Dream Project 1.0: The Flight from Zekleinenezzar

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been running a mostly-weekly Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition game over the internet using MapTool and TeamSpeak. Generally, these tools have served us well, with the biggest problem being the voice chat; it makes conversation flow very awkward, with some people stumbling over other people’s sentences due to lag, and other people often unintelligible due to mic issues. MapTool is a bit clumsy, but it gets the job done.

For a while, I’ve wanted to run a tabletop game where the play shifted between a dark, gritty, waking struggle for survival and a wondrous, fanciful dream world that the player characters entered when they slept. This is not that campaign, but it uses the “dream world” motif that I’ve incorporated into several of my games. Below the fold, I’ll give a summary of the first part of the campaign for those who are interested.

Before then, however, I should discuss my current feelings on D&D4e. First, the combat system is a lot of fun and very slick, but it requires a lot of effort and attention to keep it from becoming a tactical strategy game. In the game so far, players basically just say “I’m using Scorching Burst” or “I’ll do a Deft Strike.” I much prefer a game where players describe their actions with more flavor and color, and often do actions that aren’t straight from their power list. I’ll work to encourage this in the future.

Second, I still don’t have a handle on Skill Challenges. They make sense on paper: a way to structure non-combat encounters to have the same randomness, flow, and structure as combat encounters. However, in practice they feel very clunky. Twice I’ve had a single character take lead on a major NPC conversation, and instead of having them make repeated Diplomacy checks, I’ve just roleplayed it out. Maybe I need to make the Skill Challenge mechanics more explicit; maybe I need to abandon them altogether.

Finally, the XP system feels slow. Ten encounters between levels is a lot. I’ll be giving double experience in 4e in the future, just to restore a sense of progression to the game.

Now, for the story so far. This is the first half of level 1.

The party found themselves in a small town called Meersha. Etzlojek, the Kobold rogue, was an orphaned kobold adopted by the local innkeeper. Eva, the human (or is he?) wizard, was serving as a journeyman under the local ritual magician. Donaar, the dragonborn warlock, was resting in his flight from his zombie-overrun hometown. Orilo, the goliath shaman, was passing through. While attending the periodic market day, the group were attacked by acquisitive drakes that were providing a distraction for some scouting kobolds.

2 Spiretop Drakes
1 Kobold Slinger
1 Kobold Skirmisher

After dispatching this group, the party was conflicted; these kobolds were skulking around, but were they actually attacking? Etzlo pointed out that the party had fired the first attack, and that the other kobolds might have just been attending the market. Others were skeptical. Sully, the local tavern-owner, de facto mayor, and retired paladin, recruited the party to help out in case the kobolds were a vanguard for a raiding party. Before long, a report came of kobolds advancing on the fields east of town. The party, with Sully joining them, went to investigate and were met by a group in green vests. The leader, some sort of priest, announced the coming of the god Zekleinenezzar, a green dragon, who would kindly take control of the town and its trade routes in exchange for one sentient sacrifice a year. The party refused. One of the kobolds lit a field on fire as a demonstration. A fight ensued.

1 Kobold Wyrmpriest riding 1 Fastieth
1 Kobold Slinger riding 1 Fastieth
4 Kobold Minions

Sully, fearing the approach of the dragon, prepared the town to evacuate to a city in the north, called Decolay. It had been out of contact for decades, but surely they were still around… right? In the meantime, he provided the party with money and supplies in exchange for delaying the dragon long enough for the town to escape.

The next morning, the dragon approached town with a small army. The party faced them with sneaky preparations, including Etzlo unsuccessfully posing as a worshipper.

1 Young Green Dragon
2 Rage Drakes
2 Lizardfolk Greenscale Hunters
8 Kobold Minions

This encounter was designed to be definitively, and clearly, out of the party’s league. This was actually my first time running a “forced-defeat” combat in a tabletop game. I was careful to telegraph the nature of the encounter; Sully stressed that the goal was to delay, not defeat, and encouraged everyone to run rather than die. Still, it was rough; three characters were knocked unconscious, including the dragon KOing Sully in two blows. The party performed admirably, killing all of the minions and a few of the others. Etzlo even killed one of the drakes with a sneak attack on the roof of its mouth, while being carried between its teeth. In the end, the party fled south to throw the dragon off the trail, and eventually met up with the caravan of fleeing townspeople.

Shortly, the townsfolk were attacked by a search party from the dragon’s forces.

1 Lizardfolk Poisonscale Magus
1 Lizardfolk Poisonscale Slitherer
2 Needlefang Drake Swarms

This was an unexpectedly rough encounter, due mostly to the party being spread out and isolated at the beginning of it. Orilo, sadly, passed on, and several other party members got tore up pretty bad. The good guys prevailed, though, and on the way north Sully recruited a young dwarven fighter, Diesa, from the ranks of the townsfolk. Diesa got introduced just in time for the caravan to be ambushed in a narrow pass by some well-prepared kobolds.

1 Falling Rock Trap
2 Kobold Slinger
2 Kobold Skirmishers

This combat was easy. This is partly due to my improper use of the trap, which triggered before combat and had no chance of damaging the party. I should have replaced its place in the encounter with a monster. The party cleaned up, and acquired two long rope ladders from the Kobolds that proved useful during Level 2.

It began to rain heavily as the party led the caravan onward to Decolay. Soon, they crested a hill, and saw the city below them. In flames and ruin. Through the mid-day darkness of the torrential thunderstorm, they could see that the city was not the beacon of light and learning that it had been years ago. A more welcoming shelter was a mysterious fortress on a hill overlooking the city… but investigation revealed it to be empty, with magical lights and a strange, sealed tower at the center. Conflicted, the party struggled to weigh the risks: should they take the townspeople into a city suffering an unknown collapse, or a creepy abandoned fortress?

Next time, I’ll finish summarizing level 1, including creepy singing children and a trip through the dream of a long-dead eladrin noblewoman.

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7 thoughts on “Dream Project 1.0: The Flight from Zekleinenezzar

  1. AHHH! That wants to make me play again so badly… Working on Phenomenon 32 has forced to me to put both my campaigns on hold just as things were getting really crazy. Not much longer, though.

    I’d love to hear more, especially in terms of what was going on in your head, and how you dealt with the players’ reactions.

  2. Skill challenges in 4th edition are inherently broken. Due to the way the mechanic works, the only strategy a party should ever employ is to have the person with the highest skill attempt the ability over and over (possibly with the second highest attempting to “assist” them to get the +2 bonus). Failing to do so results in a significantly reduced chance of success. This behavior stems entirely from the “Get X successes before Y failures” nature of the challenges. Allowing anyone else to try aside from the best substantially increases the chance of premature failure due to the multiplicative nature of such a the system. Just run the numbers for doing a DC 15 check by a skill 9 player versus a skill 10 player.

    1. This is accounted for in the DMGs; skills can only work for a certain number of successes, multiple skills are required for one challenge, and the GM is encouraged to discourage the “one player tries their highest skill” method.

      The original, unerrataed version from the DMG calls for an actual initiative sequence, which also prevents the one-PC-one-skill approach, but it was rightfully corrected, as it’s just not fun to have it operate that strictly.

      I don’t believe SCs are inherently broken, but they are very hard to design and implement well. This difficulty is out of proportion with the rest of 4ed, which is very easy to GM. I’m going to keep playing with them in our game, and see if I can get a better handle on them.

    2. The way I’ve been running them with my group actually is in an “initiative” order, in that we go around the room (who goes first doesn’t seem to matter). I’ll let them know the obvious handful of skills but encourage them to come up with a clever use of one of the skills their character is good at. Using this method, everyone seems pretty motivated to just use their own skills, we haven’t had to formalize what to do with aiding another. Clever ideas, good RP, rituals etc. all result in a bonus or rarely, an automatic success.

      Doing this, some of our most enjoyable 4E moments have been with skill challenges. We even ran a massive battle (hundreds of combatants, with us as pseudo commanders) as a series of skill challenges and small combats. Worked very well.

      The big design complication is having an interesting outcome for both success *and* failure. Passing a skills challenge can’t be the only way to move the plot forward. Once I started drawing all the skills challenges in a flow chart with pass and fail outcomes, things were easier.

      If you haven’t seen it, Keith Baker’s take on skill challenges is interesting: http://gloomforge.livejournal.com/12135.html. We don’t do exact what Keith discusses, but our results are largely the same.

  3. I would suggest giving Mumble a go for team chat; the audio’s almost skype-like in quality (i always found teamspeak the worst in that department), it is open-source and free to host anywhere you want :)

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