A Lesson Learned at PAX

PAX Prime took place on August 26-28 in downtown Seattle, Washington. I’d never gone before, but when my good friend and heterosexual confidant Shaun Brennan offered a weekend pass promising fun-filled nerd-joyment, I said “Sure, why not.” What transpired was not only three days of gaming and after-hours overindulging, but also a wonderful weekend spent with new and old friends alike.

Though the weekend consisted mostly of walking, waiting, and watching, I also took part in an hour-long dungeon delve down in the D&D room. Not only was it an excellent chance to practice being a player (which I rarely get to do), but it also gave me the opportunity to game with random people, whether I liked them or not—something that hasn’t happened since I started my “D&D Survivor” player searches back in 2006. What was even more exciting was getting to see how an “official DM” runs his game. You see, every table was run by a Wizards of the Coast-sanctioned Dungeon Master, someone who probably had to go to DM War College, where you learn to fight on horseback and cast magic missile into the darkness. Just kidding; I have no idea how these DM’s were chosen, but I assume there’s some kind of application process.

In any event, the session was pretty standard fair: three encounters split up by minimal exploring and roleplaying. The first two combats were pretty meat and potatoes as far as combats go, but the third was supposed to be the “boss” of the session—the Big Bad Evil Guy. Well, after approximately two and half minutes of combat, the evil mastermind of today’s session went down—because he was an undead and someone rolled a critical hit.

After some excited high fives, cheers, and tearful hugs, I walked away from the table with a few of my other friends who had also taken part. And then my brain though back to what had just transpired. Was that a fun, satisfying end to the session? Or were we robbed by how quickly the final, “epic” fight went? Were we due a climactic ending, or was it even more memorable because of how it ended?

4th Edition’s Greatest Strength

4th Edition doesn’t work like 3rd Edition—and don’t mean in the conventional sense, like 4th Edition has powers and a unifying class structure, unlike 3rd Edition. Or that 3rd Edition has an expanded skill list versus 4th Edition’s narrow list. I mean it’s different where it counts—4th Edition is a protagonist-centric game while 3rd Edition is numbers-centric. 4th Edition revolves around the player characters and the numbers don’t reflect objective reality; rather, they represent a subjective reality that defines how the world interacts with the characters in that specific moment of time.

In 3rd Edition, if a goblin is supposed to have X number of feats, it will always have X number of feats. If a dagger does d4 damage, it will always do d4 damage. If a skeleton is immune to cold attacks, no skeletons will ever be hurt by cold powers. However, in 4th Edition, a dagger can do d10 damage or d8 damage or even a flat 4 damage depending on what monster is wielding it and when—because a monster’s powers and abilities are based on when the PC’s are meeting the monster during their career.

Monsters break the rules; they don’t follow the same path or guidelines set out for players—and they don’t always follow the same rules amongst themselves, either. They don’t have do! As long as a monster does a certain amount of damage and follows a certain set of guidelines for defenses based on its level, the sky’s the limit. Not so during 3rd Edition’s numbers-centric design where character and monster rules were unified, and monster roles placed creatures into straitjackets.

Take a look at 4th Edition’s definition of an undead:

Undead are not living creatures, so effects that specifically target living creatures don’t work against them. They don’t need to breathe or sleep.

That’s all you need to know about an undead. Even though most undead include in their stat blacks a vulnerability to radiant damage or a mention that they die when someone rolls a crit, not all undead have to—and point of fact, not every undead in the game does.

In the case of this particular undead during the PAX game, it was supposed to die on a crit. But was that stat black written knowing that this monster was going to be used as the Big Bad Evil Guy at the end of an adventure? What would it have taken for the DM to remove that short line “A critical hit automatically reduces the creature to 0 hit points”? And how much would it have affected the balance of the encounter?

In addition to all of those considerations, what would have been more fun in the end? A protracted battle across several hours where the characters use up every daily and every action point, and where several may even fall unconscious or die due to the ferocity of the attack? Or one where the characters enter the den of their nemesis after many trials and tribulations and kill him with a single blow? The answer to that depends on the kind of people you game with and the type of campaign it’s meant to be.

What Would DM Magic Do?

Even after everything I’ve written, as a DM I would have let the undead die with the crit—because the clock was running long, the session wasn’t meant to be serious, and because it was a one-shot where we weren’t exactly invested in our characters or the story. The DM made the right call, whether he was even conscious of it or not. Still, it got my head thinking and reminded me that despite 4th Edition’s complexity, its rules are flexible to the utmost extreme.

Take advantage of that, especially when running combats.