Last night was our fifth (I think) couples' night gaming session. Because things have been progressing pretty slowly (remember that two of my players are completely new to the rules and one of my players is adjusting to 4e from 3e rather poorly [he just can't seem to get flanking, which, him being the rogue, is pretty bad]). So, last night, after an RP session that started great but then started to drag toward the end (but involved some awesome insights from different players), we finally got into the campaign's first dungeon crawl. Here's the scenario and how things went down:
The party needs to get into a port city for a couple of reasons, but the city has been locked down by an invading force from another city that is not letting anyone in or out. Not being able to wait for a way in, the heroes stopped at a nearby village to find out if there was another way in. After pumping the villagers and two other groups who aren't being let into town for information, the heroes found out about an ancient sewer that leads into the city and how to locate it. After the party located it, the rogue was working out how to release a door mechanism when the warlock decided that it was better to blast the door open (none of the other players here took the warlock seriously until he stepped up and rolled a nat 20, alerting all of the monsters in the next room to their presence). Well, the murkbat swarm attacked first, followed by the dire rats. The fight was -- even for our "how does that rule work again?" fights -- long. The fight was brutal. The tank went down near the end of the fight, which I always enjoy. The players started off using some great tactics, but by the time that the dire rats got to them (the warlock did some great controlling tactics to keep them at bay), fighting in the sewer pipe, while creating the bottleneck that kept the heroes from getting surrounded and created a perfect setup for the wizards blast powers, the heroes ended up with their tactical options severely limited. The rogue couldn't move into flank, for instance. This made the whole fight take a lot longer than it should have, but it was a fun fight for folks who rarely get to flex their in-game muscles (like the wizard).
Stuff I Learned #1: Turn a Futile Effort into an Opportunity
At one point, the group's barbarian asked: "Why don't we just the guards at the gates what they're doing here?" To be honest, my mind was blown. How had the rest of us -- 6 including me, the DM -- not even considered that? Well, I knew that I hadn't planned on the heroes being able to get any details out of them, but why I hadn't I considered what they COULD get out of them? I told the barbarian "Sure, that's great, but it's going to take a while for you to get to the gate since you're in a nearby village, remember?" buying me time to work out exactly what she could figure out. I let her try to address the guards, but it was eventually obvious that she wasn't sure how to do this. Instead, I truncated the scene and explained that her questions were largely stonewalled, that she'd get "canned answers" and that those answers would come from different members of the six-guard team. After spending some time with the guards, the barbarian figured out that these guys are very well disciplined and organized and that whatever their cause might be, they're fanatically devoted to it. All of these were facts that they didn't have before. Rather than allowing the barbarian to waste her time (and the group's), it made more sense to me to give her something for her efforts.
Stuff I Learned #2: Two Swarms Should Equal Two Controllers
Swarms. I've always wanted to effectively use swarms in D&D (and you'll remember that one of my design goals is "Do something I've never done before"). I had a few work correctly in 3e, but none really did the trick for me in 4e before. Then, came last night. The players faced off against two murkbat swarms which were attracted to the sound of Ny, the warlock, blowing in a portcullis. If we all think back to our MM, we know that swarms take half damage from attacks that aren't area (zone, burst or blast) attacks, so it makes sense for the group to use as many area attacks as possible. Here's the problem: only one of the strikers has ANY area attacks, and he was holding back on using his encounter power because the group new a wave of dire rats was on its way. The only player with reliable, re-usable area attacks is the wizard, who's been trying to get into position to use her Thunderwave on more than one or two enemies for session after session with no success. What the group needed in order to deal with two swarms effectively was another controller so that the AOE potential of the group was sufficient to burn down two enemies rather than allowing the strikers to plink away at each swarm for half damage. Maybe I can convince one of the strikers to multiclass into a controller class if this ends up becoming a trend.
Stuff I Learned #3: Auras Don't Tie The Players' Hands Tactically
In the previous session's fight against the bullywug menace, I completely forgot about the bullywugs' aura power. The more I read that aura, the more I worried about using it, too. In the end, I decided that forgetting to use it was perfectly fine since it would have tied the hands of my PCs when trying to make tactical decisions and prevented them from fighting the way they wanted to. So, when the murkbat swarms came out yesterday, I was ready. I was GOING to use their aura powers, damn it! The aura makes anyone in it take a -2 penalty to attack rolls and if a character ends his or her turn in the aura, he or she takes 3 damage. Once the heroes discovered this, they made great use of shifts to move in and out of the aura expertly, and once the wizard got in place to lay down Thunderwave turn after turn, it became a careful game of watching initiative order -- the Thunderwave came at just the right time every turn that it kept people's turns from ending inside the aura. The auras made the fight tougher, but for me, that made it more fun and for the players, it meant that they had to make harder decisions and a fight that could have been "easy mode tank & spank" ended up requiring excellent positioning and timing, which the players pulled off very well under the paladin's guidance.
Right, well, it's about time for me to get moving. Thanks for tuning in. Before I do go, I'd like to send out a huge thanks to you all in the Wizards community for taking note of what I've been doing over here. I hope you enjoy these posts and others to come.