April 15, 2013

Badass Dungeon Crushers - Retrospective


I bid you all a fond farewell, as this will almost certainly be the last post here on DMG42. I am happy, then, to make the capstone achievement of this little D&D blog be a summary and retrospective on the most exciting, intense, and satisfying D&D campaign I've ever run: Badass Dungeon Crushers. For those unfamiliar, BDC took nine Fourthcore dungeons, linked them all together through various means (hidden stairs, teleportation gates, etc.), and had a team of dungeoneers draw from a finite number of 50 total characters (whose race and class were determined randomly) attempt to defeat all nine dungeons.

Eleven survived.

Traps, puzzles, and horrible death was the name of the game. Blood stained the walls of this utterly brutal campaign. It was an absolute blast and taught us all many valuable lessons. Read on below for the players' look back, also provided in convenient PDF form. Follow up questions and comments can always be left here and will be forwarded on to the players as appropriate.


C. Steven Ross
Dungeon Master

Steven Samorodin
Sterling Mortlock, Gloomhollow, Janx, Podo Hamwich, Stirling Archer, Bogroll

Andrew Kotch
Gates McFadden, Brent the Arrow Spiner, Michael the Dragondorn, John Dex Lancie

Matthew Surber
Pelor I, II, III, IV; Sir Com’at MeBro, Sir Git’Som, Brother Fix’It, Darkwing, Gnomen Clature

Kevin Forster
Stamen, Spike the Good One, Shagga Son of Dolflungren, Shadow Raven McPunchy, Professor Immasmack Uwifasword, Proboscus

Sean O’Connor
Brinjin, Braxx, Brimstone, Brock, Brikooooooom, Blur, Bran, Brainiac

Karl Zahn
Alabaster, Mentok the Mindtaker, Tin the Enchanter, Darksmoke Puncher, Polearm Flankypants, Pun-chu Innaface

What went through your mind that first session?

CSR:For me, I remember a storm of shuffling papers. I had 90% of the campaign all done and printed out at that point, with everything in one giant 3-ring binder, pre-printed maps in manila folders, and a huge pile of minis. With so much openness and possibility at the beginning for where the group wanted to go and what they wanted to do, I kept multiple pages earmarked not knowing what would be needed. A very stressful session for the Dungeon Master, to be sure.

Steven:Yeah, I was thinking you were kind of crazy for having so many dungeons available.  We found out later that we went through part of three different dungeons that day and I remember being pretty confused about all of the places we had been.  So I think I was mostly confused during the first session.

The number “50” went through my mind, as in the number of characters we had in total. Based on the campaign primer, I knew that we would be losing characters at an alarming clip. My main goal in the beginning of the campaign was to be risk averse so as to be conservative of our most precious resource. However, I know that thought was not shared by all dungeoneers. I also hoped we'd see some dragons so Sean’s starting character could oversize-garrote them.

I remember being super into my first character.  I had lovingly crafted him and wanted to see him in action so was chomping at the bit on that first session to get into an encounter. As Kevin mentioned, he could use an oversized garrote and theoretically choke a dragon.  This love for the character turned out to be the worst idea, since he died so fast. That was the moment that the high-casualty style of the game really sank in and I realized I needed to look at the characters tactically and try to squeeze the most bang out rather than making something I just thought was cool.  That was also the moment I realized how much fun and how much of a challenge the random class and race idea was going to be when I ended up with Braxx, the Goblin Invoker.

I remember that I was still pretty new to Fourthcore and the thing about it that was most intriguing to me that we were encouraged to meta, something I normally go to ridiculous lengths to avoid. I actually had a plan going in for how I was going to try and overanalyze things, especially in regards to how Ross read and presented everything. The biggest revelation I had was when I figured out that we had switched dungeons. No one believed me until I pointed out that Ross was putting away maps into a folder, while busting out new maps from a different folder. Bam! folder-law.

I remember having a great love for my first character and I vividly remember walking into the first encounter and really having to think outside the box about what we needed to accomplish. There was suddenly a sense of having to weigh the value placed on multiple goals at once; killing monsters, saving characters, accessing doors, etc. It was a clear sign that the road ahead would be unique.
Looking back, there are things we would do differently, certainly, which made it clear that no two groups could ever complete this kind of campaign in the same fashion.
I also remember having very cool characters, but they all died. 

What went through your mind during the last session?

I'll start: Panic panic panic! I really wanted the finale to have a snappy ending and be done with that night. I also wanted to give the group a sense of accomplishment, little tidbits of description to reflect all the hard work and sacrifices you've made.

It was definitely a mixed bag of emotion. The exposition that Ross threw in to start us off was really engaging and set a great tone. We moved with pretty good alacrity off the bat and pushed ahead. The Gauntlet of Walls was a bit frustrating, as were some of the minor puzzles. Puzzles seem to be the antithesis of speed for us.
Some of the deaths were depressing and some were awesome. I was saddened to lose Dworkin the Dwarven Wis-zard to the Spheres on Annihilation, but Andy's character dying after finally getting healing surges, and then when he inadvertently critted himself with Moonbane, were both pretty epic deaths.
All in all, it was fantastic!

"Oh God, oh God, we're all gonna die!"
I went into this session really wanting Michael Dorn [the Dracolich] to pull it out, but knowing that I signed his death warrant as soon as I made him a Lich. That's why the gift of healing surges brought such elation, making the subsequent Blight that killed him immediately afterward so heart-breaking.
I know the Heresiarch was a difficult dungeon, so I was expecting some carnage, but I was not expecting the level of brutality that we faced. The Gauntlet of Walls was ridiculous, the Marilith Mothers fucked us up, and if the Heresiarch had lived long enough, I'm sure he would have hit me so hard it canceled my DDi subscription. That is a hard dungeon.

The best moment describes a bit of context.  Andy's Dragonborn Barbarian had become unable to heal Blight and had the blessing of the Moon Card from the Deck of Many Things making him immune to almost every detrimental condition.  However, as a Lich, he had no healing surges.  He was at a mere 7 HP when we freed the goddess Lyth [in the Prison of the Frozen Gods] and she granted him the Boon of Life, granting him 5 healing surges despite his undead state. He was so happy he almost cried.  Everyone cheered and this was the best moment.  In the next room, in a fit of impatience, Andy pressed the wrong thing on a trap, took 3 Blight, and died. That other thing was then no longer the best moment.
The final confrontation was a bit disappointing. A reflected critical hit from the artifact Moonbane insta-killed Andy's barbarian, which was amusing in retrospect, if a bit disheartening at the time. The Corset of the Marilith proved again that it was the true MVP of the campaign. Running through so much of that dungeon in one night was pretty awesome.  We may have lost to the Heresiarch without it, but it was disappointing for the piece of gear to be the star.

For me, I had drastically underestimated the amount of stuff we still had to do in Fane.  I was under the impression that we might actually finish early for that last session, not run over an hour past time. I was also no prepared for how gruelingly hard the fucking Gauntlet of Walls was going to be. I was definitely in the mindset, very quickly into the room, that we may have to retarget our efforts to just at least getting one party member through to the next room, then we almost totally hosed our whole effort by not getting the goddamn planet at the end.

What went through my mind the whole time was, "I need to get to the Heresiarch." My character’s entire build was centered on Dungeonlord-crushing. I thought he was done in Gauntlet of Walls, because he kept falling in pit traps. The Corset helped, as it did with all of the dungeons, but even without it we had bloodied the Heresiarch in half of one round. I think that this was one of our smoothest dungeonlord defeats, ever. I was also thinking about the group cooperation and how it was drastically improved at the end of the campaign, despite the sub-optimal class combinations. Four out of six characters had multiple powers that were “get out of jail free” cards or bonuses to allies.

How has the Badass Dungeon Crushers campaign changed how you think about and play D&D?

It has done a number of things including:
I have a better grasp of the failings of D&D. The only reasonable way to get good things out of the system is by playing with people who fully understand it. This means having a group that's on the ball, as well as a Dungeon Master who can manage the whole of it. Frankly, I would wager most groups don't ever get much more than half of what the system can do.
I think it also may mean that I’m done with D&D. Seriously. Where else is there to go with it? Now that we've pushed the limits, you have to wipe the whole thing out and start fresh. Not that I like that solution.
And I'm not saddened by that. We did what was the best that D&D has to offer. Now it's time to find something to take us to the next level.

Yeah, I do think we got a lot better at picking powers that helped each other.  My Hobgoblin Artificer in Fane specifically has powers that could be used to grant bonuses to defenses and free attacks to my allies. The perma-weakened rogue was a penalty dishing machine to try and reduce the ability of enemies to hit us. We had a few fights where we heaped -9 to hit penalties on the monsters and they missed us a lot, which was so important when a single hit could do so much damage and carry with it really nasty penalties otherwise.

It got me thinking in terms of combat rounds, instead of overall combat effectiveness.  After my first or second character, I was in the mindset of making characters that "set up" the other characters and had instant synergy. Since I knew the other BDC members were going to be on top of their game, I wanted to make sure they could either add to what I did or immediately benefit from my actions.  For some characters, that meant a simple high damage output build. For others, it meant hyper-utilizing some aspect of the class/race combo.  For instance, as much as I hate playing Battleminds, I made Bran able to lock a target to himself, both with marking and with powers that physically disabled the character from moving away, or moving effectively. I probably used Lodestone Lure more than any other god damn power.

What are some examples of events you found wildly hard but fair vs. wildly unfair?

I’ll begin with wildly unfair. Marking plus Warp In the Weave. In fact, just Warp in the Weave in general. Also, Themes are bullshit.
The [Deva Barbarian] Professor's ridiculously high defenses were wildly hard to hit, but totally legit and fair.

Hard but fair: It was pretty rare for monsters or traps to miss us, with a few notable exceptions. Our non-AC defenses were almost always hit, unless we used a power like Warp in the Weave or Timely Dodge to negate the attack entirely.  This is a combination of some characters not having neck slot items, how  4E math breaks down at higher levels, and the fact that many monsters were higher level or otherwise made nastier by Fourthcore.
Unfair: Possibly the room in Vault of the Wyrm Prince with the flame spiral.  It seemed unsolvable, not because the puzzle was too hard though we did have trouble with it, but due to the amount of damage being dealt by the skeleton minions exploding combined with the flame whirlwind.  Most of the trap gauntlet rooms were difficult, but this one seemed unsolvable for the dungeoneers we took into it.

Fair but hard: even the straight up fights were a legitimate challenge. In some cases it was a question of who can do the most damage fastest, but there were also times when things got very strategic and we had to manage our resources with serious thought. That was very enjoyable.
The biggest 'unfairness' really came from the puzzles. I find them to be so difficult to communicate with any certainty. The Dungeon Master has all the information, while the group has almost none. The Dungeon Master can sit there not knowing why the players can't figure the puzzle out, while the players sit there not knowing what they're supposed to do.

I am so bad at puzzles, so they frustrate the ever-loving hell out of me.  That being said, I don't think any of them were "unfair". I'm just terrible at puzzles. 
Some of the fights were super hard, but in a way that made you want to win, not give up. We actively wanted to quickly and decisively stomp the enemy before it could do its devastating attack.
Unfair: The Gauntlet of Walls.  I think some of the ways in which you had to overcome the walls took too many turns. For instance, the sliding puzzle was going to take like a minimum 20 minor actions to slide all the pieces around to assemble it. With things pushing/pulling you away from it, dazing/stunning, etc., made it an almost insurmountable problem.  Some of the door / trap situations required that you have a certain class-type in the party.  This is fine in a regular campaign, as you'll generally have a balanced party, but in this particular campaign with random classes we weren't guaranteed to have the type of character needed to overcome certain obstacles.

The one that I have never been able to forgive is that damn puzzle [in Grove of the Hate Blossom] where we had to pick a diamond because it was the only gem that didn't have a double-letter, unlike the topaz or the sapphire. We solved that puzzle, but it always bothered me as surreal. I would not call it unfair per se, but it felt out of place from what I had been accustomed to in a D&D game that at the time I was crying foul. Most things that seemed overpowered or unfair really only felt that way beforehand.
The flame-spiral room took an already cripplingly-hard puzzle and just made it feel ridiculous to the point of incredulity. It felt like a brick wall. As for things that were hard but fair, I loved pretty much every one of the word-problem puzzles. Some of the most fun I had in BDC was when we all figured out that the puzzle was some craziness like translating runes backwards without vowels and we all set to yelling out answers. That was just great and difficult as hell.
Most, if not all, of the combats felt similarly. They seemed super difficult at first, but once we got into them they felt more like high level skill challenges that were really going to test us. Like the Ghost Admiral in Cove of the Maelstrom Queen and the Winter King is Cairn. Those pushed our tactical thinking and I loved it.

What were the best and worst Dungeon, Dungeon Lord, and/or individual chamber?

For me, Obex of Naia aka Sepulcher of Mother Pestilence. It was a very large dungeon, like 30 rooms maybe, and was completed very piecemeal over the course of the campaign. The best part was the session where it was defeated; the group used some very clever tactics with their treasures and destinies to earn a very decisive victory, following some brilliant lateral thinking to solve some puzzles.

The Thran mirror puzzle was awesome. As far as most fun fights, I would put Winter King and Makkalath at the top. They were fair, but a bitch to defeat. We were poorly equipped in treasures, so the difficulty was ramped up.
My personal favorite chambers were the ones where the Dungeon Master put an individual player on the spot and they had to roleplay a response that the particular puzzle required. For example, the skull-centipede in Obex of Naia and the Confessional in Fane.

For worst dungeon I'm going to nominate Hate Blossom. It wasn't a bad dungeon per se, but it seemed very sparse compared to the others. For best, going to have to go with Vault of the Wyrm Prince. It was the first fourthcore dungeon I ever played, so it was cool to revisit it, and I just think it's just a well-crafted dungeon.
I really liked the Winter King fight, and that is saying a lot considering we TPK'd there on the first try. The trees, the Giant Rolling Cursed Skull trap, and all the other terrain features all made for a really interesting encounter.
My favorite chamber is probably the Bleak Seminary in Fane. That room is the perfect hub. It fucking oozes flavor, there are little secrets to be found all through-out it, and it links to several key areas of the dungeon. It's like the castle in Mario 64 or the foundation in Perfect Dark. My least favorite chamber was the room with the vials of ash and the talking obelisk in Cairn of the Winter King, because it was full of shit but none of them did anything. It was essentially a really detailed empty room. I shouldn't be that upset by it, but I wasted a lot of time trying to discern its secrets for nothing.

You probably won’t all agree with me here, but my favorite room/fight involved three telefrags in Crucible and ripping out dudes' hearts to feed to the three-headed dracolich. Good times!

If I wanted to whine about something, it would probably be those telefrags actually.  It was cool, but it was not rules-as-written.  I do think that the fight was pretty cool. The more I think about, what I liked and disliked reflect my feelings on 4E D&D in general.  The dungeons are really well done for the most part, but the more I play it the less I like 4E.

I think I am in line with Steven. 4E lost a lot of luster for me. My DDi account is actually set to expire soon and I may not re-up until [GenCon FTDM] tournament time. And even then I may just let it go and build characters by hand instead.
I would agree on favorite fight being Winter King. That motherfucker was hard, and it came down to the wire both times, only in our favor once.
Best overall dungeon, for me, was Gardmore Abbey.  All the little ritually significant things and minor branch offs in that dungeon were fun. It had a lot of really neat flavor to it, like praying at the altars to get various boons. You didn't want to do it, but you also kind of did.
My favorite specific skill challenge was building the golem in Crucible.  It really illustrates a well done skill challenge.  Everyone participates, and your characters specializations really shine in this encounter.  I felt like everyone played a vital role, which is hard to pull off in skill challenges since most of the time it's one or two players steamrolling the whole thing.

What was the most memorable death, defeat, and triumph/victory?

I'll start. The 3-dungeoneer simultaneous telefrag on Crucible of the Gods.

I might have to go with Kevin's Pixie dying in Hate Blossom. No one actually did anything. Sean's character was going to do something, he threatened some random guy we found, and then Kevin died. It was a genuine 'so this is how it's going to be?!' moment.
Matt sacrificing [via suicide] his Kenku [to get a Wizard capable of casting Comrade’s Succor ritual so the group could face the Iron Lich with more healing surges] is up there. It epitomizes the self-sacrifice that this campaign required for group success.

CSR:We had twisted the rules to 4E in such a way that not only is character death regularly expected; it is, in fact, a strategic option.
Oh man, there were quite a few. Karl feeding his perma-slowed, one-armed character to the Furnace Golem in Cairn, the TPK when the Winter King only had 5 goddamn hit points left, Michael Dorn rotting from Blight seconds after thinking he was redeemed.
Oh, and I think Kevin's character getting critically hit by the vorpal razorjack in the Cairn trap gauntlet and being instantly decapitated was up there, just because of Ross' reaction. He was excited.

Kevin's characters were generally either really powerful or they were difficult to kill. Sometimes both (DAMN YOU, PROFESSOR!!!), so I definitely enjoyed seeing them go down.

Shagga son of Dolf Lundgren had a short and glorious run.
I designed my characters to annoy. I love the [Deva Barbarian] Professor, but the epitome of that was my Drow Monk who had 4 immediate reactions to block or counter attacks. Then he got telefragged.

For me it was Karl's character trying to hide from the Winter King when we all realized a TPK was imminent. So hilarious.

Lots of really good deaths, I think folks mentioned most of the ones I would have.
Yes, the 3 telefrags was memorable, but also the most unfair moment of the campaign.  Even the cloudkill trap in Iron Lich that killed two people didn't feel as arbitrary as the telefrag thing.

What were tell-tale signs that shit had really hit the fan and you guys were suddenly screwed? Conversely, when did you pull it out and win despite all odds?

I feel like folks mostly either died in one round or never took any damage, e.g. one of Matt's Pelors who got stomped by Battlewights or Shagga who was stomped to death in one round.  One somewhat memorable near-death in combat was my character pinned by a construct 60' in the air over a pit full of demons [Pit of Nine Stars] and Karl’s character holding out his polearm for me to grab on to.
There were several times when I thought we were totally doomed, such as the small room that had two lizardman phalanxes and a huge beholder.  We had to get something from the middle of the room and there was no way in past the phalanxes. I thought we were going to get burned down by the Beholder before we could fight the phalanxes, which were really hard to hit.  Kevin pulled some amazing action point teleport-foo and retrieved the object first thing, so we could then use the flask of portal storing on the door, taking almost no damage.  That was awesome.
The flask of portal storing is probably my favorite item in the campaign. It was a totally original item, or at least one that I've never seen before. Another time we pulled it out was against the Wyrm Prince, the guy with 50 legs and a dozen minions.  The minions totally lit us up and there were some additional demons who were about to break through a portal.  It was looking really grim to me, but then Andy killed almost all of the minions at once with a thunder rage, we used the terrain to drop stalactites on the Wyrm Prince, and then used the flask of portal storing on the demonic portal to win the day.  That was an awesome fight because the terrain was actually used and because it started out looking pretty grim.

I think my "shit just got real" moment was when I accidentally got the Pixie killed in Hate Blossom. Up until then, I was mostly thinking when I rashly took actions the worst that was going to happen was my character would die. That was the first time anyone did something that resulted in another character, taking no part in their action, was punished.
Pulling Flames from the Deck of Many Things was another "oh mother fuck" moment. At first, we thought we were all going to catch fire, but instead it summoned a huge demon. We all simultaneously were like "nah man, we get this" then he critically hit someone for like eleventy billion damage, and we got the fuck out of there ASA fucking P.
A great "pulled it out in the end" moment was Kevin with the tangram puzzle in Obex of Naia. He slammed that last piece down with about 2 seconds left on the clock. If I'm not mistaken, that was a "solve this puzzle or die" situation; so a very tense moment.

Kevin:Steven’s Paladin outside Gardmore Abbey being restrained by the swarm of stirges suspended 200 ft. up in the air. Andy had to hit them with an arrow or Steven died from losing all healing surges. He made 4 attacks, missed 3 times, and finally saved Steven’s character at the last possible moment.

One of my favorite near death experiences was when we decided to go back to the Obex of Naia. We thought we were better equipped to take on the serpentfolk phalanxes, but did not expect that Kevin would get teleported half the dungeon away, and then more shit would come out of the walls with traps and swarms and minions. That was the first time I was able to use Michael the DragonDORN's intimidate to full effect, and I forced the surrender of both phalanxes. That was just fun.

I think my favorite near death was when we all got diseased in Obexof Naia and had to fight the Dungeon Lord whom could advance disease tracks. In my head, I was going over who would be playing what character next; already predicting our doom. We got lucky in there.

How did the high attrition rate affect your enjoyment of the game? Your style of play?

I loved it. I saw a heavy emphasis on "the group", people making tactical decisions that were bad for their character, but ultimately beneficial to the end goal. It also took a lot of the ham-fisted drama out of the game. No one had any elaborate backstory or complicated shades-of-gray character development. There were no crying, sparkling vampires. There were the just, and the unjust. Holy and unholy. Us vs. them.

I [who am normally very tactically focused] actually miss the shades of gray drama and deeper layered character motivations. However, for this campaign the lack of those things made perfect sense. It became more about us as players using our characters as tools the same way out characters were using 10 ft. poles. Our dungeoneers were like keys to locks, and when they no longer did the job, it was time for new ones. We gave up a number of characters before their natural end, since the overall goal was success and not living vs. dying.
It was a very different game for us but was definitely more about us as players working together than worrying about what our characters might think or feel about the story.

Attrition was a bigger problem in my head than what actually happened in-game. I remember a lot of concern about how Blight would affect us and how encumbrance would limit us while making our first characters. Then it was largely forgotten after the first few deaths. We only had two Blight deaths all game. By the end of Michael Dorn's lifespan, I was feeling very protective of him. Being the only guy at the time with a persistent character, when others were dropping like flies, made me play defensively.
Despite feeling protective of my character, I never stopped him from doing impulsive things. When my character was the most well-equipped to handle a problem, that was his job. Dividing up the skills really shined there. We usually had one really good Arcana guy, one really good Perception guy, etc. My guy happened to be really good at Athletics and social skills. I was just always terrified that he would send the guy I was talking to into a furor.

I like character development a lot, but I didn't really miss it in this campaign. One key thing I think the attrition component of the game accomplished was dismissing character fatigue. If you were sick of your character, or didn't really enjoy playing that role, you just purposely put your character into a dangerous situation. Worst case, you lose your guy and roll up another. Best case, you lose your guy and benefit the party by either negating something that would have hurt them, or bringing a better party member into the fray. It might not have been entirely cut and dry like that, but it played out that way a lot of the time.
It didn't really change how I play, as I always have the sort of "poke it and see what happens" play style, but it was fun seeing other players, who wouldn't normally put their character into imminent danger, do it for the good of the party.
It did really lay on an interesting challenge in character building. As others brought up, you were making characters for the good of the party, but the party changes every session.  You have very little ability to plan combos of character moves with other specific party members because that other character might die before you can pull your combo off. This basically forced you to try and make a "universal puzzle piece" of a character, one that could do cool shit that anyone could take advantage of. I think that's why we saw a lot of forced movement, dazing, prone, etc.

High attrition made the campaign into a full on roll playing game instead of a role playing game. I think 4E is best as a tactical combat system anyway, so it worked well for this campaign, and as many folks said it just moved the challenge from characters working together to players having to work together.  The high attrition rate also meant that we didn't always have a ritual caster or the right skills, but we got better as we went about filling in those gaps. We had some jack-of-many-trades kinds of characters that were made specifically to fill in those gaps, e.g. Sterling Archer, my Hunter that had healing powers because when I made him we were lacking healing powers in the group.

What house rules worked well and what did not work well? What would you do differently?

Firstly, I would have more ways to lose treasure. Towards the end, the dungeoneers were practically swimming in treasure and that took away a lot of the fun and mystique of discovering a treasure cache.
Next, I would be more explicit about what each puzzle was demanding, and what the consequences of failure would be. Some examples of puzzles that I though worked especially well would be the rotating pyramid in Iron Lich and the tangram in Obex of Naia. More physical objects, more puzzles you can touch.
I loved random character generation and having no XP, leveling characters by killing Dungeon Lords. I would have liked to have had certain puzzles/obstacles cross dungeons; ie. find the key to the Iron Lich's door by venturing into the Fane of the Heresiarch.
Have critical fumbles (natural 1's) do different effects for different Power Type, not just Divine; ie. on an Exploit it breaks your non-artifact weapon; on a spell we consult the Rod of Wonder Chart, etc.
Have Henchmen required to be within 5 squares of their master or go home.

Random character generation was obviously one of the major points to how we played the game, and it was a blast. I think we stumbled onto during our previous Dark Sun game? And Ross did a lot to flesh it out and make more meaningful.
Encumbrance mattered a lot early on, but as we gained Henchmen, Artifacts that didn't take up slots, and made prodigious use of rituals, this really went by the wayside quickly.
Aside from some crazy items, rituals came closest to breaking the game.
I appreciate the sentiment on puzzles. We found the one Zodiac Puzzle [in Fane], but I had no clue what to do. If it hadn't been for Sean telling me to just push something, I likely would've died.

Gear would work better if you had it its lost forever when you die regardless of circumstance. For some of the more powerful items, limited number of charges would have worked better than as a Daily power. That way we conserve its use rather than lead with it.

The random race/class rule was awesome. Despite it burning me a couple times, I enjoyed it a lot, especially seeing other players’ whacked out characters.
Blight wasn’t that deadly, despite its ominous name. Mostly because we had very few Divine characters to dish out unexpected Blight.
I really liked the Henchmen idea, but I felt like a lot of them were very limited use, while a select few completely outshined the pack. We either never sent them into battle or we used them like meat shields. There was no in between.

Or we killed them because a Destiny Card told us to. “Hey, Embalmer's wife. We killed your husband because a card told us to. I got a bottle of poison as a reward and then I threw it away.”

I would have liked the more powerful rituals to be rewards to find; Speak With Dead or Comrade's Succor, for example.
I agree that there was probably just a bit too much treasure in general.  The item sets for Artifacts that we put together [Foebreaker and Moonbane] were really fun to find the pieces for.
I didn’t like the Blight induced by a natural 1 on a Divine attack. It took the agency out of the players’ hands.
Encumbrance needed tweaking. Strength should help more and the general carrying capacity should be less.  The only character that ever had a hard time was my Paladin with a 10 Strength.
What you did with rituals was making the best out of a crappy system.
Gaining inherent Enhancement bonuses for reaching Milestones was a good idea, especially for characters with no magic items.

What were the most surprising race/class combinations in terms of both effectiveness and fun to play?

I think the Deva Berserker, playing off of Intelligence and multiclassing Swordmage seems like one of the best we saw. I will admit, I was really into my second Dwarf Wizard and my Gnome Shaman, but sadly neither of them saw much table time.

The Deva Barbarian was crazy fun to play. He was a huge challenge to build and required all of my character builder skills to create. The frustration he caused Ross was icing on the cake. What made him great was that he was unique enough to fit into each group dynamic. He was a strong Defender and Striker.

I remember thinking that the Size 'em Up ability of the Gnoll was really quite good.

Size ‘em Up was amazing. It allowed us to immediately gauge how fucked we were.

Braxx the Goblin Invoker was surprisingly effective. He managed to daze the Maelstrom Queen 2 or 3 times. He also had tons of ways to get out of danger and interrupt or avoid attacks, so he had survivability despite his ridiculously low hit points. He just had the unfortunate mishap of getting dazed amidst the serpentfolk phalanx and could do nothing to escape.

Kevin's Deva Barbarian was indeed awesome. That was really where Themes, multi-classing, and specific feats combined to make an entirely new class. My most fun to play was Michael the DragonDORN. When I started to build him the combo seemed boring, but then I stumbled across his Intimidate build. I decided to dedicate training, background, and Theme all to making my Intimidate score higher. I considered switching my Strength and Charisma to maximize Intimidate at the cost of reduced attack and damage output, but because I didn't he did pretty decent damage as well. Now that I think about it, though, having higher Charisma would mean he could have taken more Blight and maybe survived.

Building characters for this campaign made me appreciate a lot of builds and roles that I would never have built. For example, after Sean committed involuntary Pixie-slaughter on my Bard, I only played Strikers from that point on. I originally dismissed them as simple, boring and completely lacking in versatility. However, I found out that there is so much more to striking then just rolling a ton of dice. That fragile balance in strategy between dodging attacks and delivering your own is very exciting. While I still love Leaders the best, I am a very content Striker at this point.

Steven's playstyle is very similar to my own [reserved]. Sean and Andy were by far the most different from me. If I had to rank us from rash to safe: Sean, Andy, Karl, Kevin, Me, Steven.  But I think we all took our turns in different roles. I know there were a few times I'd kick something open to get the ball rolling. And there were times Andy and Sean hung back while Kevin stuck his fist in the wrong place.

What were favorite combinations for character builds and what tools and implements proved utterly indispensable for crushing dungeons?

Some heavy hitters we've talked about already; Corset of the Marilith and the Flask of Portal Storing.
We found that many skill powers were better than actual class powers. Warp in the Weave comes from Arcana Training, and Timely Dodge comes out of Acrobatics. Worth training in both if you can handle juggling the immediate actions.
Having a character with high intelligence and/or Wisdom is pretty potent if you can swing it. After seeing Kevin's Berserker build, it's pretty obvious you can make some Essentials classes with any major stat you want, and fudge the rest. This of course gives you access to Arcana and Perception which were easily our two most used skills. Thievery was probably third overall.

I loved Steven’s no-damage rogue [who was permanently weakened by a trap]. He was still really helpful despite doing nothing a rogue normally does. Pocket sand!
As for important items, healing potions and items [that offered surge-less healing] became very important, almost silently. We used them up pretty quickly after receiving them because we were often without healers or taking more damage than a healer could manage. Especially after Andy's character became a Lich and lost all of his healing surges.

Ah, I feel like we sort of hijacked the last question to answer this, so instead of character builds I will talk about the items.
The Flask of Portal Storing was one of the coolest goddamn items, and it saved our asses at least 4 times: once to seal up rust gargoyles, once to escape the furnace golem, once to seal up the ice dragon, once to seal the demons Thran was spawning. Oh, and another time we locked a Beholder and his lackies in a wall with Thran's demons. That was cool as hell and we would have had a number of deaths without it.
Items like the Balor Mask, with its ridiculous plus to skill checks, or the totem that made our saving throws insane were also cool.
A lot of the less-sexy and overlooked bonuses were the blessings and tattoos and whatnot. I think Kevin's Deva had 4 tattoos by the time he was finally killed, making him even more invincible than he already was. My Dragonborn was immune to half the shit in the game and had a cumulative +3 to hit from various blessings. Those items were very rare, but really felt powerful.

The amulet that granted flying, Wings of Wrath, was awesome because flying is a paragon tier thing and it made any number of challenges much easier.
There was another item that gave +6 to all skill checks which I think Kevin's Pixie had, then later Matt's cleric had, the Mask of Perversion, that was a very potent item.
The amulet of true seeing that also granted +5 -- in combination with my ghostwise halfling rogue was quite good. Ghostwise feat lets me pick a buddy and we get to roll a Perception check when the other rolls --- this meant we almost always had a 30+ on perception for all rolls.
I liked the martial controller that Podo Hamwich my rogue turned into when he became perma-weakened.  This is not an original build but it works really well when the rest of the group is a bunch of damage dealers.
The half-elf paladin feat that gives your allies a +1 bonus to all defenses against any marked creature -- this is an excellent feat, probably not game changing, but it made my marks very potent because that bonus applies even if the creature attacks me and my allies with the same attack.

What was the single most challenging aspect of the game?

Staying sober enough to run the game.

Choosing dungeons that were level appropriate. We got lucky with Maelstrom Queen, but after that we were grossly out classed in the next 3 dungeons we chose, Hate Blossom, Mother Pestilence, and Heresiarch. We lost a ton of characters in these dungeons because we were level 6 in a level 9-10 dungeon. The magic item system allowed us to get by where we shouldn't, i.e. Hate Blossom, but I still remember the fight against the phalanxes where we needed to roll 16 or higher on the dice just to hit.

Stopping myself from just driving forward, pulling levers or pushing buttons, and slowing down to let people actually try to figure stuff out.

Near the end of it, keeping track of stats. Trying to remember my defenses when I had magic armor, a neck item, blessings, and all that shit got ridiculous.
Also up there: risk management. It was hard to decide who should do what in certain challenges simply because you never knew what the outcome of a success or failure was. In a normal campaign you'd be like "worst that can happen is I'll take some damage." In this it was "worst that can happen is three of us will die". Then instead, the actual worst is that you lose an arm and become permanently slowed, like Karl.

I think the first few sessions the challenge was just figuring out where to go. Later the challenge was keeping track of what we had previously found. In our last few sessions, we revisited some areas where we had been seven or eight months earlier.  Even with notes it was hard to remember everything.  These are the kinds of scale problems you run into when playing nine dungeons at once.

I think my worst was dealing with the unknown. We spent a lot of time flying blind and we didn’t always have the information to make an even remotely informed decision.
I think we started to manage it better as we went on. Steven did more work to parse our info and we discussed stuff via email ahead of time. We only had little bits and pieces to work with sometimes, and other times we had so much information we couldn’t make a decision either.
The non-linear nature of things made it difficult, but all in all we did a pretty good job!


  1. "I'm sure he would have hit me so hard it canceled my DDi subscription. That is a hard dungeon." --best quote in the whole damn wrap-up!

    I'll be really sorry to see this blog go. I hope that you do more D&D work someday. After I played Iron Lich under you at PAX East, my D&D experience has never been the same!

  2. Fourthcore loses another hero this day. How terribly depressing...

  3. It has been an incredible run, and I'd like to thank you for all the amazing ideas and inspiration you've given me as a Dungeon Master.

    I sincerely wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors!

  4. Its been a pleasure reading all of your work! I really hope this isn't quite the end of it all.

  5. I've enjoyed reading this and I really like your idea of chaining dungeons together that way. I'm also trying to get my hands on a large collection of fourthcore modules, can you help me? I already have the three original Sersa ones (Crucible, Fane, revenge), plus the vault of the wyrm prince, murder of the maelstrom queen, colossus of the shattered room and the first level - I think - of the Tower of Ascendants.

    1. Yeah I think you've got all the adventures put out under or with Sersa, plus Fourthcore Alphabet, Fourthcore Armory, and Fortune Tellers Guide. You should check out (and contact me!) at and