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.