March 31, 2013

Fourthcore... Lite?!

As hopefully you were all aware, being gamers and all, yesterday was TableTop Day, an attempt at a geek holiday spurred on by Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton.  Given that it was trending as a hashtag on Twitter for 17+ hours, I'd say the gamers of the world did good.

Initially, I didn't have any gaming plans for TableTop Day, other than swinging by the FLGS and see what was going on for gaming there whilst hoping for the best, despite Saturday's seeming to be more CCG day than anything else of late, or at least the past few Saturdays that I swung by.

Instead, I wound up playing a marathon session of D&D 4e with my Wednesday gaming group, as none of them had Easter plans that required extensive travel or extensive prep for incoming relatives.  In my previous post, I noted my surprise at having fun playing a 4e game after having become rather indifferent to D&D in general, particularly as D&D isn't my go-to choice for fantasy RPGs these days.  And the GM had an Easter surprise in store for us poor sods.

Well, come early Saturday afternoon and we've gathered around the table.  The party composition had changed a bit, with this being our current line-up:

Keru, a Human Stone Fist Monk with Wilder theme (me, and yes he's got a Hadoken attack now)
Mari, a Half-Elf Sentinel Druid with Elemental Priest theme (the only unchanged character from the first session)
Alyastrianna, a Eladrin Mage Wizard with Veiled Guardian theme (newish, debuted last Wednesday's session)
Rikard, Mul (Half-Dwarf) Tempest Fighter with Gladiator theme (new)
... and a fifth player who ended up being a no-show.

The campaign takes place on Athas, about the time frame that the 4e Campaign Setting book establishes.  To start, only the druid, mage, and monk knew each other prior to this session, but the GM got us together quickly enough, mostly by having us get hired by a local explorer to serve as aides and bodyguards as he checked out a recently uncovered ruin in the Road of Kings region.  Naturally we agreed, either being curious to check things out ourselves (mage and monk) or not having anything more pressing to do (druid), while the fighter had already been commissioned as a bodyguard prior to the rest of us showing up.

Before we started play, the GM asked each of us to select a magic item, 4th level or lower, that we'd be interested in procuring.  We figured that he was tailoring the adventure rewards to our heroes, so we spent some time going through the long list of D&D magic items, and made our selections.

We had a short skirmish with a band of elf raiders, more to let everyone get a feel for their characters, both the new ones and the vets as the GM bumped us up to third level, which meant new encounter powers.  The eladrian's player was kind of upset that she didn't have a lot of charm or illusion options that did damage, but she still excelled at her role of battlefield control, with enough mind-screw going on that you'd think she was a psion.  This was my first time seeing a Tempest Fighter in play, and I must say I was impressed at how much damage he could pump up on a turn-to-turn basis.  Even though he was just using a pair of hand-axes, having the Axe Expertise feat ensured he rarely had lousy damage rolls.  And his ability to mark multiple foes each round meant that he drew a lot of attention and helped keep my monk from getting attacked that often.  Monk did what the monk's supposed to do, and booted a lot of head, and quite often using my Flurry of Blows to polish off non-minion opponents that were just on the cusp of being taken down.

Baddies dispatched, we made it to the ruins, which turned out to be a temple from the previous age (we think, nobody was quite certain on that point) that was devoted to a quartet of rather vicious and nasty gods, at least according to the murals we found outside the temple itself.  Rather than the usual combat grind of most 4e sessions, this one turned out to incorporate a number of skill challenges, given our characters a chance to find out more about what we were getting into.

I won't go into great detail about the adventure, only to say that throughout most of it, I couldn't shake the nagging suspicion that I'd seen this before.  I was pretty sure that I'd never played it, only seen it somewhere.  And then we got to the one encounter, facing a three-headed dracolisk that made the whole thing click into place... the GM was putting us through the Crucible of the Gods module.  To quote my favorite wizard private eye... hell's bells.

For those of you not in the know (such as I was until recently), Fourthcore is a style of playing, using D&D 4e and putting the players (referred to as dungeoneers) through adventures that are on par with Tomb of Horrors in regards to potential lethality.  Crucible of the Gods was written for use with 1st level PCs, and from everything I'd heard was literally a meat grinder, with TPKs happening before parties even reached the first proper room of the temple, and there a slew of effects that boil down to "you get hit, you're dead."  Needless to say, Fourthcore adventures weren't written with the intent of being dropped into your running campaign.  These are meant to be bloody one-shots and not to be taken too seriously.  I haven't read the module, though I plan to do so in the near future, but I can only suspect the GM toned things down quite a bit as the combat encounters weren't one-sided, and we had plenty of clues to help with solving some of the various puzzles.  Being 3rd level and with character themes that granted an extra encounter power probably helped a whole lot, as we had plenty of options for increased damage in each battle.  Apparently one of the fights, against some kind of large statue dual-wielding flaming skeletal flails was supposed to be incredibly tough, but the monk and fighter nearly demolished it in a single round, with a critical hit on my Open the Gates of Battle (aka Open the Can of Whup-ass) with a mighty ki focus (extra d10 damage on critical hits) being the main culprit,taking it from healthy to bloodied, with the druid getting in a bit of tag-team beatdown between her and her pet desert wolf before the fighter executed the thing, all before it had the chance to even take it's first action.  Apparently Fourthcore modules were written with the idea that you'd be using Essentials and not the other PHB classes or supplements.

The GM did make up for this a bit by including a few extra combat encounters, including one with a seemingly never-ending tide of minions (goblin-looking thingys, not that most of our characters would know what a goblin looks like since they're a long-extinct race on Athas) that kept attacking in waves until the mage managed to decipher an ancient locking mechanism to seal them away and allow us to proceed further into the temple.

The final battle was tough enough, and I figure the actual Fourthcore version probably wipes out most parties that have been fortunate enough to make it that far.  We did succeed in claiming all four skulls, thanks in part to the Eladrin mage (who isn't a native of Athas, but rather the Feywild) enforcing caution on the rest of the party, even going so far as to slap the Mul's hand when he started to reach out to claim one of the crystal skulls we needed to "win" the temple's challenge.  That turned out to help a bunch, as we got to access the secret room with a talisman that gave us a huge edge in the final battle... once we figured out what exactly it was for (we thought it was a protective item, which nearly cost the mage her life as she got much too close to the final boss than was healthy for a squishy wizard).

So while this wasn't a proper Fourthcore adventure (the heroes all lived), it was still fun, and I'm guessing the GM added a lot to make the players use their brains, and not just by way of skill challenges, but also allowing skill checks to pick up vital clues.  The only fatality was the explorer that hired us, the son of a lesser noble from the City of Balic (oops), though it really was down more to his own ignorance than any wrong-doing on our part... not that I expect his parents to buy that.  Now I as a player don't know if the whole "fail our challenge and the world will end" bit would have actually happened, but our characters took it serious enough.

If you're interested in running a meat-grinder on par with John Goff's Night Train (Deadlands Classic) or Tomb of Horrors itself, you can download the Fourthcore adventures here:

Now bear in mind these are meant to be run as timed delves, and the odds are stacked heavily against the players unless they really bring their A-game, but it could make an interesting change of pace.

There's also Fourthcore Deathmatch, which instead of being a delve is simply a free-for-all slaughterfest pitting two groups of PCs against each other.  It's quite an amusing concept, and might make for a fun diversion from your usual campaign.  I figure Strikers would have the edge due to their focus on sheer damage output, but I could see Defenders not doing too bad given the hit points and damage output a well-made build can offer.  You can read more about it here:

It'd be the kind of thing that'd work pretty good for a Skype/Roll20 game.  Just upload the map of your choice, choose some character tokens, and let the carnage commence.

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