May 2008

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4

"When creating house rules for a game you love, it's easy to get carried away."
"You sunk my battleship! In Irkutsk! With the candlestick!"
"I'm all in."
- Basic Instructions, "How to Create House Rules" by Scott Meyer

May 21st, 2008


I'm not very good at publicity.

I'd like to say that this is because I'm a humble man. But I suspect the truth is that I'm egotistical enough that I believe everyone should recognize my brilliance without me having to tell them about it. (I kid... or do I?)

Seriously, though, the reality is that I just don't like dealing with bureaucracy, busywork, or paperwork. Publicity lies somewhere in the interstice between the three, and if I can figure out some way to procrastinate it, then I'll end up procrastinating it.

This is why Hervé Jeune had to spend about 5 years trying to get me to send him a biography so that he could put it up on the Guide du roliste, a French roleplaying/gaming site. I'm not even exaggerating when I say that: Every 45 days he would send me an e-mail like clockwork, asking me very politely to send him a biography. And every time I got the e-mail I would dutifully think to myself, "Yup, I should definitely do that."

And then it would sit in my Inbox until it would expire and disappear (Hervé had the AOL address I've had for a decade and a half). And then, a few days later, the new e-mail would pop up and I would think, "Yup, I should definitely do that."

Well, several months ago I finally got around to doing it. A couple of weeks later, Hervé sent me an e-mail telling me that the whole thing had been translated and that it could be found here. I can't read a word of it, but it looks pretty nifty. In fact, the whole site looks nifty.

Of course, Hervé sent me that e-mail more than two months ago and I'm only getting around to mentioning it here on the site now.

Which, I suppose, goes to show that I'm no better about publicity now than I've ever been.

Ah well...

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May 22nd, 2008


The Hollow runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through June 1st. But I've already started work on my next project: From June 28th through August 3rd of this year, I'll be appearing with Shakespeare & Company as Bolingbrooke in Richard II and as Oliver du Boys in As You Like It. (The company is also producing Servant of Two Masters.)

These shows run in repertory, and this'll be my first experience with that. I'm looking forward to it. I'm also looking forward to taking a large bite out of Shakespeare. Working with his words and his characters is a pure joy.

Lucas Gerstner is playing the title role in Richard II and Orlando in As You Like It.

Lucas and I first worked together earlier this year in Henry V at Theater in the Round: He played the Duke of Orleans and I played the Constable of France.

We're currently working together on The Hollow: I'm playing Inspector Colquhoun and he plays Edward Angkatell -- one of the suspects.

As Lucas puts it, our theatrical career together seems to be deteriorating: We started out on the same team. Then I suspected him of murder. Now I'm trying to kill him. Twice.

I figured that it could only go uphill from here. But then I realized there was always the chance that I could end up directing him in a production of Sartre's No Exit and literally send him to hell.

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May 23rd, 2008


As I mentioned yesterday, I'm going to be playing Oliver du Boys in As You Like It this summer with Shakespeare & Company. This will actually be the second time I've appeared in a production of As You Like It, the first being my inaugural show in college during the University of Minnesota's 1999-2000 season.

This leads to an interesting story:

Cast lists for the University of Minnesota were posted on a bulletin board in the basement of the theater building. Wendy Knox, the director of As You Like It, had chosen to list the roles in alphabetical order by the actor's last name. My name, of course, appeared right at or near the top of the list. So I almost immediately spotted it:


My heart leapt for joy. This was going to be my first show in college.

While I had seen a couple productions of the play before, it had been several years and I had never been particularly familiar with it. So I headed home, grabbed my copy of the Complete Works, flipped it open to As You Like It, and began to read -- eager to see what my role was.

It was only a couple of scenes before I saw my cue: Enter Jacques.

As I read I got more and more excited. Jacques is a major character in the play. Among other things, he says the famous lines about "the seven ages of man". This was going to be awesome.

I continued reading. And then, on literally the second-to-last page of the play, I read another stage direction: Enter Jacques du Boys.

Yup. A completely different character also named Jacques.

Now, Jacques du Boy gets a nice, meaty monologue. It's a lengthy piece that basically ends the play. It's a nifty little part. Plus, I ended up getting a variety of other lines for characters like "First Lord" to pad it out a bit. But Jacques du Boys sure as heck isn't Jacques.

Okay, fast forward eight years. I get a voice message from Shakespeare & Company offering me two roles: Bolingbrooke in Richard II (Richard's nemesis and the guy who becomes Henry IV) and "Oliver in As You Like It".

Hey! I already know this one! Oliver du Boys is the elder brother of Orlando, the main character character in the play. (He's also the older brother of Jacques du Boys -- who really shouldn't be confused with Jacques.) Oliver is a fun little villain who tries to kill Orlando and, thus, kick-starts the entire play. He's going to be a lot of fun.

So I pull out my Complete Works again and flip it open to As You Like It. I glance at the cast list, and what do I see?


... you have gotta be kidding me.

Sir Oliver Martext is the name of the priest who comes on at the end of the play and performs some marriages. (Does saying that there are marriages at the end of a Shakespearean comedy constitute a spoiler?) He has a grand total of three lines. He is so totally inconsequential that I didn't even know who he was and I had been in the play before.

Surely this couldn't be happening again... could it?

Nah. It wasn't. I'm playing Oliver du Boys. (Which, coincidentally, means that I'm making my way through the du Boys brothers. I figure the next time I'm in As You Like It that I'll be a shoe-in for Orlando.) But I find it amusing nonetheless.

And, seriously, what was Shakespeare thinking? Why do all of these characters have the same first name?

I figure it's personal. Shakespeare's just fucking with me. I must've done something to piss him off and now he's holding a grudge against me. I'm like Rob Paravonian, only instead of Pachelbel, the du Boys boys are my personal cross to bear.

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May 24th, 2008


During the 2000 presidential primaries I was evenly divided in my support for John McCain and Al Gore. If it had ended up being McCain vs. Gore in November, I was honestly unsure during that primary season which of them I would be voting for. If John McCain had been the Republican nominee and Al Gore had still selected Joe Leiberman for his running mate, I would have voted for John McCain in November.

(Why? While anti-Leiberman sentiments are easy to come by these days, my leeriness at the time was predicated entirely around Leiberman's pro-censorship positions. These were positions shared by Al Gore's wife Tipper. This meant that Al Gore had surrounded himself with voices preaching pro-censorship positions. Civil rights violations are, frankly, a nearly unforgivable political sin for me -- and, in a democracy, freedom of speech is almost certainly the most important civil right. Al Gore never actually crossed that line personally, but he was flirting with it dangerously in his selection of VP. That was the tipping point for me.)

As it turned out, of course, George W. Bush ended up being the Republican nominee. Bush wore his ignorance and incompetence on his sleeve and came pre-packaged with a long history of dismal failure. I knew he would be a complete disaster for this country and voting for Al Gore became a no-brainer. The Stakes were far too high.

In any case, eight years ago I was ready to embrace a John McCain presidency. I didn't agree completely with his politics, but I respected his principles, his intelligence, and his integrity.

But eight years has made a huge difference: Today I am vehemently opposed to a John McCain presidency. Why?

Well, here's one reason:

At some point during or after losing the Republican primary in 2000, John McCain made the decision that he would do whatever was necessary in order to secure his party's nomination in 2008. He became a political panderer and utterly sacrificed his personal integrity on the altar of personal ambition.

But more importantly, John McCain lost his moral compass during the past eight years. Frankly, John McCain lost my vote (and my respect) when he condoned torture. Repeatedly. John McCain -- a former POW -- should know better. And he should be ashamed to compromise his own ethical code in order to achieve his political aspirations.

(For the record, McCain loses a little more of my respect every time he tries to defend his pro-torture vote in February 2008 by pointing to the position he took vis-a-vis torture in 2005... which is when he first flip-flopped on the issue. Saying, "I didn't flip-flop on torture because I flip-flopped on torture in 2005," is, frankly, insulting to every intelligent and informed person.)

All of this was more than enough to turn me against the idea of a John McCain presidency. But recently even more disturbing news is beginning to break: John McCain's campaign has a corruption problem. Lots of corruption problems. He's also shown a remarkable willingness to break and/or bend the very campaign finance laws he personally championed.

Apparently I shouldn't have been so quick to give him a second chance after his involvement as one of the Keating Five.

Why is this important? Because the Republican party has a serious problem with corruption and cronyism. At a national level it's not hard to draw a line from Nixon (a name which has practically become a byword for corruption) to Reagan (the White House featuring the most criminal convictions in history) to Bush. But the congressional Republicans have been plagued by their own scandals (Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay, Duke Cunningham); as have Republican governors (Coingate, George Ryan, Ernie Fletcher, John G. Rowland). In short, their corruption is rampant at every level of government: National, state, and local. Heck, the Republicans even steal from themselves.

So when John McCain not only establishes that he's willing to compromise his own ethical integrity in order to achieve political power but also appears to engage in widespread, systematic corruption... well, that makes it impossible for me to support him for any political office. Nor can I have any faith in his ability to lead this country out of the troubled times that George W. Bush has left us stranded in.

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May 25th, 2008


For several months now my plan for 4th Edition has been to run the preview adventure -- Keep on the Shadowfell -- for my regular D&D group. My goal is to approach that experience with a completely open mind, see how it goes, and then use it to decide whether or not to spend the money on the core rulebooks. My current campaign, set in Ptolus, would stay 3rd Edition in any case. But if 4th Edition convinces me to make switch, then I'd probably use it for my next campaign.

A couple of days ago my copy of the module arrived from Amazon. I've now read through it, and have a few thoughts to share. So, on that note...


The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read it. And if you're in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn't be reading it.

You have been fairly warned.

(1) The production values of the module are disappointing. It has a cover price of $30 and Amazon had been advertising it as a  hardcover. It isn't. Two flimsy pamphlets and three poster maps are packaged in a lightweight cardboard folder. And when I say "flimsy pamphlet" I mean flimsy. The paper is of a lighter weight than that previously used in Dragon and Dungeon magazine and the "covers" of the pamphlets are of the exact same paper. I am extraordinarily gentle with my reading material, and after a single reading the ink is already being rubbed off the edge of one "cover". Frankly, I will be shocked if these last through a single session.

The poster maps are pretty nifty, although they follow the current WotC style of fetishizing light sources. Everything seems to glow: Walls, ceilings, furniture. These poster maps are lovingly rendered with computer graphics -- but they have no reality to them.

(2) The writing in the Quick Start Rules is abominably bad. For anyone who hasn't been played a roleplaying game before, the content here is completely inadequate for teaching them how to actually play the game. On the other hand, the writer has chosen to address the reader as if they had no idea what an RPG was. So the newbie isn't helped and the experienced player feels like they're being talked down to... who exactly is the target audience supposed to be for this pablum?

(3) The pregenerated characters, instead of being included on separate sheets (which the folder format would have allowed) are instead found at the back of the Quick Start Rules. This makes no sense.

(4) This may have been previously known, but it was the first time I realized that saving throws have a 55% chance of success instead of a 50% chance of success. (Instead of failing on 1-10 and succeeding on 11-20, they fail on 1-9 and succeed on 10-20.) I have no idea why they chose to do it that way.

(5) I am still annoyed that they undid 3rd Edition's fix to the critical hit mechanics.

(6) The streamlined actions (standard/move/minor/free) are nice to see, along with the accompanying simplification of the rules for charging and running. I think they were right to conclude that the complexity of full actions wasn't giving much in return. And I think replacing the concept of a 5-foot step with the idea of a "shift" (which doesn't provoke an AoO but does require a move action) also simplifies the flow of combat.

(7) It is completely impossible to play 4th Edition without miniatures. Unlike every previous version of the game (including 3rd Edition), the game literally does not function without a grid. I typically use miniatures, but this still annoys me.

(You will probably still hear people talk about how 4th Edition can be played without miniatures. But given the sheer number of abilities which are only useful because they allow for very precise movement on the combat grid, this is roughly akin to claiming that you can play Chess without a board. While it's true, it's only because you're explicitly imagining the board in your head. In 3rd Edition this wasn't the case: When I played without miniatures in 3rd Edition, I was imagining the game world and then using the mechanics -- which were all based on real-world measurements -- to adjudicate. The 3.5 revision weakened that connection somewhat by using squares as the default terminology, but the underlying mechanics of 3.0 were still essentially unchanged. 4th Edition embraces the grid completely and irrevocably.)

(8) The fact that you lose unspent action points when you take an extended rest reminds me of this blog post at Rampant Games. Its a mechanic that encourages players to push on without rest... unless, of course, they've expended all their accumulated action points. (However, I have been informed that you can only spend one action point per encounter. This rule doesn't appear in the Quick Start Rules, but if it's true then it obviates this advantage of the system entirely.)

(9) Contrary to the designers' claims, however, I doubt that the 15-minute adventuring day is going anywhere. This was inevitable, of course, because the 15-minute adventuring day had nothing to do with the system (except insofar as the system features daily-based spike powers) and everything to do with DMing style.

To be continued...

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May 26th, 2008


On my way home from rehearsal the other night, I was listening to Rachel Maddow's radio show. She was making an impassioned case that Hillary Clinton, contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the mainstream media's talking heads, was not planning to go quietly into the night. Not even close:

After the primary calendar has ended, Clinton's campaign can only justify or explain her staying in the race if she makes the case that the Democratic Party still has not chosen a nominee conclusively. Clinton needs an argument that the game should go into extra innings. Overtime. Bonus round. Detention. Whatever. Clinton has now found that argument -- she says she will not stop campaigning until the issue of the Florida and Michigan delegates is settled to her satisfaction.

The Florida/Michigan issue get settled, of course, by the Democrats' Rules and Bylaws Committee... unless of course that committee's decision gets appealed to the Credentials Committee... unless of course that decision, too, gets appealed... to the floor of the convention.

Do you see where this is going? If there is an open, unresolved procedural issue involving the Florida and Michigan delegations, Senator Clinton will be able to cite that as her justification for staying in the race until the convention even though she is not ahead in the nomination contest at the end of the primary calendar.

If she can ensure that the Florida and Michigan issue stays unresolved until the convention (and by appealing it every step of the way, I don't see how that can be avoided), then Clinton stays in the race until the convention. Staying in until the convention buys her three more months of campaign time, three more months to make her case to the party and the country, three more months for some potential political unfortunateness to befall Senator Obama.

(Maddow has written up her thoughts for a piece at Huffington Post.)

Maddow's concern boils down to this: If the nomination fight lasts until the convention in August, she doesn't believe that the Democratic nominee for president can beat John McCain in November. Despite this, Clinton wants to be President. Clinton obviously knows that if she concedes the nomination to Obama, she has no chance to become President. On the other hand, if she takes it to the convention she has a chance to become the nominee. And if she becomes the nominee she has a slim chance of beating McCain in November.

And "if what you really want is to be President of the United States -- a slim chance of becoming President (a fight at the convention) is better than no chance of becoming President (because you dropped out)."

I don't necessarily agree with Maddow's contention that a convention fight spells certain doom for the Democrats in November -- although the historical precedents of 1968, 1972, and 1980 hardly bode well. But it's certainly not an optimal situation. I've long felt that Hillary Clinton's vision of Democratic strategy has been profoundly wrong in comparison to Howard Dean's 50 State Strategy (it's one of the reasons I don't support her), and now she seems willing to risk immolating her entire party if the concession prize is a slim chance that she gets to be President.

Fortunately, Rachel Maddow also proposes a solution: 

If the Democrats are to avoid a divided convention, the Florida and Michigan dispute will have to be taken off the table -- settled in a way that avoids the risk of a rules dispute that stretches the nominating contest out through the convention. I can think of only one way to do that, but there may be others.

Here's my way: based on my read of NBC's delegate math, I think if the Clinton campaign won 100% of what they wanted on the Florida and Michigan dispute, Obama could still clinch the nomination -- even according to the most pro-Clinton math -- if 90 of the remaining 210-or-so undeclared superdelegates declared for Obama.

To sum this up:

(1) Barack Obama has reached one finish line by winning a majority of the pledged delegates.

(2) But if Barack Obama is going to wrap up this nomination race cleanly, then he needs to get 90 of the remaining 210 undeclared superdelegates to declare for him by May 31st.

So what can you do to help?

Well, most of you reading this have already cast your vote in the primaries. You've exercised your most primal form of political power, and you've helped Barack Obama cross that first finish line. (And if your state hasn't held its primary, yet, you should make sure that you do vote. And get as many of your friends to vote as possible.)

And, of course, if you haven't already donated to Obama's campaign, then you should donate today. Money is another one of those primal forms of political power, and even the price of a cup of coffee can make a difference.

But, more immediately, it's time to help Obama cross that second finish line by exercising your most important right in a democracy: Speech.

You can find a list of currently undeclared superdelegates at Democratic Convention Watch. I urge you to take a look at that list. If there's a representative, senator, governor, or DNC party member on that list from your state, then you can make a difference by sending them a letter or writing an e-mail or making a phone call. Tell them that you support the winner of the primaries and the leader in pledged delegates, Barack Obama. Stress to them the importance of bringing an undisputed conclusion to this primary fight as soon as possible, so that the entire party can turn its focus to the general election in November. Ask them to publicly endorse.

To make it even easier, I've compiled contact information and organized it by state. (However, I probably won't be able to keep this list updated in a timely fashion, so remember to check the page at Democratic Convention Watch.)



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May 26th, 2008


Go to Part 1

Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, this time with a...


The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read it. And if you're in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn't be reading it.

You have been fairly warned.

(10) The editing is atrocious. I can only hope they do a better job with the actual core rulebooks. For example, I'm pretty sure that the Empire of Nerath and the Empire of Nareth are actually the same thing.

(11) Unfortunately, these types of gratuitous errors aren't limited to the fluff content. The rules are also riddled with errors. For example, the quick start rules define two types of cover: Normal Cover and Superior Cover. These are naturally referred to in various places throughout the adventure: A treeline or a boulder or a piece of furniture will either grant normal cover or it will grant superior cover.

Unfortunately, some obstacles will also grant "cover" -- which is neither "normal cover" nor "superior cover". I'm guessing that I'm supposed to interpret "cover" as being "normal cover", but when you take the trouble to define a precise technical term then you should make the effort to actually use the precise technical terms you've defined.

(12) Other rules aren't explained properly. For example, when describing the rules for handling a pit trap, the module states "if a bull rush forces a creature into the pit, it can immediately attempt a saving throw to avoid going over the edge". Fair enough. But I've been led to understand from other sources that this is true for any type of forced movement that would cause a character to suffer falling damage. Almost all of the pregen PCs, in fact, have forced movement abilities. Why didn't they include the complete rule?

(13) Another example: Upon first reading the Quick Start Rules, I was annoyed by the fact that a dying character was doomed to die unless someone helped them. According to the Quick Start Rules, a dying character must make a saving throw each round. If they succeed, their condition stays the same. If they fail three times, however, they die. Apparently, I thought, no one ever wakes up on their own after being knocked unconscious in 4th Edition Land.

I have since been led to understand that, in other preview material, the full rule has been revealed: If you roll a natural 20 on your saving throw, you wake up with one-quarter your hit points. Why on earth wasn't that sentence included?

(14) Several NPCs in the adventure use rules (like the recharge rules and aura rules) which are never explained. This, frankly, is completely inexcusable in an introductory product.

(15) Making the rules even more confusing is the fact that there are actually two sets of Quick Start Rules: One for the players and another for the DM. At first I thought this was a practical piece of utilitarian design: The DM can have a copy of the rules for easy reference and so can the players.

But then I discovered that they were actually two different sets of Quick Start Rules. And for reasons beyond my comprehension, the player's Quick Start Rules don't include a lot of the rules the players will need to play their characters. (For example, they don't even include all of the rules necessary to understand the abilities on the pregenerated character sheets.)

So, for me, the entire player's Quick Start Rules packet is useless: I'll be xeroxing the pregenerated characters out of it (so that they can actually be used) and I'll be xeroxing the DM's Quick Start Rules so that my players will actually have the rules they need to play the game.

(16) The first two encounters in the adventure use the exact same map and the exact same concept (kobolds ambush the party while they're traveling on the road). The sense of deja vu was palpable even as I was reading it. I can only imagine the experience at the game table will be moreso.

What makes this design even more ridiculous is that the second ambush on the road doesn't make sense. The first ambush happens while the PCs are on their way to the village of Winterhaven. The second is supposed to happen shortly after they leave it. But after leaving Winterhaven, the adventure assumes the PCs will go to one of two locations: Either a dragon burial site or the kobold lair.

Neither of these locations lie on the road. The most direct route from Winterhaven to either location is, in fact, directly through the wilderness. So why does the adventure assume you'll be able to (essentially) reuse the ambush-on-the-road scenario when the PCs won't be on a road?

(17) "The tall hobgoblin calls to the others in Common: 'Don't kill 'em. We can sell 'em to the Bloodreavers as slaves.'"

This is apparently a bit of foreshadowing for H2 Thunderspire Labyrinth. Pity they didn't include any rules for dealing nonlethal damage.

(18) The skill challenges in this adventure are particularly lackluster. In particular, they continue to demonstrate the same railroading qualities that the sample posted to WotC's website did. It's possible that this is merely because this is an introductory adventure, but it certainly didn't do much to convince me that the core rulebooks are going to resolve any of the problems I have with the mechanics WotC has shown us.

(19) Speaking of skill challenges, let's talk about Sir Keegan. Sir Keegan was the last commander of the keep before being driven mad by the emanations of the Shadowfell Rift. In his madness he killed his wife and his closest friends before the garrison of the keep turned on him, drove him into the dungeons beneath the keep, and sealed the entrance behind him. In the dungeons, Sir Keegan regained his sanity and, overcome with remorse, poisoned himself. He somehow ended up as a sentient undead skeleton (the details here are vague), and dedicated himself to making sure that the Shadowfell Rift was never open.

Now, bearing that story in mind, consider how the PCs will encounter Sir Keegan for the first time:

The raised dais in this old crypt holds a single coffin. Carved on the lid of the coffin is a warrior in plate armor with a sword laid across his chest, the point toward his feet. The heavy coffin lid explodes in a flurry of dust. A humanoid skeleton girded in plate armor rises from the cloud. It holds aloft a longsword. "The rift must never be opened!" it croaks. "State your business, or prepare to die!"

Wow. Dramatic.

But let's take a moment and analyze this: Who, exactly, built this crypt for him? Did he just decide to have one built for himself on the off-chance he might need it in the event that he would be driven insane, go on a murderous rampage, and then be trapped in the dungeons beneath the keep by his own men?

Well, perhaps Sir Keegan was a master stone-carver. And, after being trapped in the dungeons without any food, quickly chiseled out a crypt for himself before poisoning himself. And, naturally, after dedicating himself to making sure that the rift was never opened again he would just seal himself inside that crypt and never emerge... even while cultists set up shop next door and begin working to open the rift.

Makes perfect sense... right?

Okay, setting those problems aside, let's turn our attention to the meat of this encounter: The social skill challenge that Sir Keegan triggers. A social skill challenge that will result in brilliant conversational gems like this one:

KEEGAN: You wear a fearsome demeanor. Are you really as formidable as you look?

PC: <makes an Intimidate check> Yup!

KEEGAN: Awesome. Well, in that case I totally believe that you're here to stop the cultists. Would you like my magic sword?

... sound kinda cheesy? Well, perhaps you'll prefer this one:

KEEGAN: If you trust your senses not to betray you, tell me what you see before you.

PC: <makes a Perception check> Umm... a dead guy standing in the remains of his crypt?

KEEGAN: Wow! You've got keen eyes! With eyes like those you must be here to stop the cultists. Would you like my magic sword?

Seriously. I'm not even kidding around. Keegan's first bit of dialogue in each example is lifted straight from the module, as is the suggested skill check. In order to succeed at this social skill challenge, the PCs have to make four successful skill checks before failing at four skill checks, with each skill check representing a Q&A exchange. (The PCs can also decide to go with straight up Diplomacy and/or Bluff checks if they prefer.)

(20) They finally fixed the encounter format they pioneered in the waning days of 3rd Edition. They're still using the useful and easy-to-access two-page spread for each encounter, but rather than splitting crucial information across two different locations (by having a keyed description in one place and the encounter information in another), they're using the encounter format for each keyed area.

I note, however, that the format requires every last square inch of a dungeon to be covered by an encounter. I suspect they consider this a feature: "After all," they'll say, "An empty room is a boring room."

But, of course, just because a room doesn't have a monster or a trap in it doesn't mean that it's empty or boring. More importantly, if the PCs know that there's going to be something exciting behind every single door that they kick in, it rather lessens the moment of anticipation. 

The other thing I'll note about the new format is that the designers made a big deal in their pre-release publicity about how 4th Edition would be featuring multi-room encounters. I guess this is sort of true, but the only thing that's really changed is that they're drawing their arbitrary "monsters won't go past this point" lines in slightly different ways. I doubt I'll be seeing any meaningful difference in play, since my 3rd Edition campaigns already feature multi-room running battles on a regular basis. This is another one of those areas where my experience seems to have been considerably at odds with the "common wisdom".

But we'll see what happens in actual gameplay. It would actually be pretty awesome if I was totally surprised.

To be continued...

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May 27th, 2008




Go to Part 1


The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read it. And if you're in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn't be reading it.


My overall impression with the plot and structure of the adventure can be pretty much summed up with this: I kept flipping back to the credits page to convince myself that Mike Mearls and Bruce Cordell were actually responsible for this.

Bruce Cordell, for example, also wrote the inaugural module for 3rd Edition: The Sunless Citadel. The Sunless Citadel was a piece de resistance. I've played it once and ran it twice and I consider it one of the best D&D modules ever written.

Keep on the Shadowfell, on the other hand, seems rather lifeless and predictable. It's a paint-by-numbers D&D adventure. 

Generic Fantasy Village #1 (a.k.a. Winterhaven) is lifeless, filled with cardboard cut-outs who are scripted with quests as if they were stock pieces lifted from Ye Local CRPG.

The Generic Goblin Encounters are uninspiring: Ambush. Guards. Barracks. Boss. Repeat.

Fight zombies in underground crypt. Fight skeletons in graveyard.

Fight Evil Priest in Demon Fane.

And I know that these are all classic archetypes that get used all the time. Heck, I'm using some of them right now in my Ptolus campaign. But you can use classic archetypes and breathe fresh life into them and you can use classic archetypes and end up with bland cardboard.

My impression of Keep on the Shadowfell, having read through it, is one of bland cardboard.

But this puts me in something of an awkward position. I still want to use Keep on the Shadowfell as a test run for 4th Edition, but I've only got one of two options:

(1) Run the adventure as written, despite the fact that I think there are fundamental adventure design problems that largely have nothing to do with the 4th Edition ruleset.

(2) Try to redesign the adventure.

The problem with option one is that the design problems could end up poisoning the well. If the session flops, is that because 4th Edition is a flop? Or does it just mean that the adventure isn't any good?

The problem with option two is that I don't actually know 4th Edition. If I go in and start mucking around with the encounter designs, I could very easily end up unwittingly sabotaging things that make 4th Edition fun to play in ways that 3rd Edition isn't. In other words, I could end up inadvertently obviating the entire point of the exercise.

So I think what I'll probably end up doing is something like a remix of the module: Leave the encounter design alone, but go in and futz around with the fluff text. Give the adventure a stronger backbone and a richer mythology. Flesh out Winterhaven to give it some unique character and depth. Maybe add a few more encounters to make the threat posed by the Keep a little more real and pervasive.

We'll see how that goes. I'll post an update once I've actually run the playtest. (Which, unfortunately, may not be for a couple more weeks. We had originally scheduled it for May 24th. But then the release date was pushed back and I didn't actually get the module until May 22nd, so that was out of the question.)

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MAY 2008: 

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4