Dragon + Dungeon

The editing beast is slain at last, and I get 1500 XP for defeating a 7th level Solo Brute, meaning the editing task. The truth is that I need those XP to improve my play skills, because this four-hour online session displays my limits at least as well as anything about people enjoying a single convention session of play.

I don’t know if anyone will last through eight half-hour videos, but here’s what you need to know. Some role-players have begun to showcase D&D 4th edition as its own enjoyable phenomenon, calling the endeavor “4eR” or even “Fourth Edition Renaissance” in clear comparison with the more famous initials floating out there. Ross let me know about their first online get-together for sign-up play, called 4eR Con, and we both set up slots to run, with him taking on the 4E Dark Sun and me with my little spin on the content that I like to call “Barbaric Psychedelic Psionic Cataclysmic 4E.”

The videos begin with my discussion of preparation, so I won’t summarize the details here beyond thanking the Dyson Logos and Afternoon Maps Patreons for the maps I used. Well, a little maybe: it’s a bottle situation in which the characters are trapped in the psychic moment of their own deaths, battling the psionically embodied manifestation of the villain’s intent to slay them. More or less a psychedelic hippie version of a dragon in a dungeon. I also used my casual method of subverting geomorphs by turning them into tesseracts.

I’ve attached all the content: the summary of what I planned and conceived as given to potential players, the summaries of the characters that the players could turn into character sheets (and include names and gender identity as they see fit), my notes and references for play, all sorts of maps, and the cross-character summary that I’ve found necessary whenever playing the game. I simply passed out individual files for the characters (all in one file in the attachments, but separated at this point) to the players at random. I also sent everyone scans for rules pages that they didn’t own.

A sudden change-up in players, lost one and gained one, happened a few days beforehand and that led to a little bit less preparation than I hoped as the new player didn’t have time to internalize the Barbaric Psychedelic content as well as the others, but it wasn’t disastrous.

Before we started, I pointed out to the group that online play is very tiring for me, and I tend to hit a hard limit at or just before two hours. I was pretty wary of a four-hour slam-bang time slot. I’d tried to work against that by letting them know I needed them to know their various rules and powers by themselves, as I would not be cueing or encouraging them during play, at least not consistently.

For two hours, that went fine. I even felt pretty good as we approached that time … and then one player’s connection failed out entirely, and I lost at least 50% of my stress buffer. The one thing I didn’t want to do, and did not have the paperwork to do it, was to reference any player-character’s sheet about their rules details, and now I had to do it unexpectedly, as well as try to maintain contact by chat. Little things wore it down further, e.g., despite my efforts during prep, one of my maps’ grid notations was off by a row, which would be easy to correct mentally with the stress buffer in place, but now just ground it down hard. You can see me wear out fast in the 5th video, losing the ability to use the right word – for example, I knew I meant “slowed” but kept saying “dazed” or “stunned” instead as my mind staggered around.

I want to call your attention to the point when a player or two started asking random rules questions, and I stopped play to explain just how dazed, stunned, slowed, and weakened I was feeling, and what I needed from them in order to continue.

By that point, I was powering through, hoping to stay with the fiction and enough of the system, e.g., the initiative order, to the point I could at least say “we played this,” and in that we succeeded. The rules reflections file lists all the mistakes I made, mostly during the final 45 minutes of play. The mistakes were not trivial, so the second half of what was until then a pretty good nailbiter of a fight just carved the adversary down like a Thanksgiving turkey instead. I kept my eyes and mind on the overall scenario and it finished out pretty well, if a bit quickly based on the time constraint.

The players were great, adapting to the unusual and trippy fictional context with enthusiasm, and steadily coming into more and more identification with or at least interest in the character concepts they were playing. At that halfway point I think we were building potential for some rather good and unexpected interactions during the fight, and at the end, people seemed cheerful and appreciative. I’d like to follow up with a group converation and reflection, but I am a little suspicious that the latter third of play might have drained away enthusiasm from at least a couple of the players, and they might not want to talk about it.

I am all about recognizing the virtues and opportunities of the D&D 4E rules concepts, as well as some features I would like to change or adapt, with Gamma World as a model for the extent one might employ. There’s a lot of room there, which I hope the 4eR continues to celebrate and investigate.


14 responses to “Dragon + Dungeon”

  1. A few observations

    1. First of all, I'd like to apologize for the connection fiasco. If it's any consolation, it's a problem that is not yet solved as of today, to the point that we have decided to change our internet provider out of desperations. Now we have 20 or so more days of waiting with no online activities being possible, and it's quite frustrating.
    Still, I feel horrible for having been the source of that much stress. I'm sorry.

    2. As someone who's run a whole lot of 4E (and apparently we're about to play again, prompted by me telling about this session) I think this was handled extremely well, especially considering that a lot of the observations you made on the rules reflections pertain to how in this game doing something *slightly* differently can lead to massive ripercussions. I've stumbled and fallen so many times on this like Dual Mind and the timing of saves, or action points or legendary actions – and it's frustrating because it's small things but in this system they can make a huge difference. A lot of people have compared 4E to boardgames or videogames, but to me the biggest cross-media similarities are with Magic the Gathering and similar games. The ordering is both precise and flexible, and when you do things, even within a character's turn, can be crucial. I don't think I've ever seen anyone getting everything right within a single session, on either side of the screen.

    3. related to this, I also really appreciated the rules discussion/correction process. I wish someone showed me something like this when I was making baby steps into learning "how to GM" because the idea that the GM isn't tasked with getting every rule right and that players can give input or correct things without seeing the GM throw a tantrum is one of the healtiest lessons we can teach ourselves. 
    Also because I don't think we got a whole lot better in time: on one hand we have the traditional "the GM is the keeper of the rules, his word is the law, he has the final say so he has to get everything right or he's bad", but on the other the "modern" focus on actually using the rules of the game (which is completely justified) can often lead to the same phenomenon ("you didn't get every rule right the first time, you're playing the game wrong").

    4. the way the maps and movement was handled was brilliant and I'm really surprised by seeing it work so well. I was skeptical at first but I have to admit that it was probably my own limit – it was perfectly clear to me as a player, but I wonder if I would have been able to handle it as the DM.

    5. I really liked the setting and the characters. The gestalt/hybrid character rules ended up being a lot of fun and this goes right in the face of those who say that 4E characters are same-ish. These characters had a lot of actual overlap in classes and skills and yet they came out quite different in play. 
    One thing I like about this game is how players always have something to grab to go and interact with things. It's a skill, a power, an object, it doesn't matter – but there's a distinct "oh I got this thing and I can use it like this" feel that's hard to find in similar games. In the first half hour of play we had wuxia acrobatics, people sending mental projections to explore ahead, me breaking a fall with a teleportation racial power… and it's so easy to visualize in the fiction. I think the very focused and narrowed breath of character options helped a lot here. Rarely I've been in a 4E game where understanding who everyone else was and what they were about was so fast. That "martial classes only" proposal is sounding more and more interesting, in the same vein.

    I am absolutely up for a debriefing session (even if my feedback is naturally the least interesting among players for obvious reasons). And I'd also like to thank Izeria/Dragongirl for playing my character and making him much more badass than I would have.

    • I appreciate the kind

      I appreciate the kind comments, and you definitely don't have to apologize for a family/household crisis which is still ongoing.

      The expectation of perfection, especially in terms of "the GM," is one of those terrible toxic things that arises from crap authority distribution design, the culture of worshipful observance rather than play that's specific to D&D, and especially from the issue we're talking about across multiple posts right now, the notion that the DM/GM is there specifically to entertain an audience.

      Whereas despite the hassles, I personally felt much closer and "warm" during play because we all knew the game is complex and consequential, and anyone helping or reminding anyone about anything is nothing but good will and more fun. I find that I actually look forward to precisely this feature of playing 4E.

    • The expectation of perfection

      The expectation of perfection, especially in terms of "the GM," is one of those terrible toxic things that arises from crap authority distribution design, the culture of worshipful observance rather than play that's specific to D&D, and especially from the issue we're talking about across multiple posts right now, the notion that the DM/GM is there specifically to entertain an audience.


      Agreed, and while I didn't get the sense that any of us adhered to the above during this game, partially because of the time-crunch nature of it most everything did end up going through you as the GM, which probably contributed to some of the issues you mentioned in the post. Some of the prep materials specifically mentioned that players should expect to be talking to one another and doing things together irrespective of GM input or immediate adjudication, and (for whatever reason) that's not something that we ended up doing much of in our game. 

      anyone helping or reminding anyone about anything is nothing but good will and more fun

      This is how play always works when it is going well, in my experience: we're all bought into the color and the system and any sort of corrective or reminder talk is all about helping one another do this game in this particular way.

      Regarding the maps and such, I agree with you, Lorenzo, that it worked very well, and would have worked even better if I had printed out a map for myself beforehand, which I'd do if I were to play in an online 4e game again. Printing it out would just help me know the exact square I and the others were in at all times, whereas as play went on positions sometimes got a little fuzzy for me, but never so bad as to breakdown or totally confuse me. I strongly prefer something like this over a virtual tabletop and map and virtual chits that someone (let's be honest, usually the GM) has to manage in addition to all their other duties and that only serves to slow down play in my experience of map-based online play.

    • Hans, you wrote

      Hans, you wrote

      most everything did end up going through you as the GM, which probably contributed to some of the issues you mentioned in the post. Some of the prep materials specifically mentioned that players should expect to be talking to one another and doing things together irrespective of GM input or immediate adjudication, and (for whatever reason) that's not something that we ended up doing much of in our game. 

      That's the single major flaw in the whole experience. I don't know if it could have been avoided given the convention, one-shot, and other details, but I think it could. I've succeeded with Champions and RuneQuest which are both more complex than 4E.

      It's my top priority for playing the game in the future.

  2. Perfection

    I'm sorry to hear about the issues, but glad to hear about the human communication that helped mitigate them.

    One thing I don't think I understand: why was it deemed necessary to have someone control the missing character? Or, rather, what would have happened if the missing character had just gone "offscreen," perhaps with a suitable proportion of the opposition?

    4th Edition can be a little bit swingy, due to the nature of its math and action economy. My view is that we're not computers and shouldn't try to be, or feel bad when we're not. I find that errors tend to average out over time, though of course that makes them more glaring in short sessions. 

    • I appreciate your concern,

      I appreciate your concern, but I am not desolate and you don't need to console me. You may also be interested in checking out some of the play videos here, in which the learning curve is identified, appreciated, and showcased. I strongly advocate for recognizing its importance, and indeed, continuance.

      I completely agree with you about the errors averaging out in multi-session play, which applies to a lot of the games that flowed into 4E's design, especially Champions. However, the way I play it emphasizes non-average degrees of impact depending on immediate circumstances, which is very fun but also entails a bit more effort to reduce the errors as we go along, as part of that learning curve. Perfection is not the goal, especially not the performative kind associated with the mythological "the DM," but seeking a lower N and a lower value for the average errors is worthwhile, to enjoy the game's strengths in play.

      Regarding the missing character: it may not be clear from my post that the player did not disappear. Lorenzo remained in contact via chat, and all the character's actions were stated by him. When he refers above to another player playing his character, he is talking about rolling the dice, not stating actions.

      If the player had become completely unavailable, then here are some thoughts.

      • Simply "ghosting" the character wasn't an option. I am familiar with this technique throughout my play history, and it didn't apply. I think my short opening video will be enough to show you how the situation of play was constructed and what the characters were doing. ("Going offscreen" as a technique seems worthy of discussion in its own post some day; let's not get into a debate about it here.)
      • It would be viable to provide the other player with the character sheet. However, these characters are tremendously non-generic and operate across two to four rulebooks, so managing the rules for each would transfer a lot of stress to another person who didn't ask for it, and still include me looking up and confirming this or that detail. 
      • The best option in this case would be to vaporize the character via an adversary's attack, which frankly was pretty likely anyway if I'd been handling the weakened conditions and Action Points correctly.
    • My apologies for having given

      My apologies for having given offense. That was not my intent.

      As you inferred, I have not watched the video. In all honesty, I'm worried that I'd find the problematic moments of the event difficult to watch, despite the overall good conclusion. 

    • There’s no offense involved.

      There's no offense involved. You're fine. What matters to me is that I treated your questions fairly, so let me know whether you think I've answered them, and follow up if not.

      Also, the prep video (first in the playlist, so just hitting play will start it) should be enough to familiarize you with the setup/situation, that is, if you want to.

  3. Thank you very much for

    Thank you very much for running this game at the first Con4eR. I especially like your 'action array' , which I think helps take the game to a deeper level for the players than I have probably allowed.

    I'm intrigued by the 'Battleships' style map. One of the things I am currently working on in my DMing is to keep better track of consequences of triggered effects. I worry that managing grid locations would overwhelm me. I must watch more and see how that works out for you all.

    With the remarkable tools now freely available for all, particularly Discord and Warhorn, I can foresee more Con4eRs popping up and would encourage others to create spaces for our communities to get together for play.

    Game on! 🙂 


    • I enjoyed the convention a

      I enjoyed the convention a lot – lots of enthusiam, just enough organization, casual enough to work comfortably.

      I give credit for the Battleship-battlemat method to Ross, who introduced it for the Gamma World game I played in. It's useful to think of it as a table-side, everyone-use device, rather than GM-side only. I always printed out a physical copy to use during play, and I know I need at least one other person monitoring as we go.

  4. Barbaric Psychedelic & Essentialism

    Ron, in a video from ages ago, you talked about three different levels of doing Dungeons & Dragons stuff.  At the risk of paraphrasing:

    (1) Collectively imagining fictional characters, places, and situations that are stereotypically associated with D&D.  

    (2) What are the actual people around the table hoping to get out the experience?  What's fun about the activitiy, that you can't get someplace else?  

    (3)  To what extent is it important that you're playing "Official Dungeons & Dragons, The World's Most Popular Role-Playing Game as Owned and Branded by Wizards of the Coast" and not one of its clones, retroclones, revisions, inspirations, derivatives, or hacks. 


    I'm wondering where this Barbaric Psychedelic Ectoplasmic Cataclysmic thing fits along those three questions.  Regarding Point 1, it's bascially stripped down as far as possible, to the point where some "people" "in" a "dangerous" "place" all come heavily qualified.  Some of the choices regarding the hybrid classes suggest an answer as to Point 2 but I'd be curious to hear your take on it.  And then Im curious about how you felt using the official rule set but stripped of many of the usual connections (i.e., Githzerai without, say, Githyanki, Slaad, or Mindflayers, other pieces of IP that usually tag along).

    Sorry if this is too wordy or badly framed

    • Well … arguably it’s a pure

      Well … arguably it's a pure subversion, to the extent that I'm saying, "this is good because we aren't playing D&D with it, it's better than that." To go out of order, and not necessarily dissecting out everything,

      I don't care a bit about TSR/D&D/WotC "most popular role-playing game," and a lot of the choices defy it directly. You mentioned basically appropriating pieces due to their aesthetic content rather than textual or setting content, and there are a few other things – for example, completely devaluing armor as a major play-priority. I have plenty of such non-RPG influences as Richard Corben's Den and many psionic-SF-but-fantasy titles to serve as an amorphous but definite touchpoint, so I appropriate many little pieces of the textual material that I can fancy are rather tuned to it even if that wasn't the publisher's intention.

      I've mentioned the real reason I'm drawn to the rules-set before, and I guess I should start saying it loudly, that its action/impact method and build philosophy is the single standing heir to Champions, including any version of Champions since 4th edition 1989 (inclusive). I am definitely playing that game, without much attention to the thin veneer of D&D trappings, both game mechanics and fictional content.

      My other answers would make a lot more sense in the context of one of the courses I'm currently developing into teachable form, called "Three Fantasies." You may be interested in the concept that although pink slime is indeed nothing more than itself, it does have the positive property of a petri dish – things grow in it. If you take some strange blending of absurdly, even intellectually-insulting juxtaposed elements (e.g., the ancient Greek minotaur as a single named character, the concept of minotaurs-plural as monsters, the Trampier drawing, the Grenadier miniature, Glorantha's Beastman minotaurs, the Hurloon Minotaur from alpha Magic: the Gathering, some other weird shit that kind of Romanizes them), then you may be looking at a nugget of coalesced pink slime which is … I don't know, fermenting, or geminating, or something, into actually compelling fantasy of its own, or potential for such if you grab it and do fantasy with it before anyone notices and starts asking how they get along with dwarves.

      The 4E material helps do this in its own way. Distinctly differently from 3-point-whatever and from 5th edition, it is just metal-looking enough in its illustrations and just over-the-top porn-speak in its prose to encourage excess in such applications. Almost as if you start with Tolkien-like half-orcs back in 1978, then we go through all the bizarre and left-field and around-the-mulberry bush permutations of orc through all the RPGs since … and there we are, looking at the 4E half-orcs and although they aren't the same as the original, it's as if we've come back around to the point where they are indeed a possibly over-the-top, untamed "thing" rather than just a mishmash of misunderstandings and bad choices that have been massaged into family-friendly RPG glop.

    • “Do fantasy with it” is an

      "Do fantasy with it" is an interesting turn of phrase.  I'd welcome a seminar video or AP about that part of the process, or at least, what you subjectively mean by it.  

      As you say, it's completely different from the bullshit trivia that passes for world-building in parts of the hobby.  But I also think it's a little bit different than the sketchier style of world-building you did in Sorcerer & Sword, or (to a meatier degree) in Circle of Hands.

    • As I mentioned above, the

      As I mentioned above, the topic is sufficiently impossible to address through mere online chat that I've built a five-session, two-hour per session class merely to begin a person's ability to "do fantasy." It is a developmental course, meaning the tools to make the tools to do the thing. Just demonstrating that the first set of tools even exists is a big task, as well as understanding the thing in personal, individualized terms as well as historical context. These require homework,in-class design or demonstrative work, assessment and feedback on both of those, play experiences, reflection exercises, and all those things which a real class does. It's the kind of class as well for which I don't expect "results" until the person comes back to see me months or years later.

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