed outright. At that point, it was pretty much over. The wizard dropped, and Lee’s rogue ran for the exit. The fate of the farmer’s daughter was unrevealed.

Later, Lee submitted a sketch of the final stand, which I thought was nifty!

Our first go with 4th Edition D&D may not have turned out as planned, but everyone seemed to find it a success anyway. And I learned at least one thing: remember to write down which monsters one is using to stock one’s dungeon!

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