Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More on Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dragonborn suck

Actually, they're pretty awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Betrayed by their own OGL?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I way off base here?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Should we rest?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, August 5, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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