Archive for March 2010

Harrowing Halls Review

Just picked up a set of Harrowing Halls yesterday, and had time to punch 'em out and see what this whole 3D business was all about. The tiles themselves are mostly wooden textures, suited for interior mapping. This is good because as it stands, there really isnt enough to do buildings justice.

The 3D elements are kind of clever, I think. Most of the tiles have slots that you can use to construct simple shapes like cubes, with the exception of one that lets you build a staircase.

There is sufficient parts to build a few low, square platforms, and I think this is the first set that I'd recommend three sets so that you can get some better height variation going on. The only drawback is that you cant really use the 3D construction tiles because of the tabs sticking off of them. Not that there isnt a massive library of tiles out there that you can use instead, so whatever.

I do like the little "easter egg" from Tomb of Horrors.

Like the PH3, this set tries to do something ambitious, and I'm really satisfied with it as a start. While its not as detailed or "realistic" as DwarvenForge, its got the price advantage by a very, very, VERY vast margin.
March 25, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

Player's Handbook 3 Lite Review

Between God of War 3, finals, and a full-time job toiling it what is the food industry's equivalent to purgatory, I had almost resigned myself to not even bothering talking about PH3 given that its pretty much a no fucking DUH that I'm going to like it.

In short, PH3 does brings a lot of ambitious things to the table, including a new power source with one class for each role (always a plus), a new mechanic to go with said power source, a couple of fucking bizarre races, skill powers, hybrid classes, and superior implements, and for the most part I like all of it. Its an excellent addition for players, especially those that were butthurt over the lack of psionics in the initial 4E run or (more likely) those that were disappointed for the piss-poor execution of psionic rules in every other goddamned edition.

There are only four races, trimmed somewhat from the five in PH2 and a lot from the eight in PH. Of the four, the githzerai had been previewed before and the minotaur got a racial treatment in Dragon. The only changes made since then was that the minotaur can opt to add a bonus to Wisdom instead of Constitution and their goring charge can key off of any physical stat they damned well please. This allows them to perform well in divine classes while still adhering to racial concept (I'm considering two-weapon ranger...heeell yes). The wilden was also playtested and talked about, which leaves us with the shardmind.

To me, the shardmind fills in the "what the fuck" niche. They look humanoid, to be sure, but they dont function like you would expect most humanoids to as they are just a bunch of tightly-packed intelligent crystals left over after a gate was destroyed. They get a lot of variable benefits: +2 to Int and +2 to either Wis or Cha, three languages (you get to pick one), bonuses to three skills (you get to pick one), telepathy, psychic resistance, immortal origin, and their racial lets them teleport and cause all adjacent enemies from the origin point to grant combat advantage. The only downside is their appearace. See, while I like the idea of shardminds I dont necessarily like the look. I think Wayne Reynolds did the concept of a crystalline humanoid a lotmore justice in Expanded Psionic Handbook via the psionic killer.

Of the classes, every single fucking one of these got preview articles except for the runepriest, which is kind of a melee-centric cleric that uses runes to grant benefits to nearby allies that can change each time she uses any power with the rune keyword. I dont feel ripped off since Wizards barely gave us half the class and virtually no mechanical support to back them up. This has the added benefit of making me like some of the classes that I was iffy on or just didnt care for, like the ardent and seeker. With the full suite of rules and options presented, I'm more able and willing to give them a shot. Except for the monk. They were insanely badass during their playtest run.

The psionic classes thankfully dont embody a completely alien subsystem of rules and instead mostly stick to the tried-and-true power model. I say mostly because three of the four psionic classes have power points that you can use to augment at-will disciplines, kicking them up to an "encounter grade" degree of power. Since they refresh during a short rest, it gives you quite a bit of flexibility in terms of power usage, especially given that there are magic items that you can also augment. It sticks close enough to the existing power model to avoid confusing new players, while still bringing in an interesting new mechanic that emphasizes the flexibility that they were purported to have in 3rd Edition. Its just, they dont suck.

Skill powers have already been previewed and reviewed, but basically in a nutshell they are an array of utility-only powers that you can pick up if you have a requisite trained skill. Good way to add some conceptual flavor to a character without having to resort to multiclassing or hybrid builds. Mostly win, as some of the powers suck ass.

Superior implements are really cool. You have to take a feat to use a single one, and it has to be a type that you can already use. You can pick up the feat more than once, which lets you use more superior implements. There are four types of superior implements per implement category, each possessing one or more properties. In a sense, they are the love child of standard implements and weapons. For example, accurate wands have the accurate property, which is just a +1 bonus to attacks. Cinder wands, on the other hand, have empowered crit and energized (fire), which means bonus damage on a crit and/or when you use a fire attack. Tiefling fire wizards just got alot more fucking epic.

And thats the long of it. Really great book that adds a lot of interesting and new things to the game. In the future I might post some more focused critiques on content, though MyGirlfriendIsADM did some pretty extensive work on that, already.

Posted by David Guyll

Winning Races: Warforged

This is a very small article that adds an alchemical theme to warforged in the form of a couple feats and four attachable magic items. Its got some interesting-if-brief exposition along with a few backgrounds to provide a foundation as to why you've got a bunch of vials and shit sticking out of your body.

Mostly, this article is for players that like warforged and alchemical items, which is kind of like another way of saying warforged artificers. The feats either grant you temp hp when you use an alchemy item, or give you a feat bonus to damage with a specific type of energy attack.

The components let you store alchemy items, grant resistance depending on a stored alchemy item, auto-fire it when you use second wind, gain an attack bonus when using alchemy items. Its certainly a focused article, but I find that alchemy items are pretty damned spendy and I'm not sure that its worth the effort in the long run.
March 23, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

Class Acts: Fighters

Shield fighters just got a looot more interesting. For starters, they get 13 new exploits that all demand the use of a shield. Each attack is basically a shield slam in various flavors, often invoking some form of forced movement, but there is a healthy variety of interrupt and reaction attacks that evoke a fluid image of a fighter parrying an attack only to follow up with a shield-uppercut.

There arent a lot of feats, two for Heroic and Paragon tiers, but they back quite a punch. Encouraging Shield is a heroic feat that gives you a Will bonus from your shield, while Ubiquitous Shield is a paragon feat that always negates combat advantage if you have a shield equipped.

Dayam.

The most humorous thing about this article is the snapping testudo paragon path, which requires that you use two shields. You can burn an action point to gain a considerable defense boost, get a passive AC and Reflex boost while carrying two shields, and eventually at level 16 grant an ally superior cover from ranged attacks. The exploits granted by the path all require two shields to use. The attacks target Reflex and have slide, daze, and prone kickers. The utility lets you slide enemies around that you hit.

There are four magic shields, which basically have properties that let them double as magical weapons of various categories.
Posted by David Guyll

Creature Incarnations: Fomorians

Its been awhile since I've posted between finals and God of War 3, but it seems that every time I'm about to need a shitload of variant monsters, something crops up to make my life a lot easier. Creature Incarnations: Fomorians adds eight fomorians and a spriggan minion to the roster with a level range of 14-20, which is handy in filling out the existing level gap. Its just too bad that almost half of them are also controllers.

Its not a large article, focusing almost entirely on the stat blocks and fluff relating to each entry, but it does manage to provide a few paragraphs of exposition about fomorian kingdoms and how they are "relatively" safe compared to the untamed regions of the Feydark. There's a sidebar that explains how they sometimes get along with Vistani, making them a viable way to locate and navigate fomorian lairs. Also, a few of the new fomorians make it easy to justify the inclusion of angelic and/or infernal allies, adding to the flexibility of creating fomorian-themed encounters.

Things I Learned From God of War

I just wrapped up God of War 3, a game which I've declared that best game of all time. Forever. Aside from being easily worth the price tag and then some, it gave me some things to consider about planning and running D&D.

Action...
This has been a fairly common complaint about D&D adventures, and this issue isnt just relegated to 4E and/or Wizards. A lot of games start out slow, with a vague plot, or are just filled with endless grinding. Rescue at Rivenroar is a prime example of this, where the hobgoblin siege really isnt, and the dungeon is a highly illogical crawl with useless clumps of goblins who serve no other purpose than to pad the dungeon.

Boooring.

D&D is an action-adventure game, so players should be expecting action. Every God of War game didnt fuck around and opened things up with combat. Typically, shit escalated about two minutes into the game by throwing something at you that was bigger than a building or, ya know, a god. This is often my preferred method to start campaigns out if I have any say in the manner. I have the players roll initiative, forcing them to shoot first and ask questions later. If possible, I give them some exposition via GoogleWave or email, but in a pinch I run a flashback sequence right after things settle down to get them up to speed.

God of War also does a good job with puzzles, often integrating them into the action part of the game. Sliding blocks or turning cranks is often accompanied by monsters rushing onto the scene attempting to ruin your shit. Traps like flaming jets, petrifying faces, and spiked floors are always paired up with monsters, allowing you to use the environment against them while avoiding becoming a victim yourself.

...and Interesting Battles...
Every monster in God of War can be slaughtered in an exquisitely brutal fashion: harpies can get their wings ripped off, minotaurs can suck on a sword, and gods get their eyes gouged out with your thumbs. This can give you some ideas on how to describe finishing attacks on your monsters, but the game does more than just provide you with visceral finishers. For example, when you fight chimeras in God of War 3 you slice off their snake tail (preventing them from dousing you with acid), slash up the lion face on its chest, and then impale its head on one of the goat horns. This sort of progressive damage could be a good way of speeding things up while giving the players visual cues on how well they are doing.

This is something that I like doing when players attempt something clever or especially risky, score crits, use action points, or the monster rolls a nat 1: it has the potential to get fucked up something fierce. This could be damage to a specific location, lose an attack ability, or suffer an incurable condition for the rest of the encounter. For example, a flying monster might suffer wing damage, causing its fly movement to be reduced to 2 and losing hovor if it has it, or it might get its wings torn off and lose its fly altogether (along with a wing-based attack). I'm much more likely to add in this sort of flavor thing if a player does something rad and it also bloodied the monster.

Another cool feature is being able to (albeit rarely) use one monster's against the others. If you rip off a gorgon's head in God of War 3, they do a flash petrify against all the enemies nearby. This could be handled in 4th Edition by allowing a player to make a close burst 3 attack against every creature. You could make it so that they are all slowed if hit, or take it to the extreme and make them all affected by the normal gaze attack. You could limit this to perhaps an "elite" version of a medusa (and make them look serpentine), or perhaps require an Arcana check to trigger it.

There are undead soldiers that pack big-ass shields, and are another simple-yet-elegant example of a well designed monster. In the game the best way to handle them is to switch to the cestus, smash the shields, and from that point on you can kill them off however you please. Translating this to 4th Edition, you could make it so that when they are bloodied their shields break (or become damaged) and change up their defenses (perhaps increasing their speed in the process). Its a nice, visual way to describe their bloodied state that is also backed up by the mechanics.

Kratos can beat the shit out of and then "ride" some of the critters, by which I mean he repeatedly stabs it and causes it to lash out uncontrollably, damaging its allies. This could be a very cool mechanic, allowing a player to clamber up onto a bloodied monster (Athletics check) and a Strength roll or attack roll to cause it to attack its allies. On its turn it could act normally (likely trying to get the character off). I would play this like a dominated effect, allowing the controlling player to make only basic attacks if they can successfully strong-arm it with an Athletics or Acrobatics roll.

...And Awesome Solos.
The bosses in God of War could be considered to be solo monsters, which is to say they are generally the only thing you are fighting at the time (but it isnt always the case).

Using Poseidon as an example, the game opens up with you fighting what looks to be some sort of elemental-horse-crab thing attacking Gaia's arm. As Gaia struggles to free herself, the "terrain" changes as Kratos goes from being on the ground, to hanging upside down, to scaling a cliff trying to fight this thing off. This dynamic change in the terrain as the battle progresses is fucking awesome. Each time I kept thinking, "Holy fucking shit!" Altering the terrain throughout the course of a battle can do a lot to keep things interesting and fresh.

Later in the game you fight a giant scorpion on top of a bunch of shifting cubes that are rooms to the labyrinth. As you fight it you have to smash its legs, then beat the fuck out of its face. Each time you do this, it scuttles away for a bit, sends a horde of smaller scorpions at you, and then shows up soon after to try and get you while you are distracted. Easy enough to have the solo lurker baddy run away, conjure up some minions (or have some arrive in a timely manner), and then try to ambush the party with a "pincer attack"...boo.

The most memorable boss battles were those where the boss or environment changed as things progressed. Hades is very mobile and summons zones of barbed chains that disappear after awhile, before becoming massive in size after you manage to beat the fuck out of him and snag his soul stealing chains. Hermes was more of a skill challenge, forcing you to chase him around the city. Hercules actually changed the terrain on his own by picking it up. These were a lot better than static monsters that just sit in a room and repeat attacks over and over again.

Josh and myself are fans of allowing players to do cool shit, even if the rules dont call for it, and even if it seems like an abusable tactic. All of the above is more or less of a Rule of Cool game style, and my players know that if some actions are deemed too abusable that I can and will veto them, and they're cool with that. I know a lot of this advice has been written, stated, and parroted before, but the God of War games do an excellent job of presenting you with visual and visceral examples. I highly recommend picking them up and giving them a try.

Also, the game has some truly epic artwork and environments. If you can snag an art book you'll get a lot of inspiration and reference material for monsters and areas.
March 18, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

Review: Dead by Dawn

Another Chaos Scar adventure by Aeryn "Blackdirge" Rudel? Shit yes. Dead By Dawn is intended for level 2 characters, and is (according to Aeryn's Facebook page) written as an homage to both Evil Dead and Night of the Living Dead. Like Penny Arcade the difference between an homage and derivative, to me, depends entirely on if I like it. Of course, this is fucking Blackdirge I'm talking about, so this adventure falls squarely into the former.

The synopsis in a nutshell is that a priest of Erathis decided to build a temple behind the King's Wall, smack dab in the center of what amounts to a glorified monster preservation, and got his ass handed to him by Orcus-cultists (as so often happens). Erathis didnt intervene because she probably thought that the gene pool was better off this way.
I mean, it would be like having an elf try to open up an iHop in the middle of Mordor. What the hell did you think was gonna happen?

I...really cant find any negative criticism about this adventure. I guess the adventure hooks could be better? There are only two written adventure hooks, and while the first one is basically a fetch quest to get a guy for a guy, the second one works out really well since it adds continuity if you were running other adventures from Chaos Scar by having the party stumble upon ye olde adventure site. So...yeah...I got nothing.

To be honest, even if I did have anything bad to say it would be utterly eclipsed by all the pros: uses Dungeon Tiles, good descriptions, interesting terrain features, well-designed skill challenges, and a nifty new monster and magic item property. This thing delivers, and its not even complicated in design: there are like, five truly different monsters and most of it takes place in the same. Damned. ROOM. There really isnt a "dungeon" at all.

Sure, the opening bit has the party go into the temple and through a room or two, but its exposition of the best sort: SHOWING. There isnt a NPC sitting there yakking his ass off telling you whats going on, its just there, in the temple. The faded murals and shattered statues let canny players uncover its brief history as they explore the place. Even better, there's also some hidden stuff that they can find, so they get rewarded for checking out the scenery (which is fucking awesome).

Another thing that kicks ass about this adventure is the pacing. First of all, I'm going to get into spoilers, so if you are playing in Chaos Scar do yourself a favor and stop reading. Go harass your DM to put whatever she's running on hold and run this instead, and fuck continuity if you have to (after all, it worked for George Lucas).

It starts out slow, up until the players find the MacGuffin (aka, piece of the meteor), at which point things immediately crank up to 11: zombies start popping out of the ground numbering in the hundreds (including a zombie t-rex, which isnt fought to my dismay), and the players have to try and hold the fort until the sun rises. This is represented by three skill challenges that determine how well the party fortifies the temple and holds off two waves of undead in the interim. The party gets action spikes periodically that fit the pacing you find in other zombie-themed media.

True to good skill challenges, failure doesnt hose the party. Instead, it just means that a few zombies manage to break through before they can barricade the place, or smash through existing barricades at a random entry point (which is evocative of the source material). There arent any mechanics for nailing boards into the walls or pushing furniture in front of the doors, and I think a good chunk of the fun factor is going to depend on how well the DM can weave a narrative on the fly since the skill challenges represent both the party working and fighting off the undead (is...is that a flaw?).

Anyway, there it is. Awesome adventure. If you like this, check out Stick in the Mud and The Tainted Spiral.
March 12, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

Class Acts: Wizards

This wizards Class Act focuses entirely on summons--of the elemental/demon variety--adding fourteen to the roster in addition to a pair of new mechanics called intrinsic nature and symbiosis. Intrinsic nature is basically instinctive effect by another name, telling you what your summon does on your turn if you dont tell your creature to do something. These effects also seem to penalize you in some way, such as by inflicting damage to you or afflicting you with a condition. Symbiosis, on the other hand, is a kicker effect that you gain while the creature is present.

I guess its kind of a way to give you a benefit whether or not you are telling your creature to do something. Too bad that the intrinsic effects can punish you if you do something instead of your critter. :-P

There's two daily spells per level, one a normal elemental and the other a demon. First level starts you out with summoning dust devils and dretches, while level 29 lets you call forth a djinn stormcaller or...wait for it...balor. The balor is Huge, deals automatic fire damage to creatures if they start too close, deals 4d10 fire and lightning damage with a massive slide (this attack has a melee of five), causes your attacks to deal +15 damage, and causes creatures to take automatic fire damage if they hit you. The downer? If you dont tell it to do something, it attacks the closest thing...including you.

As a fan of summoning spells, I endorse this article. Now I can make a thematic tiefling demonbinder!
March 11, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

Hybrid Versus Multiclassing, Part 2

I'm a fan of 4E's iteration of multiclassing because its very simple to do, makes it impossible to completely cripple your character, and is much gentler for the game narrative. If your concept calls for more than "dabbling" in another class, 4E also offers a way to combine two classes from the get-go, in a sort of homage to 2nd Edition's own multiclassing style/3rd Edition's gestalt characters via hybrid classes. I wanted to try out these rules, but they lost traction with me because I didnt have a character that demanded a half-and-half ratio until now.

Its been quite awhile since I last blogged about hybrids and multiclassing, and hopefully no one was holding their breath on this: in short, I like multiclassing better in-most-cases. Here's the thing. Hybrid classes claim to let you take the features of two classes and combine them, but when I initially sat down to do just that, I discovered that the result was less than the sum of its parts. Normally I wouldnt mind this much as I'm a bigger fan of executing an interesting concept over character optimization, but in this particular case the sum was a lot less.

My foray into hybrids started with Tuska. As it stands, he is perfectly viable mechanically (moreso because of his racial bonus to Strength) and mostly fits the concept I'd envisioned with the only caveat being that Josh let me swap out a warlord at-will for magic weapon because it fit the concept. I decided to give hybrid classes a shot so that I could try and create Tuska "legally", merging the warlord and artificer, which would let me take magic weapon and not have that irritating yellow flag glaring at me. Judging me.

Hell, they're both leader classes, what could go wrong?

Well...a lot.

Both the artificer and warlord get dick for class features. Artificers get to heal once per encounter (yawn), and warlords are in the same boat except they still dole out free Initiative bonuses (stifled yawn). Okay...thats all well and good, only not. I mean, artificers normally get to fiddle with magic item daily powers and get free rituals, while warlords can (again, normally) constantly mod action points.

You dont get any of that shit in any capacity.

When you tally it all up, you can heal twice per encounter (like a normal leader) but get fuck-all else. It sucks ass. Sure, you can burn a feat on Hybrid Talent, but its about an effective patch as Pathfinder was for 3rd Edition. Warlords can pick up Commanding Presence and mod one action point per encounter, while artificers can choose from either item-daily-fiddly-feature. You dont get rituals, but you can always burn yet another feat to take Ritual Casting (and then buy your own damned rituals, moocher).

What if I dont want to burn a feat on Hybrid Talent so I can still be less effective than a single-classed character? In that case I'm stuck with leather armor, no shields, three skills, and the ability to give my allies an Init boost. In the end, I found that it would take about five feats just to get almost back up to where I was, when before it took a single feat and DM permission to snag a thematic power to get the character I was going for. Another feat and I could freely swap one one category of powers as I please. Hell, at the cost of four feats I could do what hybrids set out to do, just more effectively (and efficiently).

I know that Wizards came out and said that, yeah, its not always going to work. Thats fine. I totally understand. I dont expect all MC combos to work either. Frankly the major problem here isnt the hybrid rules or the warlord, but the artificer. I went through and checked the other leaders, and they all get their healing power plus something extra, even if its something shitty like Skill Versatility. Throw it a freakin' bone here, people.

In other news, I did a quick-and-dirty ranger/shaman hybrid, which seemed to be much more mechanically viable. Ultimately, I would say that hybrid characters can have a place, its just a pain in the ass that it can take quite a bit longer to determine whats sound and whats shit. In the case of traditional multiclassing its pretty damned easy to figure out whats a good MC for another class by checking their attack stats. Also, if you dont like it, you can always train the feat out later (you cant trade out hybrid classes or "unhybrid").
March 02, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

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