So… last night’s Call of Cthulhu was called off, giving the remaining players a chance to play fourth edition for the first time. Sorry INdran, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Marc, Dan and Graham generated three first level characters between them and I ran through two combat encounters I quickly cobbled together from the Monster Manual.
The party consisted of Nebbit (Graham’s halfling warlord), Zap Eriss (Marc’s human wizard with a taste for velour) and Rood Bogbrush (Dan’s dragonborn paladin of Bahamut). Character generation seemed to go smoothly and quickly. We started at about 7:50pm and we were ready to go by 9:00pm. That’s not bad considering this was the first time anyone had attempted character gen.
Creating the Encounter
Fourth edition is designed to make the GM’s life easier. I was able to run two encounters straight out of the Monster Manual without any note taking. To be fair, I could have done the same thing with third edition, but the fourth edition stat blocks are easier to read. Because creatures only tend to be able to do a handful of things, the information is clearer and easier to work with. I’m not judging it at this stage, merely stating a fact.
I decided to use the rules as presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. To build a balanced encounter, you take a pot of XP and use it to build up the PCs’ opponents. For example, if you had a pot of 500 XP to spend on monsters you spend it on a level one solo monster (500 XP), two level one elite monsters (200 XP each), and one standard level one monster (100 XP) and so on and so forth. I’ll explain all this in slightly more depth when I get onto the DMG.
In order to find the value of this XP pot, I needed to take the XP value of a monster of the party’s level and multiply it by the number of PCs. A first level monster is worth 100 XP, there were three PCs so I had 300 XP to spend on monsters for an easy encounter. A hard encounter can be up to four levels higher than the PC level. A fifth level monster is worth 200 XP, so an encounter of that level would be 600 XP.
So I assumed that I had between 300 and 600 XP to spend on monsters for three first level characters. The more I spent, the harder the encounter would be. I wasn’t entirely correct. I decided for a spidery theme for the encounters – there’s been little but kobolds, drakes and goblins in the published scenarios, so I thought that a little variety would be nice.
Encounter one would be two Deathjump Spiders (MM1 p246). These are level four skirmishers worth 175 XP each. Together they were 350 XP, so that was on the low side and should make for a easy-ish first encounter.
Enounter two would be a group of three ettercaps (MM1 p107). I went for two Ettercap Fang Guards (level 4 soldiers), and one Ettercap Webspinner (level 5 controller). The soldiers were worth 175 XP each, and the controller was worth 200 XP. This added up to 550 XP, so it was on the tough side, but within the ability of the PCs. Or so I thought.
What I didn’t do was read the “Considerations” section on DMG1 p56 – and I don’t know why I didn’t because it’s in big red type. I managed to confuse the Encounter Level with the level of the individual monsters making up the encounter. Basically, any monster that is 3-5 levels above the party’s level is going to be a hard encounter regardless of how much XP I have spent.
Two Deathjump spiders are only worth 350 XP, which should only make for a level 2 encounter for three level one characters. However, the spiders themselves are level four. They would be hard foes for first level characters regardless. So, what I had done was to create two hard encounters. The second even harder than the first.
This became apparent within one round of the combat starting. The spiders gained surprise and leapt on Zap and Rood (ignoring the halfling as he had less meat on him). They quickly bit and poisoned these two PCs. Even though I forget that this attack should knock the target prone, and even though I didn’t realise the spiders could keep using this jump attack every round, the PCs were still on the verge of calamity.
The dragonborn went down to negative hit points, and had to be rescued from the jaws of death by Nebbit. If it wasn’t for both the the dragonborn (before he went down), and the halfling, Zap would have been killed twice over by the vicious spider.
Eventually, they did kill both spiders, but only after expending all their daily powers and most of their action points. This surprised me greatly. I thought it would have been an easier fight. Considering the amount of comment on-line about how difficult it is to die in 4e, all the players commented that the fight felt extremely dangerous.
I felt so sorry for the party, I let them take an extended rest before the second encounter to allow them to heal all their wounds, regain their daily powers and replenish their action points. In a normal adventure, these encounters would have run into one another – so putting two hard encounters in close juxtaposition is probably not the best way to go.
As the party advanced they were surprised again (largely because of their bickering). The ettercap webspinner cast a web on the area that immobilised all the party members. Then the two ettercap fang guards ran in (they weren’t affected by the webs) and both of them laid into the dragonborn. I like the way that the monsters have different tactics spelled out in 4e.
After a surprise round of being chopped upon, Rood was in a very bad way. What followed was an unlikely collection of failed attack rolls from Rood that turned a hard encounter into a fatal one. While zap traded ranged attacks with the ettercap controller on the ceiling, Nebbit and Rood were engaged in mêlée with the two fang guards. These spider-monsters were wielding battle-axes and if they hit they were dealing significant damage.
As an aside, I noticed that although the fang guards had several tactics (including webbing and poisoning opponents), the most effective thing they could do each round was keep hitting with their big sharp axes. There were also various occasions where the PCs didn’t need to use all their actions because they didn’t want to move, or they had no use for a minor action. I’m not sure if this is common in 4e. I did find it odd that, as a GM, I didn’t feel as there was much point using all the options at my disposal.
The mêlée combat was extremely hard, and made harder by Rood’s inability to hit with his daily power, and many of the free attacks that Nebbit dutifully used his warlord powers to provide. Rood went down into negative numbers (again) and was restored. However, a few rounds later a single blow from the ettercap dealt enough damage to kill him outright. One PC down, and Nebbit was facing two ettercaps.
By this time, Zap had managed to kill the ettercap on the ceiling. Zap wasn’t wounded at all, largely because the ettercap’s ranged attacks immobilised instead of damaged. Nebbit ran towards Zap so the PCs could fight together. The ettercap took an opportunity attack against him, scoring a critical hit and cutting the hobbit in half. Two PCs down.
Zap was now facing the two ettercap fang guards on his own. Two hits from them could kill him, so he could have gone down in one round. Fortunately, the monsters were badly wounded by this time. Zap stepped back and took down one with a spell. The second attacked, but missed him, and Zap was able to kill it the following round. One PC standing.
No quite a total party kill, but nearly. The second encounter was hard for the PCs’ level, but it was winnable, so why did this happen? Well, I think a lack of familiarity with the rules contributed, but on the whole it was all Dan’s fault. His total inability to hit with any of his significant powers left the foes with more hit points that the party could cope with. They were unlucky. However, I was accused of being excessively brutal.
One thing that was obvious from the fight is that fourth edition is a game designed around the cooperative party. If you aren’t using your actions and your powers to help bolster each other, and get each other out of a fix then you are going to get wiped out. The warlord continually spent his standard actions and abilities to open up the opponent for the Dragonborn. Even though the Dragonborn kept missing all of these opportunities with a flagrant disregard for probability.
I will also mention what I feared would be the case: running the game without a battle grid and miniatures is very tricky. Forced movement, opportunity attacks and area effects of bursts and blasts are very hard to adjudicate. Marc asked whether he could use his thunderwave to hit both ettercaps without hurting Graham, and I couldn’t make a definitive and unquestionable ruling because no-one occupied an absolute position that we could all reference. The combat was playing out in our imaginations, but we were all seeing it slightly differently.
Work has to be done to remove the dependence on measurement and ‘squares’ from the game. Lessons can be taken from second edition and version 3.0 that didn’t rely quite as heavily on this element of the game. I have some ideas that will appear on this blog over the next few weeks.
From a GM’s perspective I found the mechanics used to build the encounter to be quite robust and satisfying. Now I know how to avoid building a hard encounter by default, I will be able to avoid those pit falls. No, I would never actually award experience points for killing monsters as it suggests in the book. However, I would use to create a balanced and challenging encounter for my PCs in a weekly campaign. It certainly works much better than the CR system.
I would also like to add that I really enjoyed the session. It was a lot of fun to run. There are some teething troubles – we’re all still learning the rules, and the miniatures thing is a bit of a headache – but the game works and hangs together really well. The session lasted two and a half hours and in that time we fitted in about 12 rounds of combat, plus the traditional provarication and roleplaying. I would like to say that 4e runs faster, but this was a session for three first level PCs (and I’ve just come from running a campaign for seven ECL 19 PCs) so it’s hard to compare. It does seem faster.
I’m sure that we’ll play again soon. Marc says that he’ll run next time, so I’ll get a chance to play.