So, this weekend held the much-anticipated “Day of Dagon (and Friends)” one-shot, which Ebbs and I had been preparing for several weeks. While the basic premise was a pretty simple one, and it seemed like everyone had fun (at least on some level), I can’t help but feel like the whole experience has left a bad taste in my mouth.
The format was a simple one: the rise of 4e brought with it the concept of the “delve” style dungeon—a 3 encounter dungeon, culminating in a “boss fight” during the 3rd encounter. We followed this format near-exactly, with a Blood War skirmish to start, followed by a raid on an Abyssal fortress, then a confrontation with our BBEG du jour, Grazz’t.
The first encounter was a massive series of minions, each with an aura that deals additional damage to adjacent foes. While the vast majority of the characters were melee characters, their natural resistances and their sheer number of hit points made the auras negligible. Rather than weakening the characters, it strengthened them, giving them quicker access to a milestone (and the action point/item use combo that comes with it).
My own responsibility, the second encounter, was meant to be a highlight of 4e encounter design. The Abyssal fortress featured Doomlight crystals (crystals which exploded with force damage when hit by area-effect powers), several traps (a soul-stealing mosaic and “kissing maiden” push traps), and a rickety bridges flowing over a river of psychic fire, which in turn powered a demonic generator.
Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. The encounter ran for almost 15 full rounds, with each round taking what felt like forever. The PCs were pinned on one side of the river of fire, never encountering most of the traps. When one of the characters—Will’s assassin—stepped onto the mosaic and his soul was consequently attacked, he grew frustrated with his alternatives and many attacks were wasted trying to destroy the 300 hit point trap.
While this encounter weakened the party, it took over 3 hours to complete. On paper, it was a balanced encounter—several of the monsters were minions, and none of them exceeded Level 28 (including the traps)—but in reality, poor tactics and design (on both sides of the table) slowed down play.
The final encounter with Grazz’t was almost a joke, once we got there. Grazz’t won initiative, immediately dominating two of the party members—including the paladin/invoker who had been buffing everyone’s defenses heavily. On her turn, Grazz’t forced her to blow her major defense buff and began forcing the party into attacking one another. In between blasts of Unholy Blight and Waves of Sorrow, Grazz’t continued to dominate the group, including the artificer, from whom he sucked off a Healing Infusion.
When at last we called it a night, at 11pm, Grazz’t was still in quadruple-digit hit points, while the party were down to naught but at-wills. Game was called with a pretty convincing battle-of-attrition win for the demon lord. While I was reveling before the game in table smack-talk, the actual event resulted in no deaths, no maiming, and no climax.
Thinking back, I’m pegging a few reasons for this:
1) Fear of dailies.
Hands down, the second encounter would have been over much, much, much quicker had anyone actually used some of the abilities that they get on a daily basis. The entire party seemed to have a preternatural fear of “wasting a daily” on Encounter 2, which only shrank their damage output to smaller levels. Had they actually used their dailies earlier on, they might have escaped with less overall resources spent in Encounter 2.
2) Poor Party Design
Ugh—this was a killer. All but 2 of the characters in the one-shot were melee-based characters, with minimal (if any) ranged abilities whatsoever. This created bottlenecks at several points on the battlefield (which allowed my artillery/controller monsters to blast away with impunity), and created several conflicts over marking/paladin-challenge. Further, the party had absolutely no ability to control the battlefield, and few characters had any multi-target effects, much less status effects to level against the enemies. Needless to say, in terms of battlefield rights, they got pushed around.
3) Lack of Player Knowledge
This one’s hard to get around, especially considering that most of the group were playing these characters for the first time. However, with a month of notice with which to build a character and a test-run during the previous week from Ebbs, it’s almost not an excuse. However, at countless times, we had to double-check rules and basic, fundamental abilities were forgotten. As an example: When Jules and I built her character—Jesus de la Morte—two things drove her character: the ardent vow ability (which adds damage to her next attack) and dark reaping (which, again, adds damage to an attack, and heals her). Neither ability was used once through all 3 encounters. This isn’t meant to rag on her—the above is just a good example. Similarly, the warden never once marked a target, despite having absolutely stellar marking abilities and the artificer barely touched his encounter powers or dailies, instead opting for Magic Weapon or Thundering Armor. Further, aside from the aforementioned defensive buffs, I can’t remember anyone using a single utility power. Surely there should have been something? However, that lack of knowledge/execution was murderous.
I guess I make it sound like it’s all the players’ fault. It wasn’t. A lot of this came down to our end as GMs. Some examples:
1) Too much at once.
This fault lies solely with me. I had endeavored, at the beginning of the planning, to create a “complete” encounter…at least as it’s defined in DMG II. In that, I succeeded, but perhaps a little too well. I included interactive terrain, unique (and difficult!) monsters, traps, and a skill challenge (which was summarily ignored). All in all, it was way too much to keep track of, for both the players and myself. With nearly 15 separate initiatives on the table, the encounter quickly became a bogged-down mess. Looking back, I almost can’t imagine doing the same thing again, as it’s simply too much mess on the table.
2) Inconsistency in the speed.
One of the things we were pressing for, as GMs of this event, was to keep everyone moving quickly, so that things would stay fresh. Unfortunately we had forgotten to bring the “Karl-o-meter” (a 2-minute egg timer) to keep everyone on their toes. As such, players (and us, too—we were at fault just as much) began taking longer and longer on their turns. This really reached a head about halfway through Encounter 2, when I actually snapped at a player who wasn’t ready, and who was being exceptionally unclear about weighing his options. Driving home, I felt really horrible about that…while I smack-talk quite a bit around the table (and don’t exactly shy away from profanity while I’m at it), I’ve never really spoken with spite like that…and it’s not something I like. I guess I chalk it up to being irritable over the inconsistencies, but those are things that could have been prevented in the first place.
3) Impossible situations.
When designing the encounters and prepping the monsters, both Ebbs and I desired to go “no holds barred”. This was 30th level play, after all! If the players can whip out divine apocalypses at a moment’s notice, why shouldn’t we? The problem with this comes with the various discrepancies held between characters. The aforementioned paladin/invoker and her cleric companion both utterly refused to cross the bridges in Encounter 2, as doing so required an Acrobatics check (neither of which they were trained in, nor did they have an alternate method of movement).
Similarly, the bullywug ranger, in Encounter 3, would simply be dominated for the entirety of the rest of combat had we continued—his Will defense was so low that Grazz’t would be able to dominate him on any roll but a 1. (Ironically enough, he was nearly unable to hit the paladin/invoker, who abused the hybrid-multiclassing rules to pick up a massive daily defense buff as an encounter power, sending her defenses soaring above 50.)
In essence, we ended up putting characters in situations that made it impossible for them to succeed. “But Warlock,” you say, “they’re fighting in Hell! It’s supposed to be impossible.” Well, yeah…I agree, there’s always supposed to be a chance of success. Here, it became an exercise in futility. And that’s not fun for anyone.
I hate to say it, but I feel like much of this whole experience has only further soured me on really-high level D&D. The disparities between overly-specialized characters, coupled with the continual one-upmanship of the GM/Player relationship, makes for a Gygaxian nightmare of attack-parry-counter that loses the fundamental appeal of gaming.
Ironically enough, I did feel positive about one major thing. As we were packing up, the player of the paladin/invoker mentioned that she wished we had played this in 3.5e, saying “It’d be like Laser Tag with rockets!” I disagreed. If anything, that’d be worse—with no drama, no tension—just a simple matter of who failed a saving throw first. Despite its problems, I’d rather spend 6 hours in 4e, and end in a stalemate, than spend 15 minutes in 3.5e, and utterly fail to deliver any excitement.