Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Designing a Supers Campaign

So when I really started thinking about doing another supers campaign I decided I wanted to follow 3 basic rules:

1) Silver Age Characterization - Good guys are good, bad guys are bad, and there isn't a lot of crossover between the two. There may be a few honorable villains whose word can be trusted and they might even work with the heroes to defeat a common foe, but by and large there are white hats and there are black hats and not much gray in between. As a result, there will be no lethal attacks for heroes in this campaign - "lethal" = "bad guy" in this kind of world and is a deliberate choice. Heroes only kill under extreme circumstances, at a dramatically appropriate moment, and usually to save an innocent life. Then they go all angsty about it and may resign from the team for awhile or go off and consult with an oracle or a sage or a priest of some kind. I can work with that.

Some of you may look at that and think that it's too simplistic. To a point, you're right - it's a very simple approach almost akin to Basic D&D. But I want it that way for several reasons. First, this is our first supers game in a long time and I don't want a lot of complicated tortured backgrounds of reformed villains. Second, this one is mainly going to be played by teens and tweens and I don't want them going around slaughtering bad guys (we have D&D for that). Third, it will make for a nice contrast when we do play a more modern-age type campaign. Fourth, most of their super experience consists of the Batman/Superman/Justice League animated series and the Batman/Spiderman/X-Men/Iron Man live action movies. Those are pretty clear-cut on heroes vs. villains so that's their expectation. If I was running my 4th or 5th supers campaign this decade and playing with a bunch of 30+ fans then it would be a little different. This will make a nice base to expand from, however, and that's why I chose it.

2) Silver Age Science - Science is the superhero version of magic in this age. If you can come up with a scientific-sounding name for something then it's clearly something that's possible. In Fantasy games, "It's magic" can be used to explain almost anything. For Silver Age Supers darn near anything can be a ray or a field or a special kind of energy or some strange alloy and it's perfectly acceptable. As a corollary to this radiation causes damage and mutation (similar to Gamma World), not sickness and death. It's how half of the Marvel universe gets their powers and that's good enough for me.

This also lets me play around with the technology level of the setting without resorting to design sequence games like GURPS Vehicles or Fire Fusion and Steel from Traveller. If I need flying cars for an agency then they have flying cars. If I need all the cars in the city to run on electrical power (due to the cheap power available from the reactor) then I can. I can have the police carry blasters instead of guns and make traditional lethal attacks out of style.

3) Original Setting - I have at least 5 city settings for supers games - Millenium City, Vibora Bay, Hudson City, Freedom City, San Angelo, Bay City, Metropolis, Gotham City, and Marvel New York. (OK that's more than 5) and I have not run a lengthy campaign in any of them, but I find it's easier to remember details if I wrote them myself, rather than read them out of a book that someone else wrote. It may be counter-intuitive, but by making some broad notes in advance and some large-scale maps, I don't have to worry about contradicting what's in the book and I can make things work the way I want them. Plus, not having a rigid outline in place means that the details develop to fit the campaign, and not the other way around. This is especially important in a supers game where all kinds of crazy stuff can happen.

Thus was born "Atomic City" - I wanted something that sounded almost old-fashioned yet fit a supers campaign, particularly a Silver Age game. Atomic City is a city founded in northern California as part of a government research project during WW2 that incorporated in 1950 and slowly expanded to integrate the surrounding smaller communities in the region. As you might guess one reason for the name is that the first nuclear power plant was constructed here (unlike the real world) and the local nickname for the area became the official name when it incorporated, and the classic atom logo is still used by the city today.

There are other ways to do it - I have pretty good notes on my old "Miami 2000" Champions campaign from the 90's where I adapted a real city to fit my needs. That's a fun approach because you can use real-world maps then alter them as you see fit to make things interesting. I worked in everything from marine life parks to historical sites to the Everglades to Crockett and Tubbs in that game and it was a lot of fun.

I also have notes on my planned-but-never-run Gothic City campaign set in a city much like the Tim Burton Batman Gotham City - set in an unspecified time period with 50's looking cars alongside cell phones - I've always liked the mixed decade design look (Batman, Flash TV series, Dark Conspiracy RPG) and I may carry a little of that over to Atomic City  but I don't want it to be a "dark" setting. I just want a dash of retro-future here and there.

I do have a use for all of those other city settings though - there's really no reason some of them can't exist in the same world as Atomic City. Since AC is on the west coast, Freedom City fits just fine over on the east coast. If I put Millennium City on the great lakes and I put Vibora Bay on the Gulf Coast then I have a decent super-city on each coast. The one I plan to use the most right now will be the one that I detail, but if the heroes take a trip to one of the others, hey, I have a book that's crammed full of details right there waiting. If a second campaign starts up and I don't want it sharing the same airspace as AC then I have ready-made places ready to go too.

So that's the first take on the supers campaign. I'll put up at least one more post on the city as I see it and some plot outlines from the first 12 "issues" over the next week in between D&D updates.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 9: Attack of the Emerald Queen

The players:

Uthal, Goliath Barbarian 2
Tavar, Deva Invoker 2
Kordan, Human Fighter 2
Javanni, Half Elf Bard 2
Mikal, Human Warlock 2
Althea, Eladrin Wizard 2

After recovering from the fight with the kobold leaders the team heads for the last remaining door. Opening* it they discover a large, columned temple hall with a large dragon statue at the far end and a glowing green ball atop an altar. Moving in they are instantly set upon by a needlefang drake swarm and a guard drake unleashed by one of the handler-types they have seen before.  The kobold high priest stands at the back of the room near the altar unleashing clinging venom blasts at different targets as his warriors and guard animals chew them up in hand to hand combat. A human bandit fights alongside, the first non-scaled opponent they have encountered since entering the well.  During the combat the priest screams that the party has angered the Emerald Queen and that they will pay for their transgressions.  Also, a magical crossbow trap covering the door fires every round, nailing almost every member of the party during the fight.

The invoker summons a fire angel and drops it on the priest and is partially successful in keeping him busy until the fighter can get to him and engage. The barbarian takes on the guard drake and its handler while the wizard, warlock, and bard fight the bandit and the swarm, leaving the fighter and invoker to tackle the high priest. In the priest stand alone, holding off the entire party for a round or two until he finally succumbs.

Healing up and searching the room, the party discovers that the glowing ball on the altar is actually the preserved eye of a fomorian, usually associated with scrying or communication type magic. Deciding not to severely desecrate the altar after thoroughly searching it (but after looting the bodies)  the group heads out to the well and elevates themselves up and out. They get about 20 steps away from the well when there is a whoosh of water shooting up from the well (along with the splintered lifting platform) and a roar and then a large draconic shape fades into view atop the well itself. "You have slain my children and now you will pay!"

Much of the party is stunned for the first round so the dragon engages and spews poisonous breath  all over them. The team spreads out as Uthal and Kordan charge while Althea drops a flamning sphere next to it and various other magical effects flare off around the party and the beast.  In a  long and vicious fight the Invoker, Fighter, the Warlock, and the Bard all drop at some point, though most of them are revived to fight again during the battle. Finally, with almost the entire party bloodied or unconscious Kordan manages to pin the beast in place by ramming a sword through its foot and the party members still in fighting shape charge in. The Emerald Queen goes down ad stays down, leaving the inner court of the ruined keep drenched with blood and venom and a party of injured and dying heroes raise their hands in victory.

DM Notes: This was the climax of the Kuto's Well section of the campaign and it was intense.

The fight in the temple was vicious but only lasted 5 rounds. It did demonstrate the effectiveness of ongoing damage though as the priest was lighting people up for direct damage + ongoing 5 almost every time he shot, one reason that the Invoker and Fighter moved to engage him even though there were other targets still up and closer. Locking him up in hand to hand prevented him from firing off that nasty ranged attack and then once the fighter got on him it was only a matter of time. Several dailies were fired off as the party assumed this was the finale and they felt the lack when the dragon attacked. They did take a short rest before continuing though, and it's a good thing.

The Emerald Queen was a tough challenge for my group of 6 as it has well over 200 hit points, decent armor, and nasty breath and melee attacks. I've run a couple of these fights now and they are epic every time.  The recharge mechanic for the breath makes fighting one uncertain and a few rolls one way or the other could have resulted in much more pain for the party.

This wraps up the Kuto's Well adventures and most of the party will be level 3 after this. Next time it's back to town to sell loot and recover and level up, and find out what's next in the big city.

*Opening in this case means that the fighter and the barbarian smash it to kindling and charge in.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 8: Against the Emerald Prince

We begin down Kuto's Well outside a just-opened door to a room full of kobolds next to a pit trap containing one injured fighter.

Uthal, Goliath Barbarian 2
Kordan, Human Fighter 2
Jovanni, Half Elf Bard 2
Mikal, Human Warlock 2
Althea, Eladrin Wizard 2

In the span of a few seconds the door slams shut and Kordan is extracted from the pit, then the party retreats back around a corner. During a hurried tactics discussion it is decided to use a tenser's floating disk to shield unlucky party members from the spikes. As the fighter recovers, Althea casts the ritual and the group moves back to the door.

The disk is pushed into the pit and Kordan makes a running leap at the door, smashing it open and bursting into the room. A furious fight ensues as the party leaps over the pit and the 6 kobolds in the room stand ready to engage.  At one point Kordan gets bull-rushed back into the pit but thanks to the TFD is not as severely injured this time. Althea thunderwaves several of the kobolds and Uthal leaps into the fray. Mikal blasts several with arcane fire as Jovanni keeps everyone up and moving. The consort, bodyguards, adviser, and priest all fall until only the tribal champion is left, though he eventually falls too. Searching the room, the team finds some treasure and a healing potion. They then take a short break.

After taking a short rest the group heads back down the passage, through the common room, and down the opposite passage, coming to another door which is of course kicked in promptly. This appears to be some sort of guardroom as two kobold temple guardians unleash guard drakes on Kordan and Uthal who push their way into the room as the Bard, Wizard, and Warlock blast away with magic blasts.  The Chieftain of the tribe, calling himself the Emerald Prince proves to be very tough but he eventually falls to the combined might of the group.

The carving on the walls here is very intricate and very old, and looks like it might once have been colored in some way though it is bare stone now. There is a definite plant motif to the work with vines and leaves carved into the stone with great skill. There is another door in the room but the party decides to retreat to the bedroom to recover from these last couple of vicious fights.  They barricade the door and post watches, then most of the group passes out.

DM Notes:  Another 2-encounter night but two good ones. One lasted 6 rounds and one lasted 5 so combat is not ridiculously lengthy.

The first fight featured several attempts to knock people into the pit right outside the door so that made positioning and movement a little more exciting than some fights. In round 5 of that fight the Wizard landed a crit with a force orb, the fighter landed a crit with one of his attacks, and the barbarian landed a crit as well - it was a very explosive round and the fight ended in round 6 because of it.

The second fight featured the barbarian developing a move-throw-retreat tactic that worked fairly well for him and starting to work on his special charge abilities as well. The wizard is also getting better at positioning the Thunderwave or Flaming Sphere vs. using the Chromatic Orb. The warlock is mainly fire support at this point but he can fight in melee if he has too. The bard is all about ranged attacks mixed with buff & movement abilities. The fighter is very good at taking a beating and is figuring out how to use his attacks as well as he has a lot of movement and control abilities that are not as apparent in reading as they are in play.

The group is coming together well and the game continues to be a lot of fun for all of us.

Motivational Monday

Friday, December 24, 2010

Atomic City Stories - Issue 0

During an otherwise quiet weekday morning several citizens find themselves at the downtown branch of the Atomic City Bank. Suddenly the doors fly open and 5 armed thugs rush in, followed by a mountainous man-thing who strides to the center of the room and bellows "I AM OGRE! I AM STRONGEST! AND I AM TAKING ALL THE MONEY!" Various panicked patrons and employees hit the floor in response.

But it turns out that not all of the people in the bank are helpless bystanders. One woman turns with glowing red eyes and extends her hand. One man smoothly draws unfolds a hi-tech bow from a briefcase he was carrying. One man snarls and sprouts claws from his hands. Then another man turns to the criminals and reveals his dark-furred skin as a spiked tail rises up over his shoulder. All assume a stance that indicates they are ready for combat, then a hurricane of violence is unleashed.

In the blink of an eye the woman, clearly the superhero Nightmist, is next to one of the thugs and her arm blurs as she backhands him across the room - he slides to a stop and does not rise again. The bowman, surely the new hero Eagle Eye fires an arrow into the middle of the room which begins spraying out a dark smoky cloud. The spiked-ail character is surely Darkjumper and he tail-slaps one of the thugs next to him, stunning the man, then he disappears in a cloud of smoke and reappears next to another thug across the room. The other man, now hairier than before and sporting large claws growls and rushes "Ogre" from near the entrance, slamming into him with a furious claw assault - this must be Strikewolf, another new superhero.

The struggle lasts less than a minute - Eagle Eye fires off several explosive arrows, stunning and bruising multiple thugs and is hit once by gunfire, staggering him. Nightmist and Darkjumper join in the fight against Ogre and manage to land several hits - Nightmist goes toe to toe with the big villain while Darkjumper teleports behind him, tailslapping and dodging when the blows are returned. For a brief moment the heroes appear to be in trouble when Ogre finally connects with a full-strength-dead-on punch to  Strikewolf, rocketing him back into the lobby wall through it, and then through the outer wall of the bank, and sending him almost the length of a a football field down the street. He lies in the street, stunned for a few seconds, then he gets back up and breaks into a full run back towards the bank, scratches and bruises healing as he does so. As Strikewolf rushes back into the bank, Nightmist and Darkjumper have been pounding on Ogre as Eagle Eye finishes off more of the thugs, identified now by their uniforms as agents of the sinister organization Viper. Nightmist and Darkjumper each land one more hit as Stirkewolf launches into an all-out power attack with his claws and sends Ogre flying back, knocking him out. The last two Viper agents run for it but they can not outrun Nightmist and Darkjumper, who run/teleport in front of the fleeing duo and extend one arm each, clotheslining both agents in a full run, dropping both of them to the ground.

As police sirens wail in the distance, Nightmist fades into the darkness and Darkjumper teleports away, leaving Eagle Eye and Strikewolf to fill in the authorities on hat just happened.

DM Notes: So during my time off this week I decided to run the apprentices through a Mutants and Masterminds playtest. We built characters but I wasn't sure we really understood the system well enough to make characters they would want to keep and no one really wanted to play any of the templates in the rulebook. So out comes the handy-dandy Marvel Heroes compilation by some of the M&M ThinkTank guys and soon we have Hawkeye, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine in M&M form along with Apprentice Twilight's half-vampire self-made character Nightmist. Making a nightmarish mixture of systems, I then used the starting scenario from old-school Champions and had Ogre and some Viper agents robbing a bank. So we have some Marvel characters fighting the Campions kick-off adventure using Mutants and Masterminds as the system - Yeah!

It was very slow and very clunky but I had been reading up on the rules before this so we covered the basics fairly well. We worked in some of the options and feats very gradually and by the end of the fight (al 8 rounds of it) we had a pretty good sense of the flow of the game The whole idea of Attacker tolling to hit but Target roiling for damage was really messing with their heads but they seem to have gotten comfortable with it now.  It went well and they are ready for more.

One off-table challenge was for me to come up with a setting I liked. I haven't written up a super setting for probably at least 6 years and even then it was notes on a campaign that never happened. I wanted to start fresh so I ignored all of my old stuff and the Freedom City sourcebook and just started brainstorming. I'll post my notes later but "Atomic City" is the result. It's a fictional city on the west coast that will contain only the stuff I want to include - no baggage from old campaigns or systems or characters, although the history may include some names from some of my old ones that never had a strong setting. They need a home and I just happen to have one for them now...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Motivational Monday

(Oops, got 5 & 6 out of order, so here's #5)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Catching up on the D&D 4 Campaign

It's been quite a while since I posted any session summaries so i thought I would recap the campaign prior to starting them up again.

The campaign is title "Return to the Ruins of Adventure" and is set in the 4th edition Forgotten Realms. The specific location is the ruined city of Phlan on the Moonsea*. The inspiration was mainly the old gold box game Pool of Radiance with some reference to the actual pen and paper module Ruins of Adventure.**

My goal was to make a sprawling semi-sandbox campaign area  for the Heroic Tier where players could come and go and even make multiple characters if they wanted to with some static NPC's that the group would become acquainted with and a clear progression towards some larger threats in the region. The PC game was a mechanical inspiration as well as the city was laid out in neighborhoods which were effectively zoned by level. There is really only one area to investigate at first as it is the physical passage to the rest of the city from the small civilized section that remains. Once that's cleared things begin to open up and more choices are available to the players and then everything comes back together in one or two particular areas for the finale of the campaign. There is the possibility of some side adventures outside of the ruined city but most of the activity of the campaign will take place within the vast ruins of the once-mighty Phlan.

At least one of my players had played the old game so I kept quiet about the setting until we were ready to play when I sent out a link to this video:

So that explained the situation and everyone had at least a basic idea of what was going on. Here's a map of the city layout***:

Play begins in the civilized section as the PC's find their way around town, meet some NPC's, and are eventually asked to clear out/retrieve artifacts from/burn down an inn in the Slums. Early sessions were slow but good and the pace has picked up some since then, though lately our track record on getting through encounters has not been great. We began with a party of 4 - Eladrin Wizard, Human Fighter, Human Warlock, and Half-Elf Bard. We added a Swordmage briefly then he disappeared. A Deva Invoker has made several guest appearances but may or may not return. Then UTHAL THE BAAAAARBARIAN joined up and they have been steamrollering the opposition ever since. Through 15 sessions the party is up to level 4 now and pushing for level 5, possibly in this next session. I stopped posting summaries about session 7 so I have some catching up to and will do that to finish out the year so stay tuned.

*which looks remarkably like Phlan did at the end of the 1E era. The more things change...

** which is just poor - you aren't missing anything if you haven't seen it, a real missed opportunity as it could have been a classic.

***which is of limited accuracy, players reading the blog, because it's from before the spellplague and who knows what's happened out there since then?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Testing out a Supers Game

After some debate I am determined to get some kind of supers gaming gong for 2011, even if it's once a month. Since the main group is largely committed to 4E D&D this will probably be done with the family as the main players. I'm going to try out a few systems over the holiday break to see which one works for our purposes. One note: I make several references to Champions below and when i do I mean the tabletop Hero System game, not the MMO. In contrast, I mention City of Heroes as well, and I do mean the MMO there as we play it pretty regularly so it's a big factor here when discussing Super RPG's.

My main candidates are:

1) Mutants and Masterminds (2E) - I know 3E is out now but I have a nice pile of 2E books and I've never run the game, so it goes against my grain to go buy a new edition when I never used the previous edition. As I see it:

  • The basic system is d20 with a similar stats-skills-feats structure that will be familiar enough to my players to make the transition easier
  • Support material is good - this is important with superhero RPG's as it's usually tougher to throw together a random bad guy or NPC than in, say, D&D. I have a couple of supervillain books and the Instant Superheroes book so that's covered, plus the Mastermind's Manual which is the DM's Guide and rule tweak book. 
  • Speed - it looks to me like combat should play pretty quickly as it's bare-bones d20 without Opportunity Attacks or Hit Points. This could prove to be incorrect but of the Super RPG's I know it looks like a fairly speedy system.
  • No Endurance - From Champions to City of Heroes most of my Supers RPG time has involved some kind of Endurance mechanic and M&M has none. This will probably speed up play but I'm not sure it's a sacrifice I want to make. 
  •  Genericness - Equipment stats are pretty broad and there is some lack of crunch in how to differentiate a particular car or gun or device from another. That may be OK in a supers game but compared to Champions there is a lot less room for customization. 
  • Simplicity - It's almost too simple. Blast 10 with an Attack +10 means you roll a d20 +10 to hit vs. the target's Defense number (basically their AC). Assuming you hit then the target has to make a damage save vs a DC 25. The degree of failure or success determines the effect on the target, from "nothing" to "knocked out". There are Fort, Reflex, and Will saves in addition to Damage (which is like AC in 4E as it is the "normal" target for an attack) but there is not much focus on the type of damage as you would find in 4E or Champions or even City of Heroes where it's possible to have wildly different defenses and weaknesses versus certain attack types. 

2) Champions (Hero System 4th or 5th Edition) - It's a very good system that can do pretty much everything at the cost of some complexity in character generation and slower-moving combat than some systems, although compared to 4E D&D I'm not so sure it's all that slow anymore. I have a very large pile of stuff for this and I would love to dust it off and use it for real for a change.

  • Detailed exactly-what-you-want character building - there's no contest here, and it works well.
  • Detailed combat - combat in Hero is going to feel similar to 4E in that you will always have a good set of options or maneuvers to try 
  • Support - I have almost every book published for 4E Hero system and 5E Hero System so no matter what the players do I should have some material to draw upon on the fly
  • Might be too complex for the players. It does reward some system mastery but I know it fairly well and can help them get started.
  • Combat is supposedly slow though I do not remember it being all that slow and compared to 4E combat it should flow similarly once we have some experience. 
  • No synergy - apart from being more complex it also has nothing to do with d20 or with any other system the players have learned so we would be starting from scratch. I don't mind  broadening their horizons a bit (d6 Star Wars already did that some) but I do want to actually play.
 3) Marvel Super Heroes - This is a fairly straightforward system and I have a good amount of supporting material  (see a pattern here?).

  • It's Marvel! - everyone knows how Marvel super types would handle a situation so the implied behavior is in there from the beginning. 
  • Easy mechanics - not always simple but they are pretty easy to follow. 
  • Fast play - I think it plays pretty fast when using heroes vs. villains of similar or lower power levels 
  • It's Marvel! - I'm afraid the sheer amount of Marvel flavor might overwhelm the game with the players always wanting to be Wolverine or Spiderman instead of making up their own.
  •  Simplicity - there's not a lot of crunch beyond the basics, no endurance mechanic, and the players may get bored with the color chart.
  • No level or scale - this is a pain as a DM as it's difficult to tell sometimes how to rate the opposition. M&M has power levels and Champions has point limits. Marvel has nothing, really.  
Other options I considered included :
  • Godlike (low powered supers in WW2) but I think it may be too historical and too casual to PC death.
  • Silver Age Sentinels - I like the system but I have very little support for it
  • Savage Worlds - Necessary Evil is cool but it's meant for a very specific campaign and I don't want to run  that campaign again. 
  • Icons - new and cool but if M&M is looking too simple right now then Icons is way lighter than I want to use.  
 So it's really down to M&M or Champions with Marvel as a fallback third if neither of those goes over well. Wit ha more experienced or hardcore group of players I would run Champions in a heartbeat. With my less experienced and less crunchy group of players at hand M&M may be the best choice. I will probably run a combat for each and see what works the best for out group. Once I have that figured out we will start up a semi-regular campaign and see where it goes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons December 2010 - The State of the Game

With 4th Edition coming out in the summer of 2008 we now have 2 1/2 years of the "new" D&D. So how do things look for now and the near future?

Options: We have 3 Player's Handbooks, 3 Campaign World books with player information,  and 2 Essentials player books for a total of 8 books of classes plus 6 books of class options plus 2 racial guides and various add-ons in Dragon. Adding up only what's found in books in print and ignoring any online-only material a character can choose from:
  • 24 races 
  • 24 distinct classes with 97 builds (sub classes)
  • 368 Paragon Paths
  • 78 Epic Destinies
  • Multiclassing and Hybrid classes
  • Backgrounds
  • Themes
  • Spellscarred, Dragonmarked, and Wild Talents (depending on campaign world)
That's a ridiculous number of choices and that's not even getting down to individual feat and power choices which are made at nearly every level. So player choice is broad as far as distinct mechanical options.  Now granted we played for years in 1E with roughly 10 classes and maybe 10 races but there was some clamor for more diversity even back then (witness the number of classes published in Dragon back then) so more choices to me is a good thing and these are not just flavor choices - each item in that list has a mechanical impact on the character, beyond the flavor differences implied by each. Additionally each player character will only be choosing one option from each of those list entries, so there is pretty good niche protection and very little chance someone else will have even a similar character to yours in a typical gaming group. Then you get into magic items (another way to distinguish a character in earlier editions) and there are 2 big books of them plus items in every player book as well - there's no need for overlap there either.

For DM's there are
  • 3 published campaign worlds 
  • 18 published adventures & adventure sites plus Dungeon Delve plus Dungeon Annual plus some short adventures in other books like Open Grave and the Draconomicons, and a few other products like the Essentials Monster Compendium. 
  • 2 DM Guides, an Essentials DM Kit
  • 3 Monster Manuals plus an Essentials monster book plus a Dark Sun monster book, plus monsters in other campaign books and things like Open Grave and Manual of the Planes - lots and lots of monsters.
 So DM's have a pretty good pile of material to work with when building a campaign. Monsters, sample adventures, books to emphasize particular types of monsters and campaigns - these are similar to what was done for 3E (and even 2E in some ways) so 4E is at least as well supplied as those editions and moving forward may exceed them.

 Utility support for the game is a mixed bag. The character builder was pretty good then went to poor. The monster builder has been OK. The online rules database is handy for some. Dragon and Dungeon have been getting very mixed reviews this year but there is a large amount of past material available to draw upon. Plus most of it is behind a paywall which limits interest and access for many. In a strange way it's far more support than any other tabletop RPG has but no other RPG attempts to charge a monthly fee for what they publish online. I have noted some of the missteps with official support here and I see no need to rehash them further. Let's just say it's been a mixed run overall ad a mixed run in particular here at the end of 2010.

Non-official online support is very strong with forums and other sites, blogs, and numerous podcasts. My preferences are EN World and Radio Free Hommlett with a few blogs and some side trips to other podcasts. It's a strong community and most of it isn't afraid to point out both the good and the bad.

There is a lack of 3rd party product support compared to the glory days of 3rd edition - no Necromancer games, no Green Ronin, not much from Kenzer, not much from anyone else really at all other than Goodman Games. Goodman has put out some adventures and apparently plans to put out some more in 2011 - good luck to them. The way 4E is set up I think adventures are about the only way to go. Not so much due to licensing issues but due to the tyranny of the character builder. Many 4E players have the attitude that if it's not in the CB then it's not in their game. This has cut 3rd party development off at the knees and in my opinion is at least as much of a problem as the GSL as I just don't hear a lot of call for 3rd party class books or even monster books, which were fairly popular in the 3E era.  There have been some efforts made at 3rd party campaign world products but even there flavoring a particular world involves a few custom builds, paragon paths, epic destinies, and monsters, most of which are ignored by players due to the CB barrier mentioned above. At that point it's easier for most DM's to build their own world and just stick to the official mechanical material. One thing to keep in mind too is that "limited 3rd party support" is pretty much how it was for 1st and 2nd edition too, so this isn't really a new state of affairs, it's more of a return to the norm.

So, the future - how does it look? Well there is a lot of material coming down the pipe from WOTC. There's the revised class book and a new DM screen in February, "Heroes of Shadow" in March, and a new magic item book in April, plus more dungeon tile sets.  There's at least one more boardgame and some more Gamma World stuff coming too but I'm not concerned with those here. Apparently the new books will follow the Essential format of cheaper smaller paperback rather than returning to the original 4E hardback format. That's fine, I am not concerned. There was supposed to be a sourcebook on the default campaign setting but that was removed from the schedule. There is supposed to be a Neverwinter book and another monster book is scheduled for June but that's a long way out. It's not a total lack of material but it seems small compared to previous years and I am not sure what to think of it. What's the 2011 campaign world? What about more player books? What about a racial or power-source booster book?  2010 had the PHB3, the Monster Manual 3, Psionic Power, Demonomicon, Tomb of Horrors, Dark Sun, and then the avalanche of the Essentials launch. Right now 2011 looks fairly sparse compared to that. It's early so we will see. hopefully some home-run products will be announced and excitement will pick up.

Personally it's been a good year for D&D here. "Invigorated" would probably be the word for it. A year ago I tried out 4E for the first time and it was a disaster, so the apprentices and I pulled out  Moldvay Basic D&D and started up a game of it instead. It brought me back to my early days and forced me to think about what and why and how I play and run D&D and RPG's in general. In doing so I looked at all of the editions and eventually decided to re-examine 4th edition and decided it was worth a try. I started up a new campaign with friends and  I am very happy with it. It's very much the main game now though old-school options remain in play at different times as opportunity permits. It's a good place to be.

For 2011 I expect the main 4E campaign to continue and expect we will break into Paragon Tier by the spring. With a really good run we might even make it to Epic by the end of the year.  The apprentices campaign will get to Paragon too but it will probably take a little more time. The Basic campaign will make a reappearance during the holidays and will pop up intermittently during the next year as well. My hopes for a 1E campaign are limited right now because of time but I am going to try and work it in soon, maybe with a kickoff during the holiday break with a mix of friends and apprentices.

As far as this blog I am enjoying it and plan to keep posting as long as I have something to say. It won't always be D&D specific - at least not as much as it has been - but it will always be where I post my gaming thoughts. I'm glad some of you have found it interesting from time to time and I'd like to thank all of you for leaving comments - feedback is good. I know this is kind of an end-of-the-year post but I wanted to go ahead and get it out of the way before the 31st so just let me say Happy Holidays and thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

3 D&D Standards That I (Surprisingly) Do Not Miss in 4th Edition

The 4E campaigns are still rolling along (I plan to post some more session summaries this month) and I've noticed some things that were concerns of mine at the beginning have just washed away. Here they are:

1 - Random Ability Scores

I was 3d6-roll-em-in-order guy for much of 1st esition (and Basic/Expert). Hey, that's the way the book said to do it and it was part of the game. Eentually I came around to the 3d6-in-any-order method as this kept scores reasonable but still allowed players to have some say in what type of character they would play, making for happier players. By the time 2nd edition came out I had been converted to the 4d6-drop-the-lowest method as thats what other local DM's used and it made sense to have one standard for our wandering players. Plus it did dramatically cut down on the number of weak characters and if people get excited over having a 15 in their tertiary stat instead of a 13 then why should I really try to block that - it's not going to make much of a difference in the game.

Now when 3rd edition came out we were strictly 4d6-drop-the-lowest and we stayed that way throughout 3E. I was intrigued by the alternative point-buy method in the PHB but my players wanted no part of it, even as I listened to intermittent whining about how so-and-so's character had much better stats than this other character and it made him much more effective. I offered it up as an option in my last 3E campaign if everyone would go for it but no one really wanted to change at that point.

So then 4E comes out and the standard method for generating ability scores is a point-buy system. I balked at first but since so much of the system is built around balancing PC's with each other we went ahead and tried it and...the water is fine. I really don't care how you got that 18 Str -it's still a high D&D strength score. Having played Champions, GURPS, and Shadowrun for years (all point-buy systems) probably helped too as I liked point-buy character creation anyway already, I just didn't do it in D&D. Now when we play Basic or if I finally get my 1E TOEE campaign off the ground, we'll be rolling stats just like we always did but for 4E I really don't feel the loss.

2 - Random Hit Points

From Basic D&D through 1E, 2E, and 3E we always rolled for out hit points at each level. Fairly early on we came up with a "reroll 1's" rule for hit points that just kind of stuck through all of our games as nothing kills a player's enthusiasm faster than rolling a 1 for HP's. Ever seen fighter with 1 hit point at 1st level? It's bad. It totally short-circuits what a fighter is supposed to do so he ends up becoming a very fragile archer. Somewhere in the 2E era we decided that 1st level characters should start with maximum hit points and this really made a difference as no longer did you have a chance  that the mage would have more hit points than the fighter when rolling up a new party. This was canonized for 3E so we just kept doing what we were doing. Theoretically, having different hit dice for each class will demonstrate over time that class X is tougher than class Y. That goes out the window with a bad roll and so defeats the purpose of having the different die types in the first place. It's small consolation to a player to know that he could have had 6 more hit points than the wizard if he ends up rolling a 1 or a 2.

Mechanically this is most important at 1st level as that's when a few hp's means the difference between living and dying even with the first incoming sword blow but it's important to remember that a series of low rolls in the medium levels was still quite painful. It's also good to remember that a character only rolled for hp's up to about 9th or 10th level = after that it was a fixed (and low) amount for everyone of that class. So a character only had about 9 die rolls to build up their total. If one fighter averaged a "7" while another averaged a "4" then you have a 20 hit point difference where an average 10th level fighter is going to have less than 100 hit points - that's a pretty big gap.

So 4th edition has a fixed (and much higher) number for starting hit points. All characters get their Con score plus an additional amount determined by their class role. Fighter types get +15, while wizardly types get a +10 and in-betweens like  clerics get +12. As they level up the Con bonus no longer contributes, it's strictly a fixed amount. Fighter types get 6 per level, Clercs 5, and Wizards 4 - this is effectively like the higher level progressions in 1E just implemented earlier in the character's career. The net outcome is that one character of a given class can still have a different hit point total than another character of the exact same class but now they do not have to worry about being gimped by a few bad die rolls along the way. It works well in practice and in the end HP's are still a value on the sheet that goes down during an adventure and goes up when you level up, and the fighter still has a lot more of them than the wizard does. I don't even think about rolling them anymore with 4E.

All that said when the 1E game finally starts we will be going with max hp at 1st, roll after that - hey, that's one of the reasons to play the old school games because they are mechanically different.

3 - Level Drains

Hoooo boy I will say right up front that level-draining undead in Basic/Expert and 1st edition AD&D were my most hated monsters as a player and my players' most-hated monsters when I DM'd. There was no comparison. We would rather be killed and lose a point of Con being raised than get hit by a spectre and lose two levels. I will also say that each subsequent edition has made them less scary and that's not a totally bad thing.

By the time 3rd edition came around they only inflicted "negative levels" instead of actually draining character levels. Neg levels were a fixed set of penalties (-1 to hit, -1 to skill checks, -5 to mak hit points) that were annoying and inconvenient but were not the player kryptonite that the old method proved to be. All it took was a 4th level cleric spell to remove one so it wasn't difficult to clear up. This was easier on the PC's but if you were fighting multiple level-drainers it could get pretty nasty as there was a direct impact to combat effectiveness, leading to a death spiral where the characters are less and less effective in combat as the fight progresses.

One variation that happened with some undead creatures in 3E was the ability drain where characters could lose points of strength or con or whatever. that was rough too as most characters have less than 20 points of an ability to lose. This resulted in a similar death spiral effect as losing Str affected to-hit and damage numbers while losing Con reduces a PC's hit point total.

For 4th edition they did away with level draining and ability damage altogether. "Pansies!" I can hear some of you say and yes, it does make undead less reputationally scary (and yes I made up that word just now). Now some undead inflict various conditions like Weakened (half damage to all attcks) and that works well, but the new trick that some undead have now is that they drain healing surges. I know some of you hate the concept of healing surges but they work in some interesting ways. For one, there is a finite number of them per day and that number does not increase with level, outside of increasing your Con score. So, a Wizard gets 6 + Con mod per day at first level (so probably 6 or 7) and will have that same number of them at 25th level. A Fighter type gets 9 + Con mod so probably 10-12. That may sound like a lot but the most common healing effects (Potions, Cure Light Wounds, etc.) use up a healing surge. Some skill challenges are set up so that if the party is say, crossing a desert and fails their survival type skill checks then everyone loses a healing surge. It's another resource to manage besides hit points and powers.

I can tell you now from experience that players are very conscious of the number of surges they have left. During a typical battle an active player may burn 2-3 surges, typically one from Second Wind (the heal self action that can be done once per encounter) and one or two more from some outside heal or a potion. When they run into a pack of wights who do reasonably strong claw damage and also drain a surge on every hit, they get concerned. One or two hits is OK, but if 3 or 4 land claw hits in one round there is a definite morale impact on the player. However, there is no immediate combat impact - the fighter doesn't suddenly have a -3 to hit or 15 fewer hit points on top of the claw damage - but he can feel his life force slipping away and there's nothing he can do about it! There are no spells to restore surges to a character who has lost them - you have to sleep it off. It's a mechanically elegant solution that solves the issue in a much more subtle way than raw draining and it still inspires the proper attitude in the party. After running some of the beasties I'm very impressed with how well it works in play. I see no need to force back in some kind of level draining mechanic because the replacement for it works very well.

Anyway those are my game-mechanical thoughts from the last few sessions. Summaries are coming soon.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

4E Essentials Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms - A Review

The second player's book for the Essentials line is another 368 page full color softcover. It covers Druids, Paladins, Rangers, and Warlocks with new class builds. The included races are Dragonborn, Drow, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, Humans, and Tieflings. The only duplication among these with the first book is the inclusion of Humans in both volumes. Let's break it down:

This book opens with a 29 page rule/overview/how to play section that is the same as the one in Heroes of the Fallen Lands (for that review see here) and I do think after reading through it again that someone could start playing with an experienced group with this section alone, but it is still not a complete set of rules by any means as it really only covers combat.

Next we have 25 pages of how to make a character - ability scores, alignments, personality, etc.. This looks the same to me as the prior book, it's mainly important for new players.

Following this we have 20 pages about Powers - types, format and presentation, keywords, and definitions. This is an excellent section if you haven't read it in HOFL and is utterly redundant if you have. It is a handy thing to have in a player book for reference during play so this is not a mark against it.

Then we get to the Class chapter, 160 pages long and covering 5 new builds for 4 different classes:

Druid - this druid is the Sentinel, a Primal Leader. Druids in the PHB2/Primal Power books were Primal Controllers, so this is a change.  The most obvious feature here is that the character gets an animal companion who grants either combat advantage in a 1-square radius or +2 to all defenses in a 1-square radius. That's a pretty strong power either way though the defender will probably vote for the bear (defense buff) while a rogue will campaign for the wolf (combat advantage). It otherwise follows the more standard 4E power structure of at-will/encounter/daily powers added to then replaced at higher levels. Attacks are almost all melee/close burst Wisdom vs. AC. There are a fair number of physical buffs that target "you or one ally" so the druid can do a lot of it on his own if he has to. There are some very flavorful knacks and abilities included too - talking to animals or plants, bonuses to skill checks in the wild, the kind of thing druids had a ton of in earlier editions of the game. At the higher levels there are some special abilities that begin to look a lot like 1E/2E druid class features - ignore difficult terrain and change appearance among them. There is a seasonal element to the class as the player has to choose either a "spring" or "summer" association and this will affect a few powers along the way (and the animal companion)  but it's not huge and it only affects a few power choices along the way. In all it's very flavorful and looks like it could be a lot of fun for a different kind of leader than we have seen before in this edition.

Paladin - this build is called the Cavalier and is a traditional defender class. They gain proficiency with all weapons and all armor but have a new wrinkle with Virtues. The book includes two Virtues - Sacrifice or Valor (and gave me a flashback to Ultima IV when I read about them) and a player has to choose one of them which will affect his powers down the road. Sacrifice tends more towards healing and buffing companions while Valor is more focused on offense. They do follow the at-will/encounter/daily power structure of earlier 4E products unlike the fighter in HOFL so as another Essentials Defender there is already a mechanical difference. They do use the same Defender Aura at-will as the Knight Fighter in HOFL so that part is the same - it's the other powers that are different.   Holy Smite is an encounter ability that adds damage to an at-will attack and the ability to use it more than once per encounter is added on at higher levels, so it appears that a lot of Paladin atttacks will be at-wills with the occasional boost from Holy Smite, similar to the way the fighters in HOFL gained extra uses of their power-up ability as they advanced in level. Almost all attacks are melee Str vs. something, mainly AC with a smattering of Fortitude or Reflex. I think a Sacrifice Cavalier could fill in for a Leader class in a small group if needed as there is a lot of healing available to them. The Valor Cavalier is closer to a Striker for a secondary role. This build bears very little resemblance to the !E/2E Cavalier class as there is only 1 nod to mounts at all in the class abilities (a speed boost to all nearby mounted characters) and no ties to lances or particular weapons. That said it does look a fair amount like a 1E/2E Paladin with the Virtues and no worries about having a Divine focus or implement. These builds do give a different flavor from the prior 4E Paladins so they should be interesting to play.

Ranger - Rangers are the most different from the other classes in their 2 sub-builds, similar to the Fighters in HOFL, so I will cover them separately.

The Hunter is a bow Ranger but is typed as a martial/primal controller. The idea is that they  begin as mainly martial characters but as they learn more about the power of nature and the spirits around them their powers start to tap the primal power source. I don't like mudding up the nice clean power source structure 4E has had previously but it does appeal to me in the game-world-logic sense so I'm OK with it.  As archers they get some cool abilities for their at-wills including one attack that ignores cover or concealment, one that lets them slide/knockdown/slow their target, and one that lets them shoot multiple foes at once. Now these are all "Make a ranged basic attack with this special modifier or effect" type powers so they do go back to the HOFL Fighter design philosophy as does the inclusion of Aspects, which are just like fighter stances in that only one can up at a time, it adds some kind of bonus or modifier, and the character will learn more of them as they progress in levels. They also get Knacks like the Sentinel Druid does above and so are very wilderness-flavored. They really don't get a ton of other attack powers, most of their higher level powers are things like traps, some conditional zones they can create - they are definitely not strikers and they do not look like a blasting type controller at all (ala Wizard or Sorcerer). It's an interesting take on a controller type class but I think a lot of players might prefer the Boomstick approach rather than Twang!/Entangle/Leap/Twang!

The Scout is a martial/primal striker (as above) two-weapon ranger, focused on either axe or sword similar to the weapon choices of Fighters in the HOFL book. There is a damage-boosting encounter power much like those Fighters (and the Cavalier Paladin above) that gains more uses as the character levels up. There are aspects just as with the Hunter Ranger so most of the attacks are going to be Str vs. AC with some kind of modifier or special effect. The wilderness knacks are here too, so the flavor of the mountain man fighter is very much present. There are a lot of movement buffs and awareness buffs but for a striker I'm a little underwhelmed - they may be as mobile as a barbarian at times with all the speed and shifting bonuses that they get (not charge-monsters like a barbarian) but they just don't seem like they would hit that hard once they get there. Maybe in play it's different but I don't see an alpha strike type attack for this striker - it's going to play more as a longer term fight,wearing the opponent down while dancing around in difficult terrain and I'm not sure how effective that's going to be.

Warlock - The build here is the Hexblade, a 3E class that was presented as a fighting mage type and is very similar here as it's a melee focused arcane striker, something we haven't seen before. There are only two pacts to choose from, Fey or Infernal. The pact choice determines the starting at-will and encounter melee powers plus the type of pact blade the character begins with. Both types also begin with a range 10 at-will attack power. Most powers are melee or close burst/blast Charisma vs. something and most of the time it is not AC. Fey gets a lot of mobility from various teleports while Infernal goes more for self-buffs. One interesting thing is that both types gain some summoning powers too as a Daily Minor. I'm not sure how this would work in practice but it sounds cool. Maybe the Hexblade fights until he's used up some of his better powers or has taken too much damage then summons up his ally to fight in his place while he tends to wounds or gets healed by another character. It is a different wrinkle for a Striker and I'm curious to see it in play.

The Epic destiny in this book is Destined Scion and is more of an offensive take than the Indomitable Champion from HOFL. Just as an example the top end power in HOFL is the ability to turn a hit on the character into a natural 1. In HOFK the top end power is to turn a missed attack roll into a hit. Nothing earth-shattering, just the flip side of the same coin. Strikers will probably like this one better while defenders may prefer the one from the previous book. I will say that these two Epic Destinies seem a little vanilla for what is supposed to be the peak of power. Compared to "Demigod" or "Archmage" they just are not all that flavorful and suffer from being very generalized since the one destiny has to apply to all classes in the book. . They aren't bad mechanically, just a little boring in their descriptions.

After Classes we get to Races

  • Dragonborn are now Charisma then Strength or Con, racial power is Dragon Breath which is unchanged
  • Drow are now Dex then Wisdom or Charisma, Darkvision, racial powers are Cloud of Darkness and Darkfire.
  • Half-Elves are now Con then Wisdom or Charisma, low-light vision, racial power is now Knack for Success which has 4 different effects and can be used on you or an ally in a close burst 5. It looks very much like a list of leader powers and is goig to be a lot different than a half elf using Dilettante from the PHB1. It's less versatile in many ways (no free attack power) but from a design perspective I can see the sense in doing away with the wild card ability of "choose another power from any other class" as each new class adds to the possibility some weird combo will come about. It's actually pretty flexible as a racial ability - free shift, free save, +2 to an attack, or +4 to a skill check. Make a half-elf sacrifice cavalier paladin and you have a pretty good Defender/Leader in the making. 
  • Half-Orcs are now Dex then Strength or Con, low-light vision, then Furious Assault which is unchanged
  • Humans are the same as HOFL - +2 to any one stat and Heroic Effort - +4 on a missed save or attack.
  • Tieflings are now Charisma then Con or Int, low-light vision, and Infernal Wrath which is the errata'd version of close burst 10 , d6+ stat bonus damage
The rest of the book is Skills (same as HOFL), Feats (a slightly different list than HOFL reflecting the different classes in this book, e.g. more wilderness less divine) , and Gear, including a very limited number of magic items.  Once again no rituals, no exotic weapons, and no multiclassing, all of which are supposed to appear in the upcoming Class Compendium. There is also a glossary and an index, always good to see in thick rulebooks.

So how is it? I will say that it dramatically expands the options available to an Essentials-only game in both classes and races. It would be very easy to run a campaign this way and pretty easy to give it an old-school flavor by limiting players to these two books.

I think the Sentinel Druid and the Hexblade Warlock are both something we haven't seen before and are probably the most interesting mechanically.

The Cavalier Paladin is very flavorful for a traditional Paladin player who may not have liked the original 4E paladin.

The Ranger leaves me a little less enthused. The Martial classes in Essentials appear to be the most simplified of all and while that's fine in some ways and while I liked the fighter options in HOFL of both the Knight and the Slayer,  I do not really see a lot of shine to either of the ranger builds presented here. The bow-controller is an interesting idea but I think it would be better served by the 4E standard power structure rather than the basic + stances structure we have here, and the fact that the Mage Wizard (Arcane Controller) in HOFL was the only class in that book to stick to that 4E power pattern backs me up.

Overall I like what Essentials has given us this year in these two books. There are still some issues to be solved, mainly multiclassing, feats (Essentials feats are clearly better in many cases), and the crossing over of Epic Destinies and Paragon Paths between these new classes and the existing ones.

I would definitely call this the "Expansion" book to heroes of the Fallen Lands mainly because the earlier versions of D&D started with the classes and races presented in that book, and the ones in this book, for the most part, were added later. If I was bringing in a new player with no D&D experience I would probably still start them with HOFL to set the baseline for what D&D is about then point them to this one later. If I were bringing in an experienced player from 1E or 2E or even 3E with no 4E experience, I would also go with HOFL because of the traditional D&D party and class presentation. That said it would be entirely possible to start someone with this book too, it just would not be my preference.

In the end this is a solid book that presents more options for an existing game. there are no new classes, no new power sources, no game-changing updates or additions, just solid expansions to an already solid game. As I noted in my earlier review I consider the Rules Compendium a 5-star product and then called HOFL a 4-star product in comparison. I would call this one 3 1/2 to 4 stars just because it feels a notch less "essential" to me and not because of any major flaws or problems.  I like it and I expect to use it myself or see my players use it sometime in the near future, assuming we get the chance to make up some new characters.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

WOTC Shoots Self in Foot - Again...

So let's review: The launch of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons was undoubtedly successful by some measures, but seemed to have a lot of customer backlash both on the timing -less than 5 years after the 3.5 debacle - and the radical degree of change - mechanically there is very little backwards compatibility - and in the way it was marketed where many of the changes in 4E were portrayed as fixes to flaws in 3E and in some ways denigrated 3E in the eyes of fans. For the first time a directly competing offshoot of the previous edition took shape  in Pathfinder.

Now I can tell you when 2E was announced most people were excited - some continued to play 1E but 2E was very backwards compatible and most people happily made the switch and there was nowhere near the amount of venom shown then.

When 3E was announced many of us were ready for a new system and the full year's worth of articles in Dragon made a lot of the transition easier to digest. Some saw it as too much change and stuck with 1E or 2E and as the first edition launched in the internet age there was more griping to be seen but there was still not a backlash, just some grumbling.

The development of a 4th edition was flat out denied in early 2007 then announced in August of that year as a done deal that would be published in May 2008. This caused a tremendous uproar in the D&D community and what looks like the least well-received transition yet. Paizo, sensing that this time there was both enough consumer discontent and a legal framework to allow a competing version of D&D used the OGL to create Pathfinder, initially labelled "3.75" - not a good sign.

Among the many new things promised with 4E was the creation of  computer software to allow players to make characters, make monsters, and play online with a virtual tabletop. By 2009 it was clear that the online play tool was not going to happen. The character builder was pretty good though, and the monster builder was adequate if not truly finished as a product. So a small disappointment but not a total failure.

The launch of Essentials in the fall of 2010 caused another uproar - one largely unfounded IMO - that it was 4.5 and the failure of WOTC to both anticipate this and defuse the situation in a timely fashion is regrettable. It's another marketing black eye and it made me wonder how much attention they were paying to customer feedback.

One of the good things for WOTC had been the character creator. The best thing about it was that it made it much easier for players to see all of those nifty feat and power and class and race options in all of those books at once - even if they didn't own them. It also enabled the questionable "living game" approach where rules are updated every month, sometimes in small ways sometimes in massive ways - whatever happened, players could be assured the builder would keep their character up to date. It's the one piece of software that they have published that pretty much works as designed and that most people are happy with.

So what do they do? They go and change it. Completely. Into a buggy, unfinished mess that users still have to pay for! Could they have failed this project any more completely? 

It's just mind-boggling. Take the one thing people actually praise sometimes about your pay-to-play suite of online support tools, the one thing that really makes the game work for a lot of players and BREAK IT! Who decided this was a good idea? Customers were not asking for a whole new tool, just continuing updates to the one they already had.

To pull back the curtain a little bit I have some knowledge of professional software development, project management, and marketing and I can tell you that this would get people fired in any real B2B environment and in many business to consumer environments. "It works for some people" is not a statement anyone should be comfortable making to a client. WOTC took the old character builder down on the day the new one went live so there was no choice for users if they did not already have the old one. The dividing line for content is that only the new CB is getting the Dark Sun and Essentials material so there is pressure to upgrade. Understandable, but this is just insulting to their existing customers and a strong warning to potential customers.The obvious solution here should have been to launch it as an open beta or even a subscriber-only beta and let your loyal users assist with working out the kinks before anyone has to start paying for it. Apparently the on-paper meeting of hard internal deadlines was more important than getting it right and not infuriating the customer base. Maybe they will learn this lesson someday, but I'm not confident in it at all.

There is also the matter of it being a web-based application. This is clearly a matter of piracy prevention and has little to no benefit to the consumer, but that's really up to WOTC. If they had replaced the old offline CB wit ha new bug-filled mess of an offline CB it would still be a problem. I suspect that it will not be the piracy solution they think it is and that bootleg character builders will still be used a year from now.

They have also promised a new virtual tabletop and  a new monster builder in the future. Sure, great, whatever. They were promising those in 2007 and eventually gave up - so how long will it be before those come about? They had a perfectly good character builder and they couldn't launch a new version of it - how solid will these other 2 applications be if they do get to the point of being released? Is it something you would feel comfortable paying for?

Finally there is the matter of the future. I tend to think of myself as an old-school guy. I like to hang on to my old RPG's and just because someone stops printing new stuff for them doesn't mean I stop playing them. We played 3E more than a year after 4E came out. In the past 2 years I've played or run sessions of Basic D&D, Marvel Super Heroes, d6 Star Wars, and Twilight 2000 1st edition. I don't let a publisher tell me when to stop playing a game. With so much of 4E built into the online tools and so many players dependent on them, what happens to 4E when these tools go offline? The day WOTC announces 5th edition, the clock will be ticking on all of 4th edition's online elements. Look at how Star Wars Saga was handled - the day the license ran out - all of that material disappeared from the site. Now D&D isn't a licensed game, but how much of this "old"material will be kept available by WOTC when they are trying to sell the latest and greatest version of the game? With no OGL, no 3rd party will be able to keep it alive legally this time so 4E will just disappear from the Wizards online machine and only the books that are disdained by so much of the 4E D&D community will remain. Then suppose you don't like 5th edition and want to keep playing your 4th edition campaign - what will you do then?

To me this whole episode is an illustration of a few things:

One, tabletop RPG's should beware of becoming too dependent on cool new online tools. Character generators are nothing new - GURPS and Hero System have had them since the 1990's but they were never as widely adopted by players as the 4E CB has been. Heck we were AD&D writing character generators in BASIC  back in the 1980's too so this is not a new concept. The danger is when it becomes a replacement for the books themselves - economic downturns, marketing shifts, and management direction changes can all have drastic impacts and programmers are not cheap. The core of the game you play could disappear overnight.

Two, companies that have little or no expertise in software development or online support should probably not build their games around software tools or online support for those games. License it out to someone who does that kind of work full-time. Your odds of success increase dramatically and if things go wrong you have a convenient scapegoat to blame and possibly fire.

Three, customers don't like broken promises so you shouldn't break them unless absolutely necessary.  Everything from the VTT to the uproar over Essentials being 4.5 to the errors with the new Red Box set and going back to the original handling of the 4E announcement shows a serious lack of connection with their customers. In the internet age how can this company be so out of touch with the people that buy its products? This feels very much like some of the arrogance that other companies from GM to Microsoft to even the old TSR have suffered from in the past. It looks more and more like they are listening to internal directives over external feedback to me and I'm not sure why. The RPG market is not that big. A few wrong steps can generate tremendous negative word of mouth. (It's also about time for the annual holiday season layoffs so there will soon be a new crop of former insiders who will spill the beans about how this was handled internally and it will no doubt be very unflattering). Listen to the customers. Listen to what people think who are actually playing the game right now - that should be your number one adviser base. People who used to play have a role there, and people who have never played but might be interested are worth some attention too, but if you can't get it right for the people who are already giving you money every month then why would potential customers care at all about what your plans are?

In the end it makes me a little bit sad - I was totally in love with 3rd Edition when it launched - it felt like a renewal of an old friend. I felt completely jilted when 4E launched but I have since come around and feel like I discovered a secret that a lot of the old school crowd missed - this is a good game. This year I have really turned into a 4E fan and it feels like it's in spite of the company that makes it rather than because of them. I'm not a big fan of Pathfinder but I am a huge fan of Paizo and the way they handle their business. I liked them back when they were just publishing Dragon and Dungeon and I like them even more now as I see a small company with passionate, involved management doing things the right way and being rewarded for it.

I know being part of a larger corporate structure makes it harder to operate like a small company but WOTC needs to do things differently or soon no one is going to care. Get players rolling on a decent set of rules - then change them. Come out with a good support tool - then change it. That's the kind of thing that drives people crazy and drives them away. People just want to play so make it easier for them. Remove obstacles, don't create them. Stop telling them how great the next massive direction-change is going to be and start asking them what they would like to see in 2011 or 2012. Stop making them fight through format changes and pullbacks and products being taken off the schedule after they have been announced - you have a good game here! You had a nice set schedule and format for everything for 2 years along with the start of a nice suite of tools - why screw that up? The past year has not been a good one in relating to the customer base. Please try and sort it out and move forward with a new approach. "Customer-Driven" is not just a marketing phrase, especially in smaller markets like this one. Most of us would like to see D&D flourish and it's in your hands now. Try to get it right. The first time. Not in errata. Not in website apologies or clarifications. Find out what the players want and then get it right the first time. It matters.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guardians of the Vale - Session 4 - Into the Barrow of the Ogre King

Setting out from Loudwater the party follows a very obvious trail left by the goblin raiders. Moving almost directly south they soon come to an area of forest known as the Southwood. Soon enough they find the trail leads into an area of tumbled stone ruins. The work is clearly dwarven and the barrow is rumored to be part of the old dwarven kingdom of Ammarindar.

As they venture into the ruins Apollo (the Elf Ranger) notices that something doesn't look right about a large area ahead and warns the party to skirt around it. The Druid then spots a loose stone near where the tracks stop and moves it, revealing a ladder that descends into darkness. After a brief discussion the party climbs down.

At the bottom is a small dark room which seems to be a dead end but they soon feel a draft coming from one end and discover a secret door which they open. Ahead is a large rubble-choked room which slopes up to their right. There is some indirect light but the area is not well-lit. At the top of the slope stand 3 large dwarven statues. between those statues stand a pair of goblins who have not yet noticed the party. The group stealthily moves out and prepares to take out the guards

Charging forward the Dragonborn Paladin slices into the nearest goblin to open the battle. He strikes hard but the goblin does not fall - clearly these are not the rabble they fought back in Loudwater. The Elf begins firing in support while the Dwarf moves to engage and the the Druid begins casting storm spike. A vicious melee erupts as  more goblins move in from out of sight including some kind of wizard who blasts from a distance with stinging and blinding spells.This fight goes hard for the heroes as the Paladin goes down and the Elf is constantly fighting off blind spells, interfering with his archery. The dwarf takes a beating until he eventually goes down after using up his healing abilities (Inspiring word from dwarf to Paladin- "By the gods you suck! Get back in the fight!) and even the ranger drops at one point, leaving the bloodied druid in beast form trying to slay the last goblin warrior and drive off the wizard before he drops and his friends all die. After many exchanges (and much dodging of wizardly blasts) he  rips into the last armored goblin for one final time, slaying him, and causing the hexer to flee through a set of doors at the other end of the room. He quickly attends to his companions and they stagger to their feet, wondering if this was such a good idea after all.

DM Notes: This was another very long fight, 13 rounds, and was almost a TPK. Part of the problem was that the players last fight against goblins included some minions and this one did not. Plus it is intended for 5 PC's and we only have 4. Now that being said it's also intended for a level 1 party and ours is level 2. Either way it's a level 4 encounter which seems awfully tough for the second encounter of a new campaign. So it's higher level AND the party is outnumbered by 1 and there are no minions. The party was also reluctant to use their dailies because of the easier fight last time against the goblins - we don't need to use them they're just goblins! Of course by the time 3 of them were on the floor they were thinking a little differently but it was too late by then. Scouting this one out earlier I had not really thought this would be a super tough fight but the restricted terrain - there is really only 1 square clear for movement between each pair of dwarf statues so if the goblins block them the Goblin Hexer can stand back and blast pretty much at-will. He managed to keep the elf in enough distress that there was no return fire. The party's decision to fight in between the statues made a big difference here. It's an interesting but very dangerous tactical situation. Hopefully they are learning.

Next time - behind the big doors...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Slow Week

I'm pretty much taking this week off from my online activities - posting should resume next week.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fantasy Books, Gaming Fiction and My Background in Them

I really just wanted a post on the blog that explains my background with fantasy literature as it might help someone get why I think a book is good or bad. This is that post.

I liked stories about knights and castles and such when I was a kid. In about the third grade our teacher read us the Hobbit in class and I completely fell for it. A short time later I saw a little animated movie called "The Hobbit" and heard that there was a follow up story called "The Lord of the Rings." During a discussion with an aunt who was into fantasy books I mentioned that I had heard of these books but I didn't know how to get them. She loaded me into the car and drove me to Waldenbooks in the mall and bought me all 4 of them. I read those books over the next week and read them many, many, times over the next 20+ years. Those books were my introduction to fantasy and in some ways are a high-water mark for fantasy lit.

In elementary school I also read The Chronicles of Prydain and was thrilled. These were written more for kids but they were very good stories and were still better written than a lot of the material that comes out today. I read them again a few years ago (reading them aloud to my kids before bedtime) and they still hold up very nicely.

I read a lot of World War II and Science Fiction stuff in elementary school too but since this is about my Fantasy background I will focus only on it.

I discovered D&D in 5th grade and beyond the game itself it provided a nice bibliography of fantasy books - remember this was way before the internet and it was sometimes hard to know what to look for at the library or the bookstore. Now I had a list...

In Junior High I read Sword of Shannara (thought it was kind of weak back then), The first Xanth trilogy (OK and kind of funny), a lot of comic books, and then we moved to Texas and the local library had the Conan books.

Feeling like I had found the holy grail of fantasy fiction (beyond LOTR) I dived in and read all 12 Ace edition Conan books over my 8th grade year and it set the new high mark. They are different from LOTR but they are equally powerful in their own way. I've read them many many times since then as well as the new un-pastiched director's cut versions that came out a few years ago and I still rank them at the top.

Next I found the Elric books and I pored through those as well - different than Conan or LOTR but kind of a weird middle ground. Violent like Conan but also baroque and fantastic like LOTR. I loved them and still do. I tracked down Moorcock's other works and devoured them as well and all together they make a very nice block of Fantasy reading with a distinct feel to it.

In some ways that's my Triangle of Fantasy Greatness - LOTR/Hobbit, Conan, and Elric. Maybe that dates me but that's the core of it to me. If you want to include the classical trilogy of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid then you might have a second "center of greatness" that I think has an impact on the earlier works of fantasy at least.

Other classic works that I like include The Worm Ouroboros, The Compleat Enchanter, and Burrough's Martian stories. I am also a fan of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories though I do not rank them quite as highly as some old-schoolers do. They are very good though and very much tied into the core of what led to D&D. Along that same line Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson is clearly the genesis of the D&D paladin and the D&D troll and has a good dose of fey/faerie too.

The 80's - In the remainder of the 80's I read Fred Saberhagan's Swords trilogy and thought it was decent enough though I think I like the Empire of the East series that precedes it a little better. They're both good reads. Laurence Watt-Evans Lure of the Basilisk series is a good set of tales with a non-human point of view. Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook is a good set of stories - I don't see it as the major work that some others do but I do think they're good. The Guardians of the Flame by Joel Rosenberg is one of the early "gamers transported into a fantasy world" stories but after the first trilogy that tends to show up less and less as new characters fully tied to the fantasy world take over. It's a good series and covers 2 or 3 generations now.  There were two other major fantasy series in the 80's that I think bear mentioning:

1) Thieves' World - these books were very popular and were by far the grittiest, nastiest set of thing I had ever read, at least by the middle to end of the series. If you think Conan or even the Black Company stories focus in on the low fantasy end of the spectrum take a look at these. Technically the first one was published in 1978 but they came out about one a year all through the 80's until the final volume was published in 1989. They get nastier as the series goes on and after seeing the same trend in Wild Cards I wonder if it's a trait of shared world novels as the writers try to outdo each other. In any case if you are interested in low-fantasy with a wide variety of characters it should be on your list.

2) Dragonlance - this was the real beginning of the D&D fiction avalanche. At first it was just a trilogy and a bunch of game support material but soon it would open the floodgates and we would see everything from Greyhawk novels to Forgotten Realms novels to books focusing on the gully dwarves of Krynn. This also indirectly opend up 2 other types of fiction - the non-D&D gaming fiction series such as the Battletech novels and later the Shadowrun, Vampire, and Wwarhammer/Warhammer 40K novels. It also opened up the "trilogy based on a guy's D&D campaign" series of books - more on those later. These were the first and they are decent stories. Re-reading them as an adult I see some things I do not like as much now but there is some fairly grown-up material in there. The death of Sturm is one. The unrepentant selfishness of Kitara the former friend is another. The whole character of Raistlin and the strain between family, friends, and the desire for power is pretty well done though it does play a bigger role in the Twins trilogy that came after. Those are all well done and the world is painted well and feels like a D&D world. It's not LOTR, but it's not garbage either and it was a major work at the time and still is now if partially for what it represents. I can tell you that my 11-year old reading it this summer for the first time thought it was as awesome as I did back when I read it for the first time and I think that says something.

There have been some other "big" fantasy books that have come out in the last 20 years:

David Drake has written some fantasy and as much as I love his military science fiction I am not as big on his fantasy. Lord of the Isles and the sequels are interesting but not my favorites.

Robert Jordan wrote a  huge pile of words about something and I have yet to read any of them. I do have the first two on my bookshelf and they have been there for several years now. I just have not been able to bring myself to start down that road as every book in the series is ridiculously long and there are way too many of them - there's no work of fiction that should take 5000 pages. History of Rome from 500 BC to 500 AD at 1 book per century? OK, 10 volumes sounds fine. History of made-up world and characters in 10+ volumes of 600+ pages? Ridiculously overwritten.  I may get to it someday but it won't be soon.

L.E. Modesett wrote a bunch of stuff about a world called Recluce and it's pretty good.  Looking at the list there are 16 of them now covering around 2000 years of history. Alright that's more than I expected but each one is much smaller than a Wheel of Time novel so it evens out. They describe an interesting world and a very interesting magic system, one of the more detailed ones I have seen as far as describing how magic works and how it feels to be a magic-user. I like them a lot though I confess I haven't read the last wave of them.
David Eddings put out a bunch of stuff in the 80's and the 90's and a lot of it was over-padded crap. To me this is the start of the "fantasy bloat" we are still living with today. If a trilogy is good, what's better? A 5-book series! Of course! So he wrote two of them! About the same characters! Pretty much doing the same thing! And they are very slow! He eventually wised up and wrote 2 trilogies about a totally different world and character after this and those were actually pretty good. So my insight from reading these was that if you, as a writer, think that you have a good story for a trilogy, try making it a single novel. If you  think you have a good story for a 5-book series try making it a trilogy. If you have the brilliant idea to write a 10-book series about a fictional fantasy world please don't - try writing one book and let's see what happens. The Belgariad and The Mallorean were some of the first series I read and came away thinking they were just not that good and had me wondering why 5 books was better than 3 when the story clearly wasn't there. I should credit them as they did open my eyes that not everything publishers issued was great or even good.There's a good story in these books somewhere but it's a shorter story than what was published.

Raymond Feist put out a pair of books that were very good (I thought) and they soon grew into an ongoing ad-hoc series  that's up to around 20 books now - in other words it's another runaway case of sequel-itis. There were in some way based on the author's D&D campaign so at this point we've come full circle to where D&D, inspired by fantasy fiction, is now inspiring fantasy fiction in a new generation of authors.   Now I liked the first book -or two depending on when you read it - and thought it was really good. I thought the first trilogy was good, but then things started to decline for me from there. It is cool to follow along as a character that was a child in the first book grows up and is eventually an old man 10 or os books in but there has to be a limit somewhere. I suppose as long as people keep buying them that "the franchise" must go on and the generational thing does keep the characters on a limited rotation but even that wears thin after a time. I would really like to see experienced successful authors experiment a little more - write a new series set in a different world or try some historical fiction or try some horror or post-apocalyptic book - something other than "the 27th novel in the Riftwar Saga". Good stories deserve a good ending and too many nowadays never get one.

The next-to-last major work I want to mention is one I am just starting - George RR Martin's Game of Thrones. series. I have all 4 of them now but I've been waiting to read them until I know I'm going to be able to do it in large chunks. With the HBO series coming out next year I have more incentive to cover them soon. I have not read them but I have heard nothing but good things about them so I am looking forward to it. Hopefully they rise above a lot of what passes for fantasy these days.

The place of honor at the end of my ramblings here goes to the Discworld novels. I've been reading these since the late 80's and thinking about them now they are the fourth leg of my "triangle of fantasy greatness" that  I mentioned above, which is somehow appropriate. They can be read in almost any order but I have a soft spot for those initial Rincewind books, Mort, and Reaper Man. They are the fantasy equivalent of the Hitchiker's Guide (another major work in my developmental period) and if you like that style of humor you will appreciate them but if you liked that AND have read a bunch of fantasy novels good and bad over the years you will feel like you finally found a home when you start reading those. As a fantasy world the Discworld is better described than most serious fantasy novels. The characters and organizations have more internal consistency than a lot of them too so they meet the real test of quality - they aren't just funny they're good. If you haven't read one then find one at a used bookstore and work it in to your schedule - they're short so it won't take long. I'm betting if you're reading this blog you will probably end up liking it and looking for more.

Anyway that's a chunk of my fantasy lit background  and my view of some of the peaks and valleys of the genre over the last 30 years. The biggest problems I see are that the books are too long, too many authors write sequel after sequel because they can and not because the story demands it, and that much of fantasy has been colored by the assumptions of D&D  as a generation of authors grew up playing it and another generation grew up reading it. These are not universal issues - there are good books out there - but I do hope we see a return to shorter works, self contained novels or trilogies at most. In today's short-attention-span world it seems like it would be a natural path to follow. I hope it comes about.