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!