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A Montage hack for 4/e

In my D&D 4/e game, two of my three (yes, I only have three!) players are leaving in September. When I heard this, I told them that I’d like to see what paragon is like, as I’ve only seen lower-level Heroic. They were level 2, so we were going to level 11. We were also about to go on a three week hiatus thanks to mismatched schedules, so session before that was built as a chapter close — they were the City Watch, but the city was overrun by the undead, and they had to flee and fire-bomb it from airship.

For those familiar with my dragon-halfling war idea, the PCs were on a Halfling Flagship called Bahamat’s Doom — but they didn’t know the airship they were getting on was a Halfling ship, or the name of it. All they knew was “Man, we need to get to the Dragon Empire, where our new friends are!”  Two of there were (willingly and happily) psychicly bonded to a gold dragon traveling in a water ship below them, the Emir of Light. And they were on the ship that has killed dragonkind. They had a nice “oh, shit!” moment at the end of the session.

Now, we all knew the action would take place back in the city they came from, as they went to go kick a god’s ass and deal with the evil Eladrin mayor. But, I didn’t just want to say “and now you’re back!” or anything like that. I wanted to model a bit of a feel like “hey, you really just spent 9 levels being badasses in the Eastern Continent — what happened?”

So I came up with this Montage system. It’s simple:

  • I have an index card for every level with a situation on it.
  • Each player has 6 six-sided dice.
  • I describe the situation that happened.
  • They each describe something they do.
  • All of them roll their dice, totallying them up.
  • The highest gets to endcap the narration, and in the case of PvP (two people saying they’re doing opposing things), they decide which one actually succeeded.
  • The winner hands me one of their dice, so they have fewer going into the next one.

The result was better than I had hoped for. They had a rich story of what happened, with new plot threads and hooks that wouldn’t have happened if I just simply asked “hey, what did you guys do there?”

I’ll describe all nine situations, for those interested in how I used this specifically. After that, I have a question, one prompted by a discussion I had with Leonard Balsera regarding what it means to “play” Fourth Edition.


First situation: Strange metal beings attack — “winged warforged, much like the non-winged one they encountered in the god’s dream world, attack while you’re on the sea.” It took them a moment to get the feel of what I was going for (though, luckily, one of them played Mythender, so they had the “narrate your awesome” muscles well toned), but once they did, they talked about rallying the halflings, repelling boarders, and taking some wings out as they approached.

That was my “warm-up” situation. Simple, straight-forward. Then I turned up the heat.

Section situation: Halfling blocade! — “A Halfling cross-navy (air & sea navy) sits before the port the sought to enter, as the closest port to Bahamut’s Jewel. They are repelling all those who would seek to enter.”  The human decided to rally the human servants on the ship to mutuny and take the ship for himself to charge through the blocade. The genasi (the one who wasn’t connected to the Emir of Light, but was bound to the god they have to kill) wanted to stop that from happening and simply protect the dragon. The half-elf wanted to use gentle diplomacy to get their way through…and won, so she decided part of that “diplomacy” involved the mutuny happening.

The guy playing the human ranger said “Holy crap, I have an airship! Okay, we really got to change the name of this.” The guy playing the genasi cringed. I didn’t expect the PvP element here, but I’m pretty happy with it.

Third situation: Negotiations with the Dragon Empires — “While the Dragon Empires are grateful for the return of the Emir of Light unharmed, they see little reason why they should aid you in reclaiming your Western city.” They did various methods for stating their case, including some strong-arm diplomacy and passionate rhetoric. While the system didn’t favor her mechanically for this reason, it was appropriate that the badass diploamt half-elf won that one.

In her narration, she also convinced the halflings to cease fire, for now.

Fourth situation: God-king Dracolich! — “A port city to the north is suddenly taken by the undead, with a dragon lich commanding them all!” They did various things, from attacking with their airship (still geared to kill dragonkind), to working to subdue the dragon lich, to finding survivors in teh city and helping them escape. The genasi won, and he wanted the dragon to talk before killing it.

Since he was my normal story game player, I turned the tables on him and asked him what the dragon told him about this sudden plague. He said that the dragon lich itself wasn’t part of the plague, but it got the plague from the Eladrin and used it to create an army here. Juicy stuff that just makes them want to take on the Eladrin even more.

Fifth situation: Assault on Bahamut’s Jewel — “Zealots unable to live in a peaceful world march on crusade and have attacked the capital city of the Dragon Empire.” Here’s another place where the party split: the half-elf did “diplomacy by sword,” the human lead a dragonkin army, and the genasi scuttled the biggest symbol of hate between the halflings & dragons — the dragon-killing airship.

The genasi player won, and suddenly the human was once again without an airship. He was bitter about that.

Sixth situation: The Son of Storm — “An ancient halfling sorcerer, one legend calls the Son of Storm, marches on Bahamut’s Jewel — not to engage the dragons, but to deal with the human who killed his descendants.” This was another juicy situation, as the human wanted the sorcerer’s head, and the genasi & half-elf wanted to talk sense into him and calm him.

The half-elf won and the end result kicked ass: the half-elf diplomacy, beautiful and rare, agreed to marry the Son of Storm as he felt in love with her. They would forge a peace between these two worlds. But before that, she had to finish her business of wiping the sourge from her home,  the Western City of Oceandawn.

(Quick note: This is the halfling sorcerer that Fred Hicks played a couple months ago. He emailed me with the character, saying “Dude, this guy is in your game!” He totally is.)

Seventh situation: The eastern cult of Aeyrholt — “A cult of the god Aeyrholt, the god they are by prophecy fated to kill, has made itself known. Lead by tieflings, it has halfings and dragonkin as members, terrorizing the populace.” I accidentally forgot a bit on this card when I described it to the players, so it turned into a “fight the cult” situation. I meant it to be another social one, but that’s what happens when you forget importnat notes! Still, I like what happened instead, because it told them, for sure, there the temple of Aeyrholt was.

(Oceandown is Fantasy San Francisco, with the Spiral Tower — yeah, the one from the paragon path for Eladrin Wizards — bring where Alcatraz is. And that’s where Aeyrholt’s temple is. They guessed that, but finally had evidence.)

Interlude: Ready, they set back to the Western Continent. Due to their influence, the half-elf commisioned an air armada to be lead by the human, crewed by halflings and dragonkin. Disciples of the Son of Storm travel with the half-elf as her personal guard. The son of the Emir of Light, a Gold Dragonborn, has chosen to follow the human into battle to earn his glory (a fact that I retconed in after the players left, because, hey, potential hostage). And they all set off.

Eighth situation: Challenge of the Sea God — “The sea-god Levithan attacks, knowing one of the PCs to be bound to Aeyrholt, an ancient foe.” Two of the, the genasi & half-elf, wanted to talk. The human wanted to humble the god. The human won (and it sounds more and more like we’re playing Mythender here), and the sea-god agreed to help, bonding himself with the genasi who is also bonded to his foe.

Seriously, the genasi player is on some sort of “collect the whole set” thing with gods. We jokingly retconed that he also bonded with Bahamut. I don’t know if it’s the sort of joke that did or didn’t happen, though.

Ninth & climatic situation: Eladria’s Armada — “Knowing her foes are coming, Eladria, mayor of the now-undead Oceandawn, supposed leader of the cult of Aeyrholt, sends her nay to stop them.” They describe various ass-kicking actions, with the winner cashing in Levithan’s favor by causing the sea to raise on both sides of the armada, turning into two hands and crushing the ships in between them.


That was around an hour of play, which gave a good sense of “So, this is how we got here. I can’t think of another way that would have resulted in a political marriage, a personal armada, becoming bound to another god, etc. that would have still worked in the short time. I’m really happy with how it all worked out.

So, that’s what happened. Here’s my question:

Were we playing D&D 4/e?

At the surface, you have to say “No, clearly not.” And true, we weren’t engaging in the system. But the same argument is used to say one isn’t playing the game during those sessions where dice aren’t rolled, and lately I think that’s a flawed argument.

I think we were, because we were playing within the context of D&D — they had a sense of what the warforged could do, because they fought one. The threat of the undead was faced first-hand by them. We’ve been playing this game for a few weeks now, and all that context poured into our montage. It’s one of those “setting vs. system” discussions, and while we created a custom setting, that setting is saturated in the D&D context.

But it’s an honest question. If we didn’t, why is context not enough to play a game? If we did, why do you think that?

– Ryan

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11 Responses to A Montage hack for 4/e

  1. Adam Dray says:

    I think you likely considered system — like the capabilities of races and the ship and stuff — when you were narrating. You just didn’t interact with the system at the lower level. If anyone had tried to do something that was impossible (maybe even unlikely) within the scope of the rules, someone probably would have pushed back.

    I’d say you were playing D&D.

  2. Adam Dray says:

    The other way to look at the question is this: Would you have had the exact same experience with the same setting but a different set of rules? Answering this requires you to draw a line between “setting” and “rules” that frankly makes me a little uneasy, but let’s say that everything that has a number or uses dice (like racial abilities) is rules and everything that describes the elements of the D&D world (such as racial descriptions) is setting.

    Would you have had the same experience using GURPS rules and your setting?

    Now if you call everything in the PHB “rules,” including racial descriptions and stuff, and only use “setting” to mean stuff you added on top of the PHB, then the answer changes.

  3. Ryan Macklin says:

    Adam,

    I think you’ve hit on why I continue to use the word “context” because it involves that which the setting assumes that the rules make true. It’s partly the intersection between “pure rules” and “pure setting.”

    Of course, the context goes further into the campaign-specific. The context was “halflings are total badasses,” with the campaign-specific rules being “all halflings are at least one level higher than you in Heroic tier” and the campaign-specific setting being “they’re ex-pats of a land where dragon empires constantly attempt to crush them from existance, like early Israel.”

    To answer your question, we might have, but I think the same in that we would be reflecting the context we’d be playing in with GURPS. The rules of the montage are ruleset-independent, but nothing can be truly independent, so it becomes context-dependent — in the specific case.

    I’d also say that I might not have been forced to come up with nine events if not for D&D’s leveling scheme, so GURPS may have let me off to easy, or not given me enough to work with.

    – Ryan

  4. Burrowowl says:

    Took me a minute to realize that “to clam him” was a typo. “To clam” is a verb representing the action of narrating another player’s character without his consent. Originating from a collaborative storytelling game called MetropoliS where somebody picked up the bad habit of turning other PCs’ heads into clams.

  5. Ryan Macklin says:

    Typo fixed.

  6. Carl Rigney says:

    Very nice! I think you were playing totemic D&D, in which you were rolling dice and saying what happened, with the books on the table informing your decisions but not controlling them.

    So after you play at 11th level a while, are you going to advance to 21st in a similar manner, on the last night (or perhaps next-to-last) of the game?

  7. Female Half-Elf Bard in question says:

    Even though we did this just 4 days ago, and I was one of the 3 doing it, the recant was awesome. I LOL’d through the entire thing thinking, “man that WAS awesome”.

    I thought it was a great and creative way of getting us level 2 to 11. Just saying “we trained int he East for 9 levels” is weak and so not creative. This was way for us to use our imagination to narrate the story, within somewhat reasonable guidelines. What we did was heroic and beyond what a normal session could ever do. It would have taken 40 sessions to complete all we did in 1 hour.

    The outcome was both fun and amazing. Paragon should not be a boring level 11, it should be mythical and fantastical. I think this montage fit that context perfectly.

    ~ DeeWo

  8. Female Half-Elf Bard in question says:

    The hours approaching, just give it your best
    You’ve got to reach your prime.
    That’s when you need to put yourself to the test,
    And show us a passage of time,
    We’re gonna need a montage (montage)
    Oh it takes a montage (montage)

    Show a lot of things happing at once,
    Remind everyone of what’s going on (what’s going on?)
    And with every shot you show a little improvement
    To show it all would take to long
    That’s called a montage (montage)
    Oh we want montage (montage)

    And anything that we want to go from just a beginner to a pro,
    You need a montage (montage)
    Even Rocky had a montage (montage)

    (Montage…montage)

    Anything that we want to go from just a beginner to a pro,
    You need a montage (montage)
    Oh it takes a montage (montage)

    Always fade out in a montage,
    If you fade out, it seem like more time
    Has passed in a montage,
    Montage

  9. Michael P says:

    I did a similar effect when I was nearing the end of my Campaign. I was using one of the WotC Prepackaged Mods, because it sounded fun (Pyramid of Shadows), but after the first few sessions I could see it was getting stale.
    So, the PC’s met with a previous NPC, who told them that the end was coming, and that they didn’t have time for all this BS, and cast a time altering ritual on them, essentially giving me free reign to advance the story to it’s key points, end the current adventure, and throw them into a tumult of time travel. It also showed what happened to there home when they were gone for a year in a magic prison, there home town and the surrounding valley had become war torn in the face of a ongoing year of war. Enter the last encounters of the final story, now at level 11, to stop an extra planar invasion.

    I think I am definatly going to take this one and add it to my D&D toolbox.

  10. Mick Bradley says:

    Hey Ryan,

    Rich and Judd mentioned your hack on Canon Puncture #74. Here’s the link:

    http://www.canonpuncture.com/2009/07/canon-puncture-74-jerks-at-the-table-and-their-looong-backstories/

  11. Wayne Peacock says:

    Mr. Macklin,

    Sir, you are playing 4e all wrong. Don’t you know that it is a miniatures combat game? The game clearly forbids any of this Role-Playing, story-based piffle!!!

    IN THE NAME OF THE GRID, STOP!!!!

    Actually, this was teh awesome. Fun is always reason enough. Theory should never stand in the way of that.

    You were absolutely playing 4e, IMHO. 4e, clears the path for this kind of innovative story mechanics, and encourages by giving us the skill challenge framework. I REALLY hope that the DMGs to follow will adopt new “mechanics” such as your own. That would be a great boon to the gaming community for 4e embrace mechanics such as this.