Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Nassan: running Stick in the Mud

As mentioned a few months back, I've tentatively restarted our 4E campaign, which for various reasons (mostly wildly divergent schedules) has consisted of one one-shot in several months. This is precisely why I decideded to run one-shots.

A summary of the game can be found in three parts:

  1. The beginning
  2. The middle
  3. The end

Since I'm hoping to finally manage another session shortly, I wanted to have a bit of a think about the GMing side of things. Also I wanted to briefly talk about the changes I made to the scenario.

Behind the Screen

So, the game in general. On the whole I felt this went pretty well.

Our session (Stick in the Mud, from Dungeon #171) in about five hours all told, with some tea breaks and chatter, but not that much. Unfortunately, writeup not withstanding, we didn't quite have time to finish it as at least one player had to rush off, and it seemed better to narrate a wrap-up than tail off. Considering that none of us had played (or GMed) 4E for a couple of years, most hadn't gamed at all for months, and one player was new, I still think it was a respectable time given the drawn-out combats of 4E.

The players did reasonably well at remembering how things worked and the details of their characters. There was a fair amount of looking stuff up and explaining play, but that's what the GM's for in these circumstances. I was also reasonably happy with how well I remembered most things, although a few rules would bear looking up beforehand. I should really make sure to dig out (and update!) the GM screen before next session. Because of the aforesaid rustiness, and because we're a fairly casual group anyway, I was extra helpful in giving hints and advising on tactical issues. There's quite a lot to remember in tactical play, and I don't see the point in punishing players for not remembering all the details of opportunity attacks, or letting them waste dailies on a minion, especially when we're all out of practice. I'd much rather try and help them learn to play more effectively so we can all enjoy the fight, and of course the better they get, the tricksier I can get.

In the event, we were short one player. We were actually missing our ranger, who's a big damage-dealer and has the best equipment for various reasons, as well as being very analytical. However, I'd deliberately picked a low-level adventure to allow for rustiness (and because I liked it, admittedly), so on the whole the balance seemed quite decent, leaving the party badly battered and scared, but not actually in serious danger.

One player had forgotten her character sheet, which caused a bit of administrative trouble. We were able to scribble down most of the information, but it wasted some time at the start of the session and necessitated a bit of extra looking-up.

Somewhat to my surprise, the players who took part seemed quite happy to have skipped the questgiving. I think the missing player is keener on with-NPC roleplaying so I'll try to make sure there are some opportunities next time. But I feel like I judged that reasonably, which is nice.

Magic item balance

As I mentioned in the initial post, I wasn't sure where people stood with magic items. As it turned out, they were wildly unbalanced. Our previous adventure was an incomplete attempt at Keep on the Shadowfell, during which they acquired a number of magic items. As it turns out, the most powerful items they'd discovered (Bloodcut Hide Armour, an Aecris Longsword and a Vicious Short Sword) all happened to suit the same character, our ranger Varis, and the party allocated them all to him. Other characters had picked up only some plot artefacts and low-powered items. Having never finished the adventure, we never got the whole range of magical items, which might have led to a redistribution between characters, and the players were perhaps unaware of D&D's expectations about how items would be distributed (which is to say, fairly evenly). The end result was that Varis had a Level 4, a Level 5 and a Level 2 magic item, while everyone else had about 2 levels in total. I believe the expectation was that each character might have one level 4-5 item and one 2-3.

It seemed rather unfair to strip Varis of his items, and what I ended up doing was giving the others slightly more stuff than they ought to have, while not quite bringing them up to Varis' level. This was particularly true for Raylin (imported from Pathfinder) and Adrik (entirely new character). Partly as a consequence, I avoided giving out much magical loot in Stick in the Mud - they're at level 3 but actually have about as much loot as they should gain for the next level or two. So it will be stingy DMing for a while. While I did include some useful items, I carefully chose ones that aren't combat-related, which should be handy for exploring and such without unbalancing things too much.

Future notes

I think for the next session I might try and have a quick tactical recap beforehand. They were a bit hazy on their use of powers, particularly Encounters and Dailies, and somewhat reluctant to use them. I might discuss how these can be used early in a fight to get an early advantage and provide ongoing benefits, rather than kept to finish the fight once it proves to be difficult. It can be much more efficient, especially if some enemies can be eliminated early on, because fewer rounds means fewer hits.

Similarly I might have a mention of concentrating fire to take down a small number of targets, rather than spreading attacks around, because D&D just doesn't really model the suppression, intimidation or debilitation that might make it worthwhile in reality.

Finally, it might be worth talking about roles (which 4E explicitly encourages) and the idea of playing to the strengths of your role.

While the players were mildly entertained by the magic loot I'd come up with, they weren't especially interested in any of it, and decided to just flog everything off next time they were in town. That was quite a letdown, and I don't think I'll be spending much effort on that in future. It's quite fun coming up with the stuff, but if it's only ever going to get a second or two of game time, rather than anything looking for ways to use it, there's really no point. I'd spent quite a while coming up with fun stuff that was mildly useful but not Magic Item useful, and it's not really a good use of time in the circs.

The scenario

Most of the changes I made to Stick in the Mud were to adapt the scenario to my new premise.

Original premise: A long-ruined building contains the buried workshop of a powerful wizard. Bullywugs have moved into the area and begun messing with a powerful staff, opening a rift to the Elemental Chaos. Adventurers are, coincidentally, sent there on some mission or other at about the same time.

My premise: An elemental staff has been stolen from a scholarly archive. The adventurers are sent to retrieve it. The thief turns out to have meddled with it and opened a rift to the Elemental Chaos, attracting bullywugs to the area.

The changes mostly consisted of altering explanations for things. In some cases I added additional "boxed text" to better fit the situation as I pictured it. In particular, I wanted to emphasise the weird effects of proximity to a planar rift. In other cases I shifted things so that there was an explanation players could get at all, since one of my reservations about the written scenario was that most of the background wasn't realistically learnable by PCs.

A couple of examples:

The ritual chamber

The large chamber was once a ritual chamber where the temple's inhabitants would invoke the aid of their gods or summon servitors. It survived the meteor strike better than the rest of the complex, being deep and strongly-built, and its condition led Tildis to use it as a vault for her stolen treasures. A strange synergy between the malfunctioning staff and the chamber have opened a rift to the Elemental Chaos. The staff has been spewing mud from the Elemental Chaos for weeks now, and the area around the staff is a swirling mire of churning mud. Within it lurks the growing form of a mud writher, a mass of tendrils and maws whose malleable body was able to squeeze through the rift. The writher lurks within the mud around the staff, and is, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the PCs until they attack (barring lengthy observation).

This stone vault is lined with shelves holding many strange devices. Some of them even appear to be intact and might be valuable. However, your most pressing concern lies at the southern end of the room, in a small alcove, where a thick, stone staff juts out from a churning vortex of mud. The earth all around heaves and cracks, and the stone walls have sprouted into fantastical organic shapes.

Note that while I call it "boxed text", this is basically aides-memoire for me. I just tend to write in that style even when it's notes for my own use.


Since I went to the trouble of creating them, I might as well share the treasures I invented for this scenario. Someone else might like them.

  • A large Glittergold coin, whose designs constantly shift to display myths of the gnomish deity. A Religion check (DC 10) can reveal that such coins are quite prized by the priesthood and used by initiates to memorise and teach their precepts.
  • A pack of gambler's cards, impossible to mark or crease, which will reshuffle themselves when gathed and tossed into the air, or sort themselves and return to their pack at a command. They bear the four elemental suits.
  • A reel of green seeking thread, which will fasten itself to a needle when tapped with it, and will not come untied.
  • A vanity comb, which leaves hair clean and glossy without water or soap. Once per day, it can be used to create an elegant hairstyle in mere moments, although its ideas are quite old-fashioned.
  • Flasks containing tiny amounts of highly pure elemental earth, water, fire and air. These can be used as components in any rituals, each flask providing 50gp of components.
  • Eleven small lodestones
  • A geomantic dowsing rod, which a trained practitioner can use to assess the geology and ley lines of an area.

More notable items include a belt of vigour, eternal chalk, Aldron's firebox and a floating lantern. There are several dozen mundane books recently arranged on the bookshelves, some bearing marks of ownership from various Peragian institutions. Most relate to geomancy, elementals or the natural world.

The Guildhall will also offer their support and good word. The gift of silver signet ring apiece indicates their status as friends of the Guild. The Guildhall's favour ring is lightly enchanted, providing a single use of an arcane at-will power of the owner's choice, as well as its social benefits.


Because I wasn't very keen on the coincidence-based premise, it didn't really make sense for bullywugs to be the main problem at the site. I also felt that the fights were looking very repetitive; aside from some environmental changes (which are a very reasonably way to vary fights) they consisted of three fights in three consecutive rooms with three very similar groups of bullywugs. If, say, one had been a mass of minions and another a few very tough critters, it might have made more difference.

What I ended up doing was basically reskinning some of the bullywugs. Having emphasised the geomancy and Elemental Chaos side of things in the setup, I thought it would be nice to have more elementals in the scenario. Also, they're good for guilt-free slaughter!

Not wanting to totally replan the combats by picking entirely different creatures, I changed various keywords and descriptions while keeping many essential features the same. I was particularly pleased with the quartz strider and its light-refracting powers, which allows it to replace a spellcaster.

Originally, the scenario builds up to an encounter with four very minor elementals next to the rift. Having already introduced elementals a little earlier on, this felt a bit anticlimactic, so I instead reskinned those to be individual tendrils of a much larger elemental that had occupied the entire room and melded into the earthy floor. Unfortunately, I never got to use it as the game ended early. Alas!

I present these monsters here for any other DMs who may find them useful. All are made with Monster Maker, but I completely redid the CSS for aesthetic reasons, as described in an earlier post.

Rumbleshard Level 3 Minion
Medium Elemental Magical Beast (air, earth) XP 37
Initiative +3 Senses Perception +0
Haze (earth) aura 1; creatures within the aura gain partial concealment against ranged attacks.
HP 1; a missed attack never damages a minion.
AC 14; Fortitude 12, Reflex 14, Will 12
Resist 5 thunder
Speed 4, fly 6
M Rending Shards (Standard; at-will)
+6 vs. AC; 7 damage.
c Shatter (Standard; at-will)
Close blast 2; +4 vs. Reflex; 4 damage.
Alignment Unaligned Languages Primordial
Skills Acrobatics +6
Str 10 (+1) Dex 14 (+3) Wis 10 (+1)
Con 14 (+3) Int 6 (-1) Cha 5 (-2)

Rumbleshard Lore

A character knows the following information with a successful Arcana check.

DC 15: A rumbleshard is an elemental mass of rocky shards and air.

DC 20: A rumbleshard's whirling shards can explode into clouds of shrapnel.

DC 25: Rumbleshards' airy nature makes them resistant to thunder damage.

Mire Gulper Level 3 Controller
Medium Elemental Beast (earth, water) XP 150
Initiative +5 Senses Perception +6
HP 44; Bloodied 22
AC 18; Fortitude 15, Reflex 16, Will 13
Speed 4
M Bite (Standard; at-will)
+8 vs. AC; 1d6 + 3 damage, and a Medium or smaller target is swallowed. A swallowed target is stunned, takes ongoing 5 damage, and can't be targeted by any effect (save ends all effects). A mire gulper can have only one target swallowed at a time and cannot make bite attacks as long as the swallowed target is alive.
c Mighty Inhalation (Minor; at-will)
Ranged 3; +7 vs. Reflex; the target is pulled 2 squares.
Earthenmeld (Move; at-will)
The mire gulper shifts 4 squares by melting into the ground. It can shift through enemy squares as long as it ends its movement in an unoccupied space.
Alignment Unaligned Languages -
Skills Athletics +8, Stealth +9
Str 14 (+3) Dex 17 (+4) Wis 11 (+1)
Con 12 (+2) Int 2 (-3) Cha 6 (-1)

Mire Gulper Lore

A character knows the following information with a successful Arcana check.

DC 15: This is a mire gulper, a voracious earth and water elemental.

DC 20: The mire gulper engulfs victims to digest later, and can produce a powerful draft to drag creatures towards it.

Quartz Strider Level 3 Artillery (Leader)
Medium Elemental Beast (earth) XP 150
Initiative +2 Senses Perception +9
HP 39; Bloodied 19
AC 16; Fortitude 14, Reflex 14, Will 16
Speed 6
M Stone Claw (Standard; at-will)
+8 vs. AC; 1d8 +1 damage
c Incandescent Refraction (Standard; recharge 6) ♦ Fire, Radiant
Close blast 3; +6 vs. Reflex; 2d6 + 4 fire and radiant damage, and the target is dazed until the end of the quartz strider's next turn. Miss: Half damage
a Electric Discharge (Standard; at-will) ♦ Lightning, Thunder
Area burst 1 within 20; +6 vs. Reflex; 1d10 + 4 lightning and thunder damage.
Alignment Unaligned Languages Primordial
Str 12 (+2) Dex 14 (+3) Wis 16 (+4)
Con 15 (+3) Int 11 (+1) Cha 10 (+1)

Quartz Strider Lore

A character knows the following information with a successful Arcana check.

DC 15: This is a quartz strider, a crystalline elemental (earth)

DC 20: The quartz strider can use its body to channel energy into violent bursts.

Mud Writher Tendril Level 2 Brute
Small Elemental Magical Beast (earth, water) XP 125
Initiative +2 Senses Perception +7
HP 43; Bloodied 21
AC 14; Fortitude 15, Reflex 13, Will 13
Immune disease, poison
Speed 5
M Slam (Standard; at-will)
+5 vs. AC; 1d10 + 3 damage.
r Mud Ball (Standard; at-will)
Ranged 10; +3 vs. Reflex; the target is slowed (save ends). If the target is already slowed, it is instead immobilized (save ends).
Realignment (Immediate Reaction; encounter)
When hit by a melee attack, the tendril shifts 3 squares.
Sense Weakness
The mud writher tendril gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls against slowed or immobilized creatures.
Alignment Unaligned Languages -
Skills Stealth +7
Str 16 (+4) Dex 13 (+2) Wis 13 (+2)
Con 13 (+2) Int 6 (-1) Cha 8 (+0)

Mud Writher Lore

A character knows the following information with a successful Arcana check.

DC 15: This is a mud writher, an amorphous mass of tentacles and sucking mouths that melds into the ground (earth, water)

DC 20: The mud writher can reform itself rapidly to escape danger. It can expel clinging mud from its mouths to hamper opponents, making them more vulnerable to its attacks.

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