Thursday, September 29, 2011

Multiple-Arc Campaigns

Chris Perkins has a column on the WotC website called The Dungeon Master Experience.  It's by far the best column that the website currently has (if you're a DM, that is) and this week's pertains to something I've been thinking about lately:  the balance between a "sandbox" style and a "railroaded" campaign.  Most campaigns occupy a middle ground between the two, and I think that's best overall.  From a player's perspective (I enjoy that I play almost as often as I DM) too much railroad makes me feel like my character's actions don't matter, and too much sandbox can make the whole venture seem aimless (not to mention the fact that it could easily catch the DM off guard, and I don't care how good of a DM you are, you're not going to be running as optimally if you're trying to improvise a random direction as opposed to something you've planned, or at least considered). 

I have a feeling that most DMs think about this spectrum in relation to the current adventure, because after all the players are going to react to things happening in the present.  It's tougher, however, to compromise throughout the span of an entire campaign arc (at least I think so).  Generally it's either unplanned and the DM just goes with the flow (often leading to a string of semi-related adventures) or the DM has a good idea of where he wants the campaign to go.  Planning for multiple (in this case, three) different arcs gives the DM focus because he's thought about the possible arcs and in general knows where they're headed (he just has no idea when and in what order the players will tackle them in), but it also gives the players a lot of choice in what they want to pursue because the DM has thrown several well-thought options out there.  Obviously this will work best if the DM allows even the arcs that weren't pursued to "progress," perhaps making the situation "worse" and providing the PCs with more and more difficult choices.

Anways, here is a link to the article.  It's a good read.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Recovery: Viral's Diary (Session 1)

Cast of Characters

Lyra Cinderfield (my character):  Human Staff of Defense Wizard (Helo - Dragonling Familiar)
Berylis Lindelenon (my other character):  Elf Panther Shaman (Legadema - Spirit Companion)
Rosil:  Elf Brutal Scoundrel Rogue
Unit 27:  Warforged Weapon Talent Fighter (Hammer and Board)
Zeus:  Dwarf Wrathful Invoker

The Amber Farmhouse

The Red Frogs were hired by a man named Aramis Emis to find the diary of an archaeologist named Viral.  It is reputed that Viral discovered a powerful magical artifact, and the diary is thought to provide clues to its whereabouts.  The last man known to have seen Viral was Amoz Gib, but he lives in a secluded village called Deadwood Falls located deep within the dangerous and labyrinthine Deadwood Forest.  Few find their way through the forest alive, but the party does have one lead:  a local farmer/merchant by the name of Athos Amber regularly visits the village, and so the party travels to his farmhouse in order to enlist his services as a guide. 

As the party approaches the property, they see a golem with a sack of corn on its back standing in the middle of the path.  Upon approaching the construct, it animates and plays back a recording of a man's voice.  Assuming the man is Athos Amber, it sounds like his wife was killed by some unknown assailants, and that he was able to hide his daughter in the "attic" before he too was killed.  Lyra examines the magical workings of the golem while Rosil investigates its mechanics, and they determine that it's non-sentient, and essentially a piece of sophisticated farm equipment.  So they investigate the farm house (which has an attached barn) cautiously.  Lyra sends Helo ahead to peer through the windows, but nothing can be seen.  The party goes into the barn which houses not farm animals, but a workshop containing another (inactive) golem as well as a bunch of random junk.  They enter the house through the door that connects to the barn, and find nothing of interest on the ground floor.  Upstairs Rosil scouts the individual rooms; the first contains a desk and a blue chest, the second is a bedroom that appears to be the site of a struggle, and the third contains the horribly mangled body of the wife.  The party returns to the first room where Lyra detects the presence of magic in the blue chest, which Rosil picks the lock to revealing a book, several loose pieces of paper, and a magical key that's warm to the touch.  The book seems to be an atlas with random notes scrawled into it (including the names of some influential merchants), and fortunately a route through Deadwood Forest is laid out.  Among the loose papers is the will of Athos Amber, who appears to be very rich for a simple farmer.

As the party makes their way back to the barn, the key grows warmer in Lyra's hand.  It reaches its hottest in front of a very tall pile of junk, which turns out to be an illusion hiding a ladder and a trapdoor in the ceiling.  The secret loft contains many crates, and the party suspects that Millie Amber (the daughter) is hidden in one of them.  Lyra uses Ghost Sound to emulate the voice that the sentinel golem recorded, and Millie (about 10 years old) emerges from a crate thinking that her father has returned.  The party asks her what happened, and she reports that about 5 days ago she was woken up in the middle of the night by her father and told to hide in the (well-provisioned) attic until he came to get her.  The party doesn't tell her that it looks like her parents are dead, but offer to escort the girl to Winterhaven where her grandparents live (it's on the way to Deadwood).  As they get back to the ground floor of the barn, the doors slam shut and Lyra orders her to return to the attic.  Lyra fires several enlarged Winged Hordes out of the windows in an attempt to catch their ambushers off guard, but it doesn't sound like she makes contact.  Three regular Wraiths and 2 Mad Wraiths float in through the windows and initiative is rolled. 

Before anyone's turn came up Lyra yelled for Zeus to focus on the 3 Wraiths, and the two of them largely succeeded in keeping them out of the fight while the Mad Wraiths were dealt with.  Berylis led off with Spirit Hunt after the Mad Wraiths caused Unit 27 to attack Lyra.  Zeus caught 2 of the Wraiths with Rebuke Undead, after which they moved forward (unable to do anything else thanks to the daze).  Lyra hit them both with Icy Rays, immobilizing them.  Rosil critted a Mad Wraith, and Unit 27 stuck close to the Rogue in order to protect him.  The controllers double teamed the Wraiths with a combination of area damage and status effects (eventually Berylis finished two off with Twin Panthers), while 27, Rosil, and Berylis took care of the Mad Wraiths. 

Once the battle was over, the party escorted Millie to Winterhaven where they found her grandparents.  Lyra made sure that they were capable of taking care of the child, and offered to check up on them on their way back through (Lyra was herself an orphan).  They then traveled the rest of the distance, with Lyra studying the book (and their route) throughout the journey.  Finally the made it to the border of Deadwood Forest, and it was at this point that we ended the session.


The DM for this adventure made a "rookie" mistake, which was forgivable since this was only his second time DMing 4th edition.  The mistake was that he used wraiths from the Monster Manual instead of the new ones from the Monster Vault.  BIG DIFFERENCE!  MM Wraiths are infamously grindy, with the insubstantial property (they take half damage from most attacks) and attacks that inflict the "weakened" condition (target deals half damage).  Thus, damage was often quartered when fighting these guys.  Also, aside from the recharge power on the Mad Wraiths (that force PCs to attack their allies) their damage is pathetic.  Oh, after looking at the stat block those wraiths also have regeneration, which the DM forgot to apply.  Anyways, these monsters easily make for some of the most boring combats in 4e being non-threatening and yet dragging out combat by being difficult to actually hurt.  The DM ended up calling the fight into round 4 when it was blatantly obvious that the party was going to win (even if it would take a couple more rounds) and sustain no meaningful damage. 

I advised the DM to use Monster Vault monsters in the future, and so a very important lesson was learned; 4e had some pretty crappy monster design at first, and an inexperienced eye can't always tell which monsters are the worst offenders.  For example, the Monster Vault wraiths don't have regeneration and they don't weaken, so insubstantial is the only damage-reducer that PCs need to worry about.  The wraiths also deal almost twice as much damage as their MM incarnations, and they gain the ability to become invisible.  If invisible when they attack, they more than double their already improved damage.  In short, they actually function as Lurkers.  Though MM wraiths are labeled as the same, they actually function more like skirmishers (and not very effective ones at that).  I honestly hadn't examined the differences between the 2 versions that closely (I learned early on to simply pretend that wraiths didn't exist precisely because of the aformentioned problems), so I'm actually glad the mistake was made because now I realize that MV wraiths are not only useable, but look pretty fun! 

As for my characters, I'm really happy with them so far.  I've been agonizing over Lyra's power selection a bit, and before this adventure decided to switch out Color Spray for Icy Rays at pretty much the last minute.  Even though Icy Rays isn't enlargeable (and doesn't synergize with Helo's "breath" ability), I think it'll be a better choice.  In playtesting multi-target daze often doesn't reliably deny standard actions (it's tough to get a set-up where everyone is denied charging), and the unfriendliness was a concern with relatively inexperienced 4e players.  Plus now that Icy Rays slows on a miss it's a phenomenal opening move, and I generally like powers with very flexible targeting capacity (Icy Rays can be used against two creatures that are far apart from each other, meaning that you hamper exactly which enemies are most dangerous regardless of positioning relative to each other).  We'll see how it goes. 

I also gave Berylis Spirit Hunt shortly before starting play with him, replacing Spirit of the Slavering Bloodlust.  Without being an Eagle Shaman, the buffs from SotSB are unlikely to reach the damage potential of Spirit Hunt, so personal damage won out in this case.  Besides, I'm waiting to see how well the other players respond to my Spirit Boon before I add more buffs that rely on Legadema's proximity into the mix.  So far so good on that front, though; the Spirit Boon came into play almost every round, even if I did have to remind the players about it.  Between the Spirit Boon and Strengthening Spirit, I don't think it will be too long before everyone realizes that it pays to be next to Legadema (though I certainly need to do my part and make sure that I actively position her next to people).  Anyways, between high personal damage, granted attacks (Claws of the Eagle), and the Spirit Boon it seemed like Berylis dealt comparable damage to Rosil, perhaps being slightly lower (hard to say, as Rosil rolled the only 2 crits of the combat).  This being Heroic tier (where Rogues shine) and Rosil being fairly well-optimized means that Berylis is probably exceeding the damage of some strikers, at least this early in the game.  As he levels his damage will probably be more indirect (from buffs), though I'm sure personal damage will remain competitive as well.  I'm already looking forward to a combat where several enemies are bloodied on the field and Lyra and Zeus simply park themselves next to the spirit and blast away (with the backing of a hard-hitting spirit boon).  You can get a lot of mileage out of the Spirit Boon via area damage.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Filler" Encounters

In my previous post I talked about why it's important to give your combat encounters narrative significance, however big or small it may be.  This is largely because the complicated nature of 4e combat makes it a significant time investment, and "breaking away" from the story to fight some random battle can easily be perceived as a waste of time.  Just because the "default" 4e encounter doesn't lend itself to minor scuffles or "filler" encounters doesn't mean it can't be done, though.  Such encounters just need to be designed very deliberately.  Indeed, these types of encounters should be included from time to time because it's admittedly impossible to make every encounter relevant.

My focus here will be creating encounters that are resource-draining but tactically (and usually narratively) irrelevant.  Perhaps irrelevant is too strong a word, but in any case these are encounters that don't pose much of a threat and that are over very quickly.  There are several ways to evoke this feeling, the simplest probably being an at-level or lower encounter, designed more or less "normally."  The problem with this is that monsters that are too low level are a complete non-threat (PC attacks will virtually auto-hit them, and they'll be unable to hit the defenses of the PCs), and those that are a threat tend to have enough cumulative hit points to drag the encounter out to a decent length.  One way to keep combat short is to simply keep the at-level monsters, but use fewer of them.  If the PCs outnumber weak monsters 2:1 it shouldn't last more than a couple of rounds, but during that time the PCs should take some damage (which they'll need to spend surges to fix), and might even blow a daily if they misjudge the encounter's difficulty. 

Here are a few more ways to create quick and dirty "filler" battles:
  1. Use terrain that gives the PCs a massive advantage.  Describe it so that it's really obvious that the PCs can use it to quickly dispatch monsters.  If you want to maintain the level of danger present in a standard encounter but make it happen much more quickly, have the monsters use this advantage first, but allow the PCs to quickly turn it against them.  This way the PCs take boatloads of damage in round 1 (or even a surprise round), and then end the fight quickly by subjecting the monsters to the same effects.  Some examples include pools of lava or acid that creatures can be pushed into, buckets of lava or acid that can be thrown, large and heavy objects that can be knocked onto creatures, or containers of explosive substances that can be ignited to create a nasty explosion.  
  2. Use cowardly monsters.  After a couple of rounds, perhaps even before most of the monsters are bloodied, have them flee.  Maybe they'll lure the PCs into a trap or ambush, or perhaps they'll simply reinforce a later encounter.  Depending on the situation they might just run away, and sometimes the PCs may simply let them.  If the PCs insist on chasing them down, instead of rolling loads of dice to whittle away at their HP simply describe the situation narratively:  "knowing they're outgunned, the bandits use double moves to run full speed, and the party finishes them off with arrows, javelins, and spells."  It might be more interesting, however, to use creatures that can actually flee effectively (flight, fast speeds, invisibility, phasing, burrow speeds).  
  3. Finally, use copious amounts of minions!  These guys were practically built for encounters like this.  You'll definitely need to tailor encounters to your party's capabilities, though; a party with strong AoE capabilities might be able to kill a dozen or more minions in 1 round, whereas parties lacking AoE would end up being in for a really long battle, which is the opposite of what you're going for!  Also keep in mind that if there's a disparity within the group, as there almost certainly will be, AoE-capable PCs will be the stars of the show for a while, whereas high-damage single-target strikers might feel quite useless.  Wizards with Enlarge Spell can be particularly problematic, as the areas they're capable of affecting can be quite large.
You can make the argument that easy encounters increase verisimilitude, as they give the impression of a dynamic, living world that exists beyond just the PCs and their current adventure.  The orcs that the PCs fought in Heroic tier may still be there in Paragon tier, and it's appropriate that the PCs have a much easier time in dealing with them.  You might also consider sprinkling impossibly difficult encounters into your campaign using the same argument, but if you elect to do this make sure that your players know about it ahead of time!  It's no fun to fight to the death just because "the DM wouldn't let us fight it if we couldn't beat it." 

Encounter Narrative

Because combat in 4e is very tactical (moreso than previous editions of the game), it also has a tendency to take pretty long in real time (though your mileage may vary).  This isn't always the case, but for tactically minded groups combat can almost be a game in and of itself (heck, it's one of the reasons why playtesting isn't as boring as it sounds in practice).  A hefty length of time and a different strategic mindset separate you from the "roleplaying" aspects of the game during combat, which is great for creating a varied play experience but it could also be a bit jarring for the pacing of the story.  For these reasons, the vast majority of major encounters should have some narrative significance.

In previous editions of D&D encounters with "wandering monsters" and dungeon crawls through miles of subterranean passages populated by all manner of random creatures were highly encouraged.  From what I understand, combat in earlier editions was much more swift in real-time, though I only have experience with 3rd edition (indeed, the longest combat encounter I've experienced was in that edition, though save-or-die spells could make encounters equally swift and arguably inconsequential).  If a fight ended up being uninteresting it didn't really matter, because it would probably be over quickly.  Because of that, an encounter didn't need to have any particular importance because you were back to the story (or the next encounter, in more of a hack 'n slash style campaign) in no time.  Because the default 4e encounter is assumed to be somewhat involved, this edition isn't quite as friendly toward that old style of play.

Ultimately, the take home message is that when designing an adventure, every encounter needs to have some kind of significance.  Some encounters can be justified by being exceptionally interesting in and of themselves; monsters with cool powers, traps, terrain, puzzles, or engaging tactics can all make an encounter interesting enough that it doesn't matter if it doesn't have a strong link to the story.  If you need "filler" encounters to give the players something to do as they make their way through the dungeon--an obstacle to their eventual goal--then they better be interesting.  But every encounter can't be over-the-top and exception, because if that becomes the norm then it's no longer very exceptional!  This is why most encounters should have a direct relevance to the adventure narrative. 

But what does that mean, exactly?  Obvious examples are encounters with the foes that the PCs set out to confront in the first place.  This can be as epic as a final "boss battle" with the BBEG (big bad evil guy), or as simple as tracking down the group of bandits that have been harassing the local merchant caravans.  Other ways to make combat relevant are to use the encounter to introduce NPCs (whether they're combatants or non-combatants, allies or enemies), to provide PCs with some kind of information, item or clue, to introduce a new conflict (perhaps a side quest), to foreshadow a future plot point, or to characterize an NPC (perhaps an NPC betrays the party, or maybe they die defending the party who will thereafter seek revenge).  A more intricate encounter might present 2 or more decision points where the choices that the PCs make affects the story.  Perhaps the choices are meant to reveal a character flaw, tempt, or highlight the chivalry of a PC.  Any time you give the player the means to help develop his/her character more fully is time well spent.  An encounter's relevance could also be as simple as providing a direct obstacle that stands between the party and their goal (i.e. they want to get into the Wizard's keep, but first they need to deal with his golems). 

From a pure mechanical standpoint, encounters exist to challenge the party and put a strain on their resources.  At its most basic, combat is the reason why characters have healing surges, encounter powers, and daily powers and any encounter will allow (or force, depending on how you look at it) the characters to use these resources.  It's up to the DM and the players to use these mechanics to tell a story, and as the one designing encounters the DM shoulders most of this load.  The story is what immerses the players in the world, and keeps them coming back for more.  While a delve style game where players simply move through the map and kill a random assortment of monsters is certainly valid, it's simply not enough for some players (or groups).  Those that care about story will enjoy the game much more if the story informs combat; an hour-long scuffle that turns out to be pointless can be an annoying distraction if it happens too much.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Rescue: Against the Bloody Toads (Prologue)

Since I finished up my arc last session, we were due to start a new DM's adventure (at level 6).  One of our players couldn't make it, however, so instead the DM for the level 7 adventure offered to run a one-shot "prologue" for his adventure, which would serve as an introduction to his arc and wouldn't require a full party (plus we didn't want to start the level 6 arc with a player short).  So here is a summary from my point of view as a player.

Cast of Characters

Lyra Cinderfield:  Human Staff of Defense Wizard (my character)
Berylis Lindelenon:  Elf Panther Shaman (my other character)
Meryl "Wiggy" Wiggins:  Gnome Chaos Sorcerer
Miyako "Miya" Sotoko:  Human Centered Breath Monk

Session Overview

The party from the Red Frogs was hired by Tirel Thygus, a noble from the small port town of Kirkston (southeast of the Nentir Vale).  Kirkston looks to have seen better days, and the PCs soon learn that the economy is doing really poorly.  Somehow, Tirel has managed to maintain his wealth through the crisis.  Though this seems odd, the party doesn't question their new employer about it.  He reveals that his daughter Lileth has been captured by a group of pirates known as the Bloody Toads.  They've asked an outrageous ransom for her which, despite the fact that he can afford it, he doesn't want to pay out of principle.  He notifies the party that the Bloody Toads are based on an island chain a short distance off the mainland, but that their main stronghold is magically hidden.  He also asks the party to report on or bring back any powerful sources of magic, which he only says he has a strong interest in.  Other than that, he claims to have no other leads for the party, and cannot even offer a ship.

The party splits into two teams to gather information around town; Lyra aids Berylis (who uses Speak with Spirits) but the two find nothing, though Wiggy and Miya have much better luck and learn that the guy they want to seek out is One-Eyed Jack.  One-Eyed Jack hangs out at the Sailor's Tavern, just off the docks.  The party heads to the tavern, and Berylis spots their quarry right away after again seeking guidance from the spirit world.  Turns out the nickname One-Eyed was a bit generous; the man has actually had both eyes removed, and wears a bandana with a single eye painted on it over his face.  This bandana seems to give him some amount of perceptive power, despite the fact that he is actually blind.  Lyra and Wiggy approach the surly fellow, asking if he could provide them with information.  He seems disheartened because nobody ever asks for his skill (as a sailor) anymore, at which point Lyra tries flattering him, assuring him that they actually do need a ship and that they'd be happy to employ him as their captain.  He claims to know these waters better than anyone, and admits to being a former Toad himself (it was they who took his eyes out and marooned him on an island).  Once he agrees to help the party, Lyra reveals the identity of their employer, who Jack informs them was a former Toad himself!  Apparently Tirel Thygus had somehow struck a deal which granted him great power, which he was to use to make Kirkston a safe haven for the Toads.  He betrayed them, keeping this mysterious power for himself, and though he doesn't grant them protection in town, he also doesn't attempt to interfere with their raids (which is why the town is currently so impoverished).  Clearly Tirel isn't exactly trustworthy, and the PCs will proceed on this mission with caution.

Jack tells the party to meet him at the docks the next day, and they will try to find a ship.  During that time Jack managed to put together a 3 man crew:  Hagger is a short, broad-shouldered human (and former Toad), Fira is a young woman who was a former pirate hunter, and now seeks revenge on the Toads for some reason, and Victor is an Elf who knows where the party can obtain a schooner.  They follow up on Victor's lead and pay the schooner's captain, Brutus Mars, a visit.  The schooner is a piece of junk and the party tries to haggle a low price from Brutus, who can see that they clearly need a ship and assures them that they aren't likely to find a cheaper one anywhere.  He demands 1/3 of the group's profits (though the party declines to inform him of their mission), and they ask him why he deserves a share of the treasure if he's not coming with them.  Apparently he intended to be their captain because Jack is a damn fool that can't see anything, but Lyra sticks up for Jack assuring Brutus that he will do just fine.  Brutus soon agrees to a lower price, but requires that the PCs transport some cargo in secret; he says that he doesn't know exactly what it is, but assures them that it's important.  Lyra asks to see it, and Brutus pulls out a small, orange book.  Lyra detects magic and learns that it's enchanted to hide the words on its pages, and informs Brutus that it's a pretty simple spell.  She then bluffs that it's a dangerous item, and the hazard of transporting it should lower the cost of the schooner rental.  Brutus grudgingly agrees, asking for 150 gp now and 150 when they got back.  He then gives them the coordinates to an isle where a man is being held captive, and this man is who they need to deliver the book to (he claims not to know why, because the book was given to him by someone else).  Lyra whispers in Jack's ear via Ghost Sound asking if he knows how to get to the island based on the descriptions, and whether it's out of their way.  He simply tells her that that's where they're headed anyways.

So they set sail in their newly acquired schooner.  The hidden base can only be reached by using a magical compass that only Bloody Toad captains have, so the basic plan was to sail out looking like a tempting target until a Toad ship took the bait.  On their way the party passes the island where Jack was marooned, and continue on their way (Lyra keeps a light spell active to make them easier to spot).  Soon they come across a ship, but it's an unusually large warship that is probably captained by someone very important within the organization.  According to Jack, this wasn't a ship that they wanted to get captured by, as they were very unlikely to win in a confrontation.  The schooner turned around and headed back toward the island, where they would have an advantage given that they could get closer to the island with their much shallower keel.  And so they waited.  The ship sent out 2 rowboats to pursue the schooner into a bay when it could go no farther.  Lyra stood up on the edge of the ship, staff held high and the wind whipping her robe in an attempt to look powerful and wizardly.  She boomed "you shall not pass!" as loudly as possible with Ghost Sound.  Berylis called his spirit companion, Legadema, and sent her as far as possible out over the water.  Lyra used Ghost Sound to give her a terrifying roar.  The combined magical display was intimidating enough to send 1 of the boats fleeing back to the main ship in terror (the main ship ended up shooting the cowards with a barrage of cannon fire). 

When the boat finally came within range, Legadema was in a perfect position to make OAs on 2 of the 4 rowers as they sped past her.  Lyra used a readied Arc Lightning to blast them as well.  Initiative was rolled as the boat was now in range, with Lyra leading off with Stinking Cloud.  Since the boat wasn't fast enough to make it through the cloud in a single move action the rowers could either double move or make their ranged attacks at a severe disadvantage.  They consistently elected to row as fast as possible toward the Schooner, with Lyra constantly moving the Cloud to auto-damage them and deter them from using ranged attacks.  Berylis simply kept moving Legadema ahead of the cloud and reading a Stalker's Strike (or Twin Panthers once they were in range) for when they emerged from the cloud.  She was also able to use Spirit's Fangs whenever the boat rowed past her.  Wiggy also readied his ranged attacks for whenever the boat emerged from the cloud, and Miya was unfortunately unable to do much of anything until the boat came close enough for her to jump onto it.  When this finally happened 2 of the rowers were already dead, and the remaining 2 were well past bloodied.  Crane's Wings finished one of them off, and an Eternal Mountain (via Action Point) nearly finished the last one.  He used a free action to surrender to the party, at which point Lyra took his weapons with her Mage Hand while Berylis tied him up and brought him on board.  He explained that he'd take his chances being a captive of the Red Frogs, since fleeing back to the Toad's ship would get him just as killed as fighting to the death.  At this point the party decided to head for the southern edge of the island to put some distance between them and the warship, besides the fact their prisoner informed him that Bloody Toad ships often docked in the bays of the island's southern coast.  It was at this point that the session ended, with the party seeking easier prey on the other side of the island.

It's notable that in the night's only encounter the PCs did not suffer a single attack.  The rowers kept using double moves (and at one point both rowers were slowed and one was also dazed), and the party kept pummeling them with a combination of readied ranged (or melee spirit) attacks, Stinking Cloud's auto-damage as Lyra kept moving it over the boat, and Legadema's Spirit Fangs as the rowers moved past.  The last rowers were at death's door by the time they reached the schooner.  It's also worth noting that this was the first time that I used the playtest version of Stinking Cloud in actual play (I'd been using Visions of Avarice to avoid the nerfed SC).  Stinking Cloud may not be the powerhouse blaster power that it once was, but it's still exceptionally useful.  It'll still deal reliable auto-damage (at the very least when you use your move action to plop it back on top of enemies) on top of your normal standard action, and you can still keep it between the party and ranged enemies to ruin their day.  It certainly trivialized this encounter, even if it was arguably the perfect set up.  Had I been DMing the encounter I probably would have had the intimidate delay the second boat by a round instead of causing them to outright flee, and I would have applied some ranged pressure.  I also would have considered continually popping the SC instead of constantly making double moves.  As it went down, the party was in a position that was way too defensible for the attack to be anything but futile.


Sometimes an encounter will look great on paper (or in your mind) but when it comes time to actually play through it, it falls flat.  Sometimes this is a matter of certain monsters just not working as well together as you'd planned (or perhaps working too well together).  Sometimes the terrain just doesn't do what you expect it to.  Perhaps things would have worked out better with an extra terrain feature, or a different arrangement of features.  Perhaps the starting positions of the monsters should have been moved.  Or, maybe you're not sure how certain combinations of monsters and terrain will affect the difficulty.  How do you resolve these issues without turning your PCs into lab rats?  Playtest them yourself, of course!

Now I'm not advocating playtesting every single encounter that you ever put together.  Playtest encounters tend to run longer than real encounters since you need to keep track of everything, monsters and "PCs" alike.  I generally only playtest when I have time to kill, and when an encounter is more complex than normal.  Also, if you're a new DM, new to encounter-design, or simply returned from a fairly long hiatus playtesting your encounters can be a great way to see what works and what doesn't when the dice start flying. 

So how does one go about playtesting?  It's just as simple as it sounds.  Draw up your map and place all of your monsters down (or at least the ones that the PCs will be aware of just before the fight).  This is just the same as if you were running the encounter for a group.  The difference, of course, is that the "group" is controlled by you as well.  Using PCs that are similar to your party's characters works best, but it can also be fun to mix things up to see how other classes fare (or, if you're like me and rotate DMing duties, you can get some more in-combat practice with your own character).  You can also utilize playtesting as a player if you're trying to decide between 2 different classes or builds and want to test drive how they "feel."  This is how I learned that most essentials classes are not really for me, despite the fact that I appreciate what they add to the game (and in some cases was really excited to see how their mechanics worked in play).   

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you need to wear 2 different hats, and keep them separate.  What I mean by this is when a monster's turn comes up, play that monster as if you were DMing and have it act like it would act.  Don't refrain from attacking your "favorite" PC or move into position just so you can set up for a PCs power.  Likewise when it's a PC's turn have them utilize the tactics that they normally would in-game.  If your group is good at focus-firing and using the best tactics, play the "party" that way!  If your group has trouble operating as efficiently as it could if you were running everything, try to emulate that.  On the other hand, it could be interesting to see how differently things turn out depending on how much strategy is effectively used (by either side). 

The bottom line is that sometimes things work differently in play than they look on paper.  Conducting a test run (if you have time), is a great way to bring some of those differences to light, in addition to experimenting with different variables (monsters, terrain, PCs, tactics, etc.).