Archive for February 2011

March of the Phantom Brigade, Week 3

There was considerably more social interaction this week, as Liz and the crew scouted out the ruins of Castle Inverness. The players, not knowing what to expect, were exceedingly cautious in their investigation. Well, most of them that is. Every player but one tried to sneak towards it, searching for access points and threats, while the warpriest just galloped around it on horseback. I think the idea was that she would try to make herself an obvious target, so as to make it easier on the rest of the party.

When nothing happened, the warpriest then strode towards what amounted to a gate and loudly proclaimed her presence. Everyone else? Quietly creeping up a wall some ways away. Again, nothing happened, which just intensified their paranoia. The explored the graveyard, and were relieved (disappointed?) when nothing clambered out to attack them. They checked the shattered towers, which contained no gargoyles, swarms of murderous avians, or even kenku. I feel like there's a Doctor Seuss verse coming came without oozes, it came without rats, it came without boxes of treasure and traps!

Eventually, they did stumble on the encounter: a pair of ochre jellies kicking back in the fountain. The clue is that out of everything in the ruins, the fountain is the only thing that isn't overgrown with vegetation. Liz noticed this right away and made a beeline for it, which was bad because they had a nasty Stealth bonus and were elite brutes. Fortunately, they went almost dead last and had a pretty miserable attack bonus for level 3.

Most of the battle consisted of the mage sitting on top of a wall, blasting both oozes with arc lightning, while the scouts carved up one, and the thief and warpriest took the other. As brutes, they had a lot of hit points, and when bloodied neatly divided into two smaller critters. Yeah, you divvy up the hit points, but their damage output doesn't change. I really like this because they deal 2d6 + a lot of acid damage initially, and when they get bloodied basically get to make two attacks. Oh, and since they can shift it makes it very easy to flank for a better attack bonus.

It was a really nasty fight, especially with the lack of a defender, and I almost took down three of the characters. The warpriests ability to grant damage resistance with her at-will, plus a well-timed sun burst (everyone gets a save) alleviated much of the damage, while having three strikers made whittling through the hit points a quick task. In the end, I think they were expecting more...harrowing, considering they were skulking about a purportedly haunted castle.

The only consolation prize was a basic amulet of protection, though Liz and another player found an interesting cornerstone with ancient writing on it. Spoiler: it's not pertinent to the plot, but more of an easter egg for those who played in Greyhawk. I hope they aren't expecting something, well, useful out of it. Oh, they also learned the name of a woman from a past adventuring party. It's also not a need to know thing, but foreshadows a future encounter. Next week, they get to hold off a horde of undead as the priests try to cleanse the ruins.

EDIT: Liz also got her first Fortune Card reward, Indestructible (or some such).
February 28, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Change Can Be Good

Rob has an article on ten things he'd have changed about 4th Edition. There are some things that I agree with, some I don't, and some middle ground. I won't respost his post, but I will address his proposed changes.

Classic Focus
I basically agree with what the designers did on all the cited changes: the succubus makes a lot more sense as a devil, considering that her bad is subtle corruption, and titans look cooler and are more in line with their Greek counterparts. In terms of races and classes, I don't know what went on in their decision making process, but I don't mind plopping the gnome in Monster Manual temporarily, and saving other stuff for later. Frankly I'm glad, as it gave them a lot of time to learn the class-making process and come up with a result that was probably a lot better than what we would have gotten. I know some people were upset (and used it as an excuse to hate 4E), but I don't think that Wizards should just adhere to tradition for tradition's sake.

While I have no problem with martial powers (especially considering that daily non-magical attacks existed in 3rd Edition and possibly 2nd), I think that Wizards could have explained them better. As for "power-samey-ness", that's just a product of people that haven't taken a look back at how every class in older edition makes attacks with weapons (or thinks that having the defender sometimes make the attack roll makes it magical). As for Essentials martial classes? They're too routine and boring for me to maintain interest for long. Perhaps for a one-shot or delve, but for a long term game I'll take complexity and diversity any day.

Tactical Encounters
I like the format for the most part, but agree that these don't need to consume much space. We got along fine in the earlier days of Dungeon, which I think was too far in the other direction. For simple encounters, I think that taking up less space is a good idea. I also don't mind having an adventure relegate some work to the DM to come up with their own random encounters. The important thing is that the DM knows what the hell is going on.

To me, alignments were mostly a way to maintain character consistency, or to give you a fall back when it came to decision making. Some players and DMs took this to extremes, using it as a straightjacket. I don't mind the condensing, and would prefer players to notate their characters with personality traits to help make consistent role-playing decisions.

I think that the first MC feat is usually very good for a feat, generally Skill Training and something else. It's the ones after that bug me, as they not only require you take an additional feat, but also require that you swap out powers. Spending a feat so that you can exchange powers? Maybe if powers from class were globally better than those from another, I could see that. I didn't like multiclassing in 3rd Edition, because it made no sense. Yes, presumably if a fighter were to take a level in wizard, it was assumed that at some point she was studying it all along. The problem is that it purportedly takes years to learn magic, but in the span of perhaps a few days, she learns a lot of spells, gains a spellbook with all cantrips (as well as many 1st-level ones), can pick up a familiar, and more? Bullshit.

4th Edition multiclassing makes a LOT more sense. I can believe a fighter adventuring around and learning enough magic to cast one spell, gradually learning more as time passes. That's much more plausible and demonstrates her gradual increase in magic. She'll never master it like a wizard, but then she started out as a fighter, so it makes sense. The only real fix for me is to simply require that characters spend one feat to multiclass, and can exchange powers as they like when leveling up. You hit 3rd level as a fighter with wizard multiclass? Gain a level 3 fighter or wizard encounter. No need to burn another feat just to do that, too. However, since I view multiclassing in 4E as more like dabbling in another class, you might want to put a cap on it to avoid having a fighter with mostly wizard powers, such as one encounter attack, one daily attack, and one utility.

Concrete Things
This one seems a bit odd, and I'm not sure I fully understand what he's saying, but here goes.

Of course there are goblins in D&D. The players and DM might refer to them by their Monster Manual labels, but he actual heroes in the game probably don't...most of the time. For example, a character warning another about a goblin sharpshooter probably just points and yells archer, or look out, or something. If a goblin is trying to slip around and stab someone in the back, I also don't imagine a character calling it a goblin blackblade, but simply goblin. This isn't much different than how it worked in 3rd Edition, where you would have a goblin warrior, or a goblin sorcerer, or a half-black dragon goblin monk/truenamer (what the hell would you call that, anyway?).

As for classes and powers, I don't think that divorcing them from classes is exactly a good idea, but you could certainly do that and get away pretty easily since every power does something based on it's level, not whether its magical. I think that Rob's proposed change would be similar to how something like Shadowrun does it, where anyone can do anything if you have the right attributes and buy the right skills. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I do think it might make it a bit harder for a player to get the character they're looking for, as well as require more system mastery.

I think having a book that offers composite heroes like this could have a lot of appeal, but I don't think it should be the norm (assuming I get what he's talking about).

Great Wheel Cosmology
A lot of the planes before were very hard to run adventures in, even at higher levels, because they were so hostile to non-native life. I much prefer the new cosmology, as its not only in line more with mythological other worlds, but is also a lot more hospitable within a broader level range. I tend to use the Shadowfell and Feywild at low-levels, since they're largely just mirrors of the natural world (and thus easily accessed), and would use the Elemental Chaos and Astral Sea if I could get my players to paragon-tier (or somewhere close).

At any rate, I don't think that keeping it as it was would have made things any better. Right now, it might just be a matter of people not being used to the fact that yes, you can go for a romp through the Feywild and not be explode due to an oversaturation of "life energy", or instantly snuffed into nothingness, because that's where you blundered in to. If it was the same as before, it makes it more difficult to utilize them in adventure building, which makes it even less likely that they'll get used.

Magic Items
4th Edition makes it very easy to simply ignore magic items in there entirety, which is a good thing, as people can run low-magic games with minimal fuss. That being said, it's also easy to do what Rob proposes by using the inherent item rule and just making magic items do more. This is something I plan to do in Dark Sun, though I think high-magic campaign settings like Eberron are fine with the system that exists.

I think a major problem with rituals is that they're just not being used. I've put a few here and there in past campaigns as ways to overcome obstacles that I knew the party would face, and might otherwise not be able to. For example, in one adventure, they had to go into an underwater grotto with two primary entrances. The quick way required them to hold their breath for a lengthy period of time, and so I placed a scroll of Water Breathing (along with necessary ritual components) so that they could just use that if they couldn't think of another way (checking the river shore for an entrance, or using a magic item were other possibilities).

Reducing the cost, or simply eliminating it, might make for good feats (something like Eschew Materials). Basically, I think just including them is a major step forward for rituals.

Skill Challenges
Removing the more mechanical aspects of skill challenges is something I agree with. Frankly, I think dividing them into categories of primary and secondary skills is a bad idea, as I've found instances where a secondary skill has primary-applications. I think that by just posting the objective of a skill challenge, and putting up some bullet points is a better idea (and helps avoid rules-enforced skill grinding). I like the skill challenge out of Red Box, as it provides some guidelines for various skills and their effects.
February 25, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Dark Sun Threats

I've already got the Dark Sun itch, and this article is a painful reminder. It's short, featuring all of four new monsters and a pair of themes, but damn is it good. Going in order, we start with monsters.

  • The aarakockra darter is a controller that can throw poisonous darts and and a death sentence barbed nets to easily fulfill its role. The darts work like drow poison, dealing ongoing damage and slowing you, before knocking you out if you botch even one save. The the net locks you down, and if you fail that save, you end up restrained. Yeesh. Finally, it has a limited use shift-and-fly maneuver in case it gets overwhelmed.
  • Gith dust racers, as their title implies, can run insanely fast, shift after every attack, have recharging flight, and deal bonus damage if they take psychic damage. Oh, and enemies treat adjacent squares around them as difficult terrain, so ha. These things would be murder for a party with one or more psychic characters.
  • In a world that is a giant desert, a human fire elementalist isn't unexpected, and neither is their suite of abilities. They can hit you with a fiery staff, have a basic ranged attack that only deals ongoing fire damage, an encounter-area burst that creates a zone that deals automatic damage if anyone enters it, or ends its turn there, and a smaller area burst that deals damage, slides, and dazes if you were taking ongoing fire damage. To make matters worse? They have an aura that imposes fire vulnerability. I like a monster that has a lot of synergetic abilities, even if it's a theme that's been done many times before.
  • Finally, the thri-kreen hunter has both a basic claw and chatkcha attack that you'd expect from the mantis folk, and it can also throw two chatkcha with a single action. Not so bad, considering it's an artillery. Oh, wait, it also has a recharging ability that lets it throw three per round? It's not even an elite, mind you. To round things out, it can also shift quite a distance and throw thankfully just one (and can only do so at best twice per encounter due to the limited recharge). If things get to hot, it can also jump its Speed without provoking opportunity attacks.

After monsters are themes, the first of which is Defiler Monster.

There's a lot of powers to choose from, so I won't go over them all. For starters, this theme gives monsters a +2 to Arcana and Bluff. The attack and utility powers focus on draining life to gain various benefits. Two of the attacks are contingent on defiling attack, which works with any attack that isn't a charm, and deals damage other than psychic or radiant damage. Like arcane defiling, the attacker gets to roll twice for the attack, and deals bonus damage to the target and one of the attacker's allies.

Now, there are a pair of Defiler Monster attacks that also work with this: one lets you target any enemy you want within range, imposing ongoing necrotic damage, while the other causes the target to gain necrotic vulnerability. As if that wasn't enough, you can really give your players a bad day by adding soul tug to the monster, which causes all of its attacks to deal necrotic damage, and that's just the attacks.

The utilities let you do stuff like deal damage to an ally in order to make an immediate save, gain necrotic resistance, deal damage to the nearest creature to avoid dying, and gaining a necrotic aura when bloodied. You know what? A lot of this would also be great for undead (except for well, the one that just gives you necrotic resistance, they shouldn't have to pay for that) or necromancer-type monsters.

Last but not least, the Templar Monster theme. This obviously works best for monsters that have reason to serve a sorcerer-king, which means humanoids are the ideal fit. It gives an Arcana and Diplomacy bonus, and also recommends scoping out the Defiler Monster theme for some extra ideas.

For attacks, you can deal automatic psychic damage when bloodied, use an area burst that deals radiant damage, immobilizes, and allow an ally to gain temp hp if it makes an attack before the turn starts, add a kicker effect to your basic attacks that deals automatic psychic damage plus slow to an enemy you hit, and grants an ally an attack bonus, or a use an area burst that targets only enemies, slows, and grants an ally an attack bonus.

Unfortunately, there's only two utilities. One is an encounter power that causes an enemy to grant combat advantage for a turn, and lets an ally make a free attack against the target after you do. The other is also an encounter powre, and grants an ally an attack and damage bonus if it ends its turn next to a creature that you just attack.

There's a lot of leader-type powers in there, and like the Defiler Monster, the stuff in here provides a great foundation for giving leaders thematic powers. I could see this stuff being used for a archetypical villain as he orders his lackeys to "stop the cursed do-gooders".

The first half of the article is great if you're running Dark Sun or use monsters from it. The latter half, while likewise intended for Dark Sun, is great for any campaign.

Unearthed Arcana: Fight or Flight

For the less blood-thirsty groups, this article provides some basic advice on how to resolve encounters using methods other than thorough decimation. It starts out by adding an extra step to the turn sequence, allowing each side to determine if it wants to keep fighting, negotiate, run, or give up. There's no rules or checks involved, with the Dungeon Master just making a choice based on factors such as the opponents, location, and condition of everyone involved. Really, a lot of it is just common sense that most capable DMs are privvy to: cowardly monsters tend to run when blatantly outmatched, undead and constructs tend to fight to the death, and animals probably flee when bloodied--or retreat if they manage to snag a meal.

Honestly, I'm kind of glad that there isn't a hard morale system. I've had annoying players try to abuse Intimidate in the past (and Diplomacy in 3rd Edition), and while my group wouldn't necessarily try to exploit the rules, I'm sure there are groups with one or more players that would. That's not to say that there isn't any crunch. There's a pair of skill challenges that help determine if a party successfully retreats from an encounter, and if they can shake pursuing opponents should they fail. The first relies on whatever skill you think is appropriate (and your DM agrees on), with the DC based on how close you are to a monster when you try to book it.  The second has each player make Acrobatics, Athletics, or Endurance checks, with DCs based on opposed Speed.

I really like the skill challenges, and will probably even use the "Encounter Status Check" in some capacity or other. Normally I play monster morale by ear, with cowardly monsters--and even those with some sense--legging it when it's obvious that they're losing. Non-intelligent monsters like undead or constructs, as well as those being compelled or particularly fanatic (such as angels or trained animals), usually fight until they're slain. Since I still give players full XP for monsters that flee this has the added benefits of rewarding the heroes for their mercy not wasting time chasing every last straggler down, as well as ending fights that the heroes have obviously won.

Not a bad article, especially for players/groups that have become jaded to mindlessly slaughtering their foes because their hit points are the path of least resistance.
February 24, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Winning Races: Genasi of Athas

If you're looking for new material on genasi and run Dark Sun, this article has a healthy mix of flavor and crunch material for you.

There's a little more than four pages of information on history, role-playing, physical qualities, communities, personality traits, and backgrounds. I found it interesting, especially the bits on primordials creating the genasi themselves to help shape the world and fight the gods, before they retreated into a deep slumber. Unfortunately rather than protected the world as the primordials had hoped, they just ended up fighting each other until the other mortal races managed to get a numbers advantage. Then, to make matters worse, the sorcerer-kings managed to drain most of the life out of the world. So...yeah. They'd better hope that the primordials don't wake up, cause I don't think they'll just slap their children on the wrist.

Anyway, I like that it  just comes out and explains some things, which is great for providing a prospecting DM with some solid history to go off of, as keeping the past undefined can be just as limiting for world-building. I also like that genasi aren't exactly painted in a good light: they don't seem to particularly like the mortal races, what with the whole killing the planet with life-draining magic, so they could make great villains. Unfortunately, this kind of limits the backstories that would easily allow integration into a party. I suppose since they seem to hate defliers and sorcerer-kings more than about anything else, you could always fall back to that...assuming that's the aim of your campaign.

On the crunchy side of things, there's four new elemental manifestations: embersoul, magmasoul, sandsoul, and sunsoul.

  • Embersoul: You gain a bonus to Reflex and to saves against ongoing fire damage. You also gain ashfall evasion, which lets you explode into a zone of ashes that removes you from play and deals damage to enemies that end their turn there. 
  • Magmasoul: You gain a bonus to Fortitude, and when you take fire damage, you deal bonus fire damage. You gain flowing magma, which turns you into a being of, well, magma. You can't be subjected to forced movement, are slowed, and deal automatic damage to creatures that end their turn next to you.
  • Sandsoul: You gain a bonus to Athletics and Acrobatics and a bonus against conditions that hamper your movement. You also gain sandslide, which makes you insubstantial and lets you move through enemies squares, as well as go through any opening larger than a grain of sand. Very cool.
  • Sunsoul: You gain a bonus to saves against ongoing damage based around fire or radiant, and you don't suffer any problems in the temperature extremes (including sun sickness). Finally, you gain sun flare, which is an AoE that triggers when you're bloodied, causing you to make an attack that imposes attack penalties to creatures you hit (unless they are bloodied, in which case they are blinded instead). It also deals fire AND radiant damage, limiting resistances. My favorite out of the bunch.

The desert voice paragon path offers a lot of flexibility. The level 11 class features allow you to shift whenever you crit with a totem, gain a new manifestation from the ones in the article, and can deafen and slide creatures close to you when you burn an Action Point. The level 16 one provides a boost to any manifestations that you have, from increasing the range, to preventing creatures from standing up, to dealing automatic damage.

  • The level 11 power is a close blast 5 that deals damage, pushes targets you hit, and imposes an attack penalty for a turn.
  • The level 12 utility grants temp hps and recharges one of your elemental manifestations.
  • The level 20 attack is a nice area burst that creatures a zone and deals automatic damage to creatures caught in it. You can also sustain it and make an attack that slows and deals ongoing damage to creatures inside it. It's nice that you can maintain it on the off chance that creatures get knocked back in, but you can't move it at all, so that kinda sucks.
Finally, the four genasi feats are all boosters for the manifestations. Pretty typical stuff, here.

The crunch works in any setting, and is really cool for genasi players. The fluff is intended for Dark Sun, but I could see the creation myth being used in any campaign setting. It's certainly better than the varied, vague ideas pitched in past Winning/Playing Race articles. It's also good for DMs looking for a solid Athasian villain.
February 22, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Legends & Lore: Minis

Not pictured: the other sandwich
bags, plastic tubs, and assorted clutter
 on the bookshelves.
I have a lot of minis.

I'm pretty sure a looong time ago, I made a post talking about how much I like using minis in my D&D games. I've been using minis since I started out with Basic, which consisted of some solid-red plastic heroes and a bunch of cardstock stands for NPCs and monsters. As time and money allowed, I would gradually buy metal figures from Ral-Partha, up until Wizards launched their pre-painted minis, which were a godsend because now I didn't have to spend all my time painting a bunch of stuff that would invariably chip and break.

Why do I like minis?

The first reason is that they look cool as hell. Yeah, I can describe how big or freaky a monster is, but being able to let the player plainly see just how small they are can really put things in perspective. Plus, it's also nice when players get a better image of the monster and proclaim "what the fuck is that?" The other reason is tactical positioning, which falls into the second camp that Mike identifies, which are players that tend to use them to provide "hard and fast" rules, as opposed to relying on the DM's arbitration.

To elaborate, as a DM I like this because it answers many of the questions that I used to get, such as if the monster is close enough to hit with a ranged attack, is there an attack penalty, will allies be caught in an area effect spell, how close is the monster to a/an [insert hazard], will I get attacked if I do [insert action], and so on and so forth. Most of these answers were based on what I assumed the characters were doing, which often did no match up with what the players thought they were doing.

Basically, players can readily make their own informed decisions, which also ties in with why I like them as a player: I can look at the map and make my move without having to ask the DM, refer back to my abilities, ask more questions, and spend god-knows-how long trying to determine a satisfactory course of action. Remember how long it would take spellcasters to come to a conclusion? Now have most of the party doing a similar song-and-dance as they peruse their options.

I don't think that minis intrinsically detract from the imagination or description of the scene (I still use dice and tokens, even with my extensive collection). Some DM's might be lazy and just let the minis and effects of actions do the talking, but then that's really the DM's fault. When I move a monster, I don't sit there in stony silence like a chess-player, I let them know that the orc unleashes a bellowing roar as it rushes towards them, or that the ooze makes sick, slurping noises as it tries to envelope them. An axe doesn't deal 9 damage, it cuts a vicious gash in your arm, and the oozes slime causes your armor to hiss and smoke as it slowly dissolves. To me they're game aids, not the foundation of the game.
February 21, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Wrath of Ashardalon, Wizard Solo

Castle Ravenloft had an adventure that you could solo, presumably to help learn the rules through actual play, as I couldn't imagine surviving on your own for more than a few turns. Likewise, Wrath of Ashardalon has a small adventure in which you must navigate the halls until you find a secret entrance to escape. After reading the adventure, I noticed that the escape tile is always the seventh. I decided to give it a try today, figuring that having two healing surges to myself I could at least scrape by, especially considering that you don't have to kill a boss monster: just get the fuck out and you'll be fine.

To make this even more challenging, I went with the dragonborn wizard, taking the spells arc lightning, hypnotism, shock sphere, and mirror image. You automatically get hurled breath, which is a nice way to get a free ranged AoE attack. I'd considered taking wizard eye, but I'm not sure if it lasts only one turn, or forever.

With nothing to do on round one, I decided to cast mirror image and stay put to explore. Mirror image boosts your AC by six points, and is reduced by two each time you are hit. There's no mention of duration, and figured I might as well do something interesting during my hero phase besides waiting for a monster to bum-rush me.

Ugh...why did it have to be snakes? Their bite adds the Poisoned condition, which ensures that you'll lose at least two hit pionts if you get hit. To make things worse, I drew a black tile. Fuck. With no XP to cancel it, I also get sidelined with a whirling blade trap, which meant that now I got to eat two attacks during my villain phase. Thankfully, the snake missed, but the blades hit, meaning my mirror image bonus went from +6 to +4, and I took 2 damage.

Fast forward a few turns, and I'm down a healing surge, spawned a gibbering mouther, and mirror image is out. I didn't get a chance to explore during turn two, and got nailed with an arrow (I think). Oh, and I'm dazed. The only upside is that I got lucky on disabling the whirling blades.

Cultists have never been remotely scary, except these guys carry poisoned daggers. When a single point of damage counts for almost a fifth of your total health, that's a big deal. I manage to take them both out with arc lightning, and eat another encounter that I forgot about (but probably did damage). Down to my last few hit points, I'm fucked, but I keep exploring and hoping that a kobold doesn't do me in.

Yay! A white tile. This just means I get to stand there while a monster skewers me, but which monster, I wonder?

I fucking hate duergar. With this guy, if you aren't on the tile he's on (and how could you be?), he explores. And draws a monster. Technically, it's already my villain phase, so I don't activate the cultists. I did, however, draw two long hall tiles, which means that now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, I've got only three hit points left, and if I get hit by the cultists, I'm pretty much done for.

So, I dash by the duergar and kill the cultist first with arc lightning (also damaging the duergar in the process), and get a fucking tome of experience. Would have been handy a looong time ago. Since I didn't explore, I draw an encounter card, which ends up spawning a goddamned bear with a treasure token thankfully some ways away. I'm not going to go for it, obviously, and you don't keep the treasure, and I'm guaranteed to die even if I did get it. Also fortunately, the duergar doens't move and attack, he just moves.

I just realized while writing this that I could have double moved and gotten out last turn. At any rate, I just cancelled the rolling boulder trap that I triggered with the plethora of XP I'd accumulated through this hellish trial and managed to walk out on the next turn. Fuck, that was bullshit. I only won through sheer luck. Had I not gotten a pair of long hallways back-to-back, I would have been screwed big time.

Magic Item Wishlists

It's probably just the orange light
bulb from the Pulp Fiction Briefcase.
In the last 2nd Edition campaign I played in, we rarely if ever found treasure. I remember getting a +1 two-handed sword (+2 versus undead!) at third level, and I think a suit of +1 chainmail went to the cleric at sixth. I don't recall how frequently it was assumed that players should find treasure, but I think we were getting hosed pretty badly, but at least it was something that everyone could use. Conversely, I remember running Age of Worms in 3rd Edition, which was fraught with numerous magical trinkets that did little except to serve as fanciful vendor trash, to be pawned off when the party got to a town that had a sufficiently high gp reserve.

4th Edition operates under a very different assumption: players are supposed to furnish wish lists to the DM, so that he/she can tailor valuable rewards in a more...appreciable manner. Wish lists are kind of a touchy subject with 4th Edition, as it's the first one that I recall explicitly telling the DM to ask for them. Some people take it to mean that the DM should only dole out the items that characters specifically ask for, which can be fine--especially if you are running one-shots, or games where the players cannot easily sell/disenchant/enchant their own loot--though I take a more relaxed stance.

See, as a DM it can be difficult for me to remember what each player has, what their character can use, and what the character wants. To me, a wish list is a way for me to quickly reference all of these things when I'm generating treasure rewards. I try to keep my treasure logical and thematic, so player's aren't always going to get the exact thing that they want, and my players know that. When I was running At The Mines Of Madness, one of the players wanted a specific kind of magical scimitar. I don't remember what it was now, but I ended up giving him a byeshk sword, which was A) a weapon he could use, and B) really useful considering that they were fighting wall-to-wall aberrants.

What he wanted? No. Useful? Hell yes. It's because 4th Edition is the first D&D edition that I've played where the players really don't need treasure in order to overcome obstacles, that this is something I feel a lot safer doing. In past editions, you might have needed a magical sword to overcome a creature's damage resistance, and if you went further back, some were immune to weapons without a sufficiently high enhancement bonus. In 3rd Edition, items with static bonuses to ability scores are virtually mandatory. Not so anymore, as characters are mostly defined by their class as opposed by their magic item suite.

Recently a fellow player and I decided that our group should post character information on Google Docs so that the DM would have an easy and convenient way of tracking our personalities, goals, journals, and...wish lists. As a player, this is something new for me. Unfortunately (fortunately?) there's a lot of items in the game, and I'm playing a class that I've never played before (cavalier). I've decided to meet the DM halfway, literally by filling out roughly half of my own wish list with a few items and leaving the rest blank, so that I can be better surprised (which is how I suspect a lot of players do it).

Anyway, that's my thoughts on wish lists: use them as guidelines, not set-in-stone instructions. Try to cater to the character's needs, but don't sacrifice the integrity of the game if it doesn't make sense.
February 19, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Formatting Content

Robert posits the question of formatting. Specifically, if 4th Edition would have been better received had it been rendered in 3rd Edition's format. He even goes so far as to do a quick mock-up of what a cleric might have looked like, including a couple of prayers, a spell, and an exploit in the vein of 3rd Edition's spell blocks.

First, ugh. The old format is dreadful. There's information all over the page, broken up by a class table. You have paragraph blocks of text with unnecessarily long wording. I remember back when I used to write up prestige classes that I would just copy and paste all of that over and over again, because typing it out was so tedious. Robert didn't get it completely right however, as all the power information would be in the back of the book (where it was most inconvenient).

Second, I seriously doubt 4E would have been any better received, even had Wizards stuck to the old format. People were hating on it a full-half year before it was released, picking apart each preview despite the information being provided in a vacuum. The tired, re-hashed claims that I hear again and again depict the game as a MMO, or a card-game, for idiots, for kids with various disorders, and so on and so forth. I've yet to hear anyone complain about the format change, though that would be a welcome change of pace.

Personally, I really liked the initial 4E format, as things were placed in a logical order so that I could easily go from one step to the next, without having to flip back and forth from the front and back of the book to pick my options. This is one of the reasons that I dislike the format from the two player-Essentials books: when checking up on my specialization school, warpriest domain, hexblade pact, etc, I have to flip back and forth. Not nearly as far, mind you, but enough for it to be a bit of a hassle.

That's really all I want to be able to do in a game: go from start to finish without having to jump all over the book. 4E does an excellent job of this (though I still prefer using Character Builder).
Posted by David Guyll

Hierophant Druids

In case you're one of those people that think that the Essentials line divided classes pre-and-post release well, this article is geared for both druids and sentinels, as indicated by the Player's Handbook 2 and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms stamps of approval. So, ha. You know, if they're going to put little icons in the article that denote which book they pertain to, they could at least make them not so blurry/more stylish.

The article is kind of a throwback to 2nd Edition, in which you could only advance to a certain level before you had to start offing other druids of your level, as there could be only a set number of a given level. Mostly, it's about an organization that tries to blend primal magic with elemental forces, something that most druids don't like due to the Primordials' prior agenda of keeping the world in a constant state of elemental flux.

The article also provides a couple new evocations, intended as benefits for Hierophant members, but technically anyone can pick them up. Unfortunately, you have to be at least 22nd level, which severely limits the scope.

  • Elemental passage is a 22nd-level daily utility that lets you vanish, presumably into the Elemental Chaos, and reappear when your turn starts. When you return, there are four different effects that can occur, each tied with an element: push, pull, create difficult terrain around you, or impose fire vulnerability. It's a standard action to use, which is a turn-off.
  • Summon elemental warrior is a 25th-level daily attack that, as the name implies, lets you summon an elemental. The exact element is up to you, and there are four stat blocks to choose from. They all mark targets that they hit (along with a kicker effect, like ongoing damage or forced movement), and have an opportunity action that works on marked creatures. About what I'd expect.
EDIT: A buddy of mine pointed out that the evocations have the Elemental keyword (and Primal). Does this mean that Wizards is considering a class with the Elemental power source, or is this just a keyword that serves to globally encompass the four classic elements (instead of printing out a bunch of keywords). Frankly, I don't see how much different an Elemental class could be, especially considering that wizards can summon elementals, and chaos sorcerers tap into it a bit as well.

And to wrap things up, the master hierophant epic destiny. I think the coolest part is the Immortality part: you eventually leave the world, drift through the Astral Sea, and become a new world. It's kind of like radiant child, but for druids instead of warlocks...and a planet instead of a star. I could see this being used for an adventure hook, where the players have to explore the Astral Sea for a new world forged from the body of an ancient druid. Hell, you could use this as the basis for having a solar system, as the worlds don't have to look like our own.

  • Level 21: You gain a Wisdom bonus, as well as a bonus to something else.
  • Level 24: You are immune to disease, stop aging, and can enter suspended animation once per encounter, during which you gain regeneration and make saves when you turn starts and ends. The regen only works while bloodied, and it renders you unconscious. On the plus side, you can end it when your turn also ends.
  • Level 26: You gain elemental transmogrification, which makes you a Huge elemental with a variable benefit based on the element you choose.
  • Level 30: You can use two options from elemental transmogrification, and once per day if you get dropped below 1 hit point, you immediately regain a shitload of them.

The article has some nice inspiration for campaigns of any level, but the provided crunch is intended entirely for epic-tier play, which reduces its utility. Personally, I'd like to see elemental evocations for a wider level spread, allowing players to be Hierophants from a lower level. Great for druid players approaching epic tier, also good for DMs.

March of the Phantom Brigade, Play Report 2

I'd gotten along really well with the group from my first week of running Encounters, so it kind of sucked that this week all of them (including Liz) ended up at another table, meaning that I had to start from scratch with a new group and figure out what they did last week in order to maintain continuity. Apparently, they did a lot worse, taking a few causalities during the stirge attack--including some of their own. Regardless, Malgram determined that they were capable of handling themselves, and left the soon-to-be-scholar Faldyra in their charge so that she could go rummage in the woods for non-descript "rare herbs".

Remember, splitting up the party is never a bad idea.

The encounter this week was variable, with a modifier depending on if you went into the mountains or stuck to the forest. Since this group ventured into the mountains, they got to take on a pack of hungry drakes. These classic 4E baddies came in two flavors, guard and spitting. Guard drakes are a soldier-type that deals a lot more damage when they're close to an ally. I described it as the drake becoming notably more frenzied when its kin were nearby, hinting that the party should try to divvy them up asap. Spitters on the other hand are an artillery with a particularly nasty ranged acid attack, which deals out 11 damage on average (compared to a somewhat tamer 7-point bite).

The thief went first, rushing into melee. She hit with a basic melee coupled with a backstab, and managed to retroactively lump on Sneak Attack the following round when we realized that she has combat advantage for that initial attack. Fortunately, I rolled initiative for each type of drake separately, otherwise she would have been tagged with five attack rolls. On the same note, I also missed with both guard drakes. Bleh.

The cavalier trundled up and managed to capture both drakes in his aura. That was fine, since they were both
close enough to benefit from the damage boost. The tiefling caster (wizard, I think) kept double-tapping them with lightning, the enchanter tried to get the spitters to bite each other, and the hunter AoE-ed everything with arrows (usually missing, even with aspect of the wolf). The highlight of the night was when the enchanter managed to hit every single monster with burning hands. Though he missed the cavalier, I pointed out that burning hands has a Miss effect, so he ended up taking a couple points of damage.

Oh well, that's what hit point sponges are for.

On the following rounds, the warpriest got into melee with the three spitting drakes, and might have died had he not healed himself, using his at-will to give himself damage resistance, and used second wind with an Action Point. The hunter and tiefling caster tried to help him out with long-range attacks, but weren't able to kill them before they got off another acid volley. The cavalier--who would have excelled at taking them on in melee thanks to his auto-punishing aura--was busy with two very pissed off guard drakes (1d10 + 9 damage per bite).

Eventually, after several well-placed crits, the thief and tiefling caster managed to take out the guard drakes, allowing everyone to focus on the spitters. They tried to flee, but when half the party has a range of 10 or more...good luck! All in all, this was a very brutal encounter, and I'm due to the damage output of the monsters I'm surprised no one died. Fortune Cards were available, but again weren't used much (which might have helped even the odds). Despite the close calls and semi-frequent missing, they were an awesome table to game with.

Next week, they finally get to the ruins of Castle Inverness.
February 17, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Wrath of Ashardalon Review

I picked this up tonight while running the second week of March of the Phantom Brigade. I really enjoy Castle Ravenloft so it's a natural progression for me, as Wrath of Ashardalon is basically Castle Ravenloft, just with a different backdrop, heroes, monsters, etc. Mind you this isn't a bad thing, because they both use the "D&D Adventure System", meaning that you can mix and match the content--Dungeon Tiles, monsters, heroes, items, events, etc--between both games. So, it's kind of like a product that is both stand-alone and expansion.

Game play-wise it runs mostly the same as its predecessor: each player picks one of the adventurers and associated powers, and then embarks on one of thirteen different adventures. These range from seemingly simple exploration/escaping, to stopping a ritual to open a gate to the Far Realm, to slaying Ashardalon himself. As before the basic format is that you explore the dungeon, fight monsters, accrue loot, and try not to die in the process...except that Wrath of Ashardalon has some new tricks up its sleeve.

First, characters can now be Dazed and/or Poisoned. Dazed thankfully lasts for only a turn, limiting you to either a move or attack action, while Poisoned causes you to take damage and is only discarded when you roll a 10 or higher at the end of your Hero phase (like a save in 4E).

The Encounter deck adds Curses and Hazards to its repertoire. Curses slap a condition on your character until you fulfill a specific condition, usually by rolling a 10 or higher at the end of your turn, though one requires you to not move for a turn. Hazards differ from traps in that they cannot be disabled. There's only three in the box: Cave In, Pit, and Volcanic Vapors, which deal damage, deal damage and keep you stuck for a few turns, and inflict the Poisoned condition, respectively.

Some Dungeon Tiles feature doors. When you run into these, you draw a Closed Door token that, when revealed, lets you know if the door is unlocked, locked, or trapped. Locked doors can be picked by using your attack action and making a die roll, while trapped doors deal automatic damage before going away. If nothing else, its a touch of Gygaxian delving.

Thankfully, not all the new content is hazardous to your health. Some adventures award you with Boons, which are special cards that give you benefits when you overcome specific challenges, while others let you snag raw coin that you can use between adventures in order to buy more magical swag. You don't get to pick, instead drawing some cards from the Treasure deck and picking from those (a similar mechanic to how Arkham Horror does it). Finally, at least one adventure (Free the Captives) lets you control NPCs that are actually useful.

If you like Castle Ravenloft, you're going to love this. Even if you don't feel like trekking through a fiery volcano to slay a dragon, you can port everything else over and add more monsters and rules. I'm curious to see how people will combine the games to create new scenarios.
February 16, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Creature Incarnations: Duergar

Randy is currently running us through a campaign that thankfully utilizes Palladium Fantasy in geography only. Currently, we're plundering dwarven ruins oddly brimming with their devil-worshiping, quill-tossing counterparts, duergar. At least in 3rd Edition, duergar were basically evil dwarves--sometimes psionic--that could both enlarge themselves and turn invisible, in addition to few other minor benefits.

Now? They're resistance to fire and chuck their beards at you. Okay, okay. Technically, they throw quills that just happen to grow out of their beards (or hair in the case of females). It just sounds ridiculous no matter how I try to spin it (and this article has plenty of variations on the theme, which I'll get to in just a bit). I get the reasoning as to why they dropped invisibility and enlarge person from their repertoire: gnomes already have fade away, and being Large is a *ahem* big deal.

I think that since they associate with devils, that there would have been something better for them besides tossing toxic hair at their enemies. Give them a daily racial that lets them summon a devil. It doesn't have to be super awesome, just useful and flavorful. What about conjuring a pillar of hellfire? Crib the dragonborn's breath weapon, just re-flavor it. What about giving them something like the tiefling's infernal wrath, but instead of fire damage, they grant combat advantage or something like that? Hell, keep the mechanics of the quills, but make it like...a curse, or something. Sorry about the mini-rant, but I just fucking hate the quills. Moving on!

The article actually opens up with about half a page of flavor content on duergar society. As with most evil things, the strong rule, they advance through treachery, and they deal in slaves. Oh, and they constantly fight against basically everything else that lives underground. You know, the usual requirements to be an evil race that dwells in the Underdark. Nothing really special here, but then I've been around for a few editions and already know their MO.

The next part is, as mentioned, a power swap for each monster role. They're still usable as minor actions, but lieu of the typical attack penalty and ongoing damage, let you do other stuff like slow, blind, or immobilize targets. An interesting way to shake things up and keep your players guessing, but it's still beard quills. 

Speaking of beard quills, there's also new monster blocks scattered throughout the article. Almost immediately after the part on quill variants is the barbazu-bonded duergar, who has a beard aura. These guys are created when Asmodeus binds a barbazu's soul to a duergar, giving it the ability to strange enemies with its beard if they get too close. It also swaps out the usual hammer/crossbow rollout for a glaive (but keeping the quills).

Breaking up the crunch, we move on to duergar settlements. The next three or so pages are dedicated to information on duergar lair-building techniques--such as sticking close to volcanoes and managing mushroom farms--and their more impressive structures, towers wreathed in eternal fire. It's occasionally broken up by adventures hooks and stat blocks for a duergar-mounted-howler and duergar bloodmage, level 13 and 8 threats, respectively.

Despite all the shit I give duergar for their quills, there's a lot of information here for duergar fans (or player's stuck in a game with them). If you hate duergar, obviously this isn't for you. Assuming Randy hasn't already read this, I'm going to toss him a link. At the least it'll help break up the quill monotony.
February 15, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

March of the Phantom Brigade, Play Report 1

I ran the first session of March of the Phantom Brigade last Tuesday, something that I've never done because the local game stores in my area usually have virtually no participants, or unpleasant stereotypes that like to use houserules such as, "spend a standard and move action to pick something up". No, to find a genuine oasis in my gaming community, Liz and I made a 45-minute trek downtown to Guardian Games. I go there mostly for the early releases, but they've also got a large store with a friendly atmosphere.

Only one person brought a legit character, so the other three at my table had to use pregens, resulting in a party of an elf scout, human mage, eladrin warpriest, and human cavalier (played by Liz, since she decided to venture out of her comfort zone of rogues). We didn't bring Fortune Cards, instead using someone else's community deck, which was met with almost a universally positive response--even though there wasn't a noticeable increase in power.

The adventure hook was pretty straightforward: protect a bunch of NPCs as they made their way to the ruins of Castle Inverness so that they could setup kip. Seeing as I recall Castle Inverness originating from a particularly nasty adventure from an older edition, I think they were thinking of the wrong castle. At any rate, they had the chance to interact with a couple of key NPCs--Brother Splintershield and Malgram (sp?)--before heading out on a journey that prompted various Oregon Trail jokes, such as "save versus dysentery".

The first day everything went accordingly, and people were in high spirits. At the start of the second day they turned off the road, and that's where things went south in more ways that one. The wagons kept getting damaged, animals had to be tended to, and the constant arguing between Splintershield and Malgram wasn't helping. At one point they hit a fork, and the characters intervened to help determine their next course: taking a shortcut through mountains, or going the long route through a somewhat more level forest. The scout suggested that the forest would be a lot easier on the wagons and horses. The choice didn't have an immediate effect, but would help determine a future encounter.

On the third day, calamity struck in the form of four stirges while their wagons were stuck crossing a 10-foot wide, stream, I guess. The setup is that the players are on the other side when the stirges attack. If they attack a commoner, they instantly die. If they hit a horse, well, those have 25 hit points (giving them about 3 rounds). Characters can use a skill check to free a horse, causing it and an adjacent commoner to flee off of the map and granting everyone bonus XP for their trouble.

Thankfully, the stirges went almost last. This gave the cavalier and scout a chance to cross the stream to get into melee, and the mage a chance to zap one with a spell. When it came time for the stirges to act, the one that got shot went after the mage, while the rest went after the closest targets, which happened to be the scout and a horse. Stirges are pretty easy to hit until they get attached to someone, after which they get a +5 to AC and Reflex. Luckily for the scout, both stirges missed him, but not so much for the mage, who would be bloodied by the time her turn started.

While the warpriest and mage tried to get the stirge off, the cavalier and scout spent a few rounds cutting down the pair in front of them. One managed to get ahold of the cavalier, but was chopped off by the scout before it could inflict too much damage. Since stirges cannot make melee basic attacks while attached, the mage was able to blast one off the horse before it died. Combat wrapped up once the warpriest clubbed one off the mage, after which everyone ganged up on the last one.

Everyone had to burn 2-3 healing surges, but since all the NPCs survived they got quite a bit of XP for just one hour-long session (over 200). I assured them that the next session that they'd find something, though it would be random since this season uses a table at the front of the book. Next week, they'll get to meet a new NPC and tackle a random encounter.
February 12, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Bards of Wolfstone

A good mixture of flavor and rules, Bards of Wolfstone furnishes a little over a half-page of story, a half-page of background information, and a couple pages for character-building advice, new spells, and some feats. It's tied to an older article, which I approve of because I wouldn't mind seeing a more strongly defined setting. The concept is a bard that is able to commune with spirits, specifically the spirits of dead warriors that the bard can call forth or bind to her allies in order to improve their combat prowess. I've built a few skald-type bards in the past, so this is relevant to my interests.

I'm not sure if the new spells require that you have be a bard with access to primal magic: they say bard, but they have both the Arcane and Primal keywords. Also, the article gives you some advice on multiclassing or going the hybrid route, but nothing specifically states that you have to. The new spells are all encounter powers that range from levels 3-23--so there's something for each tier--and they all hinge around conjuring spirits to spur your allies on, defend them, or lock your enemies down. Their abridged effects are as follows:

  • Rally the Spectral Host: Double-weapon damage, and you generate an aura that gives all allies a power bonus to attack and damage rolls.
  • Wrath of Wolfstone: Double-weapon damage (melee or ranged), and you conjure a spirit that deals automatic cold damage and slides enemies that end their turn next to it. Good for a small measure of control, but since the enemy can do whatever they want before the damage-and-slide, it's kind of limited, especially against anything with cold resistance.
  • Spectral Vanguard: This one does triple-weapon damage, generates a sizable aura that grants your allies a power bonus to defenses, and lets you slide enemies that end their turn in the aura. The size makes it very likely that your allies will benefit from this, and you'll probably catch a few enemies in it as well.
  • White Wolves: This close blast creatures deals weapon-based damage, and creates a zone that deals cold dmaage and immobilizes enemies that end their turn there. The area of effect is nice, and it only hits enemies, but immobilization isn't often terribly useful.

There's also three feats, as well:

  • Battle Cadence: When you use majestic word, you can slide the target further and give them a damage bonus for a turn. Very nice.
  • Wild Virtue: You get to shift whenever you use your Bardic Virtue. Also very nice.
  • Words of Wrath: You get a feat bonus to Intimidate, and can use words of friendship to boost it instead of Diplomacy. Thematic, if nothing else.
Really, the only thing this article was missing was a paragon path, but then there are several well-suited for it as is. Much of the content is thematically appropriate for the melee-oriented bard, though two of the feats are handy for most bards.
February 09, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Fortune Card Impressions

At a glance the cards seem like a way for characters to largely gain buffs of varying degrees of power, at no cost to the character(the player gets to foot the bill). Many bonuses are highly situational, while others require a die roll to see if they work in your favor. I want to make it clear that I haven't gotten a chance to Fortune Cards much: I was given some free packs from my local store in order to see what my group thought of them, and got to see them in action when I ran the first session of March of the Phantom Brigade (last night).

The greatest issue during our Monday night game was that we kept forgetting to use them, or discard them if we didn't like what we had. Only one player burned through them with any frequency, while the other players managed to use one or two. In the end we quit using them halfway through the session: while Liz and Beth seemed to get a kick out of them, Randy didn't care for them at all. It wasn't that they overpowered the characters, or even really provided a noticeable increase in power, but hat they added another layer of complexity that they weren't used to.

Personally, the hardest part was getting a card that was relevant. One card let me knock someone prone if I fell prone, another let me shift my Speed, and another would reduce falling damage. The only problem? Not a lot of monsters seem to have powers with prone kickers, it's rare that players seem to be climbing about high enough that fall damage is a concern, and as a defender I really never wanted to shift insanely far (especially when I could fall down if I rolled a 9 or less).

During Encounters, everyone except one player used them, and that's because he still had Rewards Cards from past Encounter seasons. During a skirmish against a quartet of blood-thirsty stirges, only two players really used them, but then two out of three ain't bad (and the player that didn't just kept forgetting to cycle hers out). Again, I didn't notice an increase in power. The encounter was rebalanced for a party of four, and at the session's end most of them were down 2-4 healing surges and an Action Point or two. Given that they can't take an extended rest whenever they want, this isn't a good start.

One player suggested doling out one per encounter as opposed to one per round. I think that this would be better for constructed decks, as otherwise the benefits can be quite forgettable. Another thing is that I like the Renown Point system in Encounters, and could see giving out cards to players that do sufficiently badass things. Kind of like Achievements, but with a tangible award. Finally, they could be an incentive award in lieu of handing out bonus XP. If you're going to do one of the latter, I'd recommend giving out a card that is actually useful, as I'd hate to do a lot of cool shit only to be award with the ability to reduce falling damage.

If you liked Rewards Cards, have a smaller group that usual, like the mutations from Gamma World, and/or want to add randomness to combat, then you'll like these (with or without controlling their distribution). If your table has one or more competitive assholes with lots of disposable income, or don't like having players gaining randomized benefits at no penalty, then you won't like these. My recommendation is to attend a few Encounters sessions and use someone else's deck and see for yourself. I don't think these were as bad as a I feared, but they're definitely not for every group.
Posted by David Guyll

Making a Character

I'm going to open with a very simple visual aid.


Got it?

The mission statement for Dungeons & Dragons characters is very, very straightforward: you're an adventurer/hero/glorified vagrant that kills things and steals their shit (often in that order). The game doesn't even try to hide this fact, and so I find it very odd when a player bellies up to the table and wants to play a commoner or "zero-level" character. That's not what the game is about, or even assumes that you would ever do. If you dont like it, then play something else.

I don't mean for that to sound asinine, but it's really as easy as that. I dont jump into a Shadowrun game and get all butthurt that I have to play a cybernetically and/or supernaturally enhanced criminal, a Dragonball Z game and expect there to be plot, or a Rifts game and expect decent mechanics/anything remotely approaching game balance. Good games are made to cater to a specific play-style or genre, and D&D is not about going through a routine existence farming, or meandering around a village chatting it up with NPCs.

Players wanting to play an adventure game with a character barely suited for exterminating rats isn't the only problem I've run across in my gaming experience. I once had a group that was professed an interest in the game, and decided to run Stick in the Mud because I like the cut of Aeryn Rudel's game. Mostly I wanted to run a short session to get the newbies acclimated to the game and see if the veteran enjoyed my game-style. I told them to roll up a small party (which took awhile since one player kept wanting to fucking play Man-Bear-Pig). 

Once we had the party assembled and were ready to go dungeon crawling, I was hit with the following: 

"Why are we doing this?"

I hate, hate, haaate this fucking question. (#゚Д゚)

To me it's valid only insofar as you use it to justify to yourself why you are going to dick around in a dungeon and kill things--especially when put into context of a one-shot session. You're an adventurer. Think up something conducive to acting like one. To make sure that I'm absolutely clear, motivation is fine. It's great. It can help a player become more immersed in their character and get them more emotionally invested in the game. The problem is that no one else is likely to give a fuck about your motivation because they've got their own shit to worry about.

"Oh, you have an estranged brother that you are trying to find? Well fuck you, I'm trying to avenge my father who was murdered by a mysterious figure cloaked in shadows and shit."

Often times the question seems to be directed at me, the DM. Why the hell are you asking me? It's your fucking character, you figure it out. Feel free to bounce reasons off of me to see if its kosher with the plot, but don't ask me to do more than toss a couple tidbits your way, as all too often it's never what you wanted in the first place. Now, the provided hooks for the adventure were good (and generic) enough for me: get mud samples, retrieve an old staff, or just bring back heads for a bounty. It's easy and appeals to multiple player tastes. Dont like 'em, then you give me one that you do like and we'll talk.

Frankly, I prefer it when my players table that shit and work on it off the clock. Don't grind the game to a halt so you can play twenty-questions with yourself, roll with the flow and exchange email messages with your DM between game sessions. It's not a goddamn chicken-egg exercise: you can add to your character retroactively. Dont believe me? In many works of fiction, you start out knowing very little about any given character, and gradually learn more as the story(s) progress. It especially annoys me when I get players that seem to want to psychoanalyze their characters. Like, they can't make a simple decision without pondering for hours if their character would really do that thing, use that item, blah blah fucking blah. The answer is simple: your character does whatever you want it to, because its your character.

I don't recall if they ever picked a motivation, despite it being a one-shot intro game. However, once we'd stumbled through that hurdle, we immediately hit another.

"Do we know each other?"

Fucked if I know, figure it out between yourselves. ┐('~`;)┌

For some reason, players that think that its taboo to start the game already knowing one or more of the other players. Do they think it will give them any sort of advantage over something aside from being able to dodge the awkward, "get to know each other" phase of some games? There's been one campaign that I can recall where this wasn't a torturous trial, but that had two DMs and it still seemed contrived. Personally, I prefer operating under the assumption that the group already knows each other, or at least knows of each other. It makes it much easier to get the game going without having to trudge towards a contrived eventuality.

In closing, I submit the following:
  • You're an adventurer, act like it.
  • You don't have to have your character fully sorted before the game starts. Flesh it out as needed.
  • It's okay to know the party before the dice ever hit the table.
February 08, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Legion of Gold Review

The third and perhaps final Gamma World expansion, Legion of Gold offers what every Gamma World product has so far: new origins, monsters (with token sheets), some maps, a card booster pack, and an adventure at the end. Between all three books, you could easily get a party from 1st to 10th level just by running out of the book. Since the only really new thing is the content out of the book, that's all I'll be talking about, as the maps and tokens are what you'd expect.

Chapter 1: New Character Options
Unlike Gamma World and Famine at Far-Go, there's only eight new origins. Since it brings up the total count to forty-eight, I guess I can't complain too much. There's a d12 table in there if you want to try and build a character using every potential option, along with others for restricting diversity (or just sticking to Legion of Gold). New origins include antimatter, demon, octopoid, and more. My favorite is the reanimator, which is Wisdom (psi), gets a Conspiracy and Fortitude bonus, and resist 10 necrotic. The critical deals bonus damage, and you get to prone any one enemy next to a summoned minion (if you have one out at the time). As an added bonus, here's the power list:
  • Graveyard Summons (novice): You summon an animated corpse that lasts for a turn, and can make its own basic attack, or use weapons that you give it/it picks up. At one hit point it's pretty frail, and since you need a Standard action to summon it, it looks like you can't actually attack until your next turn, so it might get taken out before then. If nothing else, at least it provides a distraction.
  • Meat Shield (utility): An immediate interrupt that gives you a hefty defense bonus against an attack.
  • Forest of Hands (expert): An area burst that deals a decent amount of damage, with a Miss effect. Oh, if an enemy moves it also takes automatic damage as an Effect.
Vocations are Gamma World's answer to feats. The way it works is that at level 4 you can pick a vocation, gaining the first feat associated with it. There are thirteen vocations to choose from, such as Animal Hunter, Diplomat, and Spice Trader. There's no cost for doing this, so there's no reason not to pick one. One interesting vocation is Beast Rider. It deals with mounted combat, and there's an entire page devoted to explaining how it works on the following page.

Chapter 2: Monsters
Unlike the first two Gamma World products, most of the stuff in this book is level seven and up. Yeah, there are a few level 4-6 goodies (such as a pair of new grens), but the majority consist of super-powered robots, dinosaurs, demons, undead, and other bizarre shit like star slime. I'm not too surprised, since the lower levels had plenty of coverage in the first two products. Also, it's very easy to level stuff up and down to where you need it. I particularly like the saurians, which are simply regenerating, spear-wielding dinosaurs. The descriptive text mentions that fusion rifles or nukes wouldn't be much more of a stretch, which is awesome.

Chapter 3: Moon Zone 9
The moon is apparently somewhat terraformed, giving it a thin atmosphere that doesn't really make it habitable at all (you can last like, ten rounds total). Aside from the lack of an atmosphere, there's other features danger features such as nanofiber streams (ongoing acid damage, as well as acid vulnerability) and superconductor sands (automatic electricity damage when you flux). If you've got a suit and the sense to avoid all this crazy shit? Space eels.

The chapter also provides you with a map of a small portion of the moon that features numerous sites of interest, including a ruined station where Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, mysterious, radioactive wreckage, and the domed city of Tranquility. Tranquility gets a few pages of exposition, detailing over twenty locations along with some personalities and quest ideas. Oddly, the pair of NPCs with stat blocks are both above level 10, though given the level range of lunar monsters I guess it's not too surprising.

The rules for Skill Challenges have been reprinted again, with examples like replacing a breather tank on your suit, extricating a stuck vehicle, and setting up a habitat to bunk in. There's also 20 new items to be found on the moon, including the obvious moon suit, inflatable dome, and the coveted space pen. Characters on the moon automatically get a space suit and 2 -5 items off the Moon Zone 9 gear table, presumably by off-camera trade ins or other "acquisitions". These also get brief descriptions on the following page, explaining that a water re-former changes 50 pounds of rock into a pint of water in an 8-hour span. Good to know.

Chapter 4: Legion of Gold
This is the actual adventure, and similar to Famine at Far-go, it takes up a considerable chunk of the book (about half). Mysterious raiders in golden armor are attacking the towns in the Horn barony, and its up to the heroes to put a stop to them. The adventure is divided into four parts, which involves tracking them down, investigate a machine-staffed facility, get teleported to the moon, and destroy a malfunctioning AI. While not quite a cool as beating up Dracula in his moon-castle and surfing his robotic double back to Earth, it's still pretty epic.

If you're up for sending your group to the moon in order to stop a mad scientist from zapping Gamma Terra with a laser cannon, deal with robotic aliens that cobble bodies out of humanoid corpses, or just make a quick buck whaling, this is a great buy. If moon-walking isn't your style, it's still alright for the new origins and monsters.
February 05, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

DM Screen, Deluxe Edition Overview

What elevates the Deluxe Dungeon Master's Screen above the normal, non-deluxe fare? Well...nothing, really. I mean they're both the exact same height and width, and both feature most of the same tables, if positioned and/or sized differently. When I say most, I mean that the "deluxe" iteration is missing the recommended damage-by-level table, and there aren't any page number references. On the other hand, DC's for common skills breaks things up by skill a bit more clearly and has more to offer, as does the panel dominated by conditions.

So, the new one doesn't exactly strike me as "higher quality", and certainly doesn't sport any features that the first one didn't. It just has all the current rules and has better art on the player's side. If you DM and like DM screens, it's definitely a great buy, especially at only ten bucks.

February 04, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

D&D XP 2011 News

I didn't go, but I did listen to a podcast linked on Here's some of the more interesting stuff I picked up while multi-tasking homework.

They are going to create a theme in each quarter, tying the Encounters season and other products together. The example provided was that if they wanted to release a book on warfare, then that D&D Encounters season would also involve warfare. Aside from having thematic products, the other advantage is that it would reduce necessary playtesting/quality control/R&D. Their new stance seems to be quality over quantity.

Fortune Cards
There will be three sets of Fortune Cards. They like Fortune Cards because they have low “buy-in”. They don’t want them to be necessary for your character, and want to know how people use them and what they think about them. Fortune Card sets will be tied in with what’s occurring in organized play.

On another note, renown cards will be going away: instead of getting rewards cards for getting enough renown, you will get special Fortune Cards. Finaly, Twitter-buffs will now modify existing Fortune Cards (ex, draw two cards and pick one).

D&D Encounters
Quick note, there won't be level bumping in Encounters anymore. 
  • March of the Phantom Brigade will kick off the Shadow-themed lineup. Uses Essentials player books and Fortune Cards. Supposedly hearkens back to Ghost Tower of Inverness, but "reinvented in a new light".
  • Dark Legacy of Evard really kicks off the Encounters with Heroes of Shadow, and also uses Shadowfell material.
  • Lost Crown of Neverwinter is tied with Neverwinter Campaign Setting/Guide. Normally, I don't give two shits about Forgotten Realms, but this might be worth looking into.
  • Beyond the Crystal Cave, formerly a classic adventure (UK1). Apparently, this was the first introduction of Feywild stuff into D&D. Supposed to include lots of Feywild critters.
Neverwinter Campaign Setting
This is the "new" setting of the year, which strangely focuses on one location within Forgotten Realms. Supposedly, you'll be able to run a campaign just in Neverwinter, but obviously can use it with broader Forgotten Realms campaigns. Has themes that will integrate you into the larger picture; what organization you belong to, how a NPC/organization reacts to you, what you know, etc. In short, they provide more story-elements.

Neverwinter Game Day will take place during GenCon. You'll be able to create a character, play it as part of a prelude to the Lost Crown of Neverwinter, and bring it to the that Encounters season. Basically, a perk that will provide insight and loot for players that manage to make it.

Heroes of Shadow
Changed back to a hardcover format. It is similar to the "power" books (ex., Martial Power), but takes a more general approach as opposed to just focusing on one power source: there's options for all characters, regardless of class, power source, or race. In addition to other classes, the original DDI assassin will be in there, too (which we already knew). In terms of flavor, there's plenty of information on how each race views shadow magic, as well as other story elements.

Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond
A boxed-set with soft-cover books, this is the "setting book" for the Shadowfell. There's lots of coverage for stuff like locations and factions, as well as a 32-page encounter book that ranges across all tiers of play. They're all supposed to have a "distinct, Shadowfell feel". Aside from maps and tokens, the box also includes a Despair Deck. This let's you afflict your players with various debilitations. Craven, paranoid, jittery. They provide a boon when overcome. It’s basically a table in another format. Some players “keep them secret and see what the other players at the table can pick up on”.

Monster Vault: Threats of the Nentir Vale
This follows the same format as Monster Vault, but specific to Nentir Vale. In addition to monsters, there's also information on various groups and "villainous organizations" present in the Nentir Vale, all of which is supposed to be "easily ported" to other settings. New monsters include the peryton and rime mistress, there's tokens for everything as well as new maps. The maps follow a half-page format, making space more manageable and allowing more maps.

Maddness at Gardmore Abbey
This year's "super-adventure", it's intended for the upper-heroic tier and comes in a boxed-set. It comes with four 32-page books and a Deck of Many Things, which is integrated into the adventure: the abbey has been "contorted" by its continual use, and players will be forced to reconcile with the effects that have taken place. This has a very interested premise, so hopefully it's executed well.

Heroes of the Feywild
This follows the same format as Heroes of Shadow, but obviously focuses on the Feywild. In addition to new builds, class subtypes, feats, etc, WotC is trying more experimental stuff with this book. Specifically mentioned was a class that has two roles, but not both at the same time. Interesting, but many classes already bleed into other roles already, It will be interesting to see if its more than just picking another class feature

Book of Vile Darkness
Ties in with the new sci-fi movie, Book of Vile Darkness. They want to coincide with the movie's release, which is planned to be the "back half of the year". Didn't really hear much on this.

Unnamed Program
Since D&D Encounters is focused on the casual crowd, they wanted to do something for the "hardcore" players. Players will create characters within guidelines to tackle one “super-deadly encounter”, allowing DMs to throw down the gauntlet and try to kill the players. Starts in September, and won’t be fixed to a specific time or date, allowing stores to open it up when they feel its best.

Quote: “Win at D&D.”

Legend of Drizz’t Boardgame
Same format as Wrath of Ashardalon and Castle Ravenloft, but there might be a competitive adventure. You get to tackel Drizz't's iconic enemies (not sure if you get to "help" him). This is also tied with Neverwinter Campaign Setting.

WotC views these as D&D in a board game form, as players have added their own characters, monsters, adventures, etc. Apparently Ravenloft did really good.

Conquest of Nerath
Unlike the adventure boardgames, this is a 2-4 player strategic fantasy conquest game. Each player picks a faction in Nentir Vale, and beat each other up. There's “100’s” of 15mm minis, including air elementals, dragons, ships, soldiers, etc. Mentioned that boardgames are one of the new directions they are taking the D&D property.

Dungeon Tiles
People seem to like them., and now that they have the core sets released (with Essentials), they can focus on narrow, thematic niches. New sets include Witchlight Fens (tied into the Shadowfell releases), and another tileset for building a haunted house.

Pulled Books
Hero Builder’s Handbook absorbed all of Champion’s of the Heroic Tier. All stuff has been worked on and completed, and now they are trying to figure out how to release all of it. They want to release fewer, higher quality releases, as opposed to releasing pages of errata. Someone mentioned art featuring a hezrou carrying Lloth from an unknown product.

Stuff from the Q&A Part
What they mean by using Essentials is that instead of using a global, startard progression for everything, they will focus on what makes the class unique, what mechanics support it, and go from there. Class Compendium had options for classes both Essentials and non-Essentials, including swapping abilities and multiclassing.

In response to the crunch/flavor ration in books: 50-75% mechanics, the rest flavor elements in new hero books. They will continue to use heavy intro text to inject more flavor. Also, more text to explain where a race/class exists in the world, what it means to be a race [shade], or worship a domain [of death], etc.

Gamma World
No Gamma World tiles, but perhaps in DDI, unless the boxed sets continue to sell out for awhile.
February 03, 2011
Posted by David Guyll
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