Monday, August 31, 2009

Playtesting Underway!

I've started playtesting my conversion of DL1, Dragons of Despair. Since I don't currently have a gaming group, what I really mean by this is that I've started running the pregenerated PCs through the tactical encounters to ensure that I have struck the right balance and not made anything too hard or too easy.

To help me do this, I've been using a number of excellent tools. One of these is Dungeons & Dragons Insider (DDI), which is of course WotC's subscription service (and which I find to be an invaluable investment, but that's outside the scope of this post). By having the Compendium open, I can search for clarifications to any rules questions that come up. The other two apps I've been using are also excellent resources for running combat and I highly recommend them: MapTool and Virtual Combat Cards.

MapTool probably needs no introduction. It's a part of the fantastic RPTools suite of apps meant to help facilitate roleplaying games. MapTool is an "online, multiuser, networked, graphical, interactive, programmable virtual tabletop", and I have in fact used it to create all the maps in DL1 (which I think turned out very nicely, even if I do say so myself!).

Virtual Combat Cards (VCC) is a really great resource for the harried DM. It's a 4E combat tracker that you can use to monitor initiative, hit points, marks, conditions, ongoing damage, and all the fiddly little bits of 4E combat.

Even using these great time-saving tools I have been finding that each of these tactical encounters takes a very long time to resolve. Too long, in fact. There are a couple of reasons for this that I've identified so far. Probably the most significant reason is that with eight PCs and a correspondingly higher amount of monsters, there are a lot of combatants to keep track of! I knew this would be an issue when I set out converting DL1 and I pondered how to handle it.

Traditionally there are eight PCs in DL1 -- Tanis, Sturm, Caramon, Raistlin, Flint, Tasslehoff, Goldmoon, and Riverwind. (There is some mention of Riverwind being an NPC in the original module, but my overall impression was that he was intended to be a PC, and the original DL5 seems to support this). I thought about designing the module for five PCs -- the standard assumed party size in 4E, with the idea that the players could select the five PCs they wanted to be active for the adventure, and the other three characters would accompany them as NPCs who participate in the action "off-screen". I ultimately decided I wanted to design the module assuming an eight-person party, but I still think that initial thought could be a valid alternative. All this said, how many gaming groups have eight players? Probably not the majority, so I have included in the module some instruction for scaling the adventure. Fortunately, this is easy to do in 4E -- in the case of DL1, simply remove a number of threats from an encounter equal to n*x, where n is the number of PCs less than eight, and x is the XP value of a standard monster of the encounter's level.

With a full complement of all eight pregen PCs and the monsters to match them, the playtest combats are running long. A lot longer than I want them. That said, excessive combat length in 4E is a well-known issue and I've seen a number of insightful discussions about it lately (in particular, check out relevant posts at the great blogs Musings of the Chatty DM, Greywulf's Lair, and Stupid Ranger). I'm toying with the idea of reducing all monster hp to 75% or even 50% to help speed things up a bit. I also want to tinker with some of the composition of several encounters where I feel like I may have used a few too many soldiers.

After running through a few of the tactical encounters, I also went back to rejigger a couple of the PCs' builds. In particular, Tanis and Goldmoon as I had originally built them were not performing as effectively as I would have liked, but I believe I have now fixed this.

In any event, this has been my long-winded way of saying that playtesting has begun on the module and I feel like I have gotten the basic balance of difficulty right -- though I still have a number of encounters to test. There are a few refinements I'd like to make thanks to some things I've learned along the way about encounter design, but I'll be able to put these more fully to use in DL2. In the meantime, I'll keep playtesting, but I think I'll also get word of this blog out there and get the module posted as well so you can have a look and hopefully offer some constructive criticism!

Thursday, August 27, 2009


In the online gaming community, a lot has been written about the latest, fourth, edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game. Inevitably change brings with it debate, and the debate about 4E, especially in the early days of the new edition, has often been quite heated.

I had been on a bit of a hiatus from D&D in the latter days of 3E (3.5, I suppose I should say). Whether you love it or hate it (and for the record, I love it) a new system like 4E represents an opportunity to reimagine all our favorite stories and characters, and soon after the D&D Character Builder was released I hit on the idea of seeing how I could represent the Heroes of Lance and the Heroes of Legend -- the characters from the Dragonlance adventures -- under the new rules.

In 1988, as a kid in Grade 6 (or "the sixth grade", or "Year Six", depending on which English-speaking country you live in), the Dragonlance Chronicles novels became my introduction to D&D. I read them, loved them, and when I got to the end of Dragons of Autumn Twilight I saw an advertisment for D&D. My reaction was more or less, "Holy shit, there's a game?!"

My friends and I became avid gamers, adventuring in the world of Krynn. As the early 90s went on, we moved on to the Forgotten Realms and other worlds, and Dragonlance, with its seemingly endless novels of dubious quality and bizarre continuity (or lack thereof) became almost an embarrassment, a setting "we used to play". (Many years later, in 2008, I reread the Chronicles and found that the writing doesn't hold up well to the eyes of an adult. Nonetheless, that sense of fun was still there, and the old familiar characters were still enjoyable.)

In spite of all this, some of the fondest gaming memories I have are of running my players through the original Dragonlance modules, DL1 to DL14 (published from 1984 to 1988). I suppose today we'd call that kind of thing an "adventure path". The first of those modules, Dragons of Despair, is in my opinion a very well-done adventure (rated 25th in the "30 Greatest Adventures of All Time" as published by Paizo in Dungeon #116), and those that followed may have been of varying quality, but they had a lot of unique features and bright ideas as well.

Getting back to the D&D Character Builder, I think one of the great things about those Dragonlance modules (and novels) were their beloved heroes. Tinkering with the Character Builder, I started building various versions of the heroes, selecting feats and powers that I thought fit with their personalities. Eventually, I started thinking about how these characters would fit together as a group of player characters if one were to run an adventure for them. That in turn led to me thinking about what it would be like to update the Dragonlance modules to 4th Edition.

And so here we are. I've embarked on a project to update the classic DL modules to 4E. I've been thinking a lot about what such a conversion requires and in reviewing the classic modules I see that there are going to be a lot of hurdles on the way. I've also taken a good look at the 3rd Edition conversion of the modules published by Margaret Weis Productions to see how they handled some of the issues I perceived with the modules.

I decided to start this blog to write some notes and thoughts about the process, and hopefully gain some feedback from anyone who might be interested. I've been hard at work on DL1, "Dragons of Despair", and soon I'll have a first draft to share for critique.

I hope you'll find my notes interesting and I hope that readers will share their insight. Although I've been a DM for many years, I'm definitely learning a lot about the fine art of both module writing and module converting, and learning (I think) a lot about some of the theory behind the 4th Edition ruleset as well. It's an ongoing process.

I'll leave you with a rundown of the builds for the heroes of the Dragonlance saga as I eventually setted on them. I'll discuss my reasoning behind some of these choices in a future entry. Here they are:
  • Tanis Half-elven, half-elf hybrid warlord | ranger (resourceful presence)
  • Sturm Brightblade, human fighter (great weapon fighter/two-handed weapon talent)
  • Caramon Majere, human fighter (guardian fighter/one-handed weapon talent)
  • Raistlin Majere, human wizard (war wizard/tome of readiness implement mastery)
  • Flint Fireforge, dwarf fighter (battlerager fighter)
  • Tasslehoff Burrfoot, halfling rogue (trickster rogue/artful dodger)
  • Goldmoon, human cleric (devoted cleric)
  • Riverwind, human ranger (archer ranger)
  • Tika Waylan, human hybrid fighter | rogue (ruthless ruffian)
  • Gilthanas, elf swordmage (ensaring swordmage)
  • Laurana, elf warlord (inspiring warlord)
  • Elistan, human invoker (preserving invoker)
  • Derek Crownguard, human paladin (avenging paladin)
  • Aaron Tallbow, human ranger (beastmaster ranger)
  • Serinda, elf bard (valorous bard)
  • Kronn Thistleknot, halfling fighter (tempest fighter)