Saturday, January 18, 2014

Lamentations of the 4e Flame Princess

Howdy all. I want to talk today about blending two seemingly incongruous RPG products, namely 4e D&D and the OSR game Lamentation of the Flame Princess (LotFP).

So I have spoken at length about my general disdain for most published 4e adventures. They tend to be grindy railroads with back-to-back-to-back encounters, with exploration and roleplay taking a backseat to combat. I am not saying everyone plays it that way; I certainly don't. Its just that like it or not, the first few gaming experiences you have with a system can color your expectations, and for many, the first taste of 4e was a grind, a la Keep on the Shadowfell or the hideous, wretched Dungeon Delve.

"But Froth," someone said to me recently. "4e's tactical combat is its greatest strength!" Look, I love lemon meringue pie, but I don't want to eat three lemon meringue pies in one sitting. That makes it suck. That makes me puke. Such is the way of 4e combat. The pace of an adventure is important. I've mentioned before that 4e has a good skill system that is well-suited to exploration. I've talked about thoughts on stocking dungeons in 4e, looking at entire megadungeon levels as single encounters, adding morale into 4e, and a host of other ways to tweak the pace of 4e adventures to make them more fun to run and play.

Ok, so let's switch gears for a minute. Many of you out there, certainly those OSR folks that sometimes check out my blog, have heard of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. While it is but one of many old school systems out there, what sets it apart and gives it its own niche, in my humble opinion, are its idiosyncratic adventures and stunningly beautiful artwork.

Now, while there is considerable variation among LotFP adventures, don't get me wrong, enough of them behave in sort of the same way that I feel it is possible to generalize a bit about some of them. THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW. If you think there is a chance you will play any of these, trust me, you don't want to ruin them by reading any info about them.

Some, not all, of the LotFP adventures primarily focus on exploration. The set-up. In many adventures you don't find wandering monster tables. There isn't a monster in every room with a little coinage. Rather, if you do encounter/unwittingly release/stumble upon a creature, its usually a very, very bad thing. For example, The Tower of the Stargazer is a fun adventure where you basically are exploring this seemingly abandoned wizard's tower. There are all sorts of tricks and traps. In one room, you encounter the wizard himself, bound in a magic circle. He will beg and promise the world for you to let him loose, and if you do, well let's just say you will wish you hadn't. In Tales of the Scarecrow, an out-of-the-way farmhouse is actually little more than the bait of a massive underground monster. In Death Frost Doom, the PCs can unwittingly start a zombie apocalypse if they get too greedy. These are the kind of creative set-ups that lead to encounters in LotFP adventures; contrast that with the typical 4e dungeon, and you will start to see where I am going with this.

As 4e does massive, set-piece encounters better than just about any system out there, you might find that it is even more well-suited to run these adventures than classic editions. If that sounds like blasphemy, so be it. Take the adventure The God That Crawls. The "god" is really an accursed mutated former priest; he is now something like an amorphous blob. An encounter with this creature is one thing in theatre of the mind style, but it takes on a whole new cinematic and dare-I-say tactical feel when it takes place on a battlemap with minis and terrain. Its not better; its just different. And you might find you like it.

Somehow, the pace of these adventures works with 4e. Amazingly, you can run many of the LotFP adventures for 4e in one session, whereas with many other OSR-type adventures, you would be falling asleep by the third room/encounter.

LotFP adventures are notoriously deadly. To his credit, the author of many of these adventures, James Raggi IV, has written many them for low levels, so there isn't as much weeping and gnashing of the teeth as there might be if your 15th level Druid bit it. 4e PCs are also much more resilient than their classic edition counterparts, so they might even have a fighting chance to escape what first appears to be certain death. That said, death is part of the game, and the adventures are easy to convert to any level. In fact, that is another major plus in using these adventures with 4e: conversion is a breeze. All I have had to do was build 4e monsters based on one or two creatures. Everything else I just wing with a sheet of DCs.

So which adventures convert best to 4e?

-Death Frost Doom
-Tales of the Scarecrow
-Tower of the Stargazer
-The Monolith From Beyond Space and Time
-The Three Brides (Three great mini-adventures; underrated.) 
-Better Than Any Man (This is a large adventure, almost a mini-campaign.)
-The Grinding Gear

Where can I buy them? 

I recommend checking out their page at RPGNOW. You will have to create an account and verify your age in order for all of the products to be viewable, as many of the adventures have mature content. Note that the core rules are free, and the adventure Better Than Any Man is pay what you want. That said, all of the prices are reasonable, and there are frequent sales on that site if you watch for them.

So that's all I have for you today! After running some of these adventures myself for 4e parties, I can say that based on my experience, it makes for a fun time. 4e's strengths get highlighted, while its weaknesses are almost completely avoided based on the creative pace and style of the adventures.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Art of the 4e Sandbox

Hello all. I thought I would post some thoughts and ideas about running sandbox campaigns with 4e D&D. This is not a comprehensive guide by any stretch, although I do hope it gets some of your wheels turning.

Classic editions of the game have an embarrassment of riches to aid sandbox play. Armed with my Greyhawk box, the 1e DMG, and some old Judges Guild stuff, I am basically impervious to my players' wildest choices, able to react and flow with virtually anything that can be imagined. It is possible to reach this state of samadhi with 4e, but there are a few tips that might help you get there a little more quickly.

First off, if you don't want to run a sandbox style game, I am not judging you. If you have the next 10 levels planned out, more power to you. It isn't for everyone. I personally love it, as it helps me hone my improvisational skills, gives players the feeling that they are in control, and makes for completely unexpected awesomeness. But is it a contradiction in some ways? Can 4e, with its carefully planned and balanced set-piece encounters thrive in an inherently unpredictable environment? Yes, yes it can.

So the first thing to ponder is the environment, the world, the sandbox. Despite some poor adventures, 4e did manage to release some great products over its run, and the best of these are actually suited to sandbox play. Vor Rukoth, Hammerfast, Gloomwrought...these are all very strong products that are not adventures; instead they lay out large areas, delineating the factions that inhabit them, providing seeds for DMs to make their own adventures. They also include unique monster stats and some flavorful items. So how do you take these products and make a sandbox out of them? There are three basic steps that I would suggest. Think up some different mini-adventures or encounters that can take place at various locations. Don't overdo it, as many may never be used. Utilize the provided hooks and histories (or make up your own) to make the area live and breathe. Finally, design some random encounter tables that fit the area.

In my Gloomwrought game, I used the text to influence my encounter tables. You have a religious district, so I had some encounter tables that reflected this; different groups of monks and clerics might be encountered. In the seedy district, they might encounter more Humanoids and bandits. Skim the lists of monsters in the back of the various monster books and put together some ideas. It doesn't matter what level the monsters are, what matters is the flavor. Do they back up the "feel" of the area? Your PCs need not FIGHT everything they encounter; in a lot of ways, random tables just help reinforce their surroundings. Experiment with widely varying group sizes of creatures encountered. No party is scared of two or three bandits, 30 however, and you might give them pause. You might find this article helpful in the process of setting up varying totals of wandering monsters in 4e.

I also looked at different areas throughout Gloomwrought and prepared loose little "mini adventures" in different locales. The cemetery is rumored to be haunted. Nobles need bodyguards for sketchy areas. Lizardfolk have infested a sewer. Populate your map with little hooks, and let players be drawn where they may. 

Finally, I slowly disseminated lore. The more the PCs explored, the more they became privy to the various power struggles and histories of the city. While they might have never even acted on any of the information, it served the purpose of bringing the area to life. That feeling that things are happening outside of the PCs; the city is alive.

If you want something less scripted and sculpted, try the Chaos Scar. Get yourself a list of the Chaos Scar adventures from the most recent Dungeon index, make up a few landmarks and random tables, and let the players go where they may. For the especially adventurous, simply offer your players a hex map of the Nentir Vale and just let them roam. Use published modules and products like Threats to the Nentir Vale to populate random tables and come up with adventure hooks. Again, the Dungeon index is your friend. Of course, you can always make up your own world; many DMs do. My overall advice for approaching it would still be the same.

Fly in the face of 4e conventions. Find ways to emphasize the passage of time. Don't hand-wave travel. In sandbox play, the travel often IS the adventure. Challenge yourself with random weather tables, scarce food or water, odd geological formulations, and bizarre encounters. If you need to make up a monster on the fly, consider these tips for quick 4e monster creation. 

To experienced DMs, a lot of this probably sounds old hat, while to others, you may have never thought of running a 4e game this way. I personally think running 4e in a sandbox style can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have with the game system; unfortunately, you just don't have as much of the work done for you like you did in previous editions. By utilizing suitable 4e products and settings, populating some areas with adventure hooks and mini-scenarios, and designing flavorful random encounter tables, you can quickly set the stage for hours and hours of sandbox play.

I know a lot of you 4ers out there have done some of this before, so leave a post and let me know how sandbox play has worked for your 4e game!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Let's Clear Up A Few 4e Myths, Part 2

Howdy. So a while back I had a fairly popular post (here) regarding various myths about 4e. Now don't get me wrong, as readers of my blog know, I am fine with criticism of 4e and/or any other game system. Criticism helps improve things. What I am not a fan of is hyperbolic nonsense. Today I want to tackle a couple more myths that have been aggravating me.

"Every class is the same, AEDU, etc etc etc, blah blah blah"

To anyone that has spent a lot of time playing 4e, I don't really need to explain why this is not the case. Play a Shaman, play a Fighter, play a don't walk away feeling like the same thing just occurred. Why then, is this such an oft-repeated complaint? The so-called "AEDU" structure. Now forget for a moment that Essentials exists, thereby obliterating the argument in and of itself. You will only hear back that, "Well Essentials didn't exist at the beginning." Fair enough. So what is it that propels this argument forward? Why is it so common?

Let's consider for a second classic editions. If you take a look at 1e AD&D, you find that different classes obtain different class features at different levels. A Druid can identify plant types at the 3rd level. At 8th level, Rangers gain some limited Druidic spell ability. At 4th level, the Paladin can call his war horse. These abilities do not resemble one another, and the level at which they occur could be argued as largely arbitrary. I mean, I trust Gygax completely, but if Druids took until the 4th level to identify plants, the book doesn't explode.

Now consider the 4e structure. All it is doing is proving choice points at the same levels. The choices are not the same. Are the utility powers of a 4th level Cleric the same as those of a 4th level Swordmage? Not hardly. The only thing that they have in common...the only thing that is "samey" that they choose an ability at the same level. Likewise, if a Fighter gains a maneuver at level 7 that allows her to swing his sword in a circle, attacking everything adjacent to her, is this the same thing as a Witch choosing a spell? No. Not at all. The only thing in common is that they are both choosing abilities at the same levels.

I imagine that Heinsoo and company thought that this would be a popular "improvement" on the game. It does make it easier to anticipate and remember when new class features and abilities become available. When I play Pathfinder, if I try a new class I am continually looking back to the class description to figure out what I get and when. I admit I am somewhat of a newb, but there sometimes seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. Yet it is the very attempt to organize this sort of thing that gets so much derision! I will never claim to understand it, but the simple fact is that 4e classes do not play the same. They tried to experiment with a more...predictable, I guess is the word...progression of "choice points", and though the choices in no way resemble each other, they got slammed in the process. Oh well.

This leads me to the mother of all 4e myths, the biggest lie of all:

"You can't play 4e without a grid."

You know, sometimes you hear something said so many times, the mind almost wants to start believing it. That might be a quote or something from the novel 1984, I can't recall. What I do know is that the biggest myth about 4e, in my humble opinion, is that it is unplayable without a grid.

I am tempted to say that most folks that espouse this argument have never tried to play it without a grid. The reason this is tempting is because it is probably true. However, having spent some time on the *shudder* WOTC forums, and having seen what constitutes an "argument" on some gaming sites, I realize that I will almost immediately be hit with a, "Oh yeah? My table tried it! And it was a complete disaster!" Fine.

There is no doubt that 4e implicitly and explicitly encourages you to use a battlemap and minis. No argument there. But that isn't to say that you cannot play with only pen, paper, and dice. After all, in the 1st edition DMG, Gygax encourages the use of minis, and from what I understand, he hardly ever used them (although apparently Arneson almost always did). My point here is simply that encouraging is not the same thing as requiring.

Now forget about 4e for a minute. Try if you can to picture yourself back in the old days, a complete virgin to D&D. Do you remember what it was like looking at spell explanations? The varying ranges (in inches), the varying sizes of the areas of effect? How about trying to mentally picture the various types of dragon breaths?

I posit to you the following: there is no power in 4e that is any more or less complicated to adjudicate in gridless play than there is in any other edition of D&D. If you can handle a Stinking Cloud in your mind's eye, you can handle a close blast 3. Sorry; its just a fact.

So where on earth does this argument come from, besides the fact that grid rules are in the book? Well, I can only speculate, but I think part of it might be that instead of only the spellcasters having explicit abilities that deal with areas of effect, pushing, sliding, etc, it is also the martial types. Part of it is the published adventures, especially the early ones. There is also for some reason a strong desire in some players for perfect adjudication of distances...but any DM that has ever run classic editions in a mapless style knows that it is ok to handwave some things, or to otherwise approximate. "Are you 25 or 30 feet from the Goblin? Eh, you are close enough to move up to it and attack." Did the world end? No, no it didn't.

Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you that mapless play is ideal for a lot of encounters. Hell, there are myriad classic edition encounters that I would never DREAM of attempting without some sort of visual aid (see the entry to the Temple of Tharizdun). What I am saying is that the alleged inability of 4e to be played without a map has been so grossly exaggerated that many DMs accept it as reality without having ever even tried to run an encounter without a grid.

Its really the subject of another blog post to provide tips and tricks, benefits and drawbacks, etc of gridless play, but I will say this: try a random encounter. Nothing special...say the party is on the way from point A to point B, there is a clearing in the woods and a few Orcs attack. They flee after the first or second death. I think you will see that this huge worry about distances and everything is really not so bad in play. It changes from a player counting the squares to an enemy to a DM saying, "You are about 20 feet away". It changes from a player counting how many Orcs can get caught in a blast to the DM saying, "Eh, you can get three of them."

None of this is going to shock or surprise many experienced DMs, as a lot of you out there already switch between maps and mapless play when it fits your game anyways. Hell, I am almost ashamed to have to explain this. For some reason, this myth was allowed to gain traction; all I can do is try my best to discount it. If you have DMed any classic editions without maps and minis, you have doubtless already experienced the worst that 4e can throw at you.

So that is what I have for you today. Sometime down the line I might go into more detail about how mixing gridless 4e encounters into your campaign can be a benefit. Just remember that the best way to learn anything, as a DM, is to run games. Try things. Experiment. Don't take someone else's word for it. Don't assume things. Let your own experience be your guide.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

An Adverse Reaction to Immediate Actions

Yeah...sorry about that. There's a clever title there somewhere but I missed it badly.

Well, first of all, happy new year to you. My resolution is to be more prolific this year, so it is fitting that I am putting up a post today.

Complaints about immediate actions affecting combat speed are not new to 4e gamers. I realize that some people will have different experiences than my own. All I can tell you is I have run games for hundreds of folks and I have played under dozens of DMs of all levels of experience with 4e, and OVERALL, immediate actions have posed a problem.

Now let me say that I see the value in having some actions act as interrupts and reactions. After all, like many seemingly "modern" 4e conventions, these mechanics actually have their origins in the classic editions. Familiar spells such as Feather Fall operate something like immediate actions. So they have precedence. They can also add a cool cinematic element to some situations. That said, you only really have to sit through one 4e combat encounter that is filled with endless immediate actions to recognize they are a problem.

Complicating matters, many 4e classes partially rely on immediate actions for their very identities in combat. In particular, Defenders rely on mark punishments to enforce their role; these are often immediate actions. And lets not lose sight of the fact that these abilities are FUN for the player playing the Defender. Some of my favorite moments in 4e combat involve my Fighter/Monk dancing through combat, marking everything she attacks, hit or miss, then daring them to ignore her mark. I have to believe that there can be a place for these kind of mechanics without completely slowing everything to a snail's pace.

So it isn't as easy as just flat-out banning immediate actions. They are cool, and they are woven into the game. I propose the following houserules to limit them. Like any houserule, I would talk to your players about it prior to PC creation.

1. THE BASIC RULE: Allow immediate actions from utility powers, class features, and/or theme powers only. This allows for Defenders to still defend, for iconic and otherwise flavorful powers to still act as immediate actions, and prevents you from having to get too fiddly with banning specific themes. This is a simple way to get rid of the endless crap like Disruptive Strike and other "must-have" powers that make for slow, herky-jerky combat.

2. THE ALTERNATE RULE: As above, but players can also choose immediate action dailies. This allows a few more into the game, only they are far less annoying to deal with or sit through as they only happen once a day.

I think these are fair. I mean, I myself have built catch-22 Binder hybrids that are basically bred from annoying immediate actions; in other words, I have been guilty of adding to the problem, and can be honest with myself that it isn't good for the game. What happens is you end up with a lot of well-built PCs at the table, and even though its great for PC survival, you have a lot of off-actions going off that basically signify bathroom breaks.

The above options will make a difference in your game, especially at high levels. They also actually enhance the classes that remain able to to use them, as they make it more rare/special for these kind of actions to take place.

Thoughts? Anybody else houseruling immediate actions?