Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lair Assault Impressions (for real)

So I'd made my opinion of D&D Lair Assault abundantly clear before. However, I'd crafted those opinions based solely on the 'premise' of Lair Assault and what it hypothetically represented: A power-gaming version of D&D with all of the role playing and story-driven elements of the game removed. Indeed, it seemed to me like Lair Assault would not be my cup of tea, as either a player or a dungeon master.

However, I decided that I shouldn't judge something without first giving it a try. So, when my local game store (and DMs Derek Myers and Alan Wyszinski) hosted the final session of Lair Assault: Forge of the Dawn Titan, I rolled up a level appropriate character and jumped in. I haven't been a player in a D&D for quite some time, so I figured it would be a nice change of pace at the very least.

Here are my impressions, as well as some advice for people curious about Lair Assault, wanting to give it a try:

(The following game took place on November 16th, 2011)

Making a Character

I'd been told previously that Lair Assault is hard. Stupidly hard, even. So hard, in fact, that it is reminiscent of old tournament TSR adventures like Tomb of Horrors and Vault of the Drow. Lair Assault was pitched to me as a game that chews PCs up and spits them out; where the often dreaded "Total Party Kill" is a very real possibility.

Beforehand, Derek Myers told me to play a class I was intimately familiar with, as I'd need to know how to optimize and min/max the hell out of it. If you're going to play Lair Assault, play something you know. "Now's not the time to try something new and unfamiliar. You'll be a burden to the group" he told me.

Yikes. Serious stuff.

So I made a human cleric. I chose the cleric build from the first Player's Handbook, since I'd heard Jerry Holkins play the same race and class before in several podcasts. I'll also go on record as saying that the Cleric is my favourite D&D class of all time (second only to Bard, lol). Healing Word, Lance of Faith, Healing Strike, these were powers I knew how to use and optimize.

The PCs start at level 5, so I used the online Character Builder to make my cleric. Unable to print it, I decided to fill in a blank sheet instead, opting for whatever would be easiest to use and most efficient. It turned out pretty well.

The marketing for Lair Assault assured me that "role playing" would not be necessary, and that I'd need to get used to the idea of my character dying. Taking that in stride, I named my character based on his miniature's appearance: Cleric Guido Sarducci.

And yes, I played him in that voice the whole game. It was glorious.

Playing the Game

So at my local game store, Dueling Grounds, all of the players were divided up by their level of experience with Lair Assault. The ones who'd played (and died) several times before joined a table to play on "Nightmare Mode", while I was shuffled off to the normal table.

Thankfully I'd rolled up a Cleric, because no one else in the party was capable of healing. At my table there was a monk, a wizard, and a ranger. All of the other players were fairly new to Lair Assault as well, which was great.

The downside was that most of them were under 14 (and the one aside from me was an adult who acted like he was under 14). All of them were playing classes unfamiliar to them (one was trying a monk for the first time) and it definitely had an effect on the flow of the game.

I like to think I'm a fairly patient person, but waiting over 10 minutes for a player to decide what to do, all the while continuously badgering the dungeon master with "I swear at them in Supernal! What happens? Does anything happen now?" is a little more than I can take.

SIDENOTE: To all the kids and teens getting in to D&D, I'm overjoyed that you're developing an interest in the RPG hobby. Really, I am. But please, PLEASE, learn to do your own math. It's a very reasonable amount of math. It's not unreasonable of me, the other players, and the dungeon master, to expect you to be able to add 16 + 5, or 12 +9 in a matter of seconds. Please don't make me lament the state of Ontario's school systems...I really don't want to feel that old. I'm only 23.

Sorry, that last bit felt a bit like a rant.

So the adventure is set up quite quickly. The players are all heroes of Neverwinter, coming to the aid of the city by chasing after a bunch of Asmodeus cultists who've taken refuge in a dungeon located in a volcano.

No sooner had we stepped onto the dungeon tiles, the DM told us "The doors slam behind you. You hear a cackling laugh in the distance, and the volcano shudders and shakes. You have four minutes to stop the cultists before their ritual is complete and the volcano errupts". He then explained that four minutes equated to twenty (20) rounds in terms of combat.

"Are you f***ing kidding me?!" I said aloud. Well, maybe not in those words, given my company, but the sentiment was there.

From there, we fought some fire elementals and fire hounds.

It took us the better part of a dozen rounds just to fight off the monsters in the first room, all the while just barely fending off death. I ended up using almost all of my healing powers in the first few rounds alone (a bunch of them on myself, no less). The difficulty of the game was very apparent.

DM: "The room is filled with a number of shallow pools filled with what looks like water"

Me: "Can I check to see if it's actually water?"

DM: "You see fish swimming in the pools. It looks, for all intents and purposes, to be water"

Me: "Awesome, I push one of these fire elementals into the pool with my attack! Its fire will go out!"

DM: *grining* "Ok. As you do so, the pool it is pushed into ignites in flame, sending a torrent of fire up all around it. If you enter the pool now, you'll take 10 fire damage"

Party: *groans* "Way to go, idiot"

Me: "Oops"

Seriously, Lair Assault doesn't fuck around. All of the monsters have ridiculous amounts of health, high defenses, and do a ton of damage. Most also do a good deal of ongoing damage as well (we all quickly learned that fire resistance is apparently a prerequisite of Forge of the Dawn Titan). Every time one of us came close to death, or did something we thought would be a great idea (but wasn't), our DM got this glint in his eye; his laughter taking on a bit of menace. Clearly he was having a good time.

That said, it also never felt impossible. The game is made deliberately hard, but not insurmountable. I knew going in that Lair Assault was being marketed for 'experienced players only', and having played with a group of inexperienced players, it shows.

We struggled and stumbled through our first encounter, barely making it to the second room before we were killed off. Meanwhile, the other table, which was filled up with veterans of past Lair Assaults, emerged victorious on Nightmare Mode. Derek told me later that their strategy was to just 'power through' the entire dungeon, running past monsters and traps in order to get to the final room.

Well played, sir. Makes me wish Cleric Sarducci hadn't been put down so early. I could've been a contender.

Final Thoughts

Lair Assault isn't for everyone. Plain and simple.

If D&D Encounters is a program that's good at introducing the mechanics and play of Dungeons & Dragons to new players, Lair Assault is all about challenging and testing experienced players. It's the kind of game I think a lot of power gamers/min-maxers will crave, but I image it's also fun for usual dungeon masters to play as well.

I played it, and even enjoyed myself a little.

Put bluntly, Lair Assault plays out exactly how most critics of Fourth Edition imagine all of the new D&D plays out: It feels like a video game. There's (almost) no role playing and very little experimentation. The game is just all about mastering rules and mechanics.

But despite that, hell, maybe even because of that, Lair Assault is fun to play.

It plays like a very, very hard video game, but it's also fun and rewarding in the same way that a video game is. It isn't very enriching or interesting from a story perspective, but as a player you feel very, very satisfied when you kill an enemy, or beat a room.

Hell, it even has an achievement system like a lot of video games. I earned the following achievements that night:

It's Critmas: Score a critical hit.
Give My Regards: Knock an enemy off a cliff or into lava.
TPK: Everyone freakin' dies.

Fun times.


So, the new season of Lair Assault has been released. It's called The Talon of Umberlee. It's pirate themed and looks like a lot of fun (if dying a lot can be considered fun). I'll also be running it when I get the chance. If you're interested in giving D&D Lair Assault a try, please, take a few of the following pieces of humble advice.

Know how to play

This seems a bit insulting, but it's true. If you're brand new to 4e D&D, Lair Assault will not be kind to you. Most dungeon masters and other participating players play the game assuming that everyone knows the game mechanics very well. If you've never built a character on your own, or haven't played several sessions of the game, you'd be best to stick with D&D Encounters or running your own games.

Know your class

Pick a character class you're familiar with. If there's one class in particular that you like a lot, and have played a lot, go with that one. Lair Assault is not a good time to try something new. It's a time to fall back on something familiar. The other players will be counting on your knowledge and optimization of your own character.

Be a team player

Lair Assault requires, no, DEMANDS that you work as a team. If you split the party, you will die. If you are too reckless, you will die. If you don't defend or heal your allies, YOU WILL DIE! Teamwork is essential to playing this game. So, at the very least, be like Wil Wheaton, and don't be a dick.

Do your own math

Sorry...I shouldn't harp on this...I mean, I could have said "Don't play this game if you're under 18", but that would be a serious dick move. Just...just do your own addition and subtraction. Seriously, it's not all that hard.

...bring a calculator if it helps. Sheesh.

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