Gears of Ruin: When it Bombs, it Bombs.

Previously in Chatty’s game

Our heroes are sent on a gnomish airship to act as security for crucial peace talks to end an 8 year-long global conflict between sentient machines and numerous factions of  the dying world of Sikkara.  As negotiations start, a portal bomb goes off on the ship, summoning a rampaging demon.  At the same time one group of negotiators  falls on the other one and all hell breaks loose. Our heroes eventually prevail, identifying the son of their patron as the ring leader of the operation. Now comes the time of finding the other bombs on board before the ship explodes.

The Plan

Our last D&D session wasn’t one for the books. Caugt in the home stretch of seminar season, I found myself prepping the game just a few hours before the actual game (as in, right before).  My plan was to have the whole game session revolve around a Skill Challenge-like scene where the remaining bombs would be searched for, found and potentially deactivated or triggered by PCs.

I also put a “timer” on the game in that every minute that passed saw an increasing % chance of having one of those chaos-driven bombs explode.  Whenever a bomb exploded (whatever the trigger was), some monster from the elemental chaos would spew out.

This time, I chose Slaads from The Plane Below (graciously offered by Wizards of the Coast) because I wanted to weave a sub-story about them taking an interest in the party and how their eradication (or prevailing) could affect the upcoming collapse of the multiverse. (The Plane Below offers many great roleplaying leads for the Slaads’ unfathomable view of worlds and events).

Lastly, if the last bomb exploded, the ship would collapse and crash on the jagged mountains a few thousand feet down.

I chose a series of elite slaads and a few chaos larva swarms.  The idea was that one or 2 bombs would likely explode on the ship while the others would be saved making the fight not too hard or long…

I mean, what were the chances of all 3 elite monsters being on the board at the same time right? Right?

(Cue ominous music)

The joys of being an Instigator

The game started with the PCs searching for  bombs and getting the gnome crew to help out. Franky informed his adventuring partners that the gnome privateers were also slavers as he found one of the “secret” cargo holds full of naked humanoids  natives to Sikarra.  When that secret got out, the gnome captain tried to activate his “Screw that we’re leaving!” teleportation device that would return all feyborne (ship included) back to the Feywild, leaving behind (and in the air) everything else.

That is… until Franky broke the mechanism that activated it and kicked the captain’s butt out of the encounter.

As the party were looking around, one bomb went off (by random die roll) near Mike’s Monk.  Summoning a White Slaad and 2 swarms of Chaos Larva. Fighting started. During that time, Franky and Yan checked the runes glowing on the young viscount at the origin of all this trouble and found that it was an enchantment that would open a gigantic portal to the Elemental Chaos upon his death.

Franky tried to deactivate them (mini-skill challenge based on Arcana) and eventually failed one roll.  I gave him a choice of loosing his turn or succeeding in deactivating the gate-portal yet letting one summoned entity through, critically wounding the young antagonist (Alien style).  Franky chose to let another beasty in.

Now here’s where one of my natural DMing style (instigator/psychodrama) played against me. You see, I could have picked any elemental/demonic creature that would have made the fight more interesting… but I often feel the urge to put into play as many adventure elements I prepared as I can. So instead I chose the next monster that would appear had another bomb exploded and popped another, elite Slaad on the battlegrid.

Then at a later point, since gnomes were supposedly searching the ship, I had a Gnome crew member shout to Franky (who had more or less taken control of the damaged ship) “We found another bomb sir”

Franky: Throw it overboard

Gnome: Are you sure?

Franky (Busy figuring his next move): Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Now in one of those classic cases where the DM gets stuck with an internal story he hasn’t shared with the players yet, I didn’t quite know what to do with a non-adventuring NPC handling an unstable chaos-laced explosive device… so I rolled a Saving throw for the poor schmuck and failed.  So he exploded on deck (Grey’s Anatomy season finale style), bringing the 3rd elite monster on deck in a situation where the frustration of some had started rising sharply.

Franky: WTF man, I thought they could help us!

It tumbles down all around us

Needless to say that the next 2 hours were long and frustrated to many.  The session was fraught with bad rolls, emotional outbursts and analysis paralysis.  As the evening progressed, I could see frustration spread around the table.

Sadly I too was irritated and like many males I was stonewalling the whole group for juvenile reasons. I had forgotten the cardinal rule of “bring back the fun” whatever the cost and  I even lashed out against the use of  the iTouch as a 4e enabler at the game table, a sure sign that things were going down the drain fast.

At that point, I knew I had hit bottom and some of it was my fault. I tried to do what I could to salvage the game and I had one of the 3 Slaads go after the last bomb. All slaads had hinted that they could perceive the various ways this conflict could go, the ship blowing up at their hands being the most likely one.

This created a chase between the slaad and 2 of the 6 PCs (The Monk and the Warden) and ended up with one PC sitting on the ticking bomb, daring the monster to make a move.  It included a nice mini-roleplaying scene where the Slaad had the bomb in its claws and was convinced by the warden to put it down and walk away because “the universe might be a more interesting place if they were allowed to live and kill the Slaad’s patron instead”.

At that time, it was well passed 11h00 PM and all the Slaad were still alive.  So they conceded defeat (The bomb had been deactivated) and jumped off the ship ending the game in a rather brutal way.

Post Mortem

It has been a long time since I left a game with such a feeling of unsatisfaction. I know that there were many factors that lead to such a ‘meh’ sessions.  First and foremost being that bad sessions happens and we need to accept them.  The hasty preparation, putting all my prepared pieces in game at the same time (where they weren’t supposed to) was one too. The the lack of communication among players to coordinate their strategy better was another.  Outburst and interpersonal conflict also corrupts the  underlying social dynamic of a group.

All things that have been addressed or will be by open communications with the others.

Finally, I’m now convinced that our preferred style of play: short roleplay/story scenes followed by elaborate tactical combats may no longer be supported by the duration of our play sessions (2h30-3h30, every 2 weeks) and upper paragon play, at least not without hacking encounter math like monster Hit Points and Damage.

I checked my old posts, 2 years ago I was complaining that we could only manage 2 roleplaying scenes and 2 combat encounters per evening… now we barely manage one of each…also, I’m now getting direct feedback from players that they are no longer as satisfied with the game experience.  Some long for the time we played 3.5, others are annoyed at the length of combat (finally!) while others are unsatisfied with the performance of their PCs.

That’s crucial feedback that require discussion and action in the near time.

And I’m sick and tired of trying to “fix this”, I’m currently unhappy with our 4e games but was at a loss about turning things around until mid-week.

…and when it’s all said and done, an unhappy Dungeon Master is the surefire sign of a dying campaign/gaming group.

So for tonight’s game I’ve created one last adventure plan (using a combat-light model) to see the mini campaign to a good stopping point somewhere in the next 2 sessions or so.  I’m also going to discuss this with the players, maybe even let tempers flare a bit to let the accumulated steam out.  My goal is to go home with a revised list of player motivations and expectations so I can come back for a new proposal (new campaign model, new game, who knows?) for the next season.

Stay tuned, tonight’s game is called: “Here’s 250 000 gp, now go take back your city”.


  1. Damn! Sounds like it was a rough night. Hopefully the next few sessions will run more smoothly.

    I literally just started running a 4e game last night, starting at 8th level. Specifically because our group has never really gotten to use things at the higher levels of the game. We have a bunch of newer players, but after a few sessions I think they’ll be comfortable with things.

    Planning to run the game every other week for a max of 3.5 hours. So our styles sound similar. Hopefully we can keep the game fun and running, but I’ve been reading your column for a few months now and you sound like a much better DM than me.

    I hope this doesn’t happen to us in the future!

  2. Arkhein says:

    I feel your pain. Our group has a similar schedule and session length. At 10th level the combat lengths began to get way out of hand, and by 15th level, we were looking at fights the length of test cricket matches. As the DM, it was very frustrating. In my mind, there should be several good combats and ample room to role play in each session.

    After numerous unsatisfying tweaks to the rules – I just gave up. The system is designed for combat – and long combat at that. Frankly, the only fun combats at 15th level turned out to be rooms full of minions that the players could wade through quickly and get some satisfaction from.

    Thus, it became more and more apparent that I should switch games – and looking through a bunch (including my old favorites GURPS and Heroes) I landed on Savage Worlds. The game is a completely different paradigm – and fits my GMing style very well. Lots of fast action and opportunity for the players to pull off bizarre moves made up on the spur of the moment.

    So far, Savage Worlds appears to be a great system. I’m sure I’ll find problems with it that drive me crazy one day – but for now I’m incredibly happy with it.

    – Ark

  3. I don’t want to dwell on it too much.

    I hope we find a working compromise tonight and get back in our usual zone of comfort.

  4. @3eeve: I’m convinced that the next few sessions will be awesome. First because I adjusted the adventure to something a little less focused on combat (unless players provoke it) and secondly because we will discuss it and get everyone’s input before moving forward.

    We remain at heart a casual group and I’m by far the most hardcore member of it. I’m pretty sure any practical solution will be considered and the compromise will be adopted graciously by all.

    Don’t worry about your Dming skills, they will become better if you want to get better.

    Arkhein: I know that a group of hyper focused, disciplined and organized people can get through many encounters in a short time. The WotC staff does it and I’ve seen it in the competitive teams of the Goodman Games tournament last year (it was a lvl 14 adventure with under-optimised PCs).

    We’re none of those. We play to blow off some steam, to kick butts, score awesome crits and see a cool story unfold. We play when our kids are in bed and when we’re done eating. We play, often with several ounces of alcohol in our systems. We like laptops and smart mp3 players and we’re mostly hot-blooded latin who do NOT liked to be rushed by an A-type personality DM.

    Such factors do not necessarily lend themselves with high-combat upper paragon play.

    That’s what we’ll try to address over the summer. My guess is that we’ll go back to heroic, maybe after a short break playing something else.

    @Yan: So do I, I’m also convinced that a good compromise will be reached.

  5. Oh dear. Something similar happened to me in the session before last (although the PCs are only 8th-9th) where I overcomplicated the encounter with too many enemies, hazards and tricky terrain elements.

    Best of luck for your next game!


  6. Strange. We play lower paragon and I don’t see combats getting longer, than in heroic. Same 4-6 rounds as usual.

  7. Sorry about the rough game Chatty. I understand the annoyance with high level stuff, because my players and I often get really irritated by all the options and all the math figuring, positioning etc (I’m talking about 3.5/Pathfinder) but from what I’ve read and played of 4e, I’d say it’s the same there.

    I love my 3.5, but SW was a breath of fresh air for simplicity and quick(ish) combat and easy rules. Not to preach a “Look at Savage Worlds” mantra, but I hope you find a system that makes you and your party happy (especially Yan, since he’s a beast!~.<) and you guys kick some butt and have some fun!

  8. Length of combat seems to keep popping up here and there… rearing its ugly head. I don’t know if there would be a more effective way of addressing it, but it seems to me that one of the best remedies would be to house rule a better critical hit/miss system. Yes, I know it would do more harm to PCs over time, but if it helped eliminate the frustration over fights that carry on way too long, then I think it would be worth it. Yes, it would indeed increase the chances of character death, but is that honestly such a bad thing?? I don’t think so.

    Back in my 1e/2e days, we used the old critical hit/miss charts that were published in Dragon magazine. We made one modification in their use, however. A natural 20 was a critical hit… NOT a threat. We eliminated the extra roll. The same could be done now with the current systems (4e/3.x-pathfinder) and it seems like it would help a fair amount.

  9. *cough* Pathfinder is awesome… *cough cough*

  10. @Tiorn
    Natural 20 IS a crit in 4E.

  11. Not sure if I’m one that should be giving advice but I would suggest running a heavy role play/investigation session or two with minimal and very easy combats. No explosions. Or letting someone else DM for a bit. I sometimes feel fortunate in being the lesser of two DMs in my own group.

  12. I hear you, Phil. When I ended my last campaign and decided to play for a bit (which I have enjoyed quite a bit), the combat length was definitely starting to grate on me. Not so much the cool, epic fights but the more ‘ordinary’ ones. And you can’t have all of the fights be epic.

    I’m trying to figure out a solution. One possibility is Dave’s E11 system, which I’m interested to hear if he’s gotten any feedback on yet.

    Another is to accept the fact that you can have: 1. Fast combat. 2. An equal or tough challenge for PCs. 3. Higher levels. But you can only pick two.

    I think part of the thing is that even with Lvl +2 or +3 encounters, the PCs are 95% of the time going to win. It seems to me that we need some method to differentiate those encounters where the PCs are going to win from the ones that they might not. Much like Torg did:

    I think ultimately the problem stems from the fact that there is a heck of a lot going on from any player and any monster beyond just doing damage. In 3e there was hardly any movement, and most spells and attacks were just doing damage (or save or die at higher levels). Same for 2e, but even moreso.

    The shame is that there are some pretty interesting monsters at high Paragon and Epic, and it’s too bad you can’t really battle them without it being a slog.

    The irony is that 3e had issues with high-level gaming too…and while the math works out much better, timewise the problems are still there.

    I think it’s something WotC needs to address though…a lot of parties that had started playing when 4e came out should be hitting high Paragon and Epic now…and this could turn people off.

  13. Here’s a head’s up tonight session went a lot smoother.

    @Wrathofzombie: What do you mean I’m a beast!?

  14. @Snarls-at-fleas… Thanks for that info. I’ll admit, I’m not a 4e person at all. So, that roll is already eliminated. That’s step one.

    Step two would be, unfortunately because some will not like it, to increase the lethality/damage output of a critical hit. Just as long as its balanced between players and non-players, its fair. The results are harsher, sure. But it cuts both ways. And it would also cut down time.

    Don’t want it to be so lethal? Fine, but at least go for results that would incapacitate and move things along quickly. Having incapacitated player-characters could lead into some new story arcs. Incapacitated NPCs/monsters could lead into that as well. Bingo! A new storyline tool for the DM.

    Another thing that kept combats shorter in 1e/2e was multiple attacks, especially with the outrageous addition of Unearthed Arcana’s weapon specialization. I know 3e allowed for multiple attacks as well (and I assume that 4e has an allowance for it too), but it seems like those multiple attacks are more discouraged (with penalties and less options) than encouraged. Why give up a 5-step drop (among other options) in order to get an extra, lesser attack at -2 from full strength? Unless you know for a fact that you’re going to stand toe-to-toe for a few rounds, you’re not going to give up your non-attack options just to get another lesser attack.

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m just clueless about this entirely. But it just seems like there ARE options in place that would speed things up…. but there is absolutely no incentive to use those options at all.

  15. Just an additional thought here….

    1e/2e is viewed as being far more lethal and offensive in nature in combat. While 3e/4e seems to be way more defensive system.


    In 1e/2e, on critical hits, only the die roll was multiplied for damage. Modifiers were not.

    In 3e (and I’m assuming 4e as well), its ALL multiplied… die roll AND modifiers. Damage output, especially at higher levels, should be way higher than it would be in 1e/2e.

    You would think, from that information, that the problem would be the other way around, but its not. That tells me that the shift to a more defensive system has been HUGE. Probably way more than should have ever been considered in the first place.

    I wonder if Pathfinder has addressed this at all. Something tells me that it hasn’t.

  16. Please ppl tell me what am I doing wrong?
    My combats with 6-level party and with 12-level party take almost the same amount of time IRL and in-game. 🙂 12-level party takes a bit longer IRL, but I think it’s because there 7 party members.
    And I use Masterplan to run combats, so I spend much less time on bookkeeping.

  17. I’m really glad that last nights session went well.

    @ Yan- Everytime that Phil cries, he says it’s because o’ you;) j/k. You’re not a beast, I just like picking:)

  18. Chatty,
    The more time I spend in this hobby, the more I reailze certain things. Different games and different settings are better played by different rulesets. Fixing a game where there is a rules/setting or rules/game misatch is a losing proposition.

    Self-analysis is certainly something you excel at. The way you go back to old posts and comments is brutally honest. Just as crucial is the way that you can get feedback from your players. I think it is great the way you are keeping up with the evolution of your gaming group by reassessing the motivations of the players.

    I wonder what kind of game you would run if you had your druthers? What level of progression, what level of mortality/lethality, what level of heroism vs grittiness, what % combat vs non-combat…

    Best of luck, as always. Nothing good is easy, and a very painful session can be the catalyst do a much better set of games.

  19. @Snarls – I found that the really big push to making combats longer seemed to occur just a bit further (I seem to recall seeing on the interwebs that 14th level was about where it starts to bog down).

  20. I’m glad my group isn’t the only one that was unsatisfied with 4e and combat! A majority of the group asked if we could switch back to 3.5, and I shrugged and said ‘sure.’ I think 4e will become more balanced once they get some more supplements out there, but for now… I don’t know, combat just seems tedious.

    Glad the last game went better! Can’t wait to hear about it!

  21. I wouldn’t go back to 3.5 myself…I was getting very annoyed with the system when 4e came out, and at Heroic levels I think that 4e is vastly superior. If I were to go away from 4e, I’d either go right back to 2nd, BECMI (though not without trying Savage Worlds first).

  22. When we move from 3.5 we had more house rule then we could remember to solve the system issues…

    I personally would not go back to any other D&D version been there moved on. I would rather try something else to go back in exploration mode…

  23. Like Yan said, last Friday’s session was a lot smoother and very cool too. I tried a new adventure model (based on something we tried last fall) and we all had fun and managed to have a short fight. All in all a win/win. Stay tuned for the game report

    @Richard: Those still happen to me on a semi-regular basis. I think thatsecret is to be able to simplify on the go before the encounter collapses under its own weight.

    @Snarls: I implied “longer” as in “more time” not more rounds.

    @Wrath: Savage Worlds is one of the systems I will take a look at. Possibly at Gen Con if I can find a convininent Demo of the game. I’ll also likely just grab a copy of that 10$ pocket edition of the game to see how the mechanics strike my fancy.

    And no, Yan is not a beast… its just that I should always try to kill him (i.e. his PC) first… and I totally should have last game… Damn Fighter-Cleric hybrid hoovered all monsters around him and tied them all up… it was aweful…

    Nah, it was great really.

    @Tiorn: There are many options to go around this, and as I mentioned earlier in the comments, the issue mostly resolves around our limited time to play and finding a compromise between our play styles and preferences. As we see it, hacking the 4e engine so that we can keep playing at the paragon level the way we play it is not that much worth it for us.

    @Snalrs: No one’s implying you’re doing anything wrong. How disciplined is your gaming group? How focused is their strategy? How long have you been playing and how many sessions does it take to level up? How do you you handle “oh Wait! interrupts”? All these are factors that affect the length of 4e combat. Higher level play adds new complexities such as morer powers to choose from for PCs and more special conditions affecting them.

    Also, note that at lcl 12, things were still preety decent for us.

    @Lordvreeg: We realized last week that to get the experience we really want we would need to design our own games… but I was made painfully aware of the Fantasy Heartbreaker trope. While you managed to create a game that fits your and your players needs. We would not achieve it… so we seek compromise. I know I spend far more energy than many many gamers on “getting the perfect game” but that’s my nature and I embrace it.

    I think we are going to spend part of the summer trying other games and we’ll likely reset the game to level 3-5 in August and work from there.

    Thanks for your comments everyone.

  24. Just a thought, but it did sound like you put everything but the kitchen sink in the encounter there. It does not matter what game system you do that in, it will suck. (I don’t mean that in a blaming kind of way.)

    When I generate more open ended encounters like you described, I try to put in as many ‘outs’ as I can, so that I can balance things on the fly. Strickly speaking its not kosher, kind of like fudging the dice rolls. But on the other hand any scenario where there players can cause more trouble than they can handle needs potential pressure vents. In such cases, I also make a point ot being able to turn up the pressure for giggles.

    I was playing a 2e adventure 4 months ago, and the adventure had a note: If players get in over their heads, ‘this’ happens. Sure enough…. we were rescued.

    Have you considered going back to basics for your adventures? Trying simpler encounters, a villian, and a less complex plot may be what you need.

  25. Ismael_DM says:

    I’m going to echo UHF with a slight modification “[When] you put everything but the kitchen sink in the encounter there. It does not matter what game system you do that in, it will [take more time to get through]”.

    While I personally enjoy that type of encounter/roleplaying, dodging the runes of death while running toward the evil mage, it definitely adds time/complexity/difficulty to the encounter. As PC’s gain levels they gain more and more powers. As such, they need more time to sift through to pick the one they want. In older editions there was “The” attack/spell/action that could make or break the encounter, with 4e it’s much much more rare to have that. [With the exception of forced movement and a well-placed pit-of-death.]

    I always call out who is up in initiative and who is “on-deck”. The person that is up should be able to go through their turn quickly (most of my players already have their d20 and damage dice in-hand). The person who is “on-deck” begins to study the board and their powers to pick what they’re going to do. My players are at level 11 right now. To be honest, due to all of the NPCs I’m the slowest one with combat at the moment.

    Lastly, I wouldn’t use the number of encounters in a session as a measure of how well things are going.