Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Giving Credit

I appreciate that Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition books give credit to artists on each page. It was sometimes hard to ascertain, prior to 4e, which artist was responsible for an illustration. I like to look at fantasy art and enjoy finding new artists.

Some artists' styles appeal to me and others don't. It isn't exactly random but I'd have a hard time describing the arcane rules that indicate what I will or will not like. My tastes are unique to me.

I like the Time Bender paragon path illustration by Jim Nelson (page 96, Player's Handbook 3). The psion class aspects don't speak to me. I would prefer art without crystals and a halo but the subject matter can't hide the core elements of Jim's style that grab my attention.

D&D 3rd edition books sometimes show the artist name (page 85, Player's Handbook v.3.5) and sometimes do not (page 150). Most of the time, such as Lars Grant-West, you can discern the artist. When you can't figure it out, those are the times when it can be really frustrating. First look for artist initials within the art and then turn to the credits (usually page 2) where you hope that only one artist in that book has those initials.

The Basic Set claims illustrations only by Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. Usually it's easy to tell them apart until you find a dwarf (page 45) signed "E". I'm pretty sure that's E for Elmore. I prefer to avoid guessing games.

Many thanks to Wizards of the Coast for making my life easy by clearly indicating the artist name on each page. Please continue this tradition when designing page layouts for 5th edition's D&D Next books.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Magical Success Story

I was living on a cattle ranch during the summer of 1992. From sunup to sundown we irrigated the fields, worked the cows, rode horses, and did manual labor. The truth is, at the time, I spent all my summers on the ranch but that particular year was slightly different. Every evening during that summer, seven nights a week, I played a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game with two friends who had joined me at the ranch. Kevin Free and I played our wood elf characters under the watchful eye of Chad Wyman (the gamemaster).

I choose to relate this story because that campaign was the first time I experienced a magic item in a fantasy roleplaying game which felt truly magical. Chad gave a free magic item to each character at the start of the game. The elf wizard received a magic sword and the elf targeteer had a mithril (+1) breastplate. We didn't even know what the sword could do but assumed it was a generic +l equivalent item. Experienced Warhammer players might also notice that we started the game with a free advancement through our random basic career and into an advanced career (outlaw to targeteer and wizard's apprentice to wizard, level 1).

Casting battle magic spells in combat is very difficult in the Warhammer game. While casting a spell, the wizard "may do nothing else during that combat round (including move), and is considered to be prone for the purposes of attacks (ie, is hit automatically and suffers double damage)." The spell is interrupted if someone "wallops" the magician and the magic points required to cast the spell are wasted. These details are by way of explanation to say that the wizard was forced to fight in melee with the magic sword. Throughout that first battle, Chad evocatively described a distant sound of hammer on anvil heard by the wizard (wielding the magic sword). At a pivotal moment in the fight, glowing blue runes flashed into existence (etched along the sharpened blade edge) on the sword and turned a miss into a strike. The wizard struck down the key enemy in that combat. The fatal blow was landed, the blue runes faded, and the wizard no longer heard the faint hammering noise. In future battles, each time the cutting runes were needed to land a blow they flashed with a bluish light and the wizard heard the crystal clear ring of a single hammer strike as if from a forge.

The story of the wizard's runesword doesn't end there. Two additional powers were unlocked from the sword. It could be a flame attack sword (flaming with glowing red runes inscribed along the spine of the blade) or a bane weapon against Chaos creatures (with a golden glowing hammer carved into the blade just above the hilt and guard). Chad created a renewed sense of wonder and awe each time a new ability was unlocked from the sword. He did this with effect, language, and story. The first time they were used the flame runes hurt like hell, the wizard couldn't drop the sword until the runes deactivated, and they permanently burned a brand (of a hammer) into the palm of the wizard's delicate hands. The GM was a master storyteller at describing the scenes involving the sword's power and in foreshadowing that something magical was about to happen. While the anti-Chaos rune was active there was a painfully loud and consistent drumbeat of hammer on anvil heard in the wizard's head. It was so thunderous, in fact, that it cost the wizard in physical stamina.

We never considered trading the magic sword around like a commodity to the character that had the highest weapon skill attack bonus. The magic was mysterious and seemed powerful. Magical abilities of the item were unlocked as part of the ongoing story and tension of the game. There was a visual element to the magic that let you know that something special was happening (and an auditory element as well). Even after the second set of runes was revealed, I never suspected that Chad has saved just enough space on the blade for yet a third power to be revealed later.

The majority of my experience was due to the fact that Chad is a fantastic Dungeon Master. The rules might have helped. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a system that relies almost entirely on randomly generated characters. The elf wizard's sword could have been easily generated (page 188) by rolling a 91 or better on D100 for determining how many special abilities the sword had. Then rolling 26-40 Characteristic Gain (plus rolling 01-09 Weapon Skill +10% or 82-84 Weapon Skill 1d3 x +10%), 51-60 Bane Weapon, and 61 Flame Attack.

The rules also feature the following tidbit about magic items.
Using Magical Weapons: Characters who find a magical weapon may not simply pick it up and use it. The weapon has a will of its own, and will not readily accept a new owner. The character must make a successful Will Power test in order to master the weapon - if the test is failed, the weapon will not cooperate, and the character may not use it. Characters who persist in trying to use the weapon will find it will use its abilities to hinder rather than help them.
Is this a good rule for Dungeons & Dragons? I'm not sure but it could have given Chad something to work with as he unveiled new abilities requiring successive Will Power tests by the wizard. The wizard was definitely better equipped to succeed at Will Power tests than the targeteer (who had a pitiful Will Power attribute in the low 30s range on a 01-100% scale).

Magic items present a challenge because you want to capture a certain magical je ne sais quoi but the game rules can't replace the effort and skill of a DM. King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, was intrinsically tied to his story and was bound up in his fate. No one but Mjolnir's owner could even lift it. Famous weapons of myth and legend do seem to possess magical qualities. They are also assumed as part the story of the character wielding them. Sure there is a story of how the magic weapon was first acquired but, unless the weapon itself is the goal of their quest, the acquisition of the item is just background to the hero's ongoing adventures.

A +1 sword in D&D that conveys a +1 to hit on attack rolls and +1 to damage is not magical. It may be powerful, depending on the rules of the game in which it appears, but it doesn't break any laws of nature or normality as would be expected of magic. On the other hand, I can't remember seeing a flaming sword at local SCA event and I've definitely never seen a blade seemingly formed from a shard of the star-filled heavens made solid.

That's magic.


* Note: I played the archer (targeteer) and my best friend played the wizard with the fantastic sword.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Barbarians At The Gates

Going into D&D Next, what is the essence of the barbarian class? I decided to look at this question. Is the barbarian better described as a berserker? Is the barbarian a light infantry class that's constantly on the move and charges around the battlefield? Why is the barbarian one of the three least popular classes over at Wizards.com? After going back to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Unearthed Arcana book I found that the barbarian class in 4th edition doesn't really look much like it's 1st edition ancestor.

What is a barbarian?

First edition says, "Barbarian characters are adept at the many skills necessary for survival in a hostile wilderness" and "Barbarians are tough and hardy fighters, hardened by the savage lands of their birth".

The 2nd edition Complete Fighter's Handbook says, "This is not the barbarian of history, but the barbarian of fantasy fiction. He's a powerful warrior from a culture on the fringes of civilization."

Second edition revisited the class in the Complete Barbarian's Handbook where it says, "The barbarian fighter's extraordinary stamina and physical skills let him survive in the most punishing environments. He relies on muscle and wits, overcoming hardships with brute force and sheer determination. His weapons are crude, his tactics unsophisticated, but his passion and courage makes him the match of any warrior."

Third edition says, "From the frozen wastes to the north and the hellish jungles of the south come brave, even reckless, warriors. Civilized people call them barbarians or berserkers and suspect them of mayhem, impiety, and atrocities."

Fourth edition says, "Barbarians are savage warriors who deal out powerful blows from their mighty weapons." Because of the new power source, Primal, 4e goes on to add that, "As a barbarian, you have a link to powerful nature spirits and other primal forces bound to the warriors of your tribe by the songs and totems of your legacy. These spirits lend energy to your rages, transforming you into a devastating force on the battlefield."

Hit Points: except for 4th edition, the barbarian usually had the largest hit die (1d12 per level) in the game. In 4e barbarians were a striker class and strikers had less hit points than defenders. The 4e barbarian was the only exception as it was a striker with hit points equal to those of a fighter or paladin (but not greater than those defenders and the barbarian did suffer in that it had fewer healing surges per day).

Armor Class: 1e and 2e barbarians (Complete Fighter's Handbook) were proficient with any armor, however, the 1e barbarian was rewarded with improved dexterity bonus to AC if it did not wear "bulky or fairly bulky" armor. The Complete Barbarian's Handbook version was limited to padded, leather, studded leather, or hide armor. 3e barbarians were limited to light and medium armors. 4e barbarians were similarly permitted cloth, leather, or hide armor. The 4e version lost the ability to use shields (whereas 1st, 2nd, and 3rd edition barbarians were able to use shields).

Weapons: 4e barbarians lost their weapon proficiency in ranged weapons, most notably bows. All other editions gave barbarians proficiency is just about all weapons (other than exotic weapons in 3e).

Overall, 1e barbarians could move faster, climb cliffs and trees, hide in natural surroundings, surprise opponents, have back protection against thief attacks, excel at leaping and springing, detect illusion, detect magic, hit as if they carried magic weapons, and in general detested magic. They also had a few more wilderness skills depending on their environment and background.

The barbarian warrior kit (Complete Fighter's Handbook) had a basic focus on wilderness skills as recommended nonweapon proficiencies. Required weapon proficiencies were battle axe and bastard sword. A free bonus was the endurance proficiency. The Complete Barbarian's Handbook version could move faster and carry a heavier load while still being able to move faster than other encumbered characters. They could fight with two weapons. Also the class regained leaping and springingback protection, and climbing.

A major change was introduced to the barbarian class in 3rd edition. Barbarian rage became the core feature of the class. Previously raging was limited to the berserker kit for the fighter class or within a certain subset of kits for the barbarian class. 3e barbarians also received fast movement (as in 1e/2e), uncanny dodge (similar to back protection in 1e/2e), and damage reduction (at higher levels). Barbarians had more skill points per level than many classes and were given a selection of wilderness skills reminiscent of their previous edition abilities.

With 4th edition, they took a certain style of 3e barbarian (probably the most common style) and made that style the narrowly limited focus of the barbarian class. The class continued the 3e focus on rages and was basically hit things really hard with a really big two-handed melee weapon. This was later broadened so that small characters (halflings & gnomes) could play barbarians. The skill selection continued to reflect a wild lifestyle. You chose a build in Player's Handbook 2, either you charged around the battlefield or you frightened your opponents with your roar of triumph. The attacks often focus on doing a lot of damage or embodying an "animal totem in human skin" (a quote from 2nd edition).

What was once an option (berserk rages) is now the only option. Fans of the 1e/2e barbarian may not have wanted that mandatory change. The original flavor seems to be heavily influenced by Conan, probably too narrowly since Conan might best described as a Fighter/Thief multiclass character. Some people I've talked to suggested that the barbarian class is a very slight variation on the fighter class and is unnecessary. On forums you see comments that "barbarian is a culture, not a class" and berserker should be the class with barbarian as a background (theme) option for characters of all classes.

Barbarians are supposed to be "really strong" but the strength attribute is completely divorced from class (and equally necessary for the fighter class) so it is difficult to differentiate the barbarian class on this aspect. Frenzied rages gave the feeling that barbarians were really strong which helped drive home the point but at a cost. Barbarians are supposed to have incredible stamina. This theme seemed to lessen over time. Barbarians relied less on equipment, presumably because they were from a less technological society.

Bring back into focus the animalistic physicality of the barbarian class.

It would also be fun to see the return of the anti-decadent, quirky, unsophisticated code of honor that was followed by "uncivilized" people. An example code of honor should be an inspiration for roleplaying and not a mechanical requirement in order to play a barbarian. The inconsistent use of a "must be non-lawful" alignment restriction seems incompatible with the barbarian code of honor (though both are from 1st edition) but perhaps barbarians are just a little too pragmatic to always follow their own rules.


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An Ode To February

In order to cap off the month of February I posted a string of non-traditional fantasy images over at my art stream. When I looked very closely it was sometimes hard to determine which images fell on each side of the issue. Even the same iconic character, Regdar, is depicted inconsistently when he is illustrated by different artists. Does Wizards of the Coast provide diverse art? Starting with at least 3rd edition, it would seem so. A lot might depend on how specific does Wizards R&D get in their art orders versus how much is determined by the illustrator.

It was pretty easy, just in the two Player's Handbooks (3e and 4e), to find a wide variety of characters depicted.

I saw a few comments comparing Paizo with WotC. I can't speak to that but what I did learn is that I prefer visual references of characters in chainmail (see below).


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Gain 30 Levels In Only 15 Minutes A Day

Rodney Thompson posted a gem in his Rule-of-Three answers today. What is Wizards of the Coast going to do for the 10-minute work day? Unclear. However, the level of understanding brought to the issue was refreshing. The 15-minute day is a problem that sits somewhere between the rules as written, the Dungeon Master, and the players.

If you don't use published adventures then the "adventure design issue" falls squarely on the shoulders of the DM. I've played in games where the screen jockey was either unwilling or incapable of throwing more than one combat encounter at the characters per in-game day. Perhaps the pacing of their story required such singular fights or they envisioned the only worthwhile battle as a giant set piece. Either way, it was very difficult to challenge the adventuring party in 4th edition if you didn't realize the gulf in power between characters facing strategic resource management and those players who acted according to the understanding of one-fight-per-day.

Traditional spells, prior to 4th edition's power system, in D&D varied wildly in power scale even at the same spell level. Every vancian spell is a daily power though maybe you can memorize it more than once. On top of obvious power differentials between daily powers and the rest, 4e also added magic item daily powers.

Short adventuring days were surely a potential problem in previous editions. Some classes could go all day while others wanted to rest as soon as they had used up their "most" fun abilities. Take the worst case: the wizard was useless as he followed along with his martial buddies after he cast only a single magic missile spell. Certain Dungeons Masters may have gotten used to the idea that one colossal combat per day was the right way to run the game.

Hopefully 5th edition will be able to simultaneously handle both ends of the spectrum through inherent design or clearly delineated optional rules. Perhaps Rodney says it best:
[W]e should be putting the tools in the hands of the DM to create adventures that contain only a single, huge combat encounter to cover the entire day’s worth of adventuring and still provide a satisfying adventure experience.
Because, for some people, that's how they roll!


Follow Your Feats

Feats were a genius idea introduced in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. Unfortunately they seem to have lost their way. Introduced in 3e, a feat was "a special feature that either give your character a new capability or improves one he or she already has". Within D&D 4e you find a different tone:
As you advance in level, you gain a number benefits that improve your capabilities. These benefits are called feats. Typically, a feat doesn't give you a new ability, but instead improves something you're already able to do.
I stopped playing AD&D 2nd Edition when I was in high school. My reasoning, at the time, was that you couldn't find enough variety and mechanical (game rules) support to differentiate one fighter from another. In retrospect I don't think I was 100% correct about the game itself but there is at least a speck of truth to the concept. Third edition's feat blew this complaint away. No longer were there very few and limited levers to customize your character. Fourth edition took a step back and feats no longer strongly distinguished one character from another.

Some feats were better for the game than others. Feats like blind-fight (3e) and skill training (4e) helped show a unique history, experience, or training one character had that another didn't. These were meaningful differences between characters within a given class that combined story with flavorful rules.

I'm biased against feats that impact numbers without representing any difference between characters. No one looks across the table at my use of weapon focus, to do 1d8+5 damage instead of 1d8+4, and says, "wow, we're did your character learn to do that". One, the bonus is relatively small and thus unnoticeable. Two, it carries very little connection to how you're a different flavor of warrior. Three, it gets hidden in the numbers; you don't typically tell anyone your mathematical bonuses while playing in-character. Four, it looks the same as what every character does. Worse than relatively optional feats like weapon focus was the introduction of weapon expertise (and versatile expertise). Hitting is fun. Missing is not fun. Because 4e is so dependent on tactical effects that usually come from hitting your target, the expertise feats were almost mandatory.

You really don't get very many feats between 1st and 8th level. Thus, taking an expertise feat just to be competent against the enemy was the right decision but it was also boring as hell; sort of like paying your taxes. Basically everyone took it or knew they "should" have taken it. I think characters need more feats, one every level, instead of fewer so I am completely opposed to effectively levying a tax of -1 feat on all characters. If game math requires everyone to hit +1 better then just give it to all characters or conversely give -1 defenses to all villains/monsters/enemies.

Feats were less interesting, less flavorful, and less fun in 4th edition. I believe the game designers were chasing a reasonable goal when they (unintentionally) took away the essence of feats. Some feats were a huge problem. Adding rules, through feats, added complexity to game play and created hard to manage rules interactions. Some 3e feats were positively broken. The spiked chain, improved trip specialist could pin an enemy down who couldn't stand up without getting tripped again as a "free" opportunity attack which triggered additional damaging follow-up attacks from the spiked chain.

A few feats had great potential but missed the mark. There weren't really enough energy spells of certain types to play non-fire Elementalists. Some feats exist to differentiate but also act as a gate to "let me play the character I want to play". Third edition's weapon finesse feat let you play a stereotypical variation on the fighter based around dexterity; this was especially useful for halflings. You spent the feat for the "right" to play a halfling fighter which is, not unlike certain 4th edition feats, akin to paying your taxes only this tax only applies to people who aren't adhering close enough to the social engineering in the game. Jump back to elementalism, energy substitution came to the rescue but with a slew of extra taxes: first you had to have spent 5 ranks in the knowledge (arcana) skill, you had to pay a feat to get "any other metamagic feat" as a prerequisite, and you had to spend a feat for energy substitution itself. Sorcerers got to pay a bonus tax: any spell a sorcerer modified with a metamagic feat got increased in casting time to be a full round action. I don't recall any attempts by the sorcerer character class to overshadow the game so I never understood how metamagic feats would break this class without its own little metamagic tax. At this point players should just politely ask the DM, "is it okay if I invent my own spell called Melf's Delayed Blast Acidball" and be done with these game designers.

A feat should carry more of a benefit than just letting you play the basic game. Everyone can hit things and it isn't really important if you use strength or dexterity. The feat you pay for the privilege of using reasonable alternate stats should also come with a benefit. Preferably a benefit that makes a dexterity fighter feel and look different than a strength fighter.

Bring back variety. Bring back flavorful feats. Let our feats heavily define us (not completely but enough to be quite noticeable).


Sunday, February 26, 2012

An Open Letter To Monte Cook

In The Challenge of High Level Play, Monte Cook says:
As a fan of high-level play across the editions, I've never agreed fully with the idea that the game breaks down. I think, however, there's some validity to it, but only if you look at it a certain way. What people are recognizing is that, at a certain level, play changes.
I'd like to clarify. When I say that high-level play breaks down, what I'm saying is that the math of combat and game rules no longer function. I am not focused on how the game "changes". In fact, in some editions the game doesn't really change at all.

Play breaks down for different reasons in different editions. I'm most familiar, off the cuff, with 4th edition. So what happens in 4e? The number of conditional bonuses and temporary modifiers become so numerous at high levels that it takes forever to complete one round of combat.

Further, the ability of characters to whittle away enemy hit points bogs down. 1d8+5 damage at level 2 could slay a monster with 32 hit points (Level 2 Elf Archer, Monster Manual, page 106) in four hits or about five rounds. At level 24, that same dragonborn warlord isn't even close to the same performance against an equal-level artillery threat (Great Flameskull, Monster Manual, page 109). Against the Great Flameskull, the warlord would need a +32 to hit bonus to equal his chance to hit the elf (which is probably 5 or more points higher than the dragonborn actually has). In order to kill the Great Flameskull in the same number of rounds, the hero would need to dish out over 58 hit points with each hit and that's probably double the damage actually done by a level 24 warlord.

Nothing has fundamentally changed but the game got slower and the hero is less able to take down threats than before.

Monte, Legends and Lore reads like you're dismissing other's observations as being in their heads. I may self-define myself as a person who doesn't care for high-level play but many who prefer epic level games also comment that play breaks down. It just doesn't work to lump everyone together and wave away the problems.