After a brief respite in Sigil, where they were attacked by a cunning band of phase gnomes, last Friday's D&D 4E playtest campaign saw my gaming group venture back out into the wilds of the planescape. This time they traveled to the Dire Forest of Yalzerth, an alternative material plane in the midst of an ice age.
The session gave me the chance to work through a few points on the playtest "to do" list I outlined in my last Game Day column, namely rituals and newly revised skill challenges.
At the start of the game the players found themselves transported via portal key into a great cathedral of pine boughs formed by ancient redwood trees. They ventured out of this safe haven to find a great forest comprised almost entirely of hundred-foot tall redwood trees.
They had a few hints that the world would be cold -- namely the fact that the portal key consisted of a hollow wooden tube wrapped in iron bands that had the symbol of an eclipse etched into them. The tube itself was filled with ice, which led the wizard to cast the group's first-ever ritual: endure elements. They'd acquired the ritual book as part of their adventure to the Burning Sands of Fierth, and the ritual worked more or less like it's 3rd edition equivalent: it protected them from the extremes of mundane weather.
After fending off a wolf attack while the party rogue attempted to climb one of the redwoods to see beyond the canopy, the party's cleric cast the alarm ritual.
In 4th Edition, rituals are essentially spells with long casting times that make them impossible to initiate during combat. Each ritual is tied to a skill, and cannot be uttered unless a) the caster has the ritual feat and b) the caster is trained in the skill associated with it and c) the caster has the appropriate material components.
This setup has the surprising consequence of allowing non-spellcasters to cast rituals after a few levels, since ultimately all they need to do is acquire the prerequisite feats. It's hard to reconcile with the mindset of previous editions, but in 4th Edition a fighter can cast "raise dead" by the time he's at middling levels.
Because they are skill checks, casting a ritual is something that players can work together on, with one player leading the rituals, and the others contributing via "aid another" rolls. For most rituals, the better the skill check, the better the effect. With alarm, for example a simple success yields one magical eye watching over the camp. An exceptional roll could result in as many as four eyes, so it's a good idea to work together on the rolls.
I don't agree with all of the spells that have been made into rituals or how some of the rituals are written. Silence, for example, has always been a combat spell, and I think should have remained one in 4E. I also think that raise dead shouldn't been an auto success; I would have preferred some sort of tiered result, with only the most exceptional rolls resulting in a fully-resurrected patient. I'd loved to have seen some negative consequences for someone who just barely managed to bring a colleague back from the dead.
It bothers me that a fighter is as good as bringing someone back from the dead as a cleric, regardless of how many feats they took to gain the ability. It just doesn't sit right with my old-fashioned brain.
All in all, I like how rituals work. I like that players can work together to cast them, and I like that there's a class of spell that's harder and more complicated to cast. That said, I don't think they solve the primary shortcomings of the cleric and wizard in 4th Edition, namely their greatly diminished spell selection. While rituals do help bolster their arcane and divine spell inventories, the fact that any class can cast them after acquiring a handful of feats diminishes their uniqueness.
Revised Skill Challenges
After realizing that Skill Challenges had some exceedingly bad odds for player characters, Wizards of the Coast retooled them and released updated rules for the mechanic. I liked Skill Challenges the first time we ran them, but I wanted to see how well the updated rules worked.
During Friday's game, the players eventually managed to reach the top of the Dire Forest's canopy and survey the land around them. They found that the forest stretched for hundreds of miles in every direction, but that there was a ziggurat in a clearing about a half-day's journey to the east, and a large frozen lake a day's travel to the south. On this lake were a number of islands which had been cleared of trees so that several simple stone and would buildings could be erected, as well as a large keep. Each island was surrounded by a tall wooden stockade.
Seeing as how their primary reason for traveling to this plane was to see if they could find a habitable reality that survivors of other, destroyed planes could come to, they decided to head to the lake city.
They realized their mistake as they approached the islands and small humanoids emerged to challenge them. The creatures were not halfings, as they first supposed, but goblins.
And the goblins were not happy to see them.
This led to an impromptu Skill Challenge (six successes before three failures) recreating the epic chase back across the ice and into the forest. Failure would see the party captured by the three-dozen odd goblins on their trail, success would allow them to evade their pursuers.
I used the "urban chase" from the Dungeon Master's Guide for inspiration, substituting a "Nature" check for the urban-centric "Streetwise" check.
The challenge went well. As was the case in our earlier playtests, the Skill Challenge setup a great storytelling vibe where the group was working together to figure out how they would evade the goblins. It gave characters a chance to try out skills they might not get to use in combat, and did a good job of encouraging role-playing at the table.
The only drawback was that this was a physical skill challenge, which didn't give the party's cleric (who has more social and divine skills) much to do aside from the occasional "aid another" check, but he was able to find a creative use or two for his skills.
Ultimately, I think the key to running a good Skill Challenge is really to keep things fast and loose. The modern day wisdom of always trying to say yes to your players is crucial to a successful challenge; if players comes up with a good but unconventional idea, them use it. And if the idea is a little iffy, work with the player to come up with something that does work. The worst thing you can do is be too literal or close-minded; that will transform the Skill Challenge from something that provides good fodder for role-playing to little more than a series of die rolls.
As for the updated mechanics, the new DCs for Skill Challenges have been reduced by 10; instead of 15/20/25 DCs for easy/moderate/hard challenges, it's now 5/10/15. Some folks might find this a little too easy, but it worked out well for us. The players had six successes vs. one failure, and while that may seem a little lopsided, in game it provided a number of nail-biting moments.
Skill Challenges continue to impress me, and I intend to use them in whatever version of D&D we end up playing in the long-term.