By December 2, 2013

The Adventure Begins

It’s been over six years since my Year of the Zombie (YOTZ) role playing game came to a close. I served as the game master, or emcee, for five other players who attempted to survive the zombie apocalypse — in Disney World.

Fast forward in time. I live in Minnesota now, and we have established a much larger local gaming group. I ran YOTZ virtually using Fantasy Grounds, but it was time to get a bunch of people together and play around a physical table.

Some of us had tried to fire up a D&D 4th Edition game before, but I really disliked 4E. Some of our players were masters at it, and some of us were complete novices to it, and some of us were new to role playing in general. This was a bad mix, and it meant that we either went too fast for half the group to understand what was going on, or too slow for the other half to remain interested. There’s a LOT of shit to keep track of in 4E, especially during combat. I also think it’s really template driven and formulaic. Some people like my pal Wurmr really like that aspect about it, but I don’t.

I was involved in a three-plus year D&D 3.5 campaign when I lived in the Washington, DC area. It was great, partly because the system was flexible and unpredictable, and partly because we had a great group.

I wanted to recreate that communal storytelling experience.

Choosing a system

PF Core Rulebook

I sent out a SurveyMonkey poll to the group. They decided to play a fantasy game. I sent out another poll, and they wanted to play a heroic adventure in a style similar to Conan the Barbarian, with a touch of the exotic and weird, ala Krull.

This meant I couldn’t go back to 4E. I didn’t want to anyway, but I also felt that it was too rigid and mechanical for how the group wanted to play. I didn’t want to limit them to an “ideal” party composition, or restrict the number of players to 5, the standard number 4E is based on.

Our group was going to be made up of a spectrum of RPG playing experience levels: two newbies, two people who hadn’t played in years, and two people who were actively playing in other games. I wanted something that would be easy for the active and “rusty” players to pick up so they could help me coach the new players along.

Most of us had experience with 3.5, but none of us (that I remember) had ever played Pathfinder, the spiritual successor to D&D 3.5.

Close enough.


Custom campaign arc with pre-built modules

Ever since my Year of the Zombie group destroyed about a week’s worth of research by eschewing my game plan and going to Disney World I’ve tried to be a more fluid game master. I didn’t want to design a huge campaign with major plot points that were contingent on the players doing A, B, and C in modules 1, 2, and 3.

For this group I decided to have a very high level, over-arching campaign that I created myself. It is not dependent on the characters completing any modules or achieving any objectives per gaming session. The heroes and villains they will encounter along the way are the tendrils that will draw them closer to the game’s higher level storyline. Pre-built modules will serve as the structure, with important NPCs providing the path to the campaign’s conclusion.

This provides a good defense for when the players want to do something odd and off-plan, like find riding dogs for the halfling characters.

Did I have a plan for this? No.

Did I care? No.

My session wasn’t dependent on them getting mounts or not, or meeting the completely made up on-the-fly trainer with a history of head trauma.

The same goes for the team deciding to steal a cursed gem from an altar or doing a number of completely weird and unscheduled things. What if my adventures were planned on them taking the gem or not taking the gem? Plot points that hinge on character events are brittle, and brittle games get shattered by free-thinking players.

Onward to adventure!

The group plays every two weeks. We just played our second session, and instead of the scheduled six hours (including dinner) we played for almost twelve. That’s a good sign. As we enter the cold, unfriendly Minnesota winter and spring I anticipate us getting in many sessions before we venture outside again.

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4 Comments on "The Adventure Begins"

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  1. Ajar says:

    “I didn’t want to limit them to an “ideal” party composition, or restrict the number of players to 5, the standard number 4E is based on.”

    It’s important to note that those elements of 4E are only guidelines. I have issues with 4E, but the clarity of the rules makes changing things relative to the guidelines much simpler compared to other editions and variants of D&D. Scaling party size up or down in particular is trivial; my Zeitgeist game had 4 players for the first year plus, and it never took me more than about 5 minutes to rebalance a section of the campaign to account for it — in the cases where I even bothered to do so.

    Party composition is also just a guideline, and I think it’s more flexible in 4E than it is in other versions of D&D.

    Lastly, 4E is actually a great fit for the style of campaign you were looking for — not that I think you should have chosen it! If I were starting a new game today, I wouldn’t choose it either. That said, I also wouldn’t have chosen Pathfinder, because it inherits enough of 3.x that it doesn’t work for me as a GM.

    Happy gaming! :)

  2. Ajar says:

    P.S. I’m pretty sure this goes without saying, but just in case, I’m not criticizing your choice! If the opportunity presents itself in the future, I’d happily play Pathfinder with you as a GM.

    I’m still looking for my own next GM system, but my 4E Zeitgeist game is going to run for long enough that I don’t need to hurry.

    • DrFaulken says:

      I will say the group is having a ton of fun. They have picked up Pathfinder readily and it seems a lot easier than we did trying to figure out 4E. I know that wurmr really likes 4E but he also stated he’s running campaigns with dedicated min-maxer type guys, which I think 4E really caters to.

      In regards to doing the maths for 4E; I guess I could do that, or I could just use Pathfinder and not worry about all of that shit. It’s a lot easier on everyone.

      That being said, we haven’t hit higher levels, which is where I understand 3.5/Pathfinder starts to crumble. I’ve never run or played in a game that hit higher than level 10 characters, even when we played 3.5 for 2 years back in DC, so perhaps I have my rose-colored glasses firmly affixed on my face.

      • Ajar says:

        Yeah, I think we use RPG systems totally differently from the GM side of the screen. :D I know several GMs who are big fans of 3.x and Pathfinder and dislike 4E who do things more your style. Actually, one of them is half of James S. A. Corey, whose Expanse precursor RPG was d20 Modern. He also ran a great 3.5 game by email that I played in for years.

        When I GMed d20/3.x, I did worry about “all that shit,” and reading your posts I think that was actually my problem! I attempted to follow the CR/EL encounter balance framework, which gave me massive headaches because the difficulty of the battles didn’t end up being very strongly correlated with the EL. And outside of combat, the system gave me little to no support for extended task resolution, so I had to basically devise my own version of 4E’s skill challenge system and shoehorn it in. As a result of how I use the rules, I find winging it as a GM a lot easier in 4E than in 3.x, because the system is clear and flexible from the GM side.

        Side note: Pathfinder actually borrowed 4E’s XP budget system for encounter building, although they kept the 3.x CR end of it. Encounter scaling is done in somewhat similar ways.

        Finally, 4E flails at high levels too — characters just have too much stuff. Sadly, I’ve never seen an edition or variant of D&D that didn’t run into that problem. I’m hoping that 13th Age is the answer, and it looks pretty promising, but I’ve only read the rules, not tried it at a table.