Archive for September 2011

The Heirs of Ruin, Play Report 8

The characters arrived at South Ledopolos and met with the Stoneblood clan to inform them about the fate of Baranus. They buried his bones and held a wake, telling stories and drinking drinks the likes of which could even get a dwarf drunk. Branor asked about any legends concerning the purported city to the west, and got some stock-legend tropes about it once being a great dwarf city that was destroyed during a great war. If nothing else, it reinforced the fact that something was out there. Maximus met with a former war buddy of his, who--after hearing about him being tried with treason, the murdered family, and having to flee Balic--offered him a job cleaning gith out of a cave that he strongly suspected contained silver.

Seeing as they were preparing a trip to the Giant's Rib Mountains, he figured that extra coin couldn't hurt.

The next day after their hangovers were cured they set out for the nearby hills, but quickly got caught in a sandstorm. While waiting it out they saw would could only be described as a massive chunk of ground drift overhead, and though the storm soon ended they were quickly spotted by foraging jhakars. They killed the jhakars and scavenged them for survival days before pressing on. After another hour of climbing--or teleporting in the case of the shardmind--they found a cave entrance sealed by a boulder, with a strange symbol painted on it. Being seasoned grave robbers adventurers, they moved the boulder and soon realized from the smell that it was a tomb containing a trio of gith mummies. 

Though their touch prevented Maximus from healing Branor--who was toe-to-toe with all three of them--they were able to rapidly destroy them, and once they got it down to one Sardis just marked it with her aegis and kept away, making it very difficult to land any additional hits. Later I realized that I had intended them for a party of three, and with five people I really should have added a fourth. Oh well, easy 750 XP for them. My main regret is that no one contracted mummy rot.
September 29, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Living Spell Six-Pack

For those of you with a DDI subscription that also want more monsters--specifically living spells--I have uploaded six heroic-tier threats here:

  • Living magic missile
  • Living magic missile mote
  • Living magic missile salvo 
  • Living storm pillar
  • Living acid mire
  • Living fireball

A Matter of Perception

Cook's Legend & Lore debut involves him essentially recreating the Passive Perception wheel, ie the system we have now, except that instead of using Passive Perception as-is with numerical DCs he proposes a rank system (novice, journeyman, expert, etc). That is it, and it just feels like he is arguing semantics. The fact that the rules for Passive Perception have existed for years, including in part in 3rd Edition's take 10 rule, has lead some to believe that perhaps Cook was trying to make a (bad) joke.

Currently if a character's Passive Perception meets or beats the DC to find something, then they notice it. Easy. Otherwise they can declare that they are searching a room and make an actual roll, giving them the chance to find something that a cursory examination missed. You can adjust DCs up and down to account for player actions and methods, or even for having other trained skills (for example, you might consider giving a character a bonus on Perception checks to find hidden doors if they are also trained in Dungeoneering).

Cook's system gives things a rank, which is used to determine if characters automatically succeed, have to make a roll, or just cannot succeed. The difference between the trained and untrained characters is that a rank that you cannot succeed at can be rolled against, and one that requires rolling is an auto-pass. Additionally players can describe their actions and methods, potentially reducing the rank, which can give a character that otherwise could not roll a roll, or a character rolling an auto-pass.

It sounds very similar, but there are some issues that crop up on further examination.

One issue is a lack of granularity. Currently Cook cites only five labels, while DCs can be any number you like. This allows you much better control over fine-tuning a DC, as well as the modifiers that items and circumstances provide, as opposed to simply saying that you pass, can roll, or are fucked. It also vastly increases the opportunities characters have at succeeding at tasks, even if the odds are stacked against them, without having to resort to "Zorking" or pixel-bitching.

I do not want my players to have to result to zorking just because they lack a sufficient rank to make a roll to try and succeed at something. Cook uses a statue as an example of this method, describing a situation where  a player can ask if the teeth can be moved in order to "make the impossible possible", and honestly the only difference I see between allowing a roll by default and requiring them to ask me 20 questions in order to get a roll is wasted time.

Cook claims that this method will avoid the purported issue of players assuming that a low roll--or the DM rolling in general--means that they must have overlooked something and trying to rationalize another roll or continuing to muck about anyway, but I do not think it will change anything; if the DM simply tells them that they do not find anything, it could be that it was an auto-pass or auto-fail, and if they have to roll they could still jump to the same conclusions.

I do not need to have labels. If I want--or need--the players to succeed, then I can just make the DC really low, or better yet, not require a roll at all. Sometimes I even allow characters to automatically succeed on some skill checks if they are trained in the skill (something I saw in an adventure that I cannot remember). If I for some reason want to peg it at an area where only some characters can auto-succeed, I can make it so that the DC can be passed on a low number, even a 1. I think that really the only thing I can not do (or at least not easily/reliably do) is generate a DC that untrained characters just cannot pass, while trained characters can still roll; there almost always seems to be a slim chance that even untrained characters can succeed.

Cook's proposed "changes" to the skill system seems to hinder more than it helps, and again I think it is important to note that you can easily do what Cook is "suggesting" using the current system without giving it an overhaul: just give out bonuses to the character if they suggest something clever, which is something that DMs honestly should have already been doing.
September 28, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

The Heirs of Ruin: Broken Bonds Adventure

The compiled and organized notes for the first adventure from my home campaign, The Heirs of Ruin, can be found here.

The belgoi commands it.
September 25, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Temple of the Weeping Goddess Review

Temple of the Weeping Goddess is a short, 0-level adventure intended to give you both an example and opportunity to use the 0-level character optional rules from this month's Unearthed Arcana article. The characters play orphaned teenagers that are sent into the Elemental Chaos to free a trapped aspect of Avandra.

Yes, that is right, kids are being send into the Elemental Chaos. At first I was both surprised and excited to see that most of this adventure takes place in the traditional extraplanar paragon-to-epic tier stomping ground, not only in the heroic tier, but without a level (or class) to your name, but both feelings quickly faded as I continued to read the adventure.


Basically, the adventure opens up with the characters stealing some loot from actual adventurers off camera, utilizing a skill challenge to ideally escape without getting the hit points beat out of you (keeping the treasure even if you do). Once that gets wrapped up everyone heads back to the orphanage, where your caretaker does a big reveal in which he explains the true purpose of founding the orphanage in the first place; round up a bunch of kids to toss into the Elemental Chaos to do a job for him because he is "too physically weak". In the very likely instance that the players ask why the hell wouldn't he hire people with encounter and/or daily powers, he dismisses this with the idea that kids might have a better chance of talking to Avandra's aspect. the hook is pretty damned weak but hey, Elemental Chaos bitches, let's do this!

Weeell...the temple is a partially collapsed structure on a perfectly serviceable chunk of earth. So...the caretaker cannot travel here on his own because he is too old, despite the fact that it is all level terrain? If he can get up stairs, then he can walk around whatever puddles or collapsed statues that amount to difficult terrain, here. The lack of an Elemental Chaos feel could be covered up by the use of native fauna, but the only monsters to be found here are goblin pirates that got sucked into a vortex and survived, a handful of elementals, and some undead that are for some reason hanging out with Avandra's aspect. Basically a 1st-level, stock-standard bestiary that can be found in most adventures (and a mid-level cleric could potentially solo given a few days).

Really, this entire thing could take place in the natural world and you would not have to change much except for how the characters get there. Hell, drop it on an earthmote in Forgotten Realms and see if anyone notices. The actual dungeon has a lot of little things for the characters to find that can help them out later, such as an alternative exit when they have to flee, and inscriptions that give them bonuses when dealing with the aspect. I also liked that the NPCs had their own sections for their goals, motivations, fears, weaknesses, and more. These will go a long way to giving DMs a solid foundation for how to work with the NPC.

This adventure reminds me of Keep on the Shadowfell in that while you could run it as written, it both lacks the feel that I was expecting and there is just enough there to make it work if you are willing to put in the time and effort to re-work almost all of it.

For example, why not have the characters figure out that Denek is seeking the goddess themselves? Instead of running from a bunch of adventurers that they somehow conned out of a lot of money (yet do not retrieve it if they get caught), have them discover a secret room or underground archive and stumble upon the ritual necessary to open the portal to the Elemental Chaos themselves. There could have been some extensive social roleplaying going on here, and the players could have taken their own initiative to help out someone who for years had been like a father to them. Hell, have him go into the portal and have the rest of the characters follow him to see what he is up to.

I understand that there could be a time crunch on this whole thing, but he could still have divulged his desires to a character trained in Arcana or Religion under the assumption that such a skill character (or characters) could help him out from time to time. If none of that panned out, then I guess you could still stick with the original hook of an orphan caretaker looking for "exceptional people" to send into the Elemental-fucking-Chaos for a stroll. Even if you have to stick with the original hook, that still does not excuse...


Why did it have to be goblins? If I sent my players to the Elemental Chaos or Astral Sea and threw goblins, orcs, gnolls, hobgoblins, or really anything short of elementals, angels, or demons they would paddle my ass with all of my Monster Manuals while forcing me to walk on four-siders. It would be like the nerdiest pledge initiation in history. The author could have de-leveled some elementals or demons and thrown those at the zeroes, but since these are supposed to be teenagers it is not like you would have to have them fight and kill a threat in one encounter; it could be a recurring thing like Nemesis from Resident Evil or handled with an ongoing skill challenge. Of course sticking to critters that you would expect to find in the Elemental Chaos is a good start, but having everything take place on level terrain seems like half-assing it. This is why...

The "dungeon" should not be a two-story temple on a level island that has weathered the Elemental Chaos for decades. 

When I think of a ruined template drifting through the Elemental Chaos, I think of a weathered chunk of rock with a shattered ruin that barely perches on it. Chunks of the building and debris orbit around the whole thing, and perhaps a geyser of flame constantly shoots a spiral of slowly flowing lava out into the plane (could be a terrain feature during a fight, could be just for looks). Rocks could collide with the temple during an encounter or during a skill challenge, or be part of the terrain during a fight (like mobile, floating platforms). It is the Elemental Chaos; fuck physics and go wild with the scenery. At this level it should be the dungeon equivalent of being able to witnessing a supernova, except that you get to explore it.

And when the players finally got to Avandra? Instead of undead, why not have a bunch of angels guarding her, weakened from years of being disconnected from the Astral Sea (explaining their level 1-ness)? There could also be a demon in the mix somewhere, perhaps trying to destroy Avandra's aspect or trapped, and something the characters do frees it or allows it to get to her (and they get a chance to help defeat it).

The adventure I was hoping for is nowhere close to the one I got, and the one I got both feels like that the Elemental Chaos was tacked on for an entirely unnecessary reason (ie, because), and does almost nothing to showcase it. I really cannot recommend this adventure except as a training exercise to give the 0-level character rules a routine try.
September 24, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Adventure Tools Lets You Build Monsters Now

It looks and builds like Character Builder, but for monsters. To give you a thorough look, I'll go mostly step by step through the process of updating a monster.

You start out by picking the role and whether the monster is a standard, elite, solo, or minion. A radio button at the bottom lets you toggle the leader sub-role.

Then you can name your monster and determine its level, origin, type, and race and keywords (if any). In this case, our raggamoffyn is a Small natural animate with the blind and construct keywords.

The default values for hit points and defenses are already filled in, but you can fine-tune them as before. When entering new movement types, you can select the drop down menu to adjust the speed and add details like "(hover)" to fly or a range on different senses.

When choosing powers attacks automatically got set as Standard actions, while utilities seem to get set to Minor. I have already created slam as a basic melee, but let us take a closer look at the menus.

This is what the power editor normally looks like. If you want to add in details like range and targets, you have to choose Power Body on the left-hand side...

Which looks like this. This is kind of annoying that I have to go to another section to add what are often routine details, but whatever.

Skills is fairly spartan and straightforward. I have added Stealth, making it more likely that the raggamoffyn will get the jump on characters.

Finally we wrap things up with ability scores, alignment, languages, and gear.

And voila, we have a new monster ready to challenge (or embarrass) your players.
September 23, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Unearthed Arcana: A Hero's First Steps

One complaint false claim levied at 4th Edition "back in the day" was that you could not start out as, say, "a farmer that picked up a sword to fight orcs". Mind you nothing stopped you from stating that this was in your character's history, and in 3rd Edition this could only be done if you used a NPC class (though I do recall optional rules for 0-level characters Unearthed Arcana). Anyway for those of you itching to play a stripped down character while at the same time waiting for validation, well...WotC will meet you half way with an Unearthed Arcana article.

Like normal characters you start out with a character background, and aside from choosing a race in step 3 you do not get a whole lot; you get one at-will and skill based on a power source, you choose from two sets of ability scores instead of point buy, the only feats you get have to come from your race, and you get a smattering of gear with the option of picking one extra thing that costs 5 gp or less. Since you do not get a class, each at-will has a role kicker that you can activate by spending an "experience token", which you get after completing an encounter, making them similar to power points if you could stack them up between encounters.

This is an interesting set of optional rules that some people looking to try out characters that are less powerful than the norm, though "officially" they level up after a single adventure. It could be particularly fun for new players or groups that want to try and play out the pre-game events. If you are not sure, there is also an adventure centered on using these rules.

The Heirs of Ruin, Play Report 7

After burying the dead, the caravan continued on its way to South Ledopolos. Rather than "Indiana Jones" the trip, I asked them what their characters would be doing for the day. Beth (aka Maximus) decided to strike up some conversation with the caravan leader, a man named Canth. I played Canth as a similar personality to Maximus; serious and disciplined from living a life of danger running trade goods between cities. She learned some rumors about the Giant's Rib Mountains, as well as the giants from the Silt Sea.

John (aka Branor) did something a bit different, asking if there were any dwarves on the team. I figured, they are going to South Ledopolos, so hell yes. He then asked if they knew his character, to which I decided to give him a chance to improvise, asking, "Do they?" He figured that seeing as his character is a prince of his clan that they should, and I rolled with it, having them be somewhat nervous and offering him some of the "good stuff" that they were packing with them. While he did not learn anything, he got to play his character's social side a bit.

Randy's character is trying to figure out magic as part of her background and goals, so when he asked if she nabbed some of the dray's notes I had him make an Intelligence check because Randy never said he did and I did not think to ask. With a nat 20, I told him that she grabbed a lot of stuff and that she could study it along the way. I had him make a few Arcana checks, and the results indicated that she had determined that the dray was using ritual magic to bind ghosts in order to question them (which Baranus mentioned back in the sewers). Now, I tried to have a nosy half-elf woman badger Sardis about what she was reading, but she rebuffed her, because, well Sardis is not the most social person (or at all).

Just goes to show you that not every NPC is going to get the screen time you had hoped. Maybe I will try a more aggressive approach next time?

Speaking of aggression, Liz really did not have any ideas about what she would be doing, so a botched Insight roll revealed that a small group of men seemed to be ogling her. This made her understandably uncomfortable, so she stuck around Maximus, "just in case". 

With that bit of socialization out of the way a sandstorm picked up, locking them in place for several hours. They made some skill checks to help round up the animals and erect some hasty shelters, so after it blew over everyone was safe and everything was accounted for. With another hour of digging everything out they were able to cover some more ground before they had to make camp for the night. With the possible threat of some of the caravan members going after Jiga, they kept close to each other and decided to keep their own watch. Fortunately, nothing assaulted them except for an adult silk wyrm with a bunch of young in tow.

The young were really just there behind the scenes in order to occupy the rest of the caravan guards and Canth, giving the characters a chance to show how badass they were and level up because I wanted them at 3rd level before they got into South Ledopolos. Plus, I wanted them to actually finish it off given that they got to see one at action in the first session. Once they killed it the surviving young fled, giving the caravan a hefty boost to the food department. Since they killed it so fast none of the guards died (I rolled a save each round), making Canth very pleased (and affecting the bonus he would give them at the end of the trip).

The next day, Liz (aka Jiga) actually asked if the men that were staring at her yesterday were around--probably hoping that they had died--but found out that they had left sometime during the night and were nowhere to be found. Did they get eaten or desert? Eh, time and drama will tell.

The third day they ran into another hitch in the form of a gith raider ambush; they came out of the mountains, raining javelins because the only stat block I had on hand was for the level 4 artillery ones. Had I brought my laptop I would have had access to other stat blocks, or...shit, I should have remembered the pdf on my tablet. Oh well, I will remember next time if I forget to format all the stat blocks. Anyway, the battle was over pretty quickly despite immobilizing javelins. A lot of the guards were wounded, and some were kidnapped by the surviving raiders, so if they act quickly they might be able to save them.

We'll see what happens next week.
September 22, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Legend & Lore: DM Rules & Exciting News

While I agree with the bullet list on the first half of the article, the part that really caught my eye was the bit where Mearls not only passes the column off to Monte Cook, but also states that he has been brought onto R&D. While I am familiar with Arcana Unearthed, I had a much greater exposure to Planescape, which I was not even aware he was part of (hey, it has been awhile since I checked the books). Really the part where I both stopped caring and was glad to see him go, was when he openly stated that he deliberately designed "trap" options in 3rd Edition to promote system mastery.

Thankfully someone found a new article where he admits that that way of thinking was not good, and I guess since then he has moved past "ivory tower" design (his words), so hopefully this means that he will not--or will not be able to--drag the game back into the past. At this point I am about where I was back when 4th Edition was announced; I hope that the game will be fun, but am unsure without seeing what Wizards of the Coast's plan on the whole is for the game, as well as how much clout Monte carries to the table. It could be possible that even if he wants to go back to an edition with save-or-die effects and where spellcasters are pointlessly overpowered, that he will be "vetoed" by the majority rule.

I guess that despite the sinking feeling of uncertainty I am glad that there are still some book releases left to go with an already extensive library: if 4th Edition moves in a direction that I do not like or if 5th Edition comes out and it sucks, then I will still have decades of comfortable gaming ahead of me. Of course, maybe his ideas coupled with more modernized game design will yield positive results? I wish that Mearls would come out and clarify some nagging details and/or be more transparent, but until then this is yet another "wait and see" instance.
September 21, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Rule-of-Three: Pixies

In addition to Totem Expertise and Two-Handed Weapon Expertise, the other content tidbit from Heroes of the Feywild is that pixies will have a flying cap of 1 square. Reactions and interpretations are varied, with some stating that WotC should have waited for a better solution, and others expecting as such. Others are confused by what a height limitation of 1 square actually means, despite Rules Compendium explicitly stating that it means they can fly one square above the heads of Medium critters. As for myself, I was trying to make a pixie race for Liz because she played on in 3rd Edition, and am actually surprised that one of her balance pitches was exactly this (another was to impose an attack or defense penalty while hovering).

While I am reserving judgement until I actually see and use the final product, I think that being limited to one square off the ground is a pretty good deal; you get to ignore difficult terrain, hazardous terrain, and traps and hazards that trigger on the ground, but basically anything can still go after you in melee. Despite the aerial limitation, they can still fly well above the 1 square-ceiling, they just have to find a safe landing place before their turn ends to avoid falling. While this can make it handy to get to some hard to reach places, I cannot think of many situations where any other character could not do the same thing given another round or two, and a sufficiently high Athletics check. Now there might be more to it then just this, we will just have to wait and see.
September 19, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

D&D Skirmish Playtest

In case you were not aware of it, not only is Wizards of the Coast going to start producing minis again, but they also opened up a public playtest for a new minis skirmish game (well, public insofar as you need to have a D&D account and join the D&D Playtest group).

In case you did not play the original skirmish game, it somewhat followed Warhammer rules: you set a points value for warbands, bought creatures as close to the points cap as you could, and then had at it using a rule-lite version of D&D combat. I vaguely recall there being a limit on creatures, whether it was a maximum points value, number or something, but that was a long time ago. Despite normally playing it purely out of boredom, I did find it interesting because I could create themed parties of simplified monsters. My main complaints from things I can actually remember was that many cheap creatures ended up being completely useless, unable to hit things higher than their level--and doing dick even if they could--and/or dying as a side effect from a higher level creature doing something only tangentially related to fighting.

Hit points, a stick, and nudity are no match for Swallow Whole.
While the game follows the same concept of two opposing factions fighting each other, it mixes things up with a gold vault and action card deck. The gold vault allows you to reinforce your faction at the end of your turn, allowing you to deploy creatures of a higher level than 3, while at the same time giving you a chance to react to threats and situations. While some creatures have abilities built into their own cards, the action deck provides you with a bunch of attacks and abilities that can be used by a variety of creatures, which can give you an expected edge and make your creatures more flexible. Using an action card requires a specific ability score and level, though creatures can assist each other, combining their level to meet the requirement. To me both of these additions make the game more dynamic and exciting.

Kind of like Magic: The Gathering, but you keep your arms and legs.
Currently there are only two decks, drow and hero. The drow deck emphasizes well, drow and spiders, though there is also an umber hulk and shadow mastiff for variety. The hero deck is much more racially diverse, including humans, elves, halflings, dwarves, a half-orc, a gold dragon, and even an earth elemental.

Though the drow are pretty diverse even without the spiders.
So far the game has gone through a few rules revisions to specify which creatures are Large, as well as to add terrain features such as difficult terrain, damaging terrain, and treasure spaces. I am curious if Wizards of the Coast plans to make an official version of the game to go with their new minis line. It would make sense given from what I have heard they are going to print thematic sets. Mostly I would like to get actual cards so I can avoid hitting up Kinkos to get them printed on card stock so that they are more durable.
September 18, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Homebrew: Wererat Piper

I posted a poll a few weeks back asking which faction out of Neverwinter Campaign Setting that people would be interested in tackling first. The winner was New Neverwinter, so am writing up a 1-10 adventure dealing with who will end up ultimately ruling Neverwinter. When it comes to adventure writing I like to make lots of homebrew content to go along with it (especially if it means that I do not have to deal with level ranges). It is still in the works, but here is a homebrew monster I created for it:

September 17, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Rule-of-Three 09/12/2011

I might have already said this, but I appreciate Mearls entrenching himself into the festering cesspool where the worst of the vocal minority lair, readying piles of vitriolic feces to hurl whenever he dares to open his mouth. Surprisingly this week's thread is pretty tame, but which I mean to say that there is roughly an even mix of actual conversation and thoughtful consideration mixed with the hate, sarcasm, and logical fallacies.

Anyway, here is my thoughts for this week:

Why were craft skills removed from D&D in 4th edition?
Around four years ago WotC released two preview books--Races & Classes and World & Monsters--where they mentioned that craft skills were getting cut. This caused some to complain that WotC was either getting rid of their definition of role-playing, and/or that they used them "all the time". I remember even one of the writers at Paizo claiming that he was writing an adventure where the Profession (butcher) skill could be used to discover a clue, making it the only 3rd Edition adventure that I can recall where a Craft/Profession skill had a direct impact despite the fact that you could not use Profession skills untrained and had to buy each skill individually.

The one time I used a Craft skill--when I was not making a weekly check to gain gold due to an abnormal duration of downtime--was when we were constructing a raft to try and make it easier to wade into a swamp. We all, took 10, stacked a bunch of Aid Another bonuses, and waited for the DM to declare the arbitrary length of time it would take to build it and get on with something actually interesting. Using Craft was never really "dangerous" when you could take 10 to auto-succeed at a task. If you had to roll then your only risk was potentially losing out on some cash and/or materials.

While I think it is thoughtful of Mearls to admit that maybe they could have added in a sidebar recommending you to add in a pre-adventuring job if you wanted to, it is kind of sad that players needed permission in the first place, especially those that claimed to play in older editions where such skills did not even exist (not that my character couldn't have a work history involving work in 3rd Edition despite not burning skill points on Profession skills).

Many players have a problem with the idea of a feat tax—feats like the expertise feats that address a deficit that all characters have. Are you looking at ways to fix issues without adding more feat tax or ways of fixing the feat tax issue in general?

"Many" in this case probably translates into "more than a few". One poster stated something that I think is true; a minority of the gaming community is even aware of a "math error" when it comes to character attack bonuses and monster defenses. Of that group, only a minority give two shits. Case in point I know that people online bitch about math issues and feat taxes, but few players in my group (or at Encounters) ever pick up either Expertise feats or defense boosters, and things progress just fine.

It is because of this I actually like Mearls's response: if you do not like it, then houserule in a bonus to attack rolls and defenses (or reduce the attack rolls and defenses of the monsters if you do not want to do that). I mean if there is actual communication going on with your group, then this should honestly not even be an issue, though I expect more than a handful will continue to make it an issue.

Combat can take a long time. The new monster math has helped speed things up, but are you working on anything else to encourage speedy combat while keeping it fun? Do you have any tips for keeping combat moving swiftly?

Whether a combat challenge takes a long time is going to vary from encounter to encounter and from group to group, so I was not expecting a "hard" solution. Even still the tips are definitely good things to know, especially for newer DMs. I recall a fight from an actual adventure that involved a bunch of grells with a dazing aura. I could see this being an issue in a "normal" party, but with a group of three and only one striker? Drag city. In my games I am only too happy to just end a fight if it is blatantly one-sided, or to have intelligent creatures surrender and/or run away, I just wish some of my players would remember that Intimidate can be handy to force it.
September 12, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Madness at Gardmore Abbey Review

It has been a long time since Wizards of the Coast actually published a dead-tree adventure (the last one that I could find came out just over a year ago, Marauders of the Dune Sea). Unlike past adventures, Madness at Gardmore Abbey comes in a box. A box that is kind of a pain in the ass to open, and contains four paper-back books similar to what we saw in the original line of adventures, a sheet of monster tokens and dungeon tiles, two double-sided poster maps, and an actual deck of many things that you did not have to print out from a Dragon article or proxy with a normal, non-magical/sentient deck of cards.

If you have been keeping up with the previews then you already know that the plot concerns some madness happening at Gardmore Abbey.

That place. You can't see it, but there's madness going on.
The other spoiler free revelation is that the whole mess was caused by misuse use of the deck of many things--with good intentions, of course--which caused undead to attack and gave a bunch of orcs the opportunity to take over. The cards ended up getting scattered, and the adventure begins with the party possessing one of them and presumably seeking the rest. I do not want to go into spoiler territory (well, too far at least), and will instead try to talk about things I liked from a cursory reading without revealing too many specifics.

Flexible Duration
If you ever ran Expedition to Castle Ravenloft in 3rd Edition, then you probably recall how the adventure's duration depending on how quickly you wanted the group to face off against Strahd: it could last you a few months, or you could wrap it up in one night (skipping most of the content, however). The same thing goes here. If you just want to speed through the adventure, you can do just that, though there are quite a few optional side quests to keep the players occupied if you are running this as a continuation of an existing campaign, and/or intend to keep going once you are done with it.

Flexible Encounters
I recall Wizards of the Coast stating in one of the previews that the adventure would contain encounters that could have explicit methods to resolve them without resorting to attack rolls, and they did not disappoint: there are encounters that the players can talk their way by, sneak past, and even one where the characters can simply trade character background information for hints. Some meet you halfway, giving you both social and sword interaction.

OKAY SPOILER! (highlight to read) 
There is an ettin early on that is supposed to guard a door. At the start of the encounter the DM rolls to see which one--or both--heads are awake. It prompts for the answer to a riddle, but if only one head is awake it instead is willing to make a deal for something that varies by head. If they cannot answer the riddle and do not want to make a bargain, they can instead just attack it to get it over with.

The cards can manifest in the encounters, providing at-will and encounter powers that both the good and bad guys can use. There are also sections on what happens if the players kill certain monsters, which can create a power void or just upset the overall balance between different factions. This helps reinforce a living dungeon that is more than just a series of disconnected encounters of monsters waiting to be killed.

Flexible Story
Also like Expedition, a couple parts of the adventure are randomly determined by a draw of the cards. The randomization is not as pervasive (and a fortune teller does not provide you with hints), and mostly serves to identify the hidden villain and a few story elements. The ending is also open, allowing the characters to ultimately decide what to do with the deck if they manage to reconstruct it. Also, if you have your own campaign it would be a simple process of simply dropping a ruined abbey somewhere around a village or town.

There is a nice mix of encounter types that will cater to a variety of players, especially those that purport to like an "even mix". Despite a focused goal of finding a super-powered artifact, there are plenty of NPCs that the characters might have interacted with before (well, if you ran Keep on the Shadowfell at least) that have their own agendas. This is the first printed adventure from WotC since Orcs of Stonefang Pass that I would like to run without having to modify it extensively., and I am hoping this is due to WotC hitting their stride as opposed to a George Lucas-ian random fluke.

As numerical ratings go I would probably go with an 8 out of 10, but my general opinion is to just pick it up, especially if your group is approaching the appropriate level range (6-10) and/or you don't have any definitive
plans for their immediate future.

Product Images

I for some reason just forgot to interject these in with the actual review.

The cards are basically of decent card-stuff, with printed images that you would expect on an authentic fantasy card deck. Think of the Three Dragon Ante decks and you have the right of it.

Top 10 Items From Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium

In my review I did not go into any detail on more than one or two items, so here is a list of items that made me go, "Damn, that is awesome and I would so want that if I ever got a chance to play." I tried to avoid picking just rare/high-level stuff, but for obvious reasons they tended to have a high wow factor.

Frost Brand Weapon (level 8+ rare)
It works on any melee weapon, deals d8's on crits, and gives you fire resistance of at least 5 (scales by bonus). It has a close-blast encounter attack that deals damage and immobilizes--making it good for defenders and melee strikers--but also has a minor-action encounter that extinguishes fires in a massive burst and allows allies to make saves against ongoing fire damage. The downside is that it always deals cold damage, one of the more common resistances in the game.

Cloak of the Phoenix (level 20+ uncommon)
This is a neck item with a daily power that triggers after you are dropped; enemies within a 3 square radius take automatic fire damage, all effects on you end, and you gain hit points equal to a surge. The downside is that you lose the rest of your surges. Higher level versions restore half your hit points or all of them.

Wand of Fire (level 15+ rare)
Another one of my favorite character archetypes is a tiefling pyromancer/wizard that emphasizes fire magic. The wand of fire lets you maximize your damage dice on a fire attack once per day, and once per encounter you can both exempt all allies from the area effect of a fire attack and cause one adjacent object to catch fire.

Diamond Cincture (level 10 uncommon)
Depending on the item's level it comes with 1-3 diamonds, with an identical bonus to Fortitude. As a minor action you can spend a healing surge, causing one of the diamonds to crack and darken, which also reduces the bonus to Fortitude by one (they come back after an extended rest, though). I like this because it can basically give anyone wearing the equivalent of a dwarf's healing surge usage, and it not only takes up the waist slot (the most useless of slots, to me) but it also gives you an item bonus to Fortitude. I cannot see any defender not wanting this.

Ring of X-Ray Vision (level 25 rare)
This blast from the past gives you a bonus to Perception, prevents adjacent creatures from having concealment, and lets you see through objects; 20 feet of cloth, wood, or similar vegetable matter, 10 feet of stone, or 1 foot of metal (except for lead, gold, and platinum). You can sustain the power, but it suppresses the Perception/concealment property, unless you hit a milestone already. It is not such a big deal, because the power is an encounter one.

Guardian's Whistle (level 4 uncommon)
This low-level wondrous item lets you teleport an ally within 10 squares to any square adjacent to you. Though it can only be used once per day, this would be great for getting an ally into or out of trouble as the situation warrants.

Ebon Armor (level 3+ uncommon)
This grim-dark armor gives you necrotic resistance, but also allows you to gain temporary hit points when an enemy next to you dies. The best part? Those are both properties.

Robe of Useful Items (level 2+ common)
This magic armor can produce a generic, non-magical item of up to 10 gp in value. The power is cited as a daily, but after an hour the item vanishes and you regain the use of it. In the hands of a typical player, this basically removes the need for light sources and having to carry lots of supplies (for example, you can just conjure a rope). In the hands of a creative player? Well, then it could really shine. My only gripe is that higher level versions do not let you conjure more items.

Life-Draining Gauntlets (level 6+ rare)
I am a huge fan of necromancy, and these gauntlets provide a scaling bonus to necrotic damage and let you gain temporary hit points once per day after hitting a creature with a necrotic attack. Simple, but effective.

Potion of Cure Light Wounds (level 1 uncommon)
Formerly an adventuring staple in 3rd Edition, these finally make their appearance, giving you back 1d8 + 1 hit points at the cost of a surge. While not nearly as good as potions of healing, they are cheap at 20 gp a pop. Another good thing is that they work even if you do not have any healing surges left, but only when you are bloodied.
September 10, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Gond's Way: Artificers of the Realms

Outside of Arcane Power I cannot remember the last time artificers saw some decent support. At this point despite my fondness for Neverwinter I would still not say that I am an overall fan, but almost all of the flavor content can serve as a foundation for other campaigns despite all the Realm's references; for example instead of Gond you could substitute Moradin or Ioun, and the Lantan Scholar background can just be renamed to whatever lost civilization you want. I do like the idea of tying the artificer to a divine organization, if for no other reason than I have been playing Space Marine and it makes me think of techpriests.

There is also seven spells and two feats for the crunch fans:

  • Ice Shard Traps (level 1 encounter): You create two invisible traps on the ground that deal cold damage and both cold vulnerability and combat advantage for a turn after an enemy steps on one. The downside is that they only last for a turn, so they would work best for groups that have forced movement (or you could combo it up with thundering armor or unbalancing force). Depending on your DM, you could use these with as part of a surprise attack against patrolling monsters.
  • Shadowy Figurine (level 2 daily): You create a sustainable figurine that grants partial concealment and a Stealth bonus to nearby allies. 
  • Smokepowder Detonation (level 5): A ranged attack that deals fire damage and ongoing fire damage. As an effect, an ally can make a basic attack (with an attack bonus from your Con or Wis if the initial attack hit).
  • Arc Infusion (level 7): Lightning damage, grants an ally a save with a bonus from your Wisdom, and deals more damage plus a daze if the ally's save actually worked.
  • Siphon Fate (level 17): Targets one or two creatures, deals psychic damage and imposes an attack and defense penalty (save ends). As an effect, an ally gains a bonus to attack and defense bonuses based on the number of targets you hit.
  • Synchronized Weaponry (level 25): A sustainable effect that allows you and an ally to attack a monster after the other has hit it as an immediate reaction, but both attacks need the weapon keyword.
  • Coiled Spring Traps (level 27): Similar to ice shard traps, this gives you three, and they deal force damage, slide and prone, and impose a penalty to AC and Fort based on your Con or Wis for a turn.
  • Arcane Trapsmith: Gotta be trained in Thievery, but it lets an artificer use her Intelligence mod to disable traps and open locks. Even better, you gain an Arcana bonus when dealing with traps or hazards.
  • Hammer of Gond: You have to worship Gond (but any good DM will handwaive this), and it lets you use a warhammer as an implement (which you can treat as a heavy thrown with a range of 6/12).

Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium Review

Book Three of the Magic Item Triumvirate packages both the usual suspects and some newer additions into 159 pages. In addition to your typical roster of magic gear you also get new weapons--along with associated feats--armors, and implements, as well as artifacts, cursed items, henchmen/hirelings, story items, an option for increasing an item's level (and potentially the benefits it grants), and an item list of each item in the book sorted by level and rarity. Frankly it should have included every item from every source, but I'll take this for now.

This book has in part been done twice already, and in a nutshell has a lot of what you would expect plus some surprises. I like a lot of the new magic items, and the chapters on story items, while not necessarily inspiring me to create items that had no hard mechanics behind them (I was doing that already without "permission"), it did give me some good ideas. If you liked past loot books then this is right up your alley. If all you care about is the crunchy content, then it will all be up on Character Builder and Compendium if you have the patience for it. If you could not give two shits about "moar magic lootz", then the cover price really cannot justify the flavor content (especially what with all the previews).

So with the brief rundown out of the way, here are some highlights if you are still on the fence.

Chapter 1: Armor
The new armors have already been previewed and nothing has changed in transit: they still require feats and provide dubious benefits.

Chapter 2: Weapons
Weapons on the other hand have not, and while the table largely lists weapons that we already had--broadsword, flail, rapier, and katar come to mind--there are some actually new items on the menu: short spear, pike, and serrated pick. The lance has the Mounted property, which means that you take a -2 to attacks while off a horse, but gain +1 [W] to damage when charging (and mounted). They are also all weapons that small creatures can use normally (which is handy for the pike as it is a two-hander).

Since people have been wondering about the new expertise feats, I'll spoil them here:
  • Flail Expertise: You can knock a target prone instead of sliding if an attack lets you slide.
  • Pick Expertise: You gain a scaling damage bonus against creatures larger than you.
  • Polearm Expertise: You gain a static bonus to defenses against charge attacks.
There is also a bunch of "strike" feats that sometimes give benefits when using power strike with a weapon category, but some require you to forego the damage bonus.

Chapter 3: Implements
No new feats or implements from what I could tell. Wand of wonder is back as a level 7 rare. It lets you teleport a target when you roll a 6 on the crit dice, and once per day you can roll a d6 for a random benefit such as flying, concealment due to butterflies, or creating 2d10 fake gems next to a target you hit with the wand. Seems to capture the spirit of the wand from older editions, giving you effects that are useful, harmful, or...silly. An expanded table would be rad.

Chapter 4: Magical Gear
A handful of miscellaneous items for the rest of the slots, plus consumables like potions (including potions that heal variable amounts of hit points) and an actual scroll (hopefully we can get more of these in a Dragon article).

Chapter 5: Artifacts and Curses
The chapter opens up with a rehash of the text wall from Dungeon Master's Guide before seguing into some new artifacts, including classics like the codex of the infinite planes and jacinth of inestimable beauty.

The previews on item curses and story items already told you basically everything that you need to know, though story items gives you a lot of examples; in particular I liked the True Name, which has a story obstacle of a super-powered creature, and the property that weakens the creature or forces it to obey you if you intone its name.

Chapter 6: Adventuring Gear

This chapter includes mundane stuff like ball bearings, chalk (and slate), cold-weather and desert clothing, gambling cheats, a jar of glowworms, and a 10-foot pole (along with a side-bar on improvising gear). There are also items that give you bonuses, such as a bestiary, footpads, and gambling cheats (including another sidebar on gambling). In addition to carryouts, there is also a table on buying buildings--from cottages to castles--and dealing with "trade goods". The section on alchemy items is exactly what you would expect.

Appendices 1-4
Information on hirelings, henchmen, random tables for magic item stories, using levels as a reward to boost existing magic items (allowing players to keep the same item), and that item list I mentioned at the start are all found here. I really like the idea of leveling up magic items, and the table makes it easier to guage things.
September 08, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Lair Assault Play By Comment?

Want to go through Lair Assault but cannot due to not having a FLGS (or scheduling issues, or whatever)? Well I am up for doing a play-by-comment type game here (or on another forum that gets recommended and everyone can agree on). Just post your characters and/or suggestions in the comments, email them to me, give me a link to a sheet, or however you want to do it. I will do a five-man group, slots go on a first-post-first-serve basis.

  • Level 5 characters
  • Three magic items (levels 6, 5, and 4)
  • 840 gp
  • No more than two consumables (level 5 or less), and only one rare item
  • Anything goes out of Character Builder/Compendium

September 04, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

The Heirs of Ruin: Meet Hakaar

Here is the stat block for the "end boss" for the first adventure in The Heirs of Ruin. I wanted to give him some other multi-attack ability aside from a stock double attack, and ended up giving him a minor action and ability to spread the fire damage around when its not his turn.

September 03, 2011
Posted by David Guyll

Shards of Selune Review

Fetch quests are not new to Dungeons & Dragons (or games in general). In many cases they require you to go to point A to get something that lets you go to point B, and so on and so forth until the writer gets bored or runs out of points. Other models adopt a more free-form "sandbox" approach, giving you all the points and leaving it up to you to tackle them in whichever order you prefer. Shards of Selune opts for the latter, and requires that the characters go about the dark places of Neverwinter on a treasure hunt to locate three of Selune's tears 'cause the bitch couldn't cry in one spot.

Eh, could have been worse.
The adventure hook is basically this: the players see some falling stars one night--or don't--and are petitioned by an eladrin priest named Lady Jasmine to go get them. She gives you the vague locations of all three, but it is up to the party to determine which ones to after in what order. Things get complicated because other factions saw them and want them for various reasons, but character themes can also further complicate things, which is fucking awesome. This part of the adventure design is what draws my interest to what would have otherwise been another ho-hum "go get that thing I want 'cause I want it and oh here is some magic shit".

Though it seems to work for 99% of World of Warcraft...
Almost every event either requires one or more themes to trigger, or has additional stuff that can occur if a character has one of the indicated themes. None of the events with required themes are mandatory, and either provide extra background information, potential hooks into other adventures, and/or give you a benefit to help you out. It is really nice to see player decisions like this integrated into the overall larger picture, and hopefully it is something we will see in future adventures.

Another thing that sets this adventure apart from others is the almost even mix of skill, social role-playing, and combat challenges (though most of the role-playing ones have required themes). Of the seven combat encounters, only three have tactical maps; the rest give you guidelines of the layout, such as "any city map featuring an alley/road". While I expect people to complain about cutting costs or whatever, there are plenty of stock city maps, and if nothing else it would give me an excuse to actually use my Dungeon Tiles.

The encounters with maps are well done, with interesting terrain features and potentially dynamic monster rosters depending on the party's previous actions. For example one encounter involves dealing with a gang that found one of the shards on their flooded-building pissing ground. If you dealt with other factions previously, then the DM swaps out some of the gang members for imps, zombies, dwarves, etc. It is a small thing that helps reinforce that the actions of the players can have consequences, and I fully endorse this move.

Yet another good adventure for the Neverwinter crowd. I am liking a lot of the adventures coming out of Dungeon, and I would like to see WotC round up some of the more talented authors and get a nice adventure path rolled out. Hell, I would settle for an adventure arc that at least runs through the heroic tier. I had heard that they were wrapping up Chaos Scar (yay), so here's hoping.

Legend & Lore: Player vs. Character

When it comes to skills I greatly prefer the approach of later editions: let the player tell you what they are generally trying to do, and then let a combination of dice and the character's modifiers to determine the outcome. Mearls argues that this approach detracts from immersion because it causes players to focus on their sheets rather than the environment. I would argue that it actually helps maintain it because characters good at stuff that the players are not are still likely to succeed, and things that the player is good at but the character is not are more likely to fail.

In other words it helps sustain the players' beliefs that the players are pretending to be someone that are not themselves.

On the topic of the environment, in past editions I guess the players had to engage in a combination of 20 questions and Zork in order to find...whatever it is they are trying to find. Personally I started with Basic and recall having to make ability score checks to do stuff like snatch food out of Axel's hand or keep him from getting pissed off but, eh. At any rate the attention to detail is utterly irrelevant to the mechanics used to interact with it. If I wanted to I could describe all the furnishings in a room, and even allow players to state in excruciating detail what they are doing with it. My main problem with this route is time.

Maybe in some games players enter a room and declare that they are going to search it and just make Perception checks--which is fucking fine by me because it strips out the endless torrent of queries--but usually in my games players actually call out specific things in a room to investigate, in which case I go into additional detail and/or call for a skill check if appropriate. Here I find that being able to make a Perception (or Dungeoneering, History, Arcana, etc) check to indicate important details and/or secret shit a huge time saver, as rather than going down a list of search criteria I can encapsulate it all with a single dice roll and more accurately simulate the character's ability to search and find things--often resulting in the party missing out on important things much less often.

Finally, I feel that this approach helps level the playing field between newer and veteran players. As Mearls states in the article, older editions required the player to actually learn information about monsters; the cited example was the weakness of trolls, but I recall that OD&D made it so that you had to try charm spells on monsters until you figured out which ones it worked on. The problem was that once the player figured this out, she could either use it in future games with other characters, or have to pretend not to know and "stumble" upon the information (probably in a contrived manner). In this instance immersion is reinforced by the fact that the book-worm character has a chance to know this sort of thing instead of figuring it out via trial and error.

Posted by David Guyll

The Heirs of Ruin Play Report 6

With all the guards and jhakaars slain, the characters were now free to scope out Hakaar's house. It was night so they could clearly see that there were no lights on, and they could not hear anything from outside, so they concluded that either Hakaar was either a heavy sleeper or that no one was home. A win in either case. The front door was locked briefly before Jiga got her picks on it. Inside they found some alright furnishings, but a fine layer of dust coated almost everything, indicated that the place saw little use, if any. I handled the investigation like a skill challenge, allowing them to use their skills to locate the prisoner (or at the least his prison); it was a pretty easy feat to narrow down the areas of the house that actually saw activity, and locate a hidden passage soon after.

They followed a short passage underground, which terminated at a stone door with a ring of red runes. Branor deduced that red, glowing runes are often a bad thing, while Sardis's experience with magic more accurately concluded that it was some form of fire based trap. A very low Arcana check confirmed her assessment to the tune of 20 points of fire damage and being knocked on her ass. As if being bloodied was not bad enough, it also alerted Hakaar to their presence.

They sucked it up and opened the door, finding Hakaar standing before a blazing brazier and an unconscious man chained up in the corner; the very picture of villainy. They exchanged some words and threats, but Hakaar's patience quickly wore out and he summoned a pair of magma beasts in the shape of Large scorpions that flanked the door. This did not stop many of the party from trying to get in, provoking an assload of opportunity attacks, but with the silver lining that Branor got to give his defender's aura a strenuous workout early on.

Hakaar proved to be a pretty potent pyromancer, tossing around scorching bursts, a burning hands, and even having a few abilities--Elite kickers that felt niftier than another double attack--that let him turn up the heat when characters took fire damage when it was not his turn (which was most of the time, since almost every attack that the enemies had dealt fire damage). In fact, despite having a full suite of party members he actually managed to kill Maximus. Well...I hand-waived it at first, but after Beth's persistence I finally relented that yes, Maximus did die (by only a few points), but would be raised by the Veiled Alliance anyway so it was all kind of a moot point.

I guess it worked out for the best in the long run, because after Maximus came back to life he retained faint memories of wandering a cold city composed entirely of black glass, which is foreshadowing if I've ever used it. Which I did.

So with the prisoner and loot in hand--including a fire elemental that Sardis bound to herself, gaining a gift of fire--the party made it back to Wavir's enclave, and with nothing better to do was packaged up in crates and shipped out of Balic's city limits. Once safely out of sight, they were let out of the crates with the understanding that Girias had instructed the caravan to at least escort them to South Ledopolos, which was nice because that will be their launching point to a rumored lost city that they'd heard so much about. We wrapped up the night with a nice attack comprised of sunwarped hyenas and a couple flocks of kestrekels, whereupon I learned that the dwarf knight is really fucking hard to chew through, and the psion is really good at obliterating swarms.

September 02, 2011
Posted by David Guyll


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