Crystal psychic revelation + slimy explosive mayhem

Deeper in the vortex, confronting the diseased visions infecting memory and legacy – yes, it’s 4th edition D&D, played with guts and glory. Eneku, Runt, and Ezhelya get to the center of it all.

I was embarrassed to realize, while reviewing the video, how sincere some of the content was for me. I can hear James laughing already … but also, check out everyone’s faces when Ezhela let “it” in via her emotional powers, and also a few details into my description of their foes during the fight.

This session finally revealed the map, fleetingly anyway, so “the dungeon quest” is now solidly under way as far as the characters are concerned. I included a lot of graphics in the video so please check it out, especially for the unusual circumstances of the combat.

About that fight – the video begins with me reminding the players about untyped combat bonuses, the ones that don’t default to the highest single bonus of a given type, and therefore can stack. I wanted to get them up to speed on that, because I’ve set up all my encounters to play them to the hilt myself. I say with pride, if you play D&D 4E badly, I’ll kill you dead real quick, and playing it well simply means better role-playing anyway.

In the encounter they went into, the foes used the Human Rabble monster from the manual, which are minions. That’s not trivial in this game – indivdually potato chips, they still get mass attacks and these ones get bonuses when mobbing someone. The encounter space included tight squeezes, and as I tweaked the monster description, these guys were able to move on the walls and ceilings, thus could flank while the characters were hampered in moving strategically. Flanking and similar advantages (e.g. vs. prone opponents, which applied vs. some of the characters as it turned out) all stack, so in addition to the mobbing, these guys could really hit. Add to that the three-dimensional attacking, and given even slightly lucky rolling, a given player-character could be subject to 30-40 points of damage in a single round, enough to kill them at this point.

That’s why this fight was very contingent and quite exciting, because through a semi-tactical, semi-lucky combo of skills and powers, the players managed to get their characters back-to-back triangle in the biggest space they could for the best defensive position possible. I especially liked that when Ezhelya was bloodied, that triggered her Ardent Alacrity, which permitted Runt to get himself precisely into that position in a fashion that would otherwise have been substantially later in the fight and subject to a difficult roll. After that – again, only partly-planned I think – two of them concentrated on physical combat while one continued the Skill Challenge, ultimately succeeding that way. Even so, one character ended pretty chewed-up, and I don’t know if the players realized just how close they came to getting torn to pieces, if the tactics had gone a hair differently, especially early in the encounter.

This game is about getting into fights, but it’s also about how the fights matter. I’m using rules to do this, not “Ron brings his fancy GMing into dumb-ass DMing” at all. I think they’re the best rules toward that end I’ve seen under the banner of this particular game title. Ask if you want to know.


16 responses to “Crystal psychic revelation + slimy explosive mayhem”

  1. I want to know
    What makes a fight matter, and what does D&D4E bring that helps making it happen?

    And is this one of these things that sit at the techniques level, so it really doesn’t have to do with whether you’re playing Step On Up or Story Now? I’m taking a shot and guessing it’s independent from “playing with purpose”, but if this is a sort of “forbidden question” just ignore it, I’m more interested in the former.

    • It has everything to do with

      It has everything to do with playing on purpose. But it's becoming clearer to me every day that when that's the case, the worst thing possible to do is to dwell on it.

      This game has only met for three sessions, and given the screen-based medium as well as the learning curve for system use, I hesitate to claim too much. But the fight in this session shows, I hope, a bit of a turning-point for the players to see that they're not in a video game, working their way up from minor obstacles and foes to a Big Boss. Or rather, that the imagined situation which is sort of like that makes the structure more than an exercise in oppositional dice-rolling for which any two not-very-I AIs could be pitted against one another.

      So, the fictional context of this whole "level's|" worth of risk and effort is that they've attended the funeral of a very respected monk, a sage really, whom all of them had met and been influenced by in the past. At the funeral, they find that the services and the monastic practices are considerably different from what they'd expected or known about the guy, and in fact a bit objectionable in their shallowness. They're drawn into the psionic vortex of the guy's mind, which is still present as raw power, in which they've realized that what they do there – who they kill, where they go, what they get – is consequential for the guy's possibly-residual or analogue identity, for his legacy, and for their own survival and potential transformations.

      The game mechanics which make this worth "playing in" as opposed merely to a conceit or skin for an in-and-out combat map, include the following:

      1. The Minor and Major Quest rules, which numerically replace foes and dangerous encounters for purposes of gaining levels. That is, announcing and concluding these "count" as a foe defeated or an encounter concluded, respectively. And players can announce them into existence, especially Minor ones; it's not all DM-structured or imposed. During the first session, one of the players literally announced their Major Quest in almost verbatim rules terms, without realizing it, simply by stating his character's dialogue concerning what he thought they should do.

      2. The Skill Challenge rules, which are numerically equivalent to encounters, and permit slipping-and-sliding between combat vs. skill resolutions of situations right in the middle of them. Nor are they "getting out from fighting free" as consequences of failing them in part or in total can be dire. In general, shifting from fight vs. skill-challenge can occur simply due to player statements of action, but I'm reinforcing it a bit in this case by providing baked-in Skill Challenges in every encounter. So they can conduct both the combat and the challenge at the same time … at the risk of not concluding either fast enough to survive or to retain crucial resources. Plus, the challenges reveal important information that makes a big difference to their orientation in the vortex, i.e, knowing where to go and what they're fighting, psionically/psychologically.

      3. The time/encounter/rest rules are tuned to put pressure on the characters, so that the generous healing rules are actually quite stringent after all … if in-game time matters, i.e., if there are deadlines and/or characters who are doing things in the same time-scale which the characters might be concerned about. Then, whether you take a long rest or a short one is a real trade-off regarding what you, the player, really want.

      I tried to explain all of this in the handout I provided to them at the outset, which you can find at the first post about this game, but I expected that it wouldn't really sink in until we'd played a little while. I'm going to recommend to the players that they review that handout again, now that "how to make my character" is no longer the task at hand.

    • It so happens that I reread

      It so happens that I reread the handout the weekend and will be bringing minor quest ideas to the next session.

      re. Your point three Ron, does the game offs you any tools to make time matter? Fictionally it would feel a bit wrong to kick back and go to sleep in someone else's mind but as far as giving that mechanical teeth is tha all dropped in your lap to judge or are there rules to e.g. Increase skill challenge difficulty if we hang around too long?

      I also get the impression we haven't seen the teeth of the skill challenge system yet, we seem to have been lucky enough with rolls and missed a few landmines like the insight roll outcome in the last encounter. Something I'm going to try and bear in mind for next time and not get blasé. 

      Also, I don't know why you are implying our cross character ardent alacrity positioning was anything other than strategic brilliance. (Or I just wanted to see some of the cogs turn so had deliberately set Ezhelya up to get bloodied).

    • Hey Ross, I think putting

      Hey Ross, I think putting fictional consequences into the passage of time is about the only imaginable reason to be using the short/extended rest vs. pressing-on rules at all. The healing surge mechanic is extremely generous if you have no reason not to take a short rest all the time, and an extended one after a tougher encounter (most characters bloodied, Daily Powers expended). As I found to my surprise, and to the players' as you recall, there really aren't any Action Points or Power Points restrictions per encounter, so the only real character-variable at stake is the Daily Power.

      As far as articulating this point goes, the rules fall short. I think that the above conclusion is obvious as the nose on a Dave Sutherland troll's face (bottom left), but you can't find it stated in plain words like I just did. It's one of many examples for which I think the 4E rules were overly bashful about their own virtues, and erred on the side of "let's just have everyone play and level up" rather than stating clearly how the mechanics facilitated emotionally toothy, dangerous action.

      In our game, I'm not, uh … well, I haven't said anything about the passage of "dungeon time" relative to events that … might be occurring at the monastery right now, or might occur there when and if you and the other player-characters return. But then again, your characters haven't considered that question openly – I've been very careful to call for relevant skill rolls (Insight, Arcana, Dungeoneering, et cetera) about your precise plight based only on what a player says. Certain questions might be wisely considered. All I'll say for now is that I've kept careful track of how many rests have been taken and how much "dungeon time" has elapsed.

      In future, perhaps less trippy adventure circumstances, for which NPC priorities and various logistic conditions are less "you're stuck in here, now try to get out," and more "here's the complicated situation over several locations, what do you do," the time-factor will be a lot more explicit. Or that's what I've decided upon reflecting upon our sessions so far.

    • It does seem a bit like the

      It does seem a bit like the game then tries to yank its own teeth out by muddying the straight forward press on / short rest / extended rest options by suggesting taking multiple extended rests to cycle through use encounter healing power – regain encounter power as many times as desired.  At the 5 minute short rest duration in the book I imagine it would be challenging to differentiate off screen dvelopments at a fine enough granularity for that to matter.  I'm not intending to do this though, it seems enough of a dodge to use ardent surge after the last enemy falls because I am a bad leader player and failed to use it earlier – even with the rules being clear that an encounter only ends when we take a rest.



    • Hey Ross, I think you’ll see

      Hey Ross, I think you'll see some consequences of your own group's short rests pretty soon. You've avoided some of them from the outset: the successful skill challenge against "your own thoughts"  and the specific, outrageously appropriate outcome against the bloated-malevolence monsters kept either of those from pursuing you. If that hadn't been the case, you could bet that either or both would have descended upon you just at the end of a given encounter, making it not over after all. That could have become exceptionally nasty regarding the diseased/fanboy monks.

      I am trying not to share my prep-notebook too generously here regarding imminent play, but … there are areas you didn't go into that might be ("might be" he says, ha!) issuing their contents in your direction now that you have given them some time to develop their intentions/efforts. So yes, the short rests matter. I'm letting that exact variable serve as my "scripter" for who sneaks up on you and when.

      And I really better not give up any more allusions concerning how much time you're allowing for others' actions "outside" of this psionic head-space you're in, except to say that an extended rest would be a lovely gift for the Dark Side of your humble DM.

      Oh yeah, I don't see the last-moment Ardent Surge as any sort of cheat. I've got things in there which hit a hell of a lot harder than the monks; you guys will need those hit points.

  2. Action Points, Milestones, and Resting

    I don't think this matters very much, but I read the rules on Action Points a little differently:

    "Your character starts with 1 action point. . . . When you spend an action point, it’s gone, but you can gain more in two ways: by reaching a milestone [completing two encounters without taking an extended rest] or by taking an extended rest.  Each time you reach a milestone, you gain an action point.  After you take an extended rest, you lose any action points you haven’t spent, but you start fresh with 1 action point."  PHB 1, pg 259.

    So, I think we're all in agreement that an extended rest resets the counter to 1.

    But let's say Runt begins with 1 action point.  He barges along through Encounter A without spending it.  Nobody takes an extended rest.  He enters Encounter B with 1 action point, and doesn't spend it.  Hey, we hit a milestone!  Everyone gets +1 action point, so Runt begins Encounter C with 2 action points.  Assuming he can husband his resources all the way thorugh Encounter D, and nobody takes an extended rest, he would hit another milestone, and begin Encounter E with 3 points, whereupon he goes on a spree for three rounds of taking a bunch of extra actions.

    Meanwhile, if Eneku spent its 1 action point in Encounter A, it would have to brave Encounter B without any action points to draw on.  Upon completing a milestone, Eneku gets +1 and so ends up at 1 again.

    Am I reading something wrong?  I think it's a pretty moot point since (a) we're gonna be spending these things pretty quickly (or taking extended rests), (b) I'm totally fine with the rules as we're playing them, which as I understand it is, "You always have an action point at the start of an encounter," and (c) the last thing I want is another resource to track, and trying to gauge, "Hey I'd like to get my daily power or healing surges back, but maybe this is a situation where I might really need to take an extra action in a pinch" doesn't seem like a good trade most of the time.  

    • For what it’s worth – that’s

      For what it's worth – that's how I read the rules as well: an Action point every other encounter, with some opportunities for hoarding between extended rests. It's hard for me to see what that really adds over a simple one-per-encounter approach, though.

    • I did a little re-reading and

      I did a little re-reading and I see where the potential gum-up is.

      1. We're all clear that if you spend your Action Point, you don't get it back during the encounter.

      2. We're also all clear that when you take an Extended Rest, you get your Action Point back – or, if you didn't spend it, then you "lose" it but "start with a new one" at the end of the Rest.

      3. The description of a Short Rest on page 263 does not include "regain your Action Point" or similar language … but the discussion of Action Points on 286 cites the Short Rest as doing exactly that.

      4. Pressing On, i.e., taking no rest … functions exactly as #2. You get your Action Point back or if you didn't spend it, you "lose" it but "start with a new one." (Incidentally, the term Milestone for this particular activity is completely wasted; it's just Pressing On and doesn't do anything except for the Action Point recovery.)

      Unless you interpret #3 as a typo on page 286, then basically, the effect is always the same: at the start of every encounter, no matter if you pressed on, took a short rest, or took an extended rest, you have your Action Point,  no more and no less. You can't bank them by not using them, and you don't have to save them in case you don't have one later.

      If #3 is a typo, then the exception is that a short rest means you have your Action Point if you didn't spend it last time (and no more, you don't get a new one), but don't have it if you don't.

      I've chosen to go with the interpretation that it's always the same, no need to concern yourself over whether you spent your Action Point or not, and not to get distracted by the term Milestone as if it meant anything except what the other terminology already says.

      I'll bet y'all a stack of gold pieces which are worth an additional 1 XP apiece that this very issue has generated mountains of garbage yipyap out there in the internet since the game's publication, and you can bet the same that I have no intention of investigating them thar hills.

    • I really, REALLY am perfectly

      I really, REALLY am perfectly happy with your simple 1 per encounter. Looking into this has revealed some things in the rules I'd missed/misunderstood, though, so … let me go ahead and poke at this.

      No typo (unless my ver is different/errata'd) on your #3/pg. 286 – it's "must take a short rest (page 263) before you can spend another." Nothing about gaining, just spending. That sentence is just a reinforcement of the 1/per SPEND LIMIT, that also means if you press on without even a short rest, OR if you take "only" an extended rest, you can't spend action points in the next encounter. Which seems silly … but wow, I think without a short rest, Encounter powers don't recharge either. Pg. 54, "An encounter power can be used once per encounter. You need to take a short rest (page 263) before you can use one again."

      But back to action points – by my reading, "stockpiling" would only allow for use in CONSECUTIVE encounters, because it's ALWAYS  (barring pg. 286: "some monsters") no more than 1 action point per encounter.

      So, by my understanding of what they're saying, Action point gain and use-restriction is:

      A) After an extended rest, reset to 1, whether you currently have 0 or 4.

      B) After 2 encounters without an extended rest ("a milestone"),  gain an Action point.

      C) After spending an action point, a short rest is required before you can spend again (if you have any more).

      A and B are not influenced by C or the 1/per limit.

      Your #4 seems to be incompatible with pg. 259 talking about milestones: "two encounters without stopping for an extended rest" and "Each time you reach a milestone, you gain an action point."

      A milestone is actually a real thing here, which maybe matters beyond action points because magic items with Daily powers gain another use after a milestone… which kinda invalidates that "Daily" label, but eh.

      Again, I'm pretty sure I prefer your simple approach, but also pretty sure that's not what's written. I'm not sure at all why it's written that way (strategy around spend vs. stockpile and short rest vs. chasing a fleeing foe?) And I think there are some more rule-complexities that make "no short rest" an even more risky proposition – I'm pretty sure I did re-use encounter power(s), as I figured short rest was irrelevant to the Encounter-reset.

      I'll finish with: I'm old-roleplayer enough to find rules dissections at least a bit entertaining, but if the unverse were to simply replace this post with "Ron, cool sesion!!", I wouldn't lose much sleep …

    • Also in the spirit of “let’s

      Also in the spirit of "let's wrap ourselves in D&D rulebook phrases" while knowing it's to no good purpose … that was my reading during my first DMing efforts for this game. As far as I thought then, there was some effort to bank Action Points at the expense of not recovering Hit Points – if you kept pressing on, or milestone-ing, I guess, you wouldn't benefit from healing "ordinarily" but you would be able to stock up Action Points if you had happened not to use them yet.

      It's not a bad idea, in that, OK, we didn't get hammered too badly, so never mind healing and let's "press on," knowing that we get more Action Points and can be a bit more free/flexible with our tactics even if we're a bit down on the Hit Points. Whereas if you're too beat up, you take a bit of a rest, and you get some health back but not Action Points (if you spent them); and if you're really bloodied and suffering and spent your Action Points, then it's time for a real nap.

      Your reading preserves that schema, and we might try it as we move into Level 3 play, see how we like it.

      There is a huge contrast between the tortured explanation for this subroutine, requiring cross-referencing pages and squinting in legal fashion over the differences among, "spend," "gain," and "recover," vs. everything else in the rules, which are notably crystal clear. I really wonder if we're looking at legacy text, in that someone may originally have wanted the above "short rest or not" decision to matter a lot, and that issue eventually got buried or otherwise diminished in the course of putting the other options/functions together.

    • For my sins I have seen some

      For my sins I have seen some legalistic rules interpretations that note that since the end of an encounter is defined by the winners taking a rest (short or extended) if you press on without resting the encounter doesn't finish, you are still in the same encounter when you fight the next horrible psychic emmanation or what have you and when you rest after that haven't hit a milestone.

      At the risk of flogging this undead equine further my reading is that a given encounter can only count towards one milestone. So the sequence is: encounter, short rest, encounter, short rest and hit milestone, encounter, short rest -no milestone yet, encounter, short rest and milestone. 

      I'm going to stop now as trying to read the grey text on black of the comments section on my android tablet is too annoying.

  3. And yes my map was so fucked

    Seeing the dungeon map, even briefly, is a nightmare from which I am still struggling to awaken.  

    Luckily my player-side maps basically consist of circles and lines, but yikes, we could play for a million years and it would never look like what I saw.

    • My take is that if the, or

      My take is that if the, or more appropriately "a" player-side map is usable for purposes of getting out, or staying oriented in the thick of a current hassle, then it's doing its job. Its precision relative to what the DM is using, or if you want to put it this way, the real map, is definitely a second priority.

      Especially since I'm running searches using terms like "psychedelic maze" and then inventing depth and scale measures on my own – the results simply aren't going to be mappable in the ordinary measure-the-dungeon sense.

  4. One of the things I dig about

    One of the things I dig about this game is the library of GM'ing techniques Ron brings along.  These aren't necessarily super-complicated, but they're part of what I consider "best practices."  I'm not surprised Ron uses them, because I think I learned them from reading his various posts.  But it's still nice to see them from the player's side:

    love Ron's Aesop's Fables / "Ice Cream Kōan" approach to D&D combat.  (Runt is grouchy about this touchy-feely stuff, but he's grouchy about a lot of things.)  As I mentioned before, it's very appropriate to the genre, but it also is critically important to contextualizing the battles in the game.  We're not in a cave system with random wandering monsters, nor even a semi-realistic fortress complex with contextually appropriate bad guys–we're cleansing a monk's bad karma.  And therefore the kinds of fights we wind up in actually serve as characterization for Kzekk, our NPC buddy/Professor X figure.  It was awesome that Kzekk harbors contempt and frustration for some of his less insightful adherents: it's both very plausible and relatable, but also disturbing.  (I'm relieved that, so far as we know, psychic reflections of our team wasn't among the people he despised.)  (The fact that everything we've encountered is psychological, makes me want to just find Kzekk's ego-core and shout, "Everything's cool, just relax" as a way of hacking the 'dungeon,' Inception style.)

    Maybe as a side effect of this, Ron has a huge amount of enthusiasm for this: it's infectious.  I've spent a lot of time looking off to the side, scrolling through PDF's, but I can still hear the smile in his voice when he's getting ready to gross us out or nail us somehow.   The man loves what he's doing.

    There are few other things that Ron does that I've seen more often, but are still good practices: 

    * There's no bullshit about trivial secrets.  Very much of the "The NPC lies straight to your face" type of thing.  Which moves the drama from deciding "Is this person lying?" to "Why is he lying?  And what do we do about it?" which is where the real drama happens.  Once in a while I'll end up in a game where this kind of thing isn't done, and oh boy, what a drag.  It's refreshing that it happens here.

    * Relatedly, Ron does a really good job of pointing out consequences of different approaches to dilemmas.  "Remember, if you do _____________, chances are _____________."  There's no hidden "Hey, you totally forgot about this thing, ha ha, gotcha!" type stuff.  This is especially important in on-line play, which can feel a little detached sometimes–and critically important when it comes to tactical positioning, since we're not using a battle grid.

    I also really like the way Gordon has been playing Eneku as an enormously powerful, but ever-so-slightly embarrassed wizard-guy.  Gordon's had some unlucky rolls, which he bravely turns into bellyflops.  You end up feeling some sympathy for him – until he goes nova: he ignites the entire room with his mind, teleports down the hall, and splits his body into a whirlwind of stone.  It's wonderful to watch him kick ass.

    Ezhelya is a somewhat more reserved character, but I like seeing the bits and pieces that we've gotten so far: the fingerbones of her companions, attached to her ceremonial spear, for example.  Ross's use of the rules, especially regarding positioning, has been really tight and ended up saving our asses in at least two battles I think.

    It's a good group of folks to play with.

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