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Is 4E the deadliest D&D?

Written by Expy - Published on March 12, 2009

Chain reaction – step 1:

More HP means longer combat encounter

4th edition characters and monsters have a lot more hit points, and powers/weapons don’t do much more damage than in 3.x

Chain reaction – step 2:

Longer combat encounters must be dynamic, original, tactically challenging otherwise they get boring

After missing the mark on a few combat encounters that would just never end and not be that interesting a DM will pick up his/her game and mix things up – shifting terrain, combat objectives, monsters working as a team, etc.  All the good stuff about 4e encounters will be leveraged.

Chain reaction – step 3:

The DM unleashes the new and improved tactical encounters on unsuspecting players

Let’s assume the DM is the most involved player – he reads all/most of the books, knows the rules well, knows his options.  Let’s assume that most players out of college have jobs, girlfriends, boyfriends, families, etc.  The players make a character, have a decent grasp of the rules, but don’t/can’t spend a lot of time to explore the new tactical options offered by the game.

Chain reaction – step 4:

The PCs become victims of the Chosen One Syndrome

The players evaluate an impending combat encounter and decide to take on their foes – good decision because the combat has an appropriate encounter level.

But the players haven’t explored their group tactics, their terrain options, maybe even how powers combine to maximum effect, and they get destroyed in an encounter that should have been somewhat easy.  Can they be blamed?  There is a lot more than what they are used to.

Chain reaction – step 5:

Running in-game “tutorial” quests

I believe that the 4th edition of D&D can offer much more than its predecessors.  But the teamwork and limitless options have been an issue in my games when it should have been the most interesting aspect of the new edition.

I will need to spend more time on character creation.  Make the players care about their PC more and make them a little more cautious because I hate TPKs.

I NEED YOUR HELP!

How did your group overcame the hurdles of tactical play and multiple options in combat encounters?

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31 Responses to “Is 4E the deadliest D&D?”
  1. Wyatt says:

    First of all: Hell No. Go play Tomb of Horrors using OD&D, the original original rules. Watch yourself writhe with pain and suffering at the hands of a cruel and unyielding God.

    Now for the real question.

    For a new group, I always discuss tactics at the end of the game, telling them what I think they did right and what I think they did wrong. I think feedback is very important. You’d probably think that talking to the players bluntly about how to use their powers would make your game “easy”, but it doesn’t. It just makes sure you’re not playing with people wholly ignorant of their own capabilities.

    I also sometimes hand out a single “hint” token each game. The players can cash in a “hint” token during a losing battle for knowledge on what I would do in the situation if I were them. There’s no guarantee it will work – they can roll total ass and balls and die anyway. But it may open their eyes to options they never thought they had and synergies they never saw before. Including the often ignored option of trying to run away. I always have a skill challenge in mind they could use to escape.

    Lastly, have you considered that not every enemy will slaughter the PCs and spray their gorey innards all over the walls? There are nonlethal ways of handling an unwanted TPK if you’re having remorse as a DM about the party kicking the bucket and the story ending. You could have the PCs captured, enslaved, or hell, for you adventurous types, maybe even RESCUED by somebody else.

  2. kaeosdad says:

    Muahahaha! I am the chosen one!

    I think if the PCs get there asses handed to them then that’s that. You live (well die in this case) and you learn to be a bit more cautious next time around and maybe even a bit more clever. I’m sure once everyone get’s the hang of there characters capabilities and begin to gain more experience with the new rules system then player skill will go up.

    @wyatt: I’m not a fan of saving the party from making mistakes. Making mistakes I think is how I learn to be a better player. I don’t like the idea of hints either but that’s just me. I feel like it could take away from player choice. Maybe an alternative would be to give them a little bit of fair warning of just how bad things are looking and give them some time to think there way out of it without dropping hints.

    I agree though that discussing tactics after the game is crucial and helps the players get a better idea of what they could have done.

    One thing that I think might help in combat is helping the player’s understand the four roles: striker, defender, controller, and leader. It’s important that the player keeps these in mind, not because they need to optimize themselves for that specific role just so that they know what there classes fighting style leans toward.

    If a player has a certain type of approach to combat and there powers does something completely different to what they want to do then there could be problems with say a warlord trying to out damage a rogue, or a controller trying to be a defender, or a striker running and hiding. That might be the player’s character but it doesn’t take much advantage of what there role has to offer and there’s nothing wrong with that. But player’s of those type of characters need to be a bit more clever than the rest

  3. Syrsuro says:

    First: 4E is far from the deadliest edition. In fact, each edition has been less lethal than the ones before. If you want lethal, go play OD&D….

    That said: I think that the players will pick up on the necessary tactics very quickly. All it takes is needing them.

    My players tactics under 3.5 were, imho, mediocre. But they were able to do enough damage and heal themselves with the ubiquitous wands of CLW afterwards so that they survived anyway. In 4E they have learned to work together better and the strikers are getting better every session at finding ways to maximize their damage.

    So trust them and, if you are worried, don’t hit them with the really tough encounters right off the bat (stick to the easy ones – the ones that are actually scaled to their level rather than level + 2).

    Finally: I disagree with your first point. Characters are capable of doing quite a bit more damage. I have a character (gnoll barbarian with a mordenkrad) who can do 6d6+3 as an encounter power (and again as a daily) at first level. It’s hard to imagine any way to do that kind of damage in any prior version. And every character can do at least double weapon damage, if not triple, once per encounter. Strikers even have at-will attacks that can do around twice as much damage as they would have in 3.x.

    On the other hand, the players have far more hit points (at low level) than they did in any prior version and monster attacks are not significantly higher than earlier versions. In 3.x a typical 1st character had a bit over 10 or so hp and an orc did 2d4+4 damage (avg. 9). In 4E a typical 1st character has over 20 hp and an orc does….1d12+3 (avg. 9.5).

    Carl

  4. I would say classic D&D is very, very dangerous indeed. We play every week; the party has 8 characters in it. We lose a character a week, on average. It’s kind of a tough world when you might have only got one hitpoint! One of the second level characters, a very strong fighter, has been resurrected three times… the player now records all of the creatures that have killed her… classic D&D is VERY dangerous.

    Poison, for example, is save or DIE. Fail your save? Tough. You’re dead.

  5. Nicholas says:

    I’ve gotta agree with the crowd, 4E is the least deadly D&D (not saying that’s a particularly bad thing).

    Whenever I do a campaign we always make our characters together and spend a couple hours on it. It gets the party thinking about inter-party interactions in terms of both powers and personalities. The players and DM can help point out cool options that another player may have missed. It also allows confused players to call out for input.

    If you want to get your players to use the terrain, you need to train them first. Hand them some really obvious ones. Describe an archer standing on a splintering platform of a spellcaster who stands at the edge of a tall cliff. Once they pick up on the gifts and realize they can do that sort of thing they will start looking for it. Pretty soon they will notice things you missed.

  6. Russell says:

    “How did your group overcame the hurdles of tactical play and multiple options in combat encounters?”

    Easy, we don’t play the MMOD&D we play 3.5.

  7. Bartoneus says:

    I’ll argue that 4th Edition is no less deadly than 3rd Edition, it simply does it in different ways. You can die at -1 hit point if you fail three death saves, but also factor in monsters that gain bonuses when they’re bloodied or against bloodied targets and you can see PC’s drop just as fast as previous editions. In my opinion this is a lot more fun than the traditional save or die type of deadliness, though 4th Edition has retained some of that sense, it’s just hidden behind a few more saves. (Save three times or die?)

    I have at least one player who is obscene when it comes to tactics, he was ranked very high in Warcraft 3 ladders and kills everyone I know at RTS. Rightly so he began by playing a Warlord, but switched to Swordmage because my party doesn’t have a fighter, rogue, or melee ranger so there’s just nothing for a Warlord to do! He’s usually good about being kind while still helping other players make good tactical decisions, and more than a few times he’s really surprised me and changed the tide of an encounter with some smart planning.

    Then there’s my wife, who lights curtains on fire and tosses them on trolls while screaming, “Burn in hell, troll!”

  8. Nicholas says:

    @Russell: Everyone else, even the people who disagree, are contributing. It makes for a much better discussion than slinging meaningless talking points.

  9. Francis B says:

    My players are, for the most part, doing fine. I have one group that has a character drop to unconscious almost every battle, but that is because they decided going into the game that they didn’t want a leader role.

    For the most part though, I would show through example, the buff brute and the crafty lurker with “combat advantage” would flank and get extra damage. Pretty soon my rogue came over, pushed the sucker away with Positioning Strike and set up position as a flanker herself. She’s been flanking ever since. Before a monster uses a powerful encounter power I have its allies head over and aid another, I make a pretty big show of it, soon players started trying it themselves with their dailies.

    If you point it out from practice, they will surely note it. And if your good tactics start really biting into the hp of an unsuspecting party, tone it down a little. The first time I ran the fight against Irontooth I set up an enmity between him and the kobolds, and through the rounds the cleric kept at trying to convince the kobolds to rebel and then the adventurer’s would leave in peace. I made it a skill challenge with 4 successes and 2 fails. The cleric succeeded and it made the combat more memorable for it.

  10. Ameron says:

    My gaming group was got their asses kicked all over the place when we first switched to 4e. Experience taught them to play smarter. Check out these ways of Avoiding Death (Part 1 and Part 2) which summarize the lessons learned.

  11. Yax says:

    @Everyone: Thanks for the input. Much appreciated.

  12. Mike The Merciless says:

    Look at the Sphere of Annihilation. Look what those idiots did to the thing. Used to be that if you were foolish enough to touch it and fail your save, you died instantly. And no resurrections for you. 4E deadlier? Give me a break. According to the article published in Dragon called Trapped!, you’re not to put instantly deadly traps in D&D anymore.

    This is a game where the DMG tells you not to put 1st Level characters in a fight near an 80′ cliff. The DMG tells you not to have your monsters keep attacking downed PCs. The game presumes that the bad guys and villains are going to adjust their forces and traps to suit the level of the party. The DMG is filled with such sophistry.

    Healing is so much easier now. Yeesh, healing surges everywhere. Why bother having a cleric in the party now? Since anyone can take Ritual Casting, who needs a Cleric anymore to Raise Dead?

    In a sense, though, it could be said that the game is tougher in a few regards. In its quest for Balance of Outcomes, no one PC (if done as per the PHB rules) is no better or worse than the other. 4E Wizards are eunuchs compared to their former glory, and not to be feared or even respected. Similarly, every class (a joke of a term) is pigeonholed into a specific role whether you like it or not. Warlords have no power that keys off a Ranged Attack, for instance, so you have to be close to the Defenders. Fighters similarly have no power that keys off Ranged Attack, so no Striking for you. What this means, even if you multiclass (another sick joke), is that you’re locked into one thing you can do and have little versatility. Sure, a Warlord can shoot a bow, but since that attack does not tie into his Warlord powers, it does him little good. This lack of versatility makes the party particularly vulnerable should a PC get killed (rather hard to do in this game, mind you). You might be able to do some things, though, but it would be best to avoid fighting altogether until you can somehow gather a full party. In previous editions, this wasn’t really an issue so much. True it wasn’t desireable to lose someone, but at least you still stood a pretty good chance of success against typical encounters.

    I have a rule of thumb in the D&D Wargame (formerly known as 4E). If the Defenders drop, time to consider your options. If you feel that you can kill the rest of the monsters, do so. If not, run out of the dungeon. Better to let them die and find new replacements.

  13. TwoSkewers says:

    I believe this discussion should be moved further away from the “deadliest” to the how to help players survive better. I like the comments regarding tactics and teaching them about the rules. I also like to give player suggestions as they play so that they know all their options. Maybe I’m too nice of a GM, but not knowing the information should not be their fault (sometimes it comes with an appropriate skill check).

    Another thing that I tend to do with my players, and I have learned this somewhat from listening to the Penny Arcade podcasts, is to hint at how monsters are using their special abilities. You want monsters to be clever, but you want that cleverness to be transparent.

    For example, “these Shadowbats REALLY like the dark, they seem to be shying from the light of your torch,” or “wow, your weapons seem really ineffectual against these swarms of rats. Every time you swing, you catch a few, but it doesn’t have the impact that you are expecting.”

  14. Yax says:

    @TwoSkewers: Thanks for the ideas.

    BTW, I knew I was asking for a spirited discussion when I chose the title for this article! ;)

  15. Swordgleam says:

    I mock my players mercilessly whenever they do something tactically stupid. Then I mock them more if that decision had bad results for their characters. It seems to have helped. After almost getting killed twice in a row after charging at a pack of hyenas, our fighter has learned not to do that.

    Mockery takes way less time than rules discussions and works far better at prompting them to think on their own than gentle suggestions, but is less harsh than TPKs.

  16. Argokirby says:

    I have to say I think you are right. When I play a game with only my experienced (dedicated) players we have a ton of fun. But if I am DMing for new players or less dedicated players then I have to admit its either I wipe the board with them or it a very boring combat.

    If you mix the 2 groups you have some characters in the spot light dominating the scene and others just wounder what they should do next.

    I’m trying hard to love 4E, so I would love to see issues like this solved, so here is some brainstorming.

    In 4E you have to work as a team, so that means you have to do some team building exercises with your players. I have started doing little 10 minute team exercises at the beginning of each game session. Good example are the Trust Walk or the Levitating Rod.

    In 4E you have to make tactically sound decisions (this is a problem since it slows down game play as people start playing chess at the game table and not D&D). So that means you have to teach tactics and limit round time. We have implemented a rule that you have 30 seconds to decide what you character is going to do, then you do it and describe it all you want want. Second there are no take backs. Once you move your mini you have moved, if you provoked 5 OEs then you provoked 5 OEs, even if you could have avoided all of them.

    The problem is, how fun does any of that sound….

  17. gull2112 says:

    It is a game. It is fun. I adjust the encounters to make them seem almost too tough and to put an edge on the game. My players (over 120 years experience between the five of us) are having the time of their lives.

  18. Simon Moore says:

    That would be easy, I never started. Most of my gaming group were not impressed with me turning over to D&D4E. To the point where they send me emails of their PTOLUS campaign & PathFinder Sessions to prove a point. Yes I have had a few games with family, but at this stage not had much luck with D&D4E.
    Now, I can’t say the same for D&D1E. In a matter of 1 day managed to get a lunch time group. I am still baffled. (All books are pdf’s from RPGnow) I thing it cost about $15 AUS for all 3 core books.

  19. Chris says:

    @Argokirby: Sounds like you have too many stipulation rules. The players should do two things: (1) Figure out what their characters are going to do during someone els’e turn, and (2) learn team tactics. They can learn team tactics very easily… the players should be discussing strategy and tactics – their characters would.

  20. GiacomoArt says:

    It’s not really the game that kills PCs, it’s the game master, but 1st edition does the most to encourage DMs to off them.

    Because the DM is completely at his own discretion in setting up every encounter (or picking which pre-published encounters to use), the system itself is of minor concern. What matters is the DM’s intent and his ability to estimate probabilities and predict what his group can handle (e.g.: Back when I’d run 1st-edition as a kid, I never included bang-you’re-dead traps/monsters/cursed-items in my adventures, and would tend to “forget” mentioning such things that would show up in any published modules I’d run. I’d also try to balance my encounters so that the PCs would survive them, and fudge rolls here and there so that they’d have a chance to retreat when they were getting overwhelmed. Consequently, my games rarely saw a PC death even though Gygax clearly thought PC death should be commonplace. I still maintain that the primary purpose of the game was served, because we had fun.)

    As far as encourgaing better tactics and teamwork in 4E, to give your players more of a sense of accomplishment at being able to take on tougher foes, it started for our group when I managed to get hold of everyone’s character sheets and sit down and dissect them. Teamwork begins with an understanding of each others capabilities, and up to that point we had each lived in our own miopic little corner of the game. Most of the players just like to freewheel everything, anyway, and had been routinely overlooking their own strengths, to say nothing of everyone else’s. We’re still far from “well oiled machine” status, and I have difficulty getting them to pay attention to certain fundamental principles, but at least one of us understands the abilities and weaknesses of every member of the party, and can catch slips and make suggestions accordingly.

    I also developed my own style of 4E character sheet, discarding the antiquated notion that you have to fit all your information onto a standard photocopied page. Now each of us has our character stored as a 3- to 4-page Word document, with content not only customized to the specific needs of each, but cross-referencing to the rest of the party as well. Even my wizard’s yet-to-be-used dagger has a stat-block laid out for it that includes a mention of the +3-to-hit he could get from it (in melee only) for the cleric’s Righteous Brand. It takes a while to do it right, but in the end, you know the capabilities of the entire party inside and out.

  21. “It’s not really the game that kills PCs, it’s the game master, but 1st edition does the most to encourage DMs to off them.”

    That is so the other way around. The game will kill off the PC’s – but the DM may fudge the dice rolls to keep them alive. So the DM may SAVE them by cheating, working AGAINST the game (mechanics and dice rolls).

  22. Jason says:

    In general my group is really casual – as the DM I’m the one who own most (if not all) of the books, so if a character dies it’s not like a player can recreate a new PC on their time. So I’m very flexible on keeping people alive- I really don’t want to kill PCs off. I do a lot of fudging of my rolls, and a lot of times my players will be rolling so badly that they probably need a talking to from Colonel Louis Zocchi. Since the games are so casual, I’d rather fudge and keep the fun going.

  23. Darrien says:

    I am going to have to agree that 4e is the deadliest edition, having played all the previous versions. My experience with 4e is limited to three sessions, all with different DMs and players, but player out the same.
    First encounter is with some kobolds on the way to the starting town, village, or hamlet. This is a devastating event in the characters lives and should logically cause irrational fears of them ever wishing to leave town again. However in the bar, tavern, city hall, we are told to leave town, usually in the opposite direction that we had arrived in. We came from the west, but do not worry, adventure is to be found east of here.
    The second encounter is also with kobolds, three to five more than the previous encounter. This is the TPW, and the end of the campaign.

    Things I do not understand about 4e.
    If player tactics are the be-all-end-all of the game, why do characters even have Wisdom or Intelligence scores?

    Things I have learned from 4e.
    All towns are surrounded by kobolds.
    Regardless what special abilities your class may have, they will always be trumped by what a monster can do. Therefore, a character capable of cleaving, attacking two adjacent creatures, will never face two adjacent creatures as they shift to never be side-by-side.
    Daily powers with no effect on a miss, never hit.

  24. That’s a really interesting point about Wisdom and Intelligence scores.. I wonder how I could work that in to my own Labyrinth Lord campaign… perhaps suggest tactics to players that will benefit them if their stats are high enough (15+ perhaps?). Food for thought. Oh and your DM sucks if he tactically eliminates any chance of you using your powers.

  25. Soveliss Nailo says:

    All right first of all i was taught to play DND on 3.5, they need to stick with that cuz its simpler, i am 18, a senior in high school and this isnt exactly the easiest version of this game, 3.5 was easy for the young to learn, and the may be more powers and extras but in the basic gaming that makes it too easy, with the weak stuff i can set up a small campaign with friends and family in about ten minutes, but with this new version i keep second guessing myself when i set it up, and always haveing to explain the turn base and how to use and when to use certain things. Its time consuming and pointless, most of the games at shops are all 3.5, i have yet to see a 4.0 campaign jump up in bozeman MT or Billings, its always a 3.5 or 3.0 game cuz NO ONE WANTS TO PLAY A COMPLICATED GAME, dont get me wrong, but ADND was easier than this.

  26. Soveliss Nailo says:

    oh and the recursion king is right ur DM must suck big time

  27. Giacomo says:

    “That is so the other way around. The game will kill off the PC’s – but the DM may fudge the dice rolls to keep them alive. So the DM may SAVE them by cheating, working AGAINST the game (mechanics and dice rolls).”

    This is like saying that you’d rather find yourself in a dark alley with Hannibal Lector holding a chainsaw than with Mother Theresa holding an AK-47, because the AK-47 is the deadlier of the two weapons. Until the DM puts you into a room with a monster, the rules don’t even start to kick in. And it’s entirely up to him whether you’re facing six kobold minions or six hundred ancient red dragons. The DM chooses the adventures. The DM chooses the encounters. The DM chooses whether you’re facing an underconfident coward whole faint at the first sight of a blade, or a bloodthirsty fanatic who’ll keep fighting for five hours after his heart stops beating.

    The dice and the rules hold zero power that the DM does not imbue them with.

  28. Exactly; all power ultimately rests with the DM, not the rules. However, some rule system are nastier than others, hence, this topic. Ultimately, its not a black and white issue; a nasty DM will kill you with any rules system, whereas a completely neutral one will find that some systems kill characters off more frequently than others..

  29. GiacomoArt says:

    To say some rules systems are nastier than others is comparing apples to oranges. A kobold in 1st-edition D&D would be doing well to take on the weakest PC ever in one-to-one combat. In 4E, a room full of kobolds is as much to be feared as a room full of… well, pretty much anything. Meanwhile, I hear, it’s easier than ever to scale an encounter with a dragon for low-level PCs. Monster deadliness varies less by creature type than by monster level. So you can’t just say, “Well, it took 35 goblins to kill off your party in SuperMegaDungeon 3rd-edition, but only 21 goblins to kill off your party in Zookoorooni the Plastering (TM), ergo Zookoorooni is deadlier.” There are a zillion different variables that apply to each game, to every encounter, and to every possible mix of player characters.

    The one constant as you jump from game to game is that it’s entirely up to the game master to walk that line between making things too easy for the PCs and for making things too hard. If he thinks it’s time for an encounter/adventure/campaign with a high mortality rate, he’s going to do his best to balance the probabilities involved to cause a high mortality rate. Where the module says, “4 orcs,” he might throw in six. Where the rule book says, “Paralysis lasts until the end of the victim’s next turn,” he says it last three turns. Where he could choose to pit your party against the fluffy chalk-drawing puppets of Sunshine Land, he instead chooses use Blooddrinker the Uber-Vampire Without Pity as your nemesiss for the campaign. And he can do all this without breaking a sweat, whether he’s playing D&D 4E or Steve Jackson’s “Toon”. This despite the fact that there’s no death in Toon — or at least there wasn’t, right up until the point the GM said there was.

    MMORPGs may dispassionately generate random encounters with no concern for your PCs’ capabilities or history, but no GM worth his salt is anything close to unbiased. Even if he could pull it off, he couldn’t pull it off nearly as well as a computer does, so the conceit of the impartial human referee that Gygax envisioned as part of role-playing three decades ago has been slain by the information age. The GM is a storyteller, not just some guy sitting there to make sure his players don’t cheat, and whichever set of rules he uses, it’s just a tool to help him create drama. The rules system will have a profound effect on what components he unleashes to accomplish a desired effect, but he will always start with knowing the desired effect and select those components he thinks will best achieve it — even if those components are a set of random tables he chooses to delegate the final decision to.

  30. You speak of your way of DM’ing as though it were the only way; many of us sandbox and allow the story to emerge from the PC’s actions and descisions and do not railroad our players along precrafted stories. For us, the facets of system itself can be easily compared, as our players understand that a bad die roll can kill their characters – we even roll our dice in front of them. This is a very different way to play your style. Even encounter selection can be left to random tables; I’m with Gary Gygax on this one; let the first level party encounter 30 orcs and have them learn to hide because the world does not revolve around them.

  31. Ptorq says:

    If you go back and read Dragon magazine from the 1st edition (or even pre-AD&D) days, you’ll quickly see that the mentality of a LARGE number of articles is aimed squarely at “Kill them. Kill them ALL.” A fair proportion of the articles even contain phrases like “Here’s a new way to kill off those too-clever players…”

    Let’s face it: there are insanely improbable creatures in old-school D&D that seem to exist solely for the purpose of punishing GOOD play. Oh, your pesky players are making it hard for you to catch them off guard because they’ve started listening at every door? No problem, just hit them with a few Ear Seekers (termite-like creatures that live inside doors and burrow into a character’s ears and EAT THEIR BRAIN when someone tries to listen at a door) and they’ll get over THAT right quick. And that’s just one example.

    All that said… our group’s characters in 4e are dropping like flies. It was rare for a character to go down at all in 3.5, but in 4 so far the ratio of characters in negative hit points to combat encounters is pretty close to 1:1 (if you count yoyo healing… he’s up, he’s down, he’s up, he’s down… more than once, then it’s higher than that). In one encounter we lost two characters, and another encounter left only one character still standing at the end; he had expended every available source of healing, and was half a surge from death.

    So, I think both viewpoints may be correct here. DMs may be less inclined to do their utmost to wipe the party, but some of these supposedly reasonable encounters (they’re from a published module, so it’s not like our DM is specifically out to get us) seem proportionally a lot tougher.

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