Archive for November 2012

Wandering Monsters: The Fair Folk

I have always felt that the fey needed more page-space devoted to them. Several years ago, I think right after Player's Handbook 2 came out, I tried to run a campaign that took place in a land that was tied closely to the Feywild.

There was not a lot of solid Feywild flavor in Manual of the Planes, so I ended up having to make stuff up/crib ideas from The Dresden Files, stuff by Robert Holdstock, some HellboyThe Waterborn, and its sequel The Black God (the latter two mostly just for ideas on spirits and animism).

Heroes of the Feywild expanded on it quite a bit, and remains one of my favorite 4th Edition books of all time, so--to me, at least--it would be a shame to not at least see it as a strongly-presented option (especially given that it already has a strong foundation).

As for its inhabitants, I think that the description--inherently magical beings with strong ties to nature--is apt enough, so long as it also includes animals as well as plants; dryads and hags are all well and good, but it is a wyld world out there that includes the pooka, cait sith, selkie, and more. In addition to the whole shapeshifting shtick, I would not also mind seeing vulnerabilities (such as cold iron and various herbs), access to thematic magic (glamour, cold, fire, etc), magic resistances, and  fey rules (such as being bound by bargains, unable to lie, cannot cross over certain materials, etc).

Oh, I almost forgot spirits. Animal spirits and spirits of the land--basically, the stuff that made it into Primal Power--can make for compelling stories (as well as challenges).

On the topic of stories, I disagree that it is hard to come up with adventure plots concerning the fey. If you have never read the The Dresden Files, several books focus on the fey courts, and many that do not include them to some capacity (he does, after all, have a fairy godmother). Granted a lot of them stray from the "traditional" dungeon crawling formula, instead focusing on courtly intrigues, or using them as quest heralds or sources of information, but there are also plenty of instances where they end up having to throw down.

Even discounting the fey, the Feywild itself--or Faerie or whatever--can make for an interesting backdrop.

The descriptions and flavor for the various examples are not anything new; dryads are bonded to trees, hags are evil deal-making old women that spend their time hunched over cauldrons, nymphs can blind or kill you, and so on.

What I want to see is how the flavor extends itself to mechanics. Will dryads just end up with charm person and tree stride 3/day? Will hags just have a lengthy spell list and/or the option to lump on spellcaster levels to get them to do what you want or need them to do? How will a quickling's speed work if they can allegedly "move faster than the eye can follow"?

A lot of this will probably depend on how spells themselves work. Personally I think it is silly for a dryad to have limited charms and treeportation, especially when each ability has its own cap. I mean, how do you explain that sort of magic? A hags magic could be based around how wizards work, and in that sense I could see them having more limited magic. I think an interesting and flexible ritual system, as well as a mechanic for making and breaking bargains, would go a long way to properly evoking their powers.

This would be a good chance to explore some experimental rules (hint hint).
November 29, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

Legends & Lore: Class Design Concepts

Martial damage bonus dice? Really?

First of all, that label is pretty long-winded. Second--and more importantly--it does not make their role clearer when you can spend your martial damage bonus dice to activate things that are not tied to a martial damage bonus, like reducing damage from an attack (Parry), shielding someone else from harm (Protect), or gaining an initiative bonus (Danger Sense).

Expertise dice fit the description perfectly; bonus to damage, Armor Class, saving throws, skill checks, whatever. I guess if the name must be changed, something like stunt dice or exploit dice would make a lot more sense.

It will suck to see the rogue lose maneuvers in favor of another dice-based mechanic that also...grants...special...abilities? Huh. Anyway, maneuvers made them more flexible, interesting, and provided a cohesive system for martial classes (or, at least, classes with noteworthy, non-magical exploits). It also fulfilled the goal of making Sneak Attack a rogue option, as opposed to a universal class feature.

I think that whatever other system they cook up will achieve similar--if not the same--results, I just wonder why they would go through all the trouble. Maybe it will better fit the rogue?

While maneuver-granting feats sound all well and good, I am skeptical as to how useful and applicable they will be, especially with multiclassing and the reduced number of feats overall. Maybe with two editions under their belts and vocal playtesters, the designers will be able to avoid giving us options that sound good but end up having performance issues.

Good to hear that the spellcasting system will still support other options, as it means that--for me at least--that there is a chance that I will actually like one of them. Power points and encounter-refreshing are obvious candidates, but maybe will we see stuff like fatigue, damage, sacrifices, and more.

In a similar vein I am interested to see what kind of experimental rules they roll out for skills. A rank system, or something like 4th Edition's skill powers could be cool. Just throw it in there as an optional rule. Actually just throw in a lot of experimental rules for a lot of things; who knows what will stick?

I like the idea of a paladin being charged with alignment-based powers, especially if each alignment component does its own thing (or rather, has access to a menu of things), allowing for a bunch of combinations. It reminds me of the champion from Arcana Unearthed--I think...I might be thinking of something else, if not mis-remembering it entirely--and helps differentiate them from clerics.

On the topic of alignments, forcing paladins-as-alignment-champions to have certain alignments makes sense. Forcing all monks to be Lawful when there are non-Lawful archetypes does not.
November 26, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

D&D Next: 5th-Level Stress Test

Kamon and Melissa enjoyed the 1st-level stress-test well enough that we decided to kick things up to 5 and give it another shot. Kamon was adamant against playing a wizard this time, opting instead for the fighter seeing as he enjoyed the rogue (which was 4th-level) during our Isle of Dread playtest. Melissa dug the monkwhich was nice since we all wanted to see how interesting/complex it got later onso just leveled her up.

Since despite my dissatisfaction with the wizard overall I still wanted to see how well the wizard fared when it actually used spells that were not cantrips or recovered in a short time-frame, it was up to me.

One thing I noticed--and really like--is that except for the wizard (and presumably cleric) the complexity from 1 to 5 does not change much; the fighter got a few new maneuvers, more expertise dice (going from 1d4 to 2d6), and a feat, while the monk got those and another ki-powered feature. Everything else--hit points, attack bonuses, skill and ability score increases, etc--just gets rolled into the final modifier, and does not require constant referencing.

Compare this to 4th Edition, where characters start with at least four different things--often more--without counting stuff that anyone can do, such as basic melee/ranged attacks, bull rush, etc. Then add in a new power at almost every level and feats every other level, and everything adds up pretty quickly (as well as leads to choice paralysis, especially with new players).

Initially I liked this approach because it provided ways for non-magical classes to remain viable throughout a campaign, as well as give them mechanical diversity (as well as reign in casters), but 5th Edition seems to be doing the same things, just with less space and a slower rate of feature/power accumulation.

First on the roster was a vrock. Fire and magic resistance made it difficult for the wizard to really do anything, and I was surprised to not see damage resistance against non-magical weapons on the menu, too. It was able to move around and use the terraina combination of pillars, pits, and rubbleto its advantage, but it ultimately went down without too much trouble. Maybe next time, spores.

After that was a pair of fire elementals. I included a couple of burning braziers out of habit more than anything else. The fighter, lacking a magical weapon, could only chip away as the monk and wizard rapidly whittled them down with their bare hands. I do not think I even hit anyone at all during this combat, as the slam's fire kicker seems like something I would have remembered. Though it did not matter, I do like their inability to cross large bodies of water. Had I planned these encounters out I might have included something like that.

The gargoyle's hide in plain sight ability is standard fare, even if it had no utility in this scenario. Damage resistance, again, made it a pain for the fighter. I imagine in a lot of games that the fighter would have a magical weapon by now, but it is good to know that they were able to finish the fight without one.

Hydras have often been tricky things to represent mechanically. In 2nd Edition dealing a set amount of damage automatically severed a head, and the body was virtually invulnerable to damage (which made no sense). In 3rd Edition you had to choose to hit either the head or the body, and after a short period of time two heads would grow unless the neck stump was hit with fire or acid. 4th Edition made it so that heads would roll whenever the hydra's hit points were reduced enough, but again, two heads would regrowthough hit points would not increaseif it did not take acid or fire damage before it started its turn again.

5th Edition hydras are a mix of 3rd and 4th Edition in that you have to elect to sever a head instead of dealing damage to the body, but instead of automatically growing new heads it has a recharging power. Besides having a recharge, it also only works if it has fewer than five heads, meaning that at most it can end up with six (instead of 2nd and 3rd Edition's twelve, and 4th Edition's seemingly lack-of-cap).

Envisioning it as a sort of magic laser, I decided that the wizard's scorching ray could feasibly be used to slice a head off, and since you can divvy up the damage as you like I put 5 points towards its body. Even with one head in the grave it still had four bite attacks to make, though at a +3 bonus its odds were not so hot. It got some lucky chomps in at first, but the fighter was able to keep it a few heads down the rest of the encounter (an average damage of 14.5 will do that).

This battle was somewhat difficult, which was to be expected given that it exceeded the average encounter difficulty budget by 160 points. I like this iteration of the hydra because players end up having to choose between killing it faster, or reducing the number of times it can make an attack. The head cap is nice for keeping things manageable on both sides of the screen, but I kind of like the idea of things being able to get out of control.

The problem is that if chopping off a head results in the temporary loss of an attack, can possibly result in a net gain for the hydra, and does not reduce overall hit points, then why would players even bother? It would be less risky and faster to just attack the body. So, currently having a temporary attack reduction with the slight risk of it having a small net gain seems to be working; my players went for the head in the rare instance that high-enough damage was rolled. Maybe if you gave the body fast healing and make it so that if all the heads get chopped off that it is dead dead?

I will confess to not actually rolling the last encounter. Mostly I thought that, hey, I have a Huge white dragon mini that I had yet to use in any edition, so...why not? is kind of unwieldy on the grid.
As a level 8 monster just shy of one-hundred hit points, I figured that it would make for a climactic last stand for the night. As a concession I even gave the fighter a flame tongue, because I wanted to see a 5th Edition rare item in action. What I learned was that fire damage, even 2d6, adds up quickly. Especially when the monster is vulnerable to fire damage. They killed it in three rounds, and I did not even have to fudge anything.

It opened up with a breath attack, dealing 25 cold damage to Kamon's fighter and 12 to the rest thanks to good Dexterity saves. Everyone got a few good hits in, but its bite/claw/claw routine on the next round dropped the fighter. Melissa used her action to administer a potion of healing, while the wizard dropped a web on it. Though it made its save, the followup round involved a burning hands spell, which coupled with the fire damage from the web was more than enough to finish it off.

So a party of three was able to get through five encounters, two of them toughies, without a healer or long rest (and most of them without any magic items). I think that some monsters could have a slightly higher attack bonus: as written, a fire elementala level six monsteronly has a 35% chance to hit the typical 1st-level fighter. The hydraalso level 6only has a 30% chance (and, oddly a Strength of 17 despite being Huge).

The fighter was fun, but we had already seen that with the Isle of Dread playtest (the only real difference this time around being some more hit points). The only part that sucked was monsters with weapon resistance, but even so the group got along just fine.

The monk was a lot more fun now that its flurry of blows dealt standard unarmed damage sans ability score mod (though that might change if Mearls actually removes ability score mods from damage). The added dice made her a lot more flexible, as Melissa was able to use step of the wind to close the distance and still flurry something. Deflect missiles ended up not being used at all since nothing actually threw/shot anything. Oh well, at least it was more competent than the 3rd Edition monk.

The wizard got boring pretty quickly.  Burning hands deals a piddling amount of damage once you graduate from giant centipedes, kobolds, and human commoners. Average of 3.5 damage if they fail their saving throw? Against 34 hit point gargoyles? They can take that heat without breaking a sweat (literally, because they are stone), and that is just gargoyles; owlbears have just over 40 hit points, and minotaurs over 50.

Shocking grasp fares a bit better, but you have to get into melee for that, and when the consequences could prove to be a 20+ damage love tap I do not think it is worth it. Wizards really need some manner of scaling and frankly, consistent magic that does not involve them preparing a specific group of spells; bring back the cantrips from previous playtest packets. Seriously, does WotC expect wizards to get by/care about their signature spell when a fighter (and possibly a monk and rogue) adds thunderwave-grade damage to their attack every round?

November 25, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

D&D Next: 1st-Level Stress Test

We decided to run a kind of gauntlet-grindhouse-endurance stress test using three first level characters; halfling fighter, dwarf monk, and human wizard (battle mage tradition). I wanted to see if a halfling could still make for a functional fighter, and everyone wanted to see if the monk was as fun/interesting as it was in 4th Edition (or, at least more so than in 3rd), as well as just how good the wizard was with basically unlimited magic all around.

I drew up a simple dungeon map with all the traditional trimmings: large rooms, wide (and lengthy) hallways, secret doors, etc. The way it worked was that when they entered a room I would roll for encounter difficulty; easy, average, or tough. Each difficulty had its own table with six encounters and chance of treasure (mostly potions of healing to extend their lifespan). The idea was for the players to see how long they could go without taking a long rest.

The first encounter involved a pair of human commoners and a human berserker. No problem. They beat it with the halfling fighter taking like, a point or two of damage. They were fortunate enough to even nab a potion of healing for their troubles. The second room was where we ran into a lethal hiccup: zombies. In our Isle of Dread playtest they ran into a quartet of shamblers, and were able to take them down without too much difficulty, but this time they ran into six. At first level. Hooray for randomness.

Combat went on forever. No amount of shocking grasps, Expertise-stacked sword-swings, or flurries could take them down. Their whole "make a Con save to avoid death" mechanic was, ironically, murder. After about 15 minutes of failing to fail DC 1-10 saves we eventually ret-conned the entire encounter (and I scratched it off the table for good measure). The next encounter against a pair of carrion crawlers went a lot smootherdespite being a bit more XPin no small part to the dwarf's poison resistance/advantage on saves against poison effects.

After that it was five giant centipedes, a ghost, even more human commoners (and berserker), and finally a dark adept with a pair of skeleton sentries. The ghost was fairly durable, but it failed to hit anyone with anything for the one round it was alive (though to be fair I did not use horrifying visage or possession, which if successful could have complicated things quite a bit). On a similar note, every encounter was easier than the aforementioned zombies, including the 250 XP adept/skeleton combo (even though the adept's inflict light wounds fully killed the wizard in one action).

The halfling fighter did great, even with a short sword thanks to its racial kicker to weapon damage. The dwarf monk was not as flexible as it was in 4th Edition, but was more effective than in 3rd given that its flurry attacks were not penalized. Speed of the wind was kind of beh, but to again be fair there was really no opportunity for a small speed boost to be useful. Situationally it was pretty amazing when pitted against carrion crawlers and skeletons, thanks to poison resistance and bludgeoning vulnerability respectively.

The wizard ranged from competent to awesome depending on how many monsters and hit points were involved. Shocking grasp was pretty potent, though Kamon learned the hard way that going into melee when there are still monsters about come their initiative count (hooray for potions of healing, except when the attack deal 18 damage in one shot). When a lot of monsters were involved burning hands and thunderwave predictably were exceedingly handy at taking them out.

Kamon still thinks that the wizard needs a bit more hit points, and I still think that it is fine where it is; shocking grasp is pretty nice (especially against a single target or as a fallback), but should not be your primary form of attack. In other words, I think being able to reliably deal about as much damage as a fighter without needing a weapon is a fine concession for having a glass jaw.

I liked that a party of three was able to take on plenty of groups of monsters, even when 2-3 levels higher than their own, without reducing things to a prolonged grindfest (as would happen all too often in 4th Edition). I was even fine with the dark adept being able to one-shot the wizard; had she been two levels higher, she would have survived even a max-damage bad touch. Of course, the wizard probably should not have been on the front line in the first pace.

Unanimously we hate the zombie's zombie fortitude. Being able to freely make saves surpassed the difficult threshold, shooting well into frustration. I think that making it a reaction, or somehow limiting it as in 4th Edition will help convey their durability without things getting too ridiculous.

Next up will be 5th-level, with an even more random assortment of mid-range monsters.

November 23, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

Wandering Monsters: Devils & Demons

I never had much issue remembering the different between baatezu and tanar'ri back in 2nd Edition, partially because I was really into Planescape, but mostly because I would just need to recall if they were in the front or back of the Monster Manual.

It was not until we got demons, daemons, and devils in 3rd Edition that things became a bit muddier...until I just learned to remember that devils were the Lawful side of the trinity, and that we rarely played to a point where any of them really mattered anyway.

Though a Planescape fan I did not care much for their extraplanar alignment-battle, which is disappointing because it looks like that demon and devil lore is getting rolled back an edition or two. I really enjoyed 4th Edition's changes to demon flavor, changing them into corrupted elemental destroyers, while clearly dividing them from their hierarchical tempters-of-souls counterparts. Though relegated to a sidebar in Manual of the Planes, 4th Edition also provided a (better?) reason for the Blood War to exist.

I do not mind the idea of two opposing evil forces eternally duking it out (even with a third party playing both sides), but I am hoping that whoever is in charge of story gives us a more compelling reason than "because, alignment!" A motivation--preferably a solid one--or some actual stakes would be a nice change of pace.

As for the actual denizens, I am happy to see them staying away from laundry lists of spells and spell-like abilities. As I have said before I disliked having to pore through other books to take notes on what spells do what, and take time going through lists trying to figure out what I should do (especially when there are lots of ineffectual, low-level stuff to dismiss).

Cold iron and silver vulnerabilities are back (as well as magic), which is fine by me as I kind of missed material-based vulnerabilities such as fey and cold iron. I know some people complained about fighters toting around "golf bags of weapons", but as long as they do not go back to 3rd Edition's DR/30+ values then it remains a perk instead of a necessity. In this instance I guess 5th Edition's resistance mechanic is the lesser of two evils.

Individually most of these guys do what they have always done; balors have a flaming whip and lightning sword, mariliths are six-armed, half-serpent dervishes, ice devils are insect-like in appearance and can create walls of ice and storms, and so on. There are some interesting tidbits in there, though, such as glabrezus being able to attack with their pincers and cast spells with their human-like set of arms and mariliths potentially using Expertise Dice.

I am kind of disappointed to see the succubus return to the demonic horde. Conceptually it made more sense to peg them with a Lawful alignment given their role of tempters and more subtle spell selection, and I know a lot of people agree with me (and disagree), so it is nice that it got its own poll question. I guess we will have to see what the majority wants.

I am interested to see how things continue to unfold in terms of story and mechanics. Maybe the Blood War will have a variety of causes and goals that you can pick from (alignment, abyssal shard, or something else?), maybe devils will become more strongly associated with sins, and maybe there will be a stronger, clearer divide between them all.
November 20, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

Legends & Lore: Expertise Dice

It looks like expertise dice are more or less going to become a kind of universal mechanic for weapon-using classes, like psionic classes and power points, except that not every class is necessarily going to get maneuvers as part of the deal.

I agree with having damage scale as opposed to attack bonuses. 3rd Edition's three separate base attack bonus rates made it a nightmare to balance monsters, especially with melee-oriented characters that dared to multiclass. At least this way more characters will be able to land a hit, though depending on how things scale it might not be a good hit.

On a similar note this allows low-level monsters to remain viable threats, even if it means having to gang up in order to inflict a meaningful amount of damage. Hopefully this means we can avoid having to scale up their level as we did in 4th Edition (resulting in some strange things like level 10 goblins), or spend hours piling on class levels and re-calculating attack bonus, saving throws, skills, feats, and more as with 3rd Edition.

I know that expertise dice started out as the fighter's shtick, but to me it really made a lot of sense to give the rogue (and the monk, and probably some iteration of the ranger, paladin, barbarian, etc) maneuvers; they are simple, dynamic, and for those that took issue with 4th Edition not limited by the encounter or day (though Mearls makes mention of that being a possible optional module near the end...dun dun duuun).

Even so some people are upset that the fighter has to share its nice things, but I do not see an issue with it because maneuvers are not universally available; a rogue cannot take Deadly Strike (so the fighter gets to regularly burn dice to dish out bonus damage), fighters cannot take Skill Mastery, and only monks can run on water thanks to Step of the Wind. So even ignoring class features, to a point there is some form of niche protection, though I wonder how well things will be preserved with multiclassing.

While I am all for giving the fighter some more iconic features, I think Parry is a pretty boring way to go about it. What about swashbuckling rogues? What about monks slapping aside swords with their bare hands? What about armor? I hear a lot of complaints about how a good Dex and light armor is better than going the heavy route, so why not give them options that make them even better in heavy armor, such as damage resistance or even just a plain ol' AC boost?

I am baffled that some might think that expertise dice are too complicated. Are players really forgetting if they used one or two dice less than a minute ago? Do not get me wrong, I am all for giving the fighter full access to dice for actions and reactions (some would argue that it is better to just use them for bonus damage instead of anything else, so this would encourage people to use things like Parry and Protect), I just cannot believe that it is because it is too difficult to keep track of.

Feats giving out extra maneuvers sounds interesting, but if they are all fueled by expertise dice then it still restricts it to certain classes. Granted if more classes have access to expertise dice it will at least end up being a lot more flexible than in past editions (even 4th Edition, which made it very easy to make functional duel-wielding fighters, rangers, barbarians, and maybe something else I am forgetting about).

Maybe if said feats granted bonus expertise dice? Actually, I wonder how expertise dice will scale through multiclassing; it would suck to take a second attack that does all of 1d4 damage at 5th-level.

Speaking of scaling, another issue is how magic works in the bigger picture given that most spells do not scale. They do one thing, no matter what level you are. In past editions many spells automatically scaled, often with a damage cap. An iconic example is fireball, which dealt 1d6 damage per level, up to 10d6. In 4th Edition this was also handled via power swapping: eventually you got to a point where you could exchange one power for another (though a few powers scaled up automatically).

Not so in In 5th Edition where there are only like, two spells that I can think of that scale--magic missile and thunderwave--and that is only if you memorize them using higher-level spell slots. There are still a couple potent save-or-screws, such as hold person and polymorph but, eh...if you follow this blog at all then you know that for me the traditional D&D magic system is another can of worms entirely.

In short I am behind the idea of scaling damage instead of attack bonuses and dice-fueled maneuvers, so long as they are thematically tied to class. I can also get behind feat-granted maneuvers, though it depends on how it gets executed. Same goes for the optional encounter/daily stuff. As always, magic needs a major overhaul.

November 19, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

Dragon's-Eye View: Assassin Devil

The shadow-stuff stuff actually makes sense, two horns are pretty bog-standard, and the indigo skin I can deal with, but why would an assassin devil be six feet tall and wear armor that is even partially made of iron? Something like the shadow from A Clash of Kings makes more sense. There are quite a few entries to choose from, so I was kind of surprised that I only kind of like four of them, art direction be damned:

I think the third image does the best job overall. Though I cannot see its face, it looks the most like what I would expect an assassin to look like, and less like a front-line warrior. I did find it odd that some decided to try and go with normal-to-sexy faces anyway (such as the first one), as well as all the exposed skin and armor with boob-windows (when it was not shaped like boobs in the first place).

I guess the above images I chose are okay, but none of them are really interesting or inspiring. When I think assassin devil, I do not think of indigo skin and iron bits. If anything else, I would imagine something more...inconspicuous? I could see an assassin devil killing someone and wearing their skin, or at least completely covered in black. Maybe it has some sort of camouflaging ability?

On that note the second and third poll questions were also kind of strange. The best for use in D&D? Without concern for appropriateness? Are they trying to avoid nudity or excessive gore? Are they looking for a certain style? To me D&D has never really had a universally solid theme or style going on, though certain settings had their defining artists (namely Tony DiTerlizzi for Planescape and Brom for Dark Sun). The images look like they could have a place in a D&D book but, again, they are kind of boring.
November 16, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

Wandering Monsters: What's in a Monster?

What information belongs in a monster entry? The amount and arrangement of information has fluctuated throughout editions, sometimes changing within the same edition.

2nd Edition blocks were lengthy lists of un-formatted information, which probably could have been sorted better. In its favor the flavor text tended to lean towards the extensive, often telling how many women and/or young are in a lair, if one is a leader (as well as any modifications), chance of shamans, and more.

3rd Edition blocks started out similar to 2nd Edition's, but were eventually re-arranged and divided to make it easier to locate information. Flavor text varied from monster to monster, but when the stat blocks changed were expanded to include a lore table and paragraphs for strategies, encounters, ecology, and sample treasure.

4th Edition stat blocks were a major departure from its predecessors. Colored rows made it easier to locate information, and the later iteration even clustered up action types so that you did not have to look long or hard to cash in a move or minor action you might have left over. Also important was the fact that you never had to reference another book; the effect of every power was always included in the block, making spellcasters and the like a breeze.

While I recall 4th Edition initially getting criticism for a seeming lack of flavor content, flipping around the Monster Manual it looks only somewhat leaner than--if not on par with--most 3rd Edition entries. As with 3rd Edition, the last run of monster books--Monster Manual 3 and the Monster Vaults--resolved this beefing up the flavor to about a half-page per entry, if not more.

Having gone through four editions (so far), I can say that my ideal statblock serves two purposes.

First, it should require no outside reference. I can deal with having to check a glossary in the same book for stuff like Plant/Ooze/Swarm/Ooze/etc traits, but if running an angel, wizard, demon, or dragon requires that I take cliffnotes from Player's Handbook, Arcane Supplement II, and Spell Compilation V I will be sorely disappointed. Thankfully the three "monsters" in the bestiary with built in spellcasting--dark acolyte/adept/priest--have spell effects in their entries.

Second, the flavor material should present a solid foundation of default information to work with; appearance, culture, environment, lairs, etc. While I like making up my own lore, often the defaults give me inspiration. To this end I really like how they did it in 3rd Edition's Monster Manual V, which not only included monster variants (a trend that thankfully continued in 4th Edition), but encounter ideas, treasure, and even the occasional map.

Flavor-wise the monster entry for Next does really well. You get a physical description, motivation, combat tactics, number-encountered, lair ideas, and some personality traits. Easily enough to give me something solid to work with (or expand on/deviate from). I assume that they will include leaders (and perhaps spellcaster types) in the final product, so I think that my only nitpicks are that it could go a bit further with a sample encounter map and treasure (or two).

As for the stat block, it does...alright. It seems easier to follow than 2nd Edition, but lacks late-3rd and 4th Edition's information grouping. I think that the defensive and offensive information should be stacked, so that it is a bit quicker to switch between the two. I would even move the "social" stuff--ability scores, alignment, languages, and senses--on top, which would give you something like this:

Medium Humanoid (Goblin)
Environment Hills or any underground
Abilities Str 15 (+2), Dex 14 (+2), Con 10, Int 8 (-1), Wis 11, Cha 9 (-1)
Senses darkvision 60 ft.
Languages Common, Goblin
Traits Burly, Stealthy +5

AC 14 (leather, shield)
hp 18 (4d8)

Speed 30 ft.
Space 5 ft. Reach 5 ft.
Melee Large morningstar +2.
Hit: 5 (1d8 + 1) bludgeoning damage and 5 (1d8 + 1) piercing damage.
Ranged Large javelin +2 (30 ft./120 ft.).
Hit: 9 (2d6 + 2) piercing damage.

What do you think? What about this one:

Or this one:

November 14, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

Legends & Lore: Here Comes...the Monk!

The class and maneuver pdf got updated to include the monk class and maneuvers. Yes, maneuvers, because the monk gains Expertise Dice, you see. I will address that in a bit, but first, retrospective!

I do not recall how 2nd Edition's monk operated, but 3rd Edition's was very disappointing; at 1st-level you could move a bit faster and punch things. You could try to punch things twice, though you took a penalty. If you toured about sans armor you got to add your Wisdom modifier to your Armor Class, too. As you leveled up, your unarmored damage, speed, and out-of-armor AC scaled, and you got various other features like immunity to poison and disease, reduced falling damage, jumping without a height-cap, and so on.

The problem was that it encouraged multiple ability dependency, as you wanted a good Strength for unarmed damage, Dexterity for AC (and perhaps unarmed attack if you took Weapon Finesse, which you probably did), and Wisdom to further boost your AC. Of course, Constitution was also good to be able to take hits, which was probably going to happen unless you had a really good Dexterity and Wisdom. What I liked even less was that as your unarmed attack damage increased, there was no point to continue wielding weapons (despite there being a good number of "monk" weapons).

As with many other classes, it took 4th Edition to make an actually competent, engaging monk. Monk Traditions made other ability scores besides just Wisdom useful, and one even made weapons feasible. Monk powers were combination attacks and movement bonuses, making it easy to envision the monk performing crazy stunts instead of just standing in one place and punching a monster over and over. My personal favorite was drunken monkey, which let you hit a monster and cause it to wallop an ally. Utility powers removed the need for variant classes or alternate class features, and feat trees helped realize other concepts such as greatsword-wielding githzerai.

As expected the 5th Edition monk has bits of editions past, mixing static class features with meaningful decision points. Oddly the biggest thing people seem to be getting hung up on is the Lawful-only alignment restriction. I will go on record saying that I too think it makes no sense, especially considering the "drunken boxer" archetype, and really just seems like pointless tradition carried over from yester-Edition. Also, why are wizards not required to be Lawful, what with a life of study and practice?

You get to add your Wisdom modifier to your Armor Class, and despite the fact that it does not scale by level the underwhelming armors and lack of assumed/necessary magic items means that monks will likely have a really good Armor Class (at least on part with the fighter). Monastic Training lets you pick two skills from a short list, making it kind of like a Rogue Scheme-lite. Unarmed damage is a set 1d6, but given the whole Expertise Dice thing I do not see a problem with it. Also it is a finesse weapon by default, so there is no need to burn a feat on it to avoid stretching your stats too thin.

The major addition is Ki, which is a scaling daily resource that you can spend to activate Stunning Fist (creature must make a Wisdom save or be stunned for a turn), and later on Wholeness of Body (regain hit points). I get that this is a playtest, but I hope that this gets expanded so that players can actually make choices, here.

Finally, maneuvers. You start with two--Flurry of Blows and Step of the Wind--but every three levels you get to pick up another. Some are fairly straightforward and mundane, like Deadly Strike and Deflect Missiles. Others start out "mundane", but can scale to magical if you spend enough dice. For example at one die Step of the Wind lets you boost your speed, two dice lets you run up vertical surfaces, and three dice lets you run on liquids. I like this, as it avoids the need for lots of similar powers with slightly different effects.

My final opinion is that it looks more interesting than 3rd Edition's monk, though the Lawful alignment and preset Ki features are major turnoffs for me. I could see Monk Traditions providing maneuvers much in the way that the fighter's Fighting Styles do, but mainly I would like to see them provide more interesting benefits (such as being able to use Flurry of Blows with a weapon).
November 13, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

Thunderspire Labyrinth: The Horned Hold Rough

Sorry that this has taken so long, but between the latest D&D Next packet, 13th Age, Dungeon World, and very recent Numenera playtest I have been pretty swamped with reading. That and I consider myself to be very bad at mapping. I tend to fret a lot on layout, always wondering if the denizens would really put what room where. I think this is like, the sixth sheet of graph paper I have gone through (after hours of poring over other maps).

November 10, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

D&D Next: Isle of Dread Playtest

Though the Isle of Dread has appeared throughout the editions, my group did not make our first foray until last week.

Having only a handful of hours to play I decided to go with the a more severe version of the shipwreck approach (though I was mercial in that I let them start at 4th-level given the reduced party size). They washed up on the northern region of the island to the tune of several giant crabs (which I was surprised to see in the bestiary) picking through the corpses. With only weapons on hand--albeit magical ones--they managed to fight them off with only Josh's fighter taking any injury. 

They picked through the debris for a couple hours, managing to gather some  food, water, enough sheets of canvas to make a servicable tent, some oil, a couple coils of rope (in their standard-issue length of 50 feet, of course), and a ten-foot pole. Josh was able to stitch something approaching leather armor, and tied some planks of wood together to make a shield. Additional rummaging combined with Melissa's character's Herbalism feat allowed them to cobble together a kind of healer's kit (which in turn allowed Josh's character to heal up).

With no way of getting off the island and no idea where they were, they picked a random direction and started walking. The players had never played a "hex-crawl" before, and my closest experience was an old 3rd Edition campaign where distances between cities and villages ranged from weeks to a couple months. The DM's initially tried to make us role-play and hunt through every day of the trip. This lead to a lot of repetitive rolls, stilted dialogue, and boredom; it did not take long before they were abridging the lengthy trips (and allowing us to make Survival checks to encompass a week of time).

With that in mind and the limited time frame I decided to used the hex-side of one of my battle maps, filling in the space where they were and adjacent hexes. They would pick a hex, I would tell them how many hours had passed and filled it in, only going into descriptive detail when the terrain or weather changed. Simple, and perhaps more importantly, fast. When they ran into a random encounter or a numbered location we would just run combat off the grid, something that we had gotten used to while playing A Sundered World.

After a few hours of playing they ran into a carnivorous ape that Melissa's wizard was able to tie down with web, giving them some time to escape, a really laid back treant that told them about the nearby green dragon's lair, and a handful of zombies before making it to the island center. Thanks to Josh and Kamon's Parry I was only ever able to damage Josh, and given the lack of encounters it was a simple matter to just burn through a Hit Die or two. Heck, even if I were to rigidly enforce Melissa's lack of a spell book she was almost entirely able to run on shocking grasp and burning hands.

Since time was running out I removed the village in the center and pared down the temple quite a bit, reducing it to like, two rooms connected by a hall. After a short bit of exploration they encountered a single kopru, which did not last long against wizard-based ordinance and Deadly Strike. To be fair I did allow people affected by its domination to keep making Wisdom saves, and if Josh did not have Parry the bite and tail combo would have taken him down pretty quickly.

Josh and Kamon both enjoyed the fighter and rogue quite a bit. They praised the maneuver system as a simple-yet-effective way to give them extra options without a lot of bookkeeping. They both had the Parry maneuver, which gave them a good deal of staying power even without a cleric. Despite that Kamon wished that he had "just a bit" more hit points. Personally I think that given the four-day trek the fact that Josh and Melissa could count their respective Hit Dice and daily-spell expenditure on one hand, that characters are pretty durable as is.

Even if they had plowed through all of those encounters in the span of a single day I think they would have been fine. The only thing that really hurt them with the carnivorous ape and kopru, which is understandable because they were 2-3 levels higher (and there were only three characters). The giant crabs and zombies generally had any hits rendered ineffective thanks to Parry, which is likewise understandable because they were 3 levels lower. Despite the low-level the zombies were surprisingly resilient, though I recall Josh doing some really poor damage rolls (and I had a few lucky Constitution saves). We actually liked this, as it conveyed the idea of them being difficult to hack apart besides just giving them a massive lump of hit points.

Kamon chose some decidedly class-neutral maneuvers, so I cannot say that his character felt very rogue-like, as opposed to 4th Edition where rogue exploits had a distinct mechanical feel from the fighter (generally involving lots of movement and damage spiking). I think that by creating a stronger thematic divide (as well as creating other lists for warlords and two-weapon fighters), as well as adding in class features (like weapon and armor stuff for the fighter), that it will help differentiate them.

We did not get many chances, or to be more accurate see many needs, to use wizard spells. Aside from web the only other spell I recall Melissa using was scorching ray, which dealt a reliable 20 fire damage (well, 10 since she was zapping the kopru). Unsurprisingly none of us are a fan of the magic system, even with the tradition addition. Mechanically it does nothing to alleviate the 5-minute workday, especially when by the books you only ever hit 1-2 encounters in a day until you hit a dungeon. Also the whole sometimes at-will, sometimes encounter divide makes even less sense than it did before.

All I can say is, again, please go back and develop the flavor of magic and build mechanics around the explanation, instead of trying to wrap flavor around a mechanic that is not doing what it is intending to do. This goes for both clerics and wizards. How would a wizard explain magic to her apprentice? I think that the sorcerer and warlock were much more evocative and interesting than either the cleric or wizard, and am surprised that they did not recycle their mechanics this time around.

Dragon's-Eye View: Short People

When I said I was hoping for insanity-inducing artwork, I was not expecting this.

In all seriousness I am not sure where I stand. While they do look friendly, folksy, and cute, the large head and tiny feet also makes them look top-heavy, like they would have a difficult time staying upright (which contrasts with their Dexterity bonus). They also look very cartoon-y, like something you would expect from a Disney or Pixar flick. While not inherently bad on its own, it might contrast poorly with the overall look of D&D.

Seriously, I can imagine a "Pixar presents" caption.

From head to waist they look fine, though the broad face and large nose makes me think of gnomes. Really the main thing that seems off are the tiny feet. I would bulk up the legs, maybe reduce the head a bit, and then see what people think.
November 07, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

Wandering Monsters: Things From Beyond the Stars

Tentacled horrors from beyond the stars? Sign me up.

The aberrant/aberration category includes most of my favorite monsters; mind flayers, intellect devourers, beholders, grells, aboleths, chuuls, fell taints (despite the name), mutated/warped things, and more. I am a huge fan of Lovecraft's works, my second long-term 4th Edition D&D campaign took place in Eberron's Shadow Marches, involving a number of star cults trying to summon an aberrant star, and one of my first 5th Edition homebrews were conversions of those very cultists.

In short I really, really dig this sort of thing.

For me the aberrant/aberration definition is spot on. In the game Eternal Darkness there is a part where you play a character who can perform autopsies on the creatures you kill. A lot of the descriptions are great, but I distinctly remember the one concerning a creature that looked like two headless humanoid bodies fused at the waist, where he makes mention of the corpse's anatomy making no sense (a lack of organs will do that).

I like the mention of psionics--which will hopefully not take a year or two to see the light of day--though I have nothing against some sort of sanity-stripping magic system, especially for the warlock and options like the alienist prestige class/paragon path.

The concept of the Far Realm is something I was pleased to see in 4th Edition, though I was disappointed that it never really got elaboration. I get the reasons for wanting to avoid making certain things official or assumed in everyone's campaign, but it would be great to finally have one or more optional planes get some decent page-space this time around (not that every aberrant critter needs to have other-worldly origins).

Given that my group virtually never breaches the first 10 levels in any edition, beholders are not something we have a lot of experience with. Despite this we are still very well aware of their eye rays (especially the save-or-die ones), so having a variation among eye rays could be nice for mixing things up and keeping characters on their toes. I also like the variation in size and appearance. The gauth is nice for giving low-level parties a taste of eye-ray volleys, while the hive mother allowed you to challenge epic characters. I also liked the DiTerlizzi drawings in 2nd Edition's Monster Manual (especially the one with crab pincers for some reason).

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that.
I always took these variations to mean that beholders were highly mutable rather than prone to wildly unique, isolated accidents. At any rate unique or no, I think having a table or list of optional traits to let you cobble together your own beholder would satisfy both camps.

The mind flayer is in my top ten favorite monsters, and the description is spot on with my expectations; tentacles, mind blast, domination, thralls, eats brains, ceremorphosis...basically everything that you would expect. I like the mention of psionics (crystals or no), which I take to mean that the initial version will not use spell-like abilities.

I am hopeful that the flat math will prevent low-power thralls like orcs, bugbears, and grimlocks from being too weak to threaten the characters without having to inflate their Hit Dice or lump on class levels.

Finally, I am curious as to if/how/when they will integrate past content, such as thoon (including both illithid disciples and the machines), neothelids, alhoon (ie, illithi-liches), and whatever those illithids with really long tentacles were called.

I have only ever used an aboleth once, and that was when we were playing A Sundered World so I did not use it "officially", though they also rank among my favorites. As with mind flayers they are pretty much what I expect, and again I hope that the flat math will make it easier to employ low-level threats without disrupting encounter difficulty one way or the other.

Aside from 3rd Edition's Lords of Madness I do not recall much flavor content pertaining to them,  but I like the potential plot hooks that their genetic memory (and, to a point, their ability to go dormant) allows for.

Now that I am chomping at the bits to run a campaign another brimming with eldritch horrors from beyond space and time, hopefully we get some quality, insanity inducing aberrant art tomorrow.
November 06, 2012
Posted by David Guyll

Legends & Lore: High-Level Play

High-level play is not something that I have a lot of experience with. In 3rd Edition my group we managed to--by the books--get to 14th level on three occasions. In my 4th Edition A Sundered World campaign, the party managed to get to level 15 I think, but that was only because I was leveling them up each session; normally we would get somewhere in the 6-10 range before we would have to call it quits.

In any case I am told that high-level 3rd Edition play is fraught with issues; spells and Hit Dice progression rates could wreak havoc on a DM's attempts to challenge the players. I think I was pretty lucky in that in my campaign the worst I had to deal with was a characters' greater teleport spell-like ability, though I was personally the subject of a pre-Revised Edition polymorph spell; going from human to minotaur was fun while it lasted.

From my very limited high-level 4th Edition experience I can say that my biggest issue was the slew of class, race, feat, and item powers. It made most characters fairly difficult to juggle pretty quickly, though thankfully I never noticed any singular game-breaking powers (though some combinations were pretty annoying). Otherwise creating monsters and setting DCs, even on the fly, was a breeze.

A slower progression rate will help alleviate the scaling issues from 3rd Edition, where by 5th-level a fighter and wizard could reasonably have attack bonuses of +9 and +2 respectively. I think that instead of doling out an almost uniform +2 to weapon attacks for everyone at the start (a cleric and wizard both have a +2 with weapons, really?), that they should just use 4th Edition's weapon accuracy system.

It could also apply to monsters, which would help shore up some accuracy issues and inconsistencies. For example, why do hobgoblins get a +2 to hit despite a Strength of 11, when drow get a +0? Human warriors also get a +2 to hit, but have a Strength of 12. It does not seem to be a weapon thing, as koprus have a +4 to hit despite only having a Strength of 15.

Getting a spell or class feature "most of the time" can lead to lackluster level advancement. 3rd Edition had plenty of classes with "dead levels", and Next's fighter and rogue already have their share. Personally I would like to see something else going on at those levels besides just hit points, skills, and feats (especially since the latter two are technically optional systems). Though, given 4th Edition's progression model this might end up being too much. This is one of those things where actual play experience will come in handy in casting a deciding vote.

I am interested in the legacy system. Though AD&D is specifically mentioned, it reminds me of 4th Edition's epic destinies, which provided ways to resolve your character's story once you hit the level cap; you might ascend into a god-like being, found a magic college, carve out a new nation, transform into a lich, and so on and so forth.

Legacies seem to be less, well, epic. You might take over a thieves' guild, build a temple, or establish a stronghold. Lichdom is still on the table, and while you may not be able to become an archduke of Hell you can at least be able to thwart one. Of additional interest is option of transitioning back into low level, by playing heirs, hirelings, or followers of your old character.

This was something I liked about the idea of epic destinies, having never actually been able to pick one or seen them in play. You could found a college, and then play a member of that college. Or, if a character became a lich it could be a villain for the next one. The problem was of course the 21 level entry fee. Chopping this down to 11 would make it much more likely that characters can qualify.
November 05, 2012
Posted by David Guyll


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