Thursday, July 31, 2008

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

I’m not totally sure but I think so. This Character Concepts gives me some hope.

For starters there are some very cool powers scattered around the PHB. Some of them enable a player to do things in 4e that 3rd edition or 3.5 couldn’t come close to emulating. There seems to be a nice assortment between damage dealing and attacking different defenses. Plus every class has something at higher levels that I can see producing that “wow” factor that’s been missing so far.

On the downside, it looks like the fun doesn’t really begin until the Paragon Tier. There are some nice things 10th level and lower but not much that I can get excited about. I mean, relative to my character’s level and the enemies we’ll be fighting, Fireball and Lightning Bolt are old standbyes for fun. But they’re a far cry from Elemental Maw or even Lightning Serpent (admittedly a 9th level Daily, so pre-Paragon. Still, 9th level before the first really cool power appears in the Wizard’s repetoire?).

I’m still disappointed in the watered down and restrictive multiclassing rules. As the author, Peter Shaefer writes “Paragon tier is when multiclassing comes into its own.” First off, I don’t want to wait 10 levels before that multiclassing feat I took starts to “come into its own.” Secondly, I really don’t see much of a payoff or a change in the character going all the way to the Epic Tier summary. The example characters still strike me as a basic warlock or fighter, with a smattering of powers pilfered from the second class(es).

I still intend to try out the multiclassing for myself, so my opinion of it might change in a year or two. For now I still feel like there’s no point in multiclassing, and that makes tailoring a character a distant dream.

Returning closer to the point of the article, I am heartened by the fact that thematic characters are easily done. Either of the two Schaefer gives as examples would be fun to play. Better yet, it makes me wonder what themes I’ll be able to come up with and experiment upon. Already I’m looking forward to developing my dragonborn wizard along the storm theme. With more books coming I eagerly await the new feats and powers.

What I’m not looking forward to, but might be forced into by the rules, is the whole swapping of powers thing. Again and again Schaefer has his examples swapping this power for that, and some times he switches back two levels later. Everytime I saw it I cringed. I mean, it makes no sense to me that one day my character can use Dread Star and the next she can’t. That’s like me suddenly forgetting how to drive but suddenly knowing how to fly a helicopter. To me, that stands out as the worst part of 4e. Unfortunately it’s clearly a fundamental basis of the whole set of rules.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Gleemax gone

We made it no secret here that we thought little of Gleemax. It didn't come as a surprise then, when it was announced that they're closing it down.

This, to me, is a good thing, for exactly the reasons they cited: to focus on other digital initiatives. I complain daily (and spare you from it, at least daily) about the lack of attention that is given to the current Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and hopefully this will now change. And while I mourn the loss of my glossy subscriptions, I've always been supportive of the move to a full digital format, because the perks are there, in theory: instant delivery, automatic updates, indexing, archiving.

And this would include a digital community, which is what Gleemax was going for. But they never made it, and whether it was because of a lack of manpower, lack of focus, of lack of vision, I suppose it's too bad. I was never against the idea of Gleemax, just the version we ever got to see.

And that god-awful green.

Dragonborn Ecology

From the moment WotC revealed the new race, the Dragonborn, I was in love. It took me back to the old days of AD&D and the Dragonlance modules. Only this time, the Draconians are a playable race (and not a trademark infringement I’m sure).

It gets even better with the release of the Dragon article The Ecology of the Dragonborn from issue #365.

As an aside, I’ve always enjoyed the “Ecology of…” articles and consider them to be one of the few must reads.

Anyways, the Dragonborn ecology hit the bullseye with me. The race’s emphasis on ancestors and honor and action filled what I saw as a missing gap. For sure I could play a character of any race who reveres any or all of those things. It’s just nice that there’s a race to fill the space between the corruptible humans, flighty elves, dour dwarves, impish halflings, and brooding Tieflings. The Dragonborn certainly give me the perfect race for samurai character type I so love to play.

I’m not so sure why WotC felt the need to tie the history of the Dragonborn to the Tiefling. Some sort of validation for the latter? Or maybe it was just a simple “hey, here’s two new races with a connected history.”

More importantly, I’m not sure how they’ll drop this new core race into the Forgotten Realms. For those who don’t know FR is our play group’s defacto setting. While we don’t stick strictly to canon, we do take an interest in the history and grand events as well as the geography. So having an entirely new race suddenly appear in the streets of Waterdeep might be a bit tricky. I’ve guarded optimism that they’ll do it right and not fall back on the planar rift cliché.

History and personality archetypes aside, I’m honestly glad they didn’t overdo the draconic powers. The breath weapon adds some nice flavor (although my character has yet to use his) while staying far from being overpowered. At the same time I think a weak bite attack would have been fitting as well, (I mean, they have a maw full of sharp teeth) but that’s a small quibble..Personally I roleplay it out by thinking of my Dragonborn as having a low view on using such an animal like attack.

There are definitely tons of possibilities for racial feats (besides the lame ones in the PHB) so I’m excited about future releases. In fact, I’d love to see an entire splat book devoted to just the core races and feats and powers. As it stands, that’s probably what it will take to live up to WotC’s design goal of making race matter throughout a character’s adventuring career.

Anyways, the Dragonborn is a hit with me and gets a solid “good job mate”.

Monday, July 28, 2008

My stab at monster design

The Smothering Coastal Wizard.

I haven’t worked out the stats yet (not that the math is important), but it definitely has a very low Int.

The favored attack is a bludgeoning effect that leaves the target confused into buyng a Miniatures game with rpg elements layered on top.

The Smotherer then stifles as much creativity as it possibly can, starting with multiclassing and Prestige Classes. It then throws a myriad of bland boring feats at it’s hapless victiom. Further attacks leave the target stumbling into a blind alleyway where there’s no escape from vanilla classes with only two set builds that must be followed.

Want to play a gnome? Sorry says the Smotherer, but the Tiefling is core, try that. And next summer in the PHB2 you’ll be able to play our favorite race, the Drow. Fun!

Finally, with the targets lulled into a stupor of At-Will powers and close blasts and bursts the Smotherer brings out it’s finishing attack. A seriers of source books, each one as bland as the ones before. If the victim is lucky he or she can break free and move onto something where imagination and creativity still count.

Paint by numbers perhaps.

Monsters again

I just finished the Design & Development article from last week, and I'm here to be a broken record...

The article is broken up into different sections on the design and planning of monster creation. It's no secret what I think of it, so it was interesting to see the thoughts that the developers had regarding this.

Starting Points

Heinsoo mentions the "somewhat ad hoc approach to monster design" of 2nd edition, and explains that 3rd edition decided to take the rules and mechanics for player characters and applied them to monsters. So why does it feel that they've gone backwards with 4th edition?

He claims that they felt they went "slightly too far", mentions the formulae that were used (the part that I liked), and how in the end, "the PCs deserve more attention than monsters." I don't disagree with this statement, but it feels that DMs have been put to the very bottom of the heap, if we don't have a mechanism to make monsters. And what of the players that want to play monstrous roles? Savage Species was a terrific book, and now, we're back to "no, you can only play what the Player's Handbook says you can play." Why should we have to wait for Wizards to release another book... oh, now I get it.

Schaefer pipes up and says that dropping the formulae is a "dream come true", because it was "too much work" to "check and double-check" the monster. Exceuse me, but aren't you developing an online presence? Aren't we having character sheets that automatically calculate themselves? Why not monster sheets? If it's because 3.5 had so many exceptions, then change THAT, but don't change the fact that things are actually calculated.

Streamlining While Expanding Favor

I can agree with part of this. Some of the larger, advanced, complex creatures in 3.5 had lists of abilities and spells that never got used. As has been mentioned, the typical lifespan of a monster once a party encounters it is quite short, and you only need to provide the abilities it has a reasonable chance of using in that time. And the Tactics sections in the new monster blocks are really good for helping the DM to know what the monster will do when, in what order, and with what strategy.

But what if this monster, or rather, NPC, becomes part of the party? Yes, we could roll up a character and treat it as an NPC, but what about the Ogre that I've convinced to help fight its brethren? Shouldn't he have a few more interesting things to do, if he's actually a party member for a while and thus might live longer than one encounter? What about the polymorphed silver dragon NPC? How do I roll that up? What if my campaign's nemesis is prone to escaping and fighting another day -- do I want it to just have a small set of abilities so even when the party catches up to him again, they still know what few tricks he has up his sleeve?

The fact that the monsters come from Miniatures is painfully obvious. Even the format of the statblock looks like a miniature card. And while I strongly agree with their comments about each race having their defining trait -- shiftiness for kobolds, bloodied orcs, etc. -- I don't really feel that this gives the individual enemy any sense of worth. Sure, the kobolds as a whole are a shifty race, but these five that just hopped out from behind that boulder might as well don some red shirts and be done with it.

Another comment caught my eye, where Schaefer points out that 'you won't see a stat block that includes "bugbear traits" that forces you to look elsewhere.' This is a good thing, as I found that to cause quite a bit of page-flipping. But I'd still rather have all of a bugbear's traits placed into a stat block, even if it makes it bigger. The later statblock format was a huge improvement over the earlier ones, and made for easy tracking of pertinent data - senses and such were up here, attacks were down here, skills way down here. Sort the attacks in order of likelihood, or use the little circled icons to indicate a favored attack, but to just reduce the number?

Monsters Now Appear In Context

I don't think I have any complaints about this section. The larger enemy groups work out really well, doing exactly what they say -- preventing a single target from getting locked down and the battle just turning into a bunch of die rolls. Instead, characters and enemies alike are shifting about, jockeying for position, and it feels like a much more involved combat.

And yes, I swear part of this article was written to me specifically: "only readers who appreciated strict adherence to known monster-creation formulas got any satisfaction out of a perfectly done stat block." And while I enjoyed be able to KNOW that some of the stat blocks in 3.5 were wrong, I didn't necessarily enjoy finding the problem -- I think I'd rather have correct ones, thank you.

Monster Stories

I like where they're going with the monster groups here -- that some monsters will usually accompany others because of a master/slave relationship, or what have you, but it's the "[w]hen you're making up new monsters" comment that gets me. True, I haven't blogged about the DM's Toolbox chapter in the Dungeon Master's Guide yet, but what tools do we have, really, for making up our own creatures and knowing that they make sense? We're not all professional game creators, and thus don't have an inherent feel for what is balanced and what is not.

Recharge Mechanics

I do like this change, moving a dragon's breath from a record-keeping chore to a every-round check. I had all sorts of little columns and pencil ticks on my combat sheets to keep track of breath recharges, poison effects, acid arrows and the like, and the move to remove those is something I've admitted to liking in 4e before.

I'm amused where Schaefer corrects Heinsoo in this section, regarding the conversion from "useable again in 1d4 rounds" to "Recharge 56", saying "I'm picking nits, but getting the math right is my job." Is that right? Then why won't you get the math right for monster creation BY USING SOME?

The best example of this recharge being a good mechanic took place this last weekend, where a leader type in an ambush surprised the whole party when he barked out a command and suddenly half of the characters were flanked. Not only that, but the commander did it AGAIN, and the players were all trying to figure out how he could have such a powerful power -- it was because he rolled nicely on his recharge. Having that kind of surprise from the players (and the characters, no doubt) is what is shaping up the 4e encounters to be better than 3.5 ones.

I'm still not happy with the monster creation, but their use in encounters so far has been positive. Can we find a happy compromise?

The Warlord Revisited

I know I had some doubts about the Warlord class and now that I’ve had a look at the class in play (thanks to the newest addition to our group), I should in all fairness provide an update. Here it is.

Right off the bat I’ve gotta say that the class is very good at what it’s designed for. It’s powers are centered around moving allies into the right spots to control a battlefield (or dungeon room or whatever) and the class does that very well. Played properly I think a Warlord could force even the most disfunctional group of players into acting like a well oiled fighting machine.

At the same time, in it’s purest “build” (I hate that term!) the Warlord doesn’t do a lot of damage. It strikes me as a true “leader” (yuck!) in that it’s contribution isn’t in damage dice but in hidden, or subtle adds. Once you factor in all the hits that would have been misses, and the extra sneak attack damage etc… the Warlord does pull it’s weight.

On the other hand, I still don’t see why it’s powers couldn’t have been split into the paladin and cleric classes. Tried and true classes that can easily fit the “leader role” (cringe). If nothing else, rolling the Warlord’s powers into those classes would have given players extra “builds” (fuck, I hate myself right now) for their clerics and paladins.

Plus, there were rounds where our warlord used his power to give our paladin an extra attack on an enemy. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t one of the design goals to give every player something cool to do on every turn? Hence the healing surges and second winds to free up of the cleric from casting cure spells every other round. Yet, the warlord on two separate rounds did, for all intents and purposes, nothing. Weird.

Most damning of all, in my mind at least, is that the Warlord’s roots clearly show. It’s a Mini through and through. If you need any evidence to prove that 4e is nothing but D&D Minis with some roleplaying elements thrown over top, look no further. I present Exhibit A. The Warlord. Case closed.

That aside, the warlord is overall an interesting class with some nice powers. Does it have a place in 4e? Sure. Does it deserve it’s spot in the PHB? Not in my opinion. Will I ever play one? Nope. Not my cup of tea.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

DMG - Campaigns

Oops. Obviously I don't look ahead to see what the chapters are, as I talked about some of the ideas in the Campaigns chapter when I discussed the Adventures chapter.

Of course, a lot of the rules and ideas behind creating and running a module also apply to the campaign as a whole. Again, this chapter is meant, I feel, for newer Dungeon Masters who need some guidance in developing their world and the adventures within. In the same way as the Adventures chapter, it starts off talking about published campaigns, and how you can use or modify them to your needs. I think that using a published campaign setting is more recommended than a published module, because creating a whole campaign setting can be daunting and quite time-consuming. Taking a world created by others and adding your own twist into it is so much easier.
And, as this chapter reminds you, there's no reason that you have to stick with anything in the publish material -- if you don't like the name of this city, or where it is, or who rules it, change away. The only warning that needs to be given is that if your players are familiar with the campaign setting, perhaps too much, then they might argue fine points that you change and/or dislike the changes you make to their beloved world.

The various themes suggested are pretty standard fare, and I think I've used nearly all of them. World-Shaking Events, Divine Strife... these are what tell the characters that their role in the events will put then in the annals of history forever. The subgenres are a little more subtle, and while I've taken snippets of these here and there for a campaign, I myself stick to the Swords & Sorcery style of campaign for the most part. To me, many of these could last for a module or two, but a campaign dedicated to them seems a bit much. Perhaps my players don't agree?

The idea of the Super Adventure is interesting. It's not new, but putting a name to it is, I think. The campaign I'm currently designing could be classified as a super adventure. One thing that I find lacking in campaigns that I've made (and this is wholly my fault) is that the characters don't get much sense of a homebase. The story takes them from village to town to city, from kingdom to kingdom, from crypt to dungeon to demi-plane. There's no familiarity being built-up, apart from the occasional visit from recurring NPCs and the general flow of the plot. The super adventure, being focussed in one setting, helps to both personalize the events that are taking place in the characters' (possibly adopted) home, as well as to provide easier revelations of the effects that the party is having on its environs. If the characters see the city grow from ruins to a thriving metropolis, knowing they're the direct cause, that's as rewarding as the electrum pieces in their purses.

The next few parts are again for the newer Dungeon Master, talking about the story design and flow, and how to introduce the players and their characters to your schemes. The Starting at Higher Level section seems out of place here, being a rule-based section in an otherwise role-playing chapter. Isn't this discussed in the Player's Handbook?

The section on running a campaign gives guidance on tying together separate modules, either ones that are meant to be in a chain of events, or ones that might be completely separate ideas that the Dungeon Master wants to turn into an epic series of conflicts. When using store-bought adventures, such as the initial 8 from 3rd edition, you had a subtle theme in the background (the ancient dragon Ashardalon) that loosely related the modules together. But it was up to the Dungeon Master to give a reason why the party went from the Sunless Citadel to the Forge of Fury and onward to Brindinford. When making your own campaign and modules within, I tend to start with a grand scheme and parcel it out into smaller bits that make sense as self-contained stories, but stories that all tie together, progressing to the ultimate... demise of the party.

My favorite section of this chapter was on the Tiers of Play, where they spell out the kinds of events that characters in each tier might expect to see, the foes they will face, and the range of the characters' adventures and fame. I'm still not sure what I think of the Epic Destinies, however. They have a note of finality to them, that this character has reached the end of their career, even while this chapter assures you that immortality doesn't mean retirement.

Now, if only one of our parties could make it that far.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

DMG - Updates

This isn't a chapter in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but a file that Wizards maintains and should be checked regularly.

Usually these update files correct small overlooked errors, such as the Warlord NPC getting martial ranged proficiency instead of simple ranged proficiency, or the [Healing] keyword being left off of The Invulnerable Coat of Arnd. Okay, no one is perfect, and these little errors being fixed ensure that they don't end up as stupid Ask Wizards questions. But this latest set of changes is more than that. It's much bigger than a missing word, or the wrong bonus type.

The DCs on actions and skill checks got completely changed. Now everything is easier to do, from 3 to 12 points easier. This is not a little change -- a change on one point here and there would represent a slight rebalancing at this level or this difficulty. But this is significant. This is ... I'm speechless.

Well, you wish. But really, this is almost absurd. If you have the Dungeon Master's Guide, follow along with me: turn to page 42. That chart at the bottom there, with all sorts of DCs for various difficulty types and various level ranges. See the DC10 for a level 1-3 Easy check? Change that to a 5. That's right, it's now "five easier" to do. That's not a fine-tuning, that's a complete rebalancing of the check system.

See the bottom of the chart, where it says "For skill checks: Increase DCs by 5"? That has been completely removed. So now that level 1-3 Easy skill check has gone from DC15 to DC5. In fact, if you go to page 61, where the skill check table is, you can see changes throughout that, too. Level 28-30 Easy check goes from DC30 to DC19. An eleven point drop. And diseases, also something that carries a DC, also got affected, usually by 6 or more.

The Player's Handbook also came out with some updates, that I haven't gone through yet (my PHB isn't at-hand), but paging through the update file doesn't spring any changes to the calculation of DC checks, so it's not like they've just lowered all of the values across the board -- you roll the same and add the same bonuses, and things have just become easier.

Now, I'm sure there are players rejoicing about this, and it could very well be that this is a required change -- we haven't done many checks in our campaign as of yet, having only dealt with conversation and combat so far. And if that's the case - if things were too hard - then I'm all for these changes. But how on earth did something like this not get caught in play-testing?

I could see a global lowering by 1 point as something that might slip out of play-testing, revealed once the masses got their hands on the rules. But five points? Ten? Twelve? I really wonder what happened here. They only playtested combat? They have really lucky dice? Perhaps they published some old pre-playtesting numbers?

Or maybe Wizards is really on the DM's side after all, and looking for a Total Party Kill.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

DMG - Rewards

I wasn't originally going to make a post solely for this chapter, since it's so short, but in the end I decided it was something worth commenting on.

Rewards, as the chapter points out, are what drive the characters, and the players, through the adventure. Whether your character loves every shiny coin and eye gem, or the player is the power-gamer who just needs that one extra level to realize her dreams, rewards represent your "score" in this game. Even for the most die-hard roleplayer, saving simple villages and negotiating with kobold chieftains can get a bit boring after a while; they want to advance to saving cities, nations and worlds, and dealing with giants, dragons, demons and deities. These are things that the lowly first-level character can't be expected to do - the only reason a dragon bothers to parley instead of attack is if the party either poses a threat, or can offer something in return. These require advanced levels, treasure, or both.

My favorite part of this chapter happens to be the change for the experience points from a variable scale to a static one. No longer do you compare each monster's Challenge Rating the the party's level to determine the experience earned; that orc is worth 200XP whether you're first level or fifth. How much that 200XP helps in your advancement is what changes. Why is this significant? It makes adventure-building a lot easier. In 3rd edition, the DM would have to look up the CR of each creature in an encounter and figure out the XP once the encounter ended - if the adventurers cleared the crypt before ridding the pass of the troll infestation, they might have gained a level and thus the trolls aren't worth as much. This prevented pre-calculation of experience points for each encounter, unless you knew for sure that the party was going to be 6th level here.

Now, adventure writers can provide the total XP for the encounter with the encounter, regardless of the size or average level of the party. Not only does this make for easier computation for the DM running the adventure, but it also allows single encounters or encounter sets (Side Treks, as Wizards is calling them) to be looked at and considered for inclusion into a module or campaign; if the DM wants to ensure the party is in the paragon tier before they get to the Dark Spire of Death, and knows the party needs another 11,000XP total to reach that level, he can flip through his collection of random encounters and pick out a couple that total to that amount.

Milestones and action points are still new ideas to me, so I'm not sure how much of a "reward" an action point is. Sure, there might be a reason to reward a party that has kept going without rest, and admittedly, an action point isn't too large of a reward, but it seems like there's more attention to this idea that it warrants. It's just an action point, one extra action. I agree it can be handy, perhaps the turning point of a tough combat (especially if you've been going non-stop through encounters), and they provide that extra surge to make the character that more heroic. I just don't know that I see them as the big deal that the rules make them out to be.

Treasure is what drives a lot of characters, whether the accumulation of wealth or the power of magic items. The figuring of loot has been greatly simplified as well. This might have taken a bit of fun out of it, with the new parcel system, but on the other hand, it does allow the adventure creator to better tell if the adventure is doling out a reasonable amount of loot. This is a system that the Wizards people themselves have needed, for they were always notoriously stingy in their published modules.

I was surprised, when I read the section on the treasure parcels, though. In the early days of 4e's announcement, there was talk about magic items being toned down, yet the suggested loot for a party of five, per level, includes five magic items (not including potions). Perhaps this will seem lower at the higher levels, where you'd expect every enemy to be wielding at least +1 weapons, and that's where the new powers system looks like it'll be useful - obviating the need for everything over 5th level to have at least +1 items. Also, with potions being all but gone, especially the ubiquitous Cure Light Wounds of old, I suppose the number of magic items is affected there.

It will be interesting to see how the treasure and loot system works out at higher levels. In 3rd edition, selling items gave you half the market value on average. Now you only get a fifth, so characters are going to be motivated to make do with what they find, or disenchant them for rituals, which I'm looking forward to trying out in the future. I also find it interesting that a first-level party is expected to find an item four levels higher than them during their first level (in fact, every level should expect magic items of +1, +2, +3 and +4 of the party level). Yes, levels are stretched from 20 to 30 now, but still, this feels significant. This means that a second-level party could potentially end up with a +2 enchanted item, or if not, a +1 with some impressive enhancements.

Of course, we're currently playing through the first module, a Wizards of the Coast production, so I'm very curious whether the loot matches the parcels at all, or if the party is going to once again be poor.

Friday, July 11, 2008

DMG - Adventures

This was a large chapter, full of pretty decent information for the starting Dungeon Master, but of somewhat limited use for those who have been doing this for over 20 years.

The section on using published adventures talks about how to introduce the players to the adventure, which is usually covered in the module itself, and also gives some hints on modifying them to adapt to your own campaign setting, or modifying the level to better fit the party.

The Fixing Problems section is a sampling of the articles found in the old and new Save My Game articles from Wizards, which have always been some of the better articles that they've put out (from a DM's point of view, anyway).

The next few sections cover the meat and bones of making an adventure, and can definitely be helpful to newer DMs. Because running an adventure is similar to telling a story, DMs need to have some storytelling knowledge, such as having a start and end, keeping the pace going (even when the players might drift from the intent), and of course the player characters are the star protagonists of the story, and thus must figure predominantly throughout the story. Different from normal storytelling, however, is that the players are expected to guide the story by their own decisions, yet in the end things are meant to go as the DM planned. Giving the players the freedom to choose, yet still end up where the DM intended requires a fine balance of hints, hooks, and subtle nudging that this chapter can help the DM refine.

More technical than storytelling is the short section on the encounter mix, ensuring that the story feels dynamic and non-formulaic. Because the adventure is a story, the encounters need to feel like events that would happen day-to-day -- that is, day-to-day for heroes of the land, anyway. As discussed in the Noncombat Encounters chapter, the story isn't just a series of fights, but can include encounters of skill, encounters of dialog and encounters of wits. These encounters could be with blatant enemies, obvious friends and neutral bystanders; but also involving villains with which the party might have common goals, or misguided heroes that must be stopped. This idea is continued later in the chapter in the Cast of Characters section.

The setting are an important part of any adventure, and this is given a good amount of attention here. Early Dungeons & Dragons was all about dungeons, its namesake, but now adventures can range far and wide through any number of environments. The dungeon is definitely the easiest setting for a Dungeon Master to help ensure the flow of the adventure -- there are only so many passages that the characters can follow, and they will eventually get to where you need them -- but these can lack the sense of freedom that the story should provide. Wilderness can provide the sense of the unknown from all directions and the feeling of being lost; urban settings can lead to paranoia and distrust, as there are so many NPCs around, and any of them could be friend or foe. Planar settings provide that extra bit of the fantastic to any adventure, when dungeons, wilderness and cities are starting to feel mundane, even when crawling with dragonborn, mind flayers and dragons. This, to me, is the most useful part of the chapter.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

New content? Only if you try really hard!

Okay, I thought I could keep my ranting about Dragon magazine to one post, but it was getting pretty bad with me commenting on my own post.

To recap those comments: yay, a full PDF of issue #364. Boo that the table of contents isn't clickable. And hey, guess what? There's an article in there that I had no idea about!

Now, I suppose I'm the one that could be blamed for this oversight, since there's a page maintained for each issue, such as this one. And I could always go there daily, and scroll through and make sure I haven't missed a new article, or perhaps just read them all again each day, just to be sure.

Why don't I just look at the Dragon features archive list, which my software reads to update wizardslinks? Because the article isn't there!

Why don't I subscribe to the RSS feed? Oh, I do, I do -- that's how I keep abreast of everything. So I thought. Because the article isn't there!

Which article am I talking about? How about Class Acts: Wizard. It's an article I would have loved to know about back on, you know, JUNE SIXTEENTH, when it was apparently posted.

There's the once-in-a-while feeling I get that maybe I'm too hard on Wizards and their online presence, whenever I'm updating wizardslinks, that maybe their stuff isn't that hard to find after all. But then...

Tell me, did any of you also miss this article? Or a better question would be: did anyone actually see it?

A rant on class

I seem to have touched on something based on the comments on my last post, so I’m gonna use it to pad my post count.

For starters, I’ll be the first to admit that my opinions are colored by the 3.5 past. I will not however apologize for that.

When I got a new car I did the same thing. The new one has more horsepower and a better air conditioner, but the old one had a better dashboard layout and cornered better. Comparing old to new and apples to oranges is just human nature. Still, point taken Adam,.

As for being patient and giving WoTC time to put out more material, well, I’ll concede that one too. I have no doubts that over the next few years we’ll be swamped with numerous offerings (or depending on how you look at it, schemes to pry our cash from our hands and pad their corporate bottom line). I’m also sure that the upcoming FRCS and certainly the PHB2 will be chock full of new powers (whether martial or arcane or divine). That’s all well and good. In the meantime while I wait for the main entrée I’ll make due with the bland soup of the day.

My bottom line point is that 4e classes all “feel” the same to me. No one has anything that really makes them stand out anymore. I’ve yet to see anyone in our party do something that made me do a double take. There has been no “oh wow, that was cool” moment.

The rogue has a ‘piercing strike’ that does some extra damage coupled with a move. The paladin has some kind of ‘smite’ thing. The cleric a ‘radiant strike’. My wizard the ‘scorching blast’. At first they were each on their own an intteresting effect to see in combat. Done every other round they lose their edge and become just another attack.

In 3.5 every class, every character, felt unique. They had their special flavors, their quirks, their strengths and weaknesses. Maybe it’s just me but I thought that was a beautiful thing.

Each class had it’s role in 3.5, only they were subtle and unspoken. They weren’t slapped down in stone and used like chains to lock us into a certain playstyle. It was understood that sorcerers and wizards stayed in the back while the fighters and paladins stood up front. Clerics and bards laid out the buffs and healing. Rangers and rogues crept around the edges and got in their damage when an opportunity opened up.

However, if you wanted to push a class into a different role, it was possible. A few feats or some multiclassing and my sorcerer could wear a chainshirt and step up to melee with the best of them. For sure it cost me a level of spellcasting and that arcane failute check bit me a few times, but that was part of the fun. I could get creative and experiment and revel in the failures.

True. The old multiclassing rules opened up some abuses. But when did “powergaming” become a bad word? If I want to take a level of fighter for the free weapon and armor proficiencies, or start as a rogue at 1st level solely for the skill ranks, well… where’s the harm? Who am I hurting? Some chump who’s playing the game in Yakima? No. I’m just having some fun. Last time I checked that’s the whole point of any game.

As another example the 3.5 ranger fought with two weapons or mastered the bow and could track. That was his thing, his role. For sure any other 3.5 class could do that with the proper feat selections. Same goes in 4e where a feat or two will do it. The difference was that in 3.5 feats were a precious commodity. Did your paladin really want to ‘waste’ a feat to track? Not bloody likely.

In 4e however nothing is off limits. Wanna learn to raise the dead? Spend some of the plethora of feats and learn the ritual. For all intents and purposes class no longer matters. In their mad quest to make every class equal to every other at every level (no more fighters outshining the wizard at low levels, only to have the tables turned in the high levels) they've given us vanilla throughout. Might as well just have "Adventurer type A" and "Adventurer type B" and get it over with.

Strategy seems to be a thing of the past as well. Sure, positioning your mini on the grid is more vital than ever, but past that there’s very little to think about. It’s a simple case of MMO style button mashing. Pick your at-will and your target and role a d20. No longer do you need to worry about meting out those special abilities or spells for a crucial moment. Fire away my friends! Plenty more where that came from!

Personally, I liked the angst over every decision. Especially when it came to spellcasting. I loved the whole “do I cast this or save it?”, or “do I try a spell that has a Will save because that giant seemed to slough off my Fort save based spell last round?” Those were the tactics and strategy that I really enjoyed. And when I ran out of spells, I loved to have my sorcerer grab her sickle and jump into melee. Puny hitpoints be damned! She wore that magic mithral chainshirt for a reason dammit!

That’s a thing of the past it seems. Now my dragonborn wizard is going to take the feats needed to wear chainmail only because there’s nothing else to spend them on. He’ll continue to grab his bastard sword and hack away at the bad guys despite having scorching blasts at his beck and call. He’ll keep on breaking out of his role because that’s the way I play. That’s called fun.

Ps. Despite my tone, I really am having fun with my new character. It is still DnD after all.

Pps. I am going to try out the multiclassing feats, just to try them. I’m also keeping an open mind. I can’t stress this enough. My opinions six months from now might be a total 180 from today.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Electronic Dragons

No, this isn't about some new elemental dragon in 4e, but about the move of Dragon magazine to electronic format. I used to subscribe to both Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and had mixed feelings about the move to an all-digital format. Still, it meant better access to the articles through a search-engine, so I accepted it.

Now, I know that D&D Insider is new, and free, and so I should not complain, or understand, or something, but it's feeling like a half-baked idea right now. This is from the same group that also gave us Gleemax, so I'm not sure why I'm surprised -- but I guess I hoped that the face of Dungeons & Dragons would be done correctly (Okay, I don't know how related the Gleemax system is to D&D Insider, but they're the same company...)

If you've browsed around this blog, you'll notice that on the right, there's a link to wizardslinks, which is a collation of all of the articles on The D&D site, since I've never found the site amenable to finding articles that I know exist. Part of maintaining wizardlinks is also maintaining lists of the articles on a per-issue basis, instead of by column. And this is my rant for today.

Take a look at the Dragon page. I know, I know, it's absolutely ugly -- I've never professed to have an artistic bone in my body. Look at issue #364 first, ignoring the first half of the articles, focusing more on the ones that have page numbers -- these are PDFs that have page numbers on the pages, presumably representing their location in a final collated PDF for the whole issue (you'll notice the only full issue they've released is right at the bottom, issue #360 -- I have an outstanding request to customer support about whether we'll ever get any others).

Note how the page numbers overlap? No, it's not because the articles share pages. They're just not in-sync. Yes, the last half of the articles line up nicely, but those first ones are all just doing their own thing. And as new articles appeared, I went back to see if maybe the older PDF had its pages renumbered -- nope, not yet.

I was willing to forgive this at first, since this is their first issue where they are releasing the articles as PDFs, whereas the previous four digital issues were all webpages (except for, of course, issue #360 which we have as a complete PDF, even if it's lacking a bit of the flash that you expect from Dragon magazine). But then came the first article for issue #365.

Or is it? Yes, the filename of the PDF starts with 365_, and they said in the description that "July's issue launches with a bang!" And sure, the first page of the Artificers article (page 5 of the issue, apparently), does say

July 2008 | DRAGON 365

at the bottom. Of the first page, anyway, because as soon as you advance, you see

June 2008 | DRAGON 364

on every other page. It's like they took the Demonomicon article from the previous issue and just filled stuff in, accidentally remembering to change the front page to the correct issue number. "Oh, good, I found a previous article that's also 11 pages long -- I won't have to learn to count!" Yeah, that was a bit churlish, but you have to agree it seems quite unprofessional. Don't you?

On the other hand, the articles are as great as they've always been, perhaps more so because they have 4e content, and thus nothing feels tired and overdone. Since 4e is so new, there's a dearth of content and so any article is welcome. The layout is professional and easy-to-use, the stat blocks are readable and full of good new content, and the artwork, even those that are only sketches, add that extra bit of professionalism that some web page I might write about a new class or power could ever have.

And perhaps it's the fact that the content is so well-done that it irks me so much that this little thing, this last bit of presentation, is so poorly considered. If this is how they're approaching the new Dragon and Dungeon magazines, then I will regret that the Wizards content didn't just stay as webpages with the print magazines being extra, additional, professionally presented content.

For those who read this blog for opinions about 4e specifically, you'll have to forgive me this little aside about this, but to me, the switch to D&D Insider goes hand-in-hand with the release of 4e, and thus this is an appropriate venue. 'Sides, it's my blog!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

DMG - Noncombat Encounters

The latest Design & Development article reminded me that I should really finish reading the Dungeon Master's Guide, now that I've finished the Player's Handbook (the last chapter of the PHB, Adventuring, wasn't worth commenting on).

Skill Challenges

I've mentioned my thoughts before on them, and this chapter starts off with a good description of them, both the steps on creating them as well as some good example skill encounters. If you're a DM, you must use these, and if you're the player, be sure to anticipate them! Ranks may be gone from the skill system, but I can see players taking extra training to be prepared for the skill challenges that are ahead; or at least planning these things as a party to make sure you have all of your bases covered.


The section on puzzles is a good start for those who don't find making them easy. The various common types are mentioned with a few examples, but I think that, for those who need this chapter, a book such as the 3e Book of Challenges is needed. It is good, however, that they mention that "[t]he basic nature of puzzles--that they rely on player ability--is the reason that some people love puzzles in the game and some people dislike them." This is something a DM needs to deduce about the players, to decide whether it's worthwhile even making puzzles with the intention of players to solve them, or to just turn them into a skill challenge and let the characters solve it. The sidebar about the Get A Clue check helps to bridge that gap for those players that like to try, but would like to rely a bit on their character's abilities too. This is the approach our group takes, when I decide to add a puzzle.

Traps and Hazards

I didn't expect much from this section, but wow have they done some work on turning traps and hazards into obstacles and encounters with a solid ruleset.

Not that there was anything wrong with the older system of traps - they had a DC, you might be able to disarm them, and you probably got a saving throw against them. Now they have a full statblock, with Perception check DCs (or alternate skills if applicable); the Trigger that sets the hazard or trap off; the Attack information, sometimes including both Hit and Miss effects for those that that would apply to. Countermeasures is a great block to help the DM know what the disable/disarm DCs are, the appropriate skill(s), and anything else that an enterprising player will think of. Finally, the Upgrade section is useful when the trap sounds perfectly suited, but just a bit too easy.

I'm not sure, however, about the idea of extending the roles to traps and hazards. Sure, different traps might be groupable in different ways, but a Lurker trap? A bit of a stretch. Square peg, round hole and all that. Still, the roles are only there to give you a feel for what kind of situation they belong in, and don't restrict you in any way, so they can be ignored. My favorite? The Treacherous Ice Sheet. Nothing fancy, but it's something that 3e would have just made tricky terrain to get across, with perhaps a Balance check or something. Now it has its own stat block! There are 23 sample traps/hazards in this chapter, which is a great number -- they could have been stingy here.

All in all, this has been my favorite Dungeon Master's Guide chapter so far - non-combat encounters are probably needed in all but the most strict role-playing groups.