Archive for November 2011

Making Race Count, Part 2

Despite starting up a campaign with its roots firmly entrenched in the Feywild, none of my players are playing races that benefit from an article that gives drow, eladrin, and elves the option of taking racially thematic powers.


  • Glimmering Forms: A level 2 at-will that seems reminiscent of dancing lights from previous editions, functioning as a souped up version of light; you can move it, and you can also alter what it appears like in an attempt to trick people.
  • Vanish From View: A level 6 encounter interrupt that lets you make a Stealth check when hit and you have concealment or cover. If you beat the attack roll, it not only misses but you gain combat advantage for a turn.
  • Quell Magic: This level 10 daily lets you drop an area-effect attack on all conjurations and zones, destroying them if you hit. 
  • Dark Doorway: While hidden this level 16 daily lets you teleport, but you must be able to hide in the destination. 

  • Sense Magic: This level 2 encounter lets you auto-detect all magic within range and then roll to identify each source at the cost of one minor action.
  • Eladrin Escape: A level 6 utility that lets you teleport for free after being missed with a melee attack.
  • Recursive Thought: When you save against a daze or stun, this level 10 daily lets you stun or daze them for a turn.
  • Spiral Dance Assault: Once per round when you hit an enemy in melee, this level 16 at-will lets you teleport to any square adjacent to them.

  • Long View: This level 2 encounter lets you gain combat advantage for a turn against an enemy that you attack with a long- or shortbow.
  • Leave No Trace: A level 6 daily stance that lasts until your roll initiative, end it (for some reason), or until eight hours have passed. While it is up, creatures have a much harder time tracking you, and you and all adjacent allies gain a bonus to Stealth.
  • Determined Accuracy: A level 10 daily that lets you reroll a spent elven accuracy again, with a bonus.
  • Communion: This level 16 encounter lets you burn a healing surge to gain temporary hit points and heal an adjacent ally (so you need to have at least one left).
November 30, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Book of Vile Darkness: Demonologist

Today's excerpt has garnered some negative criticism partially for the outfit, but largely because of the quasit's anger issues; most of the time it gets along just fine, but if you are unable to give it orders--like you are stunned, dominated, or sleeping--then it "acts under the Dungeon Master's control as your enemy".

Despite this drawback it is still a pretty sweet package; adjacent enemies take a save penalty, it doubles up on ability score damage (determined by you, no less), can turn invisible whenever it wants to, can grant you a skill bonus, and can even save-ends daze a target that attacks you. Since it can communicate via telepathy, you can have it scout places while invisible and get some excellent intelligence because it has to do what you say. 

And that is just the start. You still get your action point benefit--adjacent creatures take variable energy damage and you gain resistance for the encounter against that type--and an encounter attack that lets you bind a demonic essence to a creature, which lets you slide a target, have it make an attack with combat advantage and a damage roll. If the attack hits? The attacker is then also dazed for a turn. Very nice.

At 12th-level you can levy an evil-eye type effect against an enemy as an interrupt, imposing an attack penalty and causes them to grant combat advantage for a turn. It is an effect, so no attack roll required.

The level 16 feature causes your quasit and all summons to gain a damage bonus, so there is extra incentive to take summoning magic (not that I needed more).

Finally at 20th-level you can summon a huge blast of hordlings that deals damage and prones targets. It also creates a zone that lets you spend a standard action to deal automatic damage and prone all creatures inside (or more damage if they are already prone). Oh, the zone lasts the entire encounter. The only downside is that it is not friendly, so you gotta be careful not to tear up your allies.

I like this paragon path because it is very thematic. I do not really give a fuck if the quasit can be abused by douchebag DMs, as you can always kill it and summon it later anyway (I would just allow a character to dismiss it). Otherwise I can see it bringing some interesting social roleplaying to the table, giving suggestions and trying to tempt the character. I would have honestly preferred it to be an imp (devil), because then it could literally play devil's advocate.
November 28, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Beyond the Crystal Cave: Encounter 1

Given that the day I am scheduled to run Encounters at Knightfall Games fell on a holiday I did not have the chance to run it, so instead of a play report I am just going to give my thoughts on how the first encounter is written.

The session opens up with the characters waiting for Count Varis, who has summoned them for various reasons. He feeds them the plot--two people have gone missing, and if they are not found there could be problems between Crystalbrook and Sildaine--gives them some cash, and sends them on their way. While going to Crystalbrook they are attacked by xivorts, which after defeating them gives them the street cred required to talk to Lady Tamora, who gives them more information before they go to Sildaine to talk to the quest herald there. Eventually the session wraps up under the assumption that the characters are going to the Crystal Cave.

At a glance the hook is pretty weak, and a lot of the interactions and dialogue seem rushed, which is understandable because the Encounters format is intended to be wrapped up in an hour or two. This also leads me to the other problem, which is that I could see players who did not attend week 0 (which in my store no one did), and having the issue where they end up having to shoehorn their character into the plot. I ran into this in the past while running Songs of Erui; a player showed up with a warforged fighter and basically had to tag along with the rest of the group because they are on a time-sensitive mission. It can work, but it can also easily detract from social roleplaying.

The actual encounter part looked alright. The characters face off against a band of seven xivorts, some bloodied and one missing an encounter power, as they harass some locals of Crystalbrook. There is some difficult terrain, but the real heavyweight is the mist, which creates a really big lightly obscuring zone that moves at the start of each turn. The townsfolk kind of hang around the edges. I guess you could have them try and jump in if things go badly (which they should not), or just give the characters someone to actually rescue besides an empty town square.

Things I Would Change
I would have added more buildings (and actually furnished them if they were going to be open) and just yanked the food carts. It does not looks like a half-ass mashing of a street and market square. Also some things that the characters could drag and drop to give themselves cover against the ranged attackers (like a barrel or something). Finally, even if I did not want to actually have guards in the combat, I would at least add in some flavor text indicating that the guards were actually there doing stuff. Failing that, I would at least have been dead guards on the map to show that they were around to do their job.

Oh yeah, I would also have someone aside from the town drunk be the one to vouch for them after everything was said and done.

November 27, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Feywild Themes

I am really pleased with the timing of the recent Feywild love, because my group has pressed me into re-visting Erui, a homebrew campaign that I ran and shelved over a year ago.

The first article is really in name only intended for the Moonshaes, a region in Forgotten Realms (which as an aside has an interesting-looking related article that I will write about later). In addition to giving some advice for reskinning some existing themes out of Neverwinter Campaign Setting, we also get the Sarifal warden and Callidyrr dragoon themes and a new varient elf.

Sarifal wardens start out with a turn-long aura that grants scaling energy resistance/vulnerability to your allies and enemies respectively. Level 5 gives you a bonus to Nature and lets you cast Spirit Fetch once per day for free, and level 10 gives you a Fortitude bonus.

  • Sarifal Advisor (level 2 daily): You can summon a pixie that cannot attack, and is better than you at Arcana, Nature, and Stealth. It can also talk to natural and fey animals, and you can use its senses for a turn. Mostly I can see this being good primarily for social roleplay situations.
  • Light of Sarifal (level 6 daily): A sustainable aura that imposes a damage penalty based on your highest stat.
  • Level 10 is different; instead of choosing from a specific power, you can instead choose from blur, mirror image, shadowed moon, or warlock's leap.

Callidyrr dragoons are like elite knights that are geased, but are generally charged with going on adventures anyway. On the plus side, violating the geas just causes a memory wipe, which could have some interesting side effects. You start out with Mounted Combat and a free martial weapon of your choice, making it ironically not too well suited for the types of classes that I would most often expect. Level 5 gives you a bonus to Diplomacy and Intimidate, and at level 10 you can use Diplomacy instead of Heal for triggering a saving throw or second wind. Oh, and you can do it at a distance. Fucking sweet.

  • Dragoon Warding (level 2 encounter): An adjacent ally gains a AC and Fortitude bonus, and you take hits on melee and ranged attacks.
  • Dragoon Parry (level 6 encounter): An interrupt that gives you a bonus to AC and Reflex against a melee attack targeted at you, and the enemy grants combat advantage for a turn.
  • Dragoon Summons (level 10 daily): You summon an ancestral defender, which I guess is a natural animate that packs a damage boosting aura, can heal as a minor action, and take hits for allies as an interrupt. The downside is that it cannot attack, but then it is a defender.
Llewyrr elves are eladrin that can swap out their Arcana bonus for Insight and use long- and shortbows at the expense of Eladrin Weapon Proficiency.

The second article is a tad shorter, giving us the wild hunt rider and oracle of the evil eye.

Wild hunt riders give you a Perception bonus, but only when looking for a creature. On the plus side you ignore partial concealment entirely. At level 5 you can use Phantom Steed once per day for free, using Arcana or Nature (whatever is best). At level 10 you gain a bonus to save against effects that hinder your movement.

  • Wild Hunt Leap (level 2 encounter): You can jump your speed, and gain combat advantage for a turn if you land next to an enemy.
  • Moonfire Aura (level 6 daily): A small aura that negates invisibility and concealment. It is not friendly, so you gotta be careful.
  • Relentless Pursuit (level 10 encounter): If an enemy moves away from you, you can teleport next to it as a reaction, and you do not need line of sight. Awesome.

Oracles of the evil eye are unfortunate victims that undergo a ritual that results in them gaining a fomorian's iconic...well, eye. You can an at-will minor power that causes a non-marked creature to take a piddling amount of automatic psychic damage after damaging you. Like "normal" evil eyes it only works on one creature at a time. At level 5 you gain a bonus on Bluff and Intimidate, and at level 10 you gain low-light vision (or darkvision if you already had low-light vision).

  • Eye of the Fomorians (level 2 daily): You can a bonus to Perception and can see invisible creatures for the encounter.
  • Urge of Destiny (level 6 daily): An ally deals bonus damage for the encounter. If the creature marks them, they deal even more. 
  • Evil Eye Mesmerism (level 10 encounter): A reaction that prevents a creature from attacking you at all for a turn if it misses you.
Aside from the elf variant I pretty much liked all the new themes for one reason or another. The oracle and dragoon can introduce some interesting adventure hooks--such as a key villain or memory loss plot hook respectively--and social roleplay elements to a game. I am also liking the ritual freebies, which if nothing else will hopefully encourage players to try more out (especially with the heroic rituals article).
November 25, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Legend & Lore: A Different Way To Blah

This picture does not work at any level.
What? No...just...what?

Having actually played 3rd Edition, attacks of opportunity might not have actually come up all the time--though they were pretty common--but the fact that they existed affected how characters moved and what they did. For example, if the wizard was on the ropes the fighter might want to go save his ass, but in the process might take an ogre's greatclub in the face for his troubles. Does he provoke it and try anyway? Up to him. The fact is, we knew the rules, even if knowing the rules just made us do shit to not have to use them.

No, the rules should not become more complex simply by leveling. Being able to run circles around an orc or fire an arrow in his face while right next to him from levels 1-5, but not at levels 6 and up, is both inconsistent and makes no fucking sense. It would be fine to simply have a modular ruleset where you can simply ignore them (which you already can), but it would be best to just make a game that is simple and elegant to learn and play, which 4th Edition already is.

To me the game already gets more complicated the higher level you get. Having players pick up more abilities, class features, feats that can change more, and magic items that can do more is sufficient complexity. At low levels the players mainly concern themselves with a handful of powers and feats with varying complexity. I have seen players just default to feats that give them passive bonuses to their stats because they don't want to have to think too much, and avoid powers that have triggering requirements.

I remember trying a paragon tier barbarian and having plenty of trouble remembering that oh, I spent an action point so this happens, and because I have these feats and I am raging I also get some more bonuses. On top of all this, you want to also increase the rules as you go along? Call me crazy, but the fact that not all groups even hit paragon tier probably makes it even more likely that these level-based rules would be ignored or forgotten.
November 21, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Heroic Tier Rituals

So...rituals. Well, also ritual feats. Rituals have been a tricky thing in my games, despite my including them--both in book and scroll form--with the specific intent to give my players an edge, components to use them, and reducing the casting time on a lot of them.

Who knows, maybe new Ritual Feats will give them the last bit of incentive they need? You need Ritual Caster as well as some rituals to pick them up, but they let you use your skills in flexible ways and eliminate the cost of using a ritual once per day. For example, Binding Mastery lets you use Arcana or Religion in place of Diplomacy and Intimidate against unnatural creatures, as well as a bonus. I like the flavor behind this, using your knowledge of binding magic to threaten or bargain with the fey or a devil. Warding Mastery is also pretty nice, giving you a bonus on Perception to find traps and hazards and checks to disable them (as well as casting warding rituals).

The new rituals include classics like Alarm, Hold Portal, and Explosive Runes. Most have castings times of only 1 minute, though Hold Portal clocks in at an outstanding one standard action. Frankly I wish more rituals had shorter casting times, if only to give them more utility when time is a factor. I mean, in a lot of cases the players did not use one simply because they did not have the time, but to me charging them each time is punishment enough. Speaking of casting costs, a lot require healing surges in lieu of cash, or a small amount of cash in addition to your surges.

I also like this, as it represents a caster exhausting herself from using magic (as well as giving the wizard a way to use healing surges). A pretty good article. I am going to reduce more rituals to a minute or less casting time and see what happens. I might also let them burn healing surges more often (perhaps at an exchange rate).
November 20, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Thunderspire Labyrinth, Episode 1

  • Ceriok (male eladrin hybrid ardent/fey-pact warlock)
  • Sterling (male vryloka paladin)
  • Riven (male halfling vampire)
  • Reyn (male human bard)
  • Shen (male tiefling infernal-pact hexblade)

A month had passed since the characters slew the dragon leading the kobolds, and defeated Kalarel before he could open a portal to the Shadowfell.

Lord Padraig summoned them and as wardens of Winterhaven tasked them with investigating the disappearances of villagers. The few that managed to evade capture blame a group of hobgoblin slavers known as the Bloodreavers, which are believed to be based out of Thunderspire Labyrinth. He recommends that they talk to Valthrun before leaving to get some more information.

Meanwhile Reyn has arrived in Winterhaven and is searching for something that he believes to be hidden within Thunderspire. The rest of the characters run into them as they are preparing to leave, and so they all head out together after convincing Valthrun to buy horses for some of them.

When they arrive in Fallcrest they split up to try and gather more information. Shen runs into a hooded stranger who offers to pay him well for a control amulet that the Mages of Saruun use to command golems. Riven sees his former family, but evades them. Reyn learns that a dwarf jeweler has an estranged cousin twice removed that stole an immense amount of money for him 20 years ago, and true to dwarven memory is both still angry and willing to pay someone who can find him. They meet up outside and exchange information before proceeding on.

The night before they arrive at Thunderspire a blue dragon ambushes them at their camp, but they manage to convince it to let them go in exchange for 200 gp and a horse. They decide to push onward to Thunderspire to finish resting, and encounter a slave caravan entering the labyrinth, which they successfully ambush. One of the hobgoblins is spared and reveals that the Bloodreavers serve a kobold, and in exchange for his freedom agrees to lead them to the Seven-Pillared Hall.

Next Time: Rendil
November 19, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Legend & Lore: Out of Bounds

I have really gotta stop reading these things, because all they do is confuse, frustrate, and make me wonder exactly what game Monte Cook was allegedly playing “back in the day”. 

Does the game present players with challenges that have pre-made solutions?

Kind of? There are useful guidelines and suggestions for the budding DM—such as how to unlock doors, scale walls, and disarm traps—but ultimately it is the DM’s decision to design, place, and either limit or encourage how the players overcome them. Just because a trap can be disarmed with a Thievery check or have its hit points smashed out of it does not mean that there could not be a clearly visible lever that shuts it off, or a password that disables a magical trap.

For example, can all monsters be defeated in straightforward ways, which is to say, attacked with swords and magic missiles until they die? Can all physical obstacles (walls to climb, narrow ledges to traverse, rivers to cross, and so forth) be overcome with die rolls? Are those die rolls achievable given the PCs’ level and abilities? Is the solution to every puzzle available to those with the right skills or spells? Is the counter or resolution to every problem hardwired into the game?

Generally yeah, monsters can be defeated in the ways that players expect, and this has been globally true over the course of every edition. I am wondering how Cook handled climbing walls in 2nd Edition. Did he require a die roll? Did he just decide on a whim whether they succeeded or failed? Did he give them a bonus/let them succeed if they described their technique well enough? I mean if there is a wall, and the players want to climb it, and there is a consequence for failure, then yeah I will make them roll.

I fail to see how requiring dice rolling to determine success for meaningful actions or challenges corresponds to every challenge (or any) having a hardwired solution. Just because I require players to make a Strength check to bash open an iron-bound door or a Thievery check to pick the lock, does not mean that those are the only solutions I will allow. If a player wants to try conning a guard out of a key, or get someone to open the door by making noise, pose as another NPC, or just bash it open, then I can make a judgment call (and again probably require a dice roll, like a Bluff check).

As a DM I have never just thrown random shit at my players and assume that they would just figure something out. Generally I had at least one solution to the problem even if that solution was in the next room (or even the next dungeon). Hell, they might find a door with a very high Thievery check that they will have to come back to later. It might even be guarded by constructs that are way too tough for them to defeat.

Looking back at the game’s roots, the answer to these questions was usually no. In the early days, the game’s mechanics rarely provided solutions to the problems the characters faced. Players stretched beyond the bounds of the rules and looked for solutions not covered in the books. Player ingenuity was always the key to winning encounters. And very often, the DM didn’t actually have a set solution in mind ahead of time. He expected the PCs to come up with something on their own.

To put it nicely, this is not the way I remember it. Players generally relied on their characters’s strengths, which was usually something to the effect of stabbing or blasting monsters, picking locks on doors, bashing doors open, etc. Things that all required dice rolls. I remember playing a fighter and trying to lie to a NPC to get them to let their guard down, and the DM had me make a Charisma check to see how well I pulled it off. The only thing that has changed over time is that actual, solid mechanics have been provided to help DMs adjudicate their decisions and players get a better bead on stuff that their characters could reasonably do.

This isn’t true of more recent expressions of the game. There are few encounters that can’t be won simply by using the PCs’ straightforward powers and abilities. For example, consider fire immunity. In older versions of the game, the red dragon was immune to fire. If you’re packing fireballs, you’re just out of luck. In the most recent version of the game, the designers decided that it’s no fun if the game tells you that the choices you made were wrong, so red dragons are resistant to fire, but not immune. You can still use your fireballs.

The game still “punishes” them, it just does not render them utterly useless. If you fight a red dragon then fire attacks can do something, just not nearly as well as they otherwise would. It still has an impact. It still has meaning. Aside from making some thematic characters take a back seat during what will probably be an epic battle I see no benefit to this, and I thought Monte Cook had moved away from the whole system mastery philosophy? 

That’s a viable design approach. You make sure that no choices are bad choices. You make sure that every lock has a key that can be found. Every barrier has a way past it. You ensure that the PCs are never presented with a challenge that they can’t somehow overcome. You encourage the players to roll some dice and then move on to the next thing.

There should be no "bad" choices. Again just because the game makes it more difficult for a character to be rendered obsolete, does not mean that every challenge has to have a way around it. Not having “bad” choices does not mean that everything has to have an obvious or immediate solution. These two things are not related.

Now imagine a simple dungeon room. There’s a pile of treasure on the far side. The PCs come in and quickly discover that an impenetrable force field blocks the far side of the room from them. In an “old school” dungeon, the players would be forced to figure out a way to get past the force field or somehow get beyond it to reach the treasure. The DM might have no preset solution in mind. It might very well be impossible for the characters, given their resources, to get the treasure.

Which differs from recent editions how? I can throw a forcefield in a dungeon on a whim with no clear way of getting past it. I can even say that it cannot be damaged. I could throw in a monster that cannot be hurt by non-magical weapons, or weapons period. Or even hurt by a specific weapon. The closest parallel I can think of are 2nd Edition monsters that were immune to weapons without a minimum bonus, and if DM’s really want to do that then they still can without needing WotC’s approval.

As the game developed over the years, solutions were inserted into that encounter’s design. Perhaps there’s a lever somewhere else in the dungeon that lowers the field. Maybe a spell or the right combination of spells would bring down the barrier. Perhaps a secret passage circumvents the force field. Or maybe just pounding on it long enough will destroy the barrier.

This statement bothers me for two main reasons. The first is because he seems to believe that spells that let players instantly bypass challenges—comprehend languages, detect secret doors, knock, break enchantment, disintegrate, dispel magic, passwall, find the path, miracle, etc—did not exist before. If anything 4th Edition has reduced the number of abilities that allow characters to say fuck all and just skip obstacles.

The second is that he acts like that DMs who designed encounters just plopped shit down on paper without any clue as to what players might do about it. Maybe it is just me but as a rule of thumb when I design encounters I consider my group demographic and at least one way for the players to get by. Well, assuming I want them to.

And maybe that’s really the takeaway here. The rules are not the sum total of the game. The game is larger than that. Breaking the rules, circumventing the rules, or ignoring the rules does not take you out of the game. The game encompasses that type of play. It’s built upon it, in fact. So why shouldn’t the design of the game also be bigger than the rules? Why shouldn’t those kind of assumptions be taken into account? It puts the responsibility back in the hands of the players, rather than the DM or the designer. Success or failure lies within their own hands again.

More importantly how the hell does doing away with a solid foundation of mutable rules put responsibility back into the hands of the players? As a DM I like having something to go off of, and as a player I like generally knowing what to expect when I try to do something. Personally it sounds like WotC already has a plan for an upcoming edition, and at least these articles are steeling for me a change that I seriously doubt I am going to like. Maybe I am just reading it wrong, but the threads on the WotC forums and are not giving me much hope.

November 16, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Excerpts: Evil Campaigns

The first look at Book of Vile Darkness concerns campaign themes and an arc that will hopefully unify an evil party to work together long enough to see results. Staples such as conquest and destroying the world are present, along with working against other evil forces and killing gods. Running an evil campaign can be a tricky business, and in my experience players tend to use it as an excuse to wreak havoc without any direction. Kind of like Chaotic Neutral, except that there might be more murder depending on your groups definition.

There is not a lot of information, and hopefully these concepts are expanded upon. At the least I hope that it offers better stuff than a bunch of weak-ass feats and prestige classes that we got from the original Book of Vile Darkness.
November 14, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Critical Failures: What Color Was That Dragon, Again?

This happened like, the session before we stopped running my first homebrew 4th Edition campaign over a year ago. I had gotten Player's Handbook 2 months before and was itching to run something with a tight primal/Feywild/celtic theme. The main quest was that the players were searching for pieces of a song that had been written by a long-dead bard that for some reason a bunch of other major players--eladrin, drow, and fomorians to name a few--were also looking for.

Over the course of some ten levels, they plundered an eladrin crypt, found the ashes of someone who knew the location of one part, had a ghostspeaker pry the information out of it, liberated a town from a haunted castle, navigated a forest half stuck in the Feywild, delved into an ancient druid pyramid, and eventually found the first piece. They also found a map with two parts clearly marked: an island far to the north, and a dwarven city that was pretty close by. They decided to go to the dwarven city first, and were surprised to find it occupied by drow.

Not that they get along with any elves, really.
Even so, they somehow managed to sneak inside and make their way to the castle, only to be spotted while scaling the gate. At some point while they were fighting off drow, giant spiders, and web golems I decided to throw in a dragon to mix things up. Not just any dragon, mind you, but something that I felt best represented what the Underdark had to offer: a purple dragon.

Now, I chose a purple dragon because they also lived underground, and I figured that drow could strike a bargain with one. Also I had never gotten a chance to use one before, and have the mini and everything to go with it. Unfortunately having never used them, I was not privy to a very specific weakness until several rounds into the battle, that being sunlight. When purple dragons are exposed to sunlight they react almost the same way as most vampires do, in that they can only take one action a round and take a fuckton of damage to the tune of 160.

Each round.

They are like the mogwai of dragons.
What should have happened was that the dragon should have instantly exploded, probably like the boss at the end of the first Blade movie, just to drive home how silly the mistake was. I ended up retconning the dragon into being a black one, dropping its level considerably as a concession since I could not conceive of a situation where a purple dragon would ever venture to the surface during the day. In retrospect I should have read more carefully (or just kept my mouth shut), but in all fairness this was the original 4E statblock format, so the weakness was mentioned almost at the very bottom
November 07, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Critical Failures: So, You Had a Twin Sister

This is just a story about something that a player did--or rather, did not do--during one of my campaigns that we still bring up from time to time.

About a year ago I had started running a campaign set in Eberron's Shadow Marches, which relied heavily on aberrant cults gradually weakening Gatekeeper seals, raising sunken cities, summoning aberrant stars, etc. When planning a campaign I like to get input from my players on their character's history, motivation, and goals so I can fine tune the campaign (similar to how it is done in Dresden Files). My philosophy is if i can get the players to step up and willingly do something without having to be prodded, I am good. The only real stipulation was that the characters had to have a reason for heading out to a remote mining town deep in the Marches.

Well, one of the characters wanted to play a changling rogue named Moxie, so we worked out a background where her sister had joined up with a guild in Zarash'ak when they were young in order to make some quick cash to pay for her illness (the character had a Con of 8). Her sister stopped coming home at some point, and after discovering the guild she joined Moxie signed up because they were not exactly going to give anyone a roster (not that looking for a changling exactly helped). So she toughs it out, does some menial jobs, and eventually gets signed up to do quite a bit of dragonshard smuggling from a remote mining town called Shardpit to the tune of 3,000 gps.

Fast forward six levels and a couple star-worshipping hellholes, and the characters are finally back at Zarash'ak with only a couple thousand gps worth of dragonshards to their name. Mind you, two characters went to Shardpit due to terrible visions (and belonged to the Cerulean Sign), and the other was a guide. Moxie's player divulged any information about who she was or what she was doing, and in fact in character they were not even aware that she was a changling.

They head to the Tharashk enclave in order to be debriefed, explaining what happened in Shardpit and Greyshore, and hand over their pittance of shards after learning about the shortages (other mining towns are being raided by orcs) before hitting the town to sell their loot, buy new stuff, and catch up with key NPCs.

Once they were sufficiently split up they run into some hired muscle, who threatens to kill Moxie unless she can come up with the dragonshards within a very short time frame. The party is now surprised to learn that she is part of the local thieves guild and that she was supposed to smuggle dragonshards. They ask her if she has anything else she'd like to share. You know, like her motivation (or at least her race). She tells them no, and decide to take the offensive and attack the guild. They ask around, beat up some people, find an entrance, and proceed to cut and blast their way through their ranks.

Once they are almost done, they run into something a bit different.

In the midst of the usual suspects of brutish thugs they run into a cloaked figure who is dashing and flipping about, wielding sword and dagger, dealing sneak attack damage with a flank, and faking them out like a changling would. Since Moxie's player was not getting the hint I even described the opponent's fighting style as "very similar to Moxie's".

It didn't work.

Eventually, everyone is dead and I describe how the cloaked figure reverts to its true form in changling fashion, and basically have to spell it out that she is Moxie's sister, the player evidently having completely forgotten what she was doing the whole time. Everyone at the table is surprised to learn that A) she is a changling, and B) that she even had a sister. Moxie's player is also surprised at this, despite knowing that this was the guild her sister joined and that she fought in an almost identical manner, tricks and all.

So...yeah. It was just one of those things that probably would have had an impact at all if the player had actually divulged any information to anyone and/or paid attention.
November 06, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Heroes of the Feywild Review

Heroes of the Feywild is a player-centric supplement with a bunch of options and flavor material for players that want to make fey and/or primal characters. It is very focused, and I highly recommend it for any player or DM with a preference that cleaves to its mission statement. My main nitpick is some of the art; there are pieces that aim to feature iconics and tell a kind of story, and those I like.

What I did not like were the Wayne England pieces (just go to the section of pixies and you will see what I am talking about). I really think they should have tapped Tony DiTerlizzi for this project. Despite that it is a superb player resource.

Chapter 1: Into the Bright
The first fifteen pages depict the Feywild from the perspectives of both an outsider and native, as well as taking a close look at major locations there. This is great food for thought for helping players set their expectations, as well as figure out how much they know, and how much do they think they know. The rest is great for players making fey creatures, as well as DMs that want some great adventure sites (as well as a roster of the fey courts). One of the themes set in this book are Bard's Tale sidebars, which tell short stories that might give you ideas or at least give players an idea of what stories they have heard before.

Chapter 2: Races of the Fey 
What with the previews we already knew a good deal about the pixie and satyr, and the hamadryad by name at least.

Hamadryads are nymphs that have decided to become dryads, and are stuck in a transitional phase. They get a bonus to Wisdom and either Intelligence or Charisma, gain a bonus to Diplomacy and Nature, are female only, fey origin, can ignore difficult terrain that is based around trees and undergrowth, can last a lot longer--and gain a bonus--when dealing with starvation, gain a bonus on saves against daze, dominate, and stun, and can use hamadryad aspects.

Hamadryad aspects is kind of like the original version of a drow's lolthtouched racial, in that each time you use it you can pick from two different effects, causing each enemy that can see you to grant combat advantage or gaining damage resistance for a turn (making it better than a goliath's stones endurance). They can also pick from racial utilities that allow them to do stuff like gain temp hps and a bonus to AC and Fortitude (with the side effect of fire vulnerability), or gain phasing and insubstantial for a turn along with a short-shift.

Seeing as the pixie's stat block was already previewed, discussed, and condemned for ruining games, so I'll just note that their racial utilities let them--among other things--use a minor action to automatically affect a creature with a random effect, turn invisible for a turn, and grant all adjacent allies flight for a turn (and that one is only 6th-level).

As with pixies, satyrs also got their stats revealed. Their utilities let them jump really far, cause a creature to regain more hit points or take more damage than normal, and turn into a "satyr of the night", which gives them concealment (or invisibility if they'd normally be concealed) and heavy necrotic resistance.

Chapter 3: Classes
There are four new subclasses, complete with backwards compatible powers for their parent classes.

Berserkers are martial and primal defender and strikers. One of their defining features is that they gain a passive benefit depending on which terrain they favor: arid desert gives you fire resistance and a huge bonus to AC and Reflex in cloth armor, frozen land gives you cold resistance and a bonus to Fort and Will, and temperate land gives you a damage bonus when using a shield and a boost to Speed when charging.

Like knights they have a defender aura, but when they get to smack someone for violating it they deal scaling bonus damage. They cap out at hide armor, but gain a bonus to AC while their defender aura is up (putting them on par with fighters so long as they have are at least pulling 2 more points from somewhere). The problem is that when they use a primal attack--either an encounter or daily attack--they enter a berserker rage, which lasts for the rest of the encounter and shuts down the aura, but you deal bonus damage and some of your attacks gain extra benefits.

This creates an interesting class dynamic in which you start out as a defender (though your triggered aura attacks gain a damage bonus), but can switch over to striker as the situation warrants. Not all of the encounter and daily powers are primal, so you can opt to just take the martial ones if you want to stick with a defender. All of the attacks and utilities have levels, so even if you are going with the core barbarian you will have a bunch of stuff to choose from (though the at-wills are kind of lame in comparison unless you let barbarians always benefit from the Berserker's Fury bonus).

Skalds are an arcane and martial bard variant. Their key schtick is skald's aura, which allows any ally within it to use a minor action to heal themselves or an adjacent ally, which a starting cap of twice per encounter. Skalds use their at-wills and dailies to modify the other affects of the aura, granting allies that hit enemies temp hps, or a bonus to their damage, attack roll, or defenses. Like most subclasses, they are centered around basic melee attacks. Not only can they use their Charisma modifier when handling them, but their encounter spells trigger on successful hits.

There is also a pretty extensive section of class features at the start of the section that you can swap out with existing bard features, giving you benefits of attracting attendants when in town, gain an audience with a political figure, or get free stuff like carts or carriages.

Sentinels were kind of a step back to 3rd Edition druids in that they could heal allies and got an animal companion. Protectors kind of remind me of 2nd Edition druids in that they belong to druidic circles (though you still don't have to fight anyone to level up). You start with nature's growth, which creates an encounter-long zone of difficult terrain with a scaling area of effect. Depending on your circle the power also lets your allies heal more when they burn a surge next to or inside it, or simply ignore it as it does not come equipped with friendly fire.

The real meat of this class is its key feature: summon nature's ally. You do not gain daily powers as you level up, instead gaining the ability to summon more--and better--monsters over time. For example, at 1st-level you can summon a giant cobra or desert hawk, but once you hit level 15? Time to call in the bulettes and/or giant scorpions. Eventually you can conjure blue dragons and rocs, but baby steps, ya know? Otherwise they still get a nice collection of evocations to choose from, including dailies for other druids.

We got a taste of witches previously, and since this section is going on long enough will just gloss over it. It is a wizard subclass that gets a familiar right out of the gate, which lets you swap out your daily attack and utility spells. Basically it is a spellbook with no limits. You also pick a coven, dark or new moon (which means generally evil or good respectively). Finally, you can cast an augury once per day in order to gain a vague notion of something similar to cleric spells from older editions.

As with the mage subclass and all the new schools they got later on, there are a shitload of new spells that you can use with any old wizard (though the forums will rapidly argue that there is no "classic support"), including lots of polymorph effects for the budding transmuter out there.

Chapter 4: Character Options 
This chapter has new themes, paragon paths, epic destinies, feats, and loot both mundane and magical.

Skipping over the fey beast tamer we get the sidhe lord. These guys are fey only, and start you out with a daily summon that basically spends most of its time taking hits for you until it runs out of hit points. The level 5 feature has some good social applications, allowing you and your allies to receive free room and board in any place that recognizes your house. At level 10 when your summon teleports you can also teleport with it as long as you are next to it.

The utilities allow you to have an ally burn an action point to take a standard action, gaining the action point if they do so, move you and your summon with a speed bonus with the same move action (and gaining temp hps to boot), and--my personal favorite--create a pact with an ally, allowing them to yank your encounter and daily powers to recharge their own, as well as nabbing their healing surges for your own personal use.

Tuathan are basically fey-touched humans or half-elves that can gain shapechanging abilities, but start out gaining a bonus on death saves or rolling Athletics checks twice. At 5th-level you ignore cover and concealment after using second wind, and at level 10 you can change into a bird if you picked up the level 2 utility that lets you change your shape, or treat modified 20 death saves as a nat 20 (with the added perk of standing up as a free action).

These guys get to choose between two utilities. At level 2 you can pick from rolling a 20 and saving the result for later or changing into a tiny fey or natural beast, at level 6 you can force a target to always speak the truth or mark a target (gaining temp hps each time you hit the target), and at level 10 you can force an attack to be redirected to another target or generate an aura that causes all weapons to gain Brutal and slow enemies, or burn it during an extended rest to reduce the time to 4 hours.

Last but not least is the unseelie agent. Any race can go with these guys, gaining the ability to conjure a magical, shadow-wrought weapon as an encounter spell. It can be ranged or melee, and the enhancement bonus scales as you level. Not bad, which is nice because the level 5 feature lets you speak the Unseelie Fey language, making it about as useful as Druidic or Theives Cant in past editions. Level 10 wraps things up by letting you roll Intimidate twice.

Moving on to paragon paths, there is one intended for each of the subclasses in the book. My favorite is the legendary witch, predictably an extension of the witch subclass that gives you varying spells based on your coven (except for level 16, where they all gain a sustain fly encounter). Mostly I like it for the level 20 daily, which lets you turn into a nightmare or unicorn depending on your taste.

There are only three epic destinies. One has you become the champion of Queen of Summer, a master of the Wild Hunt (complete with a daily 26 that lets you summon hounds), and a witch queen that is good for even vanilla wizards.

There are also a lot of pretty cool feats, including race support--if a bit anemic--for everything fey. For example, High Elf Kin lets elves use teleport after using elven accuracy, Fey Thievery lets eladrin use fey step to make a Thievery check at a distance, and Teeny Target grants you cover while in an ally's space (which asmRandy pointed out would make pixie defenders even more annoying). There is some old stuff like Totem Expertise and Arcane Familiar, though two-handed weapons get some love with Two-Handed Weapon Expertise (bonus damage when charging).

Feywild gear is a lengthy list of mundane stuff, like cold-iron shackles (fey cannot teleport), faerie puppet (can move on its own, making it nifty for a distraction), and a rain stick (break it to make it rain in a huge radius). A lot of this stuff seems better fleshed out, I guess? Like stuff you saw in Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium, where some of it might require DM interpretation to arbitrate.

There are not a lot of magic items, and one of them is your run of the mill magic totem. There are some interesting bits though, such as the hill tamer crook, which reduces a hill to level terrain. Definitely room for player creativity, especially given that there is no maximum size. The hag's doorknob was already previewed, but I have to call attention to it again: it is a doorknob that you can attach to a section of wall, and open it as if it were a door. Since it is level 12, this is not something that just anyone will have, and I could see a short adventure where players have to steal one of these things.

Fey magic gifts are divine boons and grandmaster training by another name, though I do like a system by which you can rewards players with intangible "items". The lowliest gift allows you to give a bunch of critters with the Mount keyword a speed bonus outside of combat, with the best allowing you to sense birds within a half mile of you, and see through their eyes if you want. Oh hell yes.

Chapter 5: Build Your Story
This is a really cool chapter that is basically a massive random background generator, and why oh why has WotC not made one of these for the implied setting? I remember one of these things in 3rd Edition's Hero Builders Guidebook, which even if you did not use it word for word it could still throw you some interesting flavor curveballs, and this one is no different. Without going through all the potentials you determine who raised you (eladrin nobility, feydark refugees, etc), and depending on the result get to choose from several areas where you grew up, ranging from an eladrin city to the Isle of Dread to one of the fomorian cities.

November 05, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Rebuilding Thunderspire Labyrinth, Part 2

This time I am going to talk about the Chamber of Eyes. The idea is that, if your players are following the plot of Thunderspire Labyrinth then they will quickly learn about the Bloodreavers, go looking for them, and end up a shrine formerly dedicated to Torog. Inside they find a bunch of hobgoblins, defeat them, and learn that the slaves were conveniently sold to some duergar, meaning they now have to go somewhere else to find them. If it were not for the XP and treasure this entire mini-dungeon would be entirely pointless.

In the module the Bloodreavers generally leave the denizens of the Hall in peace, more out of fear than anything else. In my vision I treat them as a military force to be reckoned with, and while they do not mess with anyone in the Hall consider others found outside its limits—like Rendil—to be fair game. Since the law of the Mages does not extend out of the Hall, this means that anyone who has been wronged by them does not have a valid complaint. It also means that outsiders are ideal in helping them exact justice…or serve as potential victims to get sent off in order to get caught.

Having the Bloodreavers be a thorn in more than a few sides could provide you with more adventure hooks to get the characters involved. In addition to going after slaves someone important could have been captured by them (an ally of Surina or one of Brugg Asteron's friends?), one of the Mages might give them a task (being unable to directly interfere in affairs), or Rendil or Gendar might ask them to retrieve some goods stolen from them (or in a twist try to sell them out).

Renovating The Chamber of Eyes
Oddly the front door depicts a crude image of a beholder, despite A) the actual art not showing one and B) there being no beholder to be found. Maybe the author had hoped that players would see it and think that, shit, there is a beholder coming up. I mean players from older editions probably knew that they could turn you to stone, put you to sleep, or just, I dunno, kill you instantly. While 4th Edition threw out almost all of the save-or-screws they are still nothing to sneeze at, especially at 4th-level (hell, the mini beholder is a level 5 solo). I am actually going to keep it because I intend to make good on the foreshadowing.

Aside from the statues, the decor is almost entirely nondescript. For a temple dedicated to Torog this will just not do. I decided to changes the statues from winged demons (why?) to crawling humanoids, bound in changes, with jagged crowns that cover their eyes nailed to their heads. If you saw the Silent Hill movie, then the janitor tied up in barbed wire is a good indication of where I am going with this.

Has a greater impact than another generic "winged-demon". 
The walls also look like that the hall was carved out by massive claws, and supported by pillars composed of victims bound in bladed chains...

Like that, but in pillar form.
...and the double doors are kind of like the Gates of Hell.

Could probably do with a minotaur head on there.
These additions will hopefully better convey the atmosphere of an ancient temple dedicated to a sadistic god that crawls through the depths of the Underdark.

A Closer Look
The map I drew up uses the original, with some minor modifications. I tried to include rooms that I would expect to see in an actual temple, including a place where they might hold ceremonies and perform fell rituals. Not all the rooms needed change, and in some cases the encounters and layout is mostly good enough to work with.

1. Narthex
This chamber is basically the same, though the rubble has been repositioned to help conceal the hobgoblins that stand guard in this room. I figure hobgoblins would actually try to modify the terrain in their favor, and I changed the archer to a spear-thrower. I added a few fissures in the floor that just serve as difficult terrain (though I would also have a character make a save or Acrobatics check to avoid falling prone if they are forced into them), along with a pit since Torog is all about pits.

Suspended above the pit is a former “saint” of Torog, chained up and wrapped in bloody linen. The characters can use it to climb up to the balcony, which I made easier than taking the walls (which while scoured are also concave). If the characters learned about Torog while in the Hall (or just make a really nice Religion check), they might know that they can gain Torog's blessing by making an offering into the pit. In this instance characters that do so gain Torog's lamentation of the shackled, which will give them an edge against the upcoming beholder and exarch.

Area 4. Guard Room
This room is a bit larger and is filled with bedrolls, not beds (which are probably a pain in the ass to drag all the way down here). Characters can use a standard action to yank on a bedroll that a monster is standing on to deal damage and knock them prone (use knockdown assault as a benchmark, though you might want to make it a little better to encourage players to give it a shot).

If the hobgoblins in this room get surprised, remember to use Aid Another to give the front-liners a bonus (and also emphasizing their phalanx formation), or have them run around in order to catch the characters with a pincer attack.

Area 5. Bath Chamber
I changed this to a slave pen and cistern. For some reason I like the idea of minotaurs having a primitive form of plumbing, and this is where their water comes from. Other rooms have levers and valves that dispense water, and areas with fire pits can dispense heated water.

I would actually keep a few slaves here that can inform the players that some got sold to the duergar. Some of the slaves might even be related and beg the characters to find their significant others/brothers/sisters/children/etc, or have lost family heirlooms that they would like returned (either or both could be minor quests).

Area 6. Sitting Room
This is now an impromptu dining hall and secondary quarters. I guess I could have added a pantry or make it more kitchen like, but I doubt my players will really notice much. Mebbe some crumbling walls to add in more terrain variety (something that could be knocked over).

Area 8. High Priest's Quarters
The hobgoblin's new leader stays here ever since the previous one got disintegrated by the beholder. A good spot to keep treasure. I could see the new leader making a deal with the characters to help get rid of the beholder.

Area 9. Refectory
I changed this room up to be both a kind of archive and ritual chamber. The first part has been repurposed to be a kind of armory, where they use the firepit to make repairs to weapons and armor. If the players get caught, this is where I would keep their gear. I suppose if you use martial practices then you could place Forge Weapon and Forge Armor here.

The other part has been sealed up because of a terrible monster--similar in appearance to all the statues--that inhabits the pit. If the players go in here, they can kill it (and gain either a magic spiked chain or flail weapon, or some kind of binding wondrous item), as well as take a secret passage directly to the balcony in Area 10.

Area 10. Torog's Shrine
Where the characters normally would deal with a dire wolf and some hobgoblins, they now face off against a beholder. Granted it is de-leveled to 6, but the terrain features should help make this a very epic fight to wrap up the Chamber. I also placed a pair of duergar here that came to bargain with the beholder for an alliance against the Hall. The beholder intends on killing both the duergar and the characters, so that he can later claim that assassins from the Hall killed them and hopfully incite the duergar to attack.

By going this route I can give the players an out if they end up losing; the beholder keeps them alive as proof, and they could be taken directly towards the Horned Hold, where they will have a chance to escape. If they defeat the beholder (as planned), then they can speak with the duergar, who while evil are still grateful that they were rescued. Depending on how the social role-playing goes, the duergar might "owe" the characters, or agree to see them later if the characters want to try talking their way into the Horned Hold. In other words, you give the players some options instead of just kicking down the door.

Alter: I added in an alter used for sacrifices. It looks like two chained minotuars holding up a bloody stone slab. It has a latch that causes it to slide back, revealing a pit where sacrifices were dropped and digested by oozes. This could be a good spot to put another encounter and/or some treasure. Characters adjacent to it gain a +1 power bonus when using powers that can slow, immobilze, or restrain a target (ideal if they get the divine boon in area 1 and the chain from the monster in area 9).
November 02, 2011
Posted by David Guyll


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