One of my goals for this day was to try to relax a little bit. With some Con days I get all deadline anxious, or way too worried about my prep skills or whether or not everyone at the table is having a good enough time. In hindsight those things are never as big a deal as I thought they would be, so for once I was determined to not sweat the small stuff so much. Also, we’re old friends who don’t see each other more than once or twice a year so there’s loads to catch up on. If we’re not careful we spend all day pretending to be other people and we don’t get to check on wives, kids, jobs, let alone cool films and books.
With that in mind, my lovely wife dropped me off at Julio’s place and came in with the kids to say ‘hi’ to everyone. Lots of shaking hands and manly embracing while Julio put the kettle on. That’s better than frantically gathering your notes and setting up your dice. We took our time and laid out our snacks, and eventually and inevitably the conversation turned to our characters for the day.
Everyone had prepped their own characters for the planned Eberron one shot. I’d gone with 7th level. Every class in D&D 4e is cool, but some are more complex than others. This complexity is somewhat mitigated when you work up the character from 1st level. If playing a one-shot and jumping in at a higher level, I’ve found 7th to be just about right. Not so many powers and synergys that the player is overwhelmed, and enough choices to make the players think as a team. I’m sure there are the equivalent sweet spots in paragon and epic too, but for the last year we’ve been marauding around heroic so that’s where we’re comfortable.
You’ve already seen Dan’s masterful back story. The others had put in just as much thought and we had a collection of 4 great characters. Julio had gone with what he knows best, big characters with big weapons doing big damage. A goliath barbarian fit the bill in theory and none of us had seen one in actual play before so we were looking forward to it. Gary had gone for a shifter druid, another class from PHB II that I hadn’t seen at the table before. He knows his game and is the DM in the Smart Party (North) game. It would be his first time playing rather than running so that was going to be interesting. From my experience I know how different it feels to be on the other side of the screen. Pete had gone with a bard (frankly, his signature class) and had chosen to make him a dragonborn, a slightly exotic choice but one that worked out great in the end.
We’d spent a couple of weeks e-mailing concepts back and forth. At the table we firmed those concepts up and took the time to flesh out a few relationships between the characters. At the same time I gave the lads a potted guide to Eberron as no-one (including me) had much prior knowledge of the setting. I’d snagged a second hand copy of the Adventurer’s Guide to Eberron off ebay recently and used that to show off the visuals of the setting. When the book was new it was an astonishingly overpriced promo pamphlet in hard cover. These days I see it as a perfect visual primer for the whole setting, and you can get it for less than a quid if you’re careful. Look out for it if you’re starting an Eberron game, well worth it at that price. As we went round the table the ideas started to flow. There could have potentially been issues with PCs from rival nations but as with most parties, I find it best to remember that PCs are exceptional and not necessarily bound by normal rules or guidelines. So we had no problem with an Aundairian Lyrander scion, a Q’Barran exile, a Darguun mercenary and an Eldeen loner all sitting in a bar in Sharn waiting for a patron.
If you’re a regular reader you’ll know I was running a converted version of Whispers of the Vampires Blade. I’d got a folder of printouts from the compendium and the monster builder as well as a collection of images on my netbook. In hindsight I should have printed them out. Images are brilliant in games, but I’d turned round my screen to show them off then had to whip them away again so I could use the screen myself. Not satisfactory, and easily solved with a print out. There’s a lovely art gallery on the WotC site for this adventure and I recommend digging through the archives if you get the chance. Some pieces are enough to inspire an adventure on their own.
The first hour of the game went really well. There was lots of interaction with the PCs and with Sharn itself. I was pleased to be able to drop in little details of the city when I could. I had a bunch of sense-notes written down, just little reminders of flavour like rain, stairs, gargoyles, vines, turbans. Enough to seed into my descriptions. I think it definitely got the game off to a good start and differentiated it from just another vanilla fantasy game. Credit has to go to David Noonan, the author of the original adventure. He turned a basic job offer scenario into a really cool scene that manages to exude flavour and get the party involved in the whole espionage theme of the setting in one simple combat encounter.
Once committed to being seconded into the Kings Dark Lanterns the party are then into an extended chase that takes them halfway across Khorvaire in pursuit of a rogue agent. This was my first challenge in the conversion. The party have to encounter the main villain of the scenario on at least three occasions and obviously, for the story to work, he has to get away to fight another day. Now, seeing as he’s a vampire that can turn to mist, it’s easy enough to pull off. The trick would be in balancing the tension of the encounter to not overly frustrate the players (frustrating the charactersis fine, in fact it’s desirable in this case). There’s also the issue of the single foe, something commonplace in 3e but not so much in fourth. I went with an encounter build that I hadn’t seen in 4e, really just to try it out. I made the villain (Luccan) an 11th level solo vampire rogue, and his sister (Grilsha) a 5th level mage. The xp came out as standard to hard in budget terms, but I was aware that the levels were a mix of high and low.
In that first encounter it was a horseback chase of a coach driven by Grilsha. I set up a road map and some minis and off we went. My fine ideas about rolling terrain were swiftly forgotten in the heat of combat. In fact, my map and mini choices became moot early on as the entire party boarded the coach to engage the vampire in melee. Essentially we played out the whole combat on a post-it note! The guys got right into the swing of things. We had jumping from horseback, a dominated druid, a goliath smashing through the roof, wizards falling from the coach and a vampire wrestling a dragonborn. Very Eberron, very cool. The bad guy went gaseous at just the right time and we wrapped up the first of many encounters with him satisfied and hungry for more. This was also the first of what turned out to be a very unlucky string of rolls for Julio’s barbarian. I don’t think he scored double digits in the whole encounter, and things would not improve for a while yet.
The action shifted to the city of Trollanport in the gnomish nation of Zilargo. When I hear ‘gnome’ I see a little statue in a garden with a fishing rod. I think it’s a British thing. Just can’t take them seriously, and neither can the other guys. I deliberately didn’t add in any pictures at this point as it would have only worsened the issue. Best to just move on before the sniggering started getting out of hand. Description wise I just had ‘venice’ in my notes, and that was enough to get across the character of the city in short order. The next hour was spent gathering leads and working out ways of tracking the vampire. The end result was that he was likely to be at a masked ball later that night in the Aundairian embassy. Now, I wish I’d recorded this hour of play. It was a great example of ‘roleplaying’. Every roll was backed up with some in character narration. There were cunning plans hatched. There was surveillance. There was magic, but it didn’t overshadow player skill. PC backgrounds came out in play, which is where it really matters. I loved it. There are many who think roleplay is harder or even missing in 4e. It’s an understandable viewpoint in pure theory. In practice, at the table, its a criticism that doesn’t hold up. When Dan’s character was busy dancing the caravan at the ball, with the goliath dutifully filling in her dance card, and the bard getting the skinny from a drunk clerk who’d got in on his bosses +1, and the intelligence agencies of 3 nations were all evaluating the situation, that’s when I thought this was gaming at it’s finest. When the party realised that Dan’s masked dancing partner was in fact the vampire himself, that’s when the game became priceless. Queue the stand off as a dozen weapons were produced from an array of creative hiding places. Roll initiative!
Right, this has turned into an enormous post. More next time.