My group kicked off the second adventure in the 4th edition remake of the Against the Giants series with myself as the DM. I have some thoughts about the first adventure, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, and the changes we have made going forward that I thought I would share in my rambling, loosely coherent manner. We absolutely crushed the first module, essentially finishing it without an extended rest or anyone dropping below zero HP. We skipped nothing as well, methodically scouring every inch of the setting and exterminating anything that walked, crawled, or slithered with extreme prejudice. Dick jokes were abundant, and a good time was had by all….except I found the lack of threat, while invigorating for the majority the adventure, a little blazeh by the end, at least for me.
Thus began the Great De-Optimization Debate of 2013. One player, through rhetoric or maybe it was more like browbeating, managed to convince the others that the party should de-optimize in order to re-calibrate to the intended challenge level of a generic module. No small feat, but he is a veteran of the WOTC forums and can be seen daily waging an endless war against hardcore simulationists and alignment worshipers. What was agreed upon, albeit begrudgingly, was re-training powers to anything not rated blue or above on the optimization guides. It was framed as a grand experiment. Perhaps it would add an element of thought to the adventuring? Instead of going out of the way to fight everything perhaps some thought would be put into avoiding fights or outsmarting enemies?
During these discussions many things were tossed around as a mechanism for increasing challenge without touching the most sacrosanct of player traditions. Some things discussed, all on the DM’s end, included not allowing short-rests until certain milestones were achieved, penalties for extended rests, and adding monsters and terrain powers to make combats more challenging. I had no problem with any of these things, as I am pretty indifferent, but it was decided that the group go the de-optimization route. Part of the reason for this was when we decided to run these modules it was to do them as is with as little prep as possible for the DM, saving the effort for “creator-owned projects” so to speak. I took some shit for this stance, even though I was okay with whatever was decided. There was an undercurrent of sentiment percolating around it being solely the responsibility of the DM to make changes to the game to enhance player enjoyment.
The first session of the “experiment” was pretty brutal. I am not sure it had much to do with the level of pc optimization, although it is possible that with highly optimized builds they might have pulled it out. What occurred was not the best display of playing or DMing out there. The module begins with the party needing to get into the keep. To accomplish this they split up with 2 characters bluffing their way in and the other three scaling the mountains up to the keep. The players scaling the mountain triggered part of the first encounter with a Roc and it’s stone giant rider assaulting them on the side of the mountain, not the best place to fight a Roc that’s for sure. I ended up killing one of the characters after the Roc had cumulatively dropped him over 200 feet. We did a bit of a ret-con that allowed him to be alive. Even though there was no entrance into the keep where the players were headed I knew one of the characters would be able to knock a whole in the wall, so no big deal. Now when combat breaks out one of the characters that bluffed their way in and peddling meat pies to the stone giants, ran into a room facing the side of the mountain his comrades were climbing, hoping to aid them. This is where the wheels came off a bit as by entering the room and coming within a certain distance of a particular alter he caused the stone giant shaman to have a vision, igniting a berserker rage and triggering another encounter, which then triggered a third encounter.
So the count is split party vrs three encounters. Here is where I failed as a DM and they as players. For my part I didn’t do a very good job at framing what the character saw as he opened the door to the room with the alter in it as he likely would have stopped if he immediately was aware that there was no exit from the room, thereby not triggering the encounter. It was also pointed out later, with hindsight, that we could have entered a skill challenge to keep the stone giant from attacking, at least until the party had reformed. I didn’t think of it in the moment, again I should do better, nor was it offered by the players so we proceeded as is. I don’t think the player tactics were the best either and that doesn’t necessarily mean splitting the party but more not adjusting to the fact that the party was split as well as not really synergizing in terms of focusing fire, using terrain and choke points etc.. What we really saw was the default fight everything to the death tactic, which typically works with very optimized characters, but not so much here. What occurred, is in some ways unique to 4th edition, was a slow painful death in an unwinnable straight up fight. It wasn’t like people were dropping like flies a la a save or suck effect; it was the slow inevitable death by attrition. It ended with me calling the scene and negotiating next steps with most of the party fleeing with and one being thrown in a cage.
I felt terrible after the session, like I should be stripped of my blog for running such a cluster fuck of a session. It was not a good test of the de-optimization experiment either, although there were cries of re-optimizing cause getting beat sucked. There was also some suggestion that I should have altered things on the fly to ensure the party’s success. Now this kind of stuck in my craw a bit. First things first I am in no way the type of DM that feels he needs to punish players for mistakes or poor play and I will usually work very generously with the players to get the outcomes they want. With that being said should players, no matter what they do, succeed at everything? Does this not negate the agency of their choices? Failure is only a complication and only sucks if it is uninteresting or doesn’t lead anywhere. So I could have been quicker on my feet and offered a solution, but it is also a two way street and what I got to work with was “let’s fight”. Who knows where things go from here, this might have left such a sour taste in people’s mouths that the game breaks.