Proving Grounds – Chris


This week’s proving grounds was Chris’. The scenario was that someone in our party had gone seriously bad, and had invited us to his lair – bwahaha! We were there to rescue him from teh evil, probably by destroying him in order to save him. We had a balanced level 10 four-player party: paladin, ranger, cleric and warlock.

It was a three-encounter mini-adventure. We arrived in a clearing in a forest, next to a foggy ravine-type thing. Entering the ravine, there were a couple of undead and a trap that gave us a great deal of difficulty because we were short a rogue. Up above the ravine was a building, and some miscellaneous undead-y things. The final room was a brain-in-a-jar (psychic attacks and pushback effects), a swarm that radiated a zone of cold, and a demon thing that went insubstantial and possessed PCs. Tricky.

(I’ve written a fair bit that sounds negative – I hope that it’s understood that I’m trying to draw lessons here, and not just having a go at Chris)


Chris went to a lot of effort to make his proving ground effort feel like an episode in a larger campaign, rather than a stand-alone excuse for a game. In general, this was really great, It did indeed feel like we were in an ongoing campaign, and I did appreciate it. However, he did fall foul of one pitfall that I encountered while running Age of Worms: the players are not there to sit and listen to you read out blocks of colour text. Not unless you are Morgan Freeman. It’s hard, because the background text is part of what you do to write your adventure. When you turn a phrase and are pleased with the result, you want people to read it. But reading it out at the table is no the way to go, unless you are one hell of a storyteller.

And it’s an easy whoopsie to fall afoul of. In “The Library of Last Resort” – a professionally authored adventure, I was expected to read this colour text to my players to set up the adventure. Um … no. Not a good idea. The trick – and it’s not an easy trick to pull off – is show, don’t tell. Handouts are your friend. Perhaps give each payer some info and let them play it out. Use a published campaign setting. Or just mail out the background to the players a few days prior. But do something other than read blocks of text out to your players on game night. They won’t listen. Not if I’m one of ’em, anyway – I tend to switch off (ADD: a blessing and a curse). Put your carefully-crafted background into your blog: that’s what it’s for, or pull a Feist and make your campaign into a book.

    Lessons learned:

  • show, don’t tell. Play, don’t read.
  • Story matters. It is possible to create atmosphere even in a one-off game, and it’s worth it.
  • Don’t ask me how, though. I don’t know either.

I have to say, I am not a fan of dungeon tiles. We had a couple of difficulties with them on the night. Chris laid out the whole area up front, and it kind of takes the magic out, you know? If you use tiles, I think that you need to pre-plan what you are doing, and make notes. I imagine that the most efficient way to do this would be to lay out your tiles, label them with post-it notes so you know which one goes where and draw yourself a tile map (or just take a photo), and pick the tiles up and stack ’em in the order that the players are liable to see them.

They do look good, though.

The other issue was that Chris used the tiles he had – always a problem with tiles. So the “ravine” was done with cave tiles. Unfortunately, the tiles

  • Looked like a cave, not a ravine
  • had blacked-out areas that were columns
  • were difficult to interpret in 3-d. It didn’t look like a central depression with higher ground around it

The blacked-out areas were a particular problem, as we interpreted them as what they looked like – cave columns. Odd terrain needs to be described in crunch terms, and it’s fairly efficient. What Chris meant was “The black areas are areas of particularly dense fog. They are difficult terrain and provide concealment.” But it all got a little confused. I blame the tiles, which he had to pick out of the box at the store.

    Lessons learned:

  • Tiles are not a substitute for planning out your map, they are just a different means of drawing it.
  • Describe terrain crunch clearly, in metagame terms, and don’t dwell on it.

The trap. God, the trap. It did necrotic and fire. Disabling it was a skill challenge, but we didn’t get that. So we ran around in circles getting blasted and trying to describe what we were doing.

Unfortunately, 4th-ed is not a freeform storytelling game and it lends itself to metagaming. It’s unavoidable, but not bad in itself – the problem is the abuse of metagame info. But the game is all about understanding that “the black squares provide partial concealment, -2 to hit etc etc” while at the same time playing out the story “Redegar sighted the enemy through the thick pall of unnatural fog: a tricky shot, but his skill was a match for it”. So, the game runs rather more smoothly when the players understand that a skill challenge is a skill challenge: it doesn’t ruin the game if everyone knows this, just so long as that knowledge is downplayed. You know: we pretend. It’s a role-playing game, after all.

Skill challenges are announced with little verbal clues. The issue on the night was the players, or maybe the group. We don’t do skill challenges that much. Chris said “you realise that the pipe is connected to the blasts”, but we didn’t get that he was telling us that we had had a skill-challenge success. When the players are that dense, I suppose the thing to do is to just explicitly say, “Ok, that counts as a success”.

One of us threw a handy corpse over the pipe. Chris was a bit lost, I think, and that’s – well, I don’t know that I would have handled it any better. Dealing with curveballs from the players is what the job is all about.

In retrospect, sitting here with all the time in the world to think about it, the way to go about it would have been to say “ok, the fire from the pipe starts blasting away at the corpse, but you have a moment or two before it does (1d4 rounds before the corpse is burned/rotted away). When one of us said “I’ll stuff a rock into the pipe”, the way to go would be to say “Ok: thievery or dungeoneering” and to count the result as a skill challenge success or failure.

It comes down to experience, for which there is no substitute. The game system can be made to accommodate this sort of thing. And at the end of the day, it’s fair enough that this particular party had awful problems with a trap: we didn’t pack a rogue.

    Lessons learned:

  • players need metagame info to be able to play
  • skill challenges: yeah, ok. A simple check is like a challenge of one, so it’s not a completely new thing.

I don’t think we played especially well. In particular, we didn’t concentrate our fire. We also didn’t coordinate our powers all that well but that was partly down to them being fast-generated characters that we weren’t familiar with.

Chris picked a variety of undead monsters at level that didn’t really seem to have a theme. I feel like he just wanted to try out some stuff. The four monsters in the second encounter seemed like four undead picked kind of at random. Mind you – he did better than I would have at running them: I tend to get overwhelmed by detail, and spazz out. Chris is Mr Cool. The monsters didn’t really work together as a team, I think, which maybe is why we beat them anyway.

The final issue is that we blitzed the final encounter because we knew that the adventure would be three encounters long and we held back our dailies to pop them at the end. In other words: we metagamed in a bad way. Don’t know what’s to be done about that.

    Lessons learned:

  • story is important when picking your monsters
  • minions are good
  • kinda hard to not metagame when it’s a strict format. Meh. Whadayagunnado?
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