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...

Monday, July 6, 2009

Role play or Role-play

I'm beginning to come around on 4E. That is to say that I'm starting to see the forest for the trees. While it still feels very generic and has some annoying restrictiveness there are some elements that are welcome and enjoyable. With enough time and a few more books like "Arcane Powers" etc... it could turn into a thoroughly enjoyable game. For sure it'll have some flaws but 3.5 was flawed in numerous ways but it was still fun to play. It's not hard to imagine that 4E will be the same.

However, I'm beginning to feel like we're running out of time. We've been playing 4E for over a year now and we're only just barely 4th level. In other words, we've only just begun to scratch the surface of what 4E can really be. To really plumb the depths of the game will take us several years, at which point WotC will be releasing 5th edition. We're toying with a couple of solutions. Either double xp from now on, or sampling one-night adventures of various levels.

In the meantime, I thought I'd do a series of posts about each of the major issues I have with 4E. I do this because it helps me to reason these things out in written form. Plus, I can often go back and re-read what I wrote and see where my logic left the rails. Finally, any feedback I get from different viewpoints can be very enlightening.

The first of my grips with 4E is the whole irrelevance of character class.

I have written on my character sheet that Tycho is a fighter/wizard, but in play neither of those words ever really matter. The wizard part is especially meaningless to me. I mean, other than having a spellbook and an orb, he never does anything "wizardy".

Oh, he "casts" (to use the term very loosely) Chill Strike and Thunderwave, buys up rituals and components whenever he gets the chance, and identifies magic items thanks to his training in the Arcana skill, but so what? Every class has powers that can do essentially the same things as Chill Strike and Thunderwave. That is daze or push opponents while dealing some modest damage. With feats or skills chosen at 1st level anyone can use the Arcana skill and cast the same rituals.

Therein lies the problem. Nothing really feels exclusively "wizardy" or "spellcasty".

To be fair, there are a couple of real differences between his wizard powers and his fighter powers. The former are opposed by the target's Reflex, Will, or Fortitude while the latter are versus AC. The wizard powers have longer range (10 squares or burst 3) while the fighter powers are all pretty much adjacent targets only. Another difference is that the wizard powers can provoke attacks of opportunity.

Yes, I'm aware that there are lots of differences between the fighter and wizard classes. The Hit Points, healing surges, defense bonuses, etc... are not universal and do have an impact on the game. However, in my opinion the real heart of the 4E class lies in the powers and those don't seem to have any concrete ties to the actual class. In fact, I think that the powers are more strongly related to the role than the class.

So much so that I would argue that instead of picking a character class, one could pick a Role and perhaps a power source. Powers would then be selected from whatever classes fell under that role and power source. An arcane striker would pick from the lists of both the sorcerer and warlock. A martial defender would have the fighter and paladin (I think?) lists to chose from. The end result would be a much more satisfying and customized character.

As it stands now, I find that when creating my character I undergo a series of trade-offs just to fit my concept. A swordmage might be more accurate but the powers don't quite fit the image I have in my head. A wizard doesn't fit either but the powers do. In the end I'm left with a character that's still fun to play but less than satisfying in a number of ways.

Then again, I might be placing too much emphasis on the powers.

At any rate, while I can understand the reasoning behind the whole any-character-can-do-anything philosophy of 4E. No one likes sitting there doing nothing while the player of the rogue searches the hallway for traps and disarms them all. Or while the wizard casts a bunch of Dispel Magic spells. Or while the fighter rolls five attacks and checks for criticals. It can be tedious and boring.

However, there's something to be said for having specialists with an expertise that only they can have. It makes a choice of class meaningful. It gives one a feeling of real contribution. It gives one a moment to shine. Shine on you crazy diamonds. Shine on.

Hybrid Experience, a little more

Had a good gaming session on Saturday night so I can add a few thoughts on the Hybrid rules.

For starters I can honestly say that my hybrid fighter/wizard is very close to the actual concept I had for my character. That is, a proud Dragonborn warrior with a talent for magic. The bookish aspect of the wizard class is the only thing that still doesn't fit, and it irks me because the class otherwise fits nicely. At least in terms of the powers it gives me access to.

Speaking of which, I've abandoned the Controller role that the wizard is supposed to fill. I suppose my Thunderwave power can still be used to push enemies around but otherwise I don't have anything that affects a mob. This could come back to haunt the party. Or it might be something I can correct as I get to pick new powers at future levels. Assuming that the new controlling power still fits with my storm concept.

The figher's combat challenge, when I remembered to use it, was nice in that I managed to keep a hobgoblin from attacking our rogue who was in a tough spot. Being able to "mark" an enemy wasn't the reason behind creating a fighter hybrid but it did come in handy.

I got a kick out of the Brute Strike daily that the fighter side gave me. The fact that it's "reliable" means that at some point in the day, I am going to hit someone for triple damage. I missed twice on Saturday night, but because it was never expended I'll get to keep trying until I roll something higher than a 5.

I am wondering if the wizard powers (and I suppose any others that target anything other than AC) are going to fall behind the curve, so to speak. In 3.5 I always hated how at the upper levels (15 plus) my spells were always saved against simply because the monster's save bonuses were way higher than my DC could ever be. It seems like 4E hasn't fixed that as my hybrid enjoys a +10 with his bastard sword but a mere +6 with his spells. Throw in some flanking or combat advantage and the discrepency widens.

While I understand that most enemies will have higher AC than the other defences, I'm worried that Reflex/Will/Fortitude defenses will outpace my Int+1/2 char level bonus.

As for the rest of the hybrid mechanics, I haven't seen any flaw in terms of HP etc... I can take a fair bit of abuse but no more than anyone else in the party. Seems like WotC hit a nice balance with their numbers.

Over all, I'm pretty happy with the hybrid character I have. Happy enough to keep him until 8th level, assuming I can keep him alive that long. At that point I'll probably switch back to a pure class like a swordmage and do another comparison.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Arcane Power: A welcome boost or necessary evil?

By now it should come as no surprise that I'm not exactly a fan of 4E. I'm sure I've beaten the no-multiclassing-spellcasters-suck-now horse well past the point of death. However, there are some signs that 4E might someday mature into a good all around game.

The hybrid rules are a step in the right direction. The whole emphasis on a character's "Role" in the party is still overly invasive, restrictive, and utterly annoying but at least there's some room for creative class mixing.

The new monk not only solidifies a class that always felt "tacked on" but also validates psionics, which were just shit from the get go. While the final product of the monk and psionics is yet to be seen, it sure looks promising.

Really, the only remaining disappointment I have is with the spellcasters. Namely the Arcane ones. The ones that were my favorites in 3rd edition but now feel and play exactly like any other class.

I'm sure that the Wizards, Sorcerers, Warlocks et al get access to some pretty sweet powers eventually. I've seen a few that I'm actually looking forward to having but it all rings hollow when I look at the powers the fighter side of my hybrid will get. They have the same level of niftiness with the added bonus of being right up in the thick of the action. Martial characters get to have their cake and eat it too.

Which brings me to the new "Arcane Powers" supplement. It's name alone gives me hope. After all, I really liked the majority of the content in the "Martial Powers" book, so I'm hoping the Arcane version will be filled with similar yumminess.

I read somewhere (sorry for the lack of linkage, I wanna say that it was somewhere on but I'm not sure and I'm too lazy to go searching) that the Familiar is finally joining the party, and that they have a passive and active mode. That's all well and good. I've never been a big fan of the familiar, simply because I don't like the extra bookkeeping and logistics of having one. If they've dumbed the familiar down to the point of being a magic item that perches on one's shoulder, that's fine by me.

I also saw something on a storm theme which is enticing. Not only is the sorcerer my favorite 3rd edition class, the addition of the storm theme would make it a good fit for my current hybrid fighter/wizard. I might need to do yet another character re-build. Or, perhaps not, since class is almost meaningless in 4E (but that's another post entirely).

I'm sure the wizard, warlock, and bard all gain some new tricks as well. The wizard section(s) will be of particular interest to me, and the warlock might be a good or interesting read, but I still say that the warlock and sorcerer are redundant. While one uses pacts and the other has a chaotic slant, in the end both are arcane strikers. Do we really need two of those? As for the bard, well, who really cares about bards?

While I'm loathe to drop any more cash on an edition that I'm not entirely sold on (yet) when we have a very fun edition to fall back upon, I'll probably break down and buy Arcane Power when I get the chance. I just hope that it finally gives the spellcasters a reason to be.