Archive for February 2014

Wandering Monsters: Campaign Themes

I never thought I would see the day where I actually started to miss the days when Wandering Monsters would show us sometimes questionable monster art, and/or pitch often hilariously confusing and horrible flavor content.

I have long since concluded that the design team has not really been trying for some time now, what with—for starters—the inflexible classes, lazy sub-classes, nonsense magic, boring monsters, recycling of inelegant—yet more importantly traditional—mechanics, and the recent Legends & Lore and Wandering Monsters articles, but come on: campaign themes?

The article asks the question, "What's your campaign about?" and provides an entire page's worth of responses, some of which overlap pretty well, and almost half of which are recycled from 4th Edition's Dungeon Master's Guide (I am not surprised about the recycling, though I am surprised that they actually credited 4th Edition for something positive).

There is no talk about the strengths (or weaknesses) of using a campaign theme (or not), figuring it out later, drawing ideas from the characters/tying them to the characters, having several potential options, using multiple themes at the same time, or even switching it up down the road. It is just several lists of answers broken up by some art that depicts...something.

A much shorter and more useful article could have just been written as:

A campaign theme is the answer to, "What is my campaign about?" Examples include an ancient evil that is about to awaken, a war between two nations, or struggling to survive in a harsh environment. It is analogous to issues in FATE and fronts in Dungeon World.

Sometimes you should ask yourself this question sooner than later, but it is completely fine if you do not know, especially early on. You can decide upon (or discover) the theme as you play, and sometimes you might end up with more than one, or it might change over time (especially in response to the characters' actions).

The author could then have devoted text-walls to either going into detail discussing each approach, or just throw out words to take up space. Hell, he could have still included the lists. As it is, like last week's Legends & Lore, this article brings nothing to the proverbial table.
February 27, 2014
Posted by David Guyll

Dungeon World: Skeleton Playtest

I got a chance to actually play in a Dungeon World one-shot tonight, run by none other than Melissa, who not only has also never run a game before in her life (though can be a pretty brutal Keeper in Mansions of Madness), but also requested that I give our almost-ready-for-release skeleton playbook a shot.

I decided to have Phonos be a former barbarian that was torn apart by some kind of monster, probably a hydra, because that sounded sufficiently hardcore even by barbarian standards. Since he was too awesome to be confined behind Death's Black Gate he came back to life, crawled out of his cairn, and proceeded to travel around looking for worthy beast-skulls to smash (or wear).

Shortly after beginning his journey, Phonos came across a pair of drunken satyrs (so, satyrs) relaxing by a campfire. They were not particularly interested in fighting, which was fine because satyrs are more carouse- than fight-worthy. As it was he regaled them with the events of his death as best he could still recall (we decided that his trip through the Black Gate had robbed him of much of his past), and in exchange for the story they pointed him to a ruin where he could find gold, glory, and hopefully an actual sword or axe...maybe even a sword-axe.

The ruin turned out to be a small dwarf fort buried under the mountains. After smashing his way past a griffon guardian, bribing some sprites, and burning all the furniture in a dining hall to keep an assassin vine at bay (to be fair they were coming out of the walls, man) he found a centaur that he assumed was also a king. The centaur tried to keep his distance and pepper Phonos with arrows while another griffon kept him occupied, but the griffon ended up accidentally killing the centaur when it crashed into both of them during a botched dive-bomb.

The griffon barely survived, and Phonos let it go since it both pointed out the location of the treasure and he had already killed a griffon that day. The treasure ended up being a handful of ancient gold coins and a dwarven sword forged out of cold iron. Before leaving the throne room Phonos planted the cairn stone he had been lugging around and trying to crush things with on the dais, which he figured would be sufficient notice to anyone that saw it that he was now in charge.

The last noteworthy foe was a chaos ooze that had been living it up in some fetid bathwater. Phonos tried hacking it apart, which to his surprise was not very effective. It tried gobbling up his leg, so he detached it, lit it on fire, and just kept running until it was utterly consumed by the flames. As an added bonus it left behind some strange black crystals, which Phonos assumed were perfectly safe to handle and valuable; he just had to find something that could confirm his theory without first trying to destroy him.

With most of the keep cleared out Phonos went back into the throne room to rest. He had a decent weapon, now it was time to figure out who he was.

Behind the Scenes
It was a pretty nice first-run for Melissa, especially considering that, again, she has never run anything, mostly been exposed to Dungeons & Dragons, and Dungeon World is not the most friendly game for Game Masters, what with the lack of prevailing hard-wired rules, actions, results, etc. Also, again, I was surprised that she recommended the skeleton of all playbooks.

Some things of note:
  • It's Bones stat made it harder to kill (which was kind of the idea since, you know, skeleton), though one bad roll from the griffon depleted almost all of them in one encounter (eleven out of sixteen). Even so I am considering reducing Bone Harvest to just 2 Bones on a 10+, since almost everything I fought had bones to take.
  • Them Bones was pretty handy as Melissa was fond of either taking my weapon away (or me away from my weapon); I spent a lot of time creating weapons to stab things with.
  • As far as Melissa is concerned limbs are a apparently a good target for "resource depletion", so I guess I need to put in a note on recreating a missing limb in Them Bones. Of course Bones are also a resource, so skeletons could probably stand to be hit with damage moves more frequently.
February 26, 2014
Posted by David Guyll

Legends & Lore: What's Next for the Sorcerer

3rd Edition's sorcerer was billed as a spellcaster that had "no books, no mentors, no theories—just raw power that they direct at will". It was mentioned that they claimed to have the blood of dragons flowing through their veins, though none of the mechanics or abilities supported this idea, and the description even ended on the note that such a claim might just be an unsubstantiated boast.

The reality is that it was simply a wizard that had access to less spells, but could cast more per day and did not have to prepare them in advance. Everything else was the same, including base skill points, saves, hit points, and for some reason a reliance on material components.

Given that most classes in 4th Edition used the same power model, both sorcerers and wizards had the access to the same number and types of spells. They did differ in some key ways, though: wizards had their spellbooks (which gave them access to extra dailies that they could choose from), they used different implements, wizards received an extra benefit from a specific type of implement, sorcerers had their spell source, and they could have different secondary ability scores. Basically, if you play a wizard and sorcerer that is quite a bit of difference in both the mechanics and feel.

Surprisingly 5th Edition's first draft for the sorcerer was pretty impressive. You had willpower points that you could spend to gain various benefits or cast spells, but unlike your typical point-based spellcaster you involuntarily transformed as you spent your points. In the case of the only heritage featured, draconic, this meant that you could grow claws and scales (wings might have been on the docket, but it was awhile back and I no longer have access to that particular playtest release). It reminded me of Howl from Howl's Moving Castle, where he would transform into a bird-like creature when he used too much magic.

Sure it needed some work—it would have been awesome if it had a unique list of spells, your personality also shifted while transformed, burning through your magic exhausted you, etc—but as needlessly saturated in tradition as 5th Edition is, it was still evocative, fresh, interesting, and even pretty dynamic since as you ran out of willpower you became more and more competent at melee I am not really surprised that it got pulled soon after for whatever reason and only now, around roughly a year and a half later, we get barely an elevator pitch as to what they are doing with it at this specific point in time.

In a nutshell it is basically a wizard, but with a shorter spell list and "sorcery points". Sorcery points, like 3rd Edition's power points for psionic classes, allow you to augment your spells, cast more spells, and activate heritage-based features (claws, scales, wings, etc). That is it. A year and a half later and that is all they could come up with: no automatic transformation, personality change, exhaustion, emotional triggers, or really anything interesting, just a nonsense magic system with a lazy, done-to-death model of "spend x points to gain y ability for z time" that will make it easy for them to just swap out a handful of features and call it a day.

Mearls tries to dress it up with evocative flavor text, like how a sorcerer "improves her innate talents through repetition, challenge, and exercise", or that she is a "natural conduit for arcane energy". Of course none of the mechanics are going to support the flavor: you will be able to cast exactly the spell you want so long as you have the minimum spell slot available (whatever the fuck a spell slot even represents in-game), you will never suffer any penalties (no matter how many spell slots or sorcery points you burn through), and it will always work precisely as expected.

Well, unless you have the wild/chaos sorcerer option. I love how Mearls says that they "designed" it, when in reality given that he specifically mentions percentile dice (and not, say, a d20) it probably means they just lifted it from 2nd Edition's Tome of Magic (which had a one-hundred entry table that ate up almost two pages). The irony is that they said opportunity attacks for ranged attacks were "too complex", but apparently it is okay to have an entire table with potentially one-hundred results devoted to all of one specific type of sorcerer.
February 25, 2014
Posted by David Guyll

Wandering Monsters: The Gods Must Be Crazy

Aaand it looks like filler week continues.

Instead of giving us anything of substance we get to hear about name levels (they were a thing in some of the previous editions!), what pantheism really means, various religious models, and...that 5th Edition will support homebrew religions. Were people really worried about this? It is not like this sort of thing requires actual rules, so was anyone even questioning it?

I find it strange (but not unexpected) that he talks about cognitive dissonance in regards to the look and limitations of the classic cleric, but does not address how they cast spells, specifically that they do not at all feel like a cleric is petitioning her god for aid or intervention. You phone in your "miracles", get exactly what you asked for, use them whenever you need to, and they always work precisely as expected.

It is so, so predictably absolute that faith never factors into the equation, and there is nothing miraculous about them.

But hey, at least we have Divine Domains, right? The extra spells, bonus proficiencies, and various class features eventually add up to some form of recognizable differentiation from other clerics. Well, so long as they do not choose the same domain, anyway.

It would have also been, I dunno, something, to see how gods might be handled at this specific point in time.
In 3rd Edition they were for no discernible reason statted out: did anyone need to know that Sif not only has 20 levels in both barbarian and fighter, but a divine rank of 10, 26 and up in every stat, an Armor Class of 80-fucking-4, +5 weapon and armor, and a mess of domain powers, divine immunities, salient divine abilities, and a paragraph of spell-like abilities, skills, and feats (none of which are explained in the stat block)? Did I mention that she is merely a lesser deity?

Who was that written for? Has any party legitimately leveled up to the point where they could even pose a challenge?

For better or worse 4th Edition simplified things quite a bit while still making god-like beings a challenge. For example Lolth clocks in at 35 solo, or 5 levels above the "official cap" and a few above the recommended maximum for a major challenge for a 30th-level party of five. You might balk at her first form "only" having five things to choose from (not counting her triggered actions), but at least it seems to be designed around the idea that you are looking at her fighting stats with the intent to actually use them: everything is contained within the block, and she is a challenging threat for the most epic of epic-level characters. will 5th Edition handle gods? Will they be a mess of math and text that not only refers you to other parts of the book, or possibly even other books entirely, to discern their meaning, but is ultimately wasted page space for the vast majority of groups out there? Will they be neatly encapsulated on at most a single page (and still likely wasted page space, just less)? Some Dungeon Masters do not think that they should even have stats at all; what about them?

Who knows. Thanks to this article what I do know, in addition to a bunch of useless information, is that I can make a homebrew religion...which has been a "perk" in every edition so far.

A Sundered World: Antikythera's Armory

Though A Sundered World was originally envisioned and played using 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, I ran and planned it much like how you would a Dungeon World campaign. Well, except for a map. I never drew any maps, mostly because I was not exactly sure how the "world" was even shaped (which is a subject for another post).

The players showed up on our scheduled game day, I gave them the high concept of the campaign setting ("It is kind of like Dungeons & Dragons if all the planes were blended together, with some Mass Effect and Spelljammer thrown in for good measure."), they rolled up some characters, I asked them some questions about where they came from and what their goals were, and we just started playing.

At the time I had no real concrete idea as to what was going to happen. I had not even put much thought into how the world would look or operate. How do people feed themselves when there is no sunlight or rain? How do they navigate the silvery mists of the Astral without landmarks or even constellations? What about gith? The Astral Sea is full of them, and they sometimes ride on big-ass red dragons (the most powerful of evil dragons). What about angels? What about devils?

I pretty much ignored all of that because I kind of assumed it would be a one-time experiment, and none of it was immediately relevant at the time. They traveled to a densely-forested island, fought some twig blights, and with the help of a treant found a ruined eladrin city along with metallic, insect-like golems scattered about. While exploring the ruins one of the golems activated and attacked, and after a pretty harrowing encounter they narrowly escaped to the moon with their lives.

That ended up being the start to, in their own words, the best Dungeons & Dragons campaign they had ever played, and probably the best that I have ever run.

As the campaign progressed I ended up settling on the clockwork horrors as an overarching threat (though there were other potential candidates), which became apparent when they flew into the Elemental Chaos in search of the primordial Autochton's armory that was sealed during the Sundering. They found it, opened it, and accidentally freed the machine responsible for creating and programming the horrors. I never gave it a name, only referring to it as Autocthon when it took over the primordial.

Before the campaign ended up getting dropped due to time constraints, they destroyed the infected Autocthon and were in the process of trying to unite the various island kingdoms against the clockwork horrors. It has a special place in my heart, so for A Sundered World I am writing it up as one of the possible Campaign Fronts, and also renaming it at Josh's recommendation. Let me know what you think.

Campaign Front: Antikythera's Armory

The armory was a vast, defensible structure constructed by Antikythera as a place where it could design, build, innovate, and store weapons and other devices created during the Dawn War. During its creation Antikythera gave it sentience and the ability to shape itself so that it could record information, advise, and even directly assist it in it's endeavors, and in time it grew to become more than a living, thinking instrument, but Antikythera's closest—some might have said only—friend.

It was built to withstand direct and prolonged assault from the gods themselves, in order to prevent them from destroying it or, perhaps worse, gaining access to Antikythera's creations and using them against the primordials. As an added safeguard, in the instance that the gods proved more devious than anticipated and were able to compromise the armory, Antikythera had imparted functionality that would allow the entire facility to shift between planes, thereby evading destruction or capture.

But the Sundering was destruction on a scale unfathomed. As a testament to Antikythera's skill the armory ultimately weathered the devastation, but much of it was lost as it tried to slip between worlds that were no longer separate. Eventually reality more or less stabilized and it found itself drifting through the chaotic bowels of the Maelstrom, where for countless eons its doors remained sealed, its halls silent, and its forges cold.

Until now.

Danger: Antikythera's Machine (Arcane Enemy)
Impulse: To finish the war
Grim Portents
  • The legionnaires are released upon the world
  • The machine sends specialized constructs to retrieve materials and information
  • The machine creates more advanced and destructive weapons
  • The machine lays siege against the island kingdoms
Impending Doom: Tyranny/Destruction

The "machine" is actually an expansive, dynamic, highly adaptable facility. It can detect the presence of anything inside it, and it is capable of altering its shape given enough time. This includes relatively simple processes such as opening, closing and creating doors and corridors, and changing their shape and course, to the more complex and resource-demanding task of constructing appendages or even fully-functional machines.

Since it cannot create something from nothing, it needs access to resources. These are difficult to obtain within the Maelstrom due to the instability of inanimate objects. Thankfully the barracks remained intact, giving it access to a number of constructs that it initially uses to provide it with the necessary materials to make repairs and begin work on more advanced weaponry.

The machine's ultimate goal is to win the war, and since the gods are dead it is going after the next best thing: their servants and creations. This does not necessarily mean destruction: complete dominion works just as well...unless it believes there is no other option.

Danger: Antikythera's Legion (Hordes)
Impulse: To serve Antikythera's machine
Grim Portents
  • Legionnaires are spotted near the Maelstrom
  • The Legion begins attacking steadings near the Maelstrom
  • The Legion constructs fortifications and satellite factories around the edge of the Maelstrom
  • The Legion slowly expands outward, killing everyone and stripping down everything it comes across
Impending Doom: Impoverishment

The legionnaires were crafted by Antikythera specifically to fight and be easily replaced. They area fearless, can shrug aside injuries that will kill creatures of flesh and blood, and aside from the mithril lords and adamantine queens have no regard for self preservation. Their only weakness is that since they are not alive they are subject to the Maelstrom's fluctuations: if they remain inside too long they risk being transformed into another material, possibly even energy.

Initially Legion scouts are sighted by steadings closest to the Maelstrom, as they assess an island's size, defenses, and whether there is a ready supply of metal. If an island meets their desired criteria, they descend upon it, slaughter the inhabitants, strip away useful materials, and vanish. Eventually they establish hives beyond the reaches of the Maelstrom, where they can build more soldiers, repair, and attack with ever-increasing efficiency.

  • How much damage will the Legion inflict before it is stopped?
  • Can Antikythera's machine be bargained with or reprogrammed?
  • Will the island kingdoms unite against this threat?
  • Who will claim the ancient weapons within the armory?

Legends & Lore: The Point of Experience

Aww, they pulled the image of the not-blue dragon. I mean, if nothing else someone should have noticed the lack of a big-ass horn and desert environment, but now what will people have to talk about?

Because seriously, there is barely anything of interest in the rest of the article. All he really needed to say was, "We realize that many Dungeon Masters just level the characters up when it makes sense, and that is a method that we are supporting," and wrap it up. I cannot imagine the "official rules" demanding much more text than that.

It would be nice to see something, anything, more substantial. Or substantial at all. Instead we get boring, pointless, and mostly harmless filler. The only point of contention I have is where he says that tracking experience "makes a lot of sense in open-ended games", and kind-of infers that open-ended games are less story-focused. I...guess they can be, but my last few campaigns have been open-ended, featured plenty of story, and I still leveled the characters up whenever I felt that they had done enough to warrant it.

That aside I think this is actually mostly good news, because I also think that how Dungeons & Dragons uses XP, like extra lives in old school console games, no longer serves a meaningful purpose. I say mostly because it is incredibly easy to just houserule milestone-leveling (or whatever you want to call it) into your home game. The real benefit is its "official" recognition for published adventures, which I firmly believe would have been universally improved if they were written using XP for encounter budgeting and nothing more.

I remember trying to create my own adventure paths, cramming in enough encounters and quests to "officially" level up the party: for me it was at best frustrating, at worst a fucking nightmare. For my players it was often a borefest going through yet-another-encounter-with-crab-people, or whatever the thematic monster was at the time.

Once I started just leveling the characters up when they completed meaningful objectives, like defeating a big-bad or recovering a legendary artifact, I felt like a massive weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was free to structure the adventure how I wanted. I could include the encounters that I felt warranted inclusion in regards to how relevant and engaging they were, and I also had complete control over the pacing. It worked out a lot better instead of trying to shoehorn in enough, say, kobolds to make sure that they got to level 3 in time to grind orcs.

Mansions of Madness: The Inner Sanctum Play Report

Emboldened by her previous success we gave The Inner Sanctum another shot, because fourth time is a charm, right? This time she would run a four-man squad. Or rather, one man and three women.

As with her latest run through Fall of House Lynch, Melissa randomly chose her investigators.

Carolyn Fern (Forbidden Alchemy)
Gloria Goldberg (Mansions of Madness)
Joe Diamond (Mansions of Madness)
Sister Mary (Mansions of Madness)

Warning: As with the previous play report this one will spoil one of the possible story choice combinations The Inner Sanctum. Though it does not reveal the exact location of any clues, it does reveal one of the conditions that the Keeper needs to fulfill in order to win.

As the Keeper, my objective was to get four cultists into the chapel so that they could summon a cthonian. Once summoned the investigators would have four rounds to kill it. Alternatively they could win if they found Clue 1 by the time the fifth event card was resolved. 

Melissa had two investigators make a dash for the study (as hinted by the prologue text), leaving two behind to explore the chapel because safety in numbers. Seriously: some mythos cards only work when the investigator is all be her lonesome. She got pretty lucky and found an axe, which meant that all of two of her investigators would be able to skip the No Weapon cards out of the combat deck.

I spent most of my initial threat on cultists, partially because I needed them to fulfill the objective, partially because the more you have, the more you get out of Dark Ritual (you draw one mythos or trauma card per cultist).

In the study Melissa discovered that she would need a key, so kept moving through the study and towards the secret passage...close to where my cultists were waiting.

Now, unlike Fall of House Lynch this scenario lets you spawn monsters by sacrificing cultists and spending threat. Good ol' shoggoth takes the most at three cultists and threat, but since Melissa only had two investigators really capable of fighting at this point I figured it would be a useful deterrent in both keeping her away from my fragile cultists and the chapel.

Since her investigators were split up I tried to get in a few licks on Joe Diamond, hoping to wound him or somehow take his guns away; with a simple combination of horror-inducing mythos and forced-movement trauma card I was able to get him to mad dash right into the shoggoth's, slimy, writhing tentacles.

I managed to wound him, slapping him with a trauma card that caused him to hurt himself or someone else when shooting his guns. Not exactly taking his guns away, but it was a start. Melissa brought in Sister Mary to help, managing to deal a bit of damage and--more importantly--stun it using her holy water. She was considering making a run for it until she noticed Joe's Lucky Break ability.

A three or less? On a d10? Those are terrible odds and of course she rolled a fucking 2.

Luckily by the time the second event card triggered I had six cultists and a cult leader (who had like, four health slapped off by Gloria), meaning that I received a hefty surplus of threat to cultivate cultists before feeding them to another shoggoth. What can I say, the turnover rate is murder.

I was able to keep Joe and Sister Mary separated from the rest of the investigators, and gradually wore down Joe's sanity to nothing. Thanks to all my cultists and excess of threat I had plenty of potent mythos and trauma cards (including some Sanity 0 ones that I had always wanted to use), and had even been planning a few terrible combos until Melissa noticed yet another ability: Gloria's Powerful Visions.

At this point I do not remember which she forced me to discard, but they were probably really good ones. The important and not at all petty thing is that I got her back. As in Gloria. I totally killed her ass with a mob of cultists that I like to imagine were riding the shoggoth.

I had so many monsters here that I had to represent them with their tokens.
In my defense it was not just because I had to ditch a pair of cards--which again I assume were totally awesome for me and understandably frustrating for her--but she was also trying to get to Clue 1. Since the objective had not been revealed she was able to bring in a new investigator, and as luck of the draw would have it she got to bring in the Jenny Barnes.

Jenny Barnes seems to be one of the better characters. She can start with guns, shoot them twice if she rolls well, and the Marksmanship and Dexterity to use them (and also get her ass out of trouble). Plus her Willpower is not too shabby, and her Health and Sanity are evenly balanced...unfortunately she died trying to get to the first clue. 

To add insult to injury the cthonian was summoned and the objective revealed, meaning that Melissa could not bring in anyone else. Not like it would have mattered; she only had a handful of turns to get to the clue before her four rounds were up, anyway.

Sure, it was a loss, but it still went a lot better than previous attempts (especially when you consider she randomly picked her investigators). If Melissa would have rolled better or used a skill point she would have evaded the shoggoth, gotten to clue 1 right before the fifth event was triggered, and won with one round to spare.

Eh, maybe fifth time is a charm?
February 13, 2014
Posted by David Guyll

Legends & Lore: Technically It Works

Oh hey, Legends & Lore is back. Again. This week we take a look at several rules that, given the time and resources at the company's disposal, some would say took far longer than expected (and probably necessary) to get where they are.

Apparently a lot of people like this mechanic. I do not. At least not as-is.

Partially it is because what it is intended to do (remove the need to track lots of minor, numerical bonuses) is contradicted at the least by spells that force you to track minor, numerical bonuses. Stuff like elemental weapon, magic weapon, prayer, and shield of faith, because of course spells get to break the rules and there is no reason to not expect more down the road in most of the supplements (uninspired, often situational, predictable magic is great for padding out splatbooks after all).

Mostly it is because there is no reason to try and gain any advantage or worry about any disadvantage beyond the first, since you only ever roll 2d20, and if you have any of both you have no incentive to try and better your circumstances as no matter what the ratio is they completely cancel each other out. Well, except for the ram, portable: that gives you a +4 bonus for some reason, plus advantage if one other person helps you out.

This rule could be made at least a bit better if advantages and disadvantages cancelled each other out on a one-for-one basis, with either the majority having some effect or the excess providing a small bonus. I know some people will tell me that that makes it more complicated, but I am not saying to give each benefit its own, unique modifier—like high winds are +1, slippery cliffs are +2, etc—but to make each advantage or disadvantage provide the same modifier. So, high winds, lightning, and slippery just ups the DC by 3.

That way it is a simple matter of counting both up, subtracting, and adding the sum as a bonus or penalty. Yeah, it is a bit of math, but it is not difficult and does not require memorizing numerous modifiers. I think players would be able to deal with it. Plus it would also be consistent (unlike the aforementioned spells and ram, portable).

Weapon Powers
Linking weapons to maneuvers? That sounds pretty awesome and even makes sense given that many weapons are designed with a purpose in mind. I disagree with the apparent mentality that only players playing spellcasters should have to worry about poring over hundreds of spells, and given all of 3rd Edition's trap options and 5th Edition's adherence to tradition my concern would be less system bloat and more execution.

A flail lets you trip something, but is it something that anyone with an average Strength would have a reasonable chance of doing against someone of a similar size? Is it something that only incredibly strong warriors should even bother to attempt? Is it like 3rd Edition where it takes a specialized build? Would it use the underwhelming superiority die mechanic (that does not account for your physical capability)? Is tripping something really even effective?

Of course the system bloat is still there, they just moved it from weapons to feats and class features, which leads to additional questions: Does that mean that if you want to try and trip someone that you have to have the feat or class feature, or can anyone try to trip someone, but you only get a bonus if you are wielding a flail and have the feat or class feature?

Not that they had to link maneuvers to specific weapons. They could have used 4th Edition's weapon categories to trim things down quite a bit. Hell, if they want simplicity why not link weapon damage to class and size, similar to how 13th Age does it. You could make things simpler still by just making the damage universal (as in Gamma World), or even static (like in Numenera).

I am actually fine with this direction in concept. In my own hack I would link maneuvers to classes: fighters would be able to choose maneuvers for any weapon, while rogues, rangers, paladins, and other classes that I expect to be good with weapons would be somewhat more limited. Unfortunately I expect the final result to be, "fighters can get a severely limited selection, in the order we specify, as long as they pick this one specific path early on that they cannot change later".

In other words, boring and pointlessly restrictive.

Concentration makes the game more complex? I...guess technically it is a few more words to read, not that they seem to mind making spellcasters complicated. I also guess I should be happy that it is still in the game because it restricts spellcasters in some way. At the very least I am surprised, pleasantly even as this is one of the rules I actually like.

Auto Success 
Has any edition ever required a check to climb a ladder? I mean, a normal ladder. Not a ladder made of snakes, or when it is raining acid, or when something is dangling on your feet and trying to eat you, just a "normal" ladder in normal circumstances.

I could still see a case being made for DC's below 10, because it is possible that unfavorable situations could reduce your check/increase the DC to the point where the odds are no longer certain....unless those things just impose disadvantage, which means that your character has the exact same odds of climbing a particularly slippery ladder, as she does a ladder made of snakes, while it is raining acid, and something is holding on to her feet and trying to eat her.

Anyway, like concentration I am surprised that they brought back Passive Perception; it was in 4th Edition after all.

In the end I also want a game that features quick resolution and speedier game play. The problem is that I think they are selectively stripping out complexity when they do not need to (mundane characters and the proficiency bonus), and there are games out there with quick resolution and speedier game play that also bring more to the table than 5th Edition does.

With the available choices out there, it is going to have to do better than "3rd Edition-ish, with unnecessarily uniform math and advantage mechanic".
February 11, 2014
Posted by David Guyll

Wandering Monsters: Talk of Tiers

While there is no Legends & Lore column this week, Wandering Monsters continues its Legends & Lore-like discussions with tiers. Or, more accurately, how spellcasters define and transition through their arbitrary level ranges. Of course given the whole fixation on the tradition angle I cannot say I am surprised.

I am surprised that the article gives credit to 4th Edition, this time for the original implementation of the tier structure, but it leaves out the fact that unlike 5th Edition these transition levels applied to everybody. It was not that the {primary spellcaster} could suddenly ignore more of the rules or have a wider variety of things to do, it was that everyone got something neat that further defined their characters.

But that is also an edition where magic is not only not mandatory, but the "mundane" types also get nice things, so...yeah.

The article describes level 17-20 characters as "almost superheroic", How is a fighter anywhere close to being superheroic? Is it because she can make four attacks in a round? Is it because she can try to trip things more reliably? Frankly the only class feature that sounds even remotely superheroic is Survivor from the Path of the Warrior, which lets you regain hit points so long as you are above 0, but are at less than half (which, based on a previous column, sounds like the fighter is regenerating wounds).

Comparing it to a 4th Edition epic-level fighter is a bit difficult since you get to actually make a choice, but I will throw out two possible options that popped up when I set the Compendium to Epic Destinies and fighter in the search field: Adamantine Soldier and Undying Warrior.

Adamantine Soldier gives you a passive bonus to Armor Class, resistance to all forms of damage based on your Constitution modifier, lets you treat any save once per day as a natural 20, and gives you a stance that lets you automatically push anything. Basically you are incredibly resilient, especially when you consider that the damage resistance is passive, applies to everything, and the typical level 21 fighter will have a Constitution modifier of around +5.

If that is not impressive enough, Undying Warrior lets continuously come back to life. There is no limit, and the only drawback is that each time you die it takes you progressively longer to come back. The other perks let you heal as a minor action when bloodied, regain healing surges at every milestone (typically every two encounters), and an encounter power that lets you roll extra d20's on an attack.

Mind you this does not factor in epic feats or exploits that you can pick up from your actual fighter class. There is a warlord exploit that I always wanted to get that lets you move--out of turn no less--double your speed and make an attack against a monster that is attacking one of your allies. If you hit the monster its attack misses, and you deal seven times your weapon damage to it.

That is not only crazy-awesome, but far more "superheroic" than a rogue being able to take two actions during the first round of any battle (unless she is surprised, that is).

It clarifies at the very end that this whole tier-thing is just advice for the Dungeon Master, and that they are not looking at any rules tied to tiers "like paragon paths and epic destinies in 4th Edition". The thing is, those are the only rules tied to tiers, and even so tiers were still just advice; you could run a Heroic tier campaign where the characters save the kingdom, or even the world. They could also go planehopping early on, especially since none of the other planes were immediately lethal upon entry. Hell, I ran a campaign that took place in the Astral Sea.

None of this is new. The spreads are just more arbitrary, the milestones are magical, and the spellcasters are quadratic (and woefully necessary).
February 08, 2014
Posted by David Guyll

Super Dungeon Explore: Captain R's Skeleton Crew

I picked up Captain R a few weeks ago off eBay, which is a neat mini-boss that can not only spawn with a Treasure card attached, but he can also spend Action Points to attach Loot cards like a hero. As an added bonus he is also a skeleton and a pirate.

I wanted to do a kind of "themed" game, and while there are plenty of skeletons to be had in Von Drakk Manor we are still stuck with the default set of tiles until The Forgotten King is released (first quarter of this year!), so I scribbled up a pair of "tiles" on one of my wet-erase mats: some islands linked by wooden planks, and a simple cave.
  • Heroes Hearthsworn Fighter, Nyan Nyan
  • Mini-Boss Captain R
  • Spawn Points Shallow Grave (2)
The islands impeded the Hearthsworn Fighter, but Nyan Nyan's pounce ability easily allowed her to hop around and tear the undead apart. Despite never destroying either spawn points the heroes thoroughly wiped the floor with Captain R, which I attributed to a combination of the Hearthsworn Fighter gaining Treasure and Loot cards to the tune of +2 Red and +3 Blue to Attack, while Captain R's Treasure and Loot draws exclusively--and insanely--boosted his Will; going first is all well and good...except if you cannot actually hit anyone.

Anyway I think I am going to do this more often. It was pretty fun playing the game on some fresh terrain, and I might even break out my Dungeon Tiles to do some map building. Well, at least until The Forgotten King comes out; I am in the playtest and the new tiles look pretty rad.

February 07, 2014
Posted by David Guyll

Mansions of Madness: Fall of House Lynch Play Report

The first time I played Mansions of Madness it was a lot of fun: the lack of monsters, and the pace, events, keeper actions, and mythos cards did an excellent job of conveying the feel of a couple of people exploring a creepy mansion, unsure what exactly they were looking for or what could happen next.

The problem started once we tried giving the other scenarios a shot. During my review I mentioned that out of five games the investigators had only won twice, and since then their success ratio has only gotten worse. As in they have never won a game since.

I get that in Lovecraft's stories pretty much everyone dies or goes insane, but in the context of a board game it can get pretty frustrating (for the investigators, at any rate). I did some online research and discovered that not all of the scenarios are...exactly well received, with issues ranging from boring mechanics, Keeper "auto-win" objective choices, and/or requiring a minimum number of investigators if you want a reasonable chance.

With this in mind Melissa and I decided to get back to basics and try the only scenario that she has actually won--Fall of House Lynch--to see if her prior success was just a fluke/could be attributed to my lack of knowing all the rules at the time.

Warning: This play through will spoil one of the possible story combinations for the Fall of House Lynch scenario. In the grand scheme of things this is not much, especially since you will not know right away every story decision that the keeper has made, and there are both expansions and print-on-demand scenarios.


Jenny Barnes (Mansions of Madness)
Carolyn Fern (Forbidden Alchemy)

Having played through this scenario before, Melissa made a beeline for the kitchen. Since gathering samples required a maniac and Maniac Attack costed a whopping 4 threat, I limited my keeper actions to Evil Presence; you not only get a mythos and trauma card, but you get the point of threat you spent back if it is the only thing you do.

I had intended to rack up an excess of threat so that I could use Uncontrollable Urges to separate her investigators and then spawn a maniac, but as she was leaving Jenny ended up in the foyer by herself; I was able to spawn a maniac and still have enough threat left over to have him snag a sample and leg it towards the ceremony room.

Both investigators pursued him, but were only able to shave off about half his health before he made it through a locked door. One sample down, one to go.

Unable to pursue the maniac, Melissa went the other way towards the bedrooms. Unfortunately by the time she got there one of the Event cards triggered a flaming zombie in the hallway. She shot it, which lit the hallway on fire, and since it was still "alive" on my turn I had it snag another sample and duck into a locked room.

Unfortunately for me the "lock" ended up just being a Dark Room, so she was able to follow and gun it down. By the time the maniac was able to get to the alter they had explored the bedrooms, and were making their way towards the garden when I noticed something on Maniac Attack, namely that you could spend 4 threat to have the maniac heal-up and appear next to any one lone investigator.

Since I had an excess of threat from the sample and several turns of hoarding, I was able to move an investigator using Uncontrollable Urges, then have the maniac leap out of the shadows, grab a second sample, and book it back into to the locked rooms.

Having dealt with the shoggoth objective before Melissa knew what was about to go down, so she just explored nearby rooms for items and waited for me to drop the second sample on the alter.

I was pretty confident that there was not much she could do about it, as it had 13 health and a massive horror penalty, and they had both taken some hits to sanity and one of them was a few points of health in the hole. Oh, and as an added bonus none of them were packing a shotgun. It was because of all this that I did not initially maneuver the maniac and second zombie to help out.

That was my first mistake.

Melissa had picked up an elder sign at some point, so had Jenny unload on it before Carolyne used the sign to push it back 2 spaces. The first gun shot only did 2 damage, so I figured that I would not be a dick and have it move 2 spaces towards the foyer, instead interpreting the spirit of her actions and pushing it back into the basement area.

That was my second mistake.

I moved the shoggoth again and Melissa continued her tactic of gunning and signing; she dealt 3 more damage, but failed the Lore check with the elder sign, meaning that it could now get into the foyer. Things were looking grim, but even at this point she could still succeed if she moved into the foyer got the sign to continuously work until the shoggoth was destroyed.

The problem was that her guns only did 3 damage, she could only have one investigator shoot at a time, she was out of skill points, and the combat cards determined not only which stat she had to roll against, but could also affect the damage output. Case in point, her next attack only dealt one damage... a stun token.


Stun tokens prevent a monster from moving or attacking, and they only go away when the Keeper discards one during her turn. I say one stun token because they can stack. Another case in point, her next attack dealt a whopping 4 damage... another stun token.

Double shit.

What made it even funnier is that she did not even need those stun tokens, because the next attack she made with Carolyne dealt just enough damage to take it out. But that is the way it can go: sometimes you get to roll Marksmanship and only deal 1 damage with your 4 damage gun, sometimes you get lucky and deal weapon damage + 3.

So this brings the investigators up to a whopping three out of...I dunno, ten or so games? Still not a good ratio, but it is a start. Oddly enough the last time we played this scenario she also blew up the shoggoth when it got to the foyer, so maybe she just has a +9 against shoggoths?

Anyway, we are going to try the second scenario again in the next day or two, but use four investigators instead of one or two to see if it runs any smoother.
February 06, 2014
Posted by David Guyll

Dungeon World: Vancomancer Playbook

In ages gone a thousand spells were known to sorcery, and the wizards effected their wills. Today, as Earth dies, a hundred spell remain to man’s knowledge, and these have come to us through the ancient books.

-The Dying Earth, Chapter 1

My Vancomancer playbook (for Dungeon World) is now for sale on Drivethrurpg, so go buy it. Buy it and love it.

The Vancomancer is a wizard that is more in line with what you would expect from Jack Vance's The Dying Earth; there is no daily limitation on magic, you can cast spells right out of your book (if you have enough time), and the spells do not have levels.

Those are not the only ways in which it differs from the standard wizard, though: the advanced moves let you do stuff like grow minions in flesh vats, improve upon your manse, impress people with your magic, summon and bind sandestins, create magic items, and so on.

I have also setup a kind of feedback form, which will hopefully make it easier to track what people like and dislike, as well as make changes and correct any issues.
February 04, 2014
Posted by David Guyll


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