4e DM Questions

16 posts / 0 new
Last post
My players and I are still fairly new to 4e and there's still a bunch of stuff we don't fully understand. We've completed Keep on the Shadowfell and a little of my homebrew and now I'm running Madness at Gardmore Abbey. Looking ahead at the module, I've got some questions:

1) Keep on the Shadowfell had terrible creature stats that had too low offense and way too high defense, resulting in non-threatening encounters that dragged on far too long. Madness at Gardmore Abbey's creatures are a vast improvement in this regard, but I feel like maybe the average monster's HP is still a bit too high. I'm not sure if this is deliberate or because my players do too little damage, as no PC ever does more than 20 damage a turn except sometimes one of the wizards. Should I lower the monster's HPs a little or are my PCs doing something wrong?

The party is currently: wizard, wizard, fighter, warlock, shaman, paladin, druid.

2) Madness at Gardmore Abbey is intended for five PCs. Next session I will have seven PCs. I'm assuming I'll have to scale up the encounters, but what's the best way to do so without making a lot more work for me?

3) How do you guys run skill challenges? Do you announce that it's a skill challenge, the goal, the stages, and the primary/secondary skills? I've read the section about it in the DMG and DMG2 and the examples seem like you don't, but I don't know how well my bash-in-the-door style party will figure things out if I don't spell it out for them.. Still, it seems awkward if I just tell them what to do! 
1. Seven PCs and the monsters aren't going down quickly? That's odd. If they're focusing fire, I can't see a monster living very long. They are light on strikers, comparatively speaking, and heavy on controllers. That could be part of it. HP reduction might not be a bad idea, but not the best solution in my opinion. Have you considered adjusting encounters so the monsters don't necessarily always stick around until they're ground into a fine paste? Or given the PCs goals other than "Kill All Monsters?" Or given the monsters goals other than "Kill All PCs?"

2. I'd leave them alone if the problem you're having is slow encounters. Let them steamroll for a bit. Or as #1 above, make them harder, but create other objectives.

3. That's going to depend on your style and what your players are into. Some don't like being told they're in a skill challenges while others do. I err on the side of not telling them, but still making the goals clear ("You need to convince the duke to commit troops to the King's Army before the orcs ravage the countryside.") and asking "What do you do?" Then let them tell me what their plan is. If it means a skill roll is called for AND the success/failure of that roll can be made interesting, then I ask for it. Otherwise, they can just do it, no problem.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character     Hilarious D&D Actual Play Podcast: Crit Juice!

Here, Have Some Free Material From Me: Encounters With Alternate Goals  |  Dark Sun Full-Contact Futbol   |   Pre-Generated D&D 5e PCs

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

1) Keep on the Shadowfell had terrible creature stats that had too low offense and way too high defense, resulting in non-threatening encounters that dragged on far too long. Madness at Gardmore Abbey's creatures are a vast improvement in this regard, but I feel like maybe the average monster's HP is still a bit too high. I'm not sure if this is deliberate or because my players do too little damage, as no PC ever does more than 20 damage a turn except sometimes one of the wizards. Should I lower the monster's HPs a little or are my PCs doing something wrong?

You know what you get when you mix high defense with low offence? A creature that spits in the defender's face and plasters the controller, leader or striker.

You know what you get when you add in PCs that do too little damage? More of the same.

Don't mess with the HP or defenses, mess with how you run the game. If you creature has "too many" HP, then it can afford to "spend" some of them on opportunity attacks, or walking through dangerous zones, or staying flanked while it smashes the rogue.

The party is currently: wizard, wizard, fighter, warlock, shaman, paladin, druid.

target, target, petty annoyance, target, target, petty annoyance, target.


3) How do you guys run skill challenges?

Really, really well.

 Do you announce that it's a skill challenge,

Probably not, but the players are smart enough to figure it out.

 the goal,

If it's not obvious to them, why are they bothering with steps that would take them toward it.

 the stages,

Stages?

 and the primary/secondary skills?

Sure, but be sure that you understand that those don't mean "these are the only skills that work." ANY skill can work, if it can be justified it.

 I've read the section about it in the DMG and DMG2 and the examples seem like you don't, but I don't know how well my bash-in-the-door style party will figure things out if I don't spell it out for them.. Still, it seems awkward if I just tell them what to do! 

Your job as DM is to put the game in a position in which it doesn't matter if they figure things out. That's the real key to skill challenges: the PC's can fail them, the PCs can [u]flat out ignore them[/i] and the game just trundles along. They might suffer consequences that makes them think, hey, maybe we should have at least tried talking to the Duke, but the game goes on.

The other thing that the module designers never seemed to get, is to make sure to have more than one thing going on at once. Never put a skill challenge out by itself. There's nothing more boring. Put it in the middle of combat, or in with another skill challenge, or something.

Also, if the players ever don't know how to act during a skill challenge, have them REact to something related to the challenge. They're travelling, and no one has a Nature check they feel good about rolling? Bummer, well there's a storm rolling in mighty fast. What DO they want to do?

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Assuming those are all the player's handbook versions of those classes, somebody should probably rebuild, because you've got 7 PCs and your only striker is a warlock, which is one of the worst strikers for focus-fire.

Two defenders is good. I'd recommend two leaders as well, but you really need a good melee striker. A hexblade would be handy, if the warlock players is amenable to it. If not, well, the party is built for long slog battles, so there ya go.

Honestly 3 controllers is too many. Just, too many. We have two controllers in our group, and while they're both very good at being controllers and doing other stuff, if we don't focus fire encounters take forever. 

"Not only are you wrong, but I even created an Excel spreadsheet to show you how wrong you are." --James Wyatt, May 2006

Dilige, et quod vis fac

I agree with everyone else that your damage isn't high enough. An Avenger would bring the striker damage (though less nova) but would have a really good advantage against high defenses with their oath re-roll.
WRT #1: You've said that the group's damage is low, but what level is the group as you're making that statement? If they're still around level 3-4 (which is about when Keep on the Shadowfell would end) then you're looking at about three more levels worth of abilities being gained in the meantime, which would increase their damage output substantially.

As far as the character classes go, the approaches taken with each matter at least as much: an offense-oriented fighter is a completely different beast than a defensive one, and there are several types of druids out there.

Don't judge Madness by KotS: the latter was written before the 4E rules were even finalized and it suffers from edition hangover in MANY areas, not just monster stats. (I generally discourage people from using it as a starter adventure for that reason.)

WRT #2: While there are means of scaling the adventure, I actually think that you can get away without scaling this one much or at all, at least when dealing with a larger-than-normal group. The party might finish a level lower than normal, but since there isn't a set path through it and many encounters are optional, having more staying power as a larger group will mainly serve to allow them do to more between extended rests. In this case, it'll also help the combat encounters finish more quickly.

WRT #3: In general, you don't need to. The idea of a skill challenge is that it represents a non-combat encounter with a specific goal or obstacle to overcome and the skill challenge framework gives the activity some kind of structure. How you actually use it is meant to be quite flexible, and the framework is there to serve the needs of the narrative, not the other way around.

The standard skills listed for any given challenge are simply the obvious ones, not the ONLY possible ones - as long as the idea is plausible then the actual skill involved doesn't really matter (and some things might not even demand a skill check).
If your players are new to 4e, then they probably don't realize that the classes they've chosen are terrible.  They probably picked them for superficial reasons and biases based on what sounds cool.  Everything in DnD _sounds_ cool.  The fluff and the flavor text, well, exaggerates.  If that's what your players read first, they probably really overestimated what those classes could do. 

I know that's what my players did.  They're all new to 4e, and all but one of them picked a class that sounded really cool but proved to be really weak.  So I told them right off the bat to focus on roles rather than names and descriptions.

I said that if you want to be a fighter because you want to swing a huge sword and bash people's heads in, well then, you probably want to be a Barbarian instead.  If you want to be a Fighter because you want to be a dancer and cut people to ribbons with a pair of daggers or lite swords, then you probably want to be a Ranger instead.

If your Druid wants to be a primal champion of the wild, a pagan witch warrior, well, Wardens do that much better.  He can cross-class as a Druid if he still wants to wildform, but honestly wildform blows in 4e anyway, so maybe he'll get over it.  Warden Dailies are called "Forms," so you guys can just exaggerate with that and give him wildform as a theme.  It honestly doesn't do much anyway.

Generally, I do think Wizards are good characters, and Fighters and Paladins can be very good too, but your primal classes, your Shaman and Druid, are weak, so maybe you want to show them the Warden or even the Barbarian or Ranger and see if one of them wants to rewrite his character. 
Sleeping with interns on Colonial 1
+1 to the cylon collaborator!

People get really hungup on flavor text, class names, and what an ability says it does. Key point though is that fluff is just that, fluff you can refluff anything in the game but still use the same mechanical powers and classes. As Gaius says, they need to be focusing on their roles (defender, striker, leader, controller) over their class.

Another suggestion is for one of the leaders to retrain into a warlord to further increase the damage output of the strikers over other leaders.
Umm, I think we ought to get more info about the characters before we all jump on the "they're terrible!" bandwagon. The only thing we currently know is the class lineup, and that's not enough info on which to base judgments of their effectiveness.
Thanks for the responses! I really appreciate the advice.

The party is all level 6. The first three sessions of Madness had a fluctuation of 4-6 players and next session will be the first time at 7. I'm not going to tell the players that they should pick different classes or rebuild but I may take a glance at their sheets to make sure they're adding everything up correctly. I know one player mentioned last time that he wasn't adding half his level as bonus to attack rolls.

I won't scale up the module just yet. With 7 PCs plus the companion Sir Oakley they should be getting through encounters faster. I also really like the idea of the monsters being more reckless and taking attacks of opportunity to reach squishies if they don't feel threatened by frontliners. If anything, I may add a couple minion monsters here or there if things get too easy. They'd add some damage but die quickly.

Skill challenges were confusing to me but yeah, you guys are right, I should just use them as guidelines to events and not have them set in stone.
Referring to them as "terrible" was hyperbole, I'll admit, but I stand by my characterization of new 4e players.  It's very easy to get hung up on flavor text and drastically overestimate what a class, build, or power, can do.

I would love to hear more about the characters, but I feel pretty confident that I know those classes well enough to know that they don't have many effective builds.

Besides, it is just one suggestion to a problem that may have a lot of different solutions. 

In my group we had a new player who chose Invoker because he loved the fluff, played a few games, realized that the character didn't do on the grid what the flavor text promised on paper, and rewrote the character to an Avenger and never looked back.
Sleeping with interns on Colonial 1
Skill challenges were confusing to me but yeah, you guys are right, I should just use them as guidelines to events and not have them set in stone.

That's all they need to be. I run skill challenges straight out of the DMG, but the numbers and skill descriptions are just the barest framework for the description and responses to player choices. That framework frees me from getting hung up on too many judgment calls. There are still calls to be made, but I don't have to wonder if I have to end the challenge because someone rolled a 20, or end it because someone rolled a 1, for instance.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

To me, there are essentially two kinds of skill challenges.  There are the skill challenges as intended "encounters," meaning that I specifically planned this skill challenge to be a major obstacle in the session and spent time preparing it, and there are improvised skill challenges, that happen on the fly because a player in the exploration phase came up with an idea that I didn't expect.

The improvised challenges are usually strait from the book, vanilla challenges.  I decide as quickly as I can how hard I want it to be (i.e., complexity) and what the primary and secondary skills and their DC's should be.  And, of course, by 'should' I mean that I'd expect players in this situation to come up with different ideas about what skills are relevant.  I can usually figure this out quickly because I'll know right away exactly how hard I think what they're doing should be.  The complexity just pops into my head and then after that it's just filling in the numbers.

I have two kinds of markers, red ones for successes and grey ones for failures.  Once I've got my initial notes down, I just openly prompt my players for a skill check, and drop the appropriate marker for whether or not they passed.  At no point do I actually say this is a skill challenge, but once that marker drops they have no doubt that it is.  Once the first few checks are rolled and we have a narrative in place for how the action has progressed, I'll usually have advantages figured out at that point that I can offer to the players as suggestions for how the action might progress from here.

I find that those markers are an amazing tool for helping the players visualize how a skill challenge works.  It's much more effective than anything I could actually tell them about skill challenges, especially now that they've seen them so many times.

As for the prepared 'encounter' challenges, here's a few articles on skill challenge design that have been hugely influential to me.

At-Will (at-will.omnivangelist.net)




All of those articles and more can be found here on Critical Hits.

Sly Flourish.com


Sleeping with interns on Colonial 1
Maybe they got better since I stopped reading them, but none of those bloggers really seemed to understand skill challenges.



I'm glad they finally picked up on this key piece of advice. It's right in the Skill Challenges chapter in the DMG and it's more important than anything else written on the subject. I've even adopted it as my approach to combat.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Had another session and it went really well. I figured my players had forgotten about all the loot they had found in Keep on the Shadowfell so I made magic item cards to hand out to them as physical reminders, and sure enough they had forgotten about nearly all of them. Stats went up. I also clarified with players on how they add up their attack modifiers and they're hitting more consistently now. Also the fighter, despite wielding a 1hander, never had a shield. Another easy +2 AC.

Our last combat encounter I used Centauri's advice on my "too much hp" problem. The enemies were orcs, they were tough, and they used their sizable hp as a resource to get past the front line and wail on some squishies. They died faster while keeping the combat more interesting and deadly.

One thing that I'm cautious about is a wizard's Summon Magma Beast daily power. It seems very powerful but I don't quite understand how summoned monsters work in 4e yet. Also not sure if its Intrinsic Nature ability allows the wizard to choose which target it hits when there's multiple targets adjacent to it or whether it's randomly determined. 
Our last combat encounter I used Centauri's advice on my "too much hp" problem. The enemies were orcs, they were tough, and they used their sizable hp as a resource to get past the front line and wail on some squishies. They died faster while keeping the combat more interesting and deadly.

Wow, thanks for trying it and letting me know. Glad to hear it worked for you.

One thing that I'm cautious about is a wizard's Summon Magma Beast daily power. It seems very powerful but I don't quite understand how summoned monsters work in 4e yet. Also not sure if its Intrinsic Nature ability allows the wizard to choose which target it hits when there's multiple targets adjacent to it or whether it's randomly determined.

They could have been clearer about that. I guess the choice would default to the DM, who could decide to let the wizard choose.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy