Sunday, February 7, 2010

D&D: Dice & Death

It was a bit more of a challenge than usual to get to church this morning. The problem seems to be with our alarm clock; it went off a little less than five hours after we had gone to bed. We had gotten together with The Usual Suspects to play Dungeons & Dragons Saturday night, and had a great time, wrapping up a little after 2 am. And, let's face it, this kind of thing is not without precedent, but that precedent was set a loooonngg time ago.

If you are familiar with the game at all, then you will not be surprised to discover that there were rumors, followed by exploration, leading to a journey, which included an ambush and a fairly brutal donnybrook with a group of kobolds (who are far nastier in this game than previous editions), wrapping up, inevitably, with an inn full of characters and more rumors. It proceeded along logically and organically to a final showdown with a boss and a ton of minions in his secret lair hidden behind a waterfall. Frankly, had a damsel in distress been added to the affair, it probably would have collapsed under its own pulpy weight, and more's the pity. At any rate, the important lesson I took away as the Dungeon Master was not to start huge booss fights after 11:00 pm.

The players are all getting a bit more comfortable with not just the mechanics of 4th edition D&D but also with the abilities of their own characters. The tactical element afforded by the gridded map on the gorgeous posters supplied in the module "The Keep on the Shadowfell" not only make it very clear what is happening at any given time, but give the game a tremendous esthetic appeal, especially when using miniatures instead of counters or the like.

For instance, one of the new monster roles is that of 'minion', literally. Minions hit just a smidgen lighter than any other comparable monster, so when you see a dozen or more of them making for your party across the map, it can be pretty intimidating. But they only have 1 hit point, which means you can do them in in job lots, such as Pete did when his Tiefling wizard Pyrus Lucifuge used burning hands to kill a half dozen of them in a single round, and it seems to be incredibly satisfying. Me I just liked that I didn't have to do Armor Class rolls, saving throws and damage rolls and bookkeeping for a bunch of nebbishes who fill pretty much the same role as the guys in jumpsuits at the end of a Bond movie, it's just "Hit, dead; hit, dead; missed; hit, dead..."

All great games are based on hard choices, and the new death rules are a big factor in that. Once you drop to zero hit points or less, you drop to the ground unconscious and make a basic saving throw every turn thereafter. These new saving throws are very simple: on a 10 or higher, you succeed and on a 9 or less, you fail. They are primarily used to determine duration of effects, like being set on fire or stuck to the ground with glue (or in one notable case, both at the same time). If you fail three saving throws, that's it: your beloved character has expired, and you either need to roll up a new guy or hope your comrades can find someone with a raise dead spell. If someone casts any kind of healing effect on you, you can get up and get back into the fight (or put that whole 'discretion is the better part of valour' thing to the test and just leg it out, I suppose, although that seems unlikely). If they can even get over to you and do some first aid (which requires rolling a 15 or higher on a d20), you stay unconscious, but stop having to make death saves.

These death saves bring a tremendous amount of tension and drama to what used to be a very boring part of the game, and the hard choice can often be 'do I help out my mate who is down, or hope they can tough it out and try to take down the guy who could potentially kill us all?' Or maybe, 'do I heal the fighter who keeps doing the most damage before he drops, or the spellcaster who already has and has now failed one death save?' As the DM, it provides me with a tremendous amount of pure entertainment, and since I have had everyone make up a back-up character to smooth out any potentially unexpected transitions, largely guilt free.

Thinking about it though, six players in a party with 4 spellcasters, only one character who wear proper armour and no rogue or cleric to speak of, I suppose it is only a matter of time before someone's understudy gets called up to the majors... feel free to use the comments section to make your predictions as to who might be first to succumb to the embrace of the Raven Queen:

Rilion Celevandal, Elf Ranger, played by Jeff

An early bookmaker's favourite since his combination of massive damage output and lack of effective defense makes him the leader in death saves rolled thus far.

Pyrus Lucifuge, Hellborn Wizard, played by Pete

A close second to Rilion in sub-zero exposure, Pyrus is now extremely fastidious about using his healing surges in between encounters.

Lannea Rookmarque, Human Paladin, played by Audrey

Her decent Armour Class is somewhat mitigated by the need to keep her 'healing hands' ability close to the action, where others have already fallen.

Warryn Weyvolde, Gnome Warlock, played by Mike

An aversion to pointy objects, loud noises or just being discerned by anyone with even remotely hostile intent means this little fellow only spends about one third of his time being visible in the first place.

Timbre Wavecrest, Human Bard, played by Earl

Effectively another spellcaster, many of Timbre's abilities enhance and amplify those of the other players, including some healing spells, but sometimes, he has to fight...

Aramil, Eladrin Warlock, played by Scott

Somewhat fragile, like most spellcasters, but also capable of tremendous casting damage, and he spends more time teleporting than a blink dog.

(Regardless of relative mortality, I am certainly grateful for the excellent names the players have chosen for their characters; I'm sure we can all recall having to go on a fantastic journey with a warrior named "Bob", or "My guy", or perhaps "Wizard #3, et cetera. A round of applause for them all, please!)

It seems to me that the real joy of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons is that we all get to take turns impressing each other. This is easier, in many ways, for the players, since they get to collaborate and get more opportunities for surprises, teamwork and derring do, but I find it incredibly gratifying to run a Kobold Wyrmpriest across a room, have it appear he has come up a square short ("Aww, is it too far little fella?"), shifting him into the last square as a minor action ("Ah, crap, he's gonna..."), and then instead of stabbing one character, having him breath fire over three of them ("Argh, don't bunch up!").

It's only then you get to hear those words that make all the planning and drama worthwhile:

"Very clever, you b@$t@rd..."


  1. I think Rilion will be injured an awful lot, just like his real-life counterpart. But like that same counterpart, he'll always bounce back. So I'm putting my money on Pyrus in the death pool.

  2. To reiterate the Buzz post for a broader public: Rilion will be the first to die (it's always Jeff), Wavecrest is too Fabulous to die (how does a limp wrist hold that sword?), and Rookmarque is invincible, by virtue of being married to the DM.