Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Running 4e with Smaller Parties

Just a short post today about the joys of small party play with 4th edition. When I run classic editions, I prefer a fairly sizable party. Running with 6 to 8 players is my sweet spot. Combat is easy to adjudicate, as I tend to use side-based initiative, with the party declaring actions prior to rolling initiative. This reduces a party's ability to react and adjust to every little thing that happens in combat. Classic editions are also more deadly, so larger parties help with inevitable attrition. With 4e, things are quite different. PCs are more resilient and combat is more complicated. 4e PCs also have a wide variety of handy-dandy skills that add to their resiliency and self-reliance. This all combines to allow for quality 4e games with as few as 3 players.

When I first started running 4e, I had a party of 5. A couple of players dropped out after the first few weeks and from there I ran a 3 player campaign for about a year. It was excellent. Combat was fast and I could really focus on stories specific to the PCs. 

In my estimation, the ideal three player party in 4e is a Leader, Striker, and "something else". The "something else" can be any role; in my game it was a Defender. The key is the first two classes. None are required by any stretch; you could run a three-Witch party and have great success. Still, I think ideally you have the Leader for healing, the Striker to give that extra oomph in combat, and one other role to compliment the two. 

There are other benefits from running with small parties in 4e, besides the obvious one (i.e. much quicker combat). A lot of people have a hard time putting a large group together. It is a lot easier to find 3 players than 5 or 6. 4e is very easy to balance around different numbers of players; you just adjust XP and there you go. Finally, it allows you to focus more on each individual PC's goals, personality, and backstory; you might find that this improves the roleplay at your table.

If I ran another 4e campaign, I would be looking at going with 3 players, 4 players max. The game doesn't suffer from fewer players, it actually improves.

Do you have any experience running 4e games with smaller parties?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Hey...Wait a Second....Do I Hate 4th Edition?

The other day I got to play 4e for the first time in a while. I am currently DMing a 2e/1e hybrid game. The last 4e I played was running a playtest of material from my zine 4e Forever and wrapping up my long-running 4e campaign. Many of the ideas that I present here on my blog came out of that campaign. I did my best to keep the players focused on the story, and while combat was frequent, I was careful to end it before it became a slog. We had sessions where no combat occurred. We had short one round skirmishes. We had lots of exploration and encounters that never led to combat. So, I had become used to my own way of playing 4e...a way that is closer to OSR games, and one that rejects the usual structure of many 4e adventures. Nestled in my own private universe of houserules, I had completely forgotten how bad 4e can really be.

Now let me say that I don't fault the DM that ran the game. He is a fun person to game with, engaging and intelligent, and I have played with him a number of times. I also don't fault the players, as they were really just playing 4e as designed, with cherry-picked magic items and optimized characters that are honestly encouraged by the rules as written. I can't really blame someone for playing the game the way it was designed to be played. 

The adventure was typical LFR fare: a bit of roleplay at the beginning, then a three encounter combat slog, like something from the "Dungeon Delve" book. The first encounter was basically a joke; the monsters stood no chance against us. Almost immediately, the flow of combat degenerated into a string of soulless reactions and interrupts, moving at a snail's pace. An hour in and we were just going through the motions, as any monster with even a modicum of intelligence would have fled or surrendered by now. I was groaning to myself, hurrying through my turns, disengaged, checking to see what the wife was watching on TV. 

The second encounter was another big set-piece deal, with some creatures that would basically rise again after you killed them. After the first round of combat (another 40 minute-plus slog of reactions and interrupts and synergistic charop approved item powers) we realized this. The party began to make its way to a door on the other side of the room to escape. This took another hour or so. As my character stood there in the center of the room, soaking up damage, I had a breakthrough. I was in trouble, no doubt, but I could have escaped by using a combo of my second wind, a heal spell, and another round of *shudder* combat. Yet I knew this would take at least another 30 minutes, likely much longer. We were already hours into this grueling thing. I couldn't take it anymore. I told them to just go ahead and run and let my PC die. I gave a half-hearted attempt at roleplaying it. "I'll hold them off! Get out of here!" I thanked the DM and wished everyone well and dropped out. You know a game is bad when you really WANT to die...when character death is a blessing, like cool water to a dry mouth. 

I had to reflect a little bit after the game. I mean, I run a site that is mostly dedicated to 4e. I own every book. I have defended it hundreds and hundreds of times. Hell, I put out a 4e zine! Was it possible that I had been kidding myself all of this time? After all, I have houseruled every part of the game, from items, to combat and monsters, to traps, to diseases, to skill challenges, to rituals, and on and on. Is it possible that I actually hate 4e?

The answer is yes. I loathe it. I despise it. But, that isn't the only question. The other question is, "Is 4e worth saving?" And I think it is. Underneath the garbage, 4e has a lot of wonderful potential. Lots of creative and fun character options. A simple skill system that can get out of the way if you let it. Easily hackable design. Clear, understandable rules. There is good in the game, enough good that, perhaps against all logic and reason, I press on trying to perfect it. 

Now, I want to say that if you like things about the game that I don't, that is fine and dandy. I am not trying to convince anyone that my way is best. I just wanted to share what I had gone through recently as a way of getting it off of my chest. I don't want this post to end on a negative note; rather, I encourage everyone out there to make the games you play your own. Be honest with yourself about what you like and dislike, and adjust accordingly. I realize now that playing in casual, traditional 4e games is really not something I enjoy. On the other hand, I love tinkering with the game and running it as something wholly different from what was apparently originally intended.
So, enlightenment came through suffering. Isn't that like a Zen koan or something?