Regularly churning out great GMing articles, they took some time out of their hectic schedules to talk 4e with At-Will.
d1. OK, First introduce everyone who’s here.
Scott: Scott Martin, a long time stalker of Martin turned into blograde.
DNAphil: DNAphil…Gnome and GM For Hire.
Matthew: Hi. I’m Matthew Neagley. You can find me on Gnome Stew under that name, with the sexy gnome mechanic as my avatar. I’m a long-time GM with a very low attention span that shows both in my games and in my post count on Gnome Stew (I think I hold the record low number of posts). Frankly, I sometimes think the only reason the rest of the gnomes keep me around is because I’m a VeryRare (3% of monster population) Gnome with Pituitary Problem (GwPP: use stats for human) and when times are lean…
Patrick: Patrick Benson: gamer, geek, and goofball.
Martin: …and Martin Ralya, Head Gnome on Gnome Stew. Telas — Kirk ‘Telas’ Schneider — is here too, but he said he’s only allowed to answer 11 questions in any interview he does.
d2. How did you get together to start the site? Tell us how the recipe of Gnome Stew came to be.
Martin: A few months after putting Treasure Tables — my previous solo GMing blog — on hiatus, I starting getting the GM blogging itch again. But I knew I didn’t want to go the same route and do all the work myself, since I’d probably just burn out again.
So I sent out an email to nine folks I knew through Treasure Tables — frequent contributors, guest posters, forum moderators and, most importantly, friends and great GMs. The first line was “Because I am an idiot, I’ve decided to take another stab at blogging for GMs — but not alone,” and I went on to pitch the idea of a snarkier, multi-author GMing blog — still serious about the subject matter (which all of us are passionate about), but less serious about everything else. Fortunately, everyone said yes.
Matthew: Martin’s last project, TreasureTables.org, had both a personal GMing blog and a forum. (Blog is currently inactive but still holds a lot of good stuff. Forums are now under new management at YouMeetInaTavern.com.) I found a ton of his stuff there both blog and forum to be super-helpful, so I joined up. A year-ish later and Martin and the mod crew were impressed enough to promote me. So when Martin started his new project and asked me along, I jumped at the chance. I still consider myself a bit of a “n00b” to the online blogging community, so I’m glad to rub elbows with the great team we have at Gnome Stew.
Patrick: I was a moderator for the forums at TreasureTables.org (Martin’s previous project). When Martin decided to retire that site I took over the forums and moved them to another site (YouMeetInATavern.com). But Martin pulled a Michael Jordan and retired for about 30 seconds before announcing his plans for Gnome Stew and inviting me to join as a regular contributor. How could I refuse?
DNAphil: From my side of the story, I know that when Martin decided to stop writing at Treasure Tables, that I suggested (as well as a number of others) that he switch TT to a multi-author site. That did not happen, so I went on to fire up my own Blog (Encoded Designs). Then I got an offer (I could not refuse) from the GodGnome to come and write at Gnome Stew. There was no way I was going to pass up at a chance to work with Martin, and after seeing the list of the other gnomes, I was sure this would be a hit. So I signed on.
d3. 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons. What do you think it does well? What do you think it does not so well?
Telas: I think 4e adds a lot of options for the individual classes, so a fighter can do more than a simple attack, and a cleric is more than a combat medic. It also encourages teamwork, while previous editions were (intentionally or unintentionally) more geared towards individual ‘rock star’ moments.
DNAphil: I think that 4e combat is far more exciting than 3.x. Combats move a lot more, the are full of options, and tactics. 3.x combats were very Rock’em Sock’em robot-like, where fighters would just find a target and stand next to it pounding on it until it was dead. In 4e, everyone is moving around the table. It makes for far more exciting combats, and ones with more tactical options. It also really encourages teamwork among the players, giving them a large range of options during a fight. The more interesting parts of combat are not an individual character’s powers, but rather how they combine with the rest of the party.
What it does not do so well…I would have to say that it has limited character building options a bit too much. Multi-class is not really that interesting in 4e, and playing outside of your class role (a Striker tied up in melee, a Leader having to sub in as the meat shield) seriously diminishes the functionality of your character.
Scott: 4e has engaging action and encourages teamwork better than any previous edition I can think of — and from level 1. So far, I haven’t spotted any holes I’d want filled.
Matthew: 4e definitely has its strong points and weak points. Right out of the gate it has a distinctive flavor, it’s easy to use, and it has fun and interesting small scale tactical combat.
On the other hand, its system is much more focused than before, meaning that some players and groups can’t translate the kinds of play they found fun into the new edition. I’m also not fond of some of the aesthetics decisions that appear to be aimed primarily at pulling in fanboys as if 4e were WotC’s answer to Rifts, but that’s just personal taste.
A lot of the changes are give and take propositions. For example, while great effort was made in 3rd edition to show the mechanics behind the design, that’s not present in 4e. It may make the game simpler, but it makes home-brew and custom design harder. By the same token, multi-classing was radically changed in 4e. It greatly reduces your options as a player but goes a long way towards addressing one of the worst problems of 3e, the fact that material from various sources often had unexpectedly broken effects when combined.
Martin: I’ve read the bulk of the PHB, some of the DMG and a bit of the MM, and played Keep on the Shadowfell over the course of five sessions. I absolutely love the way 4e handles combat — the flagship encounter of the first section of Shadowfell was one of the most fun combats I’ve played in 20 years of gaming. Gone is all the bullshit bookkeeping, sitting around with your thumb up your butt while waiting for everyone else to slog through their turns — combat in 3.x could really be a chore.
I also love the approach of going back to one central aspect of what D&D has always been about — adventuring, exploring dungeons, killing things and taking their stuff — and building the whole game around that core concept. I’d say that’s also its Achilles heel, though: A lot of the enjoyable complexities of the old magic system are gone, as are the majority of powers and abilities not directly related to combat. There’s a bit less of a sense of fuzzy, limitless potential.
Patrick: 4e balances the character types very well. A wizard can hold up in a battle now and contribute to the combat, and a fighter can do something beyond merely swinging a weapon around. What 4e can improve upon is the skill challenges and expanding the fun of the game beyond its war game roots. There is plenty of interesting setting material for D&D that is readily available, but there has never been a good incentive for dynamic and tense role playing. You can have that in a 4e game if your group wants it, but the game lacks mechanics to enhance that style of play.
d4. Is anyone running or planning to run a 4e game? If so, tell us about your campaign.
Patrick: I am currently running a 4e game starting with some of the WoTC modules that have been made available. With any system that is new to me I start with published modules so that I can focus on learning the system through actual play. The first part of the campaign was the Kobold Hall adventure found at the end of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I’m now running the Talon’s Pass module given away for this year’s Free RPG Day, and I’ll be modifying Keep On the Shadowfell so that the characters can play it at higher levels. After the characters reach 5th level I’ll be winging it with my own adventures. I’ve been seeding the module adventures with the foundation for an original story arc that I hope to take the characters to 30th level with.
Martin: My group uses a weighted list — wrangled out over several agonizing hours every year or so, with a mix of anticipation and dread — to choose our games, so I don’t know what we’ll be running or playing after our current campaigns come to an end. 4e went over really well for the most part, and I’d personally love to play it; I need a break from GMing after my Mage game wraps up, though, so I probably won’t be in the hot-seat.
Scott: I have run one shots at the local game store and have played in a KotS run by my wife. While I hope to play in or run a 4e campaign, I’m enjoying my current 3.5 campaign and won’t kill it off early.
Matthew: I don’t think I’ll ever run a full-on 4e campaign. One-shots or single encounters, definitely, but when I work on campaigns, I generally don’t focus on excellent tactical combat which is 4e’s big strength.
DNAphil: I am not planning on running 4e at this time. But I am playing in a 4e campaign, that someone in my group is running. When I get around to running 4e, I will likely convert Ptolus to 4e and run something there.
Telas: Currently playing in a 4e game. It’s a collaborative world, so we all had a hand in it.
d5. Everyone says that 4e reduces DM prep time. I’ve personally found this to be true. What do you think? Do you have any further tips for reducing GM prep time?
Scott: True. I made my first adventure by using Asmor’s random generator, slightly adapting the results, and photocopying the monsters out of the 4e MM. (That made it easy to use monsters from different pages & avoid flipping around — plus I marked damage and conditions right on the photocopy.) It took a little more time to figure out what the various maps should look like, but even that wasn’t tricky. [It'd be much trickier if I was looking to publish it, of course.]
Patrick: By running modules for now my prep time is already greatly reduced, but 4e is a very easy system to prep for even for on the fly games. I love to improvise, so prep time is never a big concern for me regardless of the system. Yet it requires that I have my material organized at all times. I have to know what monsters in various combinations are the right level of challenge for the party. If I need a map of a battlefield I better remember where that old Top Secret/S.I. modern warfare jungle setting book is so that I can pull it and modify the contents into a fantasy setting with dwarves and elves running amok. Improvising isn’t about creating things from scratch, but about using proven material and adapting it spontaneously to fit into your own unique story. That requires keeping a lot of known material organized and readily available. After a while you are not prepping material for your next game, but deciding what previously prepped material you will run for that particular game.
DNAphil: I think that the encounter building system is a bit more straightforward than 3.x. I also recently made some custom monsters for a client’s game, and found the monster generation rules very easy to use, and was able to quickly build the monsters and customize them; not something I have experienced in past versions of D&D.
Matthew: 4e doesn’t reduce prep time, per se. It reduces time for a certain type of prep. On the other hand, it greatly increases the time needed for other types of prep. This tends to encourage the types of play for which prep time is reduced, giving the illusion of reduced prep time across the board. Again, if you like the type of play for which 4e is designed (and why are you playing it if you don’t?) it should reduce your prep time.
My personal time saving tip is usually “buy the PDF” since PDF formatting lets you print out cheatsheets, monster blocks, etc… straight from the book. But I don’t think 4e’s PDF is out yet, which is a shame because I’m not about to recommend you go out and get the pirated PDFs no matter how great their utility.
Telas: I can’t speak to this directly, but I can pass along my GM’s comments that prep time is greatly reduced. In other games that I’ve run, I found that it’s usually quicker to lay out the basics of a scene and let the PCs react to it, than it is to try to script the entire scene.
Martin: I can’t see how it could do anything BUT reduce prep time. There’s a lot less to keep track of, and many fewer fiddly bits and cascading dependencies to worry about. Stat blocks make a lot more sense, too.
My catch-all tip for reducing prep time is to prep less. Start with a solid foundation of simple, useful elements of the game world — things you can build up in a hurry if needed. Prep only the stuff you’re almost certain will get used, and make it as cool as possible. Take some notes about what’s in the wings, and what other avenues your players might suddenly explore, so you can wing that stuff if it comes up.
d6. What is your favorite class in 4e and why?
Martin: I’ve only played one, the fighter, and I loved every minute of it. Fighters sucked in 2e, they were improved but still not that hot in 3e and they’re totally awesome in 4e — you always have something to do, and playing the traditional MMO tank role (drawing and holding aggro, keeping your buddies alive and dishing out some serious hurt) is a lot of fun.
Telas: I’m playing an elven ranger. I chose the race/class combination to see how 4e handles the “stereotypical” race/class combinations. So far, it’s working out splendidly, and I’m really eager to try a halfling rogue next.
Matthew: Honestly, I haven’t read them all through beyond the 1st level or so, so I can’t say definitively. I will say that I think wizards are the most IMPROVED class since earlier editions.
Scott: I’ve long been partial to rogues, but enjoyed playing a wizard. Clearly I need to play more so I can make a more informed decision.
Patrick: The cleric. That class is no longer the party medic. You can be very influential in combat by assisting members of the party through your powers, and at the same time controlling the flow of the battle with those same powers.
DNAphil: Warlord. I love the idea of a non-magical character who enhances the party. The warlord is the martial leader, his job is to make all the other characters look that much better, and at the same time, able to get up front and hack with the fighters.
d7. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Skill Challenges. I love them conceptually, but have found the use requires some finesse. Our first uses of it clearly showed their potential but were a bit awkward. Now, we’re having sessions that are nothing but roleplaying and skill challenges and we’re having a blast. Have your experiences been similar/dissimilar to this? What would you change?
Telas: Now that they’ve been errata’d into actually working, the Skill Challenge is a lot of fun. I was very surprised at how much it encourages teamwork. From what I can tell, the key to having fun with SCs is having a GM who encourages creativity, and a creative group who are more interested in roleplay than in mechanical/mathematical challenges. If it’s not for your style of play, there’s nothing that says you have to use it.
Matthew: Skill challenges, like skill checks from earlier systems, are something you have to be careful of. Remember that you need to set the stakes in such a way that they don’t derail your entire session. The last time my current DM ran a skill challenge, we started out strong, but then we hit a series of horrible rolls. After a dozen rolls of less than 5 came up on our dice in a row, the NPC we were negotiating with suddenly caved and gave us all the info we needed because otherwise we would have been completely stuck. We haven’t run another skill challenge since. Skill challenges don’t make the PCs failure-proof. They make them less likely to fail because of a single skunked roll. Plan accordingly.
Patrick: Let’s just say that I expect WoTC to revise the rules for Skill Challenges even further than what they have already done. Skill Challenges are a decent attempt to expand upon the fun of the game though. I’m glad that the designers looked beyond typical combat for challenging the players with game play.
Scott: It’s a little awkward the first time you introduce it to a group, but I enjoy them and look forward to incorporating them more.
DNAphil: I have played in a few skill challenges, and I think it is a great way to use skills and some mechanics to simulate something other than combat, and something more elaborate than just a skill check. We used one recently to escape the city watch after an altercation on the street. It was fun watching people offer up various skills and describing how they were using them to advance the challenge.
I have heard the mechanics have been a bit clunky, but I hope that the designers keep refining it, because I think that it is a nice way to expand on the d20 mechanics outside of combat.
Martin: I think they’re a great concept, but I’ve only played through one of them at the table. It was so-so, more because of how the encounter was written than because of the system itself. It’s a nice addition to D&D.
d8. 4e is undeniably more prop-heavy. Power cards, battlemats, miniatures…a lot of stuff at the table at any point and time. Is D&D qua boardgame good or bad for the game specifically, and do you think it signals a disturbing trend for the RPG market in general?
Patrick: I don’t see these things as being prop-heavy at all. I’ve been using index cards for years to run combats with for various systems, and I love using a battlemat and miniatures for games that are combat heavy. At the same time there are plenty of indie publishers out there creating wonderful games that you can play with very few items. The big players in the industry may not be in the best shape with the current economy and the competition from video games, but the RPG hobby is in great shape. We gamers as enthusiasts produce tons of great games and material that we can now share easily via the Internet. It is the best of both worlds — free user created items and professionally produced materials.
Telas: Mixed. Remembering ‘who marked who’ can be a pain in the arse; the same goes for remembering all the random +1s (ranger’s Prime Shot ability, for instance). When it comes to large combats, these can really bog down.
I don’t feel that miniatures and battlemats are any more necessary than they were in 3e, but they are pretty important. That said, I prefer to play with minis and mats, as I like the visual aspect of the game. I’ve played other games where position wasn’t as important, and I still pull out the minis. Your mileage may vary.
I like the cards, honestly. I didn’t at first, but they’re easy, fast, and prevent rule lookups in the middle of combat.
Where the “disturbing trend” comes in for me is the expectation that play begins at high power levels, and continues to go upwards from there. Honestly, I prefer a bit more ‘realistic’ style of play.
DNAphil: Well…I think that you have to separate out some of the things on the list. Battlemats and miniatures have been around far longer than 4e, or even 3.x. Power cards are nice, but not necessary to have to play. There have been spell card supplements in almost every version of D&D. Does 4e play better with the props you listed? I think it does. Based on my gaming group, there really has not been any significant increase in prop usage. We have been using our battlemats for some time, and we have been using counters/minis for about the same time. Some of the players I am playing with are using power cards, some have everything written down on their character sheets. Personally, I have my powers printed out on a sheet of paper, and I am marking them used with a glass bead.
I think for gamers who have been playing D&D the props are not going to be an issue. I think if you are a group coming off of something like Vampire and starting to play 4e, there may be some adjustment to the props. I don’t think that 4e is creating any trend, if anything it will attract some, who like the more prop intensive games, and repel others. The market will make sure there are games that cater to both. For every 4e there is a game like Burning Wheel.
Matthew: As a player, if I had time, I’ve been bringing my own minis and power cards to the table for years now. It just makes things easier. 4e doesn’t NEED these things any more than any prior system did. As a GM, I like the decentralization of responsibility this represents. As a player, I don’t really appreciate the extra work.
Scott: It means nothing to RPGs in general, and since I play 3.5 with a battlemat and minis, I’m not worried about that dark side. If you catch me playing PTA with a battlemat, it’s probably time for an intervention.
Martin: I don’t worry about disturbing trends in the RPG industry — they so rarely come true. Personally, I love having a pile of widgets in front of me when I play, up to a point. 4e doesn’t cross that line for me, and I dig using power cards, status tokens and minis during the game.
d9. Give us the what and why of your favorite 4e monster.
Scott: Goblins + wolves made for a cool encounter.
Martin: The best monster in D&D ever is the gelatinous cube, in every edition. Period.
Patrick: I have no favorite. I find something that I like about each entry in the Monster Manual. I read the material and I immediately start getting ideas on how I can use that creature in my game. Although I will admit that I find any of the small evil humanoid creatures (kobolds, goblins, etc.) to be wonderful material to work with. You can use them to portray modern society in your game for a little comic relief. I don’t know why it works, but it does.
Telas: Kobolds. They actually play out in-game as I would expect a bunch of shifty mass-attack critters to behave.
Matthew: I haven’t really read the 4e Monster Manual, just browsed it. From browsing I’ve found more things I don’t like than things I do (mainly canon changes because I’m a giant fuddy duddy). This edition is the first one where I’m not at least passingly familiar with the entire core ruleset. I just look up stuff on a need to know basis.
DNAphil: Having only seen a few monsters so far, I like ghouls…far tougher than in the past. We had a really scary 2nd level encounter with two of them, and I will never treat a ghoul the same again. Though I hear that gnomes are monsters now….
d10. Healing Surges. You have an article discussing how Healing dictates the tempo of the game, and I definitely agree. Do you think Healing Surges suit the pace of a D&D game well? Would you or do you do something differently?
Matthew: Healing surges are an interesting mechanic. There’s already a limit to the amount of healing you can do per encounter since the only at-will healing power is the paladin’s lay on hands which has a daily use limit. Thus, Healing Surges only serve to limit the number of encounters you can have per day. So Healing Surges aren’t really a healing mechanic they serve as an upper limit to action points and milestones, since those refresh with an extended rest, just like surges.
Telas: 4e Hit Points, especially Healing Surges, are the first set of D&D mechanics that actually supports the whole argument that “Hit Points are not a function of physical toughness.” I think this is excellent, although I do prefer a “damage track/action point” system such as Savage Worlds or True20.
Patrick: I like how Healing Surges work within the game and how they give the players more control over their character’s destinies. I have no plan to change the way they work at this time.
Martin: They’re note-perfect for D&D. Who needs all that boring downtime? Let’s surge up and kick some more monster asses!
DNAphil: I love Healing Surges. I think that they are smart mechanic for keeping the pace of combat going. I like how the cleric and the warlord can allow other characters to spend their healing surges. I also like how they tie into other things like rituals and magic items.
They do set the pace for the party, in the same way the number of healing spells the cleric had, in past versions of D&D. D&D has always had an economy of Hit Points…you adventure when they are high and you heal/rest when they are low. By creating Healing Surges, each character has some role in their own healing during and after combat. It is no longer the sole responsibility of the cleric to keep everyone healed. That allows for an expansion of the cleric’s role, or even swapping it out, in the case of the warlord.
Scott: It fits 4e well and allows PCs to push for more battles…which I enjoy a lot more than risk adverse “blow cool spells on fight one and rest” as a strategy.
d11. Which is better: 3.5 or 4e. Why?
DNAphil: Neither. I love both systems for their elements. Having played so much 3.x (and d20 Modern, Star Wars, etc) since 3.0, I am ready for a change of pace, and am fully enjoying 4e.
Martin: 4e, because it streamlines all the crap that made 3.5e such a chore.
Patrick: I skipped 3 & 3.5 completely. I found those versions to be too rules heavy. 4e brought me back to D&D. It appealed to my desire to play a high fantasy game yet it is fairly rules light. Future publications may change that, but I can always stick to just the core books.
Scott: Depends on your group. A couple of players in my group don’t want to move to 4e at all. I’d be happy to do so for the reduced prep time. I’m curious to see how high level 4e play works out in practice — our 3.5 campaigns get strained by instant death around level 8-10 and go wobbly after that. I hope that 4e fixed this without turning high level play bland.
Telas: The jury’s still out, and won’t deliver a verdict until WotC starts publishing regular supplements, like they did with 3.5. Part of the verdict will include the quality of the supplements.
Matthew: What do you want out of the system? 3.5 handles a greater breadth of things fairly well, but 4e chose to concentrate on one thing and do it VERY well. What you want and how your group likes to play dictates if you should play 4e, 3.5e, or something else entirely.
Comparing the 3.5 core books with the 4e core books, I prefer 4e. There was a trend in gaming towards complicated games with rules covering all possible situations, and the pendulum seems to be moving in the opposite direction, towards “simplified games.” That said, I feel that 3.0 and 3.5 were necessary steps on the road to a ‘simpler’ D&D game.
d12. This space reserved for you to inform our readers of anything new and cool the gnomes or up to.
Telas: Savage Worlds is my current “gamer crush”, and I’d like to do a comparison between it and 4e.
DNAphil: We gnomes are an industrious bunch. We will be doing what we have been doing since Martin put the cauldron on the fire; writing and sharing ideas. As for more specific plans for the Stew, I defer to our Head Gnome.
Matthew: I’m currently planning for my group’s haloween adventure. I’m thinking My Life with Master.
Patrick: If I ever finish one of my many projects I’ll let you know. For now, I’m just happy that I’m part of such a fun and creative site.
Martin: We just turned 200 — 200 articles, that is. We seem to be entering the time of year where we’re all crazy busy, so our focus lately has just been on turning out quality GMing articles. I definitely want to do another contest before too long, though.
Scott: Taking over Zurich!
d13? I want to thank you guys in advance for taking the time to answer these. Sorry for the delay!
Everyone: Thanks for having us!
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