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D&D 4E Resuming and Concluding my Epic 4e Campaign

nogray

Adventurer
After just over a year-long hiatus, my small group of players and I have resumed play of our long-running 4e epic campaign. We started this campaign just after the release of 4e, and it was at the time our "playtest" campaign -- as in "let's play this new edition and see if we like it." After nearly 13 years, I guess I can say that we like it. I suppose I'm glad I stitched together story elements into those initial play sessions and kept doing so as we played with the various releases pretty much as they came out, because this has been the most fun I've had with D&D. Having played each version of D&D except the original, I can say that 4th Edition is by far my favorite edition of the game. That may very well be due in some part to this campaign.

Now, this is not to say that we've been playing just this campaign for the whole time. Our group has mixed in other campaigns of 4e (at least two that were both abandoned in early paragon tier) and other games (a little Mutants and Masterminds, a little Savage Worlds in the universe of Firefly, a few sessions of Shadowrun, some Dungeon World), but this is the campaign to which the group always returned. The group has likewise changed. We've added players somewhat transiently, and some long-term players have left. Overall, the group has shrunk. What started with me in the DM seat and four players is down to just two (each playing two PCs).

The characters are now 28th level, and I have quite a few plot seeds, sown long ago, to resolve in the remaining time in the campaign. I think I will be using this thread to discuss the events of the campaign overall, where I am hoping to take some of the resolutions, and express my thoughts on 4e in general and our house rules in specific. While 4e is my favorite edition of D&D, I do recognize where it isn't quite perfect for our group, and I want a clear head as to where I will be going next.

The Cast (as they currently stand):
Lucretia: Cold-variant Tiefling Warlock (Scholar theme, Turathi Highborn, Heir to the Empire)
She was a blue-skinned tiefling who spoke with an Eastern-European accent before the player knew about WoW's Dranei and before Critical Role's Jester was a thing. She is nobility and acts it. A lot of the campaign, particularly in the paragon tier, centered on the barony she came to rule (that the player largely created).

Fulgrim: Human (sort of) Invoker (Seer theme, Morninglord, Avangion)
He has been around for longer than anyone can remember but isn't particularly old. He's grumpy, and he doesn't know his own history, but he has been an advisor to Lucretia's family for a very long time. (The first "secondary" character in the campaign, Fulgrim is played by Lucretia's player.)

Makaria: Tiefling Paladin of the Raven Queen (Ordained Priest theme, Hell's Keeper, Keeper of the Everflow)
She is Lucretia's (slightly) younger cousin, her bodyguard, and her confidant. She likes pirates and ahem adult reading materials. Of all the long-term PCs, Makaria has undergone the fewest revisions.

Rook: Revenant (Half-Elf) Skald (Infernal Prince theme, Master Preserver, Avangion)
The newest addition to the party (added at 26th level when the fourth member of our group departed), Rook has a less-well-defined personality at the moment, but I can tell that she's been played a bit like Oliver Platt's "Porthos the Pirate" from the 1993 Three Musketeers film. We'd settled on her being the first revenant, and she knows she has a purpose but is unsure of what that might be. (Rook is played by Makaria's player.)
 

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nogray

Adventurer
A note on setting and a summary of early levels:
The party is playing in the Nentir Vale/Points of Light setting, to which I added a "touchstone" city, called Bomire, which is located at the mouth of the river that flows south through Nerath. It has (or had) a real Freeport/Mos Eisley feel (city of pirates sort of thing). In my background notes, the name of the campaign is "Trouble Sires Three Children." Each paragraph, below, represents about one level of adventure.

The party's story began in Fallcrest, deep in the Nentir Vale. It was there that the core of the group first discovered a trio of threats to the town and possibly the world. The first of these involved an apprentice mage named Delevor, who slew the family on a farmstead on the outskirts of the town. The party investigated their deaths and followed the trail of Delevor to a tower locked "outside of space and time," hidden by an ancient being known as "the Collector." Within the tower, the party confronted and defeated Delevol, but they found evidence that Delevor had transmitted information to his master on the construction of an arcane machine intended to purify elements and enhance them. Investigating the rest of the tower, the party found that the machine, which had been left active for centuries, produced a crystalline scorpion-beast that destroyed the machine that birthed it. Subsequent to defeating this strange elemental thing, the party's research indicated that the machine seems to draw energies from the elemental chaos through the feywild and into the world. It looked as if the location in the elemental chaos from which the machine drew its power was close to the edge of the abyss if not actually within that hellish realm. Further investigation led the party to conclude that Delevor came from the south, a city called Bomire.

While the party recovered from the battle, the town came under attack from an odd assortment of kuthriks and hobgoblins. Tracking this assault back through the underground passageway to its origin, they discovered a goblin named Gorlak that was psychically dominating the various creatures with the assistance of an insectoid abomination. The defeat of Gorlak and his mind-bug "pet" caused a vortex of psychic energy that imploded the space around Gorlak, causing him to be apparently disintegrated. Gorlak's journal (kept in Deep Speech transliterated into the dwarven script) and the surviving pieces of his lab indicated that the goblin had learned to summon the far-realmsian mind-bug from a person or entity in the woods near Bomire.

Not long after returning from the woods from which Gorlak had mounted his attack on the town, the party became aware of another threat to the people of Fallcrest. Several townsfolk were abducted by some undead. The party tracked the undead back to a wooded area in Fallcrest known as the Tombwood where a short-distance teleportation circle was discovered, guarded by demons and undead. Tracing the arcane energies, the party learned that the townsfolk had been removed to the Tower of Waiting, rumored to be haunted by a spirit from the time long before the empire of Nerath. The party there found Nikos, a scribe of Fallcrest, in preparation for a ghastly ritual designed with knowledge gleaned from a modern "Cult of the Black-Feathered Ram" and the ancient necromancies of the Lady of the Tower. It seems that Nikos had learned of the Cult (which the party deduced must be dedicated to Orcus) in a trip to Bomire and had become obsessed with the power the necromancy promised.

With the source of these threats all pointing towards Bomire, the group finalized its arrangements to journey there. The assistance of a caravan of halfling barges was acquired (and another apprentice with livery like that of Delevor was delayed in acquiring some iron), and the group traveled south with the halflings, assisting them in making the journey safely. Upon arrival, the party was set upon by a gang of local toughs (one of the two major gangs in Bomire) known as the Blade Brethren (more formally, the Brotherhood of the Blacksteel Blades).

After arriving in Bomire, the party undertook several tasks. They slew the leaders of the Blade Brethren* and assumed control of that gang, turning it into a sort of police for the Riverside district of Bomire, setting themselves up as enemies to the other major gang, the White Petal Tong. They discovered a tomb of one of the handmaidens of the last empress of Bael Turath. They averted an attack by fell scars (psychic aberrations) brought about by a hunter that journeyed into the forest near Bomire -- a place that was becoming known as the Warp Woods. Research led to the discovery of the name of the far-realms threat, a being known as Ixhushah Quoreth (this was discovered in the mad ramblings of the hunter who unwittingly brought back the fell scars from Warp Wood). They attended a party hosted by Lord Rathel Kiernan, the master of Delevor and apparently a mage of significant power. (During this, Makaria befriended Kiernan’s majordomo, a half-dwarf with a peculiar elementally-empowered replacement hand.)

* My best early skill challenge
I ran what was my best skill challenge to date as part of this event. In fact, it remained a high-water-mark as far as skill challenges for quite some time. I set up a high-complexity skill challenge with several moving parts. The characters first used Stealth and Perception to scout the forces that the Blacksteel Blades had at their disposal, then used Intimidate and Deception to remove some of the available forces from the leadership. I don't recall what skill I had them roll against, but some success allowed the party to select the battlefield, then successes allowed them to prepare the battlefield to suit their strategy. I recall the party setting up the fight in an abandoned warehouse and fashioning a couple of traps they could trigger using Thievery and Athletics. They made a challenging (or deadly) fight into something far more manageable that had additional elements that they could deploy in their favor. It was a blast to run and the players gave me a lot of positive feedback about it.
Hearing about attacks by groups of undead, the party returned their attention to investigating the Cult of the Black-Feathered Ram. They put down the next attack by a group of undead and subsequently tracked the origin of the attack to a sealed-off section of ancient sewers, slaying the cult members there and further tracking the leadership back to the clergy of the Raven Queen in Bomire. Upon the advice of Valdreshar (a relatively junior clergyman who had aided the adventurers in acquiring invitations to a party hosted by Lord Rathel Kiernan) and using their own skills, they determined that the cult leader in Bomire was the second most senior high-priestess, Shantellia. The party did discover, however, that the previous cult leader (an unknown male) had left Shantellia in charge fairly recently, leaving Bomire to grow the cult in other lands.

The party at this time decided to prioritize investigating Lord Rathel Kiernan and his elemental machinery and magic. They ramped up their politicking among the upper class of Bomire, and they used the cover of the party I mentioned above to investigate Kiernan's estate and research. They determined that the machinery would draw power and material from the Abyss (or at least the elemental chaos near the abyss), filter it through the feywild (depositing some of that material and energy there), and enhance the value and purity of items placed in the machine here in the world. Excess energy and waste would be shunted to the Shadowfell. The party discerned that nothing would dissuade Kiernan from activating the machinery, so they researched the consequences of this happening. They were not encouraging. At the very least, it would risk offending the sidhe courts of the feywild; at the worst, it would cause a massive disruption that would fracture the planes. (I use a sort-of Dresden-Files-inspired fey court, complete with Mab and Titania, so "offending" these would lead to interesting consequences, to put it mildly.) During this time, the party met agents of the Collector, who remained very much alive despite being an almost-indescribably ancient being. They successfully lobbied to meet with the Collector, who turned out to be a spell weaver, though somewhat different from most of his kind. From the Collector, the party received ritual materials and directions for the creations of the necessary wards to block the flow of magic into Kiernan’s machine. Unfortunately, these wards would have to be placed in the Feywild and the Elemental Chaos. The party departed from the non-space that the Collector occupied via a portal. Upon their return to the World from the "peculiar non-place" that the Collector had held out of space and time, a group of cambions appeared and attacked. The party defeated the devil-spawn and determined that the far-future destiny of Makaria was at the root of the attack. The unique circumstances of the Collector's method of travel had facilitated the tracking and attack of the party by the devils, so while this was an element of the future gameplay, it needn't be central in the concerns of the party. (I wanted to discourage the party from using the Collector as a resource in the future if they didn't want to deal with additional threats and costs and to foreshadow an additional element of late gameplay, but I didn't want devils and whatnot to intrude upon what the players planned to do in the short-term.)

Up next: Finishing off Heroic Tier and the introduction of some house rules

Further note: I introduced the three threats (powerful wizard Rathel Kiernan, Cult of the Black-Feathered Ram, and agents of the Far Realms entity Ihushah Quoreth) with the intent that the party could resolve them in any order, but each would be the capstone of a tier.
 
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darkbard

Adventurer
A note on setting and a summary of early levels:

[...]

* My best early skill challenge
I ran what was my best skill challenge to date as part of this event. In fact, it remained a high-water-mark as far as skill challenges for quite some time. I set up a high-complexity skill challenge with several moving parts. The characters first used Stealth and Perception to scout the forces that the Blacksteel Blades had at their disposal, then used Intimidate and Deception to remove some of the available forces from the leadership. I don't recall what skill I had them roll against, but some success allowed the party to select the battlefield, then successes allowed them to prepare the battlefield to suit their strategy. I recall the party setting up the fight in an abandoned warehouse and fashioning a couple of traps they could trigger using Thievery and Athletics. They made a challenging (or deadly) fight into something far more manageable that had additional elements that they could deploy in their favor. It was a blast to run and the players gave me a lot of positive feedback about it.

[...]

Up next: Finishing off Heroic Tier and the introduction of some house rules

Further note: I introduced the three threats (powerful wizard Rathel Kiernan, Cult of the Black-Feathered Ram, and agents of the Far Realms entity Ihushah Quoreth) with the intent that the party could resolve them in any order, but each would be the capstone of a tier.
Sounds like a lot of fun! Can you say anything about the play processes that produced this fiction, ie GM curated plot versus player-driven story?
 


nogray

Adventurer
Sounds like a lot of fun! Can you say anything about the play processes that produced this fiction, ie GM curated plot versus player-driven story?
There is a little GM Plot going on. I was pretty much semi-railroading them through the introduction stuff. Or at least, I knew what I needed to introduce for the overall framework of the campaign and I made sure to intrude with those leads. A lot of the rest is player-driven, though. I always tend to ask what the players want to pursue next then design encounters and whatnot around their responses. It was the players that sought out the removal of the gang and later turning them into a sort-of-police-force. (I had the gang try to strong-arm the players when they entered the city because that seemed appropriate, but the party decided to pursue eliminating/converting the gang.)

In this case, I had the leadership and gang members all sorted in my head and I was initially figuring on making it a longer process of the party ambushing sets of gang members and working their way up the chain to the bosses, but one of the players (either Lucretia's or one of the no-longer-present players) wanted to see if they could demoralize the gang members and drive some of them off to have the leadership show up without so many gang members. I switched to a skill challenge format to meet that desire. I think that places it more towards the player-driven story side of things.
 

darkbard

Adventurer
There is a little GM Plot going on. I was pretty much semi-railroading them through the introduction stuff. Or at least, I knew what I needed to introduce for the overall framework of the campaign and I made sure to intrude with those leads. A lot of the rest is player-driven, though. I always tend to ask what the players want to pursue next then design encounters and whatnot around their responses. It was the players that sought out the removal of the gang and later turning them into a sort-of-police-force. (I had the gang try to strong-arm the players when they entered the city because that seemed appropriate, but the party decided to pursue eliminating/converting the gang.)

In this case, I had the leadership and gang members all sorted in my head and I was initially figuring on making it a longer process of the party ambushing sets of gang members and working their way up the chain to the bosses, but one of the players (either Lucretia's or one of the no-longer-present players) wanted to see if they could demoralize the gang members and drive some of them off to have the leadership show up without so many gang members. I switched to a skill challenge format to meet that desire. I think that places it more towards the player-driven story side of things.

It wasn't until 4E was nearing "the end" of its run that I discovered how amenable it is to player-facing dynamics, especially through the SC, which you seem to have picked up on. As well, the strong thematic elements of Themes, PPs, Ed's, etc and many player-facing fiat powers lend themselves to this kind of play. Add in the "say yes" and "fail forward" principles of 4E GMing and the ease of encounter design, and the system can really shine in a Story Now, player-facing kind of way that many "indie" games before and since do well. But 4E also layers on a tactical and dynamic combat system and complex but personalized PC build system that many other games miss. If you're not already familiar with it, consider checking out Dungeon World, so similar to many of D&D's tropes but with a play agenda and GM principles that can illuminate how to bring 4E even further away from its GM-as-storyteller past (and 5E present) and into a truly collaborative game of fiction building among all participants that the 4E system absolutely supports!
 

It's always fun to have a long, deep campaign with a ton of character threads. Congrats on juggling so much (and I look forward to seeing what happened in paragon and epic tier).

I wrote an AP that went to level 30, so clearly I liked the game.

My only real niggles with 4e were

1. The math auto-scaling while also assuming you had gear.

2. High-level combat clearly wasn't playtested as much, and the pile-on of conditions (especially against solos) required ingenuity to work around.

3. The character builder really needed a community rating option so you could sort by "stuff that isn't useless." I rather liked the simplicity of the Essentials era, while many earlier books felt overly baroque and complex.
 

nogray

Adventurer
A couple of house rules:
  • Ability Scores: At each level where you would normally choose two scores to improve, instead all scores improve. This is in part to prevent the defenses from becoming too lopsided. It also allows for a decent progression of AC even among those few light-armor characters that don't prioritize Dexterity or Intelligence.
  • The "Feat Tax" Bonuses: At level 5, all characters receive a +1 bonus to attack rolls and all defenses (AC and NAD). At level 15, all characters receive a +1 Feat Bouns to the same; at level 25, this Feat Bonus increases to +2. This means that characters can avoid the "feat taxes," but can still gain a benefit for investing in those feats.
I don't recall exactly when we enacted these house rules, but it was fairly early in the campaign. It speaks to some of my philosophies in gaming.

From here, I have a lot more detailed notes, so I could speak to most of what I used as encounters and skill challenges for the characters. Unfortunately, only some of it was thrilling and interesting to me. If you have a question, please ask and I will clarify. But on to the summary:

The rest of level 8:
The party departed for the Feywild and ventured to the portion where they needed to enact the ritual. Successfully navigating some of the lesser dangers of the Feywild (and avoiding the Murkendraw, where Baba Yaga dwelt), the party performed the necessary rituals that would block the purification of the Elemental Chaos materials that would flow from there to the World when Kiernan activated his machine.

Level 9:
That taken care of, the party negotiated a passage to an area where more materials, found only in the Elemental Chaos itself, could be retrieved. I recall some combats, here, wherein I tried to incorporate some interesting terrain. I don't recall it going too well, and it is something about which I am unhappy with regards to my performance as a 4e DM. I know this is supposed to be a major factor, but it always seemed to fall flat when I tried it. In this case, the characters were harvesting crystals from a cave. Some of the crystals had properties of being able to transport through them (walk into one crystal and out another) or shoot ranged attacks through them. The characters largely ignored the features, even as the enemies used the crystals to some small advantage.

Once the materials were gathered, the characters headed off to the site at the edge of the Abyss where the ritual to fully block Kiernan's machine had to take place. I had a waved encounter here with a hostile environment and mandated skill checks. I also had optional skill checks to figure out where and what type of damage was coming on the next round. This was a little better than the aforementioned crystals, but I still don't feel it went over too well.

Level 10:
The characters returned to the World from their brief extraplanar adventures to find Bomire in chaos. I had a fire rampaging and some riots in Bomire, and I had a mini-game where the players put out fires (real and metaphoric) to re-stabilize Bomire. This was another fun sort of skill challenge that I put forth to the characters. They made up what the characters did and I adjudicated checks and narrated how the situation changed due to the check results. The characters initiated another skill challenge to find the heir of Sir Rathel Kiernan. I think this was due to them planning on killing Kiernan and joining the ruling families of Bomire.

The party traced the troubles in Bomire to a "city corruptor" that they then eliminated (after tracing it to the Mayor of Bomire's estate). Tracing infernal corruption to the Mayor led to that individual's ousting, with various positions subsequently opening up in Bomire's political hierarchy. With the aid of the head of one of the major houses of Bomire, the party once again infiltrated a party at Kiernan's, this time with the intent of stopping him from activating the machine, even with its functionality impaired or disabled by the rituals the party had performed. Eventually, the adventurers were discovered and attacked by some of Kiernan's guardian automata. The heads of the various ruling families of Bomire were attening the activation of Kiernan's machine, wherein they had been instucted to each place a stone from that family's estate (with the intent that the machine would purify the stones into gems, cementing Kiernan's usefulness to the Bomire nobility and granting him a measure of elemental and political power). The machine failed spectacularly, detonating moments after activation. The party killed Kiernan and rescued the remaining family heads.

Thanks to this, someone from Lucretia's barony was appointed to the "ruling family" class in Bomire (she was offered the position but demurred). This concluded the character's 10th level adventures, so the party leveled to 11th. The selection of Paragon Paths went as follows: Lucretia accepted a title (heir apparent to the Barony of Veronia), activating her noble blood as a Turathi Highborn; Makaria was recognized by the Paladins of the Fortress of the Final Pact as a foe to Devilkind, activating the latent powers of a Hell's Keeper; Caladan (a rogue who had been adventuring with the party) was trained by a weaponmaster to become a Daggermaster; Kha'zek (a dragonborn . . . something? . . . undertook a pilgrimage to drink the "Blood of Io"; and Fulgrim's divine radiance burst forth from within, awakening the radiant powers of a Morninglord. (Lucretia/Fulgrim's player asked if he could become a Morninglord despite not worshiping Amanataur, and I assented, asking if I could tweak the character's un-remembered backstory. The player agreed and I started deep planning for what had been up until then a very secondary character.)

Up next: Early Paragon adventures.
 

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