We played through our first real session under 4e rules yesterday. The campaign opened, as I mentioned earlier, on the mountain road near the mining town of White Haven, which was our characters’ first definition. Our motley crew included:
* Rodrik the White, human cleric of the Raven Queen, played by yours truly.
* Zadjik Ildan Zarifi, human wizard, played by Steve. Instantly assigned the nickname “Zaz.” This is what you get for choosing unpronounceable names in one of our campaigns. Someone always does anyway; it’s a running gag.
* Katryn “Cat” Silverpine, half-elf ranger, played by Lydia.
* Matias, no last name given, dwarf fighter, played by Jen. A lot of people have “Scottish” dwarves. Ours are inspired by Roman culture.
* Tomal Dreamwalker, tiefling warlord, played by Jeff.
The reasoning for starting the campaign on the road became evident pretty quickly: we were ambushed by kobolds as we made our way toward town. A good Perception score on Cat’s part saved the party some possible pain, but we were still facing down a dozen kobolds.
Now, kobolds are among the weakest of basic enemies in D&D. They’re known for setting lots of traps and ambushes and dying by the score. Sometimes, in the hands of a particularly fiendish GM, they’ve been known to annihilate an entire party of adventurers through cunning rather than might; for the most part, though, they’re the fodderiest of cannon fodder.
In 4e, though, kobolds have one more benefit: a power called Shifty. As a minor action, they can shift one square. That means they move quickly, can generally avoid opportunity attacks, and they’re hard to corral; they’ll slip right past the front lines and swarm the squishies.
Which is exactly what they started to do.
Kobolds were dropping left and right. A fair number of them were “minions,” a new 4e class of monster that dies after one hit, and Zaz killed off a couple right away with a miniature fireball. Cat took down another as it approached, and Rodrik used his lance of faith power to smite another. After that, things got a little trickier; kobolds were shifting all over the place, flanking Zaz and Cat. A couple of unfortunate die rolls left the party taking some damage, and the kobold leader, a non-minion, proved surprisingly resilient, taking four hits to defeat. (Low damage dice didn’t help there.) With most of their number, including their leader, struck down, the kobolds started to retreat. Not being the chivalrous type, we cut them down before they could get away.
A couple of healing surges later, we were back on our way into town. The townspeople were somewhat distrustful of outsiders, but their situation was evidently becoming more desperate. After some investigation, we ended up speaking with the shire reeve, a gruff ex-soldier by the name of Darstan. Getting information and support out of him, Ron declared, would be a skill challenge.
We found almost immediately that the rules for skill challenges are somewhat broken, as written. It’s nearly impossible to successfully complete a challenge at the DCs given, and a lower-complexity challenge is actually harder to succeed at than a higher-complexity one (or can be, depending on the difficulties involved), due to the smaller number of die rolls involved. (Check out this Skill Challenge calculator for a better illustration. ENWorld has a more detailed mathematical analysis.)
We quickly house-ruled a solution: All skill challenge DCs were to be reduced by 5, and the number of skill check failures allowed before the challenge failed was increased to be equal to the number of successes needed to pass the challenge. That served for this session; we may need to look more into it before running another.
(On the plus side, designer Mike Mearls has acknowledged the problem with skill checks in a forum thread. He writes: “We came to a few conclusions on what happened, what our intent is, and what we’re going to do about it.” So evidently we’ll see some errata soon. In the meantime, Stalker0, who did that mathematical analysis on ENWorld, has come up with a system whose success probabilities are rather better.)
Our party succeeded with our revised skill challenge and learned some of the story behind the mine disaster. White Haven had historically had troubles with kobold incursions into their iron mines, but recently, the intrusions became more frequent, and the kobolds more motivated to stand up to the townfolk’s resistance. Recently, the miners had been all but entirely driven out; a work detail under heavy guard was left scrounging for ore in a side shaft site, while the mine proper, with its richer deposits, was now under the control of the kobolds. The ore doesn’t seem to be the kobolds’ main purpose, although there’s mining going on — according to the reeve, the miners’ accounts agree that the kobolds seem to be looking for something. Something that can inspire zealous fervor in kobolds.
We were given a mine foreman’s key, and permission to enter, but he warned us that he couldn’t spare any guards to escort or guide us. (I’m wondering whether he might have, if we’d done better on the skill challenge — but it shouldn’t matter.) On our way to the mines, we happened across another group of kobolds. This time, we had the advantage, and we worked out a plan to catch them by surprise. This group ran as soon as they saw us, but the plan worked out — Cat and Zaz had made a wide circle around their group, getting between them and the mines, and we managed to defeat the entire bunch. Fewer minions, this time, and it entailed a running battle. Emerging victorious, we continued toward the mines, and there ended the session.
I suspect things will pick up as we get used to the new rules. Combats were still a little slow. 4e combat is a lot of fun, though — there’s plenty of movement, and tactical considerations play a big part. The new system really does seem brilliant, at least for the moment. Maybe its luster will fade, as 3.5e did for me, but for now, the entire group agrees that the raw combat part of the game has never been as entertaining as it is in 4e.