Magnetism, by Ahmed Mater

The campaign setting I am currently playing in, Punjar, has a vaguely middle Eastern subtext, with the city of our adventures presented as a chaotic, slightly exotic free state of souks and temples, such as western readers might associate with somewhere in pre-modern Oman or Turkey. While gaming there I try to hold in my head images such as the opening scenes of The Exorcist, though obviously (unlike the priest of that ill-omened scene) my character is a local who understands what is happening around him (and might even understand the meaning of the statue he dug up, if he could make the Arcana check!)

Simultaneously with my entry into this world of bazaars, brothels and giant barking toads, the British Museum has opened what looks like a fascinating exhibition on the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that constitutes one of the five pillars of the faith. The Guardian has an interesting review, with links to some of the artists involved (one of the artists’ pictures is on the top of this post). The review certainly makes this exhibition sound like a masterpiece of the curator’s craft: it combines historical documents, objects and art with modern art, video of some of the scenes of the Hajj, old news footage, and modern diaries and spoken accounts of people’s pilgrimages. The review makes reference equally to high art and the diary of a North London schoolgirl. It also appears to show something of the complex relationship between Britain and its ex-colonies in South Asia.

I’m not in London now so I can’t visit things like this anymore (though sometimes the British Museum’s exhibitions end up in Japan), but it looks like something that would be well worth visiting for those living in London. This exhibition also hints at the complex and fascinating campaign setting that the Islamic world offers to enterprising GMs. Obviously most of us, as outsiders to that world, can only really hope to present a cheap simulacrum of that world (like, say, Punjar) but even a very shallow investigation of the world of Islamic art, history and culture would no doubt throw up a wide range of interesting and exciting adventure settings. I’ve no doubt, too, that the political context of almost any period in Islamic history – from the time of the prophet onward – would be easily as challenging as those of the Victorian era. Also playing on the opposite side of the nations of the Great Game – e.g. as Afghan adventurers during the Russian and British interventions there in the 19th century, or as adventurers in any city of the Middle East during the Crusades – could be a lot of fun.  The breadth of the Islamic world, which ranges from modern-day England to 12th century Indonesia, and the diversity of its cultures, offers a plethora of settings, and the Hajj is the classic opening scene (“the adventure starts with the PCs on a routine mission, guarding a rich merchant on his pilgrimage to Mecca”). In fact, it could be like Monkey, with the entire campaign occurring on the journey to the Hajj. You set off from somewhere in India at level 1, and 8 months and 20 levels later you arrive in Mecca. Your ultimate mission, of course, is the pilgrimage itself. But in the face of a hazardous journey over a whole continent, can you even keep the faith that you set off in service of? Or, in the words from one piece in the exhibition: “Are you leaving as you had come?”

I joined a new gaming group on Sunday, for 9 hours of slaughter with a group of blood-drinking, delusional toad-wranglers such as would bring disgrace on the name Dungeons and Dragons were their antics to become commonly known. My PC is a 3rd level human rogue called Shinan, a freelance negotiator for the various thieves’ guilds of the setting, and the other PCs are:

  • Wrenn, a gnome artificer with an alchemical bent, who makes potions out of the blood of other party members and thinks he is sexy
  • Haidulk, a massive human brawler specializing in grappling, whose current claim to fame is that he got a Drake in a headlock and killed it
  • Mardred, a Razorclaw shifter Warden who everyone calls “the Dwarf,” but who seems to think he is human. Currently wielding some kind of massive hammer, he seems to be very good at missing everything in combat until the killing blow needs to land

My own PC is a pretty standard rogue. He is overweight from too many drinking parties (he is a negotiator!) and, being a go-between rather than a fighter, all his combat skills are built around getting behind bigger people. Occasionally his jobs require him to kill the hostage takers when negotiations turn sour, so he’s also a very good backstabber. But largely, he’s a runner and a talker. He also has delusions of grandeur, even though (because?) he was raised in a brothel in the entertainment quarter of the setting.

The setting is the city of Punjar (I think we’re doing Sellswords of Punjar, or one of its sequels). I like Punjar – it has a nice combination of Lankhmar and middle-eastern themed chaos, with lots of skullduggery and a nice hint of the exotic. The introductory text is nicely written and the adventure so far has been interesting and challenging. It’s involved some negotiating, some research, some good old fashioned problem-solving (mainly for traps) and a fat scad of slaughtering. It’s got everything a party of blood-drinking, delusional toad-wranglers would want (including a giant toad to wrangle).

I thought I’d make a few comments about what I perceive to be common criticisms of D&D 4e on the basis of my first session of 4e in about 3 years.

Combat is not challenging: The players talked about having barely dodged a TPK the previous session, when a lucky roll enabled our toad-wrangler to get a drake in a headlock. Two of our party members were reduced to near 0 hit points by a smaller group of attackers – two vine monsters in a hedgerow nearly killed one of the party – and we routinely have to break out all our powers and push our limits to get through the battles. Things have been dire twice, and in fact if the GM had been interested in pushing it I’m pretty sure the first encounter of the day (with four grigs, FFS) would have killed me. Compared to other systems I’d say the WFRP 3 battles I’ve run have been nastier, and the D&D 3e battles in general easier, and no shorter.

Combat takes ages: I haven’t really noticed this. In 9 hours (including, obviously, breaks for coffee and dinner) we got through shopping, introducing my PC, getting given a new adventure, two detailed interactions with PCs to do research, a battle with 4 grigs, a battle with 2 vine monsters, fighting a sword-swallower toad, negotiating a hedge maze, a battle with 5 elemental beasties of some kind, investigating four sarcophagi, and negotiating a dungeon level full of traps. I’d say each battle only took about 30 minutes or so out of all this. Probably this was partly assisted with some digital aids, but I don’t have any digital aids and I did fine. So I think this might be an exaggeration.

Healing Surges make it all trivial: My character has 6 healing surges, each healing 5hps, a total of 30 hps; I have 22hps to my name. In OD&D terms this would be the equivalent of me, a third level rogue (on an average of 10.5 hps) having access to two cure light wounds a day. Given how abundant CLW potions tend to be in the average campaign, I don’t think this is a game changer. The dwarf has 14, so is able to heal 3 times his own hps in damage per day. I guess that’s a bit rich, but for the rest of us the healing surges can easily be seen as a simple alternative to a couple of CLW potions. And, we don’t have a cleric. The healing surges liberate us from the old-fashioned D&D party idea, where someone always had to play a cleric. Incidentally, 22 hps in this game is really not very useful. My backstab does 2d6+2d8+7 damage. I can very easily kill myself, and the dwarf can take me out with a single hit too (his damage is 4d6+7 if he uses an encounter power). This is pretty much equivalent to any other edition of D&D, where a 3rd level fighter rolling max damage can kill a thief of the same level

Skill challenges are balanced at every level: I’m not sure if I understand this properly but I’ve got the impression that some people think all encounters and skill challenges are designed to be balanced so that you always have a 50% chance of success. This is very far from what happened to me on Sunday; so maybe I’m misunderstanding this. But I am confused by the saving throws, which do always seem to be just a 50% chance of success.

It’s all about combat /it’s just a tactical miniatures game: We did lots of non-combat things, including some classic dungeon crawl problem solving and puzzle-solving, some rolemaster/D&D 3e style skill check-based manoeuvring, and some straight-out PC-to-GM negotiation. Nothing seems to be really different about what the game encourages or discourages. I don’t use miniatures in combat when I GM and there are some aspects of this style of play which I don’t think are good, but I don’t think these are unique to D&D 4e: D&D has always included miniatures and battle mats, etc. And I’ve always eschewed them in my own games. I don’t feel particularly constrained by using them in this one.

So overall, although there are some ways in which it doesn’t feel like D&D, it mostly just feels like a slightly exotic form of D&D, with a better-designed character sheet and some smoother combat rules. It was better than my previous experience of 4e, but I’m not yet decided on whether I like the system overall: I’ll wait to play a little longer before I decide that. It is, however, a perfectly decent platform for adventuring, and I’m enjoying it, even if Shinan feels a little discomfort at having to slum it with this pack of degenerates. But in adventuring companions, as opposed to systems, beggars can’t be choosers; and until his ship comes in, Shinan is just going to have to stick around with this bunch of smelly weirdos.