Deconstruction: Khyber’s Harvest

khyber's harvest image
By Keith Baker
Level 2

A trek across the Shadow Marches leads weary travelers to Blackroot, a quiet village of ramshackle huts nestled among the darkwood trees. Here, orcs and humans live in peace. However, all is not well. Something evil has crawled up from below, threatening to devour the village and its denizens. Only a party of brave heroes stands in its way.

I’ve pretty much given up on reviewing the 4e issues Dungeon Magazine.  It is just too painful to read, and every review would have been the same, because the issues are nearly always the same.

Instead, I wanted to review something that was accessible and free, for anyone who wants to pick it up to see what I am talking about.  Drivethru.rpg carries two free 4e modules.  One is Keep on the Shadowfell, the other is Khyber’s Harvest.

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Combat Duration

Third session with my 7 year old child.  He is running three characters, and his math skills are still developing.  I never do the math for him, but we do try a number of different strategies to help him figure out the answers.  It can take quite a while if the answer runs up into the twenties.

Including listening at the door (which he does every time) and checking the door for traps (which he does every time since the first time he got caught in a trap), clearing a room of monsters takes about an hour.

I often read people who tried 4e and didn’t like it complaining about combats taking about an hour.  Assuming their math skills are better than my kid’s, I really have to wonder where the time goes.

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When Not to Use Your Skill System

If a player is rolling a perception check, there is a possibility that something has already gone wrong.

In AD&D, the base chance for a first level Thief to find a trap is 20%.  The base chance to remove said trap is also 20%.  Which really used to bug me as a young player, because I couldn’t justify the incompetence of the low level Thief, particularly since it took so very long to have a halfway decent chance of doing anything.

But I now think we were doing it wrong, or at least doing it differently than had been intended.  I believe primary method of finding traps, and dealing with the potential hazards of them, was intended to be through careful investigation and deduction from the clues provided by the DM.  The find traps roll was only a safety net, a chance to find something if the players were stumped.

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Slowing it Down

I discovered a new (to me) blog with some interesting content at Against the Wicked City.  One of the posts, The long haul: time and distance in D&D, discusses the author’s desire to play the game and advance PCs on a different timescale, so that campaigns take place over the course of years of in-game time rather than days of in-game time.

I agree with pretty much all of the author’s reasons for wanting to do this. I too have wrestled with the unreality of having a first level nobody become a demigod in as little as 60 days. I have just worked on the solution at a different angle.

In fact, there were several things I was trying to work on at the same time.  I was trying to find a way to slow down levelling.  I was trying to find a way to support a game that included having castles and troops such as are granted at “name” level in 1e.  And I was trying to find a way to support player desires for character optimization using in-game PC choices.

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To Speed Up Design, Simplify

This post comes out of a conversation I was having in the comment section of a post over at Dungeon of Signs.  I had mentioned that I was running the sort of game I run in 4e, and Gus L said

I can respect the effort it must take to run a sandbox 4e game and if you enjoy it, that’s great.

The thing is, it really isn’t any more work.  At all.  When I played 1e, and by action of the dice or decision of the players we ended up in a fight with 1-6 orcs, we just plonked our minis down, the DM would mark the location of the orcs with a grease pencil (minis were expensive), mark any relevant terrain that occurred to him, and we would run the fight.

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Run Away! Keep Running!

Sometime you get in over your head and need to retreat. But running away is harder in 4e than in 1e.

In 1e you had a simple rule for breaking off from melee: monster gets a free swing at the fleeing character (DMG p. 70). The procedures for dealing with pursuit, on the other hand, took nearly two pages of small font, with different subsystems for pursuit outdoors and pursuit underground. We never used them, and I’m not going to parse them out for the purposes of this article. It was more of a chase mechanic than a disengaging mechanic, and despite the attempt to systemize it, it boiled down to ad hoc adjudication.

In 4e disengaging is similar to 1e because of opportunity attacks (although it is less of an issue if you still have an action point). However, a significant complicating factor is the individual initiative mechanic. First edition generally assumed group initiative (individual initiative was possible but Gygax warned against it as too complicated – and then proceeded to outline even more complicated rules respecting initiative for creatures with multiple attacks and different speed factors – see DMG p. 62-3).

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The Deterministic Ogre

See here and the Hack & Slash quantum ogre series for the inspiration for this article.

For those of you not in the know, there is a discussion among certain OSR bloggers who care about player agency involving the concept of a “quantum ogre”.  The quantum ogre refers to a form of negation of player agency where, if the characters make choices that would allow them to avoid an encounter, the encounter is moved in time or space so that the characters encounter it anyway.  The ogre is encountered despite the choices of the players.

“Quantum ogre”, which I believe is a reference to Schrodinger’s cat, is actually a misnomer.  It implies some randomness or uncertainty regarding the ogre, whereas the ogre is actually characterized by its certainty.  In contrast to Schrodinger’s cat, its existence is certain.  Moreover, its existence in time and space is also determinable by its proximity to the PCs.  It is a “deterministic ogre”.

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