Friday, August 26, 2011

Let's Read: something depressing!

Hmmm...

People send me stuff. Let's see what we got...

Tons of WOTC stuff. It's all so long...

Ok. shortest:

"The Slaying Stone, an adventure for characters of 1st level" by Logan Bonner.

Oh let's rip this apart. Should kill and hour before lunchtime...

Amazon reviews:

"Doesn't Railroad the Players"-somebody

"This module is different from the previous ones published by Wizards of the Coast. Up till now their modules were very linear, and the DM had to lead the players from one area to the next. This one presents an area that is more of a sandbox."-someone else

"The author of The Slaying Stone, Logan Bonner, has allowed plenty of room for improvisation by experienced players/DM's. For Novice DM's however, it may not be the easiest module to run, as it seems like it will require a lot of "thinking on your feet" and spontaneity. " -some total other person

Maybe it's not terrible? Is this possible?

Well it's the shortest, so we're doing it. It's this or the Psionic's Handbook.

Cover: The cover is typical anime-influenced-but-colored-by-a-mud-golem-and-detailed-enough-to-look-expensive-despite-a-total-lack-of-any-interesting-details-in-it WOTC product. It is truly the least awesome take on "fucking wardogs made of fucking metal" anyone has ever painted.

Art lesson for Ralph Horsley:

Incorrect:
Correct:
Let us discuss you no more.

Introduction, Background, Synopsis, and "Running this adventure" (and the credits) all fit on one page!!!!!!!!!!!

Reads like a shockingly efficient piece of work so far. No fan fiction at all! It realizes I don't need to know what the Empire of Nerath is! I am excited. However, a tocsin note is struck during the synopsis...

"After exploring several dead ends, the characters find the stone in the lair of a powerful brass dragon, and they must convince the dragon to relin­quish the stone. The orcs appear again, ambushing the characters in order to steal the item."

So you must by definition explore several dead ends? And the orcs must show up at the end? You can't just notice they're following you and ace them early? Let's be fair and wait and see...

I am going to leave aside the obvious point that this is a first level adventure where you fight kobolds, goblins and orcs (oh, and a hobgoblin) and how that is and always will be a way of going "Hey, I know you're paying for this and all, but I'm not really trying here--or, if I am, I'm a very boring person" because:

-I bet someone told poor Logan Bonner he wouldn't get paid unless it had kobolds and goblins and orcs, and

-What the fuck did we expect?

Opening scene...

Logan and/or WOTC overlords lose 20 points right off the bat for including this...

Read:
A cold wind whips sleet at you and...(blah blah 6 lines of this crap)...toward the safety of shelter.

To be fair, Goodman Games also loses it for having "read me" boxes all over its new Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures as does TSR for inventing "Read Me" boxes. Fuck all such boxes ever.

We lose another nigh-unavoidable-in-this-decadent-age 20 points for taking a whole page to say "the PCs fight some wolfs". However, once we grant that, the details of the encounter are not terrible: mud slows everyone to half speed, there's a bridge to cross to get to shelter, when PCs get close, someone goes "Hey, come to the tower," and lends a hand, and the wolves' tactics are good: they're hungry, so they're just aiming to knock over one PC, drag it off and eat it.

Oddity: Once past the wolves, the PCs get an infodump which is basically their mission briefing. Fair enough. But why did we get 7 lines of "Read me" text up there earlier the beginning basically to say "it was a dark and stormy night" yet the whole mission precis--which, detail-laden as it necessarily is, is one of the few things that actually might lend itself to pre-written speech ("Now, listen up 007, it's come to our attention that...")--in just 'DM-eyes' format? Odd.

If you're going to violate one of the most basic rules of DMing and fucking read text at me, then why not read text you might actually need notes for?

Basics: McGuffin. Map of possible locations. There's a ritual helping you find it--you can only use it 3 times.

2 bonus points for Logan B: there are 5 books of value in the town besides the mcguffin. If the PCs think to inquire, they can collect them for more xp, and the DM decides where these books are hidden. Mr Bonner loses points for not mentioning that the contents of said books can be generated using Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, available from Lamentations of the Flame Princess press for only 12 pounds 50 plus shipping act now get yours today!

Sorry. Anyway:

What we got here so far as of page 5 is basically a nonlinear location-based adventure where instead of a dungeon we have a town overrun by goblins. Also: there is treasure other than what the quest-dispensing NPC knows about. So far neither railroad tracks nor creativity are visible.

Now we have a rundown of the major NPCs...
Note--never write like this: "Like his piercing stare, Vohx's heart is cold as ice." On top of the million ways reading that sentence makes you dumber, you are wasting space telling us (again) that the leader of the Severed Eyes Orc Clan is bad.

Pages 6 and 7.

Oh, I like this:

The characters can visit the parts of the town in the order they want, so they might end up exploring areas or talking to NPCs that aren't detailed here. If your players don't know what to do next, or if you're looking for something new to include, invent something that ties back to the plot themes listed below...

So there's the kind of things characters in the town might talk about. The possibility of convincing the kobolds to attack their oppressive goblin overlords is included, as are several possible alternate "plot-threads" that could come up. These are very much in the "my first adventure" vein, but none are terrible. But still, jesus, I sound like a kindergarten teacher "Hey, none of you ate your paste! Rock on!"

Map key notes:

-Monsters everywhere. Aside from the default low-end-of-the-humanoid-bell-curve already mentioned, this adventure also has a dragon in it. (You don't fight it.) On the one hand: monsters are cool. On the other hand: late-era D&D sort of has a tendency to go "Why have a corrupt monk when a bugbear and 2 nagas will do?" thing going on which sucks the scary right out of monsters. It's your first adventure ever, you meet a dragon. Maybe this is terrifying and so it works. Maybe this just gets you so used to talking to dragons that they are really nothing special forever after. Hard to say.

I wouldn't have put it past WOTC to have told Logan B "Oh, also, it has to have a dragon in it".

-The goblins in this town have a temple to their goblin god. It is not made weird or interesting. Calamitous missed opportunity on the level of the cover artist's metal-dogs' insufficient metalness.

-Missed Opportunity #3 (Minor) "5. LOOTING GROUNDS (TRADE DISTRICT)
From the ruins of smithies and vendors' stalls, the gob­lins and kobolds have scavenged every little scrap they could find."(That's it. Searching reveals nothing.)

-Missed Opportunity #4 (Major) "Goblin graffiti decorates the trunk." (No examples given.)

-Philosophical question suggested by Missed Opportunity #4: if WOTC is determined to use "official" versions of monsters in published products, why shy away from giving them a little detail, like they do with devils and demons? Because they need them to be generic enough to fit different GM's settings. So: a nether zone--they have to be standardized because D&D is now a brand, yet they can't be distinct because it also has to be generic. Really makes you wanna play Warhammer dunnit?

-Ummmm... "The goblins keep drakes, wolves, and other dangerous beasts in the stables the Kiris family once maintained." And that's it. Just a bunch of weird creatures here, move along... Ok, accepting the whole "yeah, D&D land is just wall-to-wall (standard) monsters" thing and moving on, are we seriously expecting the PCs to just leave the monsters alone? I'm not usually a guy to demand more stats from WOTC, but when my players decide to unlock the stables and send these drakes, wolves and undifferentiated teratofauna out into the village to act as a distraction while they hang out on the roof with crossbows I might kinda wanna know how many hit dice these things have. Is this a rare burst of efficient module design (hey, make it up yourself, DM) or WOTC just failing to realize PCs might do something other than use their Encounter Powers to move through Encounters in order to fulfill a Second Level Quest?

-mmmm... Brass Dragon lair dug into sandy soil. Brass dragon has already left scales, scorchmarks and clawmarks elsewhere. Yet "Unless the characters are searching for a lair, they need to succeed on a DC 20 passive Per­ception check to detect the lair's entrance." No footprints? No reference to the dragon covering its footprints? No reference to what, physically, you would be looking at with your "perception check"?

Page 10

The Slaying Stone of Kiris Dahn cannot be sold. It's right there in the rules. Despite the fact that it can be used to kill anybody so long as they're in the town of Kiris Dahn, nobody wants to buy it, ever. That's so dumb. If you just had to limit the stone so nobody would get rich selling the instakill pill why not just say it's magically enchanted so it can't leave the town (it would also be a convenient way to explain why the NPCs are so sure it's there in the town somewhere).

Encounters

More quasimandatory lameness. Getting into the goblin town (through the forest, over the river, or past the front gate) is described solely in terms of skill challenges. Now through the forest (sneak through trees without being seen) or over the river (swim the river and don't make a lot of noise or drown) this kinda makes sense and could be described in a similar way in a lot of games, but for the front gate this is bullshit. We need some goddamn guards with a goddamn guardhouse and the PCs need a goddamn plan to bluff past the goblins or jump over it and seriously if you can't make up a guard house stop writing modules and if you can't think of a plan to bluff or sneak your way past one, stop playing D&D. Completely fuck this abstract bullshit. This is the game. You are skipping playing the bestest parts of the game with your fucking skill challenge.

And if they don't recognize the opportunity for Complex Tactical Combat when you've got one PC over the wall, two PCs behind the wall, one on the roof, and one in the middle of the gatehouse pretending to be a goblin's granny when they are all discovered then, really, what is Type IV D&D for?

In the same vein, Encounter 3 is just a gross weird totally Type 4 shibboleth. It is basically trying to explain how--using skill challenges--the DM is supposed to describe getting around the town secretly and/or failing to do so. The basic idea--be subtle or end up in an encounter--is reasonable, but the lack of detail and the inability of the author to write (or be allowed to write) "Hope the PCs think up a clever plan using their real actual brains or they're toast" is depressing. And every noncombat problem that is described apparently has to include at least 3 examples of skill checks you could use to get past them. The space used to write out all this wonky skill challenge bullshit could've been used to have a "5o random get-past-the-goblins situations" table.

People who both run 4e and have functioning brain cells have all kinds of philosophical positions about how to make skill challenges not ungodly tedious exercises in rolling-where-thinking-should-be but one gets the definite sense here that pages and pages of design space have been given over to make the (narrow) mechanics fit the (complex) situation here.

Vault of the Drow would've been a novella if it'd been written this way. Thank god it wasn't: there's a bad elf on a giant lizard--figure a way past it, numbnut!

Note: Encounter 7 is entitled "Monsters and Manuals".

A weird thing: "This encounter can occur at the monster pens (area 7 on the Kiris Dahn map) or in some other location of your choosing." Wait but back when I was reading about area 7 it didn't direct me here...

This is a weird thing about this module: the whole thing is abstracted--we don't have the whole goblin town laid out (fair enough, it's big) yet WOTC D&D demands each encounter be attached to a place with a battlemat. (Why? They don't even sell minis anymore do they?) So we can't just have traditional "random encounters" where a group of monsters just appears whenever in certain areas, but they also don't seem to want to say "here's a map, this encounter happens when you go here to this place"--at least not consistently.

Instead they seem to be saying "this encounter happens here, this one happens here and the rest sort of just happen when you want them to if the PCs are in the kind of place where it might happen". While it's nice they're giving you options, it seems like kinda pointlessly adding an extra step for the DM and severing the (usually rather useful) connection between the map and the fights that are on it. At this point I'm honestly not sure what they're after--is the idea to put the "right" number of combats in front of the PCs before they get to the next plot point (if so, that's dumb)? (spoiler to the end of this read-through: it is.) All I can say for sure here is it's confusing and they probably could've explained/designed it a little clearer. There is no table or chart describing the connections between all the encounters and the applicable trigger actions.

Or, to put it another way: this is an awful lot of rules and pages (20) if they're just saying "Here's a bunch of monsters, have them fight the PCs whenever you want."

Encounter 10: Hideous endless skill-challenge-damaged description of how to do a role-playing encounter with a dragon. So many trees died so that your players wouldn't have to think or imagine, Hasbro. So many.

Obvious mistake: the Orcs trailing the PCs attack after the PCs get the stone. There should've been ways for the PCs to detect them all along. Definitely definitely.

Encounter 11:

PCs talk to person. Goblins interrupt to attack person who is actually ratman. Goblins attack ratman and PCs. Ratman attacks PCs.

Wait, why? Why wouldn't the ratman attack the goblins? Or at least both the goblins and the PCs? It's not explained. He's a monster on a battle grid. He doesn't need a reason.

Encounter 12:

"Scouts constantly monitor the area, so it's nearly impossible to sneak up on the mansion. That said, if the adventurers devise a clever plan to sneak in, run with it!"

(but, naturally, neither the area, the goblin's work schedule, nor the scouts are described--no matter how long you stake out the area or what you see them do, the foes will be in exactly the same place on the battlegrid) Hmmm...split personality much? It's like the Type IV people either wanna design a whole skill challenge or just say "fuck it". No in-between. Weird. It's like saying: "There's a wall here, it's this tall, and 2 guys standing here" and just let the GM figure out the rest isn't enough. And consequently the whole place is either totally overdescribed combats or underdescribed noncombats.

_________
Conclusion

Here's what happens if you keep the magic stone instead of giving it to the NPCs...
"The two NPCs hire another group to take the slaying stone from the characters. Since the stone doesn't function outside Kiris Dahn, it's about as useful any other heavy rock."

Um, dude, again, if you can't think of what PCs could do with a magic item that can kill anyone as long as they lure the target to a certain place, you're hopeless. How awesome would your campaign be if the last thing your 25th level thief did is lure Tiamat back to the redneck goblin village where the campaign began, so many years ago...?

In other news: treasure parcel checklist: 4 magic items already. Ew.
___________

Page 31 explains a lot...

"If the adventurers bypass encounters or if you plan to get them more XP over the course of this adventure, you can include some of the following encounters..."

This sentence explains a lot.

Ok, so the adventure is worth a certain amount of xp.

This is because the encounters (skill challenges and monsters together) are, combined, worth a certain amount of xp.

This means that if the PCs skip encounters they are expected to have the adventure is worth less xp. That's bad.

However clearly this adventure is supposed to have an "open" structure: enter from any of 3 directions, go to any of 3 places, muck about until you have enough clues to go where the mcguffin is.

It would, therefore, be easy to "skip" encounters.

So, two things have been done to fix this problem (a problem created by the module's rigid adherence to Type IV D&D's xp regime).

#1 "Bonus" encounters are stuck in in case the PCs skip planned ones.

#2 Half the encounters can just happen whenever the DM wants.

The overall effect is: no matter what path the PCs choose, and what tactics or strategy they choose, they will get in exactly the same number of fights with foes of exactly the same total strength.

So it's not a railroad but it is. Because although the PC's have choices, these choices have very little effect on what their experience is. The choosing is not part of a process of problem solving, it is a process of accidentally choosing Monster A over Monster B. At least as written.

The meaningful choices only happens during combat. What a rip. The whole point of trying to decide how to infiltrate a city is to avoid fighting--or at least to fight on your own terms--and almost nothing in the adventure supports that.

A whole level of play has been removed. One of the most interesting ones.

That having been said...

...you could easily ignore the xp system and just make this into a plausibly decent adventure. It's not the world's most ambitious or inventive adventure (fighting kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins and orcs to find a magic rock) but it is entirely devoid of bards, druids, gnomes, brain moles, owlbears, cave fishers and infantry mounted on gryphons so, aesthetically, it could be worse. TSR did worse a million times.

For the fuck of it--let's take a look at what would have to be done to turn this from a set of railroad cars into a genuine adventure (that is, a complex and multi-layered problem to be solved by humans with heads):

-Ok, the encounters would have to actually be fixed to locations on the map, or to a friction point system where failed skill challenges (or other displays of sneakiness ) would bring on specific encounters. (See how already this fucks with the program: this means you'll miss encounters and get less xp for doing the smart thing. If all PCs want is xp, you're screwed--they'll be stupid for the hell of it. Or you have to use a different xp system.)

-There should be more actual locations on the map, with multiple possible routes to the 3 objectives.

-Means of scouting the city should be better described. How hard is it to see what's going on? Once you're up there, can you plan a specific path through or do you just get bonuses to your various sneakiness rolls?

-Important buildings (gatehouse, hobgoblin's lair) should be given enough detail that the PCs could actually decide how they're attacking them. Even with the adventure written as-is, a PC should be able to climb up to the roof and ready a crossbow (or something worse) covering the front door while another PC rings the front doorbell. But how high's the roof? How climbable are the walls? Treat the environment like it's real.

-Specific encounters and/or locations should be seeded with specific clues pointing to the dragon with the mcguffin and the orcs that are shadowing the PCs.

-The actual location of the orcs shadowing the PCs at any given time should be nailed down, not left to "float" until after the PCs get the mcguffin.

That's a lot of work.
____
Ok, so what?

Pretty much all modules suck. And the whole idea of modules mostly sucks (write your own goddamn deathmaze, lazy ass). So why pick on this one?

Because it demonstrates even with an author with the best will in the world making a conscious effort not to write a railroad the basic requirements of new D&D push published modules in the more-sucking direction. Most of this is not your fault, Logan Bonner, it's the fault of the people who hired you to write this thing with your hands tied behind your back.

Type IV DMs can run whatever adventures they want (just like everybody else) but if they want to get them published they have a ton of hurdles to jump:

-The difficulty scale and brandification means standard versions of monsters have to appear. (Or else, presumably, versions specific to official brandified settings--equally a snore.)

-Brandification also (apparently) requires that every illustration has to look like an earth-tone claymation version of Warcraft trade dress.

-The xp system requires the adventure to contain a set series of linked encounters adding up to a predictable amount of xp given for encounters only--dramatically reducing the possible kinds of adventure formats.

-The abstract nature of this kind of "encounter chain" format means the physical world is abstracted so much you pretty much have to make up anything not nailed to the battlegrid. So what's the module for?

-The separation of encounters into "skill challenges" or "combat encounters" means a certain amount of space (usually a whole page) is given over to describing any possible friction between the PCs and the setting. Rather than describing everything a little and trusting the rules to explain the rest, everything's either described a fuckton or not at all.

-That plus all the graphic design padding means there's no room for stuff like what's in a goblin temple. (Either that or they hired an author who doesn't care what's in a goblin temple, in which case they suck forever hopelessly.)

-All of this put together means Type IV D&D modules are so stylized and so specific to their own system that they are what almost no other module is--almost useless for any system except the one it was designed for.

_______

Anyway: unlike me, a lot of people interested in DIY RPGs learned a lot of what they know from modules. Apparently they learned a lot more from modules than I ever did because they managed to figure out how to DM anyway, and some are pretty good at it. I shudder to think what the new kids coming up are gonna do if they have to build everything they need to know about running a game from this crap.

43 comments:

Kiel Chenier said...

I agree, mostly.

We talked about this on the podcast. WotC's current version of D&D is very linear/railroad-minded. The focus is on combat and player character advancement, as opposed to adventuring, investigating, and discovering things.

The best thing that can be said about Type IV D&D's run of published adventures is that they're nice for piquing a DM's interest and giving him/her ideas for an adventure. Also, I like the poster maps they often come with.

Other than that, they're all bloated, unintuitive, uncreative, and devoid of real interactivity. Still, take from them what you want.

Also, find above mentioned podcast here:
http://dungeonsdonuts.blogspot.com/2011/08/listen-to-podcast-here.html

Zzarchov said...

I actually kind of like their robo dog, providing it starts with flesh. Might work better in a sci-fi setting too.

Daniel Dean said...

Ha I played this module! It had been reskinned in a lot of places but it was basically the same...did NOT stop me from killing the goblin soldiers by luring them into the library and then riding bookcases down on them like Major Kong, my friend from seducing an orc and convincing her to kill her fellow guards and strip naked and give us all their weapons, and it certainly did not stop my wife from negotiating the stone away from the dragon by sleeping with it.

One thing we never actually got to do was fight a robot dog, though. Huh.

Zak S said...

@Daniel

Very glad to hear it!

It'd be nice to hear from your DM about how s/he found ways to make the module sing.

JoetheLawyer said...

"If the adventurers bypass encounters or if you plan to get them more XP over the course of this adventure, you can include some of the following encounters..."

WTF? "If you plan to get them more xp..." I didn't realize it was my role as DM to get the players more xp. I kinda thought that was their job to do for themselves. Then again, the way they designed the system to take most power from the DM and put it in the players hands, maybe they are compensating the DM by giving him the players' jobs of getting the xp for the group.

R.W. Chandler said...

Ok so basically I surmise the following from this module:

- No rewards based in the module for actual player skill, as it comes down to rolling dice to do shit with skill challenges

- A set of forced encounters in a supposedly "non-linear" area/adventure

- A retarded fucking warcraft looking dog thing on the cover

- And...at WotC they don't expect their DM's of type IV to be creative enough to actually make up a village with goblins and kobolds in it themselves so we must make a module?...oh and throw a fucking dragon in it too for shits and giggles.

- And a fucking magic item that kills anyone in the village?! Seriously?! Only in Type IV would this thing NOT be considered some sort of artifact. "Oh after the adventure it's a useless fucking rock." Shiiiit.

Von said...

The odd thing is that I know Wizards can do better than this. Hirsthaven - their Free RPG Day module - isn't perfect (for starters it has druids in it where no druids are strictly necessary, so Zak would probably hate it on principle) but it does bear passing resemblance to a sandbox, learning and discovering the circumstances is essential if players are to achieve anything other than simply surviving the experience, and as far as I can tell through the mess of statblocks and wittering, there's no proscribed order for doing things in.

Maybe I should do some sort of review of Hirsthaven...

Also:

"The abstract nature of this kind of "encounter chain" format means the physical world is abstracted so much you pretty much have to make up anything not nailed to the battlegrid."

That's how I learned to GM; from making up the gaps between elements of the encounter chain, after our previous Master of Games tried to run a Call of Cthulhu module by the book, to the extent of including a GM PC whose sole purpose was to lead players along the prewritten path.

BryanLeeDavidson said...

You know, I honestly have a soft spot for the TSR "read me box". It's kind of a nostalgia thing for me I suppose. I am also quite sure I am in the minority there. Oh well.

Peppermint Nightmare said...

Its off the topic of the post, but godamn Zak, your last 5 posts(in particular) have all been winners. I can only speculate as to how writing a blog is a cyclical love/hate sort of thing, but when you're on and speaking about game philosophy and design-there is absoltely no one better.

dragolite said...

I just got this module--through other means--and looking it over. The only reason I got it after reading your blog post is that there is some fodder there. Not the best, but I can use it as a jumping off point. And, I am the kind of DM that realizes ROLE playing is the thing with the game. I want my players to think! Have a few ideas for it to put into my own campaign world already.

noisms said...

Note: Encounter 7 is entitled "Monsters and Manuals".

WHAT.

kelvingreen said...

Noisms, you've been absorbed into the WotC hive mind!

Zak:

You are skipping playing the bestest parts of the game with your fucking skill challenge.

Yep, I know a lot of people hold this up as a strength of D&D4, but I hate this mechanic -- which also turns up in Rogue Trader as the "exploration challenge" -- for this very reason. Everything in me hates the idea of skipping stuff with die rolls, so the idea of a mechanic designed to do this exact thing frustrates me no end.

The meaningful choices only happens during combat. What a rip. The whole point of trying to decide how to infiltrate a city is to avoid fighting--or at least to fight on your own terms--and almost nothing in the adventure supports that.

I played in a published D&D4 adventure -- it wasn't by WotC, but by Open Design, I think -- where we ran into a bunch of intelligent monsters causing trouble in a village tavern. We didn't want to fight them, so we challenged them to games of strength and skill -- lifting, a footrace, a drinking competition, and so on -- with the condition that if they lost, they would leave without fuss. The GM revealed afterwards that the adventure gave less xp for a peaceful solution than for killing the monsters. We all -- the disgusted GM included -- agreed to stop playing not long after that.

-The abstract nature of this kind of "encounter chain" format means the physical world is abstracted so much you pretty much have to make up anything not nailed to the battlegrid. So what's the module for?

They do another product called Dungeon Delves -- I think -- which is just a series of rooms with monsters in, presented more or less without context. This seems much more useful an approach, as you can just drop these into a game as you like, with all the number-crunching done for you, but without the half-hearted attempt to pass it off as a coherent adventure. If the basic unit of play in this version of the game is the encounter, a book of untethered encounters seems a much more sensible way to do things.

Jeff Rients said...

The thing I like about crappy or just sparse "room 3: 12 orcs" modules is that they are great launching points for improv-based DMing. For me, few things beat the thrill of sitting behind the screen and sweating bullets as 6 pairs of eyes stair at you, your gut wrenching as you realize all you know about this next room is that there are 12 more fucking orcs in it.

S. P. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
S. P. said...

Type IV is largely a vector for over-the-top, crazy, tactical, setpiece fights. Whereas previous editions tended to make fights abstract, the current edition makes most things other than fights abstract. As such, everything is linear because it's basically trying to tie several several combats into a cohesive story-unit.

Additionally, the whole thing about having four magic items...that's also standard because type IV is primarily about power progression. Everything is about economy — fights are resource allocation, and each character level is similarly allotted a certain budget of XP, treasure, and magic items. It simplifies some things, but makes other things way more complicated.

For the record, I have some new players (as in, completely new to roleplaying) who are interested in type IV. I ran this module, and the players skipped most of it. They were hired to find and destroy an artifact, and that's what they did — wandering around a village full of goblins, kobolds, hobgoblins, and orcs overlong just seemed like a bad idea.

I'm still not sure how I feel about type IV. On the one hand, we're having fun with it, but on the other hand, it feels very different than most other roleplaying experiences. As written, it's very constrained.

Roger the GS said...

> The GM revealed afterwards that the adventure gave less xp for a peaceful solution than for killing the monsters. We all -- the disgusted GM included -- agreed to stop playing not long after that.

Why didn't the GM just say "Fuck it, I'm the GM, it's my job to make this game not suck" and award full XP?

Sure, 4th ed. offers a lot of bad implicit advice in its structuring. But then again, so did AD&D. In either system, playing by the rules as written sucks.

Adam said...

"People who both run 4e and have functioning brain cells have all kinds of philosophical positions about how to make skill challenges not ungodly tedious exercises in rolling-where-thinking-should-be"

Man, do you have any links to the blogs of such people? I'm running my first 4e game in a week.

kelvingreen said...

Why didn't the GM just say "Fuck it, I'm the GM, it's my job to make this game not suck" and award full XP?

He did, but it was the straw that broke the camel's back for us as a group. We decided that the game's expectations -- made inherent by the system -- were far different from what we wanted, and so we moved on to something else.

This was D&D4's last chance with us, and since we were swimming against the current with pretty much everything else in the game, we called it a day when we got to the next suitable break point.

Kiel Chenier said...

@Adam,

I run 4e games and have a blog about making them easier to do/more accessible to old school gaming fans.

http://dungeonsdonuts.blogspot.com

If you have any questions or need help with anything, ask them in my comments section

Daniel Dean said...

Since he hasn't come by himself yet, I can recall...

1) We could absolutely keep or sell the stone if we wanted because it did work outside the town (or so legend told), but
2) We only knew its name, that it was dangerous, and that activating it could have disastrous consequences. We were allowed to talk ourself into a paranoia that the stone might have some sort of genie twist, either killing anyone who tried to use it (stole that idea for later) or taking us over and using us to just kill whoever.
3) Two more cities' fates hung in the balance, and since we were encouraged to go whole hog in character creation we all had good reasons to come down on one side or the other...hell, we all had good reasons to keep the stone.
4) We were encouraged to come up with things to do, then the appropriate skill challenge was pitched, AND we were always appraised of the stakes of failure or not-high-enough-degree-of-success. As opposed to "Ok make 5 Nature successes before 3 failures to navigate a forest."
5) The goblins, orcs, etc had simply conquered this town long ago so the temple section takes place in a temple devoted to Pelor the sun god and was mostly ignored by the goblins except for a few meek goblins who had pledged themselves to His worship and been shunned. The head of the golden statue had been cut off and smelted down, so they borrowed the head from a statue in the center of town and just propped it up there somehow. We made this basically our base camp in the town.
6) We dealt with many standing and roving bands of enemies by tricking them into chasing our bard's (i know) familiar (at first level...I know). By the end of the town this was SOP; thin out the herd with the cat, murder distracted stragglers. We skipped a lot of fight this way, which is fine since
7) The DM just gave us experience every time we did something awesome. In his estimation for example an orc is there to be dealt with, and if you deal with him by paying him off or by murdering him he's still DEALT with and you should get the reward for that.
8) As above, anybody we met, we had at least a chance of my wife's character turning them to our side and having sex with them.
9) The town whose side we took couldn't reward us with gold, just with a shit-ton of alcohol, a big party, and a free boat ride to wherever. Great way to segue from a published 1st level module to other material, as opposed to rolling for 12 magic items.
10) The only thing in the town worth buying was sailing equipment, which somehow included cannonballs. We came this close to blowing what money we did have all on cannonballs, and being given that option is always nice.

Zak S said...

@jeff

sure, but as I;ve said before, you shouldn't have to pay -money- for 12 orcs in a room. the monster manual already says that: orcs can appear in numbers including 12 and nowhere does it say they are afraid of rooms.

The author should have to have had a new idea before s/he signs it and charges money for it.

@s.p.

re: your 1st 2 paragraphs

umm...yeah, we know

gbsteve said...

Regardless of any other problems the module might have, I'm not sure structure is one of them. The players don't know what effect their choices have so as long as it doesn't seem to forced to them, and I don't think it will, it should play out fine.

Zak S said...

@gbsteve

That doesn't make any sense at all to me:

the PCs look at the town and make choices about how to proceed in order to minimize how many fights they get into, and decide where and on what terms those fights are. If--as the module suggests--you ignore the consequences of those choices and don't even give the PCs enough detail on the town to be able to make them, their choices mean nothing. which is bad.

If you don't understand that, then there is some fundamental thing here about how adventures work that you don't get.

Zak S said...

@gbsteve

Or, to put it more simply: any game where the players never know what effect their choices have has a problem.

JoetheLawyer said...

I sit here and ask myself why they design modules like this. Without focusing on the living abortion they call the 4e ruleset, just looking at the modules, and analyzing why they suck monkey ass, I come up with a few things:

1. Railroad, no "real" free choices, just the illusion of them.

2. Expectation of defeating/completing it built in, with a certain xp expectations as well.

3. Whole thing has a certain "Care Bear" approach, where you don't want to let the pc's fail/get hurt.

4. Seems like they don't think that DM's and players can handle and/or create complex situations on the fly.

5. Goal seems to be to fight fight fight, with no possible expectation that the players wouldn't want to skulk around and avoid fighting---i.e. lacks the flexibility for other playstyles. (Some of this may be based on the fact that the only way to get xp in that edition is to kill shit---taking their stuff doesn't count).

6. Lack of imagination in the "you cant sell or remove the gem" and other ideas, so as to prevent creative parties from going apeshit crazy with whats in there and fucking up the DM's plans for the night.

7. Lack of details provided to enable players and DM's to take the module in any direction they want.

Feel free to add, modify or criticize the above.

It seems you could extrapolate some of their assumptions of their customers, based on the design choices they seem to encourage or endorse:

1. Players and DM's lack creativity and flexibility.

2. Players and DM's want certainty.

3. Players don't want to take risks.

4. Players and DM's like to be rule-bound in the gaming.

Feel free to add, modify or criticize the above assumptions.

All this leads me to conclude that either

1. WOTC is right in their assumptions, and therefore we are doomed to never get cool new players out of the younger generations for old school games;

or:

2. They are wrong, and they are dooming themselves by going after the least common denominator of player today, and crippling them by not inspiring their imagination, flexibility and creativity as players and DM's with cool new products.

Either way, they fucked themselves for the future. It's looking grim for the next generation of D&D'ers.

Yeah yeah, I know, you know someone who doesn't play like that, your games aren't like that, blah blah. Fuck you. I'm talking about the silent majority here though, the unwashed masses. You know, the D&D equivalent of the flyover state people. The D&D Rednecks. The ones who buy the shit and grow the hobby, and from whom we might get a few exceptional people to spring from the primordial ooze once in a while. That's who we lost here.

In conclusion...

Fuck WOTC.

Christian Lindke said...

As much as I love 4e, and I do...

(Pause for boos and ire filled hatred to subside, as I do own Vornheim and LotFP and know that this stuff doesn't define me.)

The underlying mechanical assumptions of 4e require certain things if you want characters to remain viable as they advance. Since the system has "static fatality probability math," even the slightest alteration of magic item distribution can spell TPK at the Paragon or Epic tier.

That said, 1st level characters have enough options -- and it is so easy to scale monsters to any level -- you never need to have the characters level at all if you don't want. This is especially true of Essentials characters. You can tell exciting tales without experience. You can have the characters level whenever you want.

Want a low magic campaign? Cool. Just limit character advancement and cap it at 3. You can make an Orcus encounter -- that will scare the crap out of the players -- that is as epic as a level 30 game without ever going beyond level 3. The math is that "slideable."

I differ from you as to the value of "flavor text" and "read me boxes" as these are great for starting DMs.

That doesn't mean that a bullet point module with NPCs ala Masks and Vornheim wouldn't be my ideal product -- it would be.

Zak S said...

@Christian

I'd like to hear in more detail about how you;d create an ever-ascending, ever-changing Type 4 campaign without having people keep levelling up--can you write about that? I think it might be interesting to explain that to people.

Christian Lindke said...

Sure,

I could do that. In fact, I'll schedule it for this week. Given how much the first post will likely be a ramble post, I might make a series out of it.

S'mon said...

" the whole place is either totally overdescribed combats or underdescribed noncombats"

I agree with all your criticisms of this module - I'm currently running it, and it's good to know I'm not alone in my frustration, especially as this piece of work is widely regarded as the best module WoTC has put out! There's the germ of a decent adventure in there, basically in the 2 pages with the town map and the location notes, but otherwise the appalling design makes running this much harder than it should be. The 'dungeon floorplan' maps are utterly worthless, so I'm just using most of the encounters as wandering-monster type encounter groups while I use my own map.

The lack of detail on that bloody gatehouse is particularly vexing; it should have been a poster-map locale and properly detailed as a major potential encounter.

S'mon said...

The Skill Challenge stuff is garbage as usual, and the format makes it hard to use even as inspiration for running the PCs' exploration of the town.

S'mon said...

kelvingreen:
"They do another product called Dungeon Delves -- I think -- which is just a series of rooms with monsters in, presented more or less without context. This seems much more useful an approach, as you can just drop these into a game as you like, with all the number-crunching done for you, but without the half-hearted attempt to pass it off as a coherent adventure. If the basic unit of play in this version of the game is the encounter, a book of untethered encounters seems a much more sensible way to do things."

Agreed, Dungeon Delve is by far the best 4e product WoTC has produced, for exactly this reason. The lack of pretence that they're writing a 'real adventure' lets them get 30 useable encounter-chains, 90 encounters, into a book that would normally have a third as many.

Zak S said...

@s'mon and Kelvin

I have read an entire WOTC delve book.

It bit. The tactical complications (which is what you're mainly paying for) were miniscule--torches that burn people, curtains you can get tangled in--totally "my-first-day-dming" stuff. I've seen cigarette butts that were more creative.

And, of course, tastewise it was a nightmare: rakshasa acting as a bodyguard to a beholder and stuff like that. Lame beyond lame.

S'mon said...

@Zak - I tend not to even notice the tactical complications; what I like is having short pre-done mini adventures with some brief ideas on context, and using monsters I might not think to use myself - left to myself my adventures tend to be all human all the time, I'm not big on browsing through monster books. And the DD encounters make good use of the Dungeon Tiles; they're really the only time I've got good use from the tiles since I can blutack the 3 rooms' tiles to cardboard and know I'll be using those that night. My experience has been that my players really enjoyed the 3 Delves I've run so far.

Finally, for me having 20 Paragon & Epic mini-adventures takes a lot of the fear away from the thought of running a Paragon-Epic campaign. I don't have to worry about writers' block; I don't have to worry about bored players in Encounter #35 of Trollhaunt Warrens (etc); here's stuff I can throw in anytime, I can expand it if it looks interesting, I can twist & mangle it, and not worry about long-term impact. I can scatter Delves around a map and get instant sandbox. And players can ignore a Delve and it's no big deal. The whole thing fits my playstyle perfectly.

Zak S said...

"left to myself my adventures tend to be all human all the time, I'm not big on browsing through monster books. "

Yeah, can't relate.

All my adventures start with what the monsters are and go from there

Christian Lindke said...

@Zak S

Step one in my deconstruction of 4e complete. Diceless Skill Challenges. Your thoughts would be appreciated. Oh...and level-less 4e is coming. It's a part of the series.

http://cinerati.blogspot.com/2011/09/rethinking-4e-freeform-d-diceless-skill.html

Levels are meaningless in 4e.

Zak S said...

@christian

I read until it became obvious you didn't read what I wrote very carefully:

"In essence, Zak is stating that 4e's mechanics require that the game's adventures must follow certain rules."

I never said that. I am not stupid.

My statement was that WOTC's requirements mean that WOTC's 4e products will suck. It had nothing to do with 4E's mechanics.

In the future, if you think something I say is "complete and utter balderdash":

1-re-read it carefully, then

2-ask questions to make sure it says what you think it says

I sincerely hope no-one anywhere reads that thing you wrote and thinks it actually reflects my opinion.

Christian Lindke said...

@Zak S

I'll go through your post a little more carefully. I'll also articulate on what I mean by believing you think "4e's mechanics require that the adventures follow certain rules."

I was talking about the xp system and how it encourages a certain kind of play.

"The overall effect is: no matter what path the PCs choose, and what tactics or strategy they choose, they will get in exactly the same number of fights with foes of exactly the same total strength."

I may have expressed my opinion clumsily, and my ire at others probably led me to be hyperbolic in my refutation, but I think that if I had been clearer you might agree that "mechanics requiring a certain kind of play" is exactly what you are saying. You are just talking about the experience point mechanics and how they force "exactly the same number of fights with exactly the same total strength."

Re-reading my paragraph, I was too strong. I apologize.

In fact, I even disagree with myself. I now agree that this mechanic pushes "published modules in the more-sucking direction," but with the assertion that "that shouldn't make your home adventures suck or that the rules require you to do it at home."

Thanks for pointing out where I faltered. Rants should be edited.

And thanks for giving me an idea for another blog post. I'll be looking at some of your recommendations on how to correct the flaws in the module, as well as talking about using a "sliding scale" for xp that can break up the monotony.

That fight = x amount of xp flaw is one of the safety wheels of 4e, and one I want to address.

4e makes it easy to be a lazy DM -- which is bad -- but it also provides some rudimentary coaching.

I also think I was throwing in a little of my own opinions in interpreting your statement. My sense is that 4e tends to force published adventures into an 8 scene structure (per level advanced), and I thought based on your comment that you were picking up on the same characteristic.

Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa.

Zak S said...

@christian

"you might agree that "mechanics requiring a certain kind of play""

No, not at all.
Not for a second.
Not even slightly.
Not in any way.

My position is: WOTC's determination to publish modules in this particular format is the problem. Not the mechanics of the game.

Is that so hard to understand?

Christian Lindke said...

So you are saying that this:

"The xp system requires the adventure to contain a set series of linked encounters adding up to a predictable amount of xp given for encounters only--dramatically reducing the possible kinds of adventure formats."

is due to WotC's determination to publish a particular format of module.

And not, WotC publishes a specific format of module because:

"The xp system requires the adventure to contain a set series of linked encounters adding up to a predictable amount of xp given for encounters only--dramatically reducing the possible kinds of adventure formats."

It really can be read that way.

Zak S said...

Only if you havent read the rest of it:

"Type IV DMs can run whatever adventures they want (just like everybody else) but if they want to get them published they have a ton of hurdles to jump:"

Christian Lindke said...

I get that and totally agree. That's why I apologized.

That's why I wrote that I now disagree with myself, and that the flaw only applies to published adventures -- and the demands they place on freelancers who want to be published.

I'll edit the piece to put the focus in proper perspective, but that won't be until tonight.

Christian Lindke said...

I have edited the piece, leaving the original so people can see how bone headed I was. Let me know if I am better representing your thoughts.

Zak S said...

looks good
thank you!