Archive for March 2011

Faith & Hirelings

Faith & Heresy is actually a pretty nice, flavor-heavy article that is useful for both players and DMs, which is something that happens all too rarely. Along with several paragraphs devoted to divine power and radiant damage, it takes an in-depth look at what might push a cleric--PC or NPC--down the road of heresy. Not only that, but each of the good and neutral gods get a paragraph on what sort of heretical stances their clerics might take. For example, Bahamut's clerics might decide to dispense "justice" upon those who have yet to commit any evil.

Player-centric motivations involve treading the line of defying your religion, or even conversely playing a cleric of an evil deity that decides to walk away. Unlike past editions, nothing in 4th Edition explicitly states that a DM can strip a cleric of her divine powers if she defies her god--and the sidebar in this section advises against it, too. There's even a ritual that allows you to essentially swap gods mid-game, if that's your thing. Finally, there's a few pages devoted to religious quests that you can use to hook divine characters.

It's refreshing to see an engaging, useful article that doesn't rely on a multitude of feats, magic items, or powers. It's not often that my group plays divine characters, but there're plenty of ideas for villains that I would readily use it--if my next campaign wasn't set in Dark Sun.

On the other hand, Henchman & Hirelings is crunch-heavy, and hearkens back to an age that I only vaguely understand from reading Knights of the Dinner Table. I'm told that, back in the day, you actually did pick up hirelings in order to try and "test" the dungeon before exposing your actual character to hazards of a save-or-die lethality. That being said, I actually kind of dig this article, too.

Hirelings are featured in a magic item format, and range from level 1-30. The baseline hireling is a minion with an undefined melee basic and ranged attack, modified by their occupation (if any, which costs more). For example, a beast handler has an aura that grants allied beasts a bonus to Fortitude and Will, while a mercenary has better attacks, defenses, and grants allies a bonus to AC and Reflex (unfortunately, he has a steep x3 multiplier to cost).

The section on pets briefly touches on familiars, animal companions, mounted combat, and companion characters. Mostly, it refers you to other books that actually pertain to those options. However, it does add a twist to backgrounds, suggesting the use of pets as a background element: a pet snake, trained raven, housecat, etc. I like the reminder on naming it. At any rate, they still provide the same benefit as a background, so you aren't really losing anything.

Finally, the final section is about henchmen. Henchman are just companion characters (featured in Dungeon Master's Guide 2). Yeah, there's a few bits on how you might "obtain" a henchmen, but most of it just features sample henchmen. I've used companion characters before with varied results, and I'm going to make sure to allow hirelings as an option in my upcoming Dark Sun campaign.
March 31, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Heroes of Shadow Feats

The last preview for Heroes of Shadow showcases a bunch of feats. I like a lot of them, but some of them seem very...focused. For example, Legioncaller of Moil gives your summoned shadow critters a bonus to attack rolls and defenses, while Executioner of Undeath lets you reroll any damage dice when attacking undead once. While both are focused, Legioncaller of Moil differs in that you have greater control of how it applies to your characters, as well as when it will be used. With Executioner of Undeath? That depends on what the DM throws at you (as well as, I suppose, your knowledge of what the campaign/adventure will be about).

Another potentially problematic feat is Ghost Scorpion Strike. The compendium lists 264 monsters with insubstantial somewhere in their stat block, plenty of which are in Seekers of the Ashen Crown, Scepter Tower of Spellgard, or other WotC adventures. At least 41 of those are wraiths of some sort, many of which have necrotic resistance and poison immunity. This might be fine for wizards packing disrupt undead or mages with the right specialization to ignore necrotic resistance, but honestly how many of these do you expect to fight? Same goes for Tainted Wounds. Yeah, stripping away healing is all well and good, but there isn't exactly a plethora of monsters with regeneration (or any other healing abilities).

Despite a handful of feats that will invariably be added to the pile of trap options, there are a few really good ones in the mix. I particularly like Spectral Step, which makes you insubstantial whenever you burn an Action Point. It only lasts a turn, but taking only half damage from basically everything can be a big help when you need to move, or setting up readied actions for area-effect attacks. There's also entire categories of feats that we only see by name (except for the Revenant Racial, which already exist). Shadowborn and Winterkin feats will give you thematic abilities associated with the Shadowfell. How well they will compete against other options? We'll see, though many Multiclass feats just don't seem to cut it nowadays.
March 26, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Bedlam Talks Daggerdale

I've played Baldur's Gate, both Neverwinter Nights, and even gave D&D Online a shot, but when it comes to the digital front I can count on one finger the number of Dungeons & Dragons games that have captured my attention long enough for me to complete them. So given this track record, when I heard that a few new games were coming through the pipeline, I didn't my hopes up. Mostly this is because they're centered in Forgotten Realms--a setting that I haven't cared about since before 3rd Edition--and the fact that they're multiplayer, which means among other things, that a monthly fee might be involved.

During a kind of mini-interview, Bedlam revealed some additional information about one of the upcoming games,  Daggerdale. What I already knew is that it's a download-only game that allows you and up to three other buddies tour around dungeons, kill shit, and keep the loot. What I didn't know was that you only get to pick between four pre-gens, a human fighter, elf rogue, halfling wizard, or dwarf cleric, none of which sound particularly interesting. No word on whether you can at least pick gender and customize appearance, which wouldn't surprise me if you couldn't (but would be no less disappointing). Players can jump in and out, and the game adjusts the difficulty based on this, making it similar to Left 4 Dead.

Players will also be able to go through various scenarios with some flexibility, giving the game a minor sandbox element; there's a set of primary adventures that help push along the plot, with a bunch of side-quests for those with the time and inclination. On the surface it has the kind of game play I'm looking for, but D&D games have rarely delivered an interesting, developed plot that maintains my interest for long. Bedlams claim that the game will feature in-depth character development, but I've heard that before. I'm also not thrilled by being able to choose from only four characters...perhaps more will be added as expansions? DDO gave us more flexibility at the start, and that came out years ago.

The game comes out sometime this summer, but I think I'm going to hold off and see how the reviews go.
Posted by David Guyll

Design & Development: Heroes of Shadow

Robert addresses--for the most part--why they didn't go the route of a necromancer class, and the differences between necromancy and nethermancy. When 4th Edition came out there was a distinct lack of spells that could be said to fit the theme of a necromancer, and people waited for the day when WotC would finally get around to releasing a necromancer class--or, more likely, an article featuring a shit-ton of spells for the wizard. Well, they did, kind of, but some people are pissed off because it's being doled out Essentials style. My question is, why?

Don't get me wrong: I'm not a fan of most of the Essentials classes. Not because they are necessarily worse off than the rest, but because they are, well, boring. Slayers and knights basically do what fighters did, only in a more convoluted manner, but they lack the variety of encounter and daily exploits that help distinguish them. Others like the mage and hexblade are perfectly serviceable, as they provide solid, interesting concepts that I like. Even if you don't like any of the Essentials classes, you're forgetting one very important thing: wizards and mages can interchangeably pick up spells from one another. In fact, this holds true for all Essentials classes, and I myself have a cavalier with plenty of paladin prayers.

Aside from people pretending that they're somehow Essentials-exclusive, I also take issue with the irrational reasoning that a few people are using to conclude that WotC is just "afraid" of making new classes, and deliberately misinterpret Robert's writing when he said that they didn't want to restrict powers to a specific class. Before, necromancy was but a school of magic to help categorize spells for game elements that interacted with them. If you wanted to play a necromancer, you were a wizard (specialized or otherwise) that had a list of spells lumped in the necromancy category. You didn't have to, actually; it would be an easy feat to label yourself as such simply by picking up a couple spells that let you conjure and/or animate undead.

What WotC has done is provide a method to cater to everyone. If you like Essentials, you now have two new mage schools that let you play a necromancer (or nethermancer). If you don't you can just play a wizard and use the spells. They don't, as one poster suggested, need to "make a feat" or anything like that. They work perfectly fine, I assure you, even in Character Builder. If you like mages and wizards? Well, then you just have a compelling choice to make when rolling up a character. Now that we've got all the bullshit out of the way, let's take a look at the actual article.

  • Necromancy and nethermancy are divided into magic that let's you create undead, destroy flesh, and drain life, or magnify a creature's fears and manipulate shadows, respectively. In a similar vein, necromancy spells will focus on dealing necrotic damage, while nethermancy will largely inflict psychic damage.
  • Now, a lot of creatures (particularly undead) have necrotic resistance, so one of the new cantrips is disrupt undead, which is an auto-hit at-will that strips away five points of necrotic resistance. Also, it can be used as a minor action, meaning that you reliably use your attacks on undead without too much trouble. While it doesnt' scale, a mage feature will apparently let you simply ignore necrotic resistance later on.
  • One of the new at-wills, rotting doom, deals necrotic damage, and if the target is undead also imposes vulnerable 5 to all damage. To make matters worse, it also prevents them from regaining hit points in any fashion. Holy shit, that is awesome, especially because the latter part is an effect that applies to all creatures.
  • Energy drain is back as a level 29 spell that stuns a target, with an aftereffect that slows, weakens, and imposes a penalty to attacks, defenses, skill checks, and ability checks that stacks on each failed save. If you miss, it instead deals some necrotic damage. Oh, as a built-in effect you gain temp hp equal to your surge value.
  • Summon shadow servant lets you summon a creature (presumably from a range of stat blocks that weren't shown). As with other summons, you have to use your own actions to control it. Unlike other summons, however, it persists even after combat is over (but goes away if you're dropped in combat, dismiss it, or use the spell again).
  • For paragon paths, Robert mentioned that the necromancer option will let you turn dying creatures into bombs, protect allies from dark magic, and conjure up a squad of five skeletons at once. The nethermancer option, on the other hand, will make it hard for enemies to see, crush them with tentacles, and let you utilize your allies senses.
  • Finally, finger of death was also previewed. This level 25 attack deals 10d6 damage, plus 20 extra if the target is bloodied by the attack, and kills them outright if their hp total drops to 20 or less. If you miss, it does half, but the instant-death is an effect so it's all good.
March 23, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Legend & Lore: Stay Classy

This is pretty late, I know, but I found it while rummaging through the Legend & Lore archives, and realized that I never got around to doing a post about it (but I had totally planned on it). The article talks about the prevalence of the class mechanic throughout games--even today--and how they changed in context to the D&D game over time and editions--specifically, how classes became more complex. Now, I never really played 1st Edition, and while I did play Basic, I don't really remember anything about it except for only having five levels, races were their own classes, and there were only three alignments. 2nd and 3rd Edition stand out more, both because they were more recent, but also because I played each a lot more than Basic.

Personally, I like the increased complexity in character generation, because it made it easier to differentiate characters beyond just background and personality. In fact, more options made it more likely that I could apply class features and decisions to the character's background and personality. For example, in 2nd Edition the mechanical decisions you made were basically limited to your weapons and skills. In 3rd Edition the addition of feats and easier usage of skills added layers of mechanical differentiation, but ultimately both iterations of the class were largely limited to making the same old melee attack that just did damage on a hit. Granted, in 3rd Edition you could potentially shake up the damage bonus a bit, but not by much.

4th Edition really shook this up by the inclusion of powers, as well as by how skills were implemented. I can make a fighter that not only uses a two-handed sword, but I can take abilities that make him very much different from how the guy with a one-handed sword and shield operates. Not only does size matter, but type matters, too. In past editions, stabbing a guy with a spear was the same as stabbing with a sword: they both did damage, and that was it. Now, swords can benefit from being agile, spears can push guys around, and hammers can daze targets or knock them on their ass.

Not only that, but new fighter class features help push concepts like fighters that mix it up with their fists or go into a frenzy, or even fight with two weapons without breaking down the class mechanics or requiring lots of rigid optimization to ensure a working character beyond the first few levels. Additionally, since skills operate and scale differently, its much easier to play a fighter who knows his stuff about magic, religion, breaking-and-entering, and more. This kind of flexibility extends to all the classes that existed in older editions, though admittedly not all benefit from as many increased options.

Ultimately, I enjoy the flexibility that has come with the increased complexity.
March 22, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Legend & Lore: What's With all the Polls?

So, Mearls has revealed his grandiose plans behind all the polling: dialogue. Yep, that's right, dialogue. He likens it to "convention dialogue", with the polls allowing you to respond (that, and the D&D Insider email link inviting you to pitch in your two coppers). Apparently, some people thought that they were for market research (despite WotC obviously already having an actual department for that), which doesn't surprise me given how a vocal minority seems to perceive WotC's understanding of the consumer base. Of course, and even smaller percentage are more than happy to take it to the next level.

I find it very odd how a (thankfully) minority of Paizo's fans are not happy--or even content--with their 3rd Edition re-hash Pathfinder that, to varying degress, does what they want. Apparently, that's not good enough. They have to put a spin on any D&D release, purported change, and commentary from the staff as not only a sign that 4th Edition is obviously floundering, but that Paizo is likewise obviously much more successful. They hope that any day now the designers over at Wizards of the Coast will realize the "errors" of their ways and come crawling back...but of course by then it'll be "too late".

"Many people are leaving 4th Edition for Pathfinder (often coupled with WotC making obviously stupid decisions and/or blatantly disregarding the "majority")", "not going with the OGL was a major mistake, and WotC is suffering from it/Paizo is thriving because of it", "4th Edition is dying, and Pathfinder is set to replace it", and so on and so forth. These statements, and many more like them, smack of a combination of desperation, insecurity, and ignorance.

Remember awhile back, when that quarterly report was released that showed both D&D and Pathfinder tied for first place? Some fans of Pathfinder took that to mean that either 4th Edition was dying, Pathfinder was picking up, or both...except those sales reports only took into account what store owners reported, and doesn't include actual sales data (or online sales, including DDI subscriptions). In all actuality, both games are doing well enough that their respective companies still create content to support them (though I doubt Pathfinder is even doing as well as D&D).

Mearls started doing these articles to talk about the history of the game, its future, and to get a handle on what we think about the game, "we" being those that respond to the polls or send feeback email messages. Me? I really can't go to D&D XP or GenCon, so this is the best (only?) way for me to voice my opinion and ask some questions of my own. I'm glad that he took the chance to engage in some kind of discourse, and it's kind of petty that people are trying to twist these columns around. At any rate, it's nice that out of all the people that responded, around two-thirds prefer 4th Edition to the rest. :-P
Posted by David Guyll

DDI: Monster Builder "Update"

I was pretty excited to get a message at work that the "brand new" Monster Builder was launched today. Unfortunately, when I got home and fired up Adventure Tools, I was pretty bummed to see that it not only still has the graphic indicating that it's Beta software, that--aside from perhaps an Import feature--there is nothing about it to differentiate it from the beta software. Naively I hoped it was a mix up, and checked back a few hours later to discover that, no, same old beta-build. Fortunately directly beneath it is a link to download the older, yet oddly more functional Monster Builder, so DMs with a creative itch still have an avenue.

What I don't understand is why it is taking so long for them to simply take an existing software application and transitioning it to another platform. I know why they want to--mitigation of piracy and hopefully integrate it with Virtual Table and other tools--but it's been in a second beta for months. At this point, we have a monster viewer, with limited ability to rename a monster's name and powers, and to adjust its level (again, same as before). In terms of utility, this places it far beneath D&D Compendium, which has the added benefit of being able to view any content. 

Gamma World: Pedal to the Metal

If you think your Gamma World game was lacking in the vehicle department, as well as a slew of rules for operating and modifying them, then you're in luck. Even better, it's free (which is ironic, because this is the kind of content I'd readily pay for). This is really something that should have been in Gamma World from the get-go, given the prevalence of vehicles and their usage in the post-apocalyptic genre. I'd actually like to see a hardcover book for Gamma World that contains all of the origins and rules added in the expansions (feats, skill challenges, etc). For now, I'm glad it's still getting some quality support.

This is a very meaty article: there's stat blocks for six vehicles (including a motorcycle, various trucks, and a helicoptor), nine vehicle modifications, five stunts, and a bunch of rules to help you get where you need to go. What I like most about this article is that it takes what I've largely relegated to a travel abstraction--if the players even have gas--and lets you decide just how relevant you want to make vehicles in your game: how far can it go per gallon of gas, how hard is it to repair, controlling it in combat, etc. There's also plenty of sidebars with optional rules if you want to add more complexity, such as acceleration/deceleration and critical hits against vehicles.

An excellent, must-have article for anyone playing Gamma World. Did I mention it's free?
March 17, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Temple of Yellow Skulls Review

I knew going into this book that it would be picking up where Mark of Nerath left off in terms of overall plot and cast. Not because I finished it (Mark of Nerath), but because I read the preview blurbs for Temple of the Yellow Skulls. I just hoped that if anyone could make me give two shits about the, Don could. While he is usually pretty good in this regard--and I highly recommend The Dragon Below trilogy (as well as the trilogy that follows that)--I felt that this one just wans't up to par. To be fair I really don't fully blame Don for this, because it's not his story with his characters, which is the cause for most of my grievances with the book.

For the most part, the pacing and writing was alright...except for the parts where monsters were referred to directly as brutes and soldiers. That, and at least one part where Hakken tells the other people he's delving with to "save their most powerful attacks for later", like he's telling his fellow players to not blow their encounter and daily attacks. It would be one thing to tell a spellcaster to not use their highest level spells, but to basically tell a rogue and fighter to save their "special moves" for later? I think it would have been better if he'd told them to try not to exhaust themselves too soon, or something like that.

The big problem with the book were the characters. I didn't like anyone in Mark of Nerath, and nothing changed here. On the plus side, the main cast gets cut down to a more manageable 3-5 (depending on where you are in the book). Mostly it's Albanon, Shara, and Uldane, others come and go, and no one sees any development. As before, Albanon is continuously derided by everyone for basically no fucking reason. Anytime he says or does anything, he gets called a moron, or someone suggests that he "actually use his goddamned brain".  Usually its Splendid, though when Kri shows up he happily joins in to keep me guessing why exactly Albanon hangs out with all these assholes.

This book would have been a lot better if the characters had changed, or we got some depth or history out of them. Anything to connect me with them and make me care. Hell, I would have been happy if Splendid had shut the fuck up, or Albanon blasted her with a magic missile. As it stands, we don't know anything about them, and they barely have any identifiable personalities (well...except for Splendid's inability to say anything nice). That being said, I think Don did a fair job with what he was given: I'd give it a 6 out of 10.
Posted by David Guyll

Design & Development: The Abyssal Plague

The Chained God, the Abyss, and an associated plague? Why oh why didn't WotC make this into an adventure path? The idea is perfect for one, and it would have been miles better than The Chaos Scar (which I think has potential, just poorly executed). I don't mind WotC publishing novels, as I think they're great for a different kind of D&D fix. Unfortunately, D&D novels have always been hit or miss--too often the latter--and while I think it's admirable to try and get readers to branch out more, I think a better use of their time would have been to apply this concept to the table top.

I know WotC catches some flak for poor adventure design, which frankly I think they do about a good a job as any other RPG publisher out there. Personally, my problem with adventures is that they're too often isolated from each other, relying on the premise that you can easily cobble them for ideas/place them modularly in your own games. As a DM with not a lot of free time on his hands, that's really not what I'm looking for: I want a complete, level 1-30 experience that is designed under the assumption that I will be using it, largely as written, through it's conclusion.

So, in case anyone at WotC reads this, I for one would like to see an Abyssal Plague adventure path (preferably set in the implied setting).
March 16, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Racial Ability Bonuses

If you're the kind of group that has the kind of DM that needs to have WotC "allow" a rule before it can be utilized, and have yearned for the day when your deva, genasi, goliath, kalashtar, shadar-kai, or warforged could benefit from a floating ability score modifier, then your wait is over. Yeah, there's some flavor content mixed in there, but the real gem here is the table tucked away at the end of page 2. Since the article doesn't require a DDI account to view, I'll just sum it up here:

  • Deva: +2 Wisdom, +2 Intelligence/Charisma
  • Genasi: +2 Intelligence, +2 Strength/Constitution
  • Goliath: +2 Strength, +2 Constitution/Wisdom
  • Kalashtar: +2 Charisma, +2 Intelligence/Wisdom
  • Shadar-kai: +2 Dexterity, +2 Intelligence/Wisdom
  • Warforged: +2 Constitution, +2 Strength/Intelligence
The rest of the races are organized on the table, too, which could be handy if a player is looking to skim for a race that best suits a class (or if you both don't use Essentials or the Character Builder). Unfortunately, no word on bladelings, bullywugs, gnolls, or their ilk. Le sigh.

Edit: Was going to put this in the comments in response to dwarf74, but figure I might as well put it up here. While I don't think that optimal stats is necessary for a concept to work, a few things come to mind that work a lot better with the flexible modifier.

  • Devas: Devas can make excellent Charisma-based paladins and prescient bards, as well as better warlocks and sorcerers. Hrmm...deva infernal-pact warlock?
  • Genasi: Staff or tome wizard immediately springs to mind, as well as shielding swordmages. Unfortunately, having to pick between Strength or Constitution limits their utility in most melee characters.
  • Goliath: A Wisdom bonus means that now they're suited for the rest of the primal-suite, or any divine class they care to apply themselves to. Unfortunately, none of the primal classes except warden use Strength, and the same goes for the divine with the exception of paladin.
  • Kalashtar: In 3rd Edition these guys were ideal for psionic classes, and now that they get an Intelligence bonus they're good to go as psions, especially telepaths. Infernal and fey-pact warlocks also get something out of Intelligence, as to illusionist wizards and one of the bard-types. 
  • Shadar-kai: Hrmm...never really cared for these guys much, but with a Wisdom bonus they make a much better fit for divine classes, especially pursuing avengers.
  • Warforged: Artificer is a no brainer, but they can also better apply themselves as psions (psi-forged), and arcane classes like the shielding swordmage or tome/staff wizards. 

Heroes of Shadow: Vryloka

While this excerpt has a bit of flavor content for all the races that will be featured in Heroes of Shadow, it also showcases the racial features of the vryloka, meaning that we now know what to expect out of both of the new races (assuming revenant doesn't see any radical changes). In short, they're humans infected with vampirism, making them similar in concept to tieflings or shifters.
  • +2 Charisma, +2 to either Strength or Dexterity
  • Speed 7
  • Low-light vision
  • +2 Perception and Stealth
  • Blood Dependency: When bloodied your healing surges heal you for less. Ouch.
  • Human Heritage: You get a racial bonus to pretending to be human.
  • Living Death: You're both alive and dead, and get to pick how an effect applies to you in case it matters.
  • Necrotic Resistance: 5 + 1/2 your level.
  • Vampiric Heritage: You can swap out class utilities for racial ones (two of which are also shown).
  • Lifeblood: Once per encounter when you kill or bloody an enemy, you can shift your speed, gain temporary hit points, or gain an attack bonus for a turn.
The two featured racial daily utilities are unnatural vitality and bloodwolf form. The first triggers if you kill a nonminion enemy, and gives you a bonus against death saves and ongoing damage, as well as allowing you to ignore many of the basic needs of mortals, such as eating, breathing, and sleeping. It lasts until you take an extended rest, which makes it a good thing to do as soon as you are able to. The other one only lasts for an encounter, and lets you change into a shadowy, wolf-like form. In wolf form, you gain darkvision and a hefty skill bonus to Athletics, Perception, and Stealth, and can ignore difficult terrain. On the downside you can't attack, but you can switch back and forth throughout the encounter. I dunno, this seems pretty limited.

It's an interesting race that puts in a minor penalty, which is something that hasn't been seen since the shade (also in this book). I'm curious as to how far WotC will go with this sort of thing. It's not a huge deal, and I don't mind setbacks so long as they don't invalidate a race from going into a class. Like, this makes them only slightly less than ideal for a defender class, though I'd say lifeblood makes up for it. What I'd hate to see are extremes like the halfling from 3rd Edition, which basically made it impossible to be a fighter or barbarian.
Posted by David Guyll

Campaign Concepts: A Sundered World

Something that I kicked around since this morning is a D&D campaign, where during the Dawn War the primordials destroyed the world before they were bound and sealed away. They figured that if they can't have the world, then no one should. The destruction created last masses that drift through the Astral Sea, some still capable of supporting life. The mortal races fought territorial wars for the largest, most bountiful ones, sometimes destroying them in the process (as is the case with Arkhosia and Bael Turath).

In this campaign, the players could sail around the Astral Sea at 1st-level, engaging in politics between merchant guilds and territories, fighting off pirates, and exploring uncharted land masses and/or astral dominions. Due to the fluctuating nature of planar boundaries, the Feywild and Shadowfell could have an increased or reduced influence. There could be entire land masses filled with undead, crippled spirits, or fey kingdoms. Ultimately, I would expect the campaign finale to be where the players reconstruct the shattered world, but can't really think of anything to go in between.
March 13, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Sooner Dead Review

Another very late review, this one for Sooner Dead, Gamma World's novel debut. In short, it was pretty good, though I did find the serious tone out of place when compared to the general feel and play style of the game. This isn't a bad thing mind you, just unexpected. I don't want to spoil the book if I can help it, so don't expect a detail synopsis.

The story revolves around two scouts, Hella and Stampede, as they guide a caravan of scientists and heavily armed and armored soldiers across Oklahoma as they search for something (what that is, both you and the characters aren't privy to until much later). Hella is a human whose body contains nano-machines, allowing her to shape her hands into guns, and later perform other feats (which I won't spoil). Stampede on the other hand is a bisonoid seismic (ie, can create earthquakes by stomping on the ground).

Overall I enjoyed the pacing, with action scenes, exploration, and character interaction mixed together quite well to give you a solid impression of what the world of Gamma Terra can be like. I say can be, because while there are certainly mutant "people", there's a lack of fluctuating mutations and high-tech weaponry. Likewise, aside from the spider-coyote mutant things at the start, there really aren't any mutant monsters, so don't expect yexils, centisteeds, or land sharks.

In terms of character depth, the author did a good job on both characters. I like that Hella isn't a stone-cold survivalist or incapably weak, but instead treads the middle ground. Yeah, she grew up in an apocalyptic world, but she's still a person with emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. Stampede isn't as fleshed out, but still a likable father figure archetype. On a similar note, Hella benefits the most from character growth, which is understandable since she's basically the main character, but I would liked to have seen more.

Unfortunately, there are some grammar and spelling errors, along with some cluttered sentences that could have benefited greatly from some cleanup and mixing up the adjectives now and then, but not nearly as bad as Seal of Karga Kul. Despite these shortcomings, it was still a pretty good read, and I'd recommend it to Gamma World fans with a 7 out of 10.
Posted by David Guyll

Excerpts: Heroes of Shadow, Shadow Classes

Assassin blah blah paladin blah blah, vampire. Finally, we get a peek at their level 1 capabilities.

Vampires are shadow strikers keyed to Dexterity and Charisma, which was what I'd expected. Likewise, it utilizes the Essentials progression model, giving you lot of class features at level 1, but without any choice on the matter, and aside from a Utility Power gained at level 2, seems to dictate basically everything else about you as well. That being said, let's see what a newly created vampire has at her disposal.

While At-Will Powers is listed, none are featured. That sucks. The daily power has the implement keyword, but no mention as to which they will use, or if they can use weapons (or are supposed to). Also, the table of contents mentioned two separate builds, which might mean that you might get abilities not mentioned here (like how warpriests and mages get bonus shit based on their domain or school). It might also function like the knight/slayer, in that there will be two entirely separate sections. We'll have to wait and see.

That being said, here's the featured features.
  • Child of the Night: You're undead, so you don't need to breathe and you don't age, but you do have to sleep. You also have darkvision, resist 5 necrotic, vulnerable 5 radiant, and both take radiant damage and are weakened when in sunlight without some kind of protective covering, like a cloak (which is what I guessed yesterday). So far, so good. I don't mind being immune to sunlight so long as you meet such a simple condition. It would make it very difficult being a vampire otherwise. I know some people are going to be pissed off about this, but just fucking change it so that being in direct sunlight hurts you no matter what.
  • Blood is Life: You can snack on an ally while taking a short rest to regain hit points equal to two of your healing surges. I don't know why it repeats the benefit. Also, if you end a short rest with more healing surges than you're supposed to have, you lose all of the excess ones, but regain all of your hit points. Very nice.
  • Enduring Soul: You gain regeneration equal to your Charisma modifier when bloodied. Wow, especially given that Cha is a secondary stat, it's going to scale pretty damned high at later levels. Kinda makes me not want to play a shifter with this, however.
  • Hidden Might: You gain a scaling damage bonus to all your vampire attacks equal to your Charisma modifier. This is basically their striker bonus, and is on par with a sorcerer, so nothing new here.
  • Vampiric Reflexes: This gives you a small AC boost when you are wearing cloth armor/no armor, and aren't carrying a shield around. Basically keeps you on par with other strikers. I'm guessing they won't start with any armor proficiencies, either. 
  • Blood Drinker: An encounter attack that lets you automatically deal bonus damage on a hit with another attack, and you gain a healing surge. This is basially power strike by another name, with a small bonus. Seeing as it doesn't require you to have grabbed a creature on the previous round, I highly approve.
  • Swarm of Shadows: A daily close blast 3 attack that turns you into a swarm of shadows, deal lots of damage (plus ongoing damage), teleport, and become invisible for a bit. This looks very brutal, especially because it only targets enemies.
And then the excerpt wraps up with something about warlocks and the other classes that we already knew. I'm really liking the vampire, and it provides a foundation for building other monstrous classes. It reminds me of having Savage Species "back in the day", and I'm looking forward to seeing what custom classes others make.
March 11, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

March of the Phantom Brigade, Week 5

Before I get into this week's session at D&D Encounters, I want to apologize if the blog's fluctuating layout is pissing anyone off: Planeswalker (aka Victor) is trying out some new things. If you like what you see, great. If you don't please be patient and post something in the comments. Second, I'm working on a review of Sooner Dead (quick version: it was pretty good) and am currently about a third of the way through Temple of the Yellow Skulls (which is fucking awesome). That being said, I want to remind anyone that cares that I'm going to SakuraCon this year for a five-day spread: if you want me to run something specifically, let me know via comments or email so I can prepare.

With all that out of the way, here's what happened last Tuesday.

I mentioned in my week four report that I somehow overlooked the ending of Chapter 1. For some reason, I thought it was the start of encounter five, and was kicking myself because I was afraid that those players were going to show up next week (this week?) with naught but a recap to catch them up to speed. Thankfully, I got most of my group again (glee), which allowed me to wrap up those perspective-putting scenes. To summarize: the ghost of an adventurer from a long-disbanded (and dead) company shows up wanting to visit his wife, but cannot cross the ritual boundary that Splintershield & Co. created to, well, keep undead out.

Since a sizable warband was just recently clamoring at their proverbial gate, no one was going to entertain the possibility that this was a friendly ghost--especially not after he threatened to kill everyone inside if they didn't send Splintershield out. The players promised that they'd keep the grave safe, which pissed him off, but not nearly as much as when they offered to chuck her remains outside. This exchange didn't last long, with the ghost leaving on the ominous note that while they'd managed to keep him out, that they won't have such as easy time with the Phantom Brigade.

Fast-forward six months, and things have been going pretty well for everyone. No ghost armies, or really ghosts of any sort knocking on their mystical barriers. I asked the party what their characters had been doing since then, and got some typical answers; scout's been scouting, wizard's been helping out Faldyra to try and get into that tower, rogue's been robbing, you know the drill. The guy playing a warpriest made sure to mention that he had kept the grave of Vladistone's wife safe from desecration, going so far as to build a church near the graveyard dedicated to the Raven Queen. I'll need to throw him a boon next week for that.

Things take a turn for the worse when everyone meets at the tavern at the end of the day. One of the hunters talks about how a deer--seemingly rabid--attacked him, and the scout had noticed lots of animal corpses strewn throughout the forest,  covered in strange, crystalline growths. None of them feature any sort of wound, and the only thing that the warpriest and mage could determine was that they were the cause of death, and they seem to be inherently magical in nature (but don't radiate magic). When asked if any of the people in Inverness displayed any such signs, I told them no...and then Splintershield showed up.

He made a beeline straight for them, and brought them to the gate, where they had six bodies lined up, each bearing the strange growths. All but one are dead, and the last one manages to sputter out a few words mentioning other loggers, the river, and drinking the water. After he expires, the party heads out with Splintershield in tow (against everyone's protest). They wander through the woods, heading to the lake where the logging team was supposed to be, and run across five of them. Obviously, they have the growths, and the heroes decide to capture them instead of killing them, stating that all of their attacks will be non-lethal.

Due to their combined successes of Stealth, Nature, and Perception used to find them, I allow a surprise round, which they make good use of by almost taking one down, and severely wounding two others in the process. At this point, I'm glad I didn't reduce the encounter. For the following rounds, the scout tries to make sure he can hit two things at any given time, the thief chucks daggers (combined with tactical trick), and both the warpriest and Splintershield maneuver about clubbing the hell out of whatever's closest. The nifty thing bout the plagued loggers was that when hit with energy, they got resistance against it for the rest of the encounter. Thankfully, the mage had fire, lightning, and cold spells, so it was mostly a manner of mixing things up.

Combat went very quick and smoothly, and they trussed up all the loggers for their return to Inverness, when both Splintershield and the warpriest sensed a foul presence. Whatever was the source of this plague, it was close by. At Splintershield's request, they bundled up the unconscious loggers and headed out to find whatever it was.

The highlights of this week's session were the social-role playing bits. It helps to connect them with the town and some of the major NPCs, and I really like the NPC block format that they used. I don't recall if it was in past seasons, but I hope they continue to use it going forward. It's a simple, effective way to call out personality traits. I'm having a lot more fun with this season, and look forward to running the next one if work, school, and personal life allow.
March 10, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Heroes of Shadow: Excerpt and Table of Contents

Today's Heroes of Shadow excerpt pertains to shadow magic, and all that that entails. I like that it specifically addresses what exactly differentiates it from arcane magic (or really, any other power source). Where arcane magic often requires rigorous study (warlocks are lazy), shadow magic involves using various rituals to exchange part of your soul, or simply embracing the dark side.

Wait, shadow scholarship? Scratch what was said before, as it looks like some still have to study in order to use shadow magic. Also, it involves negative emotions and the "darker aspects of arcane/divine" power. So, more or less the grim-dark of arcana. Since this is how it operated in past editions, I'm not too disappointed, just confused by an almost immediate contradiction.

As an added bonus, the table of contents is also available for download. It's not much, but does give us some more insight into, well, the contents.

Chapter 1 looks to be entirely flavor content, featuring information on shadow magic and the Shadowfell. Since I'm planning a campaign based around Orcus, undead, and the Shadowfell, any information is handy to have.

Chapter 2 will have the executioner, blackguard (paladin), vampire, binder (warlock), and extra options for the cleric (including the death domain for warpriests), warlock (including the gloom pact for hexblades), and of course necromancy and nethermancy schools for mages. The vampire paragon path is called the vampire noble, and since the two bloodlines (beguiler and stalker) are mentioned at the end, I'm guessing the vampire is going to be "Essentials" style. This is fine, as I'd rather have a vampire class with a narrow focus that works, as opposed to a broad implementation that doesn't.

Chapter 3 is has several pages of content each for the revenant, shadw, vryloka, dwarf, eladrin, elf, halfling, and human. Dusk elves is listed, which makes me wonder if its going to be a subrace (like the winterkin eladrin or that other elf article).

Chapter 4 features ten paragon paths (including the shadow dancer), four epic destinies, feats (with only an Adventurer category mentioned), and equipment.

Seal of Karga Kul Review

Maybe reading Mark of Nerath caused my expectations to plummet, but I found Seal of Karga Kul to be only mostly forgettable. Considering the usual quality of D&D novels, this isn't as bad as it might seem. The basic plot of the book is that a character is trying to deliver a box to somewhere, gets attacked by stormclaw scorpions en route, and is saved by a group of adventurers that happen to be passing by. The roster is populated by the usual suspects: a dragonborn paladin, human cleric (I think), elf ranger, halfling rogue, and various random strangers that sign up to replace the characters that get killed along the way.

So, main character one joins up reluctantly with the party, something that crops up way too many times throughout the course of the novel. I can't remember how many times he was like, "I want to leave," and dragonborn replies with something like, "Do you want to?/Then leave", and then he doesn't, only to bring it up again later. To mix things up, he would also frequently consider leaving, before telling himself that there's no way he could (only to again consider it later and reach the same conclusion).

As for the other characters, they felt too one-dimensional for me to care about or remember. I recall Biri-Dar's name, but otherwise could only refer to most of the rest by race and class (there was a cleric, but I'm not sure if he/she was a human or what). As with Mark of Nerath, none of the them seem to talk like actual people. Sometimes the dialogue is choppy, and sometimes they talk like they have to use as many words as possible in a single sentence. The author hints at the history for a few of the characters, but doesn't really touch on it enough to make you care, so when the bodies do start piling up, I thank myself that I'm past the halfway marker.

Descriptions suffer from the same faults as the dialgoue: too much or too little, making most of the book very awkward--often times frustrating--to read, as I had a difficult time figuring out who was who, or what was happening. When I think back, I know that they went into a trade town, had to muck around in the sewers for some reason, went into a jungle, met some halflings, and fought some undead. Out of all of that, the only thing that really stands out is when they went into an inverted castle to get a magical quill (or something). That sounded like an awesome dungeon locale with a stock (yet solid) "end boss", and if I could keep a campaign going long enough I'd probably steal that idea.

I wouldn't say this book is bad, certainly not as bad as Mark of Nerath, but as I said it's definitely forgettable. I'd say it scapes the bare minimum as far as quality goes: you could do worse, but you could do a lot better. I'd give it a 4/10.
March 03, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Dragon: Class Compendium

A lot of people were bummed when they yanked Class Compendium: Heroes of Sword and Spell off of the product catalog, and I'm sure more than a few were skeptical to say the least when WotC stated that they'd release it in the future in some incarnation. Well, the wait is over. This new column purports to "take a fresh look at the versions of the fighter, cleric, rogue, warlord, and wizard". Hopefully, we'll see more of this for other classes (assuming its good, anyway), but since warlord is one of my favorite classes I'm anxious to see what sort of treatment it gets. Hopefully it doesn't get delayed or lost in time and space.
Posted by David Guyll

SakuraCon 2011

I'm attending SakuraCon this year as a panelist for Behind the Screen, Ask a DM, Character Creation, and Overnight D&D. The first two will be a few DMs and me talking about DMing tips and answering questions, while the latter are late-night events that promise to creep into the wee hours of the morning. The adventures will be The Twisted Halls, Reavers of Harkenwold, or At the Mines of Madness for newbies, with some higher-level stuff for veteran players (such as Tomb of Horrors and a goblin-raid scenario that I cooked up). If you've ever wanted to meet me in person, whether to chat or argue, then swing by and roll some dice.
Posted by David Guyll

March of the Phantom Brigade, Week 4

After brawling with a pair of oozes, the heroes returned from their scouting mission and reported the ruins to be currently clear of any threats that their Passive Perceptions could detect. With that technicality out of the way, the caravan pulled up stakes and made its way into the ruins of Castle Inverness. Once inside the civilians began to unload the wagons and setup shelters, when suddenly a ghostly tower appear over the central ring of ruined stones, which rapidly solidified into an actual tower with strangely (more so?) lacked any visible entrance. Splintershield and the other priests sprung into action, beginning a ritual that would consecrate the ruined foundation, and ideally stop anymore ghost buildings from popping up.

Unfortunately there was the more pressing matter of an undead horde, which would have been pounding on their gate if they had one.

The encounter started out simple enough: a trio of zombies and a bunch of decrepit skeletons shambled towards the castle. They had the advantage of higher ground and a choke point. That, and I rolled a 0 for the zombies' initiative. The scout went first, rushing the closest zombie and killing it with a crit (zombie weakness). Burning an action point, he then killed another zombie with a crit. I'm just glad that he nothing else was nearby for him to swat with his off-hand weapon.

Randy was here this time, playing a White Well fey-pact hexblade with lots of radiant attacks, which allowed him to slip into melee and bloody the last zombie with a single hit. Liz's thief managed to reduce it to a single hit point with a well-thrown dagger, but the tiefling mage couldn't polish it off before it got the chance to miss Randy with a grab attack. Luckily, the eight decrepit skeletons were able to surround the scout and Randy to get several hits in. Last but not least, the sentinel wrapped up the round by crushing a skeleton (every kill counts).

On round two, the players took down a few skeletons, but somehow were unable to breach all 13 points of the zombie's AC (even hitting it's whopping 11 Reflex proved to be a Herculean task). Things got even worse when undead clambered out of the ground before anyone else could go. Yeah, they weren't able to act, but surrounded almost everyone so that the ones that could act got combat advantage. Most of the heroes spent their turns taking out a skeleton, but the tiefling turned everything around when she used fountain of flame, an area burst 1 that deals damage and creates a zone that deals automatic damage to any enemy that enters the zone, or starts its turn there.

This not only took out most of the skeletons and immolated the last zombie, but incinerated more undead when they tried to pop up on the next round. With just ten or so skeletons left, they were on the home stretch, so I had some more zombies pop up with the next wave to make the encounter actually challenging, as well as give some of the new guys a XP boost. With everyone but the tiefling packing a full rollout of encounter and daily powers, it was just a matter of time before they won. Really, the worst I did was 20 damage to Randy's character with a max-damage grapple-punch.

One round later, they found themselves victorious. Most of the players lacked any treasure from rolling poorly at other tables on previous weeks, so I threw them a bone in the form of a +1 luck blade. Since NO one but Liz used a blade of any sort, it went to her, and she passed her amulet off to someone else to keep things fair. Despite the heavily stacked odds and XP budget, this was a pretty easy encounter. Next week, its time to check out the ghost tower, which sounds like something about of a Dr. McNinja comic.

Edit: Oh my fucking god, I forgot to wrap up the chapter with the role-playing encounter at the end...well, I'll just have to do that next week. >_>
March 01, 2011
Posted by David Guyll


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