Archive for January 2011

Sword Guard of Astrazalian

Otherwise known as Class Acts: Knights, this article is about allowing an eladrin knight to swap out the usual fare in order to exploit your inherent magical capabilities. In short, you can teleport things. A lot. Before we get into the powers however, I want to mention the flavor of the article. It just breaks about a page, going into the history of the City of Starlight, which shifts between the Feywild and natural world with the seasons, and eladrin knighthood. It provids a solid backstory for why these guys exist, as well as character hooks for why you might seemingly leave the city for adventure (mostly to fight your enemies at the source).

Since eladrin have a +2 to Intelligence and a floating bonus to either Dexterity or Charisma, they aren't exactly suited to knights, which are Strength primary and Constitution secondary. To alleviate this, the article recommends the "specialist" array (which lets you go with Strength 18 and Constitution 14). Since they rely largely on melee basic attacks, another suggestion is taking Melee Training to make your attack stat mostly Intelligence. The damage would be a bit lower, but it lets you get away with lighter armor since having an Intelligence of 18 and hide armor is the same as scale.

Ultimately, a Strength of 16 (before modifiers) is good enough for your attacks, which is what people usually buy anyway, especially considering swords have the best proficiency bonus. Yeah, you don't have a racial, but who fucking cares? I've seen players go with halfling fighters (Strength 16) and I've played a minotaur rogue and warlord (all with "attack stats" of 16). It's certainly doable, especially considering that the new Expertise feats scale faster and provide other bonuses. The only reason why you'd want to have a good Intelligence score is if you wanted to multiclass into an arcane class to help push the concept, or best utilize the new paragon path (see below).

Anywho, on to the powers.

  • Feywild Guardian (level 1): You swap out battle guardian for the ability to teleport to the triggering target, and then make a basic melee attack. This is pretty cool, because it allows for better positioning.
  • Glimmering Blade (level 1): A stance that lets you teleport whenever you hit an enemy. Also very nice.
  • Eldritch Tactics (level 2): This is pretty standard as far as low-level teleports are concerned: you swap places with an ally within range. Swordmages, and I think even battleminds and The Simpsons already did it.
  • Bewitching Glare (level 6): An immediate interrupt that lets you impose an attack penalty and pull the target if the attack misses. The pull cannot move them into hindering terrain, which sucks.
  • Arcane Instincts (level 10): Another immediate interrupt that gives you and all adjacent allies energy resistance against a few types. The good part is that it stops the most common kinds of energy (except for necrotic), but the downside is that allies have to be right next to you.


Not a whole lot, and I'd probably only take the level 1 and 2 stuff. But wait, the article isn't over yet! There's still the eldritch knight paragon path, which requires that you be trained in Arcana and have a nice Intelligence score to boot. While eladrin can take Arcana at level 1 without having to burn a feat, personally I'd recommend multiclassing into an arcane class. It'll help push the concept, as well as give you another nifty ability.

  • Eldritch Abduction (level 11): When you teleport, an ally in your defender aura can come with you. Oddly, you cannot teleport the target into hindering terrain...but I can't see why you would try this, except against an enemy, who probably wouldn't take kindly to this anyway.
  • Far Step Extension (level 11): You can teleport a distance based on your Intelligence whenever you burn an Action Point. Hrmm...normally Intelligence is a dump-stat for knights. There's no minimum distance, so if your Intelligence isn't at least 12 or higher, this won't do shit for you. 
  • Diversified Study (level 11): You gain a wizard encounter, and can use any weapon you want as an implement when attacking with the power you pick.
  • Eldritch Leap (level 12): Basically another fey step, except that it's dependent on Intelligence and you have to end up next to an enemy.
  • Eldritch Blade (level 16): When you hit something with an opportunity attack, you ignore insubstantial and resistances. Great if you're fighting ghosts, I guess? To my knowledge, weapons can turn their energy types off anyway, and since it only works on opportunity attacks it just makes this all the more limited.
  • Eldritch Isolation (level 20): When you use power strike, you can teleport both you and the target up to a (thankfully) set distance.

Now, I like the concept, and it's doable without too much work. The problem is that it seems like an armored variation of the swordmage, which has the benefit of being Intelligence-primary from the start. With this, taking Melee Training to prevent spreading your ability scores too thin, as well as Weapon Focus to patch the damage, just makes it a less attractive option considering that as a swordmage I can just take Armor Proficiency (hide) if I want to look the same, and I won't have to wait 10 levels in the hopes that the game goes on long enough to see if it all pays off.

In the end it's alright, but is mostly useful to those stuck with a DM who wants to run purely Essentials games that cannot be dissuaded. Otherwise, I'd be hard-pressed to not just roll an eladrin swordmage.
January 29, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Empathic Champions

Empathic Champions is all about allowing your ardent to dabble into disciplines that lead by reading the minds of your enemies. There's no new class features here, just a handful of new powers that you can cherry pick from, along with some flavor/role-playing tips and other thematically appropriate recommendations from Player's Handbook 3 and Psionic Power. The entire article uses the Essentials format, presenting each ability with a few sentences that give greater insight on what it does, and how you might describe it. I like this, as it provides a greater contextual foundation when players wonder what the hell just happened.

  • Intent Laid Bare (level 1): You deal damage and stop the enemy from shifting, can communicate with the target via telepathy until the end of your next turn, and it's usable as a melee basic attack. Since telepathy isn't language dependent, this could be very handy for trying to talk your way out of a fight against a creature that you couldn't otherwise communicate with. You don't have to hit them, either, but you could still opt for non-lethal damage. The augments let you impose an attack penalty, or increase the damage, prevent shifting, and allow your or an ally to shift if the target moves.
  • Sympathetic Agony (level 2 encounter): If an ally within range takes damage, you reduce the damage, have a save-ends effect apply to you instead, and grant both you and the target a defense bonus for a turn, so long as you both stick together. The range is good, and if you have resistance or a bonus against whatever save ends effect you might contract, even better.
  • Painful Revelations (level 6 daily): An aura that lets you take psychic damage when an enemy takes damage to cause them to grant save-ends combat advantage? Hell yes. The psychic damage isn't much, and the aura lasts for the entire encounter, too. This is a very easy way to continually grant everyone a free +2 to hit. Just try to have some healing potions on hand, cause you can't reduce the damage.
  • Clarifying Impact (level 7): Another melee basic attack discipline, this one prevents the target from gaining partial cover/concealment against you or adjacent allies as an effect. The augments give you a Perception bonus, or grants you automatic combat advantage if the target is next to an ally, in addition to increasing the damage and generating an aura that prevents enemies from gaining partial cover/concealment for a turn. Eh...I've never had a problem with adjacent targets being able to hide all that much.
  • Unshakable Bond (level 10 daily): If an enemy hits an ally within range, you can use this power as a free action to always know where it is, and ignore all forms of cover/concealment. I suppose if you're fighting someone who can turn invisible regularly or has some manner of hiding itself, that this could be handy, but there are a other ardent powers that are less situational.

So, the new power selection isn't much to write home about, but the article comes with a brand new paragon path: the contemplative ardent. It gives you a lot of abilities that depend on your telepathy range. Of course you get telepathy once you pick it up, and it also extends your telepathy if you already had it, so kalashtar or shardminds will get a bit more out of it.

  • Telepathic Mind (level 11 feature): You gain telepathy, or extend your existing telepathy. When you drop, allies in your telepathy range gain an attack bonus for a turn. The bonus is alright, and if you're playing a race with telepathy you can virtually guarantee that all of your allies will get the bonus.
  • Contemplative Action (level 11 feature): When you burn an action point, you gain a bonus to attack and damage rolls based on the number of bloodied allies within your telepathy range. This is pretty situational, but is has greater potential if you're playing a race that starts with telepathy.
  • Paragon Power Points (level 11 feature): Par for the course, you get +2 power points.
  • Thought Harvest (level 11 encounter): When you hit an enemy with an un-augmented at-will, you add bonus psychic damage. Additionally, you prevent it from shifting, as well as imposing an attack and defense penalty against allies within your telepathy range. This is a pretty flexible kicker effect that can be used against a monster that you want to keep in place, or just to spice up an attack when you've run out of power points.
  • Sleeper Awakens (level 12 daily): A stance that grants you a hefty Insight bonus, and prevents enemies from flanking you. It also comes with a secondary at-will that lets you shift when an enemy attacks you or an adjacent ally as an immediate reaction.
  • Inverted Corona (level 16 feature): Whenever you do something that lets an ally burn a healing surge, you can opt to pull one or two allies (doesn't matter which) as a free action. This can be really handy in getting an ally out of danger, or mixing up the battlefield formation. It's based on your telepathy range so, again, if you can increase that range, you increase how useful this will be, too.
  • Open the Floodgates (level 20 daily): A close blast 3 that deals weapon-based damage, in addition to weakening and inflicting ongoing damage. If you miss, it only does half. Regardless you get to shift, you just have to end somewhere in or adjacent to the area of effect.

There's no new magic items or feats to further support this. As it stands, this article is somewhat useful to ardent players, and because of this I doubt it will entice other players to give it a shot.
Posted by David Guyll

Adventure Tools Beta

The Beta was opened last night, but there's not much to see: you can browse monsters, change their level and power names, and print them. That's it.




January 28, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Creature Incarnations: Modrons

Finally, an article that I can get behind.

My favorite campaign setting for 2nd Edition was Planescape, hands down. I loved the look and feel, and the fact that you could journey to exotic and alien worlds without having to be high-level. Sure, many were extremely hostile even if you were high level, but it opened up a lot of possibilities at the start of a campaign. Aside from the Nine Hells and Mount Celestia, there was a world that was like a sandwich (Bytopia, if I recall) and another that was a vast open space with metallic cubes crashing into eachother (along with storms of razor blades).

Still more bizarre however, was Mechanus: a space of gears and cogs constantly grinding and turning for an unknown purpose, though there were several theories, such that if they stopped that the Multiverse would end. In 2nd Edition, this place was inhabited by modrons, equally bizarre creatures whose lesser incarnations adopted the shapes of geometric solids, such as spheres and cubes. Others, well, didn't, such as the tridrone, which looked like a starfish with a one-eyed face on each arm, walking on five legs.

The article goes over some brief descriptions, such as that monodrones are spherical, and both duodrones and quadrones are like cubes, which in unfortunate because I think that a picture best delivers their alien appearance. There's a lot more than that, but it serves for the purpose of the article.

One thing that I like a lot about the new modrons is that they are pieced together from lesser ones. Before, each type had a specific number. When a ranking modron died, lesser forms were promoted and created as necessary to fill the gap, ensuring a static number of modrons Now, it seems that lesser ranking modrons combine in order to, ahem, transform into the next rank, and dissemble into lesser ranking modrons when killed: in combat, every modron except for a monodrone separates into others that keep the fight going.

I also like their new niche: searching for planar rifts and either protecting them or sealing them. In this way, they help create stability across the planes, which is a far cry more direct that whatever nebulous purpose they had before. Honestly? If there was one aside from maintaining Mechanus, I don't recall it. This seems as a fairly easy way to throw them at the players, especially if they are trying to find a way into the Shadowfell or Feywild.

The only thing the article is missing is a racial writeup for rogue modrons. How would you do it?
January 27, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Character Generation

This is a nice frame to work with if you are teaching D&D to complete RPG newbies: essentially, you take the character creation process and break it down into a series of generalized questions to help a player arrive at a character that--more or less--fits what they are looking for. Though the article is intended to "teach young gamers", I suspect most groups operate like this. I know during the D&D panels at MewCon 2010 I did, as it was much quicker than having each player rummage through books trying to arrive at something satisfactory.

As an side, I will disagree about foregoing the 1st-level feat: some of them are just too damned awesome to delay (especially superior weapons/implements, or stuff like Hellfire Blood and Imperious Majesty).

Anyway, I'd heard that WotC was going to roll out weekly articles, and while this had some really good pointers (and is also free), I'm honestly hoping for more substantial articles than this.
January 26, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Unearthed Arcana: Strongholds

I own a copy of Stronghold Builders Guide, a book with a very narrow focus of helping you price and construct castles, keeps, towers, etc. The book is also very meticulous about materials, using magic to speed up the process, location (for materials), and magical capabilities, if any (such as flying or resistances). Admittedly, and also surprisingly, I had a chance during the longest 3rd Edition campaign I played to use it. To build a house. Well, to be fair, it was a two-story house with a basement.

After a few hours of planning and drawing, I submitted the blueprints and cost to the group. At only 3k, they were pleased with the idea of having an actual home, complete with alchemy lab, office, and basement-vault to hold our excess treasure (something that the doppelganger rogue insisted on). We kept playing that campaign for quite a while, doing the adventuring thing while it was being built. By the time we returned from one adventure involving a sunken ship guarded by a morkoth, it had been completed. Then we were chased out of town, and quit playing altogether soon after that.

Truly, DM giveth and DM taketh away.

Where Stronghold Builder's Guide likes to focus on the tiniest details, this Unearthed Arcana article sets a price, some space restrictions, and lets you have at it. As it stands, the default stronghold is a generic building, which can be a castle, cathedral, monastery, tower, or whatever the players want within reason. Regardless, they all cost 25,000 gp, same as any level 15 magic item (or nightmare steed, as the author points out). This means that its an appropriate award as soon as 11th-level, fitting for a group of characters just making the paragon tier.

As for acquisition, the article proposes a few ways to "gain" a stronghold, generally through legitimate purchase, building your own, or killing the current owner and taking their stuff. If there are no easily dispatched villains around, and characters aren't up for putting the adventure on hold for 1d10+5 years (assuming its not in an outrageous location), a ritual is provided to help the building process along so long as the necessary materials are available within a mile or so: Bigby's construction crew is dependable, fast, and cost effective seeing as the cost for buying and using the ritual once totals 25,000 gp.

Personally, I'd have considered flipping it since it lets the character keep building castles at a fifth the cost...oh well.

I like that the appearance is handled in a very loose way. You're given 300 squares of space to work with, along with rough guidelines and recommendations for room and hall sizing. There's also an assortment of special rooms that you can add on for an extra cost that do specify sizes and benefits. An auditorium costs 520gp and 24 squares of space, but gives you a +1 to Bluff and Diplomacy. On the other hand, chapels and magical laboratories eat up a smaller amount of space (9 and 4 squares respectively) and grant scaling bonuses to Religion and Arcana. I find it funny that guards are listed as a "special room". They cost as much as a magic item of whatever level you want, and make the stronghold immune to attacks by creatures of their level or lower.

Speaking of guards, the only mention of staff is that you get them along with the stronghold, and that their upkeep cost is factored into the stronghold cost. I'm not sure how much I like that, though it does help avoid bookkeeping. I would change this rule depending on how central to the campaign the stronghold is. I've liked the idea of doing a campaign where the players are in charge of a region of the land (like, the old kingdom of Nerath), and in that situation I might better develop NPCs and add in some more micromanaging...for the Heroic tier, at least. Otherwise, at best I'd probably just chalk off money each month to keep it simple.

Finally, if players want they can add traps to their stronghold, and cites wondrous lair items out of Adventure Vault 2 as being actually useful outside of nigh-unlootable treasure. Again, only really useful if the stronghold is going to be an adventure arc or campaign focus. The article follows with a level 20 ritual that lets you teleport your stronghold to wherever you are, even across planes, and a level 23 ritual that lets your stronghold fly. Forever. Finally, things wrap up with some advice on how to handle a stronghold as the players increase in level and invariably start to deal with threats that could arguably demolish their stronghold singlehandedly, regardless of the level of their guards.

I really like the abstractions here, even when it makes me write guards in italics. Its a simple, fast system for allowing players to focus on the look and feel of their stronghold without having to worry about micromanaging the cost of materials, their availability, the work crew, and so on and so forth. Sure, I had fun with it five or so years ago, but I can't imagine anyone at my table wanting to put that kind of work into something that may or may not see much use (if at all). Even so, owning a stronghold isn't for every party, and certainly not for every plot. At best, I see most strongholds falling into neglect once the players are on their way through paragon tier.

That being said, my current character is a tiefling cavalier with eyes set on founding a new kingdom for tieflings, so this will be a handy resource in the weeks to come.
January 21, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Off the Sheet

In my Age of Worms campaign, a buddy of mine decided to make a tempest fighter that wields two whips, wears light armor, and hunts undead. The idea was that he wanted to be able to trip things a lot, having made a similar character in 3rd Edition. Fortunately in 4E whips are much more useful, and there happened to be an at-will exploit that lets you drop a critter prone on a hit. Despite everything except his damage contribution working out well enough, it got me thinking: why can't you just try to trip a creature?

The answer is that, well, you can, so long as your group is a rational bunch. Yes, it's not something specifically called out in the rules, but it's incredibly simple to allow a character to make an attack against a monster's Reflex, knocking them prone on a hit. Since knockdown assault exists as a fighter exploit and deals your Strength modifier in damage, I wouldn't allow any damage at all so as not to render it obsolete, but there you have it.

This train of thought--allowing a player to do something that isn't cited in the rules--reminded me of a thread on RPG.net, in which a poster explains that with Essentials he can "swing from a chandelier, slide down a banister, and perform a leap attack," something which also isn't cited in the rules, but for some reason is permissible (or perhaps merely encouraged?) via Essentials.

This person isn't alone. I've read other posts from people that have this misconception that if a class provides you with a list of exploits, that that's all you can do (or at least heavily encourages that train of thought). To paraphrase, "if its not on the sheet, it won't happen". In other words the line of thought is that with all the powers character are given in pre-Essentials classes (typically 4-5 if you don't count basic attacks), that they tend to focus on their sheet and less on their environment. On the other hand the statement still holds true for Essentials as well, its just that characters have less on their sheets to work with (especially in the case of martial classes).


So...what about a "normal" class stifles this sort of creativity? 

NOTHING.


There is nothing in any class--Essentials or otherwise--that inhibits creative thinking. Personally in my experience players rarely interacted with the environment in older editions simply because the actions and dice rolls required often meant that it would fail, and even if it succeeded, would only contribute in a miniscule way. 4th Edition not only made creative thinking easier to execute, but also grant meaningful results, both of which have encouraged my players to at least consider attempting actions off the sheets.

If you want your players to be creative, give them opportunities to be creative. It's not about the class features or number of powers, but about ensuring that the alternatives are equally compelling. If pushing a monster into a terrain ends up dealing a marginal amount of damage, no one is going to bother trying a bull rush and instead use a "normal" attack (probably something with forced movement). If knocking over a brazier full of searing coals deals a hefty amount of damage to an area of effect, you can bet that its going to be up for consideration.
January 15, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

The Vampire "Class"

So, there's going to be a vampire class in Heroes of Shadow. This isn't the first time WotC tried to make a class-based progression to simulate the full potential of a monstrous creature. Like Level Adjustment before it, most of the book was a let down as most of the monstrous classes sucked if you didn't take the "right" class (ie, stuff without level-based progressions), and many more sucked no matter what you did because by the rules you were supposed to take all the monster levels before multiclassing out.

For example, let's say you wanted to play a mind flayer psion, because it makes sense. The mind flayer class was 15 levels, meaning that by the time you got into psion, everyone else was level 16. Imagine a barbarian picking up a level of sorcerer at level 16 and trying to zap devils with magic missiles. Now imagine that barbarian without a greataxe, rage, or damage resistance, instead flailing ineffectually with tentacles doling out 1d4 damage (plus Strength modifier...woo fucking woo).

Yeah, the class gets other abilities like mind blast, but the shitty thing is that it was based off your Hit Dice, which presented another problem with monstrous classes: you didn't always get a Hit Die when you leveled. A level 15 mind flayer only had eight. This meant that your hit points, attack bonus, skill points, and saves were abysmally stunted in comparison to your companions, making you even more of a liability than low-level wizards. It's a good thing you get plane shift at level 12, assuming you live that long.

As for vampires, there's a lot of speculation going on in the forums (you just have to pick through vampire jokes and idiots who don't understand how the executioner class works). Some people think that it should have been a race, others a bloodline tree, and still others a theme. Revenants are cool, but even with feat support lack the sort of supernatural powers that I expect out of a vampire, and dhampyr bloodline feats further illustrate that they're just not enough, especially when you're trying to juggle an actual class at the same time. A theme is more of what I'm expecting, but not all DM's own Dark Sun material (or even allow themes if they do), so I'm not expecting WotC to start allowing one player to pick up a vampire theme while other players have to deal.

Me? I'm banking on an Essentials model because it allows them to dole out racial features at set levels, while giving you a bit to customize. This way they could deliver a core "vampire" structure, but still allow you to specialize in shapeshifting, charms, calling animals, or whatever, in a similar vein to Vampire: The Masquerade (except that you can actually use your vampiric powers). Despite their past experimentations, I'm very optimistic about their second attempt because if anything, WotC has done a remarkable job of taking races and classes that I hate, and reinventing them into something entertaining: clerics, bards, druids, and psions are all classes that I hated in earlier editions, but actually enjoy now.

Icy Winds of Fortune

Icy winds of fortune indeed...ugh. A quick summary of this month's Ampersand article:
  • There's a new D&D movie coming out that you already knew about, The Book of Vile Darkness.
  • The new Dungeon Tile set that you already knew about is coming out this month (or might already be out).
  • Blah blah more Fortune Card previews.
  • New D&D Encounters season that you already knew about, March of the Phantom Brigade
  • The D&D Minis line has been completely dropped, so people that bitched about the randomness will have to find something else to bitch about.
  • Heroes of Shadow is being released as a hardcover. Oh, and pushed back until April.
  • Class Compendium: Heroes of Sword and Spell, Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium, and Hero Builder's Handbook have all been cancelled.
  • Speaking of digital offerings, there also won't be any monthly compilations, anymore.
So except for all the product/service cancellations, a bunch of shit we already knew about. I've been really patient with WotC over the past years, but this is ominous to say the least. I mean, they've scrapped three books and their minis line--along with pushing another back--in light of changing their article updates to the "whenever" model (which wouldn't bug me so much if it wasn't a service that I was paying for by the month). However, they promise to give us other stuff aside from D&D books to make up for it. These actions don't exactly strike me with confidence, especially with a company that is notoriously bad for claiming to do one thing and then delaying and/or cancelling it.
January 12, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

January and Beyond

There's really nothing coming out in January besides more Dungeon Tiles, and despite having a four-product lineup next month we only get previews for two--Legion of Gold and those fortune cards that everyone's bitching about--and Heroes of Shadow (which sucks because I was hoping to see what the new DM screen looked like on the inside).


Legion of Gold
Legion of Gold is another Gamma World expansion that adds the usual content mix--new origins, monsters with their respective tokens, some information on new regions, and an adventure--but like Famine at Far-go also adds some new rules by way of vocations.

Vocations are kind of like a poor man's theme from Dark Sun, telling you what your character does for a living. Unlike themes they grant you minor benefits starting at level 4, which are kind of like underpowered D&D feats. Bounty hunter is one example, giving you the ability to knock a target prone that you have combat advantage against at level 4, gain a +2 damage hunter's quarry feature at level 7, and roll initiative twice at level 10. If you want, at level 7 you can opt to pick up a new vocation's feat instead of gaining the second one from your current vocation, and at level 10 you can either gain the first feat from a third vocation, or gain the second from one you already have.

Also previewed are two of the origins: photonic and vampiric.

Photonics are Intelligence (Dark), gain a bonus to Science, AC, and Reflex, have resist 10 laser, and when they crit grant temp hp to allies. Their novice attack is a ranged attack that deals force damage, pushses the target, and grants a defense bonus to an ally. Their utility grants temp hp to themselves or an ally, and boosts hit points on a second wind if its used before your next turn ends. Finally, their expert attack conjures a wall that damages adjacent enemies, lets allies through, and protects your allies if they are attacked.

Vampirics are Charisma (Psi), gain a bonus to Interaction and all defenses. When they crit, they deal extra damage and gain combat advantage against the target. Their novice attack is an area burst that deals psychic damage, slows, and imposes a Will penalty. If you kill or bloody a target? You gain temp hps. The utility grants you temp hp, a bonus to Speed and Reflex, and causes you to daze targets you hit for a turn. Finally, the expert attack lets you dominate a target and deal ongoing psychic damage once they save.

Fortune Cards: Shadow Over Nentir Vale
Fortune Cards get further exposition, and might seem to reek of a bit more power creep that I'd previously thought because you are limited to using one per round as opposed to encounter. See, I'd been basing them off of Alpha mutation cards, which are harder to grind through. With these, you draw one when combat starts, swap it or keep it when the round starts if you haven't already used one, or draw a new one if you've played one already. The previewed common lets you omit a target from an AoE attack, while the uncommon lakes you take one for the team, and the rare grants you a free reroll.

In light of the fact that players can now throw down randomized situational benefits constantly, I'm going to have to give these more consideration...or draw one for myself. Though I wished Fortune Cards weren't just about giving players bonuses without any drawbacks (except monetary), this might be a good compromise: I get to draw a card and apply it to any one of my own monsters.

Player's Option: Heroes of Shadow
On an ironically brighter note, Heroes of Shadow looks to have a lot to offer: assassins, paladins, warlocks, new options for clerics, warlocks, and wizards, a vampire class, and the revenant, shade, and vryloka races. Its unfortunate that we're getting the assassin and not executioner, as I greatly prefer the latter. At any rate from the sounds of things this book will offer a mixed bag of content, as some of it will use the Essentials progression, but some won't. In a reasonable world, this would help put to rest whether Essentials is the "new" D&D (or compatible, or better supported, or whatever).

Not much is said about vryloka, except that they're an "ancient human race" that have been infected by vampirism. Hopefully they get better support than the dhampyr. I do find it interesting that WotC is making a vampire class. While I'm not a fan of how monsters-as-PCs was handled in 3rd Edition, I'm confident that it'll turn out a lot better.

Now, shades are featured. They're humans who trade part of their souls for slivers of Shadowfell-stuff, kind of like how the assassin class works, only they don't get to form shadows into nooses or conjure fog. Instead, in exchange for a healing surge and their natural origin they get a bonus to Charisma and either Dexterity or Intelligence, darkvision, a bonus to Arcana and Stealth (plus free Stealth training), can opt to swap out utilities from their class for more shadow-powers, and the one with shadow racial power (an at-will that grants concealment and lets them use Stealth even from behind allies). Not a bad deal, I'd say.

A trio of their exchangeable racial utilities are also previewed: fleeting shade is a level 2 encounter that turns you invisible, but only until the end of your turn. On the plus side, you get a +5 bonus to Stealth until the end of your next turn. Twilight torch is a level 6 at-will that lets you create dim light around you, but it only lasts for one turn. Finally, shadow monsters is a level 10 daily that lets you summon a quartet of, well, shadow monsters that impose attack penalties to adjacent enemies, and also deal necrotic damage if they end their turn next to one or move through them.

Things I Learned From Castlevania

I actually wrapped up Castlevania: Lords of Shadow quite awhile ago. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed it: the graphics, gameplay (aside from a few hiccups), dialogue, and soundtrack are superb. Not only is it one of the best digital games to be released in 2010, but it also gave me some ideas and concepts for puzzles and monsters that could be incorporated at the table top.

Throughout the game there are quite a few puzzles, from light puzzles, to color patterns, to scaring murders of crows in order to direct them towards animated scarecrows so that they'll fight you. Fallen knights carry scrolls that provide you with clues, while the game gives you the option of skipping the puzzle entirely--if you're willing to forfeit experience points. Something that I've always done at the table is grant skill checks in exchange for hints, but I think I'm going to adopt this mechanics as well: if players want additional hints they can take a XP penalty, or skip the entire puzzle by forgoing all of it.

This would prevent the game from grinding to a halt as the players beat their heads against a wall while trying to figure it out. Of course, you'd have to determine how much time it would take for them to resolve it, especially in the case of adventures where there's a time crunch.


Next, monsters. Every Castlevania game boasts a wide selection of monsters, and this one is no exception:
  • Goblins will sometimes throw bombs at you, which you can throw back if you're fast enough. This could be emulated with a player readying an action to catch the weapon and throw it back, though I'd require a saving throw/that the attack missed. Of course, if the attack fails--especially on a natural 1--then you could rule that the weapon missed but also didn't explode (yet), giving them a chance to chuck it back. Sometimes bombs are used to destroy the terrain in order to advance the level: they could be used to easily allow the characters to destroy doors or walls in order to create an alternative route through the dungeon.
  • Wargs, warthogs, and spiders can be ridden on after beating the fuck out of them. You can use them to attack their allies, but usually they are used to interact with the environment in some fashion. I could see a character hopping on a bloodied monster and being able to control one of their attacks by making an attack against its Fortitude or Reflex. This is similar to how Kratos could hop on a cyclops and cause it to swing its club out of control, battering large groups of monsters. It would certainly make grabbing more useful, in any case.
  • Ghouls are often found in areas with dead bodies that they can eat in order go heal themselves and gain a one-time poisonous vomit attack. I've used the eat-to-heal mechanic before, but temporarily souping up their attacks is also a cool idea.
  • Vampire warriors can be staked after having their health reduced, allowing you to kill them instantly. You don't have to go this route, but it gets rid of them faster. I think that I'd wanna go with the executioner's class feature to help facilitate this: if you start your turn with a bloodied vampire grabbed (or if its restrained or whatnot) and are packing a stake or some other stabbing implement, you can opt to just finish them off. You could also make some kind of undead-hunting multiclass tree that lets you perform stunts like this, too.
  • Swordmasters are wraith-looking monsters that are commonly found near pools of water. They can channel electricity through their swords, shocking you if you are standing in the water when they strike. A simple way of increasing the deadliness of a lightning--or cold--using monster.
  • Creeping corpses start out as zombies that just crawl on the ground. Pretty tame--until they get into a coffin, after which it grows long, vine-like legs, and becomes a lot tougher. An interesting take on a monster that are initially easy, but can get tougher in certain situations.
  • Skeleton warriors reconstruct themselves after you drop them unless you attack their bone piles. This mechanic is easy: just crib the trait from many of the zombies in Monster Vault
  • The crow witch is one of the bosses. She flies around barfing eggs at you, which you can throw back at it. While not exactly a unique attack method, its one way of literally throwing melee characters a bone. Of more interest is that this boss also spawns allies. I'd like to see bosses that spawn minions to help them out, particularly when they are bloodied: casters, angels, demons, devils, spirits, and undead monsters are all likely candidates.
  • The necromancer is honestly one of the easier bosses to beat, because he has to burn hit points in order to summon a horde of zombies that you can easily obliterate them with holy water. If you kill them, the health remains gone, but otherwise they die off and he regains the lost health. I do like the idea of a monster that can take damage in order to conjure allies, or perhaps recharge spent powers, however. Even better if the allies don't persist, and if aren't killed heal the boss back.
  • One of the Lords of Shadow (whose name I forget) busts open iron maidens throughout the fight in order to feed on the corpses within to regain health. Depending on what kind of actions are necessary to open and feed, you could compel characters to destroy them before he gets a chance to heal, or goad him into getting close. On a similar note, another boss is immune to damage until you destroy stone idols on the level. 
  • Finally, Carmilla. She's a badass vampire with two forms, human and vampire, and plays very differently in each. In her human form she kind of floats around within a protective shield, shooting lighting and throwing lesser vampires at you. In her vampiric form, she switches to a more direct approach (but still adds a few minions to the mix). Changing forms--and attack methods--is an excellent method for amping up an encounter, especially once the boss becomes bloodied.
There's also a few massive bosses in the game, but that's for another article.

Gargantuan just doesn't describe it.

January 07, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Fortune Cards

Hot on the heels of Gamma World's randomized card mechanic is another randomized card mechanic, this time for Dungeons & Dragons: Fortune Cards. Based on the little information that there is, Fortune Cards seem to function a lot like Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards: you draw one at the start of an encounter, and each provides you with a temporary bonus such as a bonus to defenses or damage resistance, or a conditional effect, such as granting a reroll. Oh, and you can also build personalized decks with them, and while there's no word on the restrictions, I'm going to assume that a deck will require a minimum card count and allow only a certain number of a given card.

Despite being an optional accessory, people are of course complaining about it. Some liken it to the irrefutable fact that D&D has become a card game, while others think that it "breaks the game" by allowing players with more money to build decks in order to give themselves as many advantages as possible (which ties in with WotC being nothing but money-grubbing capitalists). I'm not sure whose games these people play, but in my experience a DM can simply disallow their usage, and I like to hope that most groups actually, you know, communicate with each other. I know that I wouldn't let just one player use them, and in all likelihood I'd just have one community deck to draw from (as in my Gamma World games).

The only real issue I have with Fortune Cards is that they seem to grant only benefits. I'd rather have some disadvantages in there and give players a choice to draw from the deck when an encounter starts, keeping the ratio at half fortunes and half "misfortunes" (perhaps having to keep the same rarity-ratio, as well), and making it more of a gamble. Players feeling lucky might opt to draw, while others who like what they have can just go without. Maybe you could have two decks and require players to alternate: if they draw from the fortune deck in one encounter, they have to draw from the other at the start of the next.

Personally I plan on getting a few packs to see how it plays out, and if I don't like them, I won't use them. Some events in the Wizards Play Network will demand a purchase, while D&D Encounters will not.
January 06, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

4th Edition vs. Essentials

On both the Wizards.com and RPG.net forums there're plenty of topics concerning Essentials: aside from both forums having their own stickied threads, there's also threads that ask if its successful, is it 4.5E, is it compatible, is it better, etc. While I can't say for certain if it's been successful--though I have enjoyed all the products to an extent--I can comment on the rest.

When people ask if Essentials is 4.5E or if its compatible, I wonder what the hell they're reading. My semi-local store gets books out ten days early, occasionally ratcheting it up to eleven, so it's entirely possible that maybe Wizards shipped out revised sets of books between then and the other release date. It also reminds me of a similar discussion that I had with someone else a long time ago who didn't like 4th Edition, but for some reason enjoyed content out of the Essentials line--even though there's no difference between the game rules, only some of the class design (and even if you try to count stuff like races getting floating ability score bonuses or magic item rarities, it's been errata'd anyway).

I've ran and played games that mix Essentials content with not-Essentials content, and you know what? I didn't have to implement rules variants to make it work. The slayer still rolled a d20 for her attacks, and the warlord was able to use the +1 lifedrinking greataxe (even though it was a level 3 uncommon) from The Twisted Halls without having to convert anything. When the players settled down for a short rest, they all got their encounter powers back and could spend healing surges to restore lost hit points. When they took an extended rest? Yes, not only did each of their Action Points get reset to 1, but their healing surges also got replenished.

The only appreciable difference is when you look at the classes, many of which I find to be largely unsatisfactory because of their rigid progressions. If you play a slayer, you get power strike. If you play a mage, you get magic missile. If you play a sentinel, you get combined assault. Now, this isn't a problem as long as the class delivers a solid concept that you also happen to like. For example, I like the hexblade because I like everything that the class offers. Slayer? Not so much because I'm stuck making routine basic-fucking-melee attacks, with the exception that once during a battle I can mix things up by lumping on some more damage.

Yes, I know that they have stances that modify their basic attacks, but you know what? Those are just roundabout ways of performing the at-will exploits that fighters get. I also know that basic attacks are usable with opportunity attacks and charges, which makes it easier to apply those bonuses, but a fighter's (amongst many other classes without the Melee Training feat) basic melee attack is good enough that I can confidently employ it during the rare opportunity that a monster tries to attack another player, or run from me (usually when the DM is trying to end the encounter faster).

I've also read that because classes like the slayer don't have exploits that specifically allow them to smack someone with a shield, that somehow it's okay to swing from chandeliers or slide down stair rails (sometimes both!). This mindset is frankly baffling, given that in Dungeon Master's Guide page 42 provides a solid foundation for this sort of thing, while Dungeon Master's Guide 2 provides rules for terrain powers. Perhaps their DM is allowing them to treat sliding down a rail like its a charge attack, which means that they have to use their basic melee attack, which gets modifiers that fighters simply wouldn't have--if they didn't have access to exploits that can be used on a charge, that is.

Now if I were behind the screen and a player declared that they wanted to slide down a stair rail, I'd probably call for a skill check, granting the character an attack or damage bonus on a melee attack they made, not just a charge (and make them fall on their ass if they fail the check). Is it overpowered? No. It's just a situational bonus, contingent on a skill check, with an annoying penalty for failure. But, the player is aware of this. They know what they are getting into. Also, it's not like stair rails are everywhere. I'd prefer to make it worth their while when the opportunity presents itself instead of giving it a lame bonus that will probably make them shrug and say, "fuck it, I'll just stab the monster." You know, like grappling rules from 3rd Edition.

Which type of classes are better, Essentials or otherwise? I prefer the older style because I like having options. I like being able to choose from a variety of class features and powers in order to build the type of character I want. I'm a big boy, I can weed all of ten options in order to pick out a few that fit the concept I'm trying to build. I'd rather have a fighter than five different fighter subtypes that all dictate what I get, leaving me with a smidgen of customization as if to say, "I guess I can trust you with this much not to hurt yourself." I'm hoping that class design doesn't revert back to the days of 3rd Edition monks, but this is certainly a step in that direction.

In the end though, they are the exact same game, it's just that some books have different build progressions than what we're used to. You didn't hear people bitching that the druid got three at-wills, or that psionic classes only usually used power points, did you? Okay, you did, but they (probably) weren't on the streets preaching that it was 4.5E.
January 04, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

MewCon 2010 Report

I had my first convention experience over the course of the last three or so days. Liz and I ran back-to-back  character creation and free-play panels from 9pm until most of the attendants doddered off, which thankfully was typically around 3am. We figured that most people interested in character creation would show up on the first day, and that others would continue to show up for free play throughout the Con's duration, so the plan was that Liz would run Keep on the Borderlands, while I would sequentially run The Twisted Halls, Reavers of Harkenwold, and Cairn of the Winter King.

Since Liz and I had to MAX it out here, we'd traveled light: a bag of clothes, and another filled with gaming materials and my laptop. Not sure how many new people would show up, and not wanting to lug around a bunch of hardcovers, I decided to restrict things to Essentials-only, since that meant I could just pack two small paperbacks instead. If nothing else, it would be a good experiment to see how people handled the classes. Finally, in order to accommodate late arrivals or keep things going if there was a high turnout, I'd also printed out twelve pregens.

The first night had a turnout that seemed to fluctuate between 8-12 people, as some had no clue what we were doing, and others were staffers that had to leave for a bit to actually work. I've never paneled anything, ever, so just followed Liz's lead. We asked who was familiar with D&D, and if so, which edition(s). Most had at least played 4th Edition, while others had played D&D a long time ago and were looking to get back into it or were simply curious. A couple had brought a Player's Handbook so that they could make precisely the class they wanted to make.

One guy however, brought his entire library, comparable to my own. Going from two books, each with different classes, to multiple handbooks sped things up quite a bit. Players were able to pitch their desired character and we were able to direct them to the appropriate book. In the end, only two of my Essentials pregens got used: one was from a Con staffer who showed up really late, the other after we changed the half-orc race to human.

Liz ran Keep on the Borderlands, or rather tried to. I've played the last encounter out of the first chapter, and while basically a straightforward brawl I had initially chalked it up to the fact that it was, well, D&D Encounters. That's what you do: belly up to the table and fight through a two-hour-ish encounter. Apparently, Liz's crew didn't like it one bit. I wasn't paying much attention, stopping only to answer questions as they cropped up, and though Liz is relatively new to the DM scene the consensus seemed to be poor adventure design.

Conversely, my table enjoyed The Twisted Halls quite a bit, managing to get through most of the encounters by the time people were ready to call it quits. They got all the important encounters--the white dragon and necromancer--and thankfully avoided the annoying and nonsensical chess room. At the adventure's conclusion I was very pleased that one player had his first enjoyable skill challenge (he really liked the way I ran it), while a few others would be switching to 4th Edition.

The second night had all of two people show up for character building, which was expected. I ended up spending most of the two hours having a lengthy (and civil!) discussion with a 3rd Edition/Pathfinder player about the pros and cons of game design and mechanics between editions. Most of it was character design, and how well characters can contribute to different scenarios, how older edition spells made it extremely difficult to plan adventures or challenge players, and how it could be very difficult to make non-standard-yet-functional characters.

Once free play started we took a different tack: Liz would run The Twisted Halls for the new people, and I would keep the ball rolling with Reavers of Harkenwold. My table had people from last night, so it was a simple matter of leveling everyone up to 3, informing them that they'd also managed to locate a powerful death cult threatening Winterhaven, and that the ruler of Fallcrest requested their assistance in dealing with the Iron Circle, who were attempting to occupy the Harkenwold region. They managed to make it through the bullywug lair before we again called it quits, everyone having a good time, and Liz's table had a lot more fun navigating The Twisted Halls.

Unfortunately, night three was also the night that the Con was dying down. We had no one show up for character creation, and about half an hour into free play we had one person show up. She was itching to play, so I ran the beginnings of Famine at Far-go for Liz and her. They rolled up a plastic ghost and time-traveling mushroom, but only got through a handful of encounters (some fungus zombies and porker bikers) before we had to close up shop. Its unfortunate that my Gamma World experiences always seem to be brief, as I'd really like to get a long-term thing going.

All in all, it was an okay experience. I was bored most of the time that we weren't running our panel, as there wasn't much else to do but play video games that I've already played, watch movies that I've already watched (and hate), or buy overpriced merchandise and/or food. For future cons, I'm going to try and bring more books (and better character sheets), have more pregens, and probably just eschew Essentials altogether since no one had any interest in them. I'm also definitely going to keep bringing both Red Box and Reavers at Harkenwold for new players, but not Cairn of the Winter King since no one even got halfway through the first part of Reavers.

The next convention I'm going to try and make it to is SakuraCon, as Liz thinks that I'll have a lot more to do, though one of these years I really want to go to D&D XP or GenCon.
Posted by David Guyll

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