Saturday, February 28, 2009

New powers

It looks like February has been a slow month, and I wonder where I've been slacking, but then realize that, except for a handful of PDF Dragon articles that I have yet to read, there's not much else to talk about this month.

One of those PDF articles is on playing the Shadar-Kai, a shadowy race of creatures. The race is spelled out as a player race in the back of the Monster Manual, but the Dragon article goes further about the background of the shadar-kai as a race, and also provides a few extra powers, based on the shadar-kai's expertise with the spiked chain.

This is actually a pseudo-multiclass feat that you take (the training), which then lets you take other feats (at 4th-, 8th- and 10th-level) to swap out some of your powers for spiked chain specialty powers.

This got me thinking about the human fighter I was making in the Character Builder a few weeks ago, based on my 3.5 spiked chain/repeating crossbow fighter. As I made Placide as a 4e character in the Character Builder, I took advantage of the Compendium's search capabilities to search for any powers that gave mention or a bonus to "flail" weapons, which is where the spiked chain falls, to try and create the same focus on a specific weapon.

And this got me thinking about how it was fortuitous that spiked chain-specific powers appeared, which then got me thinking, "why couldn't I have come up with this?"

And that's what got me writing this post. I've bored you to tears about my comments on the math behind making monsters, or lack thereof, but what about powers? What is it that makes this given power a 9th-level Daily? How do you know if the amount of damage makes a power 5th, 15th or 25th level? Is it simply the 1[W], which magically goes up to 2[W] at level X, 3[W] at level Y, etc.? Sort of (see below). What if the power adds prone? What if it dazes until end of my next turn (or save ends?)

These are the same questions I asked about monster design, about taking an existing one and swapping out an attack for another similar (whatever that means) attack. And again, I wonder if there's some magic formula of "1[W] + Dexterity modifier damage, slide the target 2 squares and the target is knocked prone" is equal to "6th-level utility power". There are a bunch of powers throughout the Player's Handbook which have 1[W] at some level, then 2[W] ten levels higher, then 3[W] ten levels after that.

But does that mean that 1[W] is worth ten levels? Probably not - I think that this is just a way to make lower-level powers appealing, to give the player the option to keep the ability (prone, daze, slide, etc.) and not feel forced to give it up for a higher-level power when it comes available. But it's a start -- if I want to take a power with 1[W] damage (and some other features) and make it start as a 2[W] power, I'd probably add 5 or 7 levels to make it comparable.

But could I really go through the powers in the Player's Handbook and reverse-engineer what a "slide 2" adds to the level of a power? The fact that you don't get a daily power or encounter power at every level means that if you're modding a daily power to a higher-level one, you can't just add X levels and say that it's a new daily power -- you'd have to find the nearest level at which dailies appear, and decide if, by lowering or raising your new power to that level, you now have an over- or under-powered power.

The fact is that this is an easier thing to test -- the build of a power is nowhere near as complex as that of a monster, and it would be easy enough to find similar powers across different classes (or perhaps the same one) and either prove that there is a formula (even if not strictly adhered to, for level-restriction reasons), or prove that it's all just made up, that Wizards just "feels" that THIS power is an nth-level Daily, THIS power is a nth-level Encounter...

If I find something out, I'll let you know. Until then, I'm not sure of the best strategy for devising your own new powers, for the character you have that needs some specialty powers with some other specific weapon.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Skill Challenges

One of the new features of Dungeon is the Ruling Skill Challenges column, of which this latest article is a part.

I've given my views of skill challenges before. I think they're a great idea, and I'm disappointed that the first Wizards module didn't have more challenges (yes yes, I'm the DM -- I can add them wherever I like).

The Dungeon Master's Guide does have some good examples, of course, on what skill challenges can be used for. And I've thought of some of the more obvious cases where you might use them -- events and actions that are directly (and obviously) based on one or more skills just jump out at you; Diplomacy, Acrobatics, History.

But I've always thought of these things as smaller, "immediate" skill challenges, even though we've been told that that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. So a challenge might be convincing an NPC to do something, convincing an NPC that you know something (which you may or may not), or some physical, immediate challenge, such as skirting a hazardous area or scaling a tricky slope.

But a skill challenge could go on for hours, for days, for weeks. And it can be lots of these smaller things tied together as one big challenge. And this is what I never really grasped. That's why the "travel through an enemy city" example in this post was such a good one; it took a large-scale task -- "travel within a warzone", in a sense, and turned it into a variety of abstract skill checks, allowing for a stealthy approach, a physical approach or a brains approach (and of course, a mixture of them all), to succeed.

What I also liked about this article was the list of Effects of Failures, boosting the DCs here and there as you fail. Not only does it provide the numbers, but also the flavour for why the DCs have increased.

And, the Random Events table also provides that extra bit to the whole encounter, ways to spice up the encounter, even if the party is completely ready for such a skill challenge, having the appropriate skills maxed out.

I look forward to finishing reading module H2, to see if-and-how-many skill encounters there are, hoping there are a few more than H1, and I definitely look forward to more examples from these articles.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Monster Design

Reading the Design & Development article on Monster Design, I'm reminded of my previous comments about the math and whatnot, and how I've avoided thinking about crafting my own 4e monsters, whether conversions of 3rd edition creatures or my own creations.

Having gotten a taste of the monsters of 4e, I'm not surprised that one of the recommendations of a starting point is with a new power or effect; especially with the monster races that have their "signature move", they really have the feel of a developer saying, "we have this new idea of a shift, so who should have that as a signature move -- oh, the kobold". I think that's an interesting way to have approached it, especially with using iconic D&D creatures and fitting them into these ideas.

And as I read the Monster Manual more, and read module H2, I'm getting more of a feel for the monster design, definitely helped out by the Tactics blocks provided -- you can definitely tell that the powers were designed for a specific method of combat, and that the creature might have been designed around that very idea.

In fact, when I flip through the Monster Manual, I wonder about the "holes" in different creatures; kobolds have their low-level minion, skirmisher, artillery and soldier covered, and have a higher-level artillery and lurker. Where are the low-level brute and lurker? Do they not exist for kobolds because it just doesn't fit the image of starter kobolds (those things being something you see in a more advanced kobold), or did the designers just not "complete" the set, for lack of space (or lack of ideas)?

I'm not complaining, though; in fact, I think that these "holes" are a really good place for monster designers to start -- if you want to get a feel for the 4e system of monster design, then sit down and come up with what a low-level brute kobold would be: what features would it share with its kin (would it even get the Shifty power, or is he too brutish for that?) and what would make it stand out as its own monster.

This experience would also give you a feel for how many powers they should have, at-will or encounter, compared to similar creatures of their level or role. And this is the experience that you can carry to a unique creature of your own.

The mathematician in me, of course, wants to dissect powers and say "an at-will is worth X points", "a power that pushes is worth Y points", "a power that dazes is worth Z points" and then want to find some magical formula that lets you approximate how much an nth-level skirmisher has to "spend" during design.

For instance, if my 10th-level skirmisher huzzlewhatsit has resist 10 fire, cold, then does that mean that the at-will power should only slide the target 1 square instead of 2? Or it means that it's pull or push instead of slide?

I don't think this will ever happen, of course, so I can see myself (and other monster developers) taking existing monsters of the desired level and role, and basically swapping out features to get the ones that you want -- get rid of the "2d10+4 fire damage plus prone" power and swap it for a "2d6+6 damage plus stun", or something to that effect.

Overall, the article was interesting in that it gave hints on how to make a monster, but what I'd like to see is an actual step-by-step example -- have one of the devs actually write an article, starting with "5th-level fey" with "some sort of make allies fight each other" effect, and go through the steps of creating the rest of the monster, so as to be balanced in the 4e system. That would give us would-be designers a better feel for how the actual balance (which I seem to be obsessed with) works.

New races

Just finished the Design & Development from earlier this month, regarding the Gnome and Half-Orc. I was one of the many who whined loudly when they didn't appear in the first Player's Handbook, because I've played them both and feel that they're core to D&D.

I've never been into the tinker gnomes, crafting mechanical contraptions that don't fit into a fantasy realm, nor have I cared much for the trickster gnomes, having to be the comic relief in the party. My last gnome was a druid, a strong and silent type, fighting to keep the balance of nature and civilization in check.

I liked seeing the thought process behind the upcoming incarnation of the gnome, seeing that the devs, too, felt similarly. Yes, the fey category implies that impishness a bit, but it doesn't shoehorn them into a jester role. Twigbeard will again be born, once the Character Builder gets the appropriate data.

And the half-orc. Given that my favorite half-orc really didn't last that long, I'm quite attached to him. Even though he was a stereotypical barbarian half-orc, he was *my* barbarian half-orc, and he has appeared in Neverwinter Nights and Dungeons and Dragons Online after meeting an untimely demise in his first incarnation.

As mentioned in the article, the role of "somewhat civilized, but potentially savage" is currently covered by the tieflings and the dragonborn. And while I have nothing against these as player races, except for the fact that they seem to have ousted the half-orc, I still think that the "tamed savage" title belongs first and foremost to the half-orc.

As a player, I don't suppose I've ever considered the process that goes into coming up with a race's history; I have just taken what they've told me, and gone with it. So while it was interesting to see the process through which the half-orc race came into being in 4e (which, in the end, it did mysteriously), it doesn't really placate me as a reason for them to have been excluded in the first Handbook. But, they're coming soon enough, which means that Ish'us'q, too, will be born into 4e. And who knows, I might even try my hand at a half-orc warlord...

...just don't tell Griff.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Old news is still good news

I'm behind in my reading -- there's a new family member who takes up a bit of my time -- so I only just now read last Wednesday's News post, which mentions that the Compendium's timeout is now set to two hours.

Wizards, I might complain about you a lot, but at least you listen.

(Okay, maybe not to me, but to people in general)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Summoners' Tales

I just read this month's Ampersand article, which contains a sneak peak into the Arcane Power book. This featured something that I noticed a month or two ago, and had asked Griff about -- where's the summoning in 4e?

Well it's coming, apparently. It's interesting timing, too, coming shortly after the sneak peek at the Shaman, who has his companion, a summon of sorts. The rules for a summoned creature, however, are a little more involved, and they seem to be well thought out.

They smartly covered the terminology of 4e, including explicitly pointing out that summoned creatures are Allies. The summoned creatures are much more tied to the caster than in previous versions, where you were basically bringing on a creature from the Monster Manual; now a creature might look like a serpent or an abyssal maw, but it has the defenses of the caster, half the hit points, and shares the caster's healing surges.

And I think that that's what makes the summons interesting. A wizard, typically, isn't up front fighting, yet he can send this representative into battle to help out the other party members; you may lose a healing surge or two, keeping it alive, but when that happens, you're hopefully still in the background, out of reach of more damage.

But not only are they useful for dabbling in combat, adding that extra pseudo-partymember when needed; they can, if properly equipped with the right limbs, open doors and pick up items, which makes them good fodder for checking for traps down halls or behind innocent-looking doors -- if they get the chop, the wizard loses a single healing surge, which might very well be a better result than having the wizard go down the hall on his own.

What makes each of the summons unique, of course, are the attacks, the movement rates, and any other abilities they receive. Some are for spying, some for combat, and each of the combat summons has their own little twist -- opportunity attacks, marking, etc.

Overall, I think the summoner wizard is going to be welcome in a party, especially a smaller one, given that extra contribution, that extra presence, to the combat, on top of the at-wills that have become so familiar from them.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Next up in the Preview series is the Shaman, a Primal Leader.

Right off the bat, I love the Companion Spirit. What has always attracted me to the Druid, even though I seldom took advantage of it, is the idea of animal companions, and the companion spirit fits with the whole idea of a totem for the shaman.

Only a few of the powers, the at-wills, focus on the companion, but all in all, it has a really nice feel to it; ever since we saw a bard (of all things) use a summoned animal to good effect, I've liked the idea of using them for combat, and not just spies or scouts.

What bothers me about the other powers, though, is the focus on healing. Not just healing, per se, but also temporary hit points and regeneration -- over all, the shaman has more healing and its ilk than the cleric, even down to the Healing Spirit power, similar to what the cleric, paladin and warlord have, to allow an ally to use a healing surge.

Perhaps this is my own issue, seeing healing as the realm of the cleric, with bit parts by other players. Yes, the 4e cleric is better balanced, no matter how you build him: healer, warrior and bane of the undead. And perhaps the vision of shaman brings to mind someone who heals the mind and soul, and thus it fits that they provide in this role, but I think you'd be hardpressed to find someone who didn't answer "cleric" to "who is the party's healer?" If that has officially changed, I want an announcement of some sort.