Now that we have finished our DnD group's latest game (a Dark Sun adventure revolving around the heroes defending the city of Tyr from an oncoming Urik army, setting up to make a siege; look back to read them all!), I thought I'd spend some time looking at some of the alternate mechanics I used in the game.The final night of our monthly Dark Sun game came after I had been reading a lot about 13th Age. I'd grabbed the book, kicked myself multiple times after finding out that I'd missed an awesome Kickstarter for the second book, and thoroughly immersed myself into working out how these new ideas could come and change my games for the better.
The party had returned from Raam, three dray heroes alongside them, ready to break the siege on Tyr. Even if it weren't the final session in the campaign arc, this was the time for a climactic battle. Players wanted to see threads resolved (such as what had happened to the Orb of Dust, stolen from them many sessions ago); players wanted to wade through the Urik army, scattering the lower-level, inferior forces before their trained and honed might; and players wanted to take down the leaders of the force, focus on the top-dogs of the invading army, and fight against someone of their own skill. In all, not too much to ask, right?
I wanted an effective way for the players to feel like they were cutting through multitudes of enemy soldiers who were ill-equipped to stand up against their heroic might. Well, 4e has minions, so I used them! And, for what they are, they work...most of the time. Minions are great for easily killing, but some classes clearly are more effective at minion-pruning than others. The warlock (who had taken more of a controller role, had focused on having a few area / blast attacks) could easily wade through ranks of the enemies, but the barbarian took down one or two a round.
Expecting this to be the case, I utilised 13th Age's "mooks" for the second battle. Liet might have been spectacular in part 1, but part 2 was all for Kuoroar!! Even without criticalling, it felt much more like a goliath champion cutting through waves of inferior troops with his fullblade swinging wildly.
To change things up for the third encounter, I used a version of Pathfinder's Troops rules, modified for 4e. Essentially, they are a swarm of large creatures (soldiers, in this case!), and moved as a mass. They were sturdy as a group, no longer as easily dismissed as the first two waves were, but they still went down reasonably well (as they were meant to).
The general idea of the different soldier types was to experience different aspects of being "great big heroes" against waves of enemies. Blasting through them, slicing five guys with one sword-sweep, and then one mul fighter standing toe-to-toe with twenty soldiers. The heroes took a beating (which is only fair, considering how many they were fighting against), but they were always pressing onwards, always slogging through the enemy. During the third act, I even stated that they had many more of the 'minion-like' troops running around, but they no longer even posed a threat. The soldiers acknowledged the heroes' superiority, and moved about them to fight troops more their level, and the heroes didn't worry about the soldiers, looking instead to the movers and shakers of the opposing side.
Another idea I have taken from 13th Age is the Icon Relationships. However, as I was using the idea for one might only, and didn't feel like reinventing the setting, I linked them to the NPCs they had been rescuing. And then changed the mechanics quite a bit. Really, the only things I kept were the d6 roll and that they were about another NPC!
For the second encounter, each player would roll a d6 to see how the three dray champions were doing. On a 6, they'd do something really great, which would help out the battle they were having (such as a fly-by lightning attack, or raising some of the dead into undead servants). On a 5, they may do something helpful, but at a cost (eg the NPC would be 'out' for a while, or one of the NPC followers would be lost). With a few rolls each, these added excitement and interesting story telling opportunities, especially as I continued to use the d6 rolls for each player to report on how another unit was doing elsewhere in the combat. A few nasty rolls seemed to call for a couple of their allies to be left behind, too wounded to go onwards.
When we return to Dark Sun (and even before then, in our next campaigns!), I'll be sure to invest in the icon idea again. I'm not sure I will create the icons for the players, but rather ask them who they think are the big important characters in the setting, and how their characters relate to them.
Movers and Shakers
Of course, the other big event they wanted was to deal with this "Orb of Dust" thing. So clearly, I had it return...along with two other Orbs they knew nothing of. The biggest surprise for me in this part of the game was how willing the PCs were to go along with the dray's commands. After months (in game, and in real life) of hunting and wondering about the Orb, they finally had it in their grasp...and then handed it over to someone else.
Now, knowing your ally is a dray is one thing; knowing that they are an undead dray is surely more concerning. But Liet had lost his Sorcerer King, and was still struggling for someone with whom to make a pact. Beren was moments away from being killed (and reanimated) when the first orb was exchanged; by the time they handed over the second, he was working on the dray's side. And Kuoroar!? Well, he was also pretty beat-up, and wasn't about to go against everyone else.
So even though I had the option of fighting the dray, it didn't come up, for they elected instead to go along with their demands. Instead, they fought off the others, planning to survive long enough for the enemy army to be broken by the death of its commander - which they (and it) did.
The three Orb-holders (Thakok-An, Maetan Lubar, and the dray champion, Rhyleighi) each came with their personal elemental beast (Sandstorm Vortex for the Orb of Dust, and an Earth and Fire elemental for the Orbs of Flame and Stone). It is only too apparent what happens to solitary enemies in DnD, and I didn't want an anti-climatic stun or dominate to end the night.
The elementals were huge, imposing creatures that kept the party distracted whilst not actually being the main threat. On the other hand, once Thakok-An's was relieved of her orb, her Vortex vanished, and she was pretty much out of the battle, which proved to be an added bonus for the PCs vanquishing her! And as can be read about here, the Earth Elemental had a most interesting time whilst being dominated and stabilising a dying PC...moments before it came back to its senses, and pulverised the squishy mul.
In the end, I enjoyed taking some outside ideas and merging them with the system as written. I look forward to using elements of 13th Age in future games, especially for the simpler things such as Mooks and Icons. (Indeed, I will eventually get around to writing up another post just about those ideas!) Importantly, the players also enjoyed the varied elements, and they all worked together to create a better story.