Busy, busy, with well-paying whitecollar-slaving. Only now time to report on the weekend a week ago, when I was at Jycon. It’s a new boardgame convention in central Finland – very good all-around arrangements, I have the utmost faith that it’ll do well in the future if the organizing association becomes well established.
I only played two games at the convention. One was a Diplomacy Finnish Championships trial wherein I secured my own entrance to the championship finals later in the year; the (shortish) game is being analyzed at the boards right now. The other was around 24 hours of Dungeons & Dragons, split over three days. The adventure was Keep on the Shadowfell, the introductory adventure of the new 4th edition of D&D. As the adventure is still pretty fresh and the actual game hasn’t come out, I thought that somebody might be interested in my impressions.
The GM was my brother Markku, who has decades of experience with D&D – as I understand it, he started with the first edition of AD&D sometime during the ’80s. This decade Markku has played extensive campaigns of third edition, ranging from participating in my own experiments to the hardcore grind of the World’s Largest Dungeon. Markku is very excited about the new edition of the game, so it wasn’t difficult to arrange for us to meet midway in Jyväskylä for a weekend of gaming with some mutual friends and associates.
The Shadowfell experience
Most likely the reader is already aware of the gist of the adventure (and if you don’t want to be, I certainly don’t recommend reading an actual play report on it!), so just a short recap: the adventurers journey to the town of Winterhaven on some pretense, only to get entangled in a plot to loose the dark, undeady powers of Orcus to the world. Sounds good to me: classic fantasy tropes and heroic action.
We had specifically agreed beforehand that the group would play serious D&D, staying faithful to whatever the vision of the designers might be. This proved a challenge to myself and the others with less recent and less… hardcore D&D experience. Dungeons & Dragons is some wacky, idiosyncratic shit! I’m first in the line when it comes to lauding challengeful adventure gaming with little character focus and lots of situation-based maneuvering, but this was old-style D&D with no holds barred: kobold attacks wave after wave, utterly relentless and unmotivated, slaughter and looting, trips to town to convert to gold, rinse and repeat: hack ‘n slash gaming, in other words.
Now, while I have some several years of experience with sorts of D&D myself, and I’d even lay claim to some expertise when it comes to “adventure gaming” in the larger context, hack ‘n slash is something I’ve only ever done on the computer. I am not kidding when I say that I and numerous other Finnish roleplayers (perhaps others as well, I don’t know) really, truly never grew into roleplaying through the hack ‘n slash format. My earliest roleplaying was challenge-based like D&D is, that’s true, but it was also strongly setting-based and situational: I have never, truly spent any considerable time playing a game where you’re supposed to collect experience points and treasure as a matter of meta-game efficiency instead of in-game, character-based motivation. My first experiences with D&D were with AD&D 2nd edition sometime during the mid-nineties, at which point I found the game quite antiquated and clumsy compared to the much more sophisticated Runequest, say. If the 3rd edition of the game didn’t take such a radical break as it did, I doubt that I’d have familiarized myself further with it to this day.
As the reader might imagine, our group, which was split half and half along these lines, faced some considerable friction and negotiation over how we were going to play in the first place. My side of the party was simply flabbergasted: we were here to look for cultists, and now we’d need to go hunt kobolds for some two-penny noble instead? What for? Experience? What’s that, my character would like to know? What – we really are directing our characters on meta-game basis here? They’ll die horribly if they go directly after the cultists? And there’s gold and treasures too, with the kobolds? But my character is a honorable mercenary, and he already took that quest from the temple to investigate this cult thing! Speaking of which, that asshole lord Beam (the Finnish nickname Lord Padraig soon gained from us for his boorish attitude, “lordi Parru”) is clearly either co-conspirator or a witless tool of the cultists!
If we were younger and less experienced as roleplayers, I’d say that we’d have suffered complete meltdown pretty soon in the adventure, with my character getting thrown in jail, another going to suicide-by-kobold horde and the rest quitting in disgust over such in-game essentials as cost of door-replacement and the devil-may-care attitude of this so-called lord of Winterhaven. Luckily, we’re all old hands at negotiating play, so we just talked about it long enough to hassle out what we were doing there: this would not be free roleplaying as we’re used to, this would not involve characters negotiating their own goals, the GM would not allow stupid mistakes or innovative tactics on the part of the party: our participation in the on-going structure of the game would be facilitative only, with the GM framing each combat encounter in sequence. Our characters would go on to gleefully tackle each challenge, no matter how weird in the setting context.
After we figured out the constraints, play certainly got by quicker. There were still lots of negotiation over how and what we were allowed to do, but as the GM diligently bashed at us, we learned to be less and less “smart” in the conventional sense and more and more D&D-savvy: we would move around with characters attached from the hip, would not question quest-givers, would not set a forest-fire to smoke out the kobolds, would walk gleefully into traps and steal everything not bolted down. Everything certainly felt much smoother as we went along, but it was also conciderably duller to play – at the end the GM just decided to skip ahead in the dungeon into the high point encounters instead of worrying about the, frankly, pretty pointless pacing fights in-between. This enabled us to “finish” the keep in pretty exactly 24 hours of play, dying gloriously in a final fight against the evil Krakoa, the Living Island (or something like that, D&D naming convention is bland enough to make it impossible to remember this stuff).
The whole experience is too extensive to detail here, but I have some high (or low, depending on your viewpoint) points to share:
- My first character was actually a joy to play, perhaps because I haven’t gotten to play a lot of these games in the player position. My Dwarven Fighter Butcher Mor (further syllables pending experience gain) quickly developed a personality as one of the Dwarves of Brassmount wherein Kobolds are considered both a staple and delicacy. (Obviously, this was me rationalizing why my character was so gleeful in murdering helpless kobolds.) Mor was a bastard who hoped to win a longer name for himself in the world, as well as start his own restaurant chain based on murdering “monstrous” humanoids and eating them. He would utterly refuse any evidence of intelligence from kobolds, being culturally habituated to rationalizing it away on behaviorist grounds: he would routinely describe kobolds, not as acting, but “behaving” in certain ways “by instinct” or “adaptation”. Mor was also utterly devoted to our Walord, the leader and founder of our company of adventurers – he was a honorable and courageous dwarf, after all. In a word, Mor was quite fun to play, and it took some considerable personal enjoyment out of the play to have him die ignomiously.
- While Mor’s nature was developed during the first scenes, so was the rest of the party, especially my brother Jari’s character, the Walord. The thiefling Walord (I’m not the one doing the typo, it’s on the character sheet), one of the premade characters in the adventure, is special in that it’s the only character whose description actually includes a nugget of setting or situation information – the rest of the characters all have completely irrelevant descriptions like this: “As a halfling, you are resourceful and known for your quick wits and steady nerves. As a rogue, your job is to dart in and deal massive damage, and use your skills to aid your allies as necessary.” Not so with our walord! His description stated that he was “inspired by the military tradition of his ancient ancestor empire of Ba-Tur” or something like that; we quickly seized upon this sole point of character definition provided in the adventure and spinned out his story as this visionary warrior looking to restore the glory of his ancestors. The GM was rather annoyed, as apparently Batur or whatever is supposed to be an evil empire – which of course opens the question, why ever would a Good-aligned Walord be inspired by it?
- Our whole party, apart from the Walord, was killed in the third combat encounter of the adventure. Reading through the adventure material now, it seems to me that this was mostly due to the GM being a tad too logical in in depiction of the setting – pretty ironic, considering that he mostly spent his time punishing us for being too logical and setting-immersed. In this case, though, the GM forgot to remain true to the instructions of the scenario that stated that the kobolds inside the waterfall cave would blissfully wait inside for the characters to murderize their companions outside and heal afterwards – I imagine that the 6th level encounter inside the cave would just barely be survivable for 1st level characters intent on escaping for their lives (or munchinizing, or having a GM that allowed actual strategy and tactics instead of just rolling-to-hit), but when you combine that with the encounter outside with no breathing space, it’s a wonder that even the Walord survived to hire new companions and return to Winterhaven a few weeks later.
- My new character was Lidda the halfling thief, who was soon pronounced the most powerful character of them all. This was probably due to our GM having a rather free-wheeling interpretation of how hiding in combat works. (Or who knows, I certainly don’t; for all I know it was just like it’s supposed to go.) Regardless, Lidda was a tad too character-ful as well at first: for instance, she was inexplicably unwilling to attack and murder “human rabble” which attacked the party at one point, rather obviously somehow magically compelled. It was as if she couldn’t differentiate between Player Characters, Non-Player Characters and Monsters! What’s up with that, Lidda? Don’t you know that “human rabble” are monsters and not persons? Anyway, Lidda also had this intricate plan for getting into the keep, involving her disguising herself as an evil gnome whose equipment she took after capturing said gnome. (Sad story, that gnome: Lidda explicitly spared him, only to have the “good-aligned” human wizard kill the poor bugger when she turned her back.) Soon enough Lidda learned, though, that the goblins in the keep were just as murderous towards evil gnomes as good-aligned halflings, so in that regard it was a waste of time. After I had also demonstrated my D&D-failureness a couple of times by doing long-range and mid-range scouting (which apparently breaks the system in D&D), I pretty much just gave up and let the GM run us through the encounters in the way they were supposed to be played.
- The last fight of the adventure was rather unlucky for the adventurers: two died while two got away. I suppose that Krakoa also awakened his evil Orcus-mojo after the adventurers escaped, after which darkness presumable swept over Winterfell. (I don’t exactly know what happened; the adventure does not dwell on the possibility that the adventurers would fail.)
I probably shouldn’t bitch about something as integral to the game as this, but it seems that I simply can’t get over some of the basic features of D&D fantasy. Namely, the fantasy races suck ass, as far as roleplaying is concerned; I get immediately ousted from any semblance of serious fiction when all the heroes are some sort of weirdo non-humans, their enemies are intelligent small lizards and everybody in town seems to think it completely natural that they’re conversing with an intelligent half-dragon or something of the sort.
Of course this weirdness doesn’t end with character races, it continues with xp grabbing, a weird economy and non-player characters who apparently have no minds at all. Characters are promised 250 gold pieces for the whole adventure, while they already loot more than that from some random kobolds in the second encounter. Meanwhile the same characters are supposed to risk their lives for 100 gold pieces, in total. And everybody thinks that it’s fair and just for them to kill the kobold highwaymen and appropriate their loot, instead of returning it to the citizens of Winterhaven. Real nice guys, these.
This is a matter of taste, you understand, but as far as I’m concerned D&D can go hang, insofar as the setting goes. If I were given my way, my character would spend all his time deconstructing his environs: why is it OK to mass-murder these folks over here, but not these other folks? Why are these Gods constantly throwing lightning bolts at everybody? Why is it all like somebody took two tokes too many out of the long pipe? I find it ridiculous that I’d actually roleplay in a setting like this; works for a miniature fighting game to be sure, but makes no sense at all for an adventure roleplaying game, I think.
Impressions of 4th Edition
Based on my experiences of play:
4th Edition D&D is situated solidly in the exact hobby space that Warhammer miniatures games dwell in: it’s directed at 14-year old teenage boys looking for a skirmish battle game with intricate campaigning options. Its strength as compared to Warhammer is mostly superior campaign rules learnt the hard way by 30 years of campaign-type roleplaying. It is ironic that the campaign structure of 4th Edition seems weakest by far of any D&D edition – I could not imagine playing a campaign of this, frankly, if it was all as frail and static as the Keep on the Shadowfell. Individual combat encounters are tied together by the thinnest of strands of causality, all carefully delineated and factored into the adventure structure, with no space for player creativity.
The rules-system is superior for its purpose, however, being by far the most balanced and tactically interesting version of D&D. My only complaint at this point, concerning combat, is that the whiff factor is just insane: there’s nothing more annoying than having an encounter or per-day power that you lose because you missed the attack roll when activating it. It’s not really rewarding to blow all your interesting special abilities with no effect and get stuck rolling that “Sly Flourish” ten times in a row, like my halfling rogue ended up doing most of the time. Time will tell how all this scales for higher levels.
If this sounds like condemnation by the way of faint praise, that’s because it is: I find myself utterly disinterested in the kind of fantasy “roleplaying” provided by the game depicted in the Shadowfell. I suspect that the GM’s book for the whole game will provide for considerably more leeway in campaign creation; I’ll be interested to read it to see how and whether it supports my style of adventure gaming at all, or if it’s all this same kind of railroaded encounter-strings. Regardless of GMing paradigm, though, I suspect that the character and combat rules will make it rather difficult to play anything where player maneuvers outside combat affect anything meaningfully: from our experimentation it seems that you can’t really buck the system by surprising helpless enemies (automatic maximum damage on the first strike), bluffing the enemy (apparently they’re immune to it), choosing your battles (at least here the GM is playing the illusionism game: the enemy is only there when he feels like it), finding allies or any other way. And when battle is actually joined, the system is so carefully balanced that the luck of the dice is really the sole variant in the events.
I do, however, intend to fiddle some more with the game once the actual books come my way. I don’t think I’ll do any roleplaying with this game (too strange, unbelievable and cliched setting for me, and apparently the game has no interesting rules for stuff outside fighting at all), but I could imagine running some miniature skirmishes with the local Warhammer teenagers.
Design of the Keep on the Shadowfell
As a separate point, Shadowfell is similarly two-pronged: on the one hand each individual encounter is a slick design and supposedly interesting, on the other hand I find myself utterly disinterested in the encounter-string model of adventure that lacks even the most rudimentary dynamics. I would never go into designing a D&D adventure that didn’t have some kind of opportunity cost for taking a rest, for instance – otherwise the only thing keeping the players from resting their characters after every fight is group contract, which is again the kind of wacky shit that I don’t brook. Similarly, making an adventure where characters are motivated to do quests just because you get xp from them is… I don’t even have the words, really. Not my idea of fun roleplaying, let’s say.
I’m sure that the actual game does not require it, but I think it’s pretty funky when non-combat encounters are labeled “interludes”. At least the designers know what they’re doing, I guess.
Let’s take a look at the structure of the adventure by the way of flow charting the encounters:
I’ve marked the main route towards foiling the plan of the Orcus cult in red. The blue side-quest thingy is one of the three adventure hooks players are provided with at the beginning. The black encounters are purely optional, and as far as I can see are provided with no character motivation at all to explore. The “Hobgoblin barracks” is the only side-track that pertains to the rest in any way, as the hobgoblins there explicitly follow the characters later if they aren’t slaughtered then and there. The green scenes are non-combat interludes that do not, as far as I can see, affect anything at all in any way.
What confounded me constantly when playing was that according to the GM and the experienced hack ‘n slash contingent of the group we were supposed to run around doing all these side-quest things that had nothing to do with what our characters were in the scenario to accomplish: when we got into Winterhaven for the first time, that bastard Lord Beam was already there, ready to proffer that kobold sidequest as if his town weren’t in danger of getting run over by the forces of darkness. (Quite a rude awakening at our characters when they found out that the kobold sidequest wasn’t even level-appropriate; Lord Beam had been uncharacteristically cunning in sending the meddling adventurers to their deaths.)
The same phenomenon repeated itself again and again. If I were just playing my character, I certainly wouldn’t have him go and get into trouble with the goblins there, for example, when he full well knew from interrogating a goblin prisoner that the way down to Krakoa was nowhere in that direction. And that Gelatinous Cube – the way to that direction is explicitly blocked with a sign that says “keep out”. Regardless, according to the GM we’re supposed to go through all these extraneous encounters, murderizing monsters to gain xp and loot to get strong enough to encounter the cultists down below. In a believable world, in which my adventure gaming has traditionally been situated, endangering your life fighting carnivorous mushrooms (or whatever a gelatinous cube is) are not a part of the sound tactical package for overcoming the forces of darkness.
What adds to the overall weirdness in D&D is the rest system – instead of fighting a life and death fight against a dynamical and smart death cult, we’re cleaning a dungeon room by room and going up into the wilderness to rest in between for days at a time. And regardless of how long we spend out there, Krakoa is still down there just finishing his Orcus incantations when we first get into his room. Talk about static adventure planning!
Adventure & campaign design: vectors of influence
This was something I developed a lot in our break conversations during those “magical” 24 hours on the Shadowfell: why did the adventure suck so much? My theory is that it was because the encounter-based adventure structure did not allow for enough of vectors of influence from one scene to the next. What this means is that there simply was not enough continuity and long-term decision-making involved in the adventure for it to feel like anything more than separate sessions of skirmish.
This same concept holds true for both adventure design and campaign design, in roleplaying as well as war games: if you want a meaningful campaign experience, you have to provide for vectors of influence from one scenario to the next. Computer games often have campaigns that lack this feature, which simply comes to mean that those campaigns are not useful for the added value of strategy proffered by a campaign; rather, they are useful in that they’re prepackaged scenario-sets that remove the necessity for the player to choose what to play next himself. I know that this is how it works for myself, anyway: when I play something like, say, Command & Conquer, I choose to play the “campaign” simply because that way I’ll get a suitably paced set of scenarios that highlight different parts of the overall game. But this has little to do with real campaigns of interconnected scenarios like evidenced in classical rpg adventures (what is called an “adventure” in a challenge-full rpg is often a “campaign” in war game terms, insofar as instances of framed conflict scenarios are concerned) and wargames.
The Shadowfell adventure, as it fails to provide for any interconnectivity between the individual skirmishes (apart from accumulating xp and treasure: a lame connection that has little significance in the short term), is a campaign only in the computer game sense of bunched-together encounters. I believe that we would have been favorably served by playing it like Descent, which I played quite a bit last year; it was often remarked over our Shadowfell sessions how Descent does almost everything provided by Shadowfell in a superior manner. I even understand that the new campaign mode for the game actually has some strategic choices involved, instead of the humdrum railroaded encounter strings Shadowfell has to offer.
The GM factor
I should perhaps note that as always, the nature of the gamemastering certainly affects the overall experience in a D&D game. While I don’t begrudge Markku his style of Dungeon Mastering, I certainly wouldn’t be so quick with the stick myself – Markku was quick to squash any and all plans we made that did not accord with commonly accepted D&D tactics, such as using advance scouts (one would think that this’d be a good idea, but apparently you’re only ever supposed to scout at most 10-15 meters in advance of the party in D&D), priorizing our strategic goals (like, say, dealing with the death cult before some kobold highwaymen), bluffing monsters (I still have difficulty believing that all the trouble I went through with my evil gnome disguise did nothing) and all the other things we invented that weren’t explicitly included in the adventure. I do think that part of this has to do with the D&D rules system – it does not reward risk-taking or innovation in any way or form, while punishing the same horribly in the case of failure. The few times our dice-rolls succeeded so well that the GM couldn’t hit us with a stick, the results were lukewarm at best – a phrase of inconsequential scene description or a +1 to some attack check. When these are the conditions, it’s no wonder if players put their faith to substantial to-hit bonuses and lots of hitpoints instead of inventive strategy and tactics.
I have some hankering to run the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure myself later, when the core books are released – I already suggested this to Markku when we were playing, in case he’d like to try the adventure from the other side of the table. I believe that I’ll need to rework the adventure quite a bit to stand it, though; I want believable character motivations, solid tactics from the enemy, dynamically changing environments and some reason for the characters to actually press on and endanger themselves instead of methodically spending 24 hours in recuperation after each skirmish. Oh, also, dynamic and staggered adventure goal array, so the adventurers actually have some meaningful reason to, say, retreat when the fight is going against them. There simply can’t be satisfying challenge roleplaying for me without these things, it seems; the play without them is just a matter of miniature skirmish battle game, not anything where I’d care to put in any effort at roleplaying.