Posts tagged “4E

Dark Sun Campaign: Second Session

Art courtesy of Luis Royo

The session began with the PCs sleeping through their first night in the desert.  They had only the supplies they had stolen from the slave caravan and not much else.  The PCs slept through the night with only a meager fire to keep them warm, (Arak was using the patchwork quilt that doubled as the defiler/concubine’s spellbook to help keep him warm).  All but Arak, the goliath barbarian and Kirith Blackhand, the human warrior, failed their endurance check to withstand the cold temperatures of the night.  As such, those that failed began play with one less healing surge. 

They took turns watching the dark desert around them.  Their unlikely companion, Polinius, captain of the guard, was not trusting of the PCs and refused to sleep the night.  The moons, Ral and Guthay, cast a silvery light upon the desert giving the rolling sand dunes a soft incandescent glow.  With the crackling of the fire (and the snoring of the goliath) as the only sounds the PCs heard that night, their first night of freedom went without incident.

The next morning the PCs (at the equivalent of 6am when the sun was already baking the land at a cool 78 degrees) had to figure out where they were located on the map they had found in the slaver’s quarters before they had escaped.  I provided the players with a cloth map that came with the Dark Sun 2ed. box set volume 2 (a wonderful role-playing aid).  The skill challenge required them to use whatever skills they felt would help them locate where they were.  Polinius, believing he was a prisoner of the ex-slaves refused to help them.  The PCs discovered they were just west of the northern road leading out of Nibenay.  To the east was the Black Sands region and the Silver Spring Oasis.  They surmised (correctly) that the half-elf woman from the day before was showing the caravan a short cut to the Silver Spring Oasis when she led the caravan into a trap.

The PCs, with the urging of Arcott, decided to head to Nibenay in order to get to civilization as soon as possible.  Arcott revealed that he is the son of a Nibanese noble, a wealthy merchant.  He said that his father would reward the PCs for helping him escape captivity.  When pressed as to why he was placed into captivity, Arcott couldn’t remember. 

Polinius tried to convince the players to take the main road to Nibenay in hopes that the party would come upon another slave caravan or a Nibanese patrol.  Kirith and Akais quickly saw through Polinius’ ruse and challenged him on it.  Polinius again refused to help the party as they were nothing more than slaves.  At this point, Kurrix and Arak decided they had enough.  Before anyone else in the party could react, Arak delivered a critical blow to Polinius, cutting open his abdomen and knocking him to the ground.  As Polinius attempted to keep his guts from spilling on the warming sands at his feet, he was quickly finished off by the rest of the party.  Akais, the psion/wizard, cynically noted that meant there was more water for the party.  Arak joyously noted that he now owns two axes, one an executioner’s axe, the other a battle-axe.

The PCs decided to head south to the mountain range that bordered the Crescent Forest and then turn east toward Nibenay.  Because they no longer had Polinius to drive the wagon, they had to do the “Learning to Drive” skill challenge.  For each failure the jostling of the wagon would spill approximately 10 gallons of water over the course of an hour. They failed three times before rolling the four successes they needed.  By the end of the day, they had gone from 47 gallons of water to 17.

The second day of travel toward the mountains brought a fierce Tyr Storm upon the PCs.  The party found a rock outcropping to help shield them from the stinging sands that were blowing around them.  They also decided to flip the cart on its side to help shield them from the weather.  The storm was fierce and the excited kank nearly broke loose from its bonds as both Arak and Kirith tried to hold on.  The rest of the party struggled to breathe as sand swirled around the party, thunder crashed deafening the party members.  Arcott and Kurrix were targeted by a lightning strikes as well. 

As the PCs skirted the foothills, Kurrix decided to scout ahead.  Kurrix discovered an old man with a herd of goats pleading with a hill giant.  The hill giant was sun-baked and was wearing dirty and smelly rags, in both hands it had two goats.  The old man pleaded with the hill giant not to take more than two.  “Please mighty G’Gax! No more than two!”  Kurrix, the shadowy thief, shot the hill giant in the shoulder with an arrow.  Leaping from his hiding place Kurrix got the attention of the hill giant.  Kurrix ran back to where the party was located, hill giant in tow.

The battle between the party and the hill giant (lvl 8), took place on the slopes of the mountain side.  It was very steep and required the PCs to make athletics checks vs. DC 20 in order to make a full move, otherwise they could only move at half speed.  As they approached, the hill giant threw rocks at them.  The combat included two rock slide traps and a cave system that allowed the PCs to “teleport” to the other side of the battlefield.  The PCs, especially Arak and Kirith, rolled well with regard to the Athletics checks and closed the gap quickly to engage the hill giant.  The hill giant was soon dispatched.

The old man, Olki’in, thanked the party and invited them to his mud hut.  He led them through the mountains along a goat path to where he and his goats resided.  Inside he fed them goat meat and fermented goat’s milk.  He told them that G’Gax was plaguing the mountain side for some time and that A’exa Rae, Wife of Nibenay, couldn’t defeat the hill giant.  Upon further inquiry, the PCs learned that A’exa Rae was a low ranking Nibanese Templar that managed a logging camp a half a day’s journey from Olki’in’s hut.  Olki’in and the other goat herders provided food for the loggers and the guards.  Olki’in also informed the PCs that, because they were ex-slaves, he would have to tell A’exa about them.

The group, using various methods of persuasion, convinced Olki’in not to reveal too much when they spoke with the templar.  (Arak tried to scare the old man, Akais, Kurrix and Arcott tried to reason with him, and Kirrith used his Mark of the Free to show the old man that he was not a slave and would not submit to anyone.)  The following day, the PCs went to the logging camp.

The camp was located at the base of the mountain range within the Crescent Forest, a vast and dense jungle.  The camp itself was surrounded by a wooden palisade and constantly patrolled by guardsmen.  Inside, the PCs saw wooden and mud structures that were used to house the guards, the slaves and the supplies.  They noticed two clay structures.  One was being used to store something covered by cloth that they couldn’t identify and the other was A’exa Rae’s palace.

A’exa Rae wore a white gown made of kestrekel feathers and sat on her throne, rather smugly and bored, while a small obsidian sphere floated over her open palm.  She was surrounded by four goliath guards bearing shields with her mark.  Within five feet of her was her thrall who carried a magical shield that the party identified (via history checks) as the Earth Shield.  (They didn’t figure out its powers).  A’exa spoke with them via telepathy.  The PCs, given their brash natures, were extraordinarily polite and reverent.  Arcott, spoke the truth to A’exa and she was not pleased to discover escaped slaves in her palace, but, upon mind probing Arcott, discovered he was telling the truth regarding his capture and station as nobility. 

As a condition for sending a runner to Nibenay looking for Arcott’s father, (and for not being put to work as slaves), A’exa “requested” (read: ordered) that the PCs look into something that has been hunting some of her foresters deep within the jungle.  The party agreed and headed out into the jungle, led by two guardsmen.

Within a few hours, the party was surprised by a group of halfling cannibals. The guardsmen were hit by poisoned darts and taken out quickly.  The party was then quickly surrounded by the halflings.  Akais and a halfling wilder engaged in a psychic duel as they blasted each other with their powers, while the rest of the party engaged the halflings.  Within a few rounds, it was clear to the would-be halfling chefs were not going to get to eat humanoid for dinner and attempted to escape.  Kurrix and Arak wouldn’t allow that to happen.  Kurrix used his bow with deadly effect and Arak charged head first into the brush and cleaved one of the halflings in two with a mighty swing of his executioner’s axe.  Through out this battle, Arcott issued orders and inspiring words to maximize the party’s effectiveness.  At the end of the battle, one of the guardsmen was revived and informed the party that up until recently, halflings were not common in the jungle.  He has no idea where they come from.

The next session will bring the party to the logging camp and the start of their first minor quest: “Hunting the Hunters.”


Dark Sun Campaign: First Session

This past Sunday was the first session of my Dark Sun campaign (and the first time I’ve DMed in over three years) and I have to say, I think it was a success.  It was a success in so far as everyone had fun and I the fear of surviving Dark Sun was sufficiently placed upon the players.  The group consists of five players.  They include: Akais, a human wizard/psion hybrid (a classic Dark Sun character!); Kurixx, a human shadowy rogue; Arcott Landier, a human Nibenese warlord; Arrak, a goliath barbarian and Kirith Blackhand, a human Urikite fighter (gladiator theme).  I asked my buddies to make simple backgrounds that could be developed as the campaign progresses.  I want to put as much “power” of campaign direction in their hands as possible because, for my gaming group, I’m the only one who has ever explored the Dark Sun setting.  So, I want them to go and explore wherever they want.  Their backgrounds will come into play as they push the campaign in those directions.  I started the group out as slaves (no equipment) being transported across the sandy wastes.  As background music for this opening scene I used a youtube.com video “an arabic prayer for divine mercy”.  It was perfect to set the tone.

The PCs began their Dark Sun experience bound within the bowels of a great slave caravan wagon slowly making its way through the sandy wastes of Athas.  The sun, at its zenith, beat down upon the caravan at temperatures reaching 140 degrees.   As there was no breeze, the heat was particularly oppressive.  Baking the PCs, they all failed an endurance check (DC 22) and began the adventure with one less healing surge.  Adding to their misery was a refuse pile and their fellow slaves, hanging lifeless from their bonds, baking in the sun.  As they looked through the cracks between the wooden planks of the caravan into the desert beyond they saw no signs of civilization.  They were in the middle of nowhere with no hope of escape.  When suddenly, the caravan came to a halt. 

Peering through the cracks between the wooden planks of the caravan, the PCs saw the slaver, the captain of the guard and a half-elf woman (accompanied by a large lion) arguing.  The half-elf woman was tall, tanned and stoic in the face of the tongue lashing she was receiving by both men.  The PCs navigated their way through a skill challenge where they reasoned their way to what was going on: the half-elf woman was hired as a guide and she intentionally led the caravan into a potential trap.  As a result the caravan guards were going to lighten their load by killing the slaves and escaping on smaller wagons with the water supply.  Kurixx used his wild talent “mental tools” to create a small scalpel and began to cut his way out of his bonds.  The goliath used his brute strength to break the bonds.  When the PCs were freed, a warning shout was heard by guardsmen on top of the great covered wagon: “Raiders!”.

Cresting a great sand dune was a great horde of gith, their obsidian tipped spears gleaming in the sun.  The half-elf woman knocked the captain of the guard to the ground and ran off with her lion pet into the desert.  As arrows were shot at the oncoming horde, the PCs heard the captain of the guard bark the following orders: “Get the water! Kill the slaves!”  As the guards from the upper floors of the great wagon made their way to the slave pens, Kirith pulled a plank of wood from the wall to use as a makeshift club.  The Arak tore the leg from a dead slave to wield as a makeshift flail.  Kurixx picked the lock on the wooden door and the three guards sent to slit the throats of the slaves were surprised to see a desperate group of slaves ready for a fight. 

Their first fight included Akais using his psionic abilities to throw guardsmen across the lower deck of the wagon, an enraged barbarian beating opponents with a bluddy stump and Kirith losing his hand due to a critical hit from a bone-axe wielding guardsmen.  (I, as the DM, rolled many critical hits this session and was terrified of inadvertently killing all of the PCs, but they had some good crits as well).  While the group battled the guardsmen, Kurixx snuck past the melee in search of a weapon.  What he found among the cargo were three vials of healing salve.  After dispatching the guardsmen, Kirith used the salve to stop the bleeding from his severed hand. 

The PCs searched the cargo room and found some gems, a handful of ceramic pieces, a vial of poison, a small shield and the equipment from the guardsmen which included 3 suits of leather armor, a short bow, a stone mace, a bone long sword and a bone axe.  Now with some equipment, the PCs freed the other slaves and climbed the ladder to the caravan wagon’s mid-deck in search of water and a map of the Tyr region they had over heard the slaver talking about.  Peeking their head up through the floor of the mid-deck, they saw three more guardsmen on the far end of the massive wagon doing some looting of their own.  The group snuck past them to the top floor of the wagon to where the slaver resided.  There the group saw an opulent two room floor lined with potted flowers and silk pillows.  As they approached the door to the slaver’s room, they heard a shout and a loud thump.  Opening the door they saw the slaver’s harem surrounding the body of the slaver, a knife in his back. 

The harem consisted of twelve women of various races led by a dwarven woman named Brela.  When the PCs barged in, Brela was rummaging through a bureau and she was not happy to see them.  Brela and “her girls” were not interested in escaping with a bunch of men.  Akais initially negotiated with Brela to allow him to take the slaver’s map, but, because he was concerned with sharing water with a potential enemy, he and Arak tried to bar the door and lock the harem in the wagon.  This infuriated Brela and the PCs began to hear chanting coming through the door.  Along with the chanting, the PCs noticed the potted plants begin to whither, blacken and turn to ash.  With a thunderous explosion, the door burst open.  The group was unharmed, but they now had to deal with an angry harem led by a defiler.  In addition, the guardsmen below them decided to make their way to the top deck to investigate the explosion. 

At this point, the group became divided between the defiler (level 5) and her twelve minions (level 1) and the three guardsmen (level 3).  Arak and Kirith Blackhand cut a swath through the minions (with the help of Akais’ static charge) and engaged Brela.  However, Brela zapped Arak with a critical hit to the chest knocking him to below 0 hit points and Kirith was soon bloodied by her magical onslaught.  In the other room, Arcott, still unarmed but using his mastery of war history to aid the party with extra attacks and inspiring word, was being chased around the room by a guard wielding a stone mace.  The guardsmen would break his mace upon Arcott’s shoulder, pull a plank from the wall and break that on Arcott as well before he was finally killed by Kurixx’ arrows.  Akais was eventually overwhelmed (critical hit: stunned) and was almost instantly killed by a massive blow by another guard (another critical hit).  Brela would eventually be killed by Kirith and Arak would be healed. (He had failed his death saving throw twice…he was very close to the edge).  During this entire fight, Kurixx was hiding among the harem’s pillows and picking off opponents with the short bow he had previously lifted from a guard.  When the PCs defeated this double encounter, they found what Brela was looking for: an ornate quilt that doubled as her spell book.

The PCs exited the wagon to find the slave caravan overrun by gith raiders.  One wagon was burning and another was swarming with gith.  The PCs could hear the screams of the dying guards and the gurgling glee of the gith.  The PCs, looking past the carnage filled melee, saw the desert beyond and their freedom.  The goal of this encounter was to cross the battlefield before they are swarmed by gith savages.  To make matters more interesting (or worse if you are a PC), a mekilott (level 10) was let loose and was crossing the battlefield (thanks to Kurixx).  Akais used his static charge to slow the mikellot down enough to allow the PCs to skirt the battlefield and avoid any additional combat.  As the PCs lamented their lack of water, they noticed a smaller wagon being surrounded by gith.  It was defended by the captain of the guard and they noticed a lone barrel of water on the wagon.  The PCs charged into the fray hoping for some water.  The gith were accompanied by a small group of baazrags that had latched onto the captain of the guard.  The PCs cut through the enemies rather swiftly and offered the captain a simple choice, let them ride on the wagon or be killed.  The captain acquiesced without protest.  The captain of the guard, named Polinius, took the reins and ordered the kank soldier to pull the wagon forward.  The PCs then left the burning slave caravan behind. 

Because the PCs didn’t kill Polinius, they avoided the skill challenge “learning to drive”.  If they had to accomplish this skill challenge, they would’ve lost 10 gallons of water for every skill check failure due to the tumultuous journey through the desert.  The session ended with the group making camp for the night.   The PCs never had a chance to take a 5 minute rest and they didn’t even ask as the players were absorbed into the fast paced nature of the session.  The next session will involve the PCs trying to figure out where they are on the map and surviving the desert trek to civilization.

I rewarded Kirith with the first legendary boon of the campaign, a battle scar titled “Mark of the Free”.  (I felt bad for cutting off his hand…but then again, this is Dark Sun, its gonna be brutal.)

“Mark of the Free”
“Many freed slaves bear the marks of their former captivity, whether it is in the form of crisscrossing scars made from a slaver’s whip or the haunted look of a mind tortured by the cruelty of the noble class.  You, however, bear the mark of a slave who has no master. One who is determined to survive, no matter the costs.  Stories of how you won your freedom will vary widely, but all will know you by the scars you display and the fierceness of your demeanor.”
Power: (Utility, Daily) When interacting with slaves or ex-slaves, you may add a +5 to your diplomacy checks for the duration of the encounter as the members of these casts look upon you with awe.  When interacting with nobles, templars, merchants, etc. you may add a +5 to intimidate checks for the duration of the encounter as the members of these casts know you are not one to take kindly to orders.  This power will not work on creatures without a social hierarchy.


Neo-Gygaxian Dungeon Building…I love it!

This weekend I finished an adventure I was designing for my upcoming Dark Sun campaign.  Aside from my usual difficulties with generating compelling adventure hooks, I struggled with dungeon design and encounter building.  Last night, after a full 12 hour day of writing, re-writing and a 6-pack of beer, I completed the basics.  This is not the first time I’ve struggled with 4E encounter building.  As such, I decided that I was going to discuss my problems with the 4E encounter building process.  To my surprise, The Chatty DM has already discussed this and quoted Robert Schwalb’s blog in the process.  Truly the stars must be in alignment today.  Perhaps The Chatty DM and Mr. Schwalb have stumbled upon a higher order concerning the aesthetics of DMing?  I think so.

So, what is the problem? As others have pointed out, it is the carbon copy template of encounter building that is the problem.  The template looks something like this: You have an 8 x 8 room with a warband that is going to fight another warband, the PCs.  This suggests (in fact encourages) a “fight-loot-fight-rest” structure to an adventure.  The PCs enter the dungeon and move from one room to the next, killing, expending resources, resting and then move on to the next room.  I describe this as the World of Warcraft design.  Now, to be fair this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  For the new player who is familiar with World of Warcraft, it is an easy transition to D&D.  And, subsequently, Wizards of the Coast’s income stream increases so we old-timers can continue playing with new content.

But the problem with the World of Warcraft designing philosophy is that it is so damned hard to write an adventure the way I used to write adventures back in the day.  Role-playing gets downplayed, or as Mr. Schwalb as suggested “occurs between encounters”.  Compounding this issue is that I am forced to make many alterations to the creatures I am using to make sure that all of the creatures in the encounter fit my adventure theme.  Otherwise, if I pick any creature to fill out the missing “warband role”, the encounter seems like a hodgepodge of creatures generated by a random die roll.  That’s no fun for the role-player because it makes no sense.

I have always designed my adventures and dungeons using the Gary Gygax dungeon ecology model.  This model focuses on the ecology of the dungeon and how the different creature factions within the dungeon balance the power between themselves.  This opens the door to a whole host of role-playing options within the dungeon for the players to choose.  This approach facilitates story generation and advancement of the campaign.  The Chatty DM does a wonderful job using the pre-existing 4E rules structure to compliment the ecological approach that The Chatty DM is calling “Neo-Gygaxian.”  (I love this label, by the way.)

The Neo-Gygaxian model, to sum it up, is basically dividing the dungeon into a number of sections with a number of rooms.  You then pool the experience points for each room/encounter in a section and divide that total in any way you wish.  If the section of the dungeon is part of a quest, leave some of the pool left over for quest rewards.  You then do it again for the next section.  You should read these blogs yourself.  They are fantastic guides to dungeon creation.

So…after hours and hours of trying to make a dungeon/adventure for my future gaming group, I ended up doing something very similar described by Mr. Schwalb and The Chatty DM.  I am happy with the outcome.  I can’t reveal any specifics because my players read this blog, but future adventures and dungeons should be easier (and quicker) to build with this Neo-Gygaxian model.


4E Psionic Power Sourcebook: So…where are the psionic powers?

So…what happened to psionics in Dungeons and Dragons? Seriously.  Because I will be running a Dark Sun campaign in a few weeks, I purchased the Psionics Power Sourcebook.  Some of the options provided are nifty, but what I am disappointed with is that there are no non-combat abilities for the would-be wielder of psionic powers.  I suspected something was amiss when the Psion was given the Ritual Caster feat as a class ability in the Player’s Handbook Three.  Why is a psion learning to cast rituals? Shouldn’t there be an equivalent for the psionic player?  “Perhaps,” thought I, “the Psionic Power Sourcebook will provide more to the player in a similar manner as prior incarnations of D&D?”

Nope.

That is my biggest problem with the Psionic Power Sourcebook.  It provides a few more options to players with respect to combat and class builds, but it provides nothing by way of rounding out what is arguably the most unusual character class option available to players.  The Psionic Power Sourcebook proves, yet again, that the game-designers of 4E were more concerned with combat options than with role-playing options.  It is unfortunate.   In addition, the psionic power point system seems incomplete or rushed.  It is a great start, but why stop at only replacing encounter powers? Why not give the psionic players more points and more options to augment there at will powers? Why have augmentable at-wills and then have daily powers? I feel like this system was not thought all the way through.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea. I think it is a good start.  I think psionics should have a different feel than magic.  It adds a nice element to the role-playing experience, but this system feels incomplete.

Fortunately for me, I have a player who enjoys discussing rules and rule modifications. Fortunately for me, as I am in between jobs at the moment, I have a lot of free time to come up with my own set of Psionic Rituals that I am calling “Psionic Manifestations”.  I will be presenting these when the rules are completed and play-tested.  The basic idea behind these manifestations is that a successful psionic manifestation will give the psionic player an additional bonus to a skill.   For example, a first level fighter trained in Athletics, with a strength of 18, will have a +9 to a jump skill check.  So, to make a 20 foot jump (DC 20) they would need to roll 11+ on a d20.  That is a 50% chance of success.  Contrast with a 1st level psion who needs to make the same 20 foot jump.  If they are not trained in Athletics and they do not have a strength bonus, they will have to roll a 20 to succeed.  That is a 5% chance of success.  But, if they use their Psionic Manifestation that I call “Mind over Matter” they can add their intelligence bonus to the roll in addition to any other bonuses to the roll.  Therefore, if our psion has an intelligence score of 18, they can now succeed at the roll with a 16+.  This effectively adds 2o% chance of success.  While not as good as the trained warrior, the psion has just proven that the mind is truly a powerful tool.  I will give more detail as I play-test the psionic manifestation system.


More on Alternative Campaigns

In my last post I mentioned “Alternative Campaigns” without clearly defining what I refer to as an alternative campaign.  Basically, it is one where the Dungeon Master purposefully limits the standard options available to players during character generation.  This is done, not to make things tough on the players, but to facilitate the creation of a unique gaming world created by the Dungeon Master.  These campaigns do not involve your standard adventuring party and they require players willing to constrain themselves in some ways, and challenge themselves in other ways.  Of course, making an attempt at playing in an alternative campaign will require you to say “no” to some of your players.  But first, let’s explore some ideas to fully flesh out what I mean.

I had spoken of “an all rogue campaign” that my friend has been trying to get off the ground for some time.  It has great potential to challenge his players, as they would have to overcome encounters using only the tools available to rogues.  An all rogue campaign in 4E would not have a defender to soak up damage, the absence of a controller could prove problematic and certainly, the lack of a leader character would make combat very deadly.  But, think of the new combat strategies players would have to conceive to succeed!

Of course there are other ways of limiting players in their character choices. Perhaps the story you are interested in telling takes place deep within a primordial forest where the human nations have yet to explore or invade?  Disallowing humans would make sense, especially if they are going to be used as enemies in encounters.  In fact, limiting players to only Eladrin, Elves, Gnomes, Halflings, Wilden and Shifters would not be outside the realm of the rational.

Alternative campaigns not only add new challenges to the players, but they add a unique flavor and a variety to the numerous campaigns your gaming group will be playing.  In one of my earlier campaigns, (a 2nd Edition game) one of the main themes was faith and religion.  Many of the players willingly continued to make characters that would be defined in 4E terms as “Divine Power” classes.  The stories told during that campaign had a particular flavor that a standard retinue of characters could not duplicate.  And, if I you will permit me to indulge myself, it is a campaign that is still talked about when we old timers get together for a few mugs of honey-mead and swap lies with each other.

But, there are so many options available to players and, if they are like my gaming group, they can only play a few hours a week.  Limiting a gaming group like this could aggravate the players, especially if their Dungeon Master is constantly coming up with unique worlds and stories to tell, with very few standard campaign story lines.  On the other hand, younger players aren’t going to care about the nuances of your unique game world and will be focused on exploring their creative potential (and “get mad loot”).  Indeed, a standard dungeon crawl or game module can incorporate any kind of character which is perfect for these players.  If a player wants to play a spell-scarred minotaur psion, there are rules available to make this desire a reality.  If you are attempting an alternative campaign and wish to limit your players, make sure you know their sensibilities. 

Chapter 10 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide One, as I have stated earlier, is so important, it should be memorized by Dungeon Masters.  Specifically, the use of “House Rules” can be used to justify the limitations a DM may impose on players during character generation.  Put it simply, the House Rule does not need to be narrowed or limited to “fixing gaps” in 4E mechanics.  However, all House Rules must be supported by a clear rationale as to why they are being used in this way.  In other words, the Dungeon Master must ask the question: why am I imposing such a limitation on the players?  If such a limitation can be supported by a creative explanation that goes toward the world you are creating and the story you are trying to tell, then the players are more apt to accept it. In fact, they may embrace it.  If you are excluding the psionic power source just because you don’t like psionics, then it will simply feel arbitrary and players will lose faith in the Dungeon Master’s ability to be judicious.

Judiciousness is what every DM must strive for when making gaming decisions.  If you can prove your judiciousness, the players will be apt to trust you when the time comes to tell them “no”.


Dungeon Master: Enter the Rules Legislator

DM’s Discretion has always been my favorite rule. It was the source of all power in the multiverse and it was taken from the Dungeon Master in the 3rd Edition, but after many battles with the rules lawyers, 4th Edition has returned control back to the Dungeon Master, albeit in a somewhat reversed, behind the scenes sort of way.  When DM’s discretion was exercised prior to 4E, it was exercised to settle in-game disputes. Now, the discretion occurs prior to the game. In effect, the Dungeon Master becomes a rules legislator.  A general survey as to how the rules of the game have changed can explain what I mean.

During the good old days of 2nd Edition the simplified rule set was focused primarily on combat. The Dungeon Master’s task was to use what was available to make determinations for player actions not covered by the rules.  How many remember this tired old phrase from their Dungeon Master:  “Hmm…ok, make a Dex check.”  This, of course, could infuriate the rules lawyers in the group who, being the good lawyers that they were (and I am serious about that) would point out the inconsistencies between the call for “dexterity checks” and advocate for a strength check or for some kind of bonus to an ordinary attack roll.  And we all remember how those discussions went: the Dungeon Master would have to assert his authority or the rules lawyer would take control of the game.

Now, that is not to say that such use of discretion was a bad thing, but clearly, gamers wanted something more concrete and less arbitrary.  They wanted a rule that they can rely upon when thinking about how to kill the ogre charging down the corridor, or unlocking the trapped chest full of goodies.  Enter Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 and 3.5. 

These games fully democratized the game and turned the Dungeon Master into just another player, or a merely a referee of a game.  The d20 system simplified the general formula for determining success and failures with the game (which was genius), and with that, there was no room for the Dungeon Master’s discretion without sounding completely arbitrary.  With the multi-class and feat system a player could design his or her character in any way that he or she saw fit.   Aside from some general campaign prohibitions, the Dungeon Master was powerless to stop the PCs from doing just about anything.  If the Dungeon Master attempted to alter a rule, a competent and well-read rules lawyer could make a very compelling argument as to why the rule should remain the same.  Any work a Dungeon Master wanted to put into an adventure or villain had to be supported by a concrete rule to justify the action. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing, but it does create a lot of work for the Dungeon Master.  I once spent 8 hours researching the Dungeon Master’s Guide, The Player’s Handbook, both Forgotten Realms books and the Book of Vile Darkness to create a red wizard of Thay that could, in the very first round of combat, cast a twin-quickened-maximized fireball (free action) followed by a maximized meteor swarm (Standard action).  Another villain I made could kill a PC instantly with a critical hit if the PC failed a fortitude saving throw vs. 38. He had a critical range of 15+ and with his chaotic evil vicious two-handed sword he could inflict 10d6 + 25 damage on a critical hit against my lawful good player characters (and there were a lot of them in the party).  Both villains were totally legit.  Unfortunately, I never saw these villains in action…but I was ready for any complaints!

Of course, the 3rd Edition of the game brought a whole host of rules. Some players, Dungeon Masters included, found this to be too unwieldy and the game became more about rules and less about story-telling, a valid criticism to be sure.

Fourth Edition of course has provided a streamlined version of the game.  (I am not exactly sure if you can say it is all THAT streamlined…)  But, the game has certainly changed: it has simplified combat (sort of) and simplified the role that skills play in the game (sort of).  This is, of course, from the player’s perspective (read: “Rules Lawyer’s perspective”), makes it easy for rule adjudication, character design and developing combat strategies.  From the Dungeon Master’s perspective, the Dungeon Master has been given chapter after chapter of rules that are really just “the rules about the rules”.  These “rules about the rules” provide the Dungeon Master with limitless possibilities to mold and shape anything and everything in the game.  From skill challenges to monsters, the Dungeon Master can do just about anything and it is entirely legit.  The Dungeon Master, when countered by a rules lawyer hell-bent on challenging something (usually anything) the Dungeon Master has in mind, can point to chapter 10 of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and explain why the goblin that just killed the PC is a 6th level ranger with fire powers.

This is what I like most about 4th Edition.  The rules provided in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are the nuts and bolts to the very game itself.  The rules provided in the DMGs are at the heart of the gaming reality to be molded by the Dungeon Master.  Dungeon Master’s Guide One and Two are truly tomes of magic and wisdom that equip the Dungeon Master with the necessary tools to legislate effectively and, as Gary Gygax once stated, “to give shape and meaning to the cosmos.”  The game designers at Wizards have produced a set of rules that places the Dungeon Master back where they belong, at the head of the gaming table.


Is it Dark Sun? Or just 4th Edition in a desert?

Many, I’m sure, were as eager as I to purchase the 4th Edition Dark Sun Campaign Setting when it was announced over a year ago.  I was so desperate to read and dive head first into the Silt Sea and start wrestling with Silt Horrors that I pre-ordered the book.  When the great tome arrived on my doorstep the first thing I noticed was how thin the book appeared.  Sadly, I would discover that the book’s thickness reflected the effort put into the remake of one of D&D’s more legendary campaign worlds.

First, let me explain why I was so eager to read the 4th edition version of Dark Sun.  The world, in a nutshell, is different from any fantasy gaming world out there.  Sure, there are now post-apocalyptic games available, but at the time Dark Sun was first released back in 1991, D&D players had little to choose from.  Indeed, the campaign source books available were very similar in scope, history, culture, and plot.  Since its release, no other campaign world by TSR/Wizards has compared to the distinctness of Dark Sun.  What made Dark Sun so memorable?

Obviously, the research and writing that went into creating Dark Sun was stellar and the results of such work unique.  The setting focuses on ecological disaster in a world reminiscent of Sumeria or Babylonia.  The gods of this post-apocalyptic world are either dead or they have abandoned the population to the arbitrary whims of the Sorcerer-Kings.  Civilization hangs on by a thread as the people starve under the yoke of their cruel masters.  The writers, Troy Denning and Timothy Brown, went to great lengths to rewrite standard D&D races to reflect how such poverty, resource depletion and godlessness would affect their cultures. Who doesn’t remember the first time they tried to shake hands with the not-so-jolly halfling cannibals of the Forest Belt? Or tried to negotiate with an elven dune trader in Baalic? Not this guy!

But what really made the world of Athas unique and come to life was that the 2nd edition rules changed to fit the world.  The world was no longer a backdrop for a dice game, but the world affected the mechanics of the game itself, which added a level of reality to the role-playing experience.  For example, to reflect a defiler’s abuse of the land and give a player an incentive to be evil, the defiler class gained levels faster than their preserving counterparts.  Psionics were commonplace and operated with a wholly different system than magic.  As metal was scarce, weapon attack and damage penalties were added to reflect the materials the weapons were made from, thereby making combat more brutal and desperate.  Armor was so hot that a player would have to wear “piece mail” as opposed to the whole suit, which would affect the character’s armor class, thereby adding to the brutality of combat.  And finally, my favorite rule of all was that a player’s character could turn evil if the party ran out of water by failing a saving throw versus death.  Dark Sun was a beautiful amalgamation of rules and story-telling that I have not seen duplicated.  The effect of this brilliant game designing was a unique experience that forced the player’s, even those that don’t like to role-play, to role-play.  The 4th edition setting does not do this, or at least, not very well.

So what happened?  The authors Richard Baker, Robert Schwab and Rodney Thompson, provided aesthetic descriptions with few rules modifications, most of which are optional.  The net result is a watered down version of Dark Sun that does not reflect the desperation and survivalist themes incorporate in the original.  All in all, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting feels like 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons in a desert and not the burning sands of Athas.

To be fair, the campaign sourcebook provides some optional rules to make things “tough” on the players as they trek through the wilderness.  For example, they incorporated “Sun Sickness” and a -5 additional armor check penalty for sun sickness or endurance checks if a character is wearing heavy armor.  But, heavy armor is still available!?  Why!? The authors provide a flimsy reason: it is made from chitin with holes drilled into it to cool off the wearer.  WHAT!?  Furthermore, all weapons are presumed to be made from bone, obsidian or stone, so there are no penalties added to your attack and damage.   It seems as though the authors were afraid of upsetting potential players by taking away their favorite toys.  But taking away the player’s toys is exactly why 2 Edition Dark Sun was so memorable.   

Another disappointing aspect of the book is that it does not address the non-standard races that appear in Player’s Handbooks 2 and 3. The authors give each a mere 2-3 sentence paragraph and expect you, the Game Master to do all the work. The authors gave the standard classes the same short shrift as the races.  Now, I don’t mind working for my game, but I do not purchase a campaign setting so that I can do a bunch of extra work to make the campaign setting that I had just purchased. 

The problems with the 4E Dark Sun campaign setting are a reflection of the problems with 4E in general.  The game has sacrificed realism for ease of game play.  There are ways of manipulating the 4E rules to tailor your game and match your gaming style, but here the authors did not go far enough.  Indeed they seemed timid and their product weak.  The authors could have done so much more to make the Dark Sun 4E stand apart from a Forgotten Realms campaign or an Eberron campaign.  If you are an old-timer like me, then you probably have one of the Dark Sun box sets.  If so, use it as supplemental material.  I used them as resources to develop my own rules to make the world of Dark Sun more like the way I remember it: beautiful and brutal.