After my 3.5 campaign wrapped up just in time for 4e, I was already rearing to start something new. I had plenty of players who weren’t in a regular D&D campaign itching to jump in, a campaign setting (thanks to co-planning the game world with Bartoneus), and a rough outline of the campaign structure. A little after two weeks since we got our grubby mitts on the core books, my first 4e game started in earnest.
This March, I placed my game on hiatus so that I could graduate. At that time, some of the players were at 9th level and not too far from 10, so I decided to cheat a little and advance all the players to Paragon to begin the next chapter on the next tier. (I tend to be pretty liberal with my XP- as a DM, I get bored with the players being at the same level for too long). However, during the 9 levels of solid play we got in, I learned a few things about D&D 4e, at least as far as I could learn from the heroic tier. Here’s what I’ve learned about running 4e for close to 10 levels, in no particular order.
Healing Between Combats is Funky
This was my first house rule, almost right away. As far as I know and what we confirmed with James Wyatt, you can use encounter healing powers out of combat if you’re willing to spend the extra time. I wasn’t a big fan of having the PCs spend 15 minutes between combats recovering (or having to make up things that would interrupt them), so I decided to just have any leader use the average healing result to all surges between combats, and it still only takes 5 minutes. It’s still kind of an annoying situation, though. It was partly addressed in PHB2 by the maximized healing during rest feat, but that still doesn’t fix the inherent goofiness of encouraging adventurers in a dungeon to hold out for 10+ minutes.
Wizards Don’t Pass the Fun Test
This was suspected early on, and confirmed during a lot of play. We’re trying to fix this in one way, but it does lead to another broader issue…
Entirely Ranged Characters are Boring
The wizard in my game is barely ever attacked since he can stay so far away much of the time (even when the terrain has lots of walls) and the fighter does an awesome job of keeping bad guys away from him. Thus, there’s little incentive for him to pay attention to positioning and movement when it’s not his turn, and if it comes to his turn and he is engaged, he teleports or otherwise escapes. I’ve also seen the same thing happen with archer rangers and ranged bards. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s just not that much fun to never be in serious danger.
Damage Doesn’t Scale With Level (But Maybe It Should)
I’m still not sure all the players understand the different between ability modifier and ability checks. On the rare occasions where I pull out a straight strength check now, it has to be walked through. On the flip side, early on, the rules were not clear that damage wasn’t keyed off the ability check modifier. However, maybe it makes sense because…
Combats Take a While
Combats tend to range from a while to a long damn time. This is a common complain, I know, but it really gets to me sometimes. We’ve started speeding things up a bit by using a public dry erase board to track initiative (handled by a player) and I’ve tried to use a combination of Chrome + Compendium to have all the monster stats at my finger tips when I need them instead of doing a lot of flipping. Still, I do think ratcheting up the damage on both sides of the equation (and I’m also in favor of the “subversive house rule” that cuts monster HP down) would go a long way, I just haven’t experimented enough.
There are a Too Many Combats in Published Adventures
The players went through Thunderspire Labyrinth, and after the first two sessions, I knew I’d have to gut a number of the fights out. I’m not interested in running the Duergar fortress for several sessions in a row, where they find another room filled with different kinds of evil Dwarves and their servants, and repeat. Similarly, I ran a modified version of Last Breaths of Ashenport, but knew that despite Dagon and his children, the players weren’t going to want to do that many fights. The concepts of the adventures/locales just don’t support that many fights . I love many of the concepts of the adventures that are put out by WotC in Dungeon and for all the standalones, but I know that any one I decide to run is going to get the number of encounters cut down by at least 2/3rds.
I Have Yet to Run a Completely Successful Skill Challenge in my Campaign (But Have Run Great Ones in One-Shots)
Yes, this might be a surprise since I maintain such a complete listing of Skill Challenges, but I’m still trying to make them click with my group. My favorite so far has been the skill challenge I call “Get the f%$@ away from the giant dragon” which formed the structure of the entire adventure (so that things advanced at certain #s of successes). The one that I think registered as the silliest for the party was meeting 3 ghosts in Thunderspire Labyrinth, one of whom was specifically noted as being impressed by feats of physical prowess (leading the Elven Fighter to do long-jumps to score successes). Then the one I thought would work the best but stymied the party was also in Thunderspire Labyrinth where a manifestation of Vecna demands secrets. I gave them the chance to avoid rolls altogether and just offer their own secrets.
On the flip side, for one shots with other players, they’ve been a blast. I ran Depths of Madness which features an investigation skill challenge and “talking down a crazy dwarf” skill challenge, and everyone had fun and was creative. I’m still trying to pinpoint if it’s my group or just the way the ones I have ran have been written, but I really want to get it right and have those kinds of great RP experiences whenever I run a skill challenge.
Rituals Aren’t Quite There Yet
Ah, rituals. Wonderful concept. Haven’t quite figured out the best way to make sure they get used yet. The wizard in my group uses them a decent amount: Tenser’s Floating Disk was instrumental in avoiding a demon-filled river of blood, and silence has helped make a few ambushes possible. But each time, I feel like I as a DM am fudging it: 10 minutes go by uneventfully. I WANT to reward clever use of rituals, so I just let it go. I have no problem with using DM prerogative to make it more fun for everyone, but I wish the rules just slightly worked better so I didn’t have to.
Also, need to remind myself to give out rituals as rewards more often.
I Love Playing with Minis, Maps, and Tiles
Yes, it makes 4e more of a board game (almost by definition) but I really don’t care. Picking monsters out of my various containers, laying out dungeon tiles into a pleasing arrangement, and choosing the right map are all really fun to me. It’s like I’m playing with Legos again, but in a way that other people are going to play against me. Plus it provides that last bit of inspiration- oh hey, I have this Orc dude with a double-axe, he’d be perfect for here. Because of the ease of encounter building in 4e, I find this even more enjoyable than in 4e where I was never sure what the tipping point of a hard encounter was going to be.
The Errata is Important
Mostly with monsters, though I have already heard from one PC that had his Ranger multiclass nerfed because it was too powerful.
They fought a group of ogres in an adaptation of Hook Mountain Massacre, and I used the ogre stats from out of the book. Turns out that they should have been dealing more damage, and as it was, the ogres got the crap kicked out of them without posing a major threat. These kinds of situations have been few and far between (since I mainly pull the monster stats from the compendium), however, the errata still has always felt like a good idea to use.
3 Might Be the Real Ideal Number of Players
I’ve run adventures with every number from 3 to 8. While 5 is the recommended ideal number (and makes the fights a bit better), 3 seems to be the ideal number for balance of roleplaying time and speed of combat. It also forces every player to have even more teamwork, since 5 generally means that one player can zone out and not care that much about what everyone else is doing, while with 3 you care a lot about the tactical situation at all times (especially when you’re getting your butt kicked).
However, due to various circumstances, it’s unlikely that 3 will be the norm for my game, which is fine: I like playing with all my friends. I’ve yet to find a system that supports a high number of players anyway.
It’s My Favorite Edition of D&D
I know this is a lot of bitching, but I was able to come to this all thanks to the nearly 20 sessions of my game that I’ve run (plus playing in Bartoneus’s game, plus con games, demos, and so on…) and I’m still loving it while playing it. There’s no sign that the campaign is going to fizzle out now- I mean, things are just getting good (and by good, I mean that there’s a menace to the entire world that has just been revealed). It still plays faster and easier than 3.5, especially for me as a DM. I just hope that my analysis helps other people when running their games, and I also intend to revisit these issues when the Paragon tier is completed. Maybe some of these issues will disappear, and some will take their place, or more will just be added.