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Into the Glacier

I’m excited to share an actual play video of Planetary Convulsionary Evolutionary Dungeons & Dragons 4e, a take on the game totally inspired by Ron’s Barbaric Cataclysmic 4e. The doc I provided to my fellow players before we commenced is attached.

I’m sharing for pure enjoyment, though there are some in-video “annotations” to moments in play that I found instructive to create. 

The one thing I’ll note is that I call out the notion of “the Riff” at the beginning because I’ve been thinking about how to dive into games with intricate backdrops. The Riff is 15 minutes of me, well, riffing about the setting, enthusing about the color and sharing details I think are cool.

I gave it a go recently while trying out some new Runequest Glorantha character creation procedures, but because the characters weren’t made yet, it really was me just talking at the other players, and them getting my approval before making contributions. 

This time around, Sam and David had authority over elements of the fiction (their characters, their backstories, etc.), and the Riff felt like play, instead of an enthusiastic lecture.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

We're five minutes in and already there's an orgiastic ritual and a non-Euclidean halo.

I might have to proceed in short-ish viewing segments.

JC's picture

Damn, don't have too much to say other than...

This is rad. I wish I still had my 4e books too. I absolutely love how limiting what classes and races, actually opens up a lot of creative possibilities. You might lack the breadth of all the options, but it allows people to really dig into the imagery.

I can't wait see what's next!

Ross's picture

This was indeed very cool. Interesting to see the cross cutting interactions between characters and their powers that Ron is also pointing out kick in straightaway and even with only two characters.

On that, and related to Sam's (I think) comment about complexity I wonder if this aspect ramps up a bit as characters level up from 1st level. I definitely don't recall as much of this interaction across characters from the 1st level one shot I ran last year. 

Entirely unrelated but I'm thinking at some point you need badass dragonborn women in powersuits,  having seen the trapanned dragonborn men.

noah's picture

Thanks to both of you for the kind words...I definitely want to play more 4e with Adept Play folks this year, and you'd both be welcome.

To Ross's question:

On that, and related to Sam's (I think) comment about complexity I wonder if this aspect ramps up a bit as characters level up from 1st level. 

I'm not 100% sure, having only played the game at 3rd level. However, given that the only difference Powers-wise between 1st and 3rd is one Utility Power and one Encounter Power, I feel like there's got to be plenty of room for cross-cutting even at level 1.

The ramp-up in interaction may be more a function of David and Sam immediately, excitedly glomming onto the "held action" option. When their eyes lit up in session 1 and they started strategizing about how to bring down the bat, I thought to myself "What have I unleashed?"

Sean_RDP's picture

I enjoyed the riff. I also liked the way you got them right to the dungeon (more or less). My only thought, not a critique at all, is that you also could have used the riff to draw them down into more immediate action. Beginning of the Skill challenge or a fight or even some non-resolution action. Again, just mere commentary.

This session highlights one of my personal pain points with 4e, what could be called the Fizzbin effect or "Except on a Tuesday". Powers, though I think we could call them moves if we wanted, that have pre-requisites. You have to build your character in a vert specific way and then stick to that plan. Deviation from that specificity is difficult and in some cases, impossible. Shield and Sword guy? What happens if you drop your shield into the crack in the cave and there are no other shields? Enjoy that one, basic, At Will ability. So while I think 4e rewards a strong character identity, I feel it also strangles flexibility.

Everyone seemed to get comfortable with the system as the game went on. How does everyone feel about it after the session? I think the session also highlighted a lot of the good things you can do with 4e. 

noah's picture

My only thought, not a critique at all, is that you also could have used the riff to draw them down into more immediate action.

Yes, definitely a good thing to note. There may be opportunities in this game to try riffing again, depending on how the characters move from one dungeon to another.

So while I think 4e rewards a strong character identity, I feel it also strangles flexibility.

For purely personal learning reasons, I want to hold off on critiquing the system until we have plenty of sessions -- we're all very early in the learning curve, and the curve is real for this game! However, I will, very provisionally, note one thing that occurred to me based on what we've played so far.

Enjoy that one, basic, At Will ability.

This did occur as a concern to me before play. I'm not sure why. Maybe reading the myriad Daily and Encounter powers created an expectation in me that using At-Will abilities over and over would become tedious. However, a lesson I learned from our run on Lamentations of the Flame Princess is that the exercise of narration authority is key to compelling choreography.

I never felt like my "one attack" was repetitive when Corinna Hyde was fighting werewolves in the woods outside St. Tegwen, because there were other constraints (spacing, Corinna’s mental & physical condition, the disposition of the other combatants) and inspirations operating that created a meaningful, responsive context for LotFP’s pretty abstracted actions (crudely -- do you want to hit? if so, who? did you hit? if so, for how much?) We were able to recognize and celebrate that context in our narrations, and the narrations enriched the context even more. 

I think the point is that when we have a functional, vibrant space of play, the instrumentation and our use of it become more than the sum of their parts. Time will tell how far this will go for 4e’s conflict resolution, but I’m already seeing promising signs -- consider, for instance, that how we “draw” Shal’houb’s Encaging Spirits At-Will power in our narrations is going to be different in the next dungeon,  because he’ll be calling on different ‘ambient ghosts’ in the environment.

LorenzoC's picture

This session highlights one of my personal pain points with 4e, what could be called the Fizzbin effect or "Except on a Tuesday". Powers, though I think we could call them moves if we wanted, that have pre-requisites. You have to build your character in a vert specific way and then stick to that plan. Deviation from that specificity is difficult and in some cases, impossible. Shield and Sword guy? What happens if you drop your shield into the crack in the cave and there are no other shields? Enjoy that one, basic, At Will ability. So while I think 4e rewards a strong character identity, I feel it also strangles flexibility.

I think there is a definite risk of this happening, but also that it's fairly easy to avoid.

Thinking back at some of our characters, the assassin was using daggers, rapiers and the garrote quite efficiently - each with their own application. Not having one (more often than not it was the rapier, which was his best weapon, but also the most conspicuous one) wasn't a big issue. Our Fighter/Barbarian was shifting from 2h to sword and shield for extra survivability quite often, and it wasn't until the late 1x levels that he managed to get everything in line to be able to have good defensive stats while using a two handed sword. He even invested in Monk multiclassing because he couldn't carry his huge weapons everywhere. We had a psychic warrior who was deadly with a huge array of weapons and options.

You have to diversify your choice of powers and feats, however. But I think there's a problem of communication around the game, in this regard, because it really doesn't want you to make a "build", or at least one that is super-specialized. In 3.X, focusing about one thing and specializing in it yielded immense results - something in the region of having extra attacks at +10 compared to what you would do with another weapon, twice the damage, impossible to pass saves. It was kind of a do or die situation because specializing was so efficient. The writers of 4E flattened all the numbers and reduced all the gains from specializing, but in a game where numbers are so flat and controlled, in the eyes of the optimizers, a +3 is still a huge difference on a d20 (and really, if you follow that mindset, it is) and in order to get that +3 you have to hyper-specialize.

I don't know if it a design flaw or problem in itself. I can tell that not playing that way, and looking at the flatter numbers with a mindset closer to "gaining some advantage is so hard that it isn't worth it, I'd rather be flexible" rather than "gaining some advantage is so hard that I should invest all my resources in it" was a lot of fun for me. I think writers noticed this behaviour and some of the later supplements have powers that apply to a very ample range of instruments and weapons.

I also think that it's very satisfying - in theory - to imagine your sword-focused blademaster picking up a morning star and wrecking faces with it, especially if it feels different, if you're still efficient but you're a bit less precise, or you can't access some moves. Not being able to do your thing makes getting to do it again special, and I think that's why it's such a huge trope in narrative. The core problem in doing that in TTRPG like D&D is that there's 6 other people at the table, minor combat encounters take 45 minutes to play out, and playing out that moment may mean acting at lowered efficiency for 3 sessions.
How do you tell people they should play tactically and fish for that +2 bonus from flanking, but also that it isn't a big deal if they can't use their Dance of the Nine Stabs ability that requires rapiers because they don't have one?

That said... it's a really great play session. I'm not done with the videos yet but there's so many great moments already. Hopefully I'll get to comment on those later.

Ron Edwards's picture

With respect, Sean, I think this flexibility thing is more anti-4E horse puckey.

If my guy in 3E, or (gasp) Moldvay, doesn't have his shield, his armor class is one unit worse. Oh no! Not flexible! ... Seriously? Role-playing games are rife with specific abilities tied to having this-or-that thing handy, and if it's not, then poof, you can't do that ability. No one whines about that.

If you play any RPG like robots pushing levers built by robots, you'll get robotic play.

noah's picture

7 minutes of murk, 20 minutes of play, and far too many in-vid comments. Find Session 2 of Planetary Convulsionary Evolutionary here on YouTube.

Ross's picture

I think you guys are all doing your characters out of their Level Bonuses - if they are third level then attacks, defences and skill checks should all benefit from an extra +1 for level (its half your level rounded down) in addition to the characteristic bonus and proficency / skill bonus etc.  

noah's picture

Find our 3-hour Session 3 of Planetary Convulsionary Evolutionary 4e here on YouTube. In which Ross and I are on a scary-similar wavelength when it comes to Dragonborn warrior-women in business suits.

This was an intense session, in terms of learning curve, creative investment and outcomes of all kinds. The goal of these recordings has been to teach myself, to demystify actual play particularly from the GM's side. I say, with some pride, that this could be the jam session that makes one person run out to buy a guitar and another decide that they'd rather stick to Guitar Hero.

Ross's picture

That was brutal! All your expressions after that roll!

Picking up on one of the on screen comments I've found the design of the low level monsters, goblins, kobold etc. in 4e to be really fun. They do enough interesting things to be a challenge but don't seem over powered, and reward the DM for applying some strategy but also playing to their desires and motives.

noah's picture

Your comment about low-level monsters is really encouraging to hear! I found the Zombie Rotters a bit boring to play turn after turn...even if they're low-level minions, I'd like to get to play more dynamic enemies in our next dungeon. (I lightly kicked myself after the session for forgetting that Al'dread and Shal'houb had a bunch of freshly butchered meat lying around...surely something those zombies would have been interested in if I'd been playing them as a touch less robotic!)

Also, you can see us sometimes remember and sometimes forget to add 1/2 of the level to To-Hit rolls and Skill Rolls. I'm hoping we can dial in some of those details next session. 

Ross's picture

Your comment about low-level monsters is really encouraging to hear! I found the Zombie Rotters a bit boring to play turn after turn...even if they're low-level minions, I'd like to get to play more dynamic enemies in our next dungeon. (I lightly kicked myself after the session for forgetting that Al'dread and Shal'houb had a bunch of freshly butchered meat lying around...surely something those zombies would have been interested in if I'd been playing them as a touch less robotic!)

I think minions are, of their nature, a bit more single note and not expected to hang around too long. Maybe something to think about, especially with a small group of players, would be to have only a couple of minions and take the extra XP from your encounter budget to add a template to another monster, especially one that gives it Leader powers and so can take advantage of the minions being around. Or add a trap which could make manouvering around the minions more challenging / surprising depending if the PCs spot it.

Ross's picture

I saw your video about preparing this dungeon, which was very cool (maybe we could link to it form here, is that okay?). I'm interested in how you were thinking about the monsters during prep and whether that changed during play - specifically the Dragonborn woman, was she concieved as a person who the players might intereact with and maybe fight / maybe not or as first and foremost an adversary and only the events of play widened the possibilities? Or is that not a distinction that makes any sense?

Ross's picture

Oops, sorry, I see you already posted a link to your video in a different post entirely! (here https://adeptplay.com/comment/5015#comment-5015)

noah's picture

Thanks for dropping the link, Ross! It's a great question. I conceived the Dragonborn as "just" a character, not an adversary. I knew a bit about her backstory, a bit about her personality, where she was right then, the mighty magic she was working, and why. And that was it.

This next thing is going to make me sound like a Protestant reporting on their private relationship with the Lord, and you will just have to take my word for it, but whenever I catch myself imagining "What X character will do if the PCs do THIS," I stop myself, lay the prep aside and do something else. This goes for when I'm GMing or not. Just because I don't see any value in trying to forecast play.

When you were designing dungeons and creating characters for 4e, did you have a particular approach to conceiving the NPCs before play?

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