Archive for December, 2011

Here be a loving soliloquy to the best aspects of this, my favorite version of the world’s greatest role playing game of all time.

There is little dispute that when 4th edition made its debut, it was further from previous editions than any other rules update that had gone before. Many long-time fans of dungeons and dragons even went so far as to claim that it was not the same game. Indeed, the designers showed little restraint when building the new system, and much of what they designed completely changed the way the game was played. However, their intention was not to change the game just for the sake of change. They wanted to create a better game, and many of the changes did just that. In this article I will call out the biggest, best changes 4e made to the long and storied life of the dungeons and dragons game, in hopes that it will spark discussion about what we have learned from this edition and where our game is going in the future.

Health and Death – or Bloodied, death saves, healing surges, and second wind

This is a big topic, and it all directly relates to hit points, the magical number of points a monster or character can take before being knocked out. Hit points are one of the best recognized design elements of the dungeons and dragons game. They have been around since the beginning, mostly unchanged. Characters start with few, and gain more and more as they level up. While a dagger thrust might slay a new character, at high level a dragons fiery breath may merely be a mild irritant.

Not much has changed fundamentally with the way hit points work, other than healing surges, which I discuss later on. What has changed is a codification of the status of what losing hit points means. The “Bloodied” state, for example, marks a character or monster reaching the half-way point of their respective hit points. This simple term is a great way to give players clues about the state of the monsters they are fighting, and even helps them realize when their character, or an ally, is becoming dangerously injured. Narratively speaking, when a character bloodies a monster, this is a good time to describe getting a good hit in, literally causing the monster to bleed. It is a visceral word, self-explanatory, and incredibly useful from a descriptive angle.

However, the bloodied mechanic goes far beyond that, with certain powers, class and monster abilities tied to the bloodied state. Often a character or monster will transform into something else when bloodied. For example the shifter character race gets a bonus to damage and regeneration when bloodied. Many of the best solo monsters in the game transform when bloodied, or get a new power, or in the case of dragons, a big power such as their breath weapon immediately recharges and they use it.

Throughout the history of dungeons and dragons, character death has been an area of controversy. The earliest games were known for their ability to kill off reams of characters, and death could come from any direction, at any time, and it was easy to kill off a character with one lousy roll. Sometimes no roll was required, for example if you are playing an older edition of the game, do not stick your character’s head into a globe of disintegration. As the game has advanced, it has trended away from auto-death, and the new dying mechanic of 4th edition fits right in line with that ethos. While unconscious at negative hit points, a character makes a “death save” every turn, which determines whether the character slips closer to death, maintains status quo, or miraculously comes around.

This is a big change. Now the player gets to keep playing, even while knocked out, by rolling death saves. Granted a single die roll each turn is not much, but it keeps the player in charge of their character’s destiny. And if they should roll a (modified) 20, then they have mastered their mortality and pulled themselves back from the brink. It is a simple solution that goes a long way towards making character death less likely, and brings more interaction to the player.

The dying rules give non-magical healing into the hands of every character. No longer is a healer necessary to help the fallen. With the creation of the “Second wind” rule, for the first time in the game’s history, every single class can self-heal, and with a simple skill check, they can even help the helpless heal themselves. This is a sea change, and the crux of the games refined healing. Healing is no longer the sole provenance of the divine classes, and this comes through in so many ways, like through the use of healing surges.

For thirty years, we have argued over the representation of hit points. Are they pure physical stamina? Are they a record of wounds? Does it include morale, fatigue, and other more “ephemeral” traits of combatants? To me, hit points are all of these things and more. They are an indefinable numerical value that represents a creature’s ability to survive. Healing surges, on the other hand are far harder to define. Every character has a set number of these, and in theory they represent many of the same characteristics as hit points: injury, exhaustion, morale, but surges also represent a basic “daily stamina” beyond which, the character becomes ineffective.

For an example of how healing surges can be hard to integrate into a narrative, imagine a character with ten healing surges per day. If he quaffs 10 healing potions (which each consume a healing surge to drink) then the next potion he consumes will have no effect. Why? Because he is out of healing surges to “power” potions and other types of healing in the game. In that way, healing surges are more important than raw hit points, since there are many ways to regain lost hit points, but very few ways to continue adventuring when the healing surges run out. It is a strange rule, but combined with the way hit points work in the game, it allows for a much wider variety of healing.

Fourth edition characters are more resilient than past editions, and death is more avoidable than ever with the new rules for self-healing and non-magical healing. Where once clerics were heal-bots, no more. Now characters can take care of their own healing, and clerics cast their heals as minor or free actions, so they can bring it to the enemy like all the good strikers do.

Incidentally, the main reasons for healing surges and second winds has to do with “the five minute adventuring day” in which a party expends their resources in the first encounter of the day, then decides to rest until they recover. With surges, characters between encounters can heal up to full and carry on. Limiting the number of healing surges means that this won’t work indefinitely, and a character cannot quaff healing potion after healing potion and expect to continue on indefinitely.

Saving Throws

Rolling a d20 and needing a ten or above is a genius idea. Subconsciously it was already a part of the game. Rolling a ten or above is a natural breaking point with the d20 (above ten actually, but here the game sides with the players) and many tables throughout all editions have had the results of whatever is being rolled for improve from a detriment to a boon whence crossing the halfway mark. The fact that the game designers held themselves back from introducing a slew of modifiers to this innately simple method – though there are a seldom few, such as the Raven Cloak, the mechanic is kept pure.

Epic Set Piece Encounter Design

The most noticeable differences with fourth edition take place within the sphere of the richly detailed combat encounters. Almost like a game unto themselves, the encounters are designed to be full-featured set pieces, which combine terrain, enemies, and traps and hazards to make compelling scenes of epic conquest. Third edition went a long way towards giving an added level of tactics to the battlefields, but 4e took the tatical battle to whole new levels. Characters are given powers and abilities that allow them to behave like cinematic super heroes. The wide array of monsters, traps, hazards, and terrain features give each battlefield the potential for greatness. Multiple victory conditions are poossible, and every battle is unique. There are no “filler” fights.

This complexity comes at a price, however, and the game slows down when it has to process the various elements at work with and against each other. While encounter design is easier than ever thanks to the great game balance, choosing compatible game elements to get the most out of the game can add time to encounter creation, as well. This is offset by the fact that every battle can be a unique, exciting, memorable event.

Skill Challenges

Since its inception, the idea of the skill challenge has garnered more attention than any of the other “new elements” of fourth edition game design. A series of articles in Dragon Magazine built upon the basic rules, and multiple websites began creating publicly available skill challenges. The discussions over how to properly run a skill challenge filled message boards, and still do. In the end, each group finds a way to incorporate – or not – skill challenges into the game in their own unique way. That is one of the things that makes them so great.

We were in the middle of our last 3rd edition game when 4e came out, and even before I owned any of the 4e books, I was finding ways to incorporate skill challenges into the campaign. I push role playing as much as possible, and for us, skill challenges are free flowing encounters where we go around the table and each person describes what want to do, then we pick skills and roll it out. For other people it is a quick dice-fest that ends in miniatures with victory or defeat.

Minions! And soloes and elites too I guess

Encounter design could never be so epic, nor so easy and fun to design and run, were it not for the wide variety of enemy foes and the way the game breaks enemies into different types. The greatest example of this is the minion, a lowly 1 hp creature, that lives literally to provide cannon fodder for the bigger badder bad guys to hurl before the heroes of the story. Like names storm troopers, their singular existence is to be mowed down in great quantity – and the theatrics of their demise are a great source of inspirational game mechanics. Elites and soloes to are excellent types of monsters. No longer is there just one type of orc or goblin, for example, but now there are goblin hurlers and orc savages, barbarians, and berzerkers.

Besides the type, they have roles, much like player characters. Monsters coul be lurkers, soldiers, brutes, etc. The roles help differentiate the various monsters even more, giving groups of monsters even more variety, ande providing for even more dynamic battles. Now the enemies come in many types and danger levels, not always obvious at first glance.

Vast array of race and class choices

The sheer number of race and class options available in the game is staggering, and what is especially nopticeable is the wide variety of unique, archetypal possibilities exist. With several years of expansions, the game designers have continued to push the limits of what is possible, both with classes, like the recent vampire from Heroes of Shadow, to races like the Pixie and Satyr introduced in Heroes of the Feywild. This is achieved through the balance that runs through the game, from encounter design to class and race choice.

One area where balance greatly enhances gameplay is in the area of encounter building. Balance is the key to successful encounter building, and in a game where almost any class is possible, they each maintain a certain level that generally meets its goal of being neither better nor worse than any other class option. This is good for action at the table, since in theory every character will contribute an equal amount, and it is also good before the game and behind the screen. It is impossible to account for all character ability combinations, but with balance, the game mechanics make it easier to approximate that fine line.


Love ’em of hate ’em, powers were the big game changers of fourth edition. They changed the game, and besides issues of balance requiring that every class had access to its own equal in size and strength set of powers. Fighters had stances and special attacks, rogues had tricks, wizards had spells, and they are all spelled out on handy cards. It is an innovative way to make the character accessible to the player, and the concept has merit – both mechanically, by putting numbers to potential actions, and flavorfully, by having a unique “thing” happen when a power is used. As the game matured, innovative use of powers have contributed to newer character classes, some of whom use basic attacks, or have auras instead of more traditional powers. Psionic power points are another alternate system.

The game dungeons and dragons seems to grow all on its own through the years, especially now that the internet has helped to bring together the countless groups of gamers across the world. Now more than ever, do people have access to role playing games. The worlds favorite role playing game will continue to grow, both organically by the millions who play some version of it, and through the hands of the owner and publisher of the license. There are great things to love about the current version of dungeons and dragons, and much to learn about how these great ideas can help the future versions of the game.

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Since our two year long 4e campaign just ended, we are cleansing our gaming pallets over the holiday season by playing some other games. This week we played the Red Box Starter Set. Like last week’s game, we played the included introductory adventure, called “Twisting Halls.” Using Encounters Pre-generated characters from the 3rd and 4th+ Essentials seasons of D&D Encounters, the players used 4e analogs of the same characters from the Pathfinder Box the week before. Therefore we ended up with the clerics Sola and Hagen (Dasz); the warriors Quinn and Edith (The first ‘l’ in a dwarven syllable is always silent); the wizards Jarren and Barrian; and finally the elf roguess Keira Knightly.

Aside: One of the greatest treasures of my “Encounter Days” as a dm are the wonderful pre-generated character cards I have collected. Glossy, colorful, sturdy, and concise, these characters offer everything a new player needs to jump right into the game. They are easy to read, and with a few exceptions, they offer all the pertinent information a player might require during a gaming session. The last three seasons have used the same six pre-gens, so I am glad to have gotten the variety of the first four seasons, including Dark Sun.

The Adventure “Twisting Halls” is represented by a high quality poster map of a very packed and cluttered dungeon. Like introductory adventures from the dawn of time, it is full of classic monsters, traps, treasures and puzzles. The premise of the adventure is to return a box stolen from a caravan during a goblin raid. That raid took place in the “Read This First!” choose-your-own-adventure from the box, and so in our case it was backstory. The goblins were led by a robed figure on a black horse, and the adventurers followed their trail back to a mound, with two cellar-like stone stairways ending at doors. Right or left?

The party of adventurers stumbled down the steps and the thief checked out the stone double doors, before they were blasted open by Quinn. Two goblins screech “Intruder alert!” and launch attacks. A guard drake soon joins from an accompanying room, and then a goblin hex-curser starts shooting blinding bolts from cover behind an urn. A dark horse whickers in a corner by a pool of water. After being blinded, QUinn wandered over to the shying horse, and notices that even though spider webs and dust surround the pool, it is strangely clear. The fght is quickly over, and after a cursory examination, the party heads north. Pushing through the doors, the fighter Quinn is confronted by a spear clutching kobold. It eyes the knight with fear and suspicion, but when Quinn doesnt instantly attack, the kobold beckons him forward, down the hall, past more kobolds and through a red velvet curtain. The rest of the party follows at a discreet distance.

Quinn feels the chill in the air and a white dragon asks why do they dare trespass? After role playing a discussion, and a skill challenge, the dragon admitted he hated the wizard Maraleth and agreed to let a few of them pass if they agreed to defeat the dragon’s nemesis. The two wizards and the rogue, however, were forced to pay 19 gold apiece to enrichen the dragon’s hoard. The encounter could have played out differently, as a very difficult combat, but the players chose to pursue alternative means, which was fun, and hilariously the same thing, only opposite happened last week: they role played the goblins and fought the dragon. It may have been the rogue, who was swallowed whole last week, who prompted her fellows to follow a less violent approach.

It worked, and they passed through the dragon’s lair to be confronted by a squad of goblin archers and their pet dire rats. The three who payed were first through the door, and they had to endure a surprise round alone. One mage was knocked unconscious by a charging dire rat, and the other mage somehow managed to remain standing with no less than six feathered shafts sprouting from his chest. It was pretty freaking hilarious, but the muscle soon arrived, having negotiated a free passage for themselves through the room. (Hey that 19 gold is too important to just give away, they are here to find treasure, not lose it.) Then wizards took their revenge, popping each goblin head with a magic missiles until none remained intact. Quinn dashed towards the end of the hall like a mad man and tottered to a sudden halt at the edge of a pit trap concealed by the moldy rug.

The surprise battle soon ended, and the party was confronted with their first puzzle, in the form of the chess piece battle. They had to negotiate the chamber by moving as either a knight or bishop, while fighting an opposing team of four pawns, knight, rook, and queen. The challenge was fun as the players learned how to enter the room and join the chess board. There was some confusion over the movement effects of certain powers, and how they related to the chess moves. The principle idea was to move as a piece, but fight as usual, so we decided move effects would work as normal, and I also allowed people to use charge with their chess moves. It was an interesting and fun puzzle-combat.

The next chamber was a room full of statues and alters and some human thugs, but it was getting late, so I removed the combat and the room was fairly boring after that. Hagen the cleric, with Sola’s aid tried to remove the evil necromancy surrounding an alter, but failed miserably, and may have even caused the flow of evil to increase. Not the first time Sola has wondered about her fellow cleric’s true alignment…

Forgetting the neo-otyugh chamber (oops wrong dungeon) the characters bee-lined directly to the final climactic encounter, which was an exciting battle with the wizard Malareth and his undead companions. The fight was brutal, but quick, and there was lots of healing. The critical moment in the fight happened when the cleric Sola used her last healing to revive Hagen, so he could revive the fallen wizard. Everyone managed to pick themselves off the ground, and Edith the dwarf practically soloed the hulking zombie (described as a huge and bloated fat humanoid, like the zombie in the grocery store in Zombie Land, rather than an ogre.

The wizard could immobilize, and had a rechargeable necromantic burst attack that hit everyone in the party at least once, but other than that he was fairly lackluster. The skeletons had an incredibly high armor class for some reason, and really high hit points. I guess they were the “soldier” type, and they boxed the party in at the doorway (as usual for practically every batle of the night) and when the skeletons finally fell, the zombie hulk and the pathetically evil necromancer were soon to follow. Each character found one million gold pieces and retired to a country estate, the end.

Overall it was a fun adventure. More combat heavy than Pathfinder by default, but not always necessary, as can be seen by the role playing through the dragon scene. The interesting fact is that each box set approached the same classic “mini dungeon” introductory adventure in almost the exact same way, yet each of them were totally unique in the specifics. After the adventure, we talked a little bit about the differences between the two, and few people were ready to say one same was better or more fun (with the exception of my wife “3e is a saint!”) The consensus was definitely to continue playing 4e if it were ever to come to a vote, and since I am already in the planing stages of the next campaign, my preference is also with 4e. There are just too many options, it is like a drug. Pixie bards, vampires, goliath berzerkers, and satyrs are just a few of the infinitude of character options available in 4e.

Oh and it was our last game session of the year, nad it was our little x-mas party to boot. Good food, good friends, good gaming, and to top it all off, I, the humble dm, found some good little gifts to bestow on my players, in thanks for them returning week after week, year after year, to listen to me incoherently babble for hours on end. There is no subject I cannot spew forth as though with expertise, and there is every subject that I can be found lacking in said expertise, but my friends and family understand that about me, and apparentyl they are ok with it, so I gave each of them a little dragon momento as an x-mas present.

X-Mas Dragon 2011

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

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The ship came thundering out of the darkness of deep space, decelerating past the big outer gas giants to swing into orbit above a green and blue marble, streaked with white. The crew of the interstellar ship was alien to the star system, and had eagerly crossed the shoreless expanses of space to meet a fellow sentient race in a lonely universe. Unfortunately, before they had even crossed half the gulf, the planet went dark – no communication interceptions, no energy read-outs, nothing to give any evidence that the planet was inhabited or inhabitable.

The first team to descend to the surface returned in dismay. The people of the planet had destroyed themselves in the last thousand years. The cities were in ruins, and even the plant and animal life on the planet was reduced to a subsisting minority of the planet’s rich past. Saddened, the mission changed from one of first contact, to one recording for posterity the cousins they would never meet.

It was during the first few months of research into the planets demise that a surface team returned from the radioactive slag heaps of a major metropolis with a find of enormous importance. They were tracking down the few erratic energy sources still functioning in hopes of finding some remnant of survivors, when they discovered a functioning reaction generator in the cellar of what was once a medical facility.

The alien known as The Instructor strode forward with a wide smile on his face. Pinched between his digits was a small glass tube, shimmering opalescent with a stasis field. He held it up for The Councilor, the nominal commander of the mission, to inspect. “We have found a frozen embryo, viable and untouched by the apocalypse that devastated the race.”

“Yes,” the Councilor hissed, his eyes widening in surprise as he gazed into the yellowish fluid. “Our mission has changed once again, Instructor.“

He was speechless with shock, and a momentous weight seemed to settle on him. Three times in his life had he felt this way: the first, when grainy transmissions from halfway across the galaxy were first detected. The second feeling of destiny struck him as he surveyed the burned out husk of a once thriving alien world. Now this. It was almost too much to bear, if the news wasn’t so unbelievably wonderful. One way or another, they were going to meet a sentient alien race.

The team of medical technicians worked feverishly to bring the embryo to fruition, while the cultural liaisons spent every moment scouring the blasted lands for authentic components for the habitation sphere they were building. Coordinating the efforts were the Instructor and the Councilor, who learned all they could of alien society and physiology. The Instructor took charge of the embryo, while the Councilor oversaw the creation of the habitat in the least damaged region of the planet, on the edge of a vast desert.

It was important that the alien maintained cultural and societal ties to its species, and in the beginning, the two devised a wild plan to use artificial simulacrums to raise the offspring in an imitation of the ruined civilization they found on arrival. Enough records remained to paint an accurate picture of domesticity for the strange suicidal people, and when the babe was brought forth squalling, a warm-skinned mother was there to comfort her new son.

Within months, the simulation began to show weaknesses and the Instructor was amazed that such a youngling could be so perceptive. It had seemed in the beginning that creating a “mother” for the child would be easy – they had an entire world’s history of a people to draw upon, and their technology was advanced to the point where few boundaries remained uncrossed for long. Nonetheless, by six months old, the infant would begin wailing, and no amount of robotic motherly cooing could calm the child. In the end, the Instructor himself donned the garb of the aliens and took charge of the babe personally.

The habitat was based on an immense garden uncovered by the cultural liasions. With brooks of fresh water, walking paths, and colorful birds in the trees, animals in the grass. It was domed, and large enough that when the growing boy was old enough to walk and play on his own, he would spend hours going from one end to the other. The walls were made to look like impassable terrain, except for the access to the visitor’s Land Station, where the boy would come every day to listen and learn from the Instructor or the Councilor. The great data handling machines of the visitors had devised a language that was a microcosm of all known languages, and it was this they taught.

For many years the boy learned and grew, and was content. The visitors learned much about the world, and much about its destruction by mapping the psychology of the living specimen. On one point the Councilor was clear: no mention should ever be made to the boy about the fate of his species. The consequences of learning this knowledge were unknown and based on temperamental studies, could well be dire.

The boy however, was not so easily dissuaded from asking difficult questions, and from the time he entered puberty, he asked why he was always alone, and if he could ever have any companion besides the Councilor and the Instructor. In the beginning they demurred, but the Councillor knew that he was dealing with a social species, and studies showed that without companionship, the species tended to underperform, or even work against the greater good of society. When the Instructor came down in favor of a companion, the Councilor acquiesced, though he had doubts, and there was a nagging sensation, that another toll of the bell that rung for destiny sounded at the decision.

A sample of the boy’s genetics were taken, and they were manipulated to create a female embryo, which came to term and spent its first six months with the lonely mothering robot before being taken to the garden. The boy was elated and instantly took to the baby girl. He spent his every waking moment with her, and when she was old enough to walk, they would spend hours walking around the garden, pointing out the sights. They gave names to each of the wondrous birds and other animals they came across, and the Councilor came to call them by the same names.

The pair continued to grow, and early on the girl showed a wilder streak than the boy. Eventually she came to adolescence, and like the boy before, her body underwent changes and the two marveled at how alike, yet how different each were. The girl asked if all people showed such divergence, but the Instructor was quick to point out that while each person was unique, they all shared traits with one of two sub-types, male and female. But whenever the conversation came too close to the apocalyptic end of the species, the Councilor would always interject that there would be a time for that instruction later, but now was not the time.

One day, when both the boy and girl were well into their young adulthood, they were playing games near the visitor’s access. For a long time, they had tried to catch glimpses of what lay beyond the door, but the Councilor was adamant that they may never leave the garden. To leave meant to know death, and here was a new concept for them to contemplate.

The Councilor was away much of the time and it fell more and more on the Instructor to educate the wards. He was more lenient with information, and part of him believed they should be told the truth. The Councilor continued to decline. The visitors were learning more and more about this world and its erstwhile masters every day, and no mistakes must be made.

Meanwhile, the girl was in a wild mood and demanded more and more questions from the Instructor. She asked him about death, about birth, about other of her people. He declined to answer, but acknowledged they were worthy questions. This filled her with wrath, and she pointed to the door and asked what was beyond. He told her she could not know, but admitted it was right for her to wonder.

In anger, she demanded to know why they could not leave the garden, was this all the world? He admitted it was not, but that the wide world was barred to them at this time. She asked why, and he could not give her an answer, though he tried. She became merciless in her inquiry, rushing through a litany of questions that had gone unanswered over the years.

Finally, she asked the question that had been on her mind the whole time. “Do you know why my stomach is bulging, just so?” And the Instructor looked on aghast. The fifth moment of destiny tolled, and he saw then a future stretched long and far from this moment, ending perhaps in a world again wreathed in flames. He lurched forward, unstable, to clutch at her alabaster shoulders. He was falling and could not stand. She backed up instinctively, raising her hands to protect herself.

The boy, looking on with dull eyes, suddenly sprang to action. He scooped up a rock and brained the Instructor with it. Where the rock struck, the flesh tore away, and underneath was a hard yet flexible gray shell. The girl screeched and dug into the visitor with her claw-like nails, gouging great handfuls of flesh that parted to show something strange under a skin like their own.

The boy and girl bled when they were cut. But the flesh of the visitors sloughed away to reveal a chitinous insectoid body. It had two sets of eyes, one above the other. The upper eyes could gaze out long distances, but the smaller lower eyes were positioned just above a mouth surrounded by waving tendrils, for detailed scrutiny of close up objects. As the Instructor revealed his true form, the youths were spurred to ever greater violence, and the girl picked up a rock and together they beat the instructor into the ground.

Soon the Councilor arrived, and hurried to intervene, beseeching his children for calm. He too was struck down and revealed to be a vile alien. They made short work of him, and when it was done, the boy took the girl’s hand and led them from the garden, into the great old world. On the edge of a lonely desert they made their home, and never saw another living being until their first child was born.

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Since our two year long 4e campaign just ended, we are cleansing our gaming pallets over the holiday season by playing some other games. This week we played the Pathfinder beginner box. The players used the pre-generated characters, and I used the introductory adventure, Black Fang. The game was a rollicking blast, and we completed the adventure, all ten encounter areas including five fights, in three and a half hours of free-wheeling fun.

Battles were incredibly fast, and the exploration was rife with many common fun-house dungeon features, including magic pools and trapped treasures. The game almost played like first edition basic/AD&D. Circumstances of many of the fights, such as cramped conditions and difficult terrain meant that most characters only took single actions on their rounds. This and the fact that the characters had only a few spells, skills, or weapons, meant that their main actions were usually straight-forward and quick to resolve. One of the classic hallmarks of low level play, besides character frailty, is limited options, and first level Pathfinder characters are no exception, though they made sure that every character had something worth doing every turn. And just as I hoped, the complete lack of opportunity attacks meant that much less emphasis was made on positioning, which sped up play vastly, and sometimes the miniatures and battle-mat were no more than afterthoughts.

By now, everyone around the table is familiar with dungeons and dragons, role-playing, and the basics of monsters, traps, and the game in general. Half the players had 3e experience. Most of the players have been around the dungeon block a time or two, so to speak, so these factors all combined to allow us to really get the most out of the adventure: savoring the role play, knowing the trap is about to fire, but going forward anyway, diving into the black black water to retrieve the glowing pile of loot – and even doffing armor beforehand. Rope, who doesn’t have fifty feet? Listening, searching, poking ,prodding, it was dungeons and dragons spelunking at its most basic, just like the box advertised. We blew through it and enjoyed every moment.

The party of seven included two clerics (the twins) two wizards (dumb and dumber) two fighters – the brains of the group (Eeoow!) and an elf rogue who got eaten (oops). Each of the four iconic classes are well represented by the pre-gens, who have great spells, skills, and other class and race abilities.

With both clerics and wizards all having detect magic at will, there was a lot of detecting going on. Like search beams throughout the entire dungeon and like tri-corders inspecting every find, these detectors could find and strip any magical object down to its bare bones in seconds. I tried to dampen the rampant magic and described many things like the potions for example, by their knowledge, rather than glowing, like by its pink bubbly fizz the wizard knew the levitation, and by its rich orange flavor, the cure light wounds. I like the division of arcane and divine powers that is so drastic in fourth edition, and it seemed like clerics and wizards should not overlap in thei detection. When, for example, a cleric cast detect magic on a looted wand, I described it as having s slippery feeling, and that she needed to hand it to a wizard for proper detection. Other than that, I really didn’t mind the ease with which magic items were detected, and the fact that wands had charges, and would run out eventually, added some coolness to it.

The funniest moment of the night came when the goblin, who only knew a few words of common, described his missing dragon toy with flapping wings by pantomiming yanking its tail over and over while saying “me want toy!” I go for the laugh, no matter how low or distasteful.

One major difference I felt, but would have a hard time pinpointing specific differences, is that Pathfinder tilts more in the direction of simulation, while Fourth Edition comes down on the more “gamist” side of the equation. Armor felt more realistic, with fighters having the highest, and wizards the lowest. Having a swim skill, and using it, was somehow nice. The thief being the only character with thievery was a good change of pace.

One cleric was blessing, curing and healing up a storm the whole time, while the other cleric never healed anyone, but instead tore through enemies with a scimitar, or made impossible shots with a sling. Each of the classes are carefully constructed to provide a rich gaming experience, and the cleric seems to have been given big upgrades, and has tons of healing available in the form of channel energy. Ironically, though the potion was called cure light wounds, the cleric had no spell as such, but instead the heal and turn undead feature is combined into “Channel energy” useable half a dozen times a day. If we played correctly, then it would seem every time a cleric uses it to channel positive energy, EVERYONE in the thirty foot burst gains 1d6 hit points. It is powerful, and other than the few daily spells, and the constant beam of detect magic, the cleric is well armored and armed with both scimitar and sling.

The wizard has his own tricks. In addition to the detect magic, they can cast a ray of frost each round for 1d3 – not too shabby. They have 2 or three daily spells besides the ray, but the wizard was not left out of the “something to do every round” sweep, and the ray of frost becomes puny beside the amazing staff hurling abilty (which I dubbed the Blunt Spear technique) and was actually the wizards best at will power. This meant the wizard never had to resort to his dagger or crossbow, unlike previous editions. Magic missile required no to hit roll, and was the ultimate demise of the big bad Black Fang, by a twice-unconscious wizard lying on the ground at its feet.

The fighters were as they should be, masters of weaponry and taking the physical approach. They beat, they bashed, they swam and climbed their way though the dungeon, and led with their chins. I love fighters. One of them had a short bow, and used it well, and even picked up a goblin short sword for the high crit, which paid off! The other won the magic sword and took it to deal great wrath to Black Fang.

And finally there was the elf rogue Merisiel, who searched out and set off and disabled every trap she found, and managed to back stab a spider, though she was injected with a double-damage dealing diseased spider bite that gave her instant stomach pains. She would not suffer them for long however, when she attempted to bluff Black Fang at the end, by claiming fealty. He demanded to see her worthiness and called for her to come forward and kneel before him, which she did. The wizard (dumber) had just time enough to rush forward before Black fang judged his new minion “No, unworthy” and raising his head, he blasted a great torrent of acid which glanced of the rogue and coated wizard, instantly knocking him out, before splashing violently against the back wall. Behind them, the rest of the party flung stones and shot arrows from the balcony. Thanks guys, we got this!

One of the clerics came forward to heal the unconscious and foolhardy wizard. (Or was he? One theory suggests that the wizard may have run forward in some vain attempt to “rescue” or otherwise save his damsel, or possibly even sacrifice himself for her.) The dragon was happy to have two snacks before him and after a flight of ranged attacks towards him, including a savage arrow strike that did quadruple damage and tore open his throat, thanks to a critical hit card, the dragons turn came around again. Most of the characters were still stuck on the stairs.

TA rogue and wizard were within his reach, and so it was time for the infamous claw-claw-bite. First claw fells the foolish wizard (for the second time) and the second claw fells the rogue who had stood her groundand tore into his soft underbelly with her knives. He is left with one choice: which one to bite? Gulp, the discerning dragon will always choose elf flesh, and so poor unconscious Merisiel was swallowed whole (by taking her below -10 with the bite attack.) One cleric quaffed her levitation potion (good use of acquired loot!) and came to rest beside the fallen wizard, healing him just enough to remain woozily half conscious and propped up on an elbow – at zero hit points, which meant a single action. He fired his magic missile into the bleeding and gashed open throat of the dragon, and slew the beast.

The beginner box is a perfect product for a fast and furious game of “basic” d&d which after all these years of numbers crunching “new school” complexity comes as a refreshing change of pace. I could see playing a mini campaign up to level five taking anywhere from 3 months to a year of real time. This sounds pretty good, and right about where my attention and passion for grand campaigns stand.

Unfortunately, there is one thing holding this game back from being my players first choice. Even though I am sure I could convince them to choose amongst four classes and races, there would be lots of overlap, and they immediately pointed out that they prefer the huge range of character classes and races that 4e offers. This alone sways the argument in favor of 4e. The full Pathfinder experience might close the gap of races and classes, but then we are adding the complexity of 3e mechanics back into the game, by which I mean opportunity attacks mainly, and the avalanche of feats, secondarily. So in the end Pathfinder Beginner Box was an amazing experience, with lots of potential, but its elegant simplicity is marred by the lack of character options todays players like to see. 4 and 4 is just not enough – or 5 counting the online addition of the beginner barbarian.

For casual pick up games, one night beer-n-pretzel games, or for teaching the basics of any edition of dungeons and dragons it is just about perfect. For a group experimenting with Pathfinder, I think it does a great job of getting the feel of the system, without becoming burdened down by more complex rules. In this way it reminds me of the ad&d/basic edition divide of the 1980’s, which I suspect is exactly what Paizo has in mind, considering the name. One can only hope that they will soon release an “Expert Box Set” and if it contains more character class and race options, this could turn into a full fleshed out game experience. Pathfinder is blazing a trail into the future of dungeons and dragons, or at least in to one possible future, and I like what I see.

Final verdict:

Pathfinder Beginner Box is the Return of Basic Dungeons and Dragons.

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