Monday, March 30, 2009

Playing your own character

Hot on the heels of Griff's last two posts, I'll mention that I've been playing with the Character Builder a lot lately, getting to know the different classes out there. I find that this is a lot easier than trying to read through thirty levels of powers for a class, where they all blur together...

To test out the Builder, I took all of my various 3.5 characters over the years, and attempted to recreate them in 4e. It should be noted that, while I might complain about the lack of choice in 4e, I very rarely multiclassed in 3.5, not counting prestige classes. I thought that this might have made these recreations a little easier.

I started this experiment after reading the article on the Shadar Kai in Dragon #372, where they also provided some feats specific to the spiked chain. This brought to mind my 3.5 character Placide DeMorgan, and I thought I'd give a spin recreating him.

This was actually a lot of fun, and quite the challenge. The idea of Placide was that he had reach, and that he could Trip and Disarm well. Trip and Disarm are no longer general attack types in 4e, so my goal was to take any power that came along that provided "...and target falls prone" or any mention of disarming. Then I decided that anything that might grab a target would fit in with the concept (wrapping them around with the chain), and, if none of these choices was available, I'd go for the idea of a sweeping attack, such as a close burst smack-everyone-around-you attack. And if all else failed, I'd take a power that provided a slide or pull effect, as Placide tugs his opponents around the battlefield.

But it was tough! There were many choices of powers that fit with this idea. It also "helped" that, with the right choice of feats, the spiked chain was considered a flail, a two-handed weapon, two weapons, an off-hand weapon, a light blade, a double weapon, and reach weapon, which meant that any powers that offered up bonuses to use of such a weapon became appealing.

To level Placide through level 30 probably took two hours, on and off, of flipping back and forth between power descriptions and even feat descriptions. It was probably the most engaging character I've made in 4e.

On the heels of such a success, I tried to make Raven, my Druid/Shifter (and by far my favorite 3.5 character to play). Not having the Shifter prestige class was going to be a blow, but because the beast form was such a large part of the 4e druid, my idea was to focus on powers and feats that would allow 4e Raven to remain in beast form and be at her most powerful, with little regard to her human form. Also, going with the more feral build, I was going to avoid taking any powers that did energy damage, staying instead with claws, teeth and primal savagery.

Well I was successful, I suppose, in that I made a 30th level druid. But it wasn't nearly as fun, or interesting, or engaging, as making the fighter. I kept thinking that I wished I could have a little bit of a Rage effect, to really let the primal nature take over, or some stealthy creeping beast form to then sneak attack with -- but of course, I can't multiclass barbarian or rogue here. While I was able to apply my build "rules" and choose from my options easily, I ended up whipping through the 30 levels without really noticing it, without much thought.

You might be thinking, then, that it's my fault for coming up with this restrictive build, that made this character easy and uninteresting to make. But this is my point. I summarized this feeling to one of our group on Saturday night: that 3.5 allowed you to come up with some completely-custom idea for a character -- a stabby, lightning-casting, gnome who's good at tripping and throwing hammers -- and you could find a combination of classes, feats, spells and equipment to realize you very specific character concept. In 4e, you can try to do this, but in the end, are given only a handful of choices, and you have to try and be creative based on those (or perhaps in spite of those).

I got lucky with building 4e Placide, because there were lots of feats and powers that accentuated the idea behind him. But not so much with Raven. And perhaps the next book or Dragon article will give me the flexibility I need -- even 3.5 didn't have every bit of content available in the beginning -- but generally new content in 4e is for the new race or new class, not something that gets added to an existing class. Feats, sure, are available to most characters, but powers are always tied to a specific class. And if I can't take that power, then let me take that class *at any level I decide to*.

As Griff just mentioned, the Paragon Paths are helping to provide a few extra branches to the thin evergreens of the class progressions, but even those are limited, and the Epic Destinies are, as Griff believes, a bit limited.

Today I just tried another remake, this time recreating the ever-doomed Ish'us'q. Had Ish'us'q seen more years in 3.5, he would have focused on DR, SR and regeneration, likely going down the path of the forsaker. In 4e, I decided to build him similarly to the Dungeons & Dragons Online version of him, with heavy concentration on raging, a falchion, and taking out multiple foes at once. There are various powers that focus on raging, and when there wasn't one available, a close burst power was usually available. The choices were there, and I got my character, but, as with Raven, it just wasn't very satisfying. There's my barbarian, all made up and ready for 30 levels... but apart from the initial "choice" of my theme, it was a no-brainer at all 29 level-ups. The glimmer of hope I had for 4e character creation that I had when making Placide still wasn't recreated.

I'm not done yet -- I've got more classes to try out in the builder, both old and new. But instead of coming up with a theme and then sitting down to realize it on a character sheet, I will be browsing through the powers of my chosen class, and trying to come up something interesting, to stand out from the others.

What colour do you want your Ford Model T in?

This is Epic?

A bit more on the PHB2.

For starters, I can see now why they include classes like the Shaman, Warden, and Warlord. For sure those "classes" are pale variants on stronger classes, but I can't say that they're not necessary. We need as many of these banal tweaks as we can get so that we can find something that closely fits most any character concept.

A ranger might not be quite right so there's the Warden. A druid kinda makes sense but the Shaman has powers that are better suited. Etc...

I still hate the idea of that, but I understand the design now.

I love the Paragon Paths. The more of these that come out in each book the better. They are really the one and only thing to look forward to. The one meaningful decision in your character's career.

So much for Rob Heinsoo's goal of widening the sweet spot. What they really did was set the Paragon Tier as the de facto sweet spot.

That's most obvious when you look at the Epic Paths. My god they suck! I mean, seriously suck. There is absolutely nothing there to look forward to. For any class.

Epic levels should bring epic choices. This is the time when we should be weighing every decision in light of our character's goals. We're talking heroic destiny here.

Yet we get repetitive drop-this-power-and-select-from-three-of-these-to-replace-it decisions. If you want to call that a decision.

Maybe they'll address that in PHB3. Or in some Epic Powers add-on. Or both. What better way to ensure that we drop another $50 into WotC's coffers?

Oh wait. They have already found a better way to snag our money. By putting core rules in "optional" source books.

How else does one explain the fact that they still didn't address double weapons in the PHB2? If double weapons had been overlooked or cut from the original PHB, well, so be it. Adding them in to the PHB2 would have been a reasonable remedy.

Instead they put the rules for double weapons in the Adventurer's Vault and nowhere else. If you want those rules, dig out your wallet chump.

On the bright side, I'm sure the "Adventurer's Vault" and similar books will have plenty of other good stuff. Enough at least to justify the extra money spent.

Maybe even something epic.

With this class, I thee wed...

Our group finally got the chance to play after a two month hiatus.

It was good to get back as it reminded me that the ruleset (ie. 4e or 3.5) isn't the most important thing. It's an important foundation for the fun, but the rules are not the be all, end all of the fun.

During play I also got to read through my brother's copy of the PHB2. As I did I even had an epiphany of sorts.

The classes in 4E feel so restrictive because they're meant to be. You're supposed to pick a single class and go with it for all 30 levels!

I know. That sounds like a total "well duh dipshit wake the fuck up" thing to write, but like I said... epiphany.

In my mind, the class has always been just a tool to help with the realization of my character concept. If I want a melee fighter who uses touch spells I start with a monk and then add in either sorceror or cleric levels. If I want a stealthy warrior who uses twin short swords I go ranger and rogue. And so on.

I can't do that in 4E because once you pick a class, that's it. You're locked in for better or for worse. Til death or TPK do you part. You might look wistfully at that other class and wonder what it would be like to be that for just a weekend, but at best you can flirt by using a multi-class feat.

Upon realizing that it became clear that to fully enjoy 4E I need to change the way I make my characters. I can still start with a concept (ie. storm themed caster) but I have to pour over the potential class and find the one that'll be the best fit.

I did exactly that with the PHB2 as I considered switching my current character from a wizard to a sorcerer.

On the one hand, the sorcerer dragon magic path is a nice fit for my Dragonborn. On the other, the sorcerer powers (for the heroic tier anyways) don't really fit the storm theme I want. There are some lightning and cold powers but nothing that really screamed "this is the character I want".

So, although the wizard class isn't perfect it is comfortable. So I settled.

Of course, when one settles for less than perfect it's only a matter of time before you start thinking of divorce.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Getting Primal

Just read the Dev & Des article on the Primal power source in the PHB2.

A few quick comments.

I like Rob's descriptions of the Barbarian and Druid classes. I haven't seen the PHB2 yet, so I have to take his word for it, but it sounds like they're finally noticably different from the Fighter and Cleric. I've always felt that either or both classes could have been rolled into the latter classes (with feats and optional spell lists opened up by a Prestige Class or something). Whether that changes with 4E's PHB2, well... we'll see.

The Warden, I only vaguely remember from some sneak peek article. It sounds to me at first pass as another Warlord type. A class that exists solely to fill pages in a product. Could the Warden's powers be rolled into the Ranger or Barbarian? Maybe open up some options for those classes versus creating a new cookie cutter?

I'm a proponent of fewer classes and more options. 4E seems to be about more classes with two options (ie. builds) for each.

Then there's the Shaman. I don't even need to read this class. It's clearly a slice of Druid/Sorcerer/Wizard given unnecessary ink. It'll take more than a fancy familiar (aka "spirit companion") to justify this class.

Mike then gives us a look at the Primal classes and how they fit the revamped cosmology. With this, I'm fully on board.

Make the druid into the anti-cleric. Let them butt heads over Gods vs Primordials. Create intra-party tension and conflict. That's good shit.

The rest... well... sounds like the PHB2 could have been about 50 pages.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Stabbed in the back by a double weapon

It came to my attention via Crwth that double weapons were not included in the core PHB.

I found that really hard to believe. But sure enough the first place they show up is in the Adventurer's Vault supplement.

Nice WotC. Fuck you too.

I mean, it's not like the double weapon is a new idea. They had 'em in 3.5 so it only made sense that they'd appear in 4E.

Yet instead of putting the double weapon, even just one piddly example, in the PHB and thereby including the rules for them in the CORE SET OF RULES, they wait and put them into a supplement.

Along with the rules on how to play them.

Worm meet hook meet victimized consumer.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Promises. Promises.

I got a look at the Crwth's Insider copy of the Martial Powers Book playtest article.

For starters, I've gotta say that I love WotC's use of these playtest articles to get feedback from the players (ie. customers) before putting it all in ink. Assuming its not just a phony PR stunt.

As for the actual material, well... it's heartening. I mean, at long last they seem to be following up on the pre-release promises of having a warrior's choice in weapon mean something. (But why only for martial characters? Can't an arcane or divine or primal character specialize in a weapon too? Wouldn't that be more in line with the 'every class is equal and indistinguishable' thing 4E has going on?)

The feat bonuses and effects are all pretty much more of the same old formula. Add a bonus to this, do that in such and such a situation. Still, it's something that will differentiate a fighter who uses an axe from a fighter who prefers a spear and shield.

Most importantly, to me anyways, is that it offers up a lot of promise. I mean, all of my unfounded and harsh criticism aside (3.5 forever!) it's looking like 4E will be a really fun game.

In about three years.

In the meantime...

Monday, March 16, 2009

An interview with the devil (just kidding Heinsoo)

My interest in all things DnD has been pretty low lately (for a number of reasons) so I haven't had much to write about.

Until Crwth pointed out this interview with Rob Heinsoo.

Now, I've been unfairly critical of Mr. Heinsoo in the past. In my defense I was in a foul mood that day and his Dev Post about his desk (when I was expecting something relevant) just pushed me over the edge. While it's true that I'm extremely jealous of the fact that he holds my dream job (and embittered by the knowledge that he's certainly more qualified and better at it than I'd ever be) I have a lot of respect for Heinsoo.

That said...

For starters Heinsoo says (and I'm paraphrasing here) that he designed 4E so that it would play like he expected the game to play when he was ten years old. Not to be smarmy, but if there's one overwhelming impression I get from 4E, it's that it was designed for ten year olds.

By that I mean that it's very much a game where you can whip up a character in a few minutes and dive right in. Over all that's not a bad thing, but I feel like they simplified by taking away choices from the players. At the same time there seem to be even more keywords and effects and conditions that need to be repeatedly looked up (although that might just be due to mixing them up with the more familiar 3.5 terms).

Otherwise, for the most part I agree with some of the things Heinsoo has to say.

First off I agree that a 1st level 4E character definitely has the feel of a 4th level 3.5 character. Not a bad thing, to be honest. My only counter is that I never had a 1st level character die. Oddly enough all of my dead PCs were in the 4th to 15th range of levels. In other words, right in Heinsoo's "sweet spot".

Is that from DM Crwth pulling punches at the early levels? Dumb luck? More care with delicate low levels PCs? All of the above?

While I'm at it, I'll also agree with his point on the "sweet spot". I definitely looked forward to hitting 3rd level as the feat gained felt like the point where my character concept finally began to be realized. Above and beyond that I can't say that I enjoyed the 4th thru 10th levels any more than the levels 11 and up.

However, and this is admittedly damning, my upper level characters were a rogue/sorcerer and a sorceress, so I can't really say that fighter-types were outshone at those levels. I do find it hard to believe that an 18th level Fighter with the plethora of feats and the ability to deal out 100+ damage in a round wouldn't be as much fun as my 18th level sorceress. But it's possible.

Still, I've gotta disagree with Heinsoo's assertion that in 3.5 not all of the classes "rocked". In my opinion every class from the Barbarian to the Wizard (and I'm sticking to the PHB core classes here) most definitely rocked. Most importantly, they all rocked in decidedly different ways. Whether it was the ability to Rage or sing or change shape; or a plethora of feats, or sneak attack, or smite, every class had an identity.

While I applaud the intent of 4E to give every 1st level character a fighting chance via a ton of hit points (and healing surges) I think they just went too far with the various powers.

By giving Powers to all they've stripped away the relevance of those powers. Once every one has them, they cease to be anything special. Where's the noticable difference? Where's the defining characteristic of the character?

The answer is that it depends on the character's role. The Controller directs traffic. The Striker deals out damage. The Defender holds the line. The Leader gives out the buffs. Every class has a set of powers that support the given role. That's what defines the 4E character. The role within the party has become king.

I'm not arguing that having roles is a bad thing. It's called a Role Playing Game for a reason. Plus, semantics aside, it just makes sense for a party to have as many bases covered as possible. From experience every time we created a new party it always began with a question of who was going to play what. We didn't necessarily handcuff ourselves to having someone to take care of healing or deal with traps but it was in our heads at the very least.

Putting my quibbles aside, I did enjoy getting a little insight into the aims and thought processes of the 4E designers. I'll also say that they seem to have hit the mark on everything that they wanted to do. 4E does play easily, it flows nicely, the encounters are fun, and there are never any moments where a player has nothing to do.

It should be a really great game.

So why don't I enjoy it nearly as much as 3.5?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Move over sorcery. Hand me a sword.

So long magic. I'm now looking to the sword to make D&D fun again.

In the ultimate in respec (and despite it being something I've railed against in the past) I'm switching my current character from a wizard to a fighter.


For starters I want to give 4E a fair shake and kick all the tires. Ideally I'd remake him as a different class at every level up, but that would be a little ridiculous. So, having completed the first module and then going through a lengthy hiatus until H2, it's the perfect chance to try out the melee side of things.

The biggest reason however is that the Wizard class is just incredibly boring to me. Now that every class as spells (or powers as WotC calls 'em now) the Wizard has been robbed of the one thing that made the class (or any spellcasting class) fun and unique. The Wizard is just another face in the crowd. A one trick pony that stands at the back and drops the same at-will power repeatedly. Blah.

The clincher has been some of the content I've seen in Crwth's Dragon pdfs. Articles such as the Gladiator one and the "Art of the Kill" are not only interesting reads, but also provide several Multi-class feats for martial types to use. While a far cry from the diversity I've come to expect in my DnD game, the Multiclass and the Technique feats can at least spice up a character and provide an in-game difference maker.

At first glance "my fighter is a Bravo Novice with the Cruel Cut Technique" is potentially better than "my fighter uses an axe". Only time will tell if these feats provide a noticable difference at the table.

I suspect that I'm merely swapping out repetitive Scorching Blasts for repetitive Thundering Blows (or whatever the fighter at-will is). At the very least the switch has rekindled my passion for the game.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Monster Conversions

On the heels of previous monster creation post, we get the March Dragon Editorial, where they talk about the progression of monsters from the very beginning.

Specifically, they talk about the roper, which, ever since the 3.5 module Forge of Fury, have been a favorite of mine. Our party's encounter with that creature still sits in our minds, all these years later.

The roper, through the various versions, has certainly changed to match the "style" of the monster design, even if it tried to maintain its signature mark: strength-sapping, adventurer-dragging tentacles. It's is interesting to see how that is handled by the rules, especially back in 1st edition, where it was a very "loose" set of rules, to 3.5 with a large set of terms, to 4e with a very miniature-like set of operations. Especially, I like the question in the article, "but mechanically … what exactly is happening here, and when?"

The article claims that the 4e roper is well-designed, and I have to agree. It adheres to the "style" of 4e powers, and it does so, in the same manner as other more "complex" creatures, by having attacks that require the target to be in some other state. So the roper has a Reel ability that can only be used on a target that it has grabbed, which is the result of a successful tentacle attack, much as other creatures can immobilize with one attack, then can use a special attack against immobilized targets.

This is good design. It stands by the rule of "reduced paperwork", where 4e tries to prevent all of the bookkeeping involved with effects wearing off, or recharging (like the old dragon breath). I think it will be interesting to see if the 4e design has anticipated all of the 4e interpretations of older monsters and older abilities: we have immobilized, dazed, stunned, grabbed, prone, etc., and push, pull and slide; and I suppose there's no reason you can't add a new "condition" later on, if one's needed. And then as long as a conversion can turn an old-school ability to a "first attack and cause condition X, then use a different attack (on a target under condition X), to have this other effect", we can pretty much convert anything, from older editions or from our minds.