So hey, I know everyone has been doing it, but I'd like to chit-chat about the experience of actually running a game of 4th ed. D&D. On Sunday I ran an afternoon one-shot and now I've got a few thoughts about it.
I'm gonna divide this up into several large sections going from game prep to actual run-time notes. Just skip to the section you find relevant (or read the whole thing and stroke my ego).
The whole process of prepping for a session has been one of D&D's biggest hurdles. From AD&D on, there are a *lot* of variables to take into account and figuring out what makes an appropriate challenge has always been a bit tricky. Fourth ed. does away with all that and just gives you an XP "budget" to "buy" monsters with. First-level party with five PCs in it? You get 500 points for an even fight and 800 if you want to really push 'em. Go to the monster manual, buy up that many XP worth of monsters and you're good to go.
OK, so it's not quite that easy. You don't want to blow all the points on one huge monster since it may be simply too tough for the PCs to hack. And you do want to make sure that if your monsters are going to challenge weak spots in your party, that the party still has some chance to deal with it. In my game, I pulled in a bunch of rat swarms which take half damage from melee or ranged attacks, but are especially weak against area effects (like fireball and the like). Rat swarms give wizards a chance to shine because they can cast Burning Hands and really take 'em out. Unfortunately, the player went Warlock not Wizard and the swarms were really problematic for the party. In a regular game, I'd have a better sense about the party's strengths and weaknesses and design encounters with that in mind. For the most part it was pretty easy to just slum around the rulebook and look for things to buy that fit the budget.
Along with that, you have to come up with a place for them to fight. I had a few general ideas going in so that went pretty quickly. When looking at the grid paper, you start thinking in 6x6 square increments. Six squares (30') is the baseline movement capability of most PCs (and a lot of monsters), so you want to put obstructions/cover in such a way that people aren't stuck out in the open for long periods (unless that's designed to provoke a tactical choice of some sort). In a close-in, dungeon fight, I'd probably put in wider corridors and slightly bigger rooms. The game is much more move-oriented now. PCs and monsters really want to hop around and tight rooms are going to be a pain (although fighters can hold a doorway like nobody's business).
The last item was treasure. Again, 4th ed. has made this super-easy. There's a treasure checklist. One list for each level from 1-30. Find the list for you party's level. Each encounter, tick off one of the items on the list -- that's the treasure they get. Done. I handed out lots of magical treasure because everyone likes that and it's a one-shot, what would you spend the gold on?
Once I had all that down, I created a combat sheet for each encounter with the monster stat blocks and a second page with HP/ammo tracks. I made some treasure slips to hand out. I drew up some rough sketches for the encounters and a spiffy little map with MS-Paintographer and that was it. Total prep time was about 4 hours.
My wife was playing in the game and she asked me to fill out her character sheet. She set up her basic stats and picked her powers, she just didn't want to bother with the minutiae of filling out the form. Fair enough, I was curious to see how it worked.
Things came together really quickly. I suppose in part that's because we started out at 1st level so there's not much to calculate, but once you got a few basic numbers, there wasn't much to look up. I really like the new skill system. Everyone can do everything, some stuff you're just better at thanks to your class. All the crazy skill point issues in 3rd ed. is just gone. Some people might complain that the skill list is too short or the skills too broad, but I'd see it as an opportunity for players to go "Hey, in this situation I'll try and use skill X because it's so crazy it just might work". I, as the GM, will gleefully give out bonuses on that catchphrase.
I love the way weapon proficiency works. Before, if you didn't have the proficiency you couldn't use the weapon (old editions) or got a serious penalty (previous edition). Now, anyone can use any weapon no sweat, but proficiency gives you a proficiency bonus when you use a weapon in the group you're proficient on. And the proficiency bonus is different for different weapons so light weapons give a bigger bonus than heavy choppers.
In general, the designers seemed to say "negative modifiers suck, don't use them". Your ability scores can have a negative modifier and there's still penalties from heavy armor, but for the most part it's just plus, plus, plus. Which is great because it makes you super-good even at first level. When you do stuff, you've always got a decent chance at success and when you do something your class is meant to do, you're like a rock star.
Total character creation time was maybe 2 hours, but we took our time and I printed up a cheat sheet with her powers on it. You can certainly do it faster.
I'm pretty sure the last time I ever DM'd a game of D&D was back in 2nd edition. Actually, I take that back, I did run the Dragon in the Big Blue Dragon fight, but that was hardly an "adventure", it was just a miniature battle fight using the D&D ruleset. Short form is, it's been awhile.
The group was a pretty agreeable bunch and with a few broad-stroke setting and character descriptions we quickly had a Teen Titan style with an Angsty Warlock and a goofy teen love triangle (Ranger sorta likes Cleric, Cleric isn't interested, Fighter likes Ranger, but thinks she and Cleric have a thing and so nobly pines away...you know). But really, it was all about killing things and taking their stuff.
In the first encounter, we discovered that swarms were really hard for the group to deal with. The swarms just about put down a couple of the members while the Dire Rat and his minions really didn't last too long against the fighter.
The second encounter was supposed to feature two more rat swarms, but taking my cue from the last fight, I swapped out one of the swarms with a batch of Giant Rat minions. Again, I like the way that the "budget" method of building encounters lets you swap out monsters on the fly. I just dropped the 125XP Rat Swarm and put in 5 25XP Giant Rats. Boom. Done.
The second encounter also involved a couple of wererats. I was a bit worried that their 5-point regeneration might be too powerful, but the PCs really dished out the damage and pulled in their Dailies and managed to keep hammering the wererats hard enough that they couldn't catch their breath. The Ranger pulled Wolverine Strike and just laid waste to a bunch of Giant Rats. One of the wererats dropped the fighter and that was the closest I came to a kill the whole game.
After the mop-up I ran a short skill challenge. When the game first came out there was a lot of bitching and moaning about how low-level characters would always get creamed on skill challenges. I admit, I scaled mine back a bit (DC 15 instead of 20), but it's clearly a tempest in a teapot. The characters got along fine and within a level or two they should be able to hold their own. Note that there are a number of class powers that let you give other people skill bonuses and those should totally come into play when you run a skill challenge.
The Third encounter was kind of anti-climactic. The party rushed a small building, threw open the doors and promptly blasted the hell out of the goblin skullcleaver -- took him to bloodied in one shot. The skullcleaver rushed the fighter, missed, and was dead before his turn came up again. The minions got caught in the doorway and it was the archers who did the most damage and took the most time to kill. Probably the shortest fight we had. It hammered home just how buff the PCs are in 4th ed. If they can pick out the leader from the mooks, they can really put a hurt on in a short period of time.
The fourth (and final) encounter was probably the best. I didn't drop anyone to zero (I don't remember how badly off they got), but I had a deep field of opposition and really forced a lot of tough choices on the party. We had two squads of goblin minions, some soliders and the goblin hexer to put out fire support. That hexer really made the encounter. The minions died in droves, but the hexer was blinding people, helping his allies and threw a whammy on the fighter that caused him damage if he moved. The goblins danced away from him and he had to sit. Finally, when the Ranger was in danger (she got hit with the blinding hex), he sucked up the damage and rushed in to help.
So that was it. We started at 1pm and finished just shy of 6pm. Each fight took about an hour to play out, just like the DMG predicted. So my prep time to play time was about 1:1, but the extra playtime around the edges pushed it out a bit.
Things I figured out from running the game:
1.) Picking opposition will get better as the PCs go up in level. At first level, there's a limited number of monsters you can field. At higher levels, I can pick monsters lower than the party level as well as higher and that means...
2.) Try and field a "deep" opposition. You want melee guys and ranged guys and magic guys and leader guys and so on. The PCs are based around a balanced mix of classes, you need to do the same for the opposition. There are a lot of great synergies built-in to the monster types and a deep opposition lets more of those come into play and really puts pressure on the PCs (which gives them different ways to shine and makes the fight more interesting and fun).
3.) Minions. Man...these guys are tough to use right. Just having a huge mass of them fall on the PCs probably won't do you a lot of good. They need space to maneuver in and they also need help from "real" monsters. In the final encounter, 8 minions got stripped down to 5 pretty quickly. Then the hexer put up a cloud they could hide in and the rest lasted quite a bit longer. You want to build a nice "core" group of baddies and then slather on the minions to give the core group a buffer and potential flanking buddies.
4.) PCs have lots of opportunities to help each other out. Players should talk about power selections as they go up in level and think of ways to use them in concert. There's a bunch of powers that let you move friends or enemies around and those can be really powerful. By way of example: our Fighter had Covering Attack as an encounter power. If he hit a target, he can allow another ally adjacent to the target to shift 2 squares. So the obvious trick is to rush up and help a mage safely escape a melee he can't win. But now consider the case where you're flanking with an ally. You attack with the covering strike (taking the +2 for flank), then your flanking buddy drops back 2 squares. On her turn, she can then charge back into the square she just left to get a +4 on her attack (+2 for charge, +2 for flank). Pretty sweet. There's a bunch of powers that can help out in a variety of ways and discovering these tactical combos should be lots of fun.
Overall, I think the new edition of D&D has completely embraced it's "Kill things, take their stuff, look cool" premise. Fights are fun and move along pretty quickly. Outside of fights, the skill challenge system has a lot of great potential to allow for role-playing and story advancement. Prepping for fights isn't a chore, nor is running them. All the character classes and PC races are interesting and get fun new toys on every level. It's not the Greatest Role-Playing Game Ever. In many respects it's not D&D the way many people think of D&D, but this is a game that knows what it wants to be and goes all out to live up to its own expectations.