Monthly Archives: April 2009

DM Strategies: Spike vs. Pressure

Combat in D&D 4th edition, perhaps moreso than any previous edition, focuses on the fight as a team vs. a team. Player characters, and also monsters, have roles designating their primary purpose in an encounter, and encounter building assumes the DM will be fielding a number of different monsters. (Compare to the encounter building guidelines of 3rd edition, with Challenge Rating, which implied a focus on party vs. one monster fights.)

Those player types are going to be doing a lot of discussing on how their powers work well together, what tactics their group should employ, and how to collectively get the most bang out of their buck. There’s not a lot of combat advice out there for the DM. In a game as focused on the tactical challenge as D&D 4th is, it’s important for the DM to push the players hard, and give them the great challenge they deserve.

In my experience with Guild Wars, which billed itself as a “Competitive Online Roleplaying Game,” one of the focuses of play was Guild vs. Guild battles which were 8 person vs. 8 person online battles. For the most part, every successful team “build” could be described as a “Spike Build” or a “Pressure Build.”

What is a Spike Strategy?

A Spike Strategy is probably the strategy you are most familiar with, and likely the most successful strategy for the players to employ. A spike involves focusing fire on one threat at a time by multiple attackers, using potent attacks to kill the target in as short period of time as possible. Once this is achieved, the enemy’s effectiveness is weakened- they are down a character that could be attacking, healing, or supporting the rest of their side. The spikers then move onto the next target.

This is usually the most effective strategy for the players. Usually the Striker(s) focuses on a single target, and receives support fire from the leader, with defenders and controllers either joining in or harrying other targets. A spike strategy is useful when the attacker can inflict a series of high damage attacks in a short period of time focused on the same target, and do so quickly enough to overcome the defending side’s defenses and heals.

As the DM, the spike strategy can be very successful. Look for creatures that get bonuses when fighting together, such as when they flank or have combat advantage, and have potent attacks. This will often mean a mix of soldiers and skirmishers. The Kobold Skirmisher, a horde of Kruthriks backed by a Hive Lord, or a potent artillery monster that attacks the same character turn after turn, like a Skull Lord with some skeleton archer allies.

However, those players have a lot of ways to combat a spike strategy. The party defender will be able to draw fire, and defenders are very robust targets- you want to be spiking the Warlock, not the plate-clad Paladin, who has higher defenses, higher hit points, and more healing surges. A controller will often have a bag full of tricks to make spiking harder for the DM.

But most importantly, healing is very potent and available to those player types. In Guild Wars, for example, when someone on your side died, you’d have to cast a Ressurection spell, which took precious time and resources away from fighting the enemy, and they’d be weakened when they arose. If the opposing team was able to counter your Ressurection spell, you were in trouble, especially if it was your healer who was dead. It’s easy to revive a fallen comrade in 4th edition D&D. Your Leader should have a couple of minor action heals available each encounter, and they start from 0 hit points and heal from there. Knocking a target out of the fight isn’t much of a setback to those player types, unless their healing is severely exhausted. Far more effective for the DM is the Pressure Strategy.

What is a Pressure Strategy?

The Pressure Strategy involves putting threats and pressure on the party on as many simultaneous fronts as possible. These threats are never as fast as the threat of a spike knockout, but they build up over time. A successful Pressure Strategy wins by slowly overcoming the opposition’s healing capabilities and defenses, draining them out over time.

Player characters sometimes use such a strategy, but it requires work to do well. Often such a strategy is focused around one or more characters with multiple attacks, such as a party with two or more controllers.

For the DM though, it is ideal. Some advantages the Pressure Strategy has is that it’s harder for the players to combat, since most healing effects target one person at a time, and it gets more players involved, since everyone’s taking damage, not just a few unlucky targets. Sometimes it’s not always obvious to the players that they’re in trouble- when someone gets knocked out after two rounds, that’s obvious, but how well are you doing if everyone has ongoing damage effects on them?

By far, the most effective tools in the pressure strategist’s arsenal are ongoing damage effects and area of effect attacks. The monster with an ongoing damage effect attack wants to attack a different target every turn, putting as many ongoing damage effects on the party as possible. An artillery character with an area of effect attack that catches more than one character in the burst is multiplying its damage and making it so more than one character will need healing.

Suppose you have an encounter containing two Tiefling Heretics, two Tiefling Darkblade, a Galeb Dhur Earthbreaker. (1450 xp, a level 7 encounter). The Tieflings have extreme mobility and at-will attacks that do ongoing damage. The Earthbreaker can often hit two or more party members with it’s Hurl Stones or Shock Wave attacks (and as icing on the cake, does not impede the teleporting tieflings as much as it will the PCs, and that Shock Wave will set up Combat Advantage for the Darkblades.)

Suppose, after the first round of combat, each of the monsters has hit with its attack. Four party members have taken ongoing damage, and two of them probably failed their saves and still are. The Earthbreaker has hit two or three party members with it’s Hurl Stones, and restricted some combat options with the difficult terrain. You’re a Cleric with Sacred Flame. Who do you heal? Who do you give a Save to? Even with a Sacred Flame every turn, the tieflings are going to be putting out more ongoing damage effects than you can cure. Better hope your Strikers are bringing their A-game! (Also fun: between a Heretic and a Darkblade, you can put an ongoing 5 fire, ongoing 5 psychic, and ongoing 5 poison on the same character.)When those pesky character types finally do drop to 0 hit points, they might be suffering ongoing damage, which is still a threat. Even when they’re healed, any save ends effects will still be active, just waiting to hinder them.

Creatures that help a Pressure Strategy include area of effect attacks, especially damaging auras, ongoing damage effects, and ways to threaten as many party members as once. Some more examples include the Drow Arachnomancer, Specters, the Mad Wraith, and most Solo monsters, especially Green Dragons.

Get out there and put some pressure on your players!

Retail: Garden of the Surreal

I saw two women and one young girl in the store today, in home made T-Shirts.  On the back was something about God- two said “One Nation Under God,” the other said “In God We Trust.”  The fronts said something about taxes being too high.

Clearly they were Obama voters, joyishly relishing in tax cuts for the working man, and tax increases for those making more than a half million a year.

Forge Midwest 2009

Here’s some stuff I did at Forge Midwest this last weekend.

Friday: Tim and I arrived at the hotel before anyone else.  We played Fury of Dracula 2 player- it was Tim’s first time, and probably the weakest game of Fury I’d ever played.  Tim wasn’t really into it.  Dave the Deranged showed up during this.  I think after that we played Jungle Speed.  There was lots of Jungle Speed at the con.

Dave had his Nerf guns and there was lots of screwing around with Nerf guns and pretending to be zombies.  (This too, would happen a lot at the con, culminating in one of the two rooms being designated as a no-nerf gun area, and us telling the hotel desk guy that if he heard zombies it was just us.  Which is the exact wrong advice to give in case a zombie apocalypse were to happen.)

More locals showed up, Ron Edwards showed up, and Jae and Amanda from far away (Michigan?) showed up.  We split up for two games- I ‘ran’ Escape from Tentacle City for Ron, Jae, Abrahm, and Jerry.  At the other table, Len ran Ghost/Echo or whatever it’s called for Tim, Amanda, and Dave.

Escape was horribly awesome, as always.  Survivor groups included midgets, a Mexican street gang, high school dropouts, 3rd graders, and an Islamic Terrorist cell.  Horrible guilt ensued.  The system is really humming along- I think I need to just adjust a few phrasings.  The core rules just plain work, but need some tweaking.  Ron suggested lowering the available Stress lslightly (to 2/3 from 3/4), and I think he’s spot on.

It’s Complicated got some play.  I played with Len, Tim, Ron, Jerry, and Abram.  I’m not sure what else got played.  Ron was very passionate about getting to try It’s Complicated, and it was a pretty successful session, despite bumbling through the rules a little bit.

Saturday had quite a few playtests- I tested Ron’s new game about the Lebanon Civil War, which is like Spione, but with twice as complicated card play, and with a twice as depressing setting.  I’ve played more upbeat sessions of Grey Ranks.  I was fricking tired, and the setting didn’t terribly engage me.  But it was a dirty mechanics playtest.

As a nice upbeat capstone to Witness (I don’t recall the Arabic word, but that’s what it translates to), we played a nice game of MAID, with Ron, Amanda, Juli, and late joiners Abram and local gamer girl Sam.  Anime madness ensued, with an incompetent supervillain master (young Dr. Doom, sort of), meddling spy maids, wacky catgirl maids, a cyborg ghost maid, and a almost mostly normal maid.  A poorly-controlled summoned demon, a random-event spawning copy of the Necronomicon, and a shrinking potion made sure that the insanity didn’t stop.

After that, I playtested Tim Koppang’s new 1-on-1 player game, Mars Colony, where you play a city planner in over your head at the problem-ridden Mars Colony.  It was amazing fun, with a solid mechanical ground, cutting political satire, and Tim running it really sold it.  I had a blast as Maggie Yang, who bludgeoned all her problems with hard work, positive thinking, and Maoist ideology, and solved the crime and sewage problems of Mars Colony, even if she had to completely destroy human rights and freedoms in order to do it.

I ran a short demo of Awesome Adventures for the Walking Eye podcaster Kevin, and then did a short interview with him.  Expect to see that one coming soon!

Somewhere in here were games of Race for the Galaxy, more Jungle Speed, exciting monologues with Ron Edwards (more entertaining Saturday night when the peanut gallery was a little tired and drunk, resulting in Ron responding with “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” to a player lovingly describing her centaur wizard with the Fly spell) waiting for other games to wrap up so new games to start, and fighting with nerf guns during said waits, and sending Tim for food and caffiene.

Sunday many of the people who were there just wanted to hang out and chat since they were so wiped, and people with longer drives headed out.  It’s too bad more people didn’t game- we had like 6 going on Saturday, and only 1 game at a time on Sunday.  I ran a short game of Poison’d- the arc was a little rushed due to time constraints, but there was a MacGuffin map, backstabbing, pirate brutality, and the surgeon “failing” to save another mortally wounded pirate PC.  At the end, the greedy quartermaster sold out the Dagger to the captain of the Resolute.

Then we played My Life With Master, with the local crew (and Dave).  This was less of a hit- the Master was the Dragon, and the minions were low-level D&D monsters.  I had trouble setting the right mood- I think Len figured it out halfway through the game that maybe you don’t actually want to be a minion- before that, he was enjoying just playing the stupid orc.  But the game got too saddled down in parody of D&D tropes (I was a worse offender than anyone else, with my portrayal of the Outsiders, who were a party of adventurers the dragon wanted to scare and impress). and the game marched right into humor territory, which was fun, but is not where My Life With Master is supposed to live.  We cut endgame short (completely ignoring the whole rolls against the master once refusing a request finally happened), since really, we were all tired, and those rolls would have taken a long fricking time.  The kobold resolutely realized burning down all the fields would hurt the nice blind baker lady who thought he was just an orphan boy, and then the adventurers came in and killed everyone, except the goblin, who attached himself to the watchmaker, a budding mad-scientist Master.

Edit: I completely forgot about Friday’s game of shock between me, Tim, and Dave, which featured a robot uprising against more advanced robots, a female robot with male gender identity, and a human ambassador with alien gender identity.

Also forgot about Saturday morning’s Prime Time Adventures game, produced by Robert Bohl, with me, Sabe, Len, Jen, and Jerry, which was probably the first PTA game I had played that didn’t suck.  Interesting game, but I really think it doesn’t work that great for one-shots.

This Vaguely Bothers Me

In Left 4 Dead, each campaign is five levels: Level 5 is the Finale, level 1 is the easy/start level, and levels 2-4 all have Creshendo Events.

Except there’s no Creshendo Event in Blood Harvest 4!

I was thinking about this last night, and I had to play through the level to confirm this.  Nothing.  It’s just strangely lacking.

Back From Plattecon

Plattecon 2009 was a blast.  I was able to get a co-worker to take half my Saturday shift, allowing me to make it in time for the Shadowfist tournament… which ended up being me, John, and Jim.  We played a casual game or two, then played three games for the tournament- I played my Dragon/Monarch deck, Jim played a very strong Hand/Dragon deck using Bring It, Crane Stance, and Dr. Amanda Snow, and John played a series of different Hand decks, (okay, one was Peacock, and technically heavier on the Dragons), winning two games, and Jim won one.  All hail the new Big Cheese!  I didn’t do so well, but it was fun.

Tim arrived in time for the draft.  A new curious player showed up- Jim did a demo, and John and Tim and I played a three player game.  Tim was doing quite well, but stalled when he misred the resource conditions on Desolation and thought he couldn’t play it(d’oh!).

Then we drafted.  Drafting that many packs takes a long time, but is a lot of fun and ends up making janky decks.  I drafted mostly Monarchs, with some strong cards to splash either Ascended or Purists, but I only had nine Feng Shui sites.  I decided to go mono-Monarchs, which was a strong deck.  Jim and John both drafted Architects/Jammers.  Jim played very well, and won this one.  Still, I walked away with a Sacred Heart Hospital (alternate art) and a Ting Timg (promo) as prizes, the cards I wanted, so I was happy as a clam.

Oh, and John Monnet is a dirty rare drafter.

We got some shuteye.  It was pushing one when we finished, and we had to be back at the con by 9 for the Dungeon! boardgame.  Tim had been up since five, working a full shift that day.  Poor guy.

Sunday morning brought Tom Nipple’s Dungeon! boardgame, a homebrewed Descent/Diablo/Hack & Slash Dungeon experience.  This is the best version yet- fully cooperative, with a focus on party play, increased balance between the various builds, a new map painstakingly handcrafted by Tom Nipple himself, and a joyful hackfest.  Specialization is key, and we had three melee characters, two potent mages, and me running around with a bow sniping things and opening all the treasures.  It worked- we plowed farther into the dungeon than anyone else, though we would have been hard pressed to beat our record from last year where we cleaned the whole board out- the monsters got a bit of a boost this year.

It’s a four hour boardgame that feels too short.  The balance is fascinating: deeaths are common, with few long term costs.  Eventually, you can kill whatever is in your path, but your real enemy is time.  You’ve got four hours to kill as much as you can.  Making a good move fast is better than agonizing the perfect move.  Once our group got into our groove, we started acting with SWAT team efficiency.  An excellent game, highly, highly recommended.  And there were prizes!  Everyone got a “I Killed the Blood Avatar” button (with game buffs for our characters in future years), and I got a full set for collecting more chests than anyone else the whole weekend.

We injected a lot of money into the economy, which is key.  We’ve got it to spend, and spend it supporting gaming.  Admission to the con, which supports the student group, hotel room, and the great deals from Chimera Hobbies we picked up at the dealer’s room.  On Saturday I picked up Castle Whiterock- normally a $99 module- for $25.  (I bought the last one.  The dealer said that was a popular item.  I wonder how much he was losing on them.)  The draft was $20 for each of us, which paid for cards.  Tim and I picked up an assload of minis- Tim got the mini starter set, which contains four awesome maps, the Young Green dragon, and four adventurers.  He got another tube of minis, some map tiles, and then, when they were packing up and we were going through the stuff, we saw the bargain bin of minis.  Buy one get one half off.  We dumped out the whole bin and searched through it, and had a huge pile of minis, which I offered to buy if they’d do 50% off the whole lot (instead of effectively 25% off).  Yup.  I ended up spending $92 on D&D bulk minis.  Now have to sort all of them…

Top Five Rejected Shadowfist Expansions

With all this talk about Empire of Evil, I think it’s worth talking about the expansions that aren’t getting printed. The expansions that just didn’t quite make the cut. Today I present to you the Top Five Rejected Shadowfist Expansions.

*#5: “Netherworld 3: Back Through the Portals Again!”

Concept: There’s a lot of great cards in Netherworld that never got reprinted! Cards like the Flying Bladder, IKTV Rebroadcast Link, and New Manifesto! Netherworld 3: Back Through the Portals Again takes forgotten cards from Netherworld, Flashpoint, and Netherworld 2: Back Through the Portals, and reprints them, making these coasters available to a new audience of players.

    Plot: Something about the Monarchs. First they’re at each other’s throats, and then something unites them against an outside threat. Maybe the Jammers.

    New Cards: Despite being 75% reprints of your favorite cards like Time Bandits or Operation Green Strike, Netherworld 3: Back Through the Portals Again! reprises the Reload mechanic, adding it to new versions of popular cards. Examples include In Your Face Again (Again), Surprise, Surprise (Reprise), Time Continues to Keep on Slipping, and Revenge of the Revenge on the Patent Office.

    Pro: I guess maybe someone needs more copies of Thunder Knights.

    Con: Inauspicious Re-Reburial found to be overpowered in playtest.

    • 4: “Welcome To the Nineties”

    Concept: Remember how Boom Chaka Laka was about the seventies? Well it’s like that, but for the nineties.

    Plot: The Purists have wacky cosmology breaking technology. And then the Jammers show up and steal it! And there’s a bunch of cards named after song lyrics and nineties movies and stuff.

    New Cards: Baby Got Back, Edward Swordhands, El Nino, Everybody Dance Now, Fighting Seizure Monsters, Hammer Time, Humpty Dance, Judge Ito, Larry Stinger, Mad Cows, Not!, Party Time, Excellent!, Pogs, Snapple Lady, Stained Dress, Tell Me What You Want, Virtual Pet, White Bronco, Zee & Silent Joe, something based on the Macarena.

    Pro: I still remember how to do the Macarena.

    Con: Plenty of overweight card players still remember how to do the Macarena.

    #3: “Destruction 2008”

    Concept: We’ve borrowed from and satirized everything else- why not politics? Maybe because a set about the 2008 election probably wouldn’t see shelves until 2012.

    Plot: After the critical shift, the Ascended pull out all the stops to hang onto their power base in the modern juncture. But can John Kane, Pledged Maverick (Asc-AZ) beat out up-and-coming junior kung fu senator Barry “The Rock” O-rama (Dra-IL)?

    New Cards: In addition to the previously mentioned new hitters for the Ascended and Dragons, we get Hellary Clinton, Demon Empress (Lot-NY), Sarah Piglin, Lodge Initiate (Asc-AK), Paul Ron, Voodoo Economist (Pur-TX), Zombie Strom Thurmond, Undead Filibusterer (Lot-SC), Joe the Plumber, and the Monkey Who Would be President (Jam-???). Then there’s a variety of events, like “Yes We Can!” IKTV Election Coverage, Primary Faceoff, Pantsuit, “You Betcha,” Energize the Base, and Lipstick on a Transformed Pig.

    Pro: Filibusterer comes up as a real word in my spellcheck.

    Cons: Daniel Griego won’t shut up about Ron Paul. Canadians won’t get the jokes.

    #2 Great Red North

    Concept: Given that Shadowfist is popular in Canada, why not an expansion about Canada… eh?

    Plot: Somebody bad- maybe the Lotus- tries to attune to the Canadian National Tower. The Jammers try to blow it up. The Americans overreact and it’s Canadian Bacon all over again.

    New Cards: Quebecois Seperatists, Dudely Do-Right, Kids in the Hall, Hoseheads, Curling, Socialized Medicine.

    Pros: Canadians deserve some cards, right? And you know, that socialized medicine sounds pretty good.

    Con: Cards would have to be printed in both English and French.

    #1 Twilight

    Concept: Teen girls and grown women who should know better will buy anything Twilight. This will be the best selling edition of Shadowfist ever.

    Plot: You’re joking, right?

    New Cards: Play versions of all your favorite characters from the novels and the movie! Like Bella, Vapid Teen, Edward, Creepy Stalker Sparkle Vampire, or that werewolf native American kid or the nerdy metrosexual Chinese guy. New Romance Event cards allow you to win the game without any of those messy kung fu battles or fighting. New foil cards allow you to experience the vampires in all their sparkly glory.

    Pro: It’ll bring more girls into the hobby!

    Con: It’ll bring more tween girls mooning over abusive relationships and sparkles into the hobby.