[D&D 4e] God it feels good to DM again!

Started by Ayyavazi, August 22, 2009, 02:45:34 PM

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Hey all,

Many of you have probably heard I don't have a group and haven't really played in a year or so (any game that is). Thankfully, that changed yesterday. I play with one other friend from work, and we have a D&D 4e game going.

So, lets get to the Actual Play and then I'll ask some questions about what is going on here.

I'm the DM, and my friend C is playing one character. Normally D&D4e suggests 4 to 5 players (or at least 4 to 5 characters) but the encounter mechanics basically allow a group of any number to work, whatever roles are covered, so long as the number of monsters doesn't vary much from the number of characters.

So, C, being a WOW player, decides to play what he knows and wants a Cleric. I make a Paladin character as support, which I run. I made both characters (to reduce load on a brand new RPG player) and briefed him on the rules.

C's character is a Cleric of Melora (nature goddess) which is a decision he made based on a really cool feat he wanted that required he worship her. It gives him occasional regeneration of HP.

The Paladin is a paladin of Melora (to ensure story continuity) that I have purposely made Mute as part of his training. This way I can resist the urge to play the Paladin s A GM PC. He is just there to follow C's character's lead.

I give a basic overview to C of the DM's dutuies and his duties as a player. I also explain that I don't want him to feel constrained creatively either in his combat actions (since 4e's structure is a little too constraining at times, and it can be argued that it removes all tactical considerations, or too many at least) or his input into the fiction. So, I lay out for him that if he wants to try something that his powers or the rules don't expressly permit, he can pitch it to me, and I'll debate it with him and do as much as I can to make it work. Also, if he has ideas of where he wants the story to go, he can do the same.

So, I start him off saying that he has a vision in which a town somewhere to the north is suffering from an evil plague, and Melora wants him to get rid of it. He chimes in and says he would rather have the local priest of his tribe (some Dragonborn worshipers of Melora. He chose Dragonborn as a race because it offered the best bonuses for a Cleric) have the vision, and send him on this quest. This seems fine to me, since he still wants to do the quest in the first place (not that I had anything prepared at all, other than this broad stroke). I don't know why he didn't want to have the vision personally, but I suspect it has to do with his WOW training, where quests are always sourced from someone else, and then you take them, rather than having internal drives.

So he goes off. I narrate that a couple of days of safe travel have passed as he works his way over his mountain range. Then he is ambushed in the night by a couple of goblins. This was his first real interaction with the rules, and it showed. I had to prompt him and remind him of what he could do and how those choices (which power to use) would influence things, roughly speaking. I didn't mind since I expected it and believe I remained patient with him.

The battle involved one goblin archer perched on a rock and another hiding in some bushes. Shiro (C's character) awakens thanks to the Paladin's warning (Heskan). The Paladin does his job (literally in the game sense of being a tank and also within the fiction, since he is Shiro's sworn defender against evil) and protects Shiro to the best of his abilities. C wants to combine his breath weapon with an actual weapon attack, kind of fusing them. I think the ideas is suitably dramatic and cool (plus it is encouraging his creativity) so I allow it, using the same attack rolls to figure out how well it works (he ultimately fudged on getting the breath weapon onto his mace, but still hit with the mace. I gave him some bonus damage for a cool idea) They run off the goblin archer and kill the one in the bushes.  Some minor wounds result from the fight, but the nights rest takes care of it. I award experience immeiately after the fight, but there is no treasure to find.

Upon awakening they must scale a cliff face to continue on their journey to the north. I have two lightning scorpions attack them on the cliff-face. I ignore the rules about climb checks while being attacked because I am trying to showcase the fact that he can do dramatic inspiring things beside the four or so powers at his disposal. He instead tries to climb down the cliff, fails, and falls 20 feet, taking some fairly heavy damage (at least for a level 1 character). There one of the scorpions follows him, and he pretty much uses his abilities as they are written. Trying to encourage some more creative thinking, I have Heskan grapple a scorpion and fall on top of it off the cliff, putting his falling damage into the scorpion rather than himself. Again, I suppose I fudged the grapple rules a little (grabs don't work like that, it would have taken two turns to set it all up RAW) and let it work with a single grapple check. In the end, both scorpions die and I award experience again. Still no treasure. That is where the first session (which lasted about an hour and a half) left off.


The session I had last night lasted closer to three hours, and was much more fun, for both of us. I started out by saying they had traveled a about ten miles or so down a mountain and into a valley, in which there was a small river with a bridge. On the bridge stood a cloaked human on a riding horse and Shiro and Heskan could obviously make out another bandit hiding out behind a rock. I again had no prep, so a simple toll to cross fight was what I had cooked up. Shiro approaches the bandit and begins making small talk, staying far enough away that the other bandit can't ambush them right away. He explains that he is a cleric of Melora and is searching for a plague-ridden town in the north. Following Mr. Baker's advice, I point him to the fun and we make up a name for the town, which I say the Bandit happens to have come from (Hampstead). After more questions (and some more quick-thinking) we determine that Hampstead is about a week's journey away on foot, but a nearby village (Barnhallow) is only a day away. The bandit still wants his toll, but Shiro wants to give him a blessing instead.

Normally, I would just have had the bandit attack, but I've learned a lot about GMing this past year, and decided to break out of the fiction for a moment and address C directly. I asked him what he wanted out of this encounter, because I had originally planned for a simple fight. He explained that he actually wanted to win a convert to the church of Melora from this encounter. So, I said ok, now that I know what you want, lets go forward. I let him start a skill challenge with Religion and Diplomacy as the key skills. As he starts talking to the bandits (Jim on the bridge, Eli behind the rock), Jim is unreceptive. At this point, Shiro is getting great rolls, but I want to kind of use this since he found it so interesting in the first place. So, I have Jim be callous and atheistic, too hard on his luck thanks to the plague, and too racist (he blames the elves for starting it) to listen to the words of Melora. Eli lost his sister Ellie back in Hampstead, so he wants a blessing for her spirit, which Shiro readily gives. As he gets closer (physically for the blessing) to Eli, Jim flips and tries to attack, but Heskan gets in the way. At this point, Shiro wants to create a holy wall between himself and Jim, and knock him unconcious. Technically speaking, he has none of the powers that would let him do that, nor enough actions in his turn to do that. But, he is really digging how this is going, and so am I, so I say sure, give me a religion check and we'll go from there. He aces it, so I say that the wall forms, but Jim isn't knocked out, he is simply stopped from getting to anyone or being able to hurt anyone. Furious, Jim rides away telling Eli he can go burn in his green foresty hell. Eli is a bit shaken up that his friend has done this, but is won over after some theological talk about Melora and her purity and greatness. None of the religious talk was glossed over with simple rolls though! C actually made up scriptures on the fly (short ones) and holy quotes and sayings that he used, and between the two of us we fleshed out  bit of what Melora teaches. So, we are diverting from the standard setting supplied in the book in order to open up our creative freedom, and making changes as they are necessary.

Also, C asks if there are evil elves in this world, and I tell him of course, the Drow. He says ok so they made the plague? I told him that as a character he has to wait and see, but if he wants the Drow to be behind it from a story point, sure, they can be behind it. But I also added in the caveat that nobody he is with or has met knows the difference between Drow and normal Elves, and I explain that I want this to be the case because it will make for an interesting encounter later on. (Initially I had made the the elves did it remark off the cuff and meant it to be a red-herring. But C was digging the whole thing so much, I just ran with it.) So, all being over, I award experience for the encounter as normal, even though there was no direct fight and the skill challenge was a little easier than it should have been for so much experience.

Now, Shiro and Eli and Heskan make their way to Barhallow to stock up before heading to Hampstead. We determine that Barnhallow does some trading with the Dragonborn tribes and Hampstead, and that Hampstead is a typical human/dwarvish settlement based on mining and farming. The humans trade their food for the dwarf mined metals and weaponry, and trade this weaponry in turn to Barnhallow for their Dragonborn traded goods, which the Dragonborn trade to Barnhallow for the weapons they get from Hampstead. This little economy took shape pretty quickly, but added a lot of depth to what was otherwise a simple eliminate the plague quest.

So I stopped here for a moment and asked C about the three encounters he had had so far, and asked which he liked best. He said he loved the third the most. He liked battling, and wanted more of it, but he really liked what he was able to do with that third encounter. He also expressed that he would like Eli to join the church, and maybe become a significant NPC or even party member later on, if the fiction supported that kind of decision for the character. He also said that from a character standpoint and his own preference, he would like to not have random fights with natural creatures, since it strained the idea that he was a chosen of Melora (why would animals attack a worshipper of the animal goddess?). So I said sure, I'll make sure that if something natural attacks you, it has a good reason (and we fleshed that out to mean its a pet or trained, or Shiro did something to piss it off). It is also worthwhile to note that I threw out the population design advice in the DM's guide, because it creates too many PC classed characters in the world and makes it fell like there's at least a hero in every town. I made C aware of this ahead of time, and told him that basically, Cleric, Paladins, Fighters and all those classes are only for the truly exceptional, and he should count himself as maybe one of a dozen such people in the world. There are few heroes and many dangers. But anyway, the point is that he wanted fights, but not too many, because he was getting into the fiction a lot and wanted to make sure that at least most of the fights were related somehow to improving the fiction and solving his quest. I wasn't using random encounter tables anyway, but this made it a lot easier for me since I knew all the fights should now make sense, with some side stuff thrown in occasionally to liven things up (and maybe provide more room for creative growth).

So, I had intended Barhallow to be a pretty simple stopover with nothing significant happening. We gloss over a gate scene where they arrive at dusk and the city is barred up. The guard lets him in so long as he promises not to get into trouble. Then I almost fell into the error of role-plying every scene, even the unimportant dull ones. So I stopped myself and addressed C again, and asked what he wanted. Did he want to explore every nook and cranny, or did he want me getting to the encounters and the bangs? He said he liked the second option, so I asked a follow up question. DO you care about the nickels and dimes you would have to count to figure out staying at the inn and paying for meals, or would you rather we skipped it and assume it all works out (since the cost is so low it is only significant for 1st level characters anyway). He said he would rather skip it, but then asked how he could make money with blessings and such! So, I explained that most common people don't have gold lying around they can give to strange wandering priests, but it would be reasonable to assume that the money he gets from any blessings or menial labor go toward his stay at towns and such. He was ok with that, and we moved on.

Shiro asks around the town to see if anyone had come here from Hampstead recently. I supply that sure, one man came, but he was dead and rotted by the time he got here. (this info was given after a night of rest at the town). Shiro wants to investigate the grave (dig it up), and so is directed to a grove outside of town. Getting there, he discovers that the area around the grave is dying, the soil is ashen and the grass is gone. As I am about to continue, he interrupts me and says that he would like one of the glossed over blessings to be that he helped a man out last night who was attacked by a strange shadowy figure. He healed his wounds. Then he wants to cut back to the grave scene. Bewildered, I say sure, that happened. I then describe that he finds a corpse with tarry consistency skin sloughing off of its bones. Hes disappointed by this, and addresses me as DM, saying he kind of envisioned the plague as a plague of undeath, and had planned for the grave to be empty (he had asked if the grave was empty, and missed the light in his eyes that said he really wanted it to be). He had wanted a zombie or something to have attacked the man. I said sure, we can do it that way, and looked up a zombie in the monster manual.

So he goes back to town and warns them that there's a plague-ridden zombie on the loose (in retrospect, I should have made this cause a mass panic, but instead I assumed the small town watch kept it quiet and handled it better than it should have). He sends Heskan out on patrol and stays with Eli, praying for help from Melora. During all of this, C explains to me that he wants to change back to the idea that he had the vision in the first place, not his priest. I say sure, its called a Ret-Con, and we can do it. So, taking his lead, I say that while he is praying, he has a vision of a child and his dog being attacked in the grove by the zombie. He then asks me what telepathic powers he has. I explain that since he's a cleric, mind powers are a little out of the question. He's disappointed, but doesn't give up. He asks about some kind of religious warning. I think its cool, so I ask for a religion check (this skill is fast becoming the "I want to do something supernatural but I don't have a power that says I can do it" skill. He makes it, so I say that Melora divinely warns Heskan about the situation.  C then asks if he can make some holy handkerchiefs to protect them from the plague. I remind him that in medieval times, people didn't know toxins could travel through the air. Plus, I didn't want him to just have all the tools he needed to fix the plague right away, since that removes the drama from it. He agrees, so long as he can get the tools soon enough. I make a mental note of it.

Shiro and Eli go to the stables and Shiro steals a horse so he and Eli can ride to the grove as quickly as possible. I decide that the vision I gave him was a precognition, and Heskan tackles the zombie before it attacks the boy. The boy and dog run to safety, and the fight begins.

Eli is terrified of the living dead, and sits paralyzed with fear atop his horse. Heskan battles the undead, and Shiro decides to try to quell Eli's fear with some words of wisdom and holy light (a natural 20 says he hits it out of the park, with religion) so he proceeds to close with the zombie after he bolsters Eli. Then Heskan lays some fiery breath on it, and Eli moves in for the attack. By the numbers, Eli botched it with a 1. But I turned to C and said, "Wouldn't it be more dramatic if, filled with Holy Righteous might, Eli smites the Zombie?" and C says yeah, that would have been awesome! So, it happens. The Zombie was at low HP anyway, so it wasn't a huge change from how things would have went. Interestingly, Shiro didn't try to do much when Heskan was bitten by the rotting zombie, or even when he ended up with a mouthful of the tarry skin, which they both knew was bad. I don't know if C is assuming I will keep the Paladin and his company free from harm or not, but I thought I was being obvious that this is a very virulent plague, and that it spreads easily.

From here, C wants an encounter where he exorcises the plague from the corpse. It goes against my better judgement (plus he lacks the ritual, but hey, when has that stopped us so far), but I say sure, we'll have a little skill challenge with Religion. He flubs it, so I ask him some questions. I ask what he wants to happen here. Does he want to leave the body and possibly have the village of Barnhallow infected, or does he want to burn the remains or what. He explains he wants to fight a ghost. And he wants it to come from the remains, since he botched the exorcism. I say sure. I look up an appropriate ghost monster, and have it rise out of the ground. The characters fight it and use all of their abilities as written to eventually kill it off. I have the tarry plague ridden body decompose instantly and the ghost's evil spirit coalesce into a necklace, the first treasure he has found yet! A level 3 Amulet of Health +1.

From here, we discuss the nature of the plague and how we want it to work so I understand how to influence things that come into contact with it. It is determined that the ghost rising out of the remains was only because the spirit was a disturbed spirit, probably thanks to the botched exorcism. C may at this point have the idea that he can successfully exorcise the plague next time, but I'll correct him if it comes to that. It needs to be harder than a single skill check, and I don't think he or I wants countless ghost fights for every time he fails. So, we determine that the plague can spread either through skin to skin contact, or through the undead. And the plague causes undeath once the victim dies. So its pretty serious stuff, and it can get worse fast. Still, he doesn't seem worried at all that Heskan accidentally ingested some of the stuff. Maybe when his skin starts rotting off he'll notice. However, there is no posssessing spirit causing the plague, its a supernatural ritual that has to be broken (which will stop the plague from starting again) and another ritual of some sort to cure the plague that is already present.

From here, Shiro decides to go back to town with Eli and Heskan. The watch-master is pretty pissed that they stole some horses, but calls it even since they wasted the zombie and saved a kid and his dog. The town sends them on their way with provisions and wishes them well, and the session ends with Heskan, Shiro, and Eli riding off into the sunset.

So, now for my questions. Is this Story Now? I think it is. I would also like some help analyzing the things I did that made it one agenda or another, and some help identifying how I can keep it going. Any suggestions on things to change in the rules (yes, I am asking for help in drifting) to promote the play that is already going on? After talking with C, he has expressed great interest in where the story is going, and wants to address these things. The only reason I think it is Story Now, is because I think the premise that is not explicit is, "How far will Shiro go for Melora?" Already he has shown that he will steal if it suits her ends. But that could just be my imagination, and it might just be straight up exploration. Maybe even Step On Up, since each encounter he succeeds at makes him more equipped for the next encounter, and so on until he eventually uses his resources to stop the plague.



That was a fun Actual Play read, thanks.

Is it Story Now?
I'm not sure, in that I'm not seeing evidence of premise "how far will Shiro go for Melora?" as highlighted. It's there, but it does not seem the focus, and it tends to buttress other things going on.

I'm seeing the shared content authority being the focus of the game as established with a free-form negotiation system.
You seem to get more jazzed and supportive when he offers backstory suggestions and situation color elements. This suggests Exploration (Right to Dream) is the focus.  Maybe a bit more detail on how you negotiated things, if your reasoning appealed to the type of genre you're trying to honor, then I'd be even more confident that's where you're headed.

I'd be curious if you drifted the rules toward: The Pool's victory narration, or something along Donjon's or Inspectres' rules for skill checks.  Where content authority is earned through the dice mechanic.  Or maybe some of the phrases from Polaris, that would be fun to see.

This might be useful in that, for now you've done a pretty good job of free-form negotiation about Content, but the system will strengthen that process.  Look for topics of Ron's about "chesting" for authority.  Right now it seems you allow him a blank check in most instances of adjusting the Content.  But soon enough, I imagine you'll want to set some fact in stone, or you'll approach the Czege Principle, where he'll feel he can just "Content authority" his way around any conflict, and suddenly the process will feel empty.


Thanks for your input.

As for how we manage the authority of content, my thinking is normally to try and work with anything he comes up with as long as it fits the flavor of the setting (which at this point is a set of broad brush strokes that I understand a little more than he does) and doesn't detract from the story being told, but instead increases the strength of the fiction. What I mean is that if it doesn't add a sort of richness and feeling of "this fits and would happen in this world" then I tend to oppose it. From what I understand, he views me as the final; authority for what goes in, but I am extremely reluctant to exercise the, "because I said so" principle, as I don't want to squelch his creativity.

I'll look into chesting. And I have already addressed the use of content authority as a means to get around conflicts. When he decided he wanted to convert the bandits I explicitly explained that I was going along with it because of our mutual interest and because it made sense as something that could work. I also stressed that it was not acceptable for him to do that on a regular basis, since that undermines the rules and the reward system in he first place, in that if he skill checks his way through everything (with content authority) then the majority of character rewards (in the form of his combat powers and paragon path abilities, and epic destiny) will be useless, and all he will care about are skill bonuses. He seems pretty on board so far, but I can see how it would go the other way. Thanks for the heads up, ad glad you enjoyed the account,