Close Encounters of the Essential Kind! Week 5: Chain Reactions

To paraphrase Newton, ‘for every action there is an equal, yet opposite, reaction’. Take Dungeons & Dragons, for example, in the game, your character enters an abandoned castle/dense forest/mysterious cave with his friends, looking for trouble (and loot!).

The Dungeonmaster presents you with a cunningly crafted encounter, using tricks, traps, puzzles, and yes, monsters, to oppose you. Sometimes the monsters are members of ordinary player races. More often, they are fantastic creatures with bizarre abilities.

Players and monsters encounter one another. The monster hits the player, the player goes “Oof! Medic!”. The Leader trivializes the damage as much as they can, and the player hits back.

Actions and reactions.

Now, before I get to my point, I do want to apologize for something that has been creeping into my blog posts lately. If you’re going to review something, you need to stay objective. Unfortunately, I’ve been letting a few of my personal biases color my vision.

Not everyone plays (or runs) the game the same way. My viewpoint has always been a little controversial: I want the players to win! Not easily, mind you, but at the end of the day, I want the party to stand victoriously over their fallen enemies and claim their rewards. I feel that’s the point of the game.

When I design encounters, I always try to imagine how I’d react if I was playing in the encounter. It’s served me well, but many posts ago, I talked about how two people can have two different expectations about the game. I’ve made the mistake of assuming my expectations are “correct”, when, in reality, there is no one correct path.

To use an example, I was recently reading the forums, and I came across a monster 83 (and counting!) page thread about the various Expertise Feats. Early in Fourth Edition’s inception, some people noticed an interesting trend. If you level up a monster, it’s defenses rise each level.

A player’s attack bonus rises every other level. This is mitigated somewhat by increased attributes, enhancement bonuses, and the like, but bizarrely enough, by level 30, your chance to hit a monster’s AC is roughly 3 less than it was at level 1!

The designers acknowledged this, and claimed it would be corrected for. The solution they chose was to create the Expertise Feats, which grant a scaling +1/+2/+3 to your attack bonus. “Well”, some players said, “that’s kind of a tax, isn’t it? I mean, now I have to take a Feat to make up for a discrepancy in the system. Plus, what if my class uses weapons and implements? Then I have to take this Feat twice!”.

The designers acknowledged this, and Versatile Expertise was created, giving you the bonus for one weapon and one implement type of your choice. To which these players said “It’s still a tax! I feel like I’m forced to take this boring Feat, when I could have something interesting!”.

Now, Essentials has created a host of new Expertise Feats, which grant a bonus to hit, and an additional, mechanical bonus. Take for example Heavy Blade Expertise, which grants the bonus, and a +2 to AC against Opportunity Attacks! That’s like two Feats for the price of one, and it even stacks with Defensive Mobility!

And the reply? “Oh great, now it’s even more of a tax!”

Now, the truth here is, each game is subjective. If a player hates to miss, he or she probably took Expertise. Other players shied away from it, as it wasn’t very interesting up until now. Many optimizers insist that it’s absolutely necessary, that it’s one of the most important Feats you can take, hence the “tax”.

But a lot of players and DM’s are confused. “We don’t miss that often, and the game is perfectly playable for us”. And often, they are correct. Their groups use tactics, their Leaders grant power bonuses to attack rolls, free re-rolls, or even auto-magical critical hits (Divine Oracle, I’m looking at you.)! Players will acquire Dice of Auspicious Fortune, or find other ways to leverage their attack bonus, or simply flatten the curve by having powers that grant bonus attacks.

To these groups, Expertise is nice, but not necessary. But neither side can reach a consensus on their point of view, because they have different expectations. In my game group, luck fluctuates wildly. Some of my fellow players are simply used to missing turn after turn. It’s just part of the game!

You’re going to be knocked unconscious, you’re going to miss, and you’re going to be stunned/dazed/immobilized. Any fight you walk away from is a victory. As a player, I always want to try and make the best tactical decision, and do as much as I can to shine in a combat. I don’t just want to win, I want to look good doing it!

But then I sat back and thought about this. My favorite action movies are the ones where the hero gets beaten up, bloodied, and has to earn his victory, often against superior, overwhelming odds. A movie where the hero just wades through both plot and opponents with very little effort bores me.

Steven Seagal
Cover of Steven Seagal

I lost all respect for Steven Seagal after Under Siege 2 for just this reason. I like movies like Die Hard; John McClane is an everyman. Sure, he’s an ex-Marine and a police officer, but he’s not some kind of super-soldier! And yet, when faced with an impossible situation, he usually ends up on top. His opponents underestimate exactly how tough this guy is, and they pay for it.

So yeah, maybe I shouldn’t be so critical of encounters that test your mettle. Even if they frustrate the hell out of me!

That having been said, there are a few annoying trends that come up fairly often in published encounters. Last Friday, for example, we got the double whammy of restricted movement and immediate actions.

So what happened in Encounters?

Right off the bat we find ourselves summoned to the PC’s benefactor, who has a new mission for us. We are introduced to a new NPC, and sent on a mission to recover a lost treasure trove of Dwarven relics. No skills challenge, although a few checks did come up, such as Streetwise. I highly enjoyed this segment, because it raised some questions about the setting itself, a touch of verisimilitude that piqued my interest. The McGuffin from the previous chapter was revealed to be a potent Wondrous item that boosts the entire group, and for the first time, I felt like this was an actual group of heroes, not some random sellswords.

The first point of interest is the fact that the adventure claims this is a level 1 Wondrous item. Let’s take a closer look:

Property: you and all allies within 5 squares of you gain a +2 item bonus on saves versus poison.

Daily Power (Minor Action): You or an adjacent ally can make a saving throw.

Daily Power (Standard Action): You may send a message of up to 25 words in length to Benwick (I think I spelled his name right, basically, our NPC patron), and he may choose to reply with a message of up to 25 words in length.

Ok, first off, I’m no expert, but to my knowledge, a level 1 Wondrous item is something along the lines of the Restful Bedroll, which has the Daily Power of “after an extended rest, you gain 1d8 temporary hit points until you take a short or extended rest”.

Could this be an example of a rare item? Or are we actually in possession of an artifact, since it likely has more powers that will be unlocked in time? Benwick was able to grant the item these powers with “a Ritual”, which I find rather interesting as well, as, to date, Rituals are not presented in the Essentials books!

Either way, this is a useful item, and, assuming it’s powers are plot-relevant, I can surmise that we will be facing ongoing poison damage, as well as encounter something we’ll need to ask Benwick about.

We’re level 2 now, and everyone felt just a little more heroic. At the other table, however, new characters were being created, starting at 2nd-level. It’s amusing that the new characters ended up better equipped than my Slayer, but what can you do?

Incidental to this, we lost our Thief, which meant our party consisted of a Dwarf Knight, an Eladrin Hexblade, an Eladrin Slayer, and a Human Warpriest. Yep, that’s right, a party of four.

The other table had a Barbarian, a Thief (and a Rogue!), as well as a Cleric. It’s not very Essential, but I’m sure a lot of other Encounters are being run this season with a mix of old and new class design.

My other questions about the setting:

  • The Dwarf who hired us on is the Captain of the Guard for the Keep. He apparently attempted to go it alone, with only a single trusted ally, but they failed, and his friend didn’t make it. He’s hiring us because he fears that Lord Drysdale will seize the treasure, or at the very least, take a large cut as ‘taxes’.

Thankfully, none of our party is Lawful Good, but it does raise an interesting point that we’re working for a man who is sending us to help the Captain of the Guard unlawfully claim the treasure cache! Just what kind of people are we working for…and what kind of ruler is Lord Drysdale?

  • The monetary treasure is to be divided up three ways between the party, the Dwarf, and our boss. A hefty commission, to be sure! The Captain gets the Dwarven relics, of course. But the bizarre part was his statement that “I have no use for magical items, so those you may keep”.

Wait a second. Who can’t use a magical item? Even if it’s difficult to resell them, they’re portable and worth a hefty chunk of change! Just what exactly are these “Dwarven Relics”, anyways?

  • We are led to the secret vault in the dead of the night, and Benwick took his leave of us, claiming that “he had other errands to run”. In the middle of the night? No no, that’s not suspicious at all…

We were warned about “moving statues”, but initially, the first chamber was empty, save for the dead warrior’s body and a large statue of a Dwarf carrying a flail. Oh and spikes on the walls! I suspected a trap, and Rob decided to use his “Dwarven trapfinding skills”…ie, he just walked straight ahead. But hey, he’s got 39 hit points, so more power to him!

There was a trap, sort of. The statue started to spin, and our Dwarf was smacked by the flail, which turned out to have an impressive reach of 3 squares! Smaller statues appeared, and the fight began. Despite my heavy investment in Dexterity*, I ended up with a 9 for initiative, beating only the Knight, at 6.

*As it happens, Minaryn’s 20 Dexterity would fail him more than once!

-It’s a minor nitpick, but I really wonder why Defender classes are built around the idea of Dexterity being a tertiary, or an even lower priority. This is a corollary to my view of Controllers; you want the people who set up the battle to go first, and yet, Strikers tend to have higher initiative! Sure, you can always delay, but…that concedes the advantage to the enemy. Then again, I suppose that’s game balance in action; if you want your Defenders and Controllers to be effective in battle by going first, then you have to make sacrifices elsewhere.

The Warpriest moved into melee, while Tim wisely had his Hexblade stay back and fire off an Eldritch Whatever (why did they change the name again?). After getting beat up last session, I decided to hold off as well and used my bow.

During Rob’s turn, the statue hit him with an Immediate Reaction (..groan) and slid him into the spikes. Well, now we know what those were for! Of course, he would pick tonight to forget he’s a Dwarf, which would have saved him from a lot of damage.**

**Actually, he’s been trying to get the achievement for taking 50 damage in one encounter. Sadly, it’s not really worth it, as this season of Encounters makes it almost impossible to get the Delver reward (you need 100 points, and the maximum is something like 103), but, you know, it’s an achievement…and he would have gotten this one too, if it wasn’t for the Warpriest handing out damage resistance like it was candy!

And then the true horror revealed itself; the last enemy had a ranged area attack that not only did damage, but immobilized! It targeted Reflex, which made me think that I’d be ok, since I have the highest Reflex in the party…well, you can guess how that went. Now, I optimized the heck out of Minaryn’s to-hit, but despite that, I missed three times this encounter; you can’t optimize around low die rolls. Thanks to being immobilized several times during the fight, I only got the chance to use my sword once.

+14 to hit, thanks to Combat Advantage, and I roll a 1. Son of a…

I’m really happy that I set up Minaryn to use a bow, although it was annoying to have to use my minor action to keep switching between weapons, thanks to Master at Arms. Heck, there was one turn where I realized I needed to simultaneously move, attack, and use THREE minor actions; to change my weapon, stance, and use my utility power!

Yeah, that didn’t happen. I did get a crit during the fight though, sadly, it was with my bow, so I didn’t get to apply bonus damage or use Power Strike. But the 20 ranged damage took out the enemy I was shooting at, so really, that’s just fine.

The big winners of the fight were the Hexblade and the Warpriest; due to forced movement and immobilization, our Knight didn’t get to defend much (oh the enemies could Grab and Slow, too, fun fun!). But the fact that Hexblades deal elemental damage, and of various types, came in handy for taking on the big statue…which was actually a trap, with no Will defense and immunity to psychic damage (thankfully, Tim’s attack dealt Cold and Psychic..).

Which begs the question; if it’s a trap, how does it choose it’s targets, or determine what direction to slide people in? I can understand the Immediate Reaction, it has a sensor of some kind, pressure plates in the floor, and…there I go again, thinking too much!

As for the Warpriest, we have a very good player manning the party Leader. Between handing out temporary hit points, damage resist, and heals to poor Bloodied Strikers (guess who?), we won, and weren’t looking too shabby afterwards!

-Which is why he got the Moment of Glory for this session. Support your local Cleric!

Which brings me back to my earlier reviews again. Despite overwhelming odds, a short-handed party, and being stopped dead in our tracks (and several missed attacks), I walked away having only spent a Surge and an Action Point. Yeah, the game is tough, but really, so are the heroes.

I’m going to have to put more thought into this.

Meanwhile, the other group, despite obvious complaints about their DM (who misses quite frequently, I should point out, even though you wouldn’t know it to listen to the players) did quite well for themselves. They didn’t run into the fight, and the enemies ended up having to go to them. They did run into some trouble, though. Not having a Defender was something of an issue, although, any encounter that hampers a Defender’s mobility is going to be a pain.

And, naturally, the Barbarian got Immobilized, with his only weapon being a +1 Greataxe. Ouch. Been there, done that!

But they had some advantages as well, such as their Thief being able to actually disable the trap (we were forced to smash it to pieces), so it looks like they had a good time of it as well. A far cry from two week’s ago!

In closing, I have to give tonight’s Encounter an A-. The backstory was intriguing and thought-provoking (even if I did make a few jokes during the presentation, I was paying attention!). The encounter was a challenge, but one we were able to adapt to. Granted, it requires very specific tactics to beat, which is why I slightly lowered the grade, but really, it’s our own fault that we ran into trouble.

If we’d stayed close together, and out of the trap’s reach, being immobilized/slowed/grabbed wouldn’t have been as much of an issue. There does seem to be a bit of bias against melee-based characters in the game, but the Essentials classes seem more resistant to this. Either they come with built-in ranged powers, or they can easily take some kind of thrown weapon.

I’m curious to see if they’ll make new builds for some of the notoriously ranged-weak classes, like non-Pursuit Avengers or the Battlemind that give them better ranged options.

Well, that’s enough rambling for now. Coming soon (I hope): Scales of War and Living Forgotten Realms!

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Posted by Lynceus

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  1. Takei is a Drow. One whom grew up in the feywilds. But a drow none the less.

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