Jan. 6th, 2010

theron: My Dice Are Probably Older Than You (Default)
Last night, we took a break from the ongoing 3.5 campaign to playtest a couple of encounters for the Master Maze event at Owlcon.  One of our group has thousands of dollars worth of Master Maze scenery and lots of D&D minis, and every year, he and some co-conspirators put on a massive D&D event wherein everything in the dungeon (character, creature, prop) is represented by a miniature.  It's damned impressive, especially since it's an elimination event with two groups running through identical threats simultaneously.

Without spoiling much of anything, last night tested an 18th level party composed entirely of Martial characters in two successive encounters.  And in each, I actually found myself experiencing the so-called "sweet spot" that the designers of 4th edition went on at length about.  Part of it was doubtlessly my own character's effectiveness (an 18th level Elven Ranger/Battlefield Archer is a truly a thing of terrible beauty), but it was also the synergy with the rest of the group and the way the monsters played off each other.  Yes, it felt more like playing HeroClix than D&D in some respects, but it was engaging and exciting and it didn't bog down and there was enough uncertainty to make it feel dangerous.

Oddly enough, my past experiences as a player haven't felt nearly so satisfying.  My suspicion is that we've gotten a bit more familiar with the game and our DMs have gotten better at encounter design.

One interesting thing that came up at dinner before the game was a notion among a couple of folks in the group that I'm against playing 4e on a regular basis on Tuesday nights.  Given that I've been running 4e for the kids and a couple of guys in the group, I'm not entirely sure where that impression came from.  I suspect it's because I was very definitely among those grousing about perceived gameplay issues, though far from the only one, and the other principle grousers moved on to play in other regular 4e games.  In looking back at our initial efforts, I think the reasons for my initial negativity flow from a couple of sources.  

First, the initial adventures we were exposed to weren't very good. "Keep on the Shadowfell" has been widely held up as how NOT to create an introductory adventure.

Second, our first home-brew campaign began with a lot of promise, but stuttered rather badly when the DM started messing with the movement rules in order to incorporate Spelljammer-style ship to ship combat.  The net effect of this was to nerf every single movement related ability, and in 4e, movement is a key pillar of the system.

Third, it took both our DMs and the game designers a while to find an effective balance point between monster ACs and PC abilities.  Until MM2 and DMG2 came out, there was a significant disparity as you went up the ladder and for a group of players who were used to having a a combat-optimized tenth level character hit monsters on anything higher than a four, suddenly needing a 10-12 at a minimum to have any effect on an opponent was a rude awakening.

(It didn't help that our group has far more than the optimal number of players, which meant a fair bit of guesswork when it came to getting encounters balanced correctly.  Which in turn tends to exacerbate the problems.)

Finally, there was the Grind.  Wherein the final opponent (or two) took for-freakin'-ever to put down because Elites and Solos have ridiculous amounts of hit points compared to the amount of damage PCs can put on them.  Which meant every fight fell into three phases:  Minion Sweeping, where the 1 HP Minions that are cluttering up the area making nuisances of themselves get wiped out; The Tactical Portion, where most of your Encounter powers get used and interesting stuff happens, and the Boss Fight, where, because you're finally fighting something whose HP DON'T remotely scale up with PC damage potential, you pray one or two of your Dailies will actually work and you grind your way through hundreds of HPs just to get the big bastard down to Bloodied status.

Fortunately, since then we've seen MM2 and DMG2, which changed some of the guidelines for critter creation.  We also got a slew of new and nifty powers for every class.  Last night, my ranger hit a Fire Giant for something like 94 points of damage in a single strike.  I'm pretty sure that wasn't entirely possible when the game came out.  It may be an escalation, but it's an escalation that feels like it kept pace with the monsters rather than trailing behind them.

For me, that's where the sweet spot lies.

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theron: My Dice Are Probably Older Than You (Default)
theron

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