Archive for September 2010

The Shadows Over Greyshore, Part 2

After a week hiatus and a few minutes up recap, the party continued their quest to escape the second civilized location that they'd been to--in a row--where the locals were trying to kill them. Leaving the inn they heard a trilling drone that was difficult to describe as I'd probably heard it in the movie Cthulhu and otherwise referred to it as, "Dagon's call". They watched with a combination of confusion and temptation as the villagers walked towards the river, casting off clothes as they went, and briefly pondered the notion of robbing their homes since for better or worse they figured they weren't coming back.

After Moxie pillaged a house for about 2 gp worth of shit she could sell, Hawkeye declared that it was a fucking waste of time.

Heading towards the only major structure, ironically a shattered tower on top of a hill, Beth's character noticed that there was only one house with any light at all. Hawkeye posited that there might be a survivor, but that it was also probably a trap, and went there anyway. Remember kiddos, Good is dumb. The front porch was rigged with a simple spear trap, which Moxie disarmed easily. Inside the house was immaculately organized, and many furnishings were covered with dust that indicated prolonged disuse. Near the back they found a large metal door that was enchanted with a desiccating ward that, after disarming, revealed a shrine with numerous iconography, scriptures, steles, and so on depicting and/or related to Dagon.

Since a lot of it was gold, they decided to keep it after Randy's character figured out that they weren't tainted with the warping energy they'd found on the other golden relics back at Shardpit. There was a hidden passage behind a large statue, and with an hour or so of not getting ambushed by civilians their paranoia was reaching it's peak. Descending warped, wooden stairs, they found a small chamber with a dark pool and tables covered in notes written in jagged script. Beth's character recognized some of the diagrams as constellations, star charts, and planar orbits, and after decided to pocket it spawned a debate about how to best protect them from the elements. Something about mutant unicorn fish bladders which were coincidentally bags of holding. I dunno, I'm fuzzy on the details at this point. Hawkeye wrapped things up by freezing the pool with concentration Nature checks to channel his elemental spirits evocation, completing the task just in time to prevent something from surfacing.

That would have been all well and good, but they didn't stop there. It's wasn't enough that they desecrated a shrine dedicated to a demon lord, or that they lifted everything made of gold (and in Moxie's case, some nifty outfits), or that they reset the traps and changed the triggering mechanisms. Oh no, no no no. Beth's character and Moxie, using a combination of insanely high Thievery and  Arcana checks, and Eberron dragonshards, added a Rick Roll into the mix. I'm all for slaughtering the indigenous dungeon life, even just to satisfy personal greed, but you have to draw a line somewhere. I'm considering shifting their alignments to Evil, or at the least reintroducing Chaotic Neutral.

Leaving the house they continued their trek towards the tower. Halfway up the steps Hawkeye spotted numerous crab-like creatures lurking about the buildings. They scrambled up the hill, momentairly crested with a barbican gate that due to a pair of extremely high rolls was subsequently relocated to the base of the hill where it can now be found cresting a foundation of battered crab meat. I'm not often a fan of allowing players to forestall or overcome a challenge with so few rolls, but these were minions anyway and it was a pretty badass idea.

Unfortunately, dropping a stone gate on a horde of monsters pretty much ruins your chance at surprise, and even through the rain, wind, and thunder the cultists holing up in the church were alerted. The party gathered up at the doors, booted them in, and started promptly kicking ass. One of the cultists, a wavecaller, summoned up a zone of water that trapped some of the characters, forcing them to use the swim rules which none of us had access to. Boo. Mostly I wanted to do this so that they could get to use their Aquatic trait, and it was a lot of fun doing 3D fighting with harpoons and scalding jets of steam. Things got a bit more hectic when a craud showed up, the highlight being when it smacked Randy's character unconscious with a single hit, knocking him back into the water, but Beth's character simply yanked him out with a majestic word. I try, I really do.

They explored the church and tower, finding a shit-encrusted grate that lead underwater that Hawkeye also froze up. He's so damned paranoid. On the second floor they got ambushed by a very, very big crayfish that seemed dangerous but after being forced over a large hole and getting locked down with a few dailies, it was mostly an exercise in dice rolling as they filed off hit points. The critical hits helped, especially the one Randy hit it with since it was an aberrant and he's got a byeshk scimitar. I really need to incorporate the dragon abilities from Essentials that automatically end daze and stun effects. Maybe I'd get to do something? Once they pushed it through the hole and splatted it on the ground below, they found a hefty treasure haul with a bow that Beth has been wanting for awhile, as well as a fishy figurine that will let them get into the grotto more easily during the next session.

Keep on the Shadowfell w/ Essentials, Part 3

Since Devin was jonesing for some more D&D--at midnight no less--so we decided to through a few encounters  in an effort to wrap up Keep on the Shadowfell. Having slain a dragon last session and returned to Winterhaven with word and proof of their deed, they ventured north towards the ruined keep in order to discover the source of the rampant arcane energies that Valthrun had sensed.

I'd drawn up a hasty foundation map with crumbling walls, shallow graves, and grim wards that would writhe and scream when closely approached. As the players investigated the ruins, ancient and armor clad skeletons rose from the ground and attacked under the direction of cultists. A few were dragonborn skeletons that could breath a life-sapping energy, stealing hit points and healing surges alike. After their destruction and a purifying prayer from Donner, they found a ragged suit of chain armor that protected the wearer from necromantic powers (subsequently donned by, well, Donner).

Within a ruined shrine dedicated to Erathis they, after much deliberation, descended into a dark hole with deposited them in a hellish catacomb wreathed in crimson light and glass pillars filled with screaming souls of the damned. Blood flowed from numerous alters, collecting in a deep bit that was guarded by more undead and cultists engaged in an unholy rite in the name of Orcus. Sand took the initiative (literally) by trying to backstab a skeleton, which didn't work out as well as it could have. Skeletons clambered out of alcoves and frenzied cultists hedged the party in, capturing them in a pincer attack. Other, physically inept cultists hung back and withered away the party's strength with magic.

This was a pretty grueling battle. Though I'd clustered the minions up nice and tight, Riven had a difficult time incinerating them. Donner's armor didnt help much because Sand was at the forefront, and it made the most sense to hit him instead of going for targets that he was granting cover to. Many rounds, action points, and healing surges later, they prevailed. Fortunately neither Donner nor Riven used their daily spells, because the fight wasn't over: the high priest was still waiting with a several tattered spirits at his beck and call. I called it for the night, since by then it was almost two in the morning.

I haven't gamed that late since I was in high school.

Keep on the Shadowfell w/ Essentials, Behind the Screen

Paul asked a few questions in the comments of my Essentials-only Keep on the Shadowfell playthrough, which can be summed up as what did I change, and did I encourage my players to create the traits that they did.

First, character traits. Since I was running the adventure more or less on the fly, I had the players make characters and quickly come up with backgrounds that worked for them and made sense. When I make a campaign, I let players make whatever they want, but strongly encourage characters that will best fit and make sense. For example, in Tendrils of Fate I told them that since it takes place in the Shadow Marches (Eberron) that half-orcs, humans, primal classes, etc would work out best. I also don't like having characters pivotal to the continuation of the campaign, since sometimes players die or want to change characters (which can go hand in hand), but like to tie them in as side-treks or optional quests. For example Devin's character (Sand) is on the run from the authorities in Fallcrest. This might come up later if they go back, or a bounty hunter might seek him out. 

In short, I like to encourage characters to define their characters at least loosely before we start running, but also encourage them to come up with new things on the way. This is fine because when you meet someone, you don't see everything about them all at once: often new things come up the more you get to know them.

As for modifying the adventure, the first thing I did was change the story, such as it is. Initially Kalarel is trying to open up a portal to the Shadowfell, which is located under a keep—known as Shadowfell Keep—that he’s for some reason populated with various goblinoids and undead. To top it off, he’s also teaming up with kobolds far to the south for equally unexplained reasons. The adventure starts out with the characters heading to Winterhaven, getting ambushed by kobolds, and then getting tasked with cleaning them out. They go there, fight through a shitload of mostly-minions, beat up their goblin leader, and finding a letter handwritten by Kalarel that reveals the big plot. Aside from being something that only the most cliché of villains would do, I have no fucking clue why he’s working with goblin-lead kobolds in the first place.

Starting with the story, I’m more or less treating the kobolds and keep as two separate adventures. For the keep, the backstory that I'm going for is that it was built before or during the time of Nerath, and some paladins or knights or whatever showed up and destroyed the threat lurking within, and built the keep on top to guard the site (and did not refer to it as Shadowfell Keep). After Nerath fell Kalarel showed up with some direction from Orcus to rebuild the place. He opened up the sealed and collapsed passages, and has spent a good deal of time fixing them up so that he could try and re-open the gate. Simple, easy, somewhat logical. How do the kobolds fit in?

They don’t.

The kobolds showed up on their own and have been raiding caravans under the rule of a white dragon and his right-hand man, Irontooth (who is not a goblin, but a kobold that got badass by eating an iron dragon’s heart). There's no letter in the lair with Kalarel blatantly explaining his villainous cliche. At best, Kalarel is aware of the kobolds, and doesnt give two shits because it provides an adequate distraction for the citizens of Winterhaven. The player’s catch wind of the larger bigger due to rumors of undead shambling throughout the woods and nearby farmland. Since the only structure north is the keep, it provides a clear heading. You could also tie it in with any player running a divine class, giving them some kind of vision, or having to head out there because a family member was torn apart by zombies and you've gotta foot the bill for her burial. There are ways to elegantly have the players become curious about the keep without explicitly telling them that the BBEG is lurking there with a haphazard army of goblins, hobgoblins, and some undead for good measure.

To address the numerous complaints of repetition and grindage, I compressed things. Players only need ten encounters to level up, not counting major quests and multiple minor quests. So by making the kobold lair and Shadowfell keep major quests (which they get by going to Winterhaven and talking to NPCs), I can remove at least two encounters. Also since the kobolds were raiding merchant caravans, I also made returning their goods a minor quest. Finally, if the players got to the dragon graveyard, they can find an optional item there (dragon skull) to make things easier for them later, as well as get a bit more XP under their belts. Really the only reason I've even going for two-levels worth is because I want to try and keep them up to snuff for subsequent adventures.

Finally it’s just a matter of fixing the encounters, requiring a combination of refurbishing the maps and repopulating the monsters (especially the kobold lair and ALL of the keep). Outside the kobold lair is mostly fine, I just added a wyrmpriest working on a magic item in the magic circle (which grants bonus cold damage), and made the river a bitch to get over without using a log bridge. Combined with rocks for cover, this let ranged characters busy themselves trying to pick off the spear-chucking, spell-slinging mobs while the melee characters close the distance to the dragonshields and skirmishers. I think it lets the roles shine a lot better this way.

I redid the entire internal part to be more consistent with a cave system, such as elevation, rock formations that can serve as difficult or even hazardous terrain, and areas where the characters had to squeeze to get into. To make things easy and neat looking, I'd pick up a pack or two of cavern Dungeon Tiles. Since kobolds are allegedly notorious for rigging traps, I’d add some of those in and/or between encounters, such as cultivated mushroom patches that explode, pits, spears, perhaps something that dumps an ooze on them. They can serve as a warning system and soften up the party. With a more expansive network of tunnels, kobolds can attack and flee from multiple directions (perhaps coaxing characters into traps). I had some thunderstones setup at the start that would not only alert the kobolds, but also drop stalactites on them (which Sand easily noticed). Finally, as I mentioned before Irontooth became a kobold that had, “consumed the heart and blood of an iron dragon,” and overall the entire clan was lead by a white dragon. A much more satisfying finale, methinks.

For the keep, the ruined foundation is going to serve as "floor one". The crumbling foundation and buildings can work great for providing cover and difficult terrain. The underground passages are still there, they just won’t be lengthy hallways that terminate into massive chambers with randomized functions. I’m going to use pillars and crumbling walls to shake things up, as well as try to have multiple paths to each room to allow for dynamic movement. Since I only need to squeeze out about 7-8 encounters (counting traps and the like) before I can wrap things up, I think I’ll have a catacomb floor and a temple floor with about 4 encounters a pop.

As for monsters? I think I speak for a lot of people when I say no. Fucking. Goblins. None. Nadda. Kalarel is the high priest of the demon lord of the UNDEAD. There are numerous things he can use that fall within the 1-3 level range. Kalarel is a fucking necromancer. Use it. Also? What about cultists? You could cultists fill in the niche for living adversaries if you really must (I plan on allowing them to issue free commands to undead, ala the warlord class). Hell, let the party capture one alive and he can fill in some details. The idea of a cowardly farmer-turned-cultist spilling his guts (before he literally does) is much more feasible than a notarized letter in the hands of a goblin. Finally, since Kalarel is a spellcaster, feel free to mix in arcane traps. Glyphs that incite fear or weaken targets, grim totems that cause attack or defense penalties when characters are too close (perhaps they even scream, causing a push effect). The keep is ancient, so you could also use mundane traps like collapsing floors or ceilings, and if you wanna pimp the undead theme, you could have undead lying in ambush within sarcophagi.

Keep on the Shadowfell w/ Essentials, Part 2

Josh was able to make it this time around, rolling up a human warpriest of Kord, named Donner. While wandering around the forest aimlessly the party happened upon him and a considerable kobold warband. Aside from Delinth getting taken down by a critical ambush (I left some slyblades lurking in bushes), everyone was fine if a few healing surges worse for wear. After the mandatory talkery that always results in the player character joining the fray, they went through a few skill checks to see what happened en route to the kobold lair, and stumbled upon it without any additional random bullshit.

I'm sure I mentioned last time that I lost the map of the kobold lair, so we'd called it early, and since I couldn't find it I just drew up a new map that I felt worked a lot better. The trees were a lot thicker, and some slingers and slyblades were hiding inside at certain points (the skill challenge was to determine if the kobolds noticed them or not), the river shore had some rocks that could be used for cover, the river was deeper and in a few spots, required Athletics checks to swim across, and the magic circle was a bit further away and added +2 cold damage to all of your attacks (since the wyrmpriest was using it to craft a cold-based magic item).

The party tried to have Sand Stealth his way up the line, hoping to spread themselves out, but one botched roll later had him knocking over a dead tree, alerting all the kobolds to his general area, and startling a bear that was busy foraging for food. Riven bolted from the trees, making herself the only visible (and thus viable) target, and after the subsequent initiative roll saw her reduced to five hit points from a hail of javelins and slinger-stones. Due to the distance the rest of the party had a difficult time getting to her aid before she was taken down by a dragonshield, which was swiftly remedied on the following round once Donner got into the thick of things, muttering healing prayers and clobbering kobolds with his mace.

Sand tried to pick off the slingers using the trees for cover, Delinth managed to keep most of the kobolds from fleeing, though Riven's searing retaliation to the wyrmpriest's dragon breath saw it running for the waterfall, though the retreat was cut a bit short when Donner leapt upon it, mace crackling with lightning. In the end only one slinger managed to flee, and only because it was so far away and under cover of the trees. Picking through the corpses, they found a master's wand of scorching burst and skull that would let anyone wearing it like a hat use a cold-based dragon breath attack once per day. Basically, its the dragonborn's racial, just keyed to Charisma instead of Constitution.

Donner had noticed that there was a cave behind the waterfall, and assuming that's where the wyrmpriest was trying to flee, decided to explore it themselves. Having scrapped the original map, I went with something a bit more realistic in its layout. You know, varying height levels, winding tunnels, stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. There were three main encounters, with a few wandering kobolds that could detect them or assist in fights if things went way too smoothly. They couldn't take an extended rest, and after each fight I rolled to see if their short rest was interrupted as well. Sand took point to scout the place out, finding kobolds to the north, and tried to distract them with a thrown rock. It worked enough for him to stick a dagger in a dragonshield, almost killing it instantly. Donner polished it off, but was lined up perfectly for all the minions and slingers to almost kill him in one round. Unfortunately (again), they were lined up for Riven's scorching burst to almost kill them instantly. Fuck.

Wrapping things up, they noticed that one of two passages had light, while the other was cloaked in darkness. For some reason, they went with the darkness and strangely thought it was a bad idea only after discovering numerous humanoids entombed in ice along the walls. They still kept going, stopping only after running into a fledgling white dragon. Donner tried the route of Diplomacy, and considering that the dragon only demanded all their loot in exchange for letting them leave, I think it went well...that is, until someone decided to flaunt the skull they'd stolen. See, the dragon knew that it's wyrmpriest was making it, and after getting a decidedly unsatisfactory answer as to the whereabouts of his servant, decided to up the ante and amend the terms of their release to include the sacrifice of a party member. They prayed that he did not alter it further.

Donner voted for himself, but Delinth being a stubborn bastard was having none of this and charged the dragon. This is where things went downhill. Fledgling white dragons have an Initiative modifier of zero, and after a spectacularly shitty roll of 2 it was determined that I went last. Donner went up and used whatever the fuck it is that grants allies a +2 to defenses for the encounter, Delinth charged with poised stance, dealing 20 or so damage with power strike, Riven used fountain of flame (which to her chagrin did not target allies), and Sand got it into well past bloodied with a high roll from a shortbow attack that was coupled with Sneak Attack and backstab. This triggered bloodied breath, which hit only two people for 11 damage.

My turn.

Failed to recharge breath weapon. Miss twice. Action point. Miss twice. Action point. Miss (with bite, so only one roll, here). Try to move away from the fountain of flame zone into the water, which would give everyone cold vulnerability and slow them, take more damage in the process.

Their turn.

Donner hucks a javelin, game over in less than two rounds. FML.

They look the dragon's treasury for about a hundred gold, a gem or two, and a defensive hammer. I had them each roll on the level 1 table out of Rules Compendium, since I was changing everything on the fly anyway, so good for them. While trying to rest the last of the kobolds showed up, lead by Irontooth (a kobold that had eaten the heart of an iron dragon). They didn't get a chance to fully rest, and the fight was pretty brutal in comparison to the dragon. Riven almost got taken down multiple times, Donner ran out of heals by the second round, and Delinth really couldn't do any defender shit because most of the kobolds were on the other side of the freezing ass river throwing javelins and special stones. Josh played really smart, hucking javelins when melee was clearly a dumb avenue to pursue. He even had Delinth throwing them around, and I think with the lack of at-will exploits it was less of an issue since it in most cases meant a slight reduction in damage.

After slaying the last of the kobolds, they headed back to Winterhaven with more than enough proof of their deed (and hit level 2 in the process). The only other thing on their list is scoping out that ruined keep up north.

Keep on the Shadowfell w/ Essentials

I'm running Keep on the Shadowfell for the third time, for a third group. Fortunately, this time around I can take all the changes implemented from the second time (ie, the whole adventure) and better integrate them. It also helps that 75% of the party isn't fucking drow, possibly due to the fact that I restricted the players to using Essentials (with a few exceptions). I did this partially because I wanted to see how it would work out in extended play, side by side with other content, but mostly because two of the three players are completely new to the game and I didn't want to overwhelm them with hundreds of choices. If you've played Keep on the Shadowfell, there're a lot of changes, so don't be surprised.

So we got Delinth (dwarf knight), Sand (elf thief), and Riven (tiefling pyromancer, and this is where the exceptions come into play). Despite being new, all of the players rapidly came up with some character traits that I could readily use to drive the campaign in their direction. For example, Sand fled to Winterhaven to get away from the Fallcrest authorities, while Riven literally has a devil on her shoulders--which may or may not be a hallucination--that tempts her to burn things. Like both times, I started the characters out with the kobold ambush, using the stats from the Dungeon Master's Book. Since there were only three players and no leader, I reduced the encounter two four minions, an artillery, and a lurker.

The encounter went smooth, all things considered. Since no one made their Perception checks, the ambush opened up with the slinger on the rock lobbing a stone at Delinth, which failed to hit his considerable AC of 20. I placed the other kobolds deep in the trees because Sand's player kept going on about how he wanted to dive into the trees so that he could Stealth, and I wanted to give him something to knife. Unfortunately, he fucked up his Stealth and Perception, and stumbled upon two tunnelers lurking in there who promptly gave him two shovels in the face. Dillon, Delinth's player, had a somewhat difficult time fiddling with defender's aura and battle guardian, which is understandable since I'd also like to point out that they handwrote their sheets and power cards, and stood his ground after activating his aura, a stance, and readying an action to clobber the first kobold that got within a hammer's swing. Riven? Well, even an attack bonus of +6 doesn't help with nat one's.

The slinger chucked another stone at Delinth, who easily side-stepped it (which sucks cause it would've immobilized him). The tunnelers continued to batter Sand into the ground, while another pair and slyblade rushed out of the southern tree line to gang up on Delinth. Sand managed to take down a tunneler, while Delinth's cleaving stance allowed him to crush the tunnelers on his end. The round ended with Riven botching another scorching burst. Mebbe she needs glasses? Perhaps that imp on her shoulder is playing the backseat wizard?

For the third round, the slinger pegged Riven with a firepot, but since she's a tiefling it didn't amount to shit. She retaliated with infernal wrath, causing his skin to smoke and blister, while Sand gratefully took an opportunity attack to nat 1 the slinger. Fortunately, he remembered elven accuracy and turned it into a killing blow with a combination of Sneak Attack and backstab (4d6 + 6 damage for the win). The battle was basically won, though it took another round for the party to gang up on the slyblade. The killing shot went to Riven, who was tired of missing and did the job proper with magic missile. Automatic hits are pretty rad.

They arrived at Winterhaven without further incident. Riven split off to deliver the message to her mentor's friend Valthrun, while Sand and Delinth scoped out the rest of the village and managed to pick up a quest to exterminate the kobolds plaguing the town from Padraig. This is one way that I diverge from the original adventure: the two primary plot points this time around are the kobold lair and keep (which is not fucking called Shadowfell Keep). Neither of the two have any connection with the exception that the Big Bad knows about the kobolds, but doesn't give a damn because as far as he's concerned that stretches out Winterhaven's defenses and makes it less likely that they'll figure anything out. If they do? Well, it'll be all the more difficult for them to do something about it.

The dragon graveyard is something that they can learn about in passing from Valthrun (which Riven did), but is more of an "optional" location that can give them some extra XP and items. I seem to recall that someone had the Big Bad digging about the site for a rib or whatnot, but I'm going to say that the dude wants a skull, and since the kobolds look at it like a sacred site that it's been difficult for his minions to procure one. If they get it, I'll prolly make it a wondrous item that will help them out later...unless it gets stolen in which case it will make things a bit harder for them.

They decided to head out to the kobold lair, which is good because I want them to hit up the lair and graveyard first so that they can get a few magic items and more XP. They got to try out their first skill challenge, but relied almost entirely on Nature and Perception. That's fine, since they're new. Riven used History to recall some of the maps in Valthrun's tower that provided a rough idea where the graveyard was, deducing that the kobolds would likely be close by. Unfortunately, neither Nature nor Perception are anyone's strong suit, and they got ambushed by more kobolds and a guard drake. After trouncing them we called it because it was 2am and I didn't have the kobold lair map on hand. I guess I'll have to draw it next time we play.

Not surprisingly, everything played just like 4th Edition, except for class resources. The players controlling the knight and thief only had to worry about one encounter exploit, routingly making basic melee attacks each round, modified only by the stance or trick used. This kind of fucked Delinth, who spent the first round of combat "prepping" his aura and stance. Were he a fighter he could have moved and then charged a kobold, dealing some damage and auto-marking the target, but I'm sure thats part of the inherent balance.
September 24, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

Staffs & Spells

There's some more Essentials support in the form of staff-fighting options and another mage school specialization.

Starting with staffs, the article comes in two parts. The first allows knights and slayers to pick non-parallel alternative class features in order to make the quarterstaff a viable choice, in case that's something that appealed to you. Personally, I'm kinda meh on it because while I haven't had a chance to take either class for a spin, using a big-ass sword appeals to me a lot more than a stick. Anywho, knights can replace Shield Finesse with Spinning Deflection, which grants an AC and Reflex bonus when wielding a staff, and you still count as using a shield for power prereqs. Additionally, they can take Bludgeoning Staff at level 7 in order to push enemies that they hit with power strike. Slayers on the other hand can take Rapid Quarterstaff at level 7 in order to deal automatic damage to adjacent critters when using power strike, and can take staggering staff for their level 12 utility, which lets them slide a target they miss as a free action.

The feat groups here are Ordained Weapon, Thief Weapon, and Weapon Training, each with their own pair of feats. Ordained Weapon feats are only useful for divine classes: Staff of Knowledge grants combat advantage for a single divine attack, while Staff of Travel lets you shift when you hit with divine attacks. Thief Weapon feats apply to thieves and/or rogues by virtue of their prereqs, allowing you to daze with a backstab or gaining both proficiency with a staff and being able to use Sneak Attack with it. That's a bit more up my alley, evoking images of the Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner. Finally, Stout-Handed Staff basically lets small characters use a quarterstaff, as well as shift if you prone someone when smacking them with one, while War Wizard's Staff lets you usher an ally out of the way when using close arcane attacks. You know, if you're the kind of character that gives a shit if you're going to explode an ally.

Speaking of exploding allies, the new school on the block is pyromancy, which to me seems like a subset of evocation. It presents itself like the other schools do in Heroes of the Fallen Lands, just not intermixed throughout the class's progression. In other words, its easier to determine what benefits it provides throughout your career. Starting with the heroic tier, Pyromancy Apprentice grants a passive, untyped, scaling bonus on arcane fire attacks. Wow. Pair this with a tiefling with Hellfire Blood and you'll be packing some serious heat. Okay well, Pyromancy Expertise doesn't give you any magical benefits, instead giving a passive bonus to Bluff and Intimidate...which are two iconic tiefling skills. Hrmm... Pyromancy Master causes area and close arcane attacks to create zones that inflict automatic damage for a turn. I wonder if tieflings in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms are going to get optional Con bonuses?

I like all these features, mostly because I like tieflings a lot and it seems specifically geared towards them, which is completely fucking fine by me. At paragon tier, Pyromancy Action lets you pick an enemy when you burn an action point, and for an entire turn anytime you hit them with a fire effect, they take maximum damage.  Brutal. Kelwyn's devouring fire is your level 11 attack, which hits a nice area and deals half damage on a miss (or you can slide them). If you kill anything, survivors take automatic fire damage again. I find it odd that you can opt to deal half damage or slide creatures outside the area of effect. I wonder if spells will be updated to represent missed targets leaping out of the way? The level 12 utility lets you transform into an elemental-type shape, granting fire immunity, a bonus on attacks based on the number of targets you're gunning for, and automatic damage to creatures stopping next to you. Very cool if cliche. Finally, at level 20 you get a very hefty 10d10 fire damage attack that not only hits an area 2 burst within 20 squares, but chalks off half your hit points (and you cannot reduce it, either). Yeesh. Fuck meteor swarm.

Not a bad haul, though a staff-wielding defender wasn't really one of my must haves, or even kinda-sorta-wanna haves. At least some of the new feats could be used by other characters, so there's some nice coverage there. Mostly, I'm stoked over the pyromancer. Josh wanted someone to play a wizard, so this'll be a good chance to tryout another tiefling that focuses on fire magic.
September 22, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

Executioner Assassin Playtest

Depending on where you live and how much you care, Essentials has either been out for a week, or you're still waiting on it. Regardless, it's already got quite a hefty content delivery with a full-blown 30-level playtest class, the executioner. Though cited in Heroes of the Fallen Lands as a martial class, the executioner is (currently) unique in that it has two power sources--Martial and Shadow--which is something people either like or revile. Personally, I just look at it like a modified hybrid rogue/assassin build as unlike the assassin this one only dabbles in hexes, also relying on martial prowess to see the job through (it is perhaps for this reason that it's slightly more durable than the alternative).

Since the executioner is half martial, I'd expected that the majority of its attacks would rely on melee basic attacks...and I was partially correct. Every weapon attack you make gets a passive bonus to damage thanks to Attack Finesse, kind of like the barbarian. It also let's you use your Dexterity modifier for your MBAs regardless of weapon, though the at-will exploits demand specific weapon usage so you'll wanna stick this those (say goodbye to fullblade-wielding assassins). You get to pick from one of two guilds, which determines the weapons you're proficient with and exploits you can choose from, and there's a table featuring the Superior weapons you get that aren't in Heroes of the Fallen Lands.

Exploits from the Red Scales guild--in addition to mandatory weaponry--either require that you are hidden or make a charge, or don't deal damage and instead impose some kind of controller effect like grabbed or prone. All of the League of Whispers exploits are limited to ranged weapons and modify what they do on a hit or granting you a bonus effect (generally free movement). Basically, if you want to focus mostly on melee go with the Red Scales, otherwise you're looking at the League of Whispers. Each guild only gets to pick from four, and these are the only attacks you get throughout the entire game. At levels where you'd normally get new encounter attacks, you instead gain Death Attack, the ability to make more poisons while resting, or to pick a third at-will from your list.

Like knights and slayers, you do get a damage-boosting at will, assassin's strike. It works on any creature within 5 squares, so ranged executioners don't get fucked, deals an extra 1d10 damage (scaling up to 7d10), triggers as a Free Action, and also inflicts maximum damage on a helpless target (which I thought was a coup de grace, and thereby dealt max damage already). Unlike most encounter powers, you cannot recharge it by any means save a short rest. In case this wasn't enough, their Death Attack class feature (gained at level 3) allows them to kill shit even faster, causing an automatic kill when you reduce an enemy to 10 hit points or less with any attack. You cannot subdue a creature using this; you must kill it. This hit point range increases to 20 and 30 at levels 11 and 21 respectively.

At 1st-level they can create poisons during an extended rest, so long as they know the recipe and have a poisoner's kit (typo-ed as an "assassin's kit"). You start out knowing any two from the 1st level list, and they're pretty potent, having both in-and-out of combat uses. When used on a weapon, they generally inflict ongoing poison damage, or grant you bonus poison damage (notably, id moss powder lets you throw it, dealing both poison damage and ongoing psychic damage, causing the target to attack it's allies each time it fails a save). That's nifty, but the really cool shit happens if you use a little subterfuge; when poured into a drink or used on a plate of food, bloodroot poison dazes the first creature that eats it until they take an extended rest. Sounds cool? Well id moss powder can be placed in a container, and deals automatic damage and ongoing damage when a creature opens it. The best part is that if the creature dies from the damage, it is instead driven permanently insane.

There's no purchase price for these poisons, so unless a DM is willing to houserule only executioners can make them, but since there's no restriction on who can use them it’s feasible to let another character try it out. There's also a limit on how many you can have at any given time (which increases by level), and they become useless when you take an extended rest. The explanation is that in most places, poisons are illegal, so executioners learn how to make them from seemingly innocuous components, greatly reducing longevity. I can see players and DMs getting pissy because of this, but I'm glad to see a class that provides an elegant method for actually applying poisons outside of the other assassin's liberal use of shadow magic. 

As per Essentials you don't get to make a lot of choices as you level, typically just utilities (though in some cases you get to, ahem, pick your poison). Utilities can be martial or shadow, and while you can try to stick to mundane fare inevitably you'll get saddled with a hex at level 10 since it offers no exploits. All of the exploits are at-wills, save for daring escape, which is an encounter.  There aren't a lot of martial utilities--like, five I think in total--and in summary they let you move and remain hidden even if you break cover (well, 'til the end of your turn), reduce falling damage and remain standing if the falling damage is negated, climb/jump your speed without making a skill check, or shift twice your speed in addition to gaining a hefty skill bonus if you have to climb or jump while shifting. On the other hand, hexes let you do stuff like create zones of fog or darkness, teleport (sometimes without having line of sight), unerringly track a target, or place a corpse into a tiny container so that you can quickly conceal and/or transport a victim. 

I like that WotC went outside the power box on this one and made something that combines two different sources. I think it works, and have no problem with "dual-sources", as it goes outside of the whole symmetry thing that they don't like adhering to. I don't think that its better than the assassin, it just goes about things in a very different fashion. I like the use of poisons, as players in my games tend to ignore them, but the restrictive power selection kind of tanks it for me. Josh wants to run an all-Essentials campaign, so I'll see if I can give it an in-depth run.
September 18, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

The Shadows Over Greyshore, Part 1

The party decided that their best course of action would be to head towards Greyshore. Though they all knew it to be an impoverished fishing village, they figured that they could at least get a boat and get back to Zarash'ak that much quicker. On the way they were ambushed by more bullywugs (consistency!) and got stuck in the middle of an ankheg hunting ground. While the bullywugs were a random encounter, the ankhegs were planned and I'd drawn up a sloping depression with a pool in the center, surrounded by numerous man-sized tunnels. The idea was that the ankhegs could use the tunnels to drag people into, making it difficult to be attack unless a character went into another tunnel to try and find it.

That didn't happen, as Josh's seeker immobilized one and allowed everyone to destroy one before going after the other. I didn't even get to grab anyone or re-enter a tunnel to surprise them later. Oh well, at least I got to use acid spray a few times before going down.

Once they got the tumbler removed from the water, they met Obed, purportedly a high priest of the Devourer who was heading to Shardpit from Greyshore. The party was understandably paranoid, asking him all manner of questions to try and ascertain his intents. They found out that he was going there to purchase some relics discovered in a mine, something that Randy realized couldn't be true because of the time it takes to walk to Shardpit and the fact that everything was dug up only a few days ago. Even still, Liz wanted to see the guys stash of ancient valuables and they tagged along.

Once they got to Greyshore, Obed said that he would look into getting them a boat, and that they could stay at the inn for free. Once at the inn, they immediately set out to search every room for traps, secret doors, or latent magical effects. They realized after examining every room that the furnishings were far too expensive for "an impoverished fishing village", which got their paranometers off the charts. They figured that they should just leave,  which triggered a combat encounter with the handful of patrons and barkeep. Using restraint they incapacitated them for questioning, discovering that everyone in the place worships Dagon, with the usual monologue that they wouldn't make it out alive.

Desperate & Delusional?

As per usual people are upset at how Wizards of the Coast is marketing their Essentials lineup, with the majority shares of animosity directed at their "desperate retro labeling" in hopes that lapsed and butthurt edition diehards clinging to their outdated, out of print games will rejoin our ranks. 'Cause, you know, it's good business practice to dump a shitload of time and money on a fraction-of-a-minority gamble. As has been said over and over again, Essentials is for current, new, and (potentially) lapsed players, not hypocritical grognards who keep their heads in the sand and seem to believe that any innovation outside of their own houserules is an affront to the hobby.

For example, take minis. There are the guys that bitch about how D&D uses apparently obscure implements such as battle mats, markers, and miniatures for managing combat despite the fact that every other edition did so as well (I myself owned a shitload of Ral Partha minis "back in the day"). On the other hand, some like to prattle on about how powers in 4th Edition are "too samey" (by an imagined standard) and that you "just button mash at-wills", disregarding the fact that most (if not all) characters in older editions had one attack that involved a straight d20 roll and only differed in the weapon's damage die. Make up your minds; is it okay or not? You can't negatively criticize it in one edition and not the other.

The developers at WotC aren't stupid. They know that the only way to get the "old school" guys back into the fold is to release--unedited--the same game they already own. Of course no matter which edition they re-release fans of every other edition are still going to be up in arms, so logically they have every incentive to go for what's best for the hobby, which is to say forward. Squatting on dated material fraught with clunky, unbalanced, nonsensical rules is not good for a game company. You need to innovate, which is what the designers at WotC have been doing for the past 10 years. You might not like it. You might like a game where wizards render other classes obsolete in the span of a few levels, where classes cannot do what it was purported to do, and where you can randomly die for no good reason due to one bad die roll.

That's fine, because the game has continued to evolve and I'm glad that you're not a part of it.

Having played Basic and 2nd Edition, I can say that yes, Essentials does provide a somewhat nostalgic experience. The classes have mostly fixed abilities gained at fixed levels, knights and slayers lack the variety of attacks that fighters do, warpriests are melee-oriented (whereas clerics can opt to use ranged attacks), thieves are thieves, and there's a random treasure table in Rules Compendium (which I've been using in my current game without creating some kind of game mechanic singularity). The difference between Essentials and any other edition you care to name is that it looks like an enjoyable game, and I wouldn't be upset to play in an Essentials-only campaign since there is a lot of flexibility and variety in that little book.

I read on another blog that someone believes that they used the classic art from the original red box because, and I'm fucking serious, "that's when the game was it's most popular," which is a pretty delusional statement considering that if the game was doing so great in the past, then why did TSR flop? Why didn't WotC just sell the game as it was after picking it up? Why did they move even farther away from 3rd Edition with 4th? I suppose WotC just enjoys wasting time and losing money on such an unpopular game. I'm sure if they went back to basics they'd be rolling in profits, amirite? Another person asked why they, "don't give people what they want?" They are. The majority doesn't want what older editions had to offer, which wasn't much. We want a fun, accessible, balanced experience that doesn't punish or push away newcomers.

Have fun with your little "renaissance".
September 15, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

The Wayward Wyrmling Review

Warning: This is an adventure review that contains spoilers.

I remember back in the days of Old Editions Past when dragons had hard-wired personalities based on whether their scales were made from metal or simply gone over with a Crayola, with metallic dragons usually having a Good component appended to their alignment. Like most "Always X Good" monsters, this meant that if you wanted to throw them at the party you had to get "creative", which is another way of saying using a cliche. Popular ones included a case of mistaken identity/gross misunderstanding, mind control, or just because. 4th Edition makes this easier by having most monsters be unaligned at best or changing their origins, making them easier to justify as opponents.

The Wayward Wyrmling is a level 3 adventure in the Chaos Scar written by Aeryn "Blackdirge" Rudel that tells the woeful story of an adamantine dragon hatchling who loses his mother to adventurers, only to befriend a band of kobolds while meandering about the Chaos Scar region. This might make a good Disney movie except for the part where the kobolds kidnap humans and feed them to the dragon. They also do goblins and other kobolds, but those are monsters so no one gives a fuck. The party can be thrown in the mix by either being re-hired by the dwarf that sent the first party in to fetch some scales, or retrieve the corpses of the good-for-nothing husbands that figured going into a notoriously dangerous region to fetch wood was a capital idea (I do like how if the party helps out the wives for free that they get bonus XP).

The adventure isn't long, reaching delve proportions, but then quality over quantity is paramount when avoiding a KotS-worthy grindfest. The adventure consists of two encounters tackling kobolds doing what they do best: cower behind shit while trying to goad the party into traps or hazardous terrain, while the last encounter includes a dragon with a twist skill challenge that allows you to--mid combat no less--convince it to change sides. As a bonus if you don't kill it (the pathological pastime of all adventurers), it can team up with you for a few levels while you tour the Chaos Scar as your personal pet dragon. This is a very well written, short adventure with a twist that's not too predictable.

At the Mines of Madness Finale

We wrapped up the last session of At the Mines of Madness last week, a session that I've forgotten much of the fine details. I do recall that in a fit of characteristic paranoia the party buried their treasure since they were afraid of it turning them into aberrant horrors, which to be fair was apt since the aberrant corruption caused Liz to grow a carapace over her arm, and Beth's character to grow a gibbering mouth on her side (but since Liz wanted the mouth, they decided to trade). Picking up where we left off, the characters following a trail of dark green slime that lead into the mining quarry, deducing mine 13 to be the source of the problems due to a steady stream of water trickling forth. They figured there was a lot of bad shit inside, but unable to make any worthwhile preparations ventured forth and trounced my skill challenge to avoid getting lost from dimensional warping and psychic static fairly easily. It's good when you have associated skills.

They located the shrine, which had a heavily damaged earth tumbler sitting just outside the entrance. The damage allowed an elemental to mostly free itself from its Khyber dragonshard prison, meaning that they had to fight it and try to rebind it to the shard so that it would stop escaping and harassing them. Despite only being a level 2 solo, its combined slams allowed it to immediately bloody Randy's battlemind, to which he proclaimed that it was a good thing he would doing his job proper, as it could have outright dropped or possibly killed anyone else in the party. I wasn't worried since Liz's rogue is thoroughly optimized and Beth's liberal use of Thunder keyword attacks kept it's Defenses perpetually reduced to brute levels.

Repairing the earth tumbler cost them a Make Whole ritual scroll, but with the net gain of an elemental vehicle I think they're more than willing to call it a wash. Inside the shrine they found more fell taints, some orc skeletons, and a pool containing some chuul nymphs that they sealed with stone sarcophagi because they were ridiculously paranoid at what might happen if they had to go into the water (and Josh failed numerous skill checks to try and freeze it). They did fish out a dead body before hand that had a time-warping wondrous item, so it wasnt all that bad. Their brief venture into the aberrant shrine ended once they'd found a reality tear, sealed it, and toppled an idol dedicated to Dagon.

On their way out of town, they decided to hit up the inn and discovered the last reality tear, so took precautions that involved burning the entire inn to the ground, detonating ale kegs in the cellar where it was located, and then burying the whole site (just to be sure). The only surviving creature was a lowly flumph that the two female players (Liz and Beth) immediately befriended...and queried as to whether it could wear a snazzy hat. The little guy proved useful when they made camp in town and were attacked by a leveled-up ethereal marauder...or rather he would have, had Liz been able to successfully pantomime to the party that there was a monster outside. Eh, it died quickly regardless of its Elite status, so whatever. Randy can drop it off at a Gatekeeper organization in Zarash'ak to up his reputation.

That was the last session in a nutshell, next Tuesday they're off to Greyshore so that they can try and find a boat back to Zarash'ak so that they can report what happened. They do know that someone from Greyshore had stopped by Shardpit to try and buy all the golden relics that they buried, but they don't know why. So...we'll see what happens next week.
September 12, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

Heroes of the Fallen Lands Review

Heroes of the Fallen Lands is the first of two player-centric books from the Essentials line, which is designed to let new players test the waters at a lower price before jumping in. It’s soft cover, which is something that I’m not fond of when it comes to my gaming books due to the fragile nature (honestly, this is my only complaint), but for the sheer page count and content the $20 price tag can’t be beat. Unlike most books, this one is “digest-sized”, meaning that it’s not only smaller and easier to lug around, but also probably less intimidating for newbies. It's very easy going, written with a friendly tone, to the point where complete newbies could easily skip Starter Set and start out here instead.

Now, in terms of races and classes it lacks the breadth and depth of its hardcover brethren, as there are only four classes that are relegated to 1-3 largely pre-built concepts (as opposed to choosing your own class features and powers as you advance in level) and five races. While this is limiting to me I'm not the intended audience, having been around since long before 4th Edition was considered, and had the luxury of being gradually exposed to the game’s ever increasing array of options. I find this book to be a logical transition from the Starter Set entry point, as players who started out with that will already have a good understanding of the game as well as character sheets, power cards, tokens, and dice to get things rolling.

Chapter 1 goes over rules basics and assumes that you know nothing about D&D despite ideally being your second step into the full-fledged hobby (perhaps analog RPGs in general). It goes over what the vanilla points of light world is like, the roles of the DM and players, tiers of play, skill checks, encounters, actions in combat, movement, hit points, resting, etc.

Chapter 2 is about making characters, informing you about the significance of the choices you make while building your character. It starts out by asking if you've gone through the Red Box, which isn't a bad idea because you'll probably already have a character in mind. Mostly this chapter is about going through the ropes, explaining to you what each option entails such as races and classes and their concepts, roles and ability scores and their definitions, how to calculate various statistics like hit points and Defenses, alignments, and deities. I like this chapter a lot as it let's you know whats-what before throwing you in so that you can get to the task of actually building a character.

Something that was of particular interest to myself was the table showing the options that will be available in Heroes of the Fallen Kingdoms; apparently the hexblade (warlock striker) will debut there, along with the hunter, which is a ranger-controller. The druid also branches out into the leader role with the sentinel class. Finally, six other races like the half-orc and tiefling will also be there with the Essentials treatment.

Chapter 3 has an in-depth analysis on power structure and function. Power types, keywords, ranges, how to trace line of effect, secondary attacks, aftereffects, the list goes on. This chapter is a lot like Chapter 2, except entirely focused on powers.

Chapter 4 finally gets around to having you pick your class, which is odd because I’m normally accustomed to picking race first and then class. Where 4th Edition normally had you pick from a list of class features and considerably larger list of powers, here you make a few choices but for the most part jot down the class features given to you at each level, and some classes are more rigid than others. Knights and slayers get to choose their stances, while mages get to choose at-will, encounter, and daily spells in addition to their school of choice (which gives them another benefit). This strongly reminds me of 2nd Edition (which is the point), where fighters didn't get to make a lot of choices, except that here the knight and slayer aren't going to be carrying the mage around for the first five levels or so until he can solo the rest of the campaign.

Each class starts out with few paragraphs explaining the basic concepts of the class before guiding you step-by-step through the choices you make completing the character. It repeats the process for each class, and that's fucking awesome. Players can flip to any class that catches their eye and be carefully guided through the optimal choices for each class, from race to ability scores. Sure, at the start of the class it tells you that the key ability scores for the knight are Strength and Constitution, but when you get to the section where it tells you to generate your scores it also goes over what having high stats outside those two might mean. While it doesn't list every race, it will give you a paragraph about human and dwarf knights. Finally under skills it reminds you to consider why your character has the trained skills that she does.

Chapter 5 has the reworked dwarf, eladrin, elf, halfling, and human. The races are mostly the same, with the major change that they now get a set +2 to something and a variable +2 to one of two other stats so as to make them more flexible when it comes to class selection. This floating bonus is something that we've seen in Player's Handbook 3, and I'm not quite sure how I should feel about it. I mean, sure, since dwarves can get a Strength bonus they'll be even more uber as fighters, but it was never something I felt was necessary. I dunno. I just felt that 4th Edition was the first D&D version that really allowed you to get creative with race and class combinations without having to worry about optimization.

Dwarves see slight modification in that their Dwarven Resilience racial feature get's reformatted as a racial encounter power. It still has the same effect, you're just limited to it once per encounter. Me thinks this was done so as to prevent abuse with whatever feat it is that lets you use second wind twice per encounter in addition to keeping it more in line with other racial powers like second chance and elven accuracy.

On the other hand, human get a more significant alteration with their new racial power, heroic effort. This is something that was mentioned awhile back that lets humans add a +4 bonus to either an attack roll or save after seeing the result. Initially I thought this was supposed to be an option but apparently replaces the human's third at-will attack. I'm hoping that once it gets uploaded to DDI there will still be just one human entry with the choice of taking this or the third at-will, in a similar vein to how warlocks can choose from eldritch strike or eldritch blast

Additionally, all races get a lot more exposition this time around, easily twice as much if not more than what was devoted to them in Player's Handbook. Information on their origins, personalities, physical qualities, role-playing tips, communities, and ideal classes will provide a much better foothold for players to build a more vivid character.

Chapter 6 is for skills. It provides a new skill DC table and explains what easy, moderate, and hard means, taking 10, Aid Another, group checks, and skill challenges. Skills largely work the same but get much more in-depth descriptions and ideas on improvising the skill. The examples under Stealth are hiding an object in a room (opposed Perception), creating a hidden compartment or sheath (moderate DC), or embedding a hidden message in a letter (opposed by Insight). I think that the combination of extended descriptions and sample improv uses will go a long way in increasing creative 

Chapter 7 is feats. I'm very pleased with the changes made to feat presentation and implementation. It's been previewed and demonstrated already, but feats are lumped into categories that let you at a glance assess which feats will likely best fit your concept. Want a really tough hero? Scope out the Enduring Stamina tree. For a more skill-centric character, Learning and Lore has some shit for you.

Wizards has also done away with feat tiers, instead having feats that you take and "evolve" over time. No need to retrain at certain levels to snag the better defense-boosting feats, for example. When you take Superior Will the bonus will scale up with you in addition to giving you something extra, such as the ability to make a save at the start of your turn when dazed or stunned (even if you cannot normally save against the effect). Additionally, I expect to see many defenders grabbing Superior Fortitude not only for the scaling Fort bonus, but also for the scaling, passive resistance to all forms of ongoing damage.

Expertise feats see some fucking awesome changes as well. In addition to having better scalability (the bonus improves at levels 11 and 21) they also grant you a benefit depending on the weapon group. Heavy Blade gives you a bonus against opportunity attacks, while Bow gives you a scaling damage bonus against targets that are all by their lonesome. Axe Expertise let's you reroll a 1 once, which is good for the axes that aren't Brutal.

Chapter 8 goes over gear, mundane and magical. The selection looks the same as the shit from Player's Handbook (meaning no superior weapons/implements), except that magic items are fairly sparse and are all of common rarity. There aren't any rituals, which doesn't surprise me since none of the classes have Ritual Caster. There's another character sheet in the back that has the same format as the one in Starter Set, except that it's split up onto two separate pages since the book is so much smaller. Some people might really appreciate the new sheet, but it seems like a pain in the ass to print.

With all that out of the way, is this book a substitute for 4th Edition? Fuck no. There aren't nearly enough options available to placate me. Is it a substitute for Player's Handbook? Technically, yes, since you can make a character and it tells you how to make skill checks and kill shit. Is it better than Player's Handbook? Probably since after several years it seems to have more things streamlined, but again the lack of options makes it a tough call (I really like me my tieflings and warlords). Honestly, nothing about this book seems like an Edition transition, but saying fuck-all and ironing out the kinks of shit like non-scaling feats that you have to swap out later cause they end up sucking ass.

In the end, it doesn't replace or change D&D. It merely adds a unique, simpler starting point from which you can enter the hobby, but if you're already well into it, it still offers a nice amount of interesting, solid options.

Edit: One other thing I noticed was that the book also seems at odds on one of my D&D shelves, mostly due to my compulsion to have all player books on one shelf and DM stuff on another.

For a more in-depth review, My Girlfiend is a DM has posted part 1 by guest author Phil Corpuz.
September 11, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

Winning Races: Dwarves

This Winning Races article is presented "Essentials-style", in that all the feats within are lumped into thematic categories instead of on one vast table. This has the advantage of allowing you to quickly choose your feats based on what you want for your character instead of having to peruse literally hundreds of feats, and since I enjoy building characters around a theme this new model holds a lot of appeal for me. The three categories in this article are Giant Slaying, Dwarf Stamina, and Steady as Stone.

The Giant Slaying feats function against all Large and larger critters, allowing you to do stuff like constantly gain combat advantage against them or deal extra damage when flanked, or deal extra damage on a crit. Clangeddin's Axe Expertise gives you a scaling attack bonus with all axes in addition to letting you reroll damage dice against Large-or-larger creatures, but unlike Dwarf Weapon Training doesn't give you proficiency with all axes and hammers.

The Dwarf Stamina feats let you gain poison resistance, use a second wind twice per encounter, or make a save when you use second wind. Again, especially useful for dwarves, but I can see a few being good for most any defender.

Finally, the Steady as Stone feats are either limited to dwarves or mostly useful for dwarves. Quick Steps gives you a Speed increase, while Solid Footing lets you ignore specific types of difficult terrain (both very handy in making your dwarf more mobile). Knock Back isn't explicitly for dwarves, but allows you to automatically prone an adjacent enemy whenever you make a save to avoid being proned yourself, so without magic items I don't see it being particularly useful to anyone else.
September 08, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

At the Mines of Madness Adventure

Here is the first adventure in the Tendrils of Fate adventure path, At the Mines of Madness. It's written entirely by me with some maps redone by Victor (aka ThePlaneswalker) and takes place in Eberron (specifically the Shadow Marches). Unfortunately since its not an "official" adventure by WotC the production value is shit and though I did some proofreading I'm sure I missed a lot of things.

Frankly, I'd consider at best to be a heavy outline of information to use as a framework and modify to taste. Also, I don't think that I can post stat blocks for some of the monsters (even though its not commercial), so you'll have to have access to either Adventure Tools (recommended) or the Monster Manual books. Don't worry, it'll tell you which ones and for what monsters.

Finally, if you dig it and would like to see more, lemme know in the comments. This took quite awhile to cobble together, so if you really like it, donations are appreciated!
September 05, 2010
Posted by David Guyll

They Think They're People

"Why do monsters have feats?"

As far as I know it's because the designers felt the need to have both characters and monsters purportedly play by the same rules. Why did they feel that this was necessary? I have no idea, as from past experience I've discovered that its both it's bad design philosophy and a waste of time that adds nothing to the monster that you couldn't have added yourself and saved the time of rummaging through 90+ books on the off chance you'd stumble upon, I dunno, something? Check out the orc on page 203 of Monster Manual: his feat is Alertness. Whoop-de-flying-shit, he's got +2 to Listen and Spot. I mean, Personally I'd rather have given him Exotic Weapon Proficiency (orc double-axe) or even Weapon Focus. Something remotely useful, ya know? With Alertness he's got--after modifiers--a whole +1 to both skills (meaning that he'd be really handy at detecting a fighter in full plate smashing two helmets together).

This question really just scratches the surface. My question is why build them like characters at all? Why do you as a DM need to go through all the motions to essentially make a fully statted player character even though you only need to know how much damage it can take and how much it can deal? Actually, making a monster is an even bigger pain in the ass because of all the fiddly mechanics that go into it. According to the section in Monster Manual on creating monsters, we start with the type, of which there are 15 options (animal, construct, fey, giant, vermin, etc) that determine Hit Dice, attack progression, base saves, proficiencies, and skill points (you know, like a character class). Types also sometimes give you other set benefits, like low-light vision, immunities, etc. This isn't counting one of over 20 subtypes that add more shit to the pile, as well.

The first problem is what you do if your creature seems to fall into multiple categories, such as a Large humanoid with a strong connection to nature, a "fey-giant" if you will. You can't have both the fey and giant types even though they might make sense, so...what? Pick the "best" one? Argue in the forums about it? Both are for humanoid creatures, and apparently giants don't even need to be Large or larger. Under fey it states "if you want to create a tough fey, you will need to assign formidable physical ability scores and special attacks or defenses to make the creature survivable." This is another problem because special attacks are determined by a combination of ability scores and Hit Dice, so if you give a creature a special attack and have to compensate for a shitty type you might end up making their attack virtually impossible to defend against. There's also the issue that not all types are equal. Dragons and outsiders, for example, get a hefty Hit Die, great attack bonus, good saves all around, lot's of skill points, darkvision, some immunities, and maybe some other things that I'm overlooking. Conversely, humanoid are basically clerics without the class features and proficiencies.

Once you get all the, ahem, basics out of the way you still have to build the rest of the monster by determining Hit Dice (which affects lot's of things), Speed, Armor Class, ability scores (also affects a lot of things), size (which affects some things), attacks, special attacks (which have effects based on a combination of ability scores, Hit Dice, and whatever modifiers you care to pile onto it), special defenses, spend skill points, and finally still choose feats (which might force you to go back and correct things). Some of the mechanics have tables that provide recommended values based on the monster's ability scores and size, which are usually somewhat refined by pegging it's Challenge Rating (which is all too often incorrect) and just setting the numbers so that it hopefully challenges the party without killing them. This confuses me because the whole process acts like I'm legitimately building a character up until you get about halfway in, at which point you just do whatever it takes to get the monster to do whatever it is you want.

There's no equality of having to build a monster like a character: you get to assign whatever ability scores you want, and you aren't limited by points or random dice rolls, instead by what you think works out best. This isn't the only time the book tells you to do whatever, either. Under Armor Class it touts that it's a good idea to arrange AC variables so that the total is 13 + your target CR. For me, this often mean just ramping up the natural armor bonus until I arrived at what I needed. Skills had a similar problem, since creatures were doled out skill points based on type and Intelligence modifier. This could mean that the creature could not perform the tasks required due to a lack of skill points (and possibly insufficient ability scores), or was unable to properly challenge the party. The solution? Racial modifiers! Just tack on a racial bonus until you get to the desired total and call it good.

(Above is a side-by-side comparison of ghouls from both 3rd Edition and 4th Edition. Both attempt to mechanically convey the same thing; an undead monster that skulks about in graves waiting to eat people, it's just that 3rd Edition's method is far more convoluted than it needed to be.)

Was it worth it? Frankly, I'm happier building monsters without having to consult an entire library just so I can justify it to myself that my creation can legitimately do what I wanted him to do all along. Making monsters in the past used to be a boring chore--especially if I wanted to make spellcasters and had to pore through so many books checking for spells--because of the effort that went it as compared to the pay off; potentially hours of time spent flipping back and forth through Monster Manual making sure all the mechanics lined up just to have it killed off in about five minutes. Fuck that. I'm more than happy to imagine a concept and build a block in ten minutes without having to worry if I'm doing it wrong.
Posted by David Guyll


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