Poisoned Shadows

Poisoned Shadows is an 8th-level, three encounter “adventure” from Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeon Delve. I chose it as my new group’s one shot recently and it wasn’t too bad. Not only did it give everyone a great opportunity to see 4th Edition rules in action (a few of my players are coming from 2nd or 3rd Edition), but it also gave us a chance to get together as a team and roll some dice; in other words, check to see if there are any kinks in our preferred gaming style before actually putting in all that work on an actual campaign.

The plot, in a nutshell:

The city has been plagued by mysterious nighttime assassinations that leave behind no clues about who might have perpetrated them. Divinations from temple of Ioun adherents suggest the guilty parties can be found under a nearby curio shop. The PCs set off. Beneath the shop waits the Poisoned Shadows Assassins Guild, as well as a greater danger than the party expected.

Pretty standard stuff; no one’s going to pull out a delve because of its deep and enriching story. For the most part, I assume DM’s use Dungeon Delve for quick access to themed, level-appropriate encounters. I’m certainly not planning on basing any campaigns off of any of the 30 delves it holds.

Monster Design

What I do want to focus on is combat grind. Anyone who’s played 4th Edition has probably noticed that combats are taking longer than usual; longer than their 3rd Edition counterparts and certainly longer than 2nd Edition encounters. Part of the problem has been narrowed down to too many hit points and a damage output that’s too low. There are also a few other small issues, such as low attack bonuses, high defenses, and poor power design. Nevertheless, the long and short of the issue stems from hit points and damage.

Monster Manual’s 1 and 2 suffer from this. It was right before the Monster Manual 3 was released that Wizards of the Coast finally found their groove and started producing monsters that came, kicked ass, and died in a short, but exciting amount of time. I can’t speak for other DM’s, but I certainly know I don’t want normal, run of the mill combats to last longer than an hour.

From there, Wizards of the Coast only got better at creating monsters; the Dark Sun Creature Catalog and Monster Vault pushed monster design further in the right direction. They even released errata so DM’s at home could theoretically bring MM1 and MM2 creatures in line with the MM3.

However, even though I tried applying the errata to the creatures in “Poisoned Shadows,” the first combat took four hours. Creature attacks were boring, they didn’t hit often, and when they did, the damage was too low. In the second encounter, I upped the damage and cut the hit points in half. Things went a little better; it only took the characters two hours to wrap things up. However, for the final encounter, I swapped the MM1 black dragon with a black dragon from the Monster Vault.

What a world of difference.

Unfortunately, I doubt every monster from other products will see updates to the MM3 school of monster design; it’s possible some monsters may just get left behind. If you find yourself wanting to use one of these old, pre-MM3 relics, follow these rules of thumb on the fly:

  • Up the static damage by 50%-75%. If an entry says 2d8+4, kick it up to 2d8+6 or 2d8+7.
  • Up the attack bonus by 25%-50%. If a monster attacks at a +7 vs. AC, consider upping it to +9 or +10.
  • Cut the hit points by 25%-50%. Monsters—especially soldiers, elites, and solos—don’t need so many hit points! This single value is what’s keeping combats lasting forever.
  • Add an out of turn power. One great action that can be added is a bloodied reaction—as soon as the creature is bloodied, let it use its most devastating attack immediately, even if it’s used up. If it’s a melee attack and the monster is not adjacent to any characters, let it shift to one as a free action.

Theatrics

In other news, I brought back a few old thematic favorites and tried something completely new during the session.

Old favorites included lanterns and colored lights. Lanterns I gave up on years ago because players would complain about not being able to see their character sheets or dice. I fixed this issue by picking up small LED clip-on lights, such as those used for reading; they provide plenty of light to see, are cordless, and can be easily turned off when not needed. I love using lanterns—they give off that feeling of being 16 again, playing D&D late at night under dim lighting, as if we were trying to keep the outside world from discovering all the fun we were having. Of course, lanterns don’t come out every session—only when the characters are navigating by torchlight.

Colored lights, on the other hand, were simply too difficult to coordinate in the old days. Sure, they added a fun element to the visuals of each encounter by splashing a thematically appropriate color to the scene, such as blue for night, green for jungles, yellow for deserts, and red for lava. The part that wasn’t fun was having to unscrew the bulbs when I wanted to switch the light. Also, the lamp had to be positioned next to the table in order to provide enough light to make a difference. This added something of a trip hazard, what with the lamp’s cord. This problem was solved with the invention of wireless LED lights; they can create any color, fit into any light socket, and work via remote control. Simply genius

In the realm of trying something new, I brought dry ice into the game. While engaged in a think tank with my good friend Jeff, we tossed around the idea of using dry ice to create fog or smoke. I worked out the process in my head over the course of a few days while on vacation before giving it a dry run (no pun intended). In theory, I would go to the store, get some dry ice, carry it home in a cooler, smash the ice into small chunks, and then drop them into a cast iron cauldron I have.

In practice, however, it wasn’t quite so easy. Dry ice sublimates quickly, so I couldn’t buy it in advance—it had to be purchased the morning of the game. Plus, I had to buy twice as much due to the fact that by the time the encounter came around, half of it was already gone. I also had to have a steady supply of warm water; warm water is what causes the wonderful fogging action. Unfortunately, the dry ice quickly cools the water, forcing me to change it often. Lastly, the reaction causes water to splatter—not a good idea when you’re using cardstock models for encounters. In the end, I’ve decided to pick up a fog machine—it will be cheaper than dry ice and less intrusive to the game.

Check out the pictures from the second session (I didn’t get any from the first).