Friday, May 30, 2008

DMG - Encounters


The full rules for combat typically appear in the Player's Handbook, but there seems to be that extra set of rules that only a DM needs, which get their own chapter in the Dungeon Master's Guide.

With Listen/Spot/Search being all tied into Perception, the start of an encounter, with surprise and the like, has been simplified. No more checking for Move Silently and Hide separately. It might take away a little from the "realism" of the game, but I don't think the abstraction hurts it -- those players that had to expend ranks on two types of Stealth now only have to do it for one.

I wasn't pleased with the section on Cover. Granted, the standard rules are the ones that will be in the Player's Handbook, but there's a page in the DMG dedicated to Cover that says "[i]f you want rules can let you determine cover more precisely, you can use these. They're the same rules that appear in the D&D Miniatures game." Again the Miniatures influence is shining through.

I may have given the impression that I don't like Miniatures. It's not true -- I think it's an interesting game, and while I suck at it, it's still fun. But it's not D&D, it's not a role-playing game, and never the twain shall meet. Or something. D&D has largely become Miniatures with role-playing tacked on, instead of role-playing with the possible use of figures on a battle map. But wait -- this is supposed to be about the DMG.

The forced movement and different types of terrain again have the scent of Miniatures influence, but I think that pushing, pulling and sliding opponents will add interesting possibilities to combat, which really only had the bull rush before.

Aquatic, mounted and flying combat is all covered in a few pages. I like that they extended the difficult/blocking/challenging/hindering terrain rules to air- and water- combat. They've also simplified the flying rules a bit, which were always a pain -- how many squares do I have to move before I can turn ... turn how much? These seem like they get the gist of aerial combat down to their basics. I'll have to re-read the rules on crashing, which say how long until you land, how you can try to recover, etc. They're a little more involved than before. There are also some new terms for flying creatures (to replace the various Clumsy/Good/Perfect flight types), such as Clumsy Flying and Clumsy Grounded, which say that the creature suffers if not on the ground or in the air, and Overland Flight, which means they can't fight at all in the air, even though they can fly. Hover is also its own ability, instead of implied by the flying description.

I really like the new disease system. I don't recall seeing anything about it in the sneak-peek articles. Instead of diseased and cured (and dead), you have a "disease track", and on each extended rest, you roll to see if you move along this track towards healthiness or the disease's final state (death, blindness, catatonia, etc.) This allows diseases that have weak effects and strong effects, and gives the character to feel a little better, to have a relapse... to really be affected by disease.

Poisons are less innovative, being similar enough to the older rules. They're still something I don't use nearly as often as I should.

As I mentioned at the start, the Player's Handbook will cover combat in more detail, but it was nice to see some of the extras here to get a sense of what else might be done beyond swinging a sword and casting a spell.

The Dungeon Master's Guide

The D&D gods must be watching over me, for they used their divine powers to have the 4e Dungeon Master's Guide sent to me a week early. Praise Oghma!

Showing amazing restraint, I'm actually going to read the book front-to-back, chapter by chapter, instead of leaping into later chapters to look at the new rules.

I like the look of the book; the pages are bright, but not glaring, and the layout graphics, headings, fonts and such are all very readable. This is more important to me than I realized, but when reading non-Wizards products, I think that (and the fact that they're often black-and-white) are what make them feel like inferior products. The art, as always, is stunning, and has almost made me start flipping through the book ahead of myself, more than once.

Chapter 1: HOW TO BE A DM

While the previous DM's Guides have chapters like this for the new player, this chapter is worth reading to see some of the other terminology that has come up, perhaps only internally to the Wizards developers, but it helps give insight to their design goals, knowing how they see the various players.

The chapter spends time talking about player motivations, and how to satisfy the needs of your possibly varied play group. It also talks about the different ways that your game might be run, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. It's a good introductory chapter to the game, and a good one to skim over, even if you've playing for over twenty years. Even if you skip it to get to the new, juicy stuff, I recommend going back and reading it.


This is another chapter that is likely to be skipped by long-time players. There's a short section on preparation for the DM, listing the areas you should focus on depending on how much time you have to prepare. It's not quite the way I'd approach it, but it would work for new DMs.

This chapter also strongly shows the new layout that Wizards mentioned they're using for the Monster Manual: new entries start on new pages. Narration, Pacing and Props, for instance, each start at the top of a page, making it much easier to find the section you want, or to know that this whole page isn't the one you're looking for. Some might complain that the unused portion of the entry, filled with art, is a waste of space, but I agree with Wizards that it provides much better layout, and is worth it.

One of the best bits of advice in the Dispensing Information section is about how characters now identify magic items: no longer is Identify or Analyze Dweomer necessary; a short rest while the character fiddles with it is enough to give them the information they need. This might break the mystery that some DMs like to keep, but I always found it annoying to require the characters to have one of these spells available, or to pay someone to ID it. And as the book points out, '[y]ou don't want to hear, "I hit AC 31 ... plus whatever this sword's bonus is," for hours or weeks on end.' Amen to that!

There are lots of hints in this chapter on addressing problems during play, whether they're game flow problems, DM mistakes, or problem players. Even experienced D&D players should read this section to remind themselves about problems that might occur and how they can be addressed.

Off to start chapter 3. I'll post about the other chapters as I read 'em!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Shadow in the... no, Fell on the Keep's Shadow... no...

I'm currently reading through the first official 4e product, module H1 - Keep on the Shadowfell. No spoilers, I promise -- I couldn't expect Griff to not read his own blog, now, could I?

The module, being released over two weeks before the actual rules are, comes with a set of Quick Start Rules, as well as five premade character (six with the web download), since character creation isn't supplied. The Quick Start booklet is well-done, giving you just the information you need to play the adventure. It's hard for me to judge whether or not a newcomer to D&D could make do with this booklet, or if some previous D&D experience is required, as I find it hard to purposefully forget all of the concepts that I already understand. It does, however, give you all of the 4e-specific things that a 3e player would need to know to play.

The module booklet also duplicates all of the information in the Quick Start booklet, and adds a little extra information for the DM, such as Condition, Targets and a little more detail about Skills. The Skill section definitely reveals the 4e idea of simplicity, with the Perception skill consolidating the Listen/Spot/Search, Thievery grouping Disable Device/Open Lock/Pick Pockets/Slight of Hand, etc. The skills take up half of a page in the Quick Start, and two pages in the module -- I can't see them taking up much more space in the final rulebooks, which is a big change compared to the 3.5 section.

Of course, not everything is appealing. If you've read any of the previous posts in this blog, you know what we think of the "Miniaturization" of D&D, and this module only emphasizes things more. As expected, all distances are measured in squares, but it becomes more noticeable as you go on. Charging requires that you stop at the nearest square to your target. This isn't new, as 3.0/3.5 had the same requirement, but it only outlines the you-can-only-stand-in-this-5'-by-5'-spot feeling that you would expect from Miniatures, but not from a role-playing game, which by its nature should be more free-form. The worst case of tile-thinking is in the description of a "barrier" area-of-effect (such as a wall of stone I suppose):

Barrier: A barrier runs along the edge of a specified number of squares. A barrier must cross at least one edge of the origin square.

So not only do I have to specify a number of SQUARES, it also has to go along the edge of squares? What if I want it at an angle? What if I want it in the middle of a square? And if it has to run along an edge, how can it cross and edge? Even if I construct dungeons with rectangular, blocky areas, there's no way I'm not going to house-rule all over this one and tell my spellcasters they can put their barriers wherever the hell they want.

The new structure of hit points and healing and dying is something I'll just have to see in practice. PCs and monsters have a lot more hitpoints, and we have healing surges, and second winds, and... well, it's different, but until we actually try it, I suppose I'll not dismiss it. Yet.

I do like the new encounter layout, which isn't strictly a 4e thing, but has come out along with all of the 4e material, so we'll lump it in as "new D&D stuff". Having the flavour text, monster blocks, encounter map, tactics and treasure all nicely on two opposing pages makes it VERY handy for the DM. No page-flipping required; just leave the booklet open and it's all there.

And speaking of monster blocks... while they're nice and compact, giving you just the information you need, they also reek of Miniature stat cards. As I said, they're useful enough for giving the data you want, but it's yet another example of D&D becoming Miniatures With Roleplaying On Top.

And speaking of monsters... when I first read about Minions, it just sounded like a way to simplify things even more. Having seen how they're used in encounters (err, I mean, not to say that there ARE minions in this adventure...), I think they were actually well-designed. I've yet to actually run an encounter with them, but being a numbers-guy, I can see how they serve the purpose for which they were designed. In theory at least.

And speaking of monster roles... these blog pages have complained about the idea of roles, and I don't know that I understand their full purpose in 4e, but I did find that, while reading the adventure, I found myself looking at the roles for each of the participants, using it as a gist of what they were about. I may not know if Skirmisher means they get this power or have these hit points or whatnot, but at least I know their, err, role in the encounter. Not to say that there ARE skirmishers in this adventure...

The talk about reduced use of magic items in 4e also showed itself in this module, although being a level 1-3 adventure, I suppose it's comparable to the magic items you might find in a 3.5 adventure of the same level. Especially if it was a WOTC adventure, which are infamous for getting you to 20th level with a +1 longsword, if you're lucky. Not to say that there ARE magic items in this adventure...

The other 4e-style changes to things like skill usage, rewards and quests also get a little clearer in this adventure, and it looks, so far, that they've each been well-designed and playtested. Not to say that there ARE skill checks, treasure, XP or quests in this adventure...

Even with all of the Excerpts they've been throwing at us, it wasn't until I got this product in my hands and started flipping through it that 4e really become a solid, tangible thing that was coming, whether we like it or not. I'm warming up to it, but it will depend largely on how much we can un-Miniaturize the rules when we play it. Of course, summer is the worst time for 4e to be released, as we older geeks have yards to tend to and golf courses to terrorize, but hopefully our group will be able to find time to try this module out soon.

Multiclassing and prestige classes

I know it's a month late -- my defense is that they're overwhelming me with all of these Excerpts. But after reading the entries on Multiclassing and Paragon Paths, I'm more than a little disappointed.

I know that one of the tenets of 4e D&D was to make things simpler, and classes were certainly something that could overwhelm the newcomer. With the near-dozen classes in the 3.5 Player's Handbook and fifteen prestige classes in the 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide, players already had quite a few choices with single-classing or multiclassing.

Then add in all of the accessory books, which, whether a book on magic, evil or monsters, seemed to provide at least one more class or prestige class to the list. With so many (too many?) choices available, it became daunting to try and decide what the next hero of the world would look like.

Of course, there's nothing saying that you had to look through them all, that you had to stray from the starter classes, or even consider multiclassing (or prestige classes). In fact, I'd say that the idea of customizing your character to that extent (whether for power-gaming purposes or that perfect character theme) was the purview of advanced players who could handle an overwhelming amount of choice, and who relished piecing together that obscure combination that exemplified their character vision.

I think 4e has gone too far with simplifying these choices. The multiclassing article basically reduces the idea down to a few feats that give you another class's abilities. And instead of prestige classes, which had a minimum level at which you could start down that path (unlike a true multiclass), we now have the paragon path, which always starts at 11th level.

So, instead of being able to customize your character's training and destiny level-to-level, you're restricted to being different from the fighter down the block only once you've survived a third of your adventuring career. Yes, sure, your feats still allow you to be unique, so now you're the fighter who uses a longsword instead of that guy beside you with the axe. Fighter, meet fighter.

"This approach lacks the intuitive elegance of the 3E system," the Multiclassing post says. I'll say. So much for my human monk/fighter/sword of righteousness/forsaker/initiate of Pistis Sophia gestalt NPC that I never got to use. It will be interesting to see what future class-related releases are produced, either by Wizards or the fanbase, because I don't think the long-time players will stand to be throttled in this way.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Skill Challenges

I thought I was going to hold off on commenting on the numerous Excerpts that WOTC are releasing lately, but the one on Skill Challenges changed my mind.

I really like this idea. They hinted in the past at how skills were going to be improved, but this is better than I had hoped. As a DM, I found that 3.0 was quite lacking when it came to skill balance -- that some went unchosen by every class. The 3.5 rules moved a few things around and changed some others, the most notable was the large set of synergy bonuses added to the Knowledge skills.

But turning skill checks into challenges is just terrific. I often tried to use the more esoteric skills throughout a campaign, so those players that had chosen some odd ones for their characters would be able to justify them. I think Don caught on to that pretty early, putting a rank here and a rank there. While a rogue could often be relied on needing his or her sneaking or thieving skills at some point in a campaign, the limited selection of a fighter, almost all Strength-based, went unused unless there was a lot of Jumping, Swimming and Climbing going on: "The goblin king demands that you climb to the top of that cliff and jump into the lake five times, making the biggest cannonball splash you can each time -- OR HE WILL BURN THE VILLAGE."

But now the Cannonball Clan Conundrum can be fully fleshed out as an encounter, whether the party decides to splash or slash to save the village. In the past, I would struggle with having to decide whether taking the skill-based solution should warrant the same amount of XP (and rightfully, it should, I feel) or whether the only true way to earn your experience was to slay everything in your path.

The example Challenge shown is a perfect example of the hand-waviness of the more role-playing aspects of skill checks in the 3e rules. To make most Charisma-based skills worthwhile at all, you needed to roll them, but on the other hand, these situations were usually role-played speech between the players (their characters) and myself (the NPCs). I'm fortunate that my group are really good at role-playing these encounters -- they can theaten, cajole, persuade and bribe according to their needs and according to how they feel their character should behave. But every so often -- usually at the turning-point discussions and suasions -- I would have the player roll the appropriate skill, which would then either advance or backslide their role-played efforts. I think we worked it well, for the most part; sometimes the roll filled in that argument that the player couldn't quite make (to me, or to the NPC), and other times it would clear the NPC's head and make them realize they've been duped.

Having these Skill Challenges spelled out, though, doesn't lessen the role-playing aspect of the game. Just because a challenge "requires 8 successes before 4 failures" doesn't mean that I'll tell this to the players, they'll roll up to 12 times, and that's that. It means that these encounters can be designed a little more structurally, perhaps with conversation trees showing where rolls might need to be made, and how the NPC's reaction will be at those various points (instead of me winging it on the NPC's behalf). In fact, published modules (or pre-planning DMs) could go so far as create such an encounter as a choose-your-own-adventure conversation, where instead of choosing you roll.

The cutpurse just asked why she should help you recover the amulet. Roll Diplomacy. If you roll 13 or higher, turn to page 4. Otherwise, keep reading.

While I've been warm and cold about the various changes we've seen in 4e, this one is by far my favorite. Nothing but good.