Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The importance of setting

As it becomes more and more obvious that our group isn't going to stick with 4E I've started to look back at why it failed.

Maybe "failed" is the wrong word. I don't want to imply that it's some sort of sweeping failure like the Zune. There are certainly fans of the game out there, people who love it and have a lot of fun playing it. To each their own. I've never bought into the whole "edition war". Everyone should play whatever game they find to be fun. Whether that game is 4E, 3.5, AD&D, Gurps, WoD or whatever else. It makes no difference to me what you enjoy playing. I certainly don't expect you to switch after reading my half-assed opinions. The bottom line is that games should be fun and DnD 3.5 was fun for me.

But why isn't 4E fun for me?

At its very core it's not really different from any other version of DnD. You create a character with some stats and a class, and you battle monsters in a world of swords and magic.

The really fun stuff is in the roleplaying. In becoming that burly warrior or busty sorceress (whaddya mean they aren't all burly or busty?) and overcoming all obstacles on the way to a goal. Really, roleplaying is completely independent of any gaming system. You could roleplay in a game of Monopoly if you really wanted to.

So my problem must lie with the mechanics of the 4E system. After all, roleplaying in a good and engaging story is not the only aspect of DnD. A big chunk of every game night is spent in combat, and combat relies almost solely on the character sheet and the game mechanincs. So, where did 4E go wrong for me?

Rather than re-hash the gripes from my various posts here, I'll put them at the very bottom of the post. Those who care to, can read them there. Those who don't care, I'll spare you the agony of scrolling past them. You're welcome.

There is one thing that's not really part of the game mechanics. In fact it's something that was almost totally within my own control. The game setting.

Granted, when 4E came out there was no official setting beyond a generic "points of light in the midst of darkness". Eberron was still there and unchanged. I guess. I never really got into Eberron as a setting. We knew that the Forgotten Realms were getting re-worked to better fit the new system. In hindsight, we could have simply continued to use the 3rd edition version of FR, if only for the names and dates. Instead we just gave a nod to the gray generic world and went with the standard storyhook in the first published module.

That was all well and good at the time, but here's that hindsight again, it really didn't do my character any favors. I never bothered to put any thought into his background. I just rolled him up and got swept away by the game mechanics. I was so blinded by making my storm themed warrior/mage work within the confines of the ruleset that I ignored the really important thing. His place within the world. His motivations. His hopes and hates. His family roots. In short, in my effort to create a unique character I ignored everything that makes a character truly unique.

So really, 4E was hamstrung from the start because I forgot about the most important part of the game. The roleplaying. I didn't invest in his background and so I never invested in him. At least, not in any meaningful way beyond making a set of stats and powers that worked for my concept.

Sorry about that 4E. Your failure is also my failure.


Here's that summation of my previous gripes as promised earlier.

Certainly in the very beginning I was turned off by the restrictive feeling of 4E. I always felt like the character I really wanted was either impossible or only vaguely realized after a series of roadblocks and compromises. That was somewhat fixed by the Hybrid rules, and the ongoing laxity in Implements seems to be improving. Give it a few more years and this might not be an issue at all.

Another peeve was with the powers. Not that it wasn't a novel idea or well done. It just wasn't executed quite right. I'm not even sure what that means but there's just... something... about the powers that bugs me. Maybe it's how they make all the classes feel like every other class, with only the overarching roles to really seperate one character from another. Or maybe it's just in the numbers of them you get. For the first 5 levels I definitely felt like I had a few interesting whammies but used my lame At-wills ninety percent of the time. That's not so bad at the Paragon level where the number of Encounter powers means that At-wills only become repetitious in the longest battles. Still, it made the first half of the Heroic level so boring that it was all but unplayable for me.

The neutering of Feats and Magic Items has also bothered me. Maybe I'm just too stubborn to let go of them, but I miss the days when feats and magic items meant something. Something more than a piddly bonus to a power or an extra healing surge. I want magic items that can be pulled out at the last moment and turn disaster into triumph. Feats that give a character a distinct flavor and make him something more than just-another-fighter.

There are a lot of good things about the 4E system too. I'm a big fan of how traps, disease, and poison are handled. I also like that monsters aren't handcuffed to the same rules as player characters. That makes encounter design easy and gives the DM more room to tailor battles however he/she sees fit.

The 4E experience begins to wind down

It probably goes without saying after such a prolonged silence (is it really almost December already?) but the end is almost in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel, and the first death knell for this blog, is in the Pathfinder RPG (aka DnD 3.75), which I think we'll be playing next summer. We've all agreed to give the Paragon level a fair shake first, and there's some hope that the PHB3 could be an edition saver. Otherwise, it's been nice 4E but while 3.# has numerous flaws, those flaws are better than yours.

Frankly, I was ready to turf 4E months ago. In fact my interest in all things DnD has been at an all time low for the last several months. I've been much more interested in White Wolf's latest edition of World of Darkness game even though I only get to play it via IRC which is not nearly as much fun as tabletop. While two in our group have shown some interest/willingness in trying an NWoD game, Crwth has made it pretty clear that he's not interested in learning a new gaming system. At least not one that falls outside the d20 family. I can respect that, especially given the strains on free time imposed by work, wives, and kids that we all have. We're lucky to play more than three times a month, so reading pdfs and learning a different RPG system is asking a lot. Not that it'll stop me from needling and pushing for it. (btw, if anyone knows of a good Play-By-Post site for nWoD, lemme know).

As mentioned, our group has had a lot going on in real life, so we haven't gotten together nearly as much as I'd like. Since our 5th levels were TPK'd we've only had one real session where all but one were present. That was a re-play of the troll encounter on the road, and it was great fun.

As a brief aside, I really like the Paragon level (at least my very early impression of combat at that tier/level). The number of Encounter powers available kept us from having to fall back on our piddly At-Wills which kept the fight interesting. My only big complaint, and one that mightily pissed me off, was that my monk couldn't use a spiked chain because none of his powers could be channeled through it. That's now been fixed (thankfully!) by the release of the finalized version of the Monk in Dragon #381.

Still, I don't see that one concession to flexibility and player choice being enough to save this edition of DnD for me.

As for the blog, I've probably got a few more posts to put up. One on setting is already in mind, and I expect to have a few as we get a little deeper in to the Paragon level/tier. I can feel the excitement.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


As I mentioned before, we had a party wipe, and the decision was made that we would start our new campaign at 11th level, to see what more-advanced 4e characters were like in this edition; note that we have been playing 4e since it was released, and we died at fifth level. That should give you a sense of our pace, and of the likelihood of us having ever seen paragon tier "naturally". In fact, for the last three or four sessions, we had moved to half-the-encounters, twice-the-XP, just to try to ramp up our advancement. So much for that.

So what have we learned about the paragon tier so far?

Well, making a character is easy, which we knew: levelling up in 4e is almost trivial, since you make very few choices as you go, and the range of choice, while growing with the splat books that are coming out, is still small. However: choosing is one thing, knowing what you've chosen, during play, is another. Starting at 11th level is far different than advancing to 11th level -- as you advance, you get to know your powers at each level, only introducing one, at most, as you go. Maybe a new feat. Maybe a new magic item with a daily power. But you still have a whole level of adventure to get used to this newly available power. When you start at 11th level, especially with a class you've never looked at before (and remember, we've all only played on other 4e character), you've got a dozen or more powers available to you. Additionally, starting at a higher level means you start with magic items, again, likely ones you've never seen before, so have new abilities and modifiers there.

I do wonder how much of our tardiness was due to the new class, and how much to the large clump of new powers. While powers do define what you can do, in the end, the class does define the role, and thus gives you an overall sense of how your character is likely best played. Switching that up -- I went from a Leader to a Striker -- is quite the change (until, I'm sure, you've played them all, perhaps a few times), so we might have seen the same lack of coordination if we were to have started at 1st level with these characters. But I think we'd all agree that we would have caught on a lot faster, with just a couple of at-wills to get to know.

Two of our group was missing last night, but we decided that the party, sans deux, would tackle the first encounter without them, to take our new characters for a spin; if they won the battle, well hurray for them -- the other two would join the party later; if they died (because they were only four in an encounter designed for a party of five), then we'd press Undo, say, "that was fun", and wait until the rest of the group was available to really start the campaign, and re-do that encounter (without any metaknowledge of course!)

The reasons I wanted to do this were to let us get to know our new characters (which, as I mentioned above, is a real necessity), as well as to see if, as I believe the intent is, a paragon encounter takes no longer than a heroic one -- it's just more interesting, more involved.

Because of our struggles with our new powers and items, it's hard to say whether that test passed or failed; as the DM, I can attest that these paragon-level NPCs were no more difficult or time-consuming to run, but that's only half of the equation. And, our heroic battles could take many hours anyway (I've yet to decide if that's just us, or the game).

In the end, we halted the battle because it was after 2am, and we weren't going to finish it soon. We weren't losing, we were gaining ground, and I think we certainly would have won -- but not before a few of us would be waking to our children. And if we thought we were fighting trolls last night, we could easily imagine the trolls our wives would have been had we been up 'til 5am fighting them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hand me my crossbow.

As Crwth mentioned earlier I equated being down to nothing but At-will powers and a handful of healing surges to "grabbing the crossbow". It was an off the cuff remark and I'll readily concede that it's not very accurate.

For starters, the At-wills are better than the old 3.5 crossbow-shot-and-a-prayer fallback. If not "better" at least they're arguably more interesting/engaging.

Our rogue trotted out two of his at-wills before finally falling. The paladin likewise. The warlord made good use of his Wolfpack Tactics and the ranger steadily used Twin Fanged Strike (or whatever it's called). Of course that was pretty much the only power the ranger ever used. Still, it's effective.

My fighter/wizard should have been even more versatile with the at-wills, and to be honest I felt like I had more options. I got off a couple of Thunderwaves to try to get some breathing room (one time it actually hit!) and otherwise relied on Reaping Strikes (damage on a miss! Love it!). So, all in all, no real feeling of "let down" when left with nothing else in the tank, so to speak.

Instead, the downside comes in the lack of options beyond powers.

At several points in the battle I wished that I could counter-spell those damn controllers. Or use a resist fire potion. Or a neutralize poison. Something to alleviate the feeling of being powerless under those enemy's whims. It was incredibly frustrating being completely helpless to resist being blinded or knocked down.

Simply spread out so that the controller's area of effect powers can't hit everyone at once? Good idea. In theory.

In reality, we were hemmed into a dead end room (admittedly a bad tactical blunder and probably the biggest reason for our TPK) with at least one enlarged Duegar taking up even more room. Frankly, once we allowed ourselves to become trapped in that room we were at the mercy of the controllers. As they thoroughly kicked our asses all player ingenuity was effectively nullified. We needed to get incredibly lucky just to push our way back out into the hallway. As impressed as I was by the enemy controllers, I was ultimately just frustrated by them, and that took away from an otherwise fine fight.

Sure the at-wills kept the fight interesting, but no more so than 3.5's relatively banal "pot shots with the crossbow". Boiled down, the at-wills are still strike me as basic attacks with some flavor text attached.

So, does this mean that 4E sucks compared to 3.5?

I love 3.5 for a variety of reasons, but I can't say that it's hands down better; regardless of how one defines "better". It's all so subjective.

I will say that 4E has alleviated many of my earlier knocks. The variety of classes has opened up numerous options, so multi-classing isn't missed as much. The upcoming Skill Powers looks like it's gonna be all kinds of awesome. The encounters are a lot of fun, and even dying is exciting.

On the downside, I'm still not liking the concept of Reflex, Fortitude, and Will as defensive scores versus saving throws. I know the math and all works out more or less the same. I just miss the empowerment of making a saving throw versus simply being blinded or knocked down.

I'm also hating the dearth of magic items. There's a decent variety of them, but their usefulness is minimal at best. I miss the days of having that one trinket/potion/scroll that can be pulled out to use in some inventive way, or simply to save one's ass. I also miss the facet of planning that magic items used to bring. Knowing that we were facing fiery and poisoning Duergar we would have stocked up on fire resists and anti-poison potions/scrolls/spells in 3.5. In 4E we had nothing but our powers and luck to rely upon. When the former dwindled and the latter ran out, the results were fairly predictable.

The Super Happy Fun Slide... of Death!

Dead at last. For the longest time I honestly thought that 4E was designed around the idea that a player should never have a character die. Ever.

Yes Virginia. There is a grim reaper. And he's surprisingly a lot of fun. In fact it was probably the most excitement I've felt while playing 4E.

Seriously. I'm not trying to be snide about it, but it was honestly a lot of fun. The death mechanic is really a good and fun way to go about it. I love the idea of a saving throw to stay stable or slip one strike closer to the death. Then there's the optimistic hope of rolling that 20 and coming back to the fray. It's awesome fun and better by leaps and bounds than the slow (read: banal) countdown to -10 HP.

I also enjoyed the fact that my dieing character continued to take damage, pushing him towards the -23 HP that would also kill him once and for all. If nothing else it kept me engaged in the battle. It also heightened the tension for that last round of saves. I had to make one versus poison, or take 5 damage that would put me at -23, and then still faced a possible 3rd strike on the death save. (Yet another 3 on the d20 made that moot. Just for shits'n'giggles I rolled the death save too, and failed. It was that kinda night.)

After that I had a great time watching the hopes for the other players rise and fall. It was a real rollercoaster ride. They were doomed. They were gonna make it. They were doomed. It was over. I loved it. By far the best fight of either module.

I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether the fact that dying is the funnest part of 4E is a good thing or a bad thing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Teepee, 'kay?

4e adventure: 1, adventuring party: 0.

We had our first Total Party Kill last night, in the second adventure in the official series (Thunderspire Labyrinth). This was our first 4e campaign.

The party had been infiltrating an enemy fortress (I'll leave details vague, in case anyone reading is, or will be, going through this module), and were already a bit tapped for resources, having used a few Daily powers and a bunch of the healing surges, before deciding to press even further forward to accomplish their mission.

Unbeknownst to them, their next encounter was to be with the "boss" of the fortress, whose cadre included a controller-type that they had encountered a few times before, and which had, in the past, lived up to its role very well.

The dice were running cold for the players, and the party of six struggled under the onslaught from the four enemies. It didn't help that the rechargeable powers that the NPCs had were recharging much more than probability says they should: the DM's d6s were hot, the players' d20s were not.

Things were looking grim for a while, and I was sure the party was doomed, but the tide turned, the boss took some heavy hits, and the controller fell. All but one Daily power was used, every Encounter power was used, and half the party had no healing surges left, but they had the boss worried enough that he fled via an escape route through which the rest of the party wisely declined to follow. Emboldened, the party worked to finish off the remaining foes. Until they heard the door in the hall slam open. Reinforcements had arrived, including another of the hated controllers that they had just dispatched.

At this point, I knew it was over. the party had only At-Will powers remaining, against a fresh group of enemies of the party's level. It would be slaughter. Or would it? The dice didn't really improve for the players, nor did they wane for me, the DM, yet... the party still stood. Damage was dealt out in both directions, saving throws were missed even more, yet the party still stood. The rest of the original NPCs were slain, then one of the new set -- and then the party finally had their first fatality (it would be impolite for me to point out that it was Griff's dragonborn hybrid, so I won't). Hitpoints kept falling, the few healing surges were dwindling, yet the party fought on, against all odds, using every idea and strategy that came to them, until it looked like there was a way to escape their doom, and the adventurers started to withdraw from the encounter. Then the boss returned.

It was over at this point. The party continued to withdraw, but one, two, then three more of the party were picked off while retreating. It looked like the remaining two would escape -- the rogue wisely split from the rest of the group to split the enemy's attention -- but he and the paladin were still under their cloud of bad luck, and fate (and their flying enemy) completed the slaughter. Some other party of adventurers would have to save the day.

But ... this blog is about 4e, not about adventure recaps. So why do you care? It's the second-last paragraph that matters: "the party had only At-Will powers remaining". At-will powers have always felt like the "I'll attack" from 3.5 combat, or as Griff puts it, "I've used up my spells; I'll pull out my crossbow" which was the 3.5 way that a sorcerer admitted he or she was now useless.

But when left with only at-will powers, the party showed that they were not useless, not automatically doomed. Whether it was the warlord's Wolf Pack Tactics, moving the party around strategically, or the cleric's Sacred Flame, trying to get extra saving throws rolled, these "useless" powers ... weren't that useless after all.

Of course, it wasn't enough. There was a point that I thought the party would defy all odds and finish this back-to-back pair of encounters on at-wills and no healing surges, with only one or two casualties. But as I mentioned, the dice were completely against the players, and it wasn't to be. But it was only because of (bad) luck, not the design of the characters, or 4e, that led to their end.

I have new respect for at-will powers, and will, on future characters, put a little more thought into their selection, thinking, "if I was in a party of characters whose players could only roll 3s and 4s on d20, with no healing surges and just my at-wills , what would I like to be stuck with?"

Saturday, October 10, 2009


I never did comment on Griff's previous post on the Githzerai, which is a bit odd, since they've been one of my favorite races/monsters for many years, ever since the Gith races appeared on the cover of the Fiend Folio. With the second Player's Handbook 3 debut article, the githzerai are reintroduced, and they're still as interesting as ever.

Quiet, terse and brooding? Check. Excessively austere? Check. A no-brainer as a monk (the one class that I always want to play, but never seem to)? Check. Racial history of oppression and rebellion? Check. What's not to love? Even the racial power, Iron Mind, is terrific, both representing the build of the race as well as providing a very useable, useful ability in combat.

The psychic/psionic links harken back to the original creature, as well as helping to fit even better with the 4e monk. I have to say, though, that while psionics have somewhat redeemed itself in Griff's eyes, to me, it's Just Another Power Source, becoming, in a sense, less unique than in previous editions of D&D.

The racial feats, as they do for many races, either modify or enhance the use of the racial power, which is something that I've really only noticed in passing, since I tend either play a race like human, which is lacking a racial power, or have so many plans for the feats in the character's build that I ignore/overlook what goodies might be available through my racial power. The githzerai's racial feats provide many interesting possibilities, which might actually be a problem, since the racial power itself is very nice as it is!

And after all that, I don't think I'd play a githzerai, nor allow one in a campaign I was running. The reason? Their alienness to the "regular" world. Sure, you can forgive one "odd" race once in a while, provided the rest of the party was "normal", and the githzerai took pains to hide his or her origin. Playing in a solo campaign would also work, with a background of outcast githzerai, travelling on the material plane looking for yadda yadda. And higher-level campaigns would also work, if they started in foreign planes, where the githzerai's appearance wouldn't be so odd. Okay, so I've provided a bunch of exceptions to my "no githzerai" rule, and they're all possibilities with my group, but I would be interested to see a 1st-level, non-planes-originating campaign containing a githzerai -- oh, unless the whole concept is "a party of misfit races in the regular world, trying to make a life, fulfilling their dreams, and avoiding further subjugation by mind flayers."

Skill Powers

Okay, let's see if I can remember how to do this blogging thing again. Having only played two D&D sessions in the last two months really has an effect on my D&D attention; I've not read an article for over a month, and feel so out of touch. I'm now making a concerted effort to keep active, even if our group doesn't, although now that snow has fallen, I think our usual summer distractions will soon be out of the way.

Last month's Dragon magazine had the third sneak peak into the Player's Handbook 3, regarding Skill Powers. In a nutshell, I think these are terrific. These provide powers whose prerequisites are based on your skill training, not on race or class. Long have I complained that every power in the game is chooseable by a single make of character, that there was no reuse of powers. If you wanted a fighter power, you had to be a fighter -- it wasn't going to appear in any other list.

But now, there CAN be some shared ability between otherwise very different characters. And since skills are an area where there can be some common ground between two different characters -- an acrobatic wizard or a diplomatic barbarian are both possible -- it perhaps makes a little more sense that it is in this area where commonality can occur. The stereotypically diplomatic classes (those with it available as a class skill) will seem appropriate if sharing the Cry For Mercy power, but if the party's fighter invests the time, he too should be able to exhibit some diplomatic prowess when needed.

But the ability to share powers across varied characters isn't the only attractive point about skill powers; the other is to make otherwise "worthless" skills useful. Now I'm sure I could start a debate with many people about whether this skill or that skill is "useless", and I assure you I could argue both sides. But these are some skills that, most will admit, are taken more for roleplay purposes -- "because she would have this skill" -- than for any utilitarian reason. D&D3.5 did the right thing by adding a lot of synergy bonuses to the worthless skills, and 4e did a better job by merging some and improving the others. And now that 4e has taken away the decision-making involved in ascribing ranks to skills, it was even easier to choose a few at character creation, and hope that those were the ones that needed Training in future skill challenges.

Now, with a new purpose to skills (if only to unlock access to these new skill powers), players might again put some thought into their skill choices beyond "I'm a paladin, I should probably take Diplomacy" or "the DM always drops us off of cliffs -- I'll take Acrobatics to be safe"; now the availability of skill powers might sway them to choices they'd otherwise avoid ("Religion? I'm no roleplaying paladin! Let the cleric worry about that."), or even better, might urge players to take the Skill Training feat, which I'm sure only sees use by roleplayers or heavily-themed builds.

Perhaps my favorite skill powers, I'll admit, are the at-will ones, which aren't many. Any time I look at "alternate" powers (racial or paragon/epic) to a class's regular set of powers, I always feel like I'm giving something up, losing something, instead of just swapping it. A bit irrational, I know, provided I'm happy with my choice. But this feeling doesn't occur if I'm gaining an at-will - and since skill powers are Utility powers, which generally aren't at-will, it feels like a gain if you can swap an at-will in. Two of my favorites are Agile Recovery (Acrobatics, Minor, "You stand up") and Fast Hands (Thievery, Free Action, "You draw or sheathe a weapon, pick up an item in your space or adjacent to it, or retrieve or stow an item"), both which can improve the effectiveness of your character in a very character-suitable way.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Keep out! Really.

Not sure why, but I got to thinking about a brief episode in the first official module, "Keep on the Shadowfell".

Our party had just come to a large door covered with slime and mold. Colorful.

The really important detail was that carved into the slime were the words "Keep out. Really."

This caused a memorable stir amongst our gaming group (and one that surely amused our dastardly DM Crwth). The gist of the debate was whether or not to go through aforementioned door. I was the lone dissenter.

My argument was the emphasis created by the word "Really". To me, that meant there was something not to be trifled with beyond that doorway. To everyone else, it just piqued their curiousity.

Naturally, in the end I was shouted down and in they went. Naturally, there was a nasty monster in there. Naturally, there was an important clue to the mystery hidden amongst the loot.

Good, memorable encounter but at it's most basic this was a poorly written section of the adventure.

At first blush, that seems counter-intuitive. I just said that it was a memorable encounter that sparked furious debate and ended with a fun battle and interesting loot. What's not to love?

The fact that we were baited into it by the writer.

Now, most adventures are basically dungeon crawls at some point where the party is obliged to kick open every door it sees. As players we're almost conditioned to do exactly that. A door causes us to practically salivate. Add the cryptic warning to "Keep out. Really." only throws more gas on the fire. It's like telling a five year old to stay out of your closet. The results are utterly predictable.

Yet that thinking goes against role-playing.

Adventurers live on the edge and explore incredibly dangerous places in the hopes of finding gold and treasure. They go where others fear to tread. They risk life and limb on a daily basis. Opening doors and fighting monsters is their gig. I get that.

However, the adventurers who want to retire someday should also be expected to show some prudence now and again.

Rock climbers risk their lives for the sheer thrill of it but they still listen to warnings. If a cliff face is icey after some freezing rain they don't climb. At least the ones who aren't mentioned on the local news don't climb.

That slime covered doorway was the same thing. From my point of view, or more accurately from the point of view of my character, someone took the time to carve a warning into that doorway. That sorta shit ain't to be taken lightly.

As a dnd player however, I'm expected to go through the door. It's a must. Hell, there's no question about it really. There's a door. We open it. Worst case scenario we roll new characters and know what to expect when our new party reaches that door.

To me that's a failure for the writer. He knew that we'd ignore the dire warning and go in regardless. He even placed a quest advancing token inside. A token/clue we wouldn't have found if not for our Pavlovian need to go through every door. A fact that as a player sitting at a table I was well aware of. Even as I argued against it, I knew that meta-game-wise there was something to fight and some loot to find.

Therein lay the problem. The entire encounter forced me to divorce myself from my character and do something he wouldn't want to do. All for the sake of using our miniatures and rolling some dice. So much for escapism.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More on Tools

It has been a slow month for blog posts, but speaking for myself, it hasn't been because of a lack of D&Ding... when not trying to keep up with the articles from Wizards of the Coast, I've been playing some more with the tools, mainly the Character Builder and the Compendium.

In the past, usually while discussing multiclassing, I've complained that making a "themed" character is much more difficult in 4e, because you don't have the flexibility that the plethora of prestige classes gave in 3.5. With the poor-man's multiclassing that came with 4e, you couldn't accomplish much, but the hybrid rules are another matter...

In 3.5, I was never a multiclasser, just a prestige classer -- some might quibble about the difference, but I think it's significant, especially for the spellcasting classes whose pretige classes often had that familiar line: "+1 level of arcane spellcasting" or what have you. Otherwise, I was a one-class kinda guy, always seeing multiclassing as weakening the original class, because you were sacrificing something for every level you didn't take in your original class. The gestalt rules were a nice solution to this, because they meant you didn't sacrifice anything, and they allowed for a high-powered campaign -- as long as that was something you wanted.

The hybrid rules for 4e, though, do a pretty good job about giving you your two classes without making you any more powerful that a single-class character. Granted, our actual playtest experience with hybrids has been limited to Griff's wizard/fighter dragonborn, but I have now had quite a bit of experience making hybrid characters using the Character Builder, and none seem over-powered.

This is, of course, if you ignore the fact that I am a serious min-maxer when I put my mind to it, thus making a character "over-powered" in certain areas, almost certainly at the expense of something else. Crwth the cleric has, whether in pen-and-paper, Neverwinter Nights or Dungeons & Dragons Online, been a healer before an undead fighter, boosting Wisdom as high as it will go and ignoring Charisma completely. And a DDO Bard that completely maxes out the Haggle skill, just to game the auction house, is sure to sacrifice in other areas -- like melee fighting of any kind.

But to me, that's what a themed character is -- something that focuses on a particular idea (or two), at the expense of everything else. If I'm making a "healer", they're not as good at any of the other roles that this class is known for. If I'm making a "divine warrior" (always choosing powers that deal Radiant damage before any other power), I'm making a character that will be at a large disadvantage to anything that can resist Radiant damage. I go into this willingly, ready to take on that challenge if it arises, for the focused direction of the character's build.

And this brings me to the real point: the Character Builder and the Compendium make this a HELL of a lot easier to do that it was in 3.5. Granted, the idea of a themed character is a bit different now; you would browse a bunch of splat books in 3.5, find an interesting prestige class or two, and build around that as your goal. In 4e, I find myself seeing the occasional power description, class variant or paragon path, and get an idea to focus upon.

The Character Builder ensures that I have, at my fingertips, every power or feat that is available at any given level, instead of having to have a stack of books to check, and the Compendium lets me filter out certain keywords ("radiant", "prone", "necrotic", "heal") to help choose from my selections. This let me quickly try my "healing monk" (really a cleric/avenger hybrid) focusing on healing while at the front line; my "protector" (cleric/shaman hybrid) my attempt at a completely maxed-out healer; my "divine warrior" (revenant cleric) based solely around the Revered One epic destiny's Manifest the Divine feature of using each Channel Divinity power per encounter, instead of just one; and my "beastflanker" (beastmaster ranger) that could solo (with companion) quite effectively.

Unfortunately, my forays into rapidly building character concepts could have gone smoother. Sure, figuring 30 levels of a character in about 20 minutes is pretty good, but there are ways that it could still be improved. The search functionality in the Character Builder is only for actual names of powers, feats, etc., which doesn't seem that useful - no one knows the name of what they're looking for, they just know some of the terms that it contains. I had hoped that I could type in "heal" or "undead" into the power list, or feat list, or even equipment list, and get the Builder to filter things out. I suppose it DOES say "search" and not "filter"...

The Compendium does help here, as it has a single word filter (could use a second, in some cases), and lets you further filter by other criteria, depending on the item. Going back and forth between the Compendium and the Builder is a bit incovenient, though (I say while on my four-monitor setup); I think having the compendium embedded in the builder window would be very handy indeed. Also, being able to leave multiple search results open would be handy -- I'd like the list of powers with "resist" in them as well as the list of feats, available at the same time, if I'm making a this-guy-gives-crazy-resists character. And, I really don't like the obscuring window that the Compendium uses when you look at a specific entry -- are frames so uncool now in web development?

These are minor gripes, though, when I have to admit that these computer-based resources are making 4e a lot more interesting to use. When I got the Player's Handbook, my eyes glazed over seeing the same block format for power after power -- and I LIKE that there's a template for them! It just isn't a good browseable format for getting a feel for a class. I still have no clue what kinds of powers warlords, paladins, fighters, rangers, etc. have, because I just can't imagine reading the powers list right through. Having a means to search through them saves me from that, provided I know what to search for.

And, I hate to admit it, but access to all of the content online might be a bad thing for book sales... while I like having a physical book over an digital one in general, for my purposes the online version is more worth it right now, and a few books have now gone unpurchased because of this. Does this mean that Wizards should require "activation" of online content, using a key that comes with the hardcover book, to unlock the data? I thought they were going to do that, and am obviously glad they haven't. Perhaps the marketing people decided that seeing the content online would drive people to buy books they wouldn't otherwise consider?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dragonborn suck

Actually, they're pretty awesome.

For starters, they look really cool and inspired some of the best artwork in the 4E books.

Mechanically, they're not all bad. The bonus to healing surges is a real boon. I also like their rage mechanic if only because it gives me a tactical decision to make. Do I hold off on taking a healing word for a little while longer so that I can have that +1 to hit? How long do I risk running on fewer than half my hit points?

Yet, for all that, they truly suck in two crucial ways.

First of all is the breath weapon. For a racial ability that seems so iconic, so central to the race, it is by far the most pathetic piece of crap any race gets. It's just flat out weak. Almost to the point of being utterly useless.

My dragonborn fighter/wizard hybrid has used his breath weapon exactly once, and that was just for shits'n'giggles. Granted the rarity in it's use is due entirely to his having the wizard At-will "Thunderwave". Same burst and damage but with an added push factor. Compared to the breath weapon that's a no-brainer.

However, even if I was to take away "Thunderwave" I still fail to see any appeal in this racial power. It's just so bland and uninteresting. I look at the elf with his re-roll a missed attack, and the eladrin with his teleport, and I'm jealous. Even the halfling has a better racial power. Halflings! WTF!

The sad thing is that all WotC had to do was give the breath weapon some small additional effect dependant on the energy type chosen. Something like 1 point of ongoing fire or acid or poison damage, or slow in the case of a cold based breath weapon, or 1 point of damage to adjacent enemies for electricity. That's all it would take to make the breath weapon not only stand out but shine with distinction. Simple right? So why hasn't WotC done this yet?

The obvious answer is that they're planning a Dragonborn book which will be chock full of feats and powers that'll give the breath weapon some appeal. That's fine by me, but the PHB could've had a little something on the original.

My other beef is with their history. It just feels so tacked on and hackneyed. Was it written by an intern?

The whole 'they had a great and glorious empire that for some reason no one in whatever world you're in has ever heard of' is awkward to say the least. Then, in piling on the suckiness, they forge an even lamer story of a great war between their empire and a similar empire of teiflings. Oh my... the teiflings had an empire too? Was their a sale on empires? Buy one get one free? And is this supposed to stoke up the fires of intra-party tension should there be a dragonborn and a teifling together? Only it's not because that war was a long, long time ago and there are no hard feelings between the races any more. Got it?

The only part of that mash-up story is the possible tension it might have created between dragonborn and tiefling characters. The part they trivialized under the crushing sands of time. Even though plenty of settings have histories of warfare between races and nations. Eberron's entire story is centered around a huge war. Yet generic dnd world has one big conflict but because it happened so long ago it's irrelevant. Nice.

My point is that there are plenty of other tropes that would have made for a seamless fit into whatever world. A pocket plane comes to mind. Or a distant land way off across the big water. Heck, give them a feudal Japan flavor and you've got your ready made intro for the inevitable samurai, ninja, and shugenja classes.

For the centerpiece new race in 4E's flagship book, it has the look of a slapped together hash job that fell far short of it's promise.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Betrayed by their own OGL?

As I flip through my pdf of the Beta version of Paizo's "Pathfinder" rpg (it's awesome, btw) something occured to me.

Did WotC shoot 4E in the foot by yanking the Open Gaming License?

Maybe "yanking" is too strong a word for whatever they did. Nerfed it? Tightened it? Whatever. I'm not a copyright lawyer or a developer/designer so it's not something I know much about or care about. With that in mind, everything that follows is based purely on common sense and my admittedly vague grasp of these sorts of things.

All I know is that under the old OGL, small publishers could put out whatever they wanted with the d20/3rd edition DnD ruleset as a foundation. Sure they were taking a small piece of WotC's pie, but they were also supporting interest in the game. Strikes me as a win-win.

Under the new scheme, as I understand it, other companies can still create material for 4E but they have a lot of hoops to jump through first. Now, if 4E was to become an economic juggernaught that wouldn't be an issue. The small fish will still push upstream, but if 4E sales are no better than 3.5's then there's really no incentive for small publishers to jump. Not when they can freely produce stuff for 3.5 and get the same sales.

I can see Paizo (especially since "Pathfinder" has apparently sold out at GenCon on the first day) being the first of many who chose to market products that support or mesh with 3.5 instead of 4E. As a result, those gamers who feel jilted by 4E but don't want to cling to an unsupported 3.5 edition have a reason to stay. This group, is to me, the vital swing market for WotC. Give them a reason to stick with 3.5 and 4E is bound to suffer. Not to the point of utter failure (not with the strong brand name and investment already made) but it could be enough to push 4E to become even more of a tabletop skirmish game. I say that because if you can't beat your previous edition you made, then make the newest one into something new and different.

At least, that's one scenario I could see shaking out. All because WotC didn't want to share their sandbox with the other kids.

Am I way off base here?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Should we rest?

Griff and I were talking (alas, not over a D&D table) about the whole Shaman thing, where I feel that healing is the realm of clerics, but most everyone else disagrees. I mentioned that I was considering trying out a cleric/shaman hybrid build, just to see how much healing goodness could be squeezed out - Griff pointed out that there likely isn't that much demand in a party for that much healing, given that people have their Second Wind and their own store of healing surges.

While that's true, that everyone has a little innate healing, it still takes something to stimulate the use of a healing surge after the Second Wind has been used in battle, and in a tough fight, the defenders tend to absorb a lot of healing on behalf of the party, and thus need their extra healing surges (of which they tend to have many) activated quite often. My defense in going ahead with a cleric/shaman build is that this 'activation' is still very much a necessary function, and that anything that can alleviate damage without using a healing surge is also welcome -- temporary hitpoints, damage redirection, or "as if they used a healing surge" powers.

And from that, we realize that this is how 4e and 3.5 differ yet again. That in 3.5, the healing came solely from your divine spellcasters and the healing potions which everyone would try to stock up on. When the cleric ran out of spells, or everyone ran out of potions, it was time to head back to town and rest (okay, the arcane spellcaster might also have run out of spells).

This daily limitation in 4e, though, only exists in two places: Daily powers (including Utility powers that have Daily use, and magic items with Daily abilities) and each character's healing surge total. That's it -- everything else comes back when you're done the battle. And, as Griff recently commented, gaining another Daily or two as you advance means that you last even longer per-day, provided the healing surges last.

So, how often has your party had to stop for the day because everyone's exhausted their daily resources? We've done it a few times already, I'd say at least once per party level. Is it because we're all feeling weak because our squishy Daily power is no longer available? Perhaps once, but I'd say it's almost always when the party as a whole, or our target-practice paladin are out of healing surges.

And this is why I think there's still a place for the "party healer", provided that there are ways to help apart from allowing the others to use their healing surges. In fact, as the party cleric, I've never used all of my surges (using more than half only once), so a way to share my inner strength by allowing others to take my surge is, to me, a nice parallel for the divine energy that 3.5 clerics brought to their wounded comrades. Instead of asking my deity to heal my companion, I'm begging my god to take my sacrifice of my own reserves to further her divine plans through my fellow adventurer.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Just finished reading over the preview of the next "new" race to be a part of the PHB3. The Githzerai.

Due to my hatred of the sci-fi peg of psionics in the round hole of fantasy dnd, I never was much of a fan of the Gith. They were like Drow. Fun to fight as antagonists but I had zero interest in every making one into a hero.

They do have an interesting backstory though. Enslaved until they fought their way to freedom. It's a story that's pretty cliche but it still holds power and speaks to me in a way. Probably because I, like most everyone, love a good underdog. On the downside the whole githzerai/githyanki split is too close the whole elves/drow split. You can use the cliche WotC, but please, give it a new twist.

As for their powers, well, I like them. In general they reflect the new slant on psionics quite nicely and are definitely very useful (unlike the Dragonborn's lame breath "weapon"). If anything they might be a little too good. Getting a free shift of up to 3 squares is a super boon when using a second wind. Not only do you get HP back, but you also get to put some space between yourself and who or whatever was whaling on you. Iron Mind is also a tad strong, giving a short lived +2 bonus to all defenses. Compare that to the wizard's Shield utility spell. Both are Encounter powers and Shield gives a +4 bonus to defenses but the Iron Mind doesn't take up a power slot. Also, Iron Mind can be boosted to +4 and give damage resist with a couple of Epic Tier feats.

The Paragon path isn't bad but not especially gripping either. Much like any Paragon path I suppose. A couple of bonuses and a fancy title. Meh.

Their racial feats are nice. Again much like any feat they give some bonuses but their nothing to get excited about. My favorite is probably Iron Resolve of Zerthadlun because it gives the player a potentially difficult choice. Do you hold on to that last psionic power point for a +2 to saving throws, or spend it and hope you don't roll an 8 or 9 on your next save? I love that kind of decision and find that it's sorely missing in 4E.

A comment by Robert J. Schwalb, in regards to the racial feats got me to thinking. He said that, "Githzerai feats reinforce and expand the race's existing themes and mechanics." I can't argue with that, although I might quibble over the "expand" portion. The thing that occurred to me is that this is the big difference in feats in 4E as compared to 3.5.

In 3.5 feats were arguably the thing that defined one's character. Four fighters could be wildly different from one another based solely on the feats selected. In 4E feats have been relegated to small boosts to existing powers. One method was wildly liberating while the other almost forces feat selection to min/max. A number of 4E feats might sound good, or make for interesting character development, but if they don't synergize with your powers they're kinda wasted.

Anyways, back on track, I liked the Githzerai overll. I probably won't ever play a Gith character, but they're at least somewhat interesting now. Some nice powers. A few interesting feats. Good backstory. Really, what more could I ask for from any race?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Monster Builder

Wizards released the Monster Builder beta yesterday through the Insider website. I've downloaded it and played with it a little, so I thought I'd give my first impressions.

The interface is pretty slick - the heavy use of drag-and-drop for monsters and powers is definitely intuitive when you're building up a variant monster. The browsing of both monsters and powers, and the filters available, make finding a theme very easy. Adding optional features is very easy and intuitive, popping up new blocks for you to fill in

The builder automatically figures out abilities, hp, to-hit and damage for you, based on the role(s) you give it, which for most people will make this tool the most valuable -- the numbers are the real "rules", and the system knows them and calculates with them so you don't have to.

It's still beta, and so there are a few niggly bits that need to be fixed; when adding a power, you have a Description line, but then an Attacks block inside the power also has a Description line, and an Attack Info. It takes typing something into each of these to get a sense of where each will appear in the final block and eventually determine what info goes where. This revealed a minor bug that I've reported, where if you fill in one of these fields and then decide afterwards you don't want anything there, the parentheses it had put around your initial text stay in the power block, but empty: "Range 10; +41 vs. Will; ();" Nothing horrible, but something to be cleaned up (and, as the Wizards team responded to me, you can just delete the power and re-make it -- it's not like it takes any time to do.)

Other fields, such as Range or Damage, are hit-and-miss on how free-form they are; Range lets you type in anything you like, where perhaps it should adhere to the handful of "valid" ranges that 4e supports (so you know whether you should type "10" or "Ranged 10" to make it look like a Monster Manual entry). And Damage, which kindly fills in a "typical" value based on the frequency of the power's use, also lets you customize it - to a point. When making a joke monster as my first test, I wanted to put in a different type of damage, but any thing that wasn't a number or of the for XdY+Z popped back to the recommended value.

My biggest complaint, given my limited experience with it, is that while the abilities and hp and defense scores are all nicely calculated for you, you don't get any indication on how many powers are appropriate for your new monster. Even if the number of at-will powers isn't that important, the number of encounter and recharge powers probably are - you don't want them to have so many of these that they never have to rely on their at-wills, do you?

Or maybe you do -- in our last gaming session, the group fought a spellcaster that had three recharge-56 powers to choose from, and not once did she have to rely on a basic attack - perhaps my dice were hot that night, but for a level four or five encounter, that seemed pretty impressive (and considering the spellcaster by-far dominated the combat, perhaps it *was* too much?) The back of the DM's Guide suggests "...[t]hen add one encounter power or rechargeable power per tier (one at heroic, two at paragon, three at epic)." If the second module in the series violates this rule, are my hand-made monsters going to be challenging enough if I was to abide by it?

The final output is the other issue that I and others seem to have; you can print them out, but there's no export to an image or to some other format. I haven't found where my custom monsters are stored yet, so I'm not sure if it's in some nice readable format, but even if they don't want us pilfering monster data for our own uses, but an export for posting to the web would be very useful for those who like to blog about their new creations.

I'll have to play with it a little more to really see how flexible it is -- I haven't tried making a base monster and then using the tools to add the "warlord"/"sneak"/"minion"/"captain" versions of it, but the tools definitely look set up for making that easy. Oh, and the monster button uses the portrait of the gnome from the cartoon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Making a Class

Griff's earlier post about the Arcane Powers got a bunch of comments from readers, including one from Francis Bousho who was talking about designing a martial controller class. This got me thinking about how his idea would fit well with one of my 3.5 characters, but then got me thinking about how tough class design is in 4e.

Back in the days of 3.5, you could think up your class's theme (or more likely, prestige class), pick an appropriate hit die and save(s), think up a couple of class abilities that likely progressed every few levels, and otherwise fill in the "balance" blanks with concepts from other classes. Just look at the 3.5 fighter: pick d10, pick Fortitude, give him a bunch of proficiencies, and then add "extra feat" every even level. Done! Even spellcasting classes or prestige classes were easy -- the spell choices were from the "arcane" or "divine" list, and you either gave a select list from which to choose (e.g. the assassin) or just say "+1 to arcane spellcaster level" and be done with it. Easy!

But now look at the 4e class. Any class. There's no shared list of powers. Anywhere. Not a single one. This means that you've got to come up with new powers for THIRTY levels. The cleric has 79 powers to choose from, not counting the actual class feature ones (like Channel Divinity) or Paragon/Epic prayers. Assuming the cleric is typical in count, that's a LOT of work. And don't forget about class-specific feats...

This got me wondering, then, about how many powers you could possibly have. Even considering the at-will powers of every class, you've only got so many variables, which I've talked about before, and this means a finite amount of different powers. We may not have hit that amount yet, but how many can there be? Push/pull/slide, knock prone, daze/stun/immobilize, ongoing effects of various kinds... you can only combine so many of these together before you run out of new ways to do so -- and then you have to start sharing powers. Myself, I don't see that as bad, but it seems that this is verboten in 4e design.

So what challenges does Bousho face? Not only NOT coming up with an attack that exists already, but also being able to balance the strength of 1[W] vs. stun vs. slide-#squares-equal-to-Ability-modifier vs. ongoing Somekindof damage, at each level, compared to the other classes. All of them. Utility powers? Easy in comparison! But it's all of the combat ones that, frankly, seem unbearably numerous to be able to tackle such a task.

Trying to imagine how I, or the Wizards developers, would go about this, I picture multiple spreadsheets, or a versatile database (the Compendium just wouldn't cut it) for finding all (level X to Y) powers (at-will or encounter) (vs. Reflex, say) that deal (X)[W] and also (stun/daze/etc.) until (end of your next turn / save ends). So if you think you want a stunning attack, you can see all of the powers that have it, what range their levels are at, how many [W] they deal -- all to figure out whereabouts your power should be (and if it's at-will, encounter or daily) and, more importantly, if it already exists.

Or maybe you *could* use the Compendium... maybe I'm thinking too much like a DM. A search for "stun" in the powers brings up a single one. "Daze" brings up two. more appropriate to the monster I'm used to running, perhaps? Okay, but what about "prone"? 191. "slide"? 178. 156 if I filter by "attack", and only 10 if I filter "at-will" out. Now we're getting somewhere. Eight of the ten are level 1 (which makes sense, since that's where most at-wills appear).

Those eight are all different, but some not by much... the Footwork Lure of the fighter and the Luring Strike of the swordmage are very close -- but different enough to be different powers. So maybe I was wrong, maybe there ARE enough variables to keep making variants of the same idea for years to come - but I wouldn't want to have to go through every existing power to make sure I haven't overlapped. Eight at-wills are one thing to look through, 76 sliding encounter powers is another. Computer please!

Of course, there's nothing saying that home-made classes can't steal existing powers, intentionally or not. It might hinder their adoption outside of your group, if posted to a forum as a proffered donation to the community (and really, I should have checked out the Wizards forums before writing this -- I'm sure there's a forum dedicated to hand-made classes), because there will always be people who are sticklers about such things like overlap. Also, not allowing overlap means that future official classes might invalidate your handmade class, if Wizards, too, realizes that an at-will power that slides the target 1 square, and deals 1[W]+Intelligence modifier damage hadn't been used yet.

I don't see myself trying to create a class any time in the future, because of all of this. A paragon path or an epic destiny, maybe, and monsters for sure, but I definitely have respect for the Wizards developers (or their software which helps them manage these things), and for any players willing to take a stab at it. Francis, if you do follow up with making your martial controller class, do send it to us!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Try this at home kids

Here's a quick little exercise that came to mind yesterday.

Look around at the other characters in your party. Now ask yourself, "how is he/she/it different now than at 1st level?"

Here are my answers after just finishing fourth level.

Our ranger uses Twin Strike by default and has had that since 1st level. Nothing I'd call new there. Unless his Bear Trap is new. Could be but I'm pretty sure he's had that for quite a while.

Our rogue has used Bait & Switch twice recently, both to cool effect. Is that a recent addition? I don't remember seeing it a month ago so I'm guessing yes.

Our paladin used a smite of some kind that I thought was new.

Our cleric is pretty much a Lance of Faith guy. Recently he used another burst effect which was pretty cool and I don't remember seeing before.

Our warlord uses Wolfpack Tactics to good effect, but I'm pretty sure he's had that from the get go.

Now, having just leveled up to 5th and gaining a second Daily Power, I'm predicting that a month from now the answer to the above question will be different. Sure, it's only a Daily so it won't ever become a signature move like my Thunderwave. But with two Daily powers at our disposal we might not be so stingy with them either. Ergo we should finally begin to see some noticable advancement in our characters.

As a second exercise I'd like to ask my group to name even one of my character's Encounter powers. Or a Daily. I'm pretty sure I'd get blank stares. Maybe some drooling.

To be honest, the only ones I can think of are the ranger's Bear Trap and the rogue's Bait and Switch.

I guess the bottom line is that the first four levels are pretty much defined by one or two At-Will powers. There are some Encounter powers and some feats in there, but they never seem to truly stand out. That seems... odd, somehow.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Last month's Dragon had a Features article on an Insider-only race, the Revenant. I've always liked the idea of a revenant, a figure brought back from the dead for a sole purpose, driven to accomplish it. The novels that introduce the well-known drow Drizzt Do'urden have him chased by a revenant (his father? It has been years since I've read them), and the MMO Ultima Online had the revenant as a summonable creature that doggedly followed its target, outsmarting invisibility and teleportation.

Allowing players to play this race is definitely an interesting idea, though not likely a choice that is going to work for a casual campaign. While I'm sure DMs would be accommodating to a player that wanted to try it out for a lark, I think the whole concept of the revenant -- the back-from-the-dead, single-minded driven creature -- requires a campaign that has this idea interwoven into the plot, instead of just something that might come up once in a while.

I think the revenant would work well for a single-player campaign, providing a great hook into why the character adventures alone, and also providing the motivation to advance through the adventure (if you have problem players that like to (jokingly?) NOT follow the hints that the module provides.) The revenant can provide a basis for a single-session game, being brought back to take down this cult stronghold or that evil warren, and upon success or failure, returning to the afterlife from whence he or she came.

Of course, it works well for a whole party, too: a whole campaign could be based around some of the ideas hinted at in the article, with the party being pawns in the games of gods, or representing a party that, in service of one deity or another, was wiped out, and brought back as a favour to the deity for another try. In fact, the idea of bringing a group's party back from the dead after a Total Party Kill works well if you really wanted to see a campaign to the end. In fact, the 3.5 Ghostwalk sourcebook was useful for this, and was a backup plan that I had had for a few adventures in the past.

One of the interesting ideas of the revenant is that you choose a race that you were before, and gain benefits based on that race, most importantly, satisfying prerequisites that require the race. This applies most directly to most of the revenant feats, which specify both "revenant" and an additional race as the prereqs, such as the "Soul" feats which let you dabble back into lost racial powers, such as the Human Soul to get a +1 bonus to your defenses, or the Halfling Soul, to use your second chance power in an encounter instead of the dark reaping one that you get as a revenant. This can be especially useful if you are playing a previous character, returning for a second time around, and got used to certain racial abilities.

The racial Paragon and Epic Destiny paths are interesting, though I'm not sure the latter compares in "strength" to other epic destinies. The Paragon path touches on your pseudo-undead nature, and the Epic Destiny sure plays on the idea of "destiny", and "fate" and how your life, such as it is, has been reclaimed for yourself, allowing some interesting bonuses to saving throws.

I'd be curious to try this race out. As it stands, I don't see race mattering too much in the grand scheme of things - the initial racial traits, the occasional use of a racial ability, and the role-playing aspect of NPCs dealing with your character's race don't amount to that much compared to class selection and power choices. This is too bad, because one of the ideas in 4e was that race was going to matter a little more. In fact, if our current party was to switch to all revenants instead of two humans, a halfling, an elf, an eladrin and a dragonborn, I wonder how much we'd notice. I think the storyline reason for playing a revenant would be the most noticeable change.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Insider Knowledge

I've talked before about how I don't really care for the fact that Dragon and Dungeon magazines are now all electronic, and that I no longer get a paper copy. This means that all of the articles go unread in a pile of bits instead of a pile of pulp.

But the news post from last Friday (see how far behind I am?) talks about how one of the articles in the lastest issue of Dragon has been re-issued. Of course, not having gotten to the previous article, I hadn't formed an opinion on it before, so was curious as to what the masses had found so wrong about it, as I certainly don't follow any of the forums where this might be discussed.

The article in question is on the Class Act: Ranger, which provides a variant path of powers for your ranger if they become a part of the Verdant Silence. The introduction text was changed a surprising amount, considering it's all flavour for this class path. Whether this was done because the Cordell had an opportunity to change things, or whether this was one of the focuses of complaint, I'm not sure; it still feels like it has the same idea; things like

" a furtive martial order that appears to safeguard natural forests and Feywild
crossings from corrupting influences."


" a furtive martial order that safeguards forests and Feywild crossings from corruption."

could have all sorts of things read into it, such as the "appears to" being omitted, the "natural" forests, and no longer "corrupting influences" but "corruption." Just a writer's fancy? Or were these all bones of contention with readers?

Even the flavour text in the Powers got modified, though the more interesting things are the Powers' effects themselves that changed. The Bending Branch exploit once gave a free basic attack, now just gives a bonus to the next attack. The Death Threat exploit got totally revamped, from dealing ongoing psychic damage to gaining combat advantage for a turn. Blood of the Fallen used to give you a +2 attack bonus by spending a healing surge; now it lets you regain hit points without spending a surge at all. And then others just had their wording changed to get rid of ambiguity, such as the confusion surrounding Confusion of Blades, which could be interpreted as 1[W]+Strength+1 for every adjacent enemy, instead of just the +1 for every adjacent enemy.

This kind of change would likely never have happened with a print version of Dragon - the only avenue for such a change would be through the magazine itself, in either an editor's note or a completely new article, wasting value space... and for that, the electronic version is definitely a boon. I do wonder, however, if the article might have been vetted better had it been going to print. I understand that the Sneak Peak articles are provided with every intention of the userbase to comment and help change the race, class or whatever, but this article is not presented as such, but as a published extension to a class. Are the writers and editors getting lazy with their new medium? Or is this just how the internet is changing publishing? We have the Compendium as a "live" source of the rules, in theory, so are the PDF articles now just introductions to new rules, with the final, current word always found online?

And will such a change to an article prompt the fanbois to be even more vocal about future articles, including all of the ones that aren't soliciting input? And will Wizards capitulate more readily? I hope not, and the wording of the news article definitely has the tone of apology, embarassment, and resolve to not have to make such changes in the future.

Adventuring at our own pace

Our group has been playing 4e since it was released, which has been for, what, fourteen months? Our party is level four.

At this rate, if I don't kill the party outright, we'll have explored the field to thirtieth level by 2018. We'll have missed Fifth edition by then, but might be willing to try 5.5.

Instead, I've proposed to our group that I start doubling the XP per encounter; this means reducing the number of encounters by half, of course, so the party doesn't advance beyond the challenges. This is actually quite tricky when it comes to the Wizards pre-made modules, because the "dungeons" are laid out in a way that all of the encounters matter -- they aren't there just to give the party something to do from point A to point B. And it's not as simple as just cutting each encounter in half, because the challenge is no longer there.

But why are we doing it? Again, to see the higher levels of 4e in our lifetime; whether that's to determine whether we'll stick with 4e at all (after having given it a fair shake) or just to finish a campaign and start up a new, homemade one, depends on who you ask in our group.

Not that I'm in a hurry to abandon the Wizards pre-made modules. As Griff just mentioned, the treasure is much more balanced -- according to their own rules! -- than the 3.5 modules. I started to feel really bad for sticking to the 3.5 modules as written. I will be adding an item or two, and a little treasure, to this current adventure, just to pad it up to the "parcel" level described in the DM's Guide, but it's not a huge addition -- if we had a party of five characters, I might very well not do it, but since we're six, it's a little more noticeable.

One of the things I'm enjoying, as we advance through these modules, is getting to play new monsters. Griff and I have both mentioned how we like the new monster design, where many of them have that signature power or ability, like the kobold's shiftiness, or the hobgoblin's phalanx. It's one thing to read it in a book, but it's another to put it to practice (if you remember, that is).

In fact, I was actually disappointed last session when one of the new monsters, a dire wolf (oops -- forgot to mention it was dire, did I, guys?) never got to use its signature ability. Griff even posited that the creature should have been able to knock the characters prone, and to watch for it, but the triggering environment for that ability, which the dire wolf does indeed have, never occurred. Good for you, young party of adventurers!

Also from our last session, there was one of those moments that sticks in the minds of the players for years to come (such as my cleric getting attacked by every animated object we encountered, a party member using a rod of lightning through the whole party "for the greater good", the aforementioned cleric, heavily clad in armor, crossing a rickety bridge safely, while his lightly-armoured companions behind collapse into the fast-flowing waters, one losing their prized magical rapier...)

A hobgoblin ran up a flight of stairs and leaped upon the back of said dire wolf in a flourish, landing and firing an arrow in one fluid motion -- only to be hit by Griff's wizard/fighter hybrid with a thunderwave spell, unceremoniously dumping the hobgoblin from the back of the wolf, tumbling down the stairs, landing flat on his ass. Perhaps the rest of the group won't remember it as I do, but the visualization of that sure stuck in my mind. And this is why I play this game.

An almost wrap-up of the hybrid

A few almost possibly sorta final impressions of the hybrid rules I've been "playtesting".

All in all, I'm really enjoying the hybrid rule. It's not quite up to snuff with the old 3.5 multi-classing in terms of flexibility, but it has some definite strengths.

For starters, it's greatly simplified everything. One of the things with 3.5 multi-classing that always gave me a headache was keeping track of the various level dependant things, such as caster level. My character might be 18th level overall, but her caster level might have been only 15. Throw in some ECL from being an oddball race and those waters became even muddier.

In 4E there's none of that. Yet.

I also have to admit that there's some value in restricting players to combining only two classes (with a third possible via those terribly weak "multi-class" feats). It was pretty easy to get carried away with the multi-classing in 3.5. Just a quick skimming of the posts in the WotC forums is proof of that. There are classes in there that I've never even heard of, strung together in a chain that resembles alphabet soup.

The 4E hybrid helps the player police himself. While I'm generally against anything that restricts creativity and imagination, trying on some handcuffs can be fun once in a while. (IMJH)

At the very least the hybrid rules have allowed me to play the character that I originally envisioned. A wizard who enjoys wading into the front line.

Without the hybrid rule, my Dragonborn was capable but he really felt like a fish out of water. He wasn't fulfilling his role and it showed in every way. So he ended up standing back with bastard sword in hand, ready to defend himself if someone came after him, but otherwise dropping Scorching Bursts and trying to look interested.

Now, with the hybrid fighter/wizard combo he's up front blasting hobgoblins off the backs of their wolf mounts with his Thunderwave, and then dealing out triple damage with a Brute Strike. Without the stifling presence of filling a certain role combat is fun again.

As far as balance goes I still haven't seen anything to suggest that he's out of whack compared to the rest of the party. He gets roughly the same bonuses to hit in melee as our comically inept paladin and our kill thief ranger, and is about as effective with his "spells" as the cleric.

That said, I still get the feeling that "spells" aren't as effective as melee attacks (either up close or ranged). They simply seem to miss more often than they should. It's like everything's Fort/Will/Reflex defense is one or two points too high. Hopefully, they're churning out some feats that can give casters a bonus to hit with certain types of powers.

I need to note that we recently caught a little bit of cheating that I'd been doing. Namely in my feats, as I clearly skipped the small print and assumed that my hybrid wizard would retain his ritual casting and spellbook. In my defense, those are pretty core to the class. I guess they had to cut something to make the hybrid a sacrifice, so I had to re-tool my feats to regain the Ritual Casting ability, among other things. Oddly enough, I haven't missed not having a spellbook and hadn't really given it any thought at all since initially generating the character. I'm sure there's some reason or benefit for having a spellbook, but it hasn't affected my playstyle.


Treasure Island

At our last gaming session the topic of treasure came up as we picked up a few trinkets our fallen enemies had left behind.

Of particular interest was a rather spiffy scimitar and some swanky armor, both with interesting powers. While the rest of the magic items in 4E are pretty weak, I have to say that the armor and weapons are generally very well done.

Besides the expected "+whatever#" they all seem to have a fairly cool little power attached. Nothing really jaw dropping. Five temporary hit points or a free healing surge or things of that ilk. Yet they're still quite useful (even if only a Daily use) and more importantly, they're easy to remember. Mainly because your character's armor and weapons are going to be the center of attention. Weapons moreso, but even armor isn't as likely to be forgotten as some necklace or ring. For me at least, those trinkets tend to get buried and forgotten on my character sheet.

I would be curious to see if changing the magic item powers from Daily to Encounter would make a noticable difference. Maybe I can talk Crwth into trying that out for a couple of sessions. Or maybe someone out there on the interweb has tried this. If so, please let us know how it worked out for you.

The other thing that this brief topic brought to mind was the sheer amount of loot we've gained. It's no secret that the official line of modules released with 3rd edition was incredibly skimpy on the loot. The writers must have had access to the various tables and guidelines for giving out treasure, yet they either ignored them for some reason. Probably because they're jerks. I mean, a Roper against a party of 4th levels? Only a real asshole would write up something like that.

Anyways, the 4E modules have actually been right in line with the suggested treasure guidelines. Far from Mony Haul-ish but we certainly can't complain. We're just a smidge shy of 5th level and everyone in the party now has magic armor or a magic weapon, and in some cases, both.

Even better, for those of us who don't have a magic weapon (myself and our ranger Hune) have enough coin to enchant our weapons to our preference, thanks to the ritual.

Enchant Magic Item (PHB, p 304). This ritual is the cat's ass. Okay, it's a little too MMO-like for my tastes. The jaded skeptic/curmudgeon in me sees this as an obvious way to sell the edition to computer game producers who will then tout that all the kids can easily have flaming swords and armor that spits out lightning. But, putting that aside it really is a nice and useful little effect. Find some generic components and voila, you have a sword or armor that suits you to a tee.

There's some inherent suspension of belief there, but no less than in the 3.5 days when our DM had to conveniently stock the local merchant with whatever magic item we'd been pining/whining for.

While there aren't a lot of magic items worth questing for, at least we have an easy way of turning gold and gems into the item we really want.

Friday, July 10, 2009

This is treasure?

With a mighty slash of the warrior's heavy blade the great wyrm finally falls. There, before the surviving members of the party lay a veritable mountain of treasure. Gems and gold coins as far as the eye can see, but the choicest plums are the trove wonderous magic items scattered within.

Such as the fabled Gauntlets of Destruction. Sounds awesome. Level 18 and worth 85,000gp so they must be good. Oh wait. They only allow you to re-roll any 1s you get on damage dice. Ummm... okay. That's not too bad. You can still roll a 2 but at least it works all the time.

Not like the Boots of Infinite Stride. Those are only once a day. But, they do let you teleport up to a mile. Provided you have clear line of sight and effect. Okay. Still handy, and the +1 to movement is always in effect so that's good. Level 28 and 2,125,000gp worth of good? Well... maybe.

The magic items section in the PHB is full of entries like those. Stuff that sounds super awesome but ends up being a bit of a let down.

Here's another convenient example. The "Stowaway Stone". A "level 12" magic item with a market value of 13,000 gp. That's a little more than walking around money and something that shouldn't show up in one's backpack until he/she is nearing (or in) the Paragon Tier. So, one would expect that it does some pretty kick ass shit.

You'd be disappointed.

Unless you consider +1d6 damage to one arcane power once per encounter to be "kick ass". Factor in the effect of being knocked prone if you miss (and considering that most attacks miss more often than they hit, unless your DM habitually faces you off against naked kobolds tied to chairs) and this item loses what little luster it might have had. Even the Daily force a re-roll give a re-roll power is underwhelming.

Yet it's this kind of trinket that our characters risk their lives for. I wouldn't even get out of bed for some of that crap.

Not to say that every magic item in 4E is useless junk. Every player knows that even a modest +1 can be the difference between victory and a TPK.

I'm also aware that there were plenty of lame or useless magic items in 3.5. I give you Sustaining Spoon as Exhibit A.

However, the difference is that the spoon only cost 5,400gp. Not exactly a pitance but less than half the cost of a certain stone that'll knock you on your ass more than half the time.

My ultimate point is that there is nothing in the list of magic items in the 4E PHB that my character would actively quest for. If he should find some Fireburst Armor or a Thundwave Staff he'll be suitably pleased. There are also a number of other items like Gauntlets of Ogre Power and Amulets of Protection that are always nice to have, but by and large it's an uninspiring list.

I understand that WotC wanted to move away from what they saw as 3.5's reliance on magical gear. It pushes the focus on characters getting by on their own inate heroics (read: powers). It also cuts down on the time players have to spend pouring over their inventories to see if they have something that gives a bonus to a saving throw or what have you. Both are admirable goals but I think they went too far.

Items that were once "must haves", like the Ring of True Seeing, have now been nerfed to mere paperweights. A +2 to Perception checks and a Daily use of True Seeing that lasts until the end of your next turn doesn't strike me as worth 105,000gp or something a nearly epic 19th level character would swoon over. They wouldn't likely use it to tip the next barmaid or hawk it at Ye Olde Pawnshop, but it's not something worth risking life and limb for either.

Besides the perceived imbalance of suggested level and price of these items, too many give a bonus to saves against specific and rarely seen effects. Others give larger bonuses to skills like Athletics and Str Ability checks but not to plain old Str checks. I'd rather see more of the class or build specific items give significant boosts to powers. Add a prone effect whenever my thunderwave pushes an enemy. Let me follow a successful Daily power with an At-Will as a minor action. Things like that would give me something to aim for, save for, fight for.

As it is, there's very little to motivate the average adventurer. In taking away the reliance on magic gear they've also taken away one of the central motivators for adventuring in the first place. Sure, there's always for the righteous cause or for the service of one's god. There's even doing it for the pure glory or honor. But what about simple, unabashed greed?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Can you read my mind?

The Psion.

I wasn't expecting much when I got a look at the preview article for this "new" PHB3 class. I've never liked psionics as they always felt like a tacked on re-branded magic. Points instead of spell slots? That's creative. /sarcasm

However, after the preview of the monk class I was actually pretty excited about seeing what they'd do with the psion.

Right off the bat, I really like the new format with the designer's comments. So I'm going to focus on that rather than the nitty gritty of the psion class.

One thing that struck me is how the text refers to "psionic magic" but much of the commentary suggests that the psionic power source is more of a mental discipline. Which is it WotC? Because if it's the former...

I do like the class features of the Psion. Discipline Focus provides a couple of cool little powers, at least I'm guessing they're "little". I just wish they had given us another example to look at next to Telepathy. Andy Collins does give a hint on what the powers gained through Telepathy Focus do, so that's a bonus.

On the surface of it, Psionic Augmentation is a grand idea. Take an At-will power and with a little extra effort you can boost or change the effects. Excellent. Should be just the thing to spice up the otherwise bland spamming of the At-Wills.

On the downside, much like Crwth I thought that the swapping of Encounter Powers for augmentation points was pretty lame. While I like the idea of Augmentation the way they're doing it seems like a needlessly complicated system, and one that directly opposes the whole 4E simplicity. Crwth offers a good suggestion here but I'd go one further and eliminate the unnecessary bookkeeping of a points system. Make the Psionic Augmentation feature into the classes Encounter Power, with the appropriate levels (Augmentation I, Aug II, Aug III etc...) When the character uses a psion At-Will power the player can then augment it as his/her encounter power. The effect would be up to the level of the highest augmentation the character has attained.

The table on how many points one gets at what level is just... well, it's bad. I had to read it a couple of times before figuring out what the hell they were trying to say. While I'm not the brightest bulb on the tree, I'm not exactly retarded either. Surely there was a plainer/clearer way for WotC to get that info across. It was actually the commentary from Stephen Schubert that finally cleared it up.

The rest of the commentary is irksome. They took the old spellcasting and made it total vanilla but they brought across the 3.5 psionic point system? Because, according to Mike Mearls they "wanted to hit on the same compelling features that made psionics popular before"? Seriously? Psionics was compelling and popular? Am I that out of touch?

It also felt like time to "push the game in a new direction". Okay, I like that idea. The aim is noble but isn't this "new direction" the same old direction of 3.5? Sure, the "new" system, as Andy points out, still gives the player At-Wills to use after the points are all spent but that's just going to feel like a let-down. After firing off augmented versions for first half of an encounter who's going to enjoy going back to the plain Jane vanilla version?

Although Crwth concluded his Psion post with a tongue in cheek barb at your's truly, I am seriously thinking of giving the Psion a playtest just to see if my fears are baseless.

Critical thoughts on critical hits

Not sure what sparked it, but I got to thinking on the critical hits last night. So I figured I'd post a short comparison of the 3.5 version versus the 4E rule.

There's no arguing that the 4E version of critical hits are easier and quicker to resolve. Roll a natural 20 and you automatically hit and do maximum damage. I mean, they just couldn't be more straight forward. The only ambiguity is whether bonus dice from powers like "Hunter's Quarry" or feats are also maxed out. That's probably in the rules somewhere but since I don't know it without looking I call that an ambiguity.

That one little question aside (and it's something that can easily be looked up) the 4E critical rule works just fine. The math is simple enough and can be jotted down somewhere on the character sheet. The elimination of a confirmation roll keeps combat moving at a nice pace. There's also no need to keep track of the threat range each and every weapon provides. All good things.

On the downside, it feels almost anti-climatic now. In 3.5 a natural 20 (or a 19 in some cases) always sparked a round of excited hoots from everyone in the party. We'd all sit forward and watch the confirmation roll with great anticipation, followed by more whoops or dejected groans. It was great fun.

Now a natural 20 is still good but the best response it gets from fellow players is a "way to go" or "nice". That's it. No huzzahs or woots. Just a golf clap and a nod to the dice gods for favoring us with a nat 20.

So, the criticals in 3.5 have the edge in generating excitement. However, there's no denying that they slowed down play. Especially when that 18th level fighter with the falchion and all the crit expanding feats started rolling. It could take five minutes or more to resolve one round of attacks.

I'm mixed on the threat ranges for weapons. On the one hand, I miss it because that was one thing that really seperated one weapon from another. That and the critical damage multiplier. Crossbows did more damage but a longbow did triple damage on a critical. The kukri rolled the same damage dice as a dagger but had a better threat range. At the same time, I don't miss having to look up the range for a weapon that I only used once in a while (like a throwing axe). That was another of those time wasters that 3.5 combat was full of.

The one thing I certainly don't miss from the 3.5 critical rules is the whole this-thing-is-immune-to-critical-hits bullshit.

With hit points being an abstraction it never made sense to me that undead/constructs/plants/oozes were immune to critical hits. I've always believed that if something has hit points it can be hit especially hard, which is basically all that a critical hit is. It's just an especially nasty or effective attack. Sure stabbing that vampire in the guts isn't going to be anything but an inconvenience to him, but there's no reason a natural 20 can't spill more of it's blood, or temporarily snap a bone (ie. do more damage). An ooze can be splattered a little farther, a plant can be hewn a little deeper, a construct can have some extra bolts loosened. With DR and Resists on top, monsters of the undead and construct variety were far scarier than they really should have been.

In my opinion, the 4E critical system has some really great points. It's fast and simple and works against anything. It should honestly be a hands down favorite but somehow it still falls a little flat in play.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Psion

D&D Insiders just got a sneak peak at the Psion class that will be coming out next year in the Player's Handbook 3. As soon as I saw it, I giggled inside, because I know how much Griff loves psionics... I was a bit excited to see what they had done with it, since the Psion is the only psionic character I've played in the last 20 years.

Right off the bat, I was wrong about where the Psion was going to place in the scheme of things. And, right off the bat, I got my back up when I read that the Psion has no encounter attack powers.

Until now, all classes have followed a very regular formula of what they get at each level - at-will here, daily there, new one here, new one there. So when I read that the Psion wasn't taking part in this, I immediately saw 4e going the way of 3.5, with level advancement charts for every class looking wildly different. Instead of the encounter power, the Psion gets power points, reminiscent of the points used in 3.5. These points are used to augment the at-will powers that the Psion has, basically letting him or her turn the at-wills into a pseudo-encounter power, in terms of strength and effect.

This is actually quite interesting, giving the Psion quite a bit of flexibility. The article says that, overall, the resulting effect is that the Psion is going to do as much damage as any other Controller class would do with their encounter power(s). But in this manner, the Psion is allowed to make one of the at-wills their "encounter-like" power in this battle, and another one in the next.

The fact that they don't gain an encounter power still bugs me, though, so I propose that the Psion gets this Power available at the appropriate levels:

Psionic Augmentation I
You augment your psionic powers from a well of extra will.
Encounter Psionic
Free Action Personal
Effect: Until the end of the encounter, you can spend power points on any Power with the Augmentable keyword.

This encounter Power could also be the source of the power points themselves, instead of the separate table in the article.

The Psion of 3rd edition had six Disciplines, each associated with one of the six ability scores. The article has developer commentary throughout it, and they mention that to start they focussed on the two "iconic" builds, telepathy (based on Intelligence in 3.5) and psychokinesis (base on Constitution). Since my dwarf Psion was a Savant (the psychokinesis discipline), I was excited to see that that was going to be available -- but then disappointed when this article stopped after introducing the telepath. HOW long do I have to wait?

The article also, unfortunately, saves space by listing many of the Powers, but not their descriptions, instead providing links to the Compendium. This technically isn't a problem for anyone who's reading it, since they have access to the Compendium as well, but it's awkward to have to go to each power separately to read about them, instead of just reading a handful of pages that lay them all out. Additionally (and this might just be a setting in my Reader), clicking on the links uses the same tab in which I'm reading the PDF, instead of popping up a new one. A bit of a pain, that.

The powers that I did read, though, seem not to have much focus. They mainly deal damage, but some affect in other ways (daze, stun), some do ongoing damage, some weaken defenses... on the one hand, having such a wide range of effects can be handy, true, but it doesn't allow for making a character with a theme.

In fact, the whole feel of the Psion, as I can see with this partial view, is that it's meant to be used for a hybrid character. It feels like it would go well with a Fighter, Rogue or Warlord, adding some Controller to those other roles. Perhaps once the full class is finally released that view might change, but for now, there's just ... something ... that seems to be missing to make it a complete class on its own.

Maybe I can convince Griff to playtest it...


One of the new features of 4e that I like, as I mentioned almost a year ago is the recharge on powers, meant to cut down on the bookkeeping required by the DM on whether the breath weapon was recharged yet, or if short-term effects were still going on.

This "no bookkeeping" idea has fallen short of its mark, from my point of view. Instead of having to look somewhere to see if this is the round in which the dragon's breath has recharged, I now have to look to remember that it CAN recharge, and roll. This came up in our last session, where some of the targets had recharging powers; when it was their turn to act, I would have to check their stat block each time to see if any recharging powers existed, and what the die roll was. I had to do this every time the initiative came around to these monsters.

Now, perhaps this is something that will come naturally as we play more (and play more often)... I did find that I was remembering to check faster as the night went on. But it still feels no different than looking on my old 3.5 combat charts to see if we've gone through three checkmarks to decide whether the breath weapon is back. I've considered making power cards, similar to the ones that many of us now use during our games (thanks to the D&D Insider Character Builder), to have in my hand a set of possible powers available to my NPCs, perhaps with the card turned sideways to remind me that this is one that should be checked for a recharge. This would require a lot more planning on my part...

Another feature of 4e that seems to be contrary to this no-bookkeeping rule is the Immediate Action. Players that might have a Power that acts as an immediate action can manage to remember it, sometimes -- our party has a spectrum of them, from "I-get-to-reroll" to "they-have-to-reroll". But as the DM with multiple "characters", and my own character to boot, remembering that a monster has one of these Powers can be challenging. It actually brought to mind Interrupts from Magic: The Gathering (which is exactly what they are -- I'm not sure why they didn't just go with the same name); remembering to counter someone else's spell required diligence (or a deck dedicated to countering), and if the counterspell was on a creature instead of your hand, good luck remembering that one! I know I missed one or two "shift when missed by a melee attack" uses in our last session (though it helped that one of the targets with that ability was being subject to ranged attacks, for the most part).

But again, perhaps having a "deck" for each monster is the way to go, for both the recharge Powers and the "triggered" Powers - as a player is attacking a monster, I pick up its current "hand" and see if there's anything I can do about it. Right now, I keep the book open for the monster stats, and tally the HP and damage on a separate scratch sheet. Should I print out a stat card for every goblin, writing its damage on it? I can see having these little stacks of cards being awkward as encounters get larger (I think five or six targets has been our limit), but perhaps this is in part due to my small DMing space behind my shield.

What do other DMs do? Are they just better prepared? Better in touch with all of their minions that it's instinctive to have their goblins shift away, or to automatically check for that powerful attack's recharge? It feels like a lot of tracking that is best-suited to a computer, which perhaps explains why I end each session thinking that I should just code up an online version of the rules. Or perhaps I should eagerly await the Game Table from the D&D Insider...