Archive for March 2013

A Sundered World: Acamar

Now that we have shown you various methods of travel and a fairly unconventional city, I think it is time for an adventuring locale. Next stop, Acamar!

Acamar is one of many corpse stars that float within the Deep Astral, where the silvery light fades into a gloomy, grey twilight. Those that wander too close feel it before they see it: paranoid fear grips the mind, flashes of things skulk at the edges of sight, alien voices whisper from the shadows, and nightmare-filled sleep prevents any meaningful respite.

Though dead, or at least in a state so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable, its mere presence can warp space and time, driving away only reason. Even vessels utilizing ley-line navigation to escape can find themselves somehow drawn back, though many a sanity-stripped crew has willingly flown into its dark embrace.

Those that do manage to flee with their minds intact--mostly, at any rate--describe it as a hollow, shattered sphere made of an oily black substance. A disc of debris, composed of stone and metal chunks of various shapes and sizes, ranging from flecks to horse-sized (or even larger), surrounds it for tens of thousands of feet. The metal is oddly enough, cold iron, which makes Acamar even more dangerous given how magic reacts to it.

See, it is very difficult to get arcane magic to "stick" to cold iron. It can be done, but is is a laborious task with often temporary results. This quality makes it ideal for forging weapons capable of slicing through magical barriers, and armor that repels it, which makes it unfortunate that cold iron only seems to be found within and around corpse stars.

The surrounding disk, combined with nodules that stud its surface, disrupts divination magic--so good luck avoiding it or plotting an escape course--and also makes it difficult to weave and sustain magic. This extends to the magic that operates and holds astral vessels together: get to close, and your ship could end up dead in the water, as it were. Of course iron is not the only, or even most severe, danger.

Mortal cultists, many mutated into barely recognizable shapes, pray and and offer sacrifices in hopes of reviving the dead and not-dead star (also power, which is where star pact warlocks come from). They venture forth in obelisk-like ships to abduct victims and acquire supplies, as Acamar is inhospitable to most forms of life. Aboleths and other tentacled horrors (like whatever I might end up having to rename mind flayers due to WotC's licensing), pursue old and terrible agendas. They often utilize mortals as tools to further their goals, which sometimes conflict with each other.

Finally, Acamar is host to many more alien and/or chimeric entities. Some, like star worms, have only base instincts, while others, like astral kraken, are as ancient and cunning as all but the oldest of dragons.

So, why would anyone want to go there?

Well, there is plenty of cold iron to be had, just floating about for the taking. Though arcane magic is easily foiled, divine magic and psionics have been proven to be as reliable as the user. Properly shielded mining ships skirting the edges of the debris field can make a hefty profit in a fairly short period of time (especially considering that, again, it only seems to be found near corpse stars), compared to dredging it out of a shifting elemental long as they do not run afoul of monsters or obelisk.

Another reason is knowledge. Knowledge is power, and the denizens that call Acamar's cavernous bowels home have it in abundance, including ancient magic, how to create magic items, the location of powerful artifacts, and more. Some, like the aboleths, retain an almost photographic memory ranging back thousands of years, but would need to be persuaded to both part with it, as well as adhere to any bargains made.

Others record what they discover--whether from visions that Acamar deigns to impart, intuited through the movement and patterns of stars, or even from the minds of consumed victims--into memory shards, organic archives, or, more crudely, etched into the walls.

It is also possible that you end up there whether or not you want to. Characters might run afoul of an astral storm and deposited in the Deep Astral. They could also be unwitting passengers on a vessel whose pilots end up going insane. They might even be abducted by an obelisk, or be paid by a border colony to rescue abducted villagers.

Wandering Monsters: Scum of the Underearth

I was waiting for this.

I have never really been a fan of drow. To me they have always seemed like evil-elf caricatures: they dress in black, have black skin (sometimes also red eyes), live underground, worship spiders, are adversely affected by the sun (to the point where even their gear gets destroyed when exposed to it), and are pretty much always Chaotic Evil, the most evil-est of alignments.

Really, all they are missing are monocles and mustaches.

Seriously, I could let everything slide except for their alignment. How does any kind of society exist when virtually everyone is Chaotic and Evil? Though it might sound worse, Chaotic Evil is no more evil than the rest of the lot, just the method or limits. Lawful Evil or even Neutral Evil would work just as well.

I am also not a fan of their seemingly random spell-like abilities. Darkness is a no-brainer, and faerie fire and dancing lights I can kind of get behind as they can use them to lure creatures into traps (or scare the ones that know better), but levitate? Know alignment? Where do these come from? Why do all drow know how to do these things? Is it genetics, or are they all forced to learn the exact same magical regiment as they grow up? Why can they only do these things once per day? Do they have multiple internal reservoirs of magic-juice specially partitioned for each power?

I would just make them more like "normal" elves, but with darkvision and better suited for stealth. If they had to have inherent spells, I would take a page from the high elf and let them pick one, perhaps even from a limited list of thematic spells. I guess if you absolutely had to, you could give them spell-like abilities as an optional power.

Even driders do not make sense. If you screw up, Lloth "curses" you by making you tougher, stronger, and--in 3rd Edition, at least--giving you more spell-like abilities? It made so much more sense in 4th Edition when it became a reward, not to mention that it allowed you to include driders with parties of other drow.

If you want driders to be a punishment, then make it suck. Like, you are not some graceful, spider-like creature, but a hideous, barely recognizable mass of elf and spider. Their bodies should be constantly wracked with pain due to their twisted anatomy, and they can recall only flashes of their former lives (in particular the failure that resulted in their new shape). Outcasts from even drow society, they wander the Underdark seeking to inflict torment on others.

Why not give us both?

Like drow, I am not a fan of duergar, for pretty much the same reasons: they are evil dwarves with seemingly random spell-like abilities (though to be fair, I felt that 4th Edition's beard-chucking treatment was about as silly). Boring. Give them a reason to be evil, and if they must have inherent magical powers, they should make sense given the flavor behind them.

I have never used grimlocks outside of the second Age of Worms adventure (spoilers, I guess). As blind humanoids go, while they are not particularly interesting, but aside from that I guess there is not much wrong with them. They are in need of some solid flavor to back them up, because as they are I really cannot see much appeal.

D&D Next: Exploration Rules

Last week's playtest session only went for two hours--with a good chunk devoted to polishing up characters--so we did not get a chance to use them much, but I found what we have so far to be an interesting change of pace from 4th Edition's skill challenges.

Early on I remember whenever I would try to have the characters find some lost ruin in the woods or something along those lines, that everyone would stack on Nature or Perception, or just not bother rolling at all for fearing of blundering into a hazard, though eventually better examples and structures made things a lot smoother.

The exploration rules in Next provide a system of abstracted, turn-based rules that goes above and beyond rolling for the daily random encounter, for exploring a section of dungeon or wilderness region, or just traveling from place to place.

Turn lengths are broken up into 5-minute, 1 hour, and 1 day increments based on what you are exploring, and how far apart points of interest are: 5-minute turns are great for dungeons where rooms are close together, 1-hour turns are better if rooms or locations are far apart, and 1-day turns are pretty much for exploring wilderness regions.

Once you get your turn duration set, you then ask the characters how fast they are exploring. This helps you determine how far they can move during a turn, as well as their readiness DC, which is used to determine things like surprise and if they get lost: the faster you are moving, the more likely you are going to blunder into monsters, lose your way, overlook details, and so on.

During exploration characters can each undertake 1-3 exploration tasks, such as keeping watch, navigating, mapmaking, and more. The more tasks you try to perform at the same time, the harder it gets, and sometimes speed prevents you from attempting them, at all. For example, you cannot map if you are going at a fast or rushed pace.

To me this is one of the highlights of the latest packet, though I am confused why none of the class features seemed to sync up with this "pillar" (I think exploration was supposed to be one of the three pillars, anyway). Like, wizards being able to sense magic, paladins evil (or good, depending on what you are looking for), and rogues traps.

I could see these being adapted for an urban settings, especially in Eberron. Oh, and since the game already offers quest XP, why not give the players something for discovering new sites? It would be a nice incentive for hexcrawls.
March 25, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

D&D Next: 3/20 Packet Overview, Part 1

I guess it is good that we decided to wait until this weekend to start running a playtest campaign (we almost started last week): three more classes,  Martial Damage Dice replaced with automatically scaling damage (and an Expertise system for fighters), scaling damage for cantrips, modifications to skills, feats, equipment, and more.

As a disclaimer, while I did read through the documents, I am processing all of this with seven or so prior rulesets also swimming in my head, so I am sorry if/when I invariably confuse or omit something.

Races now operate just a bit like 4th Edition, gaining a set bonus to a single ability score, with a secondary bonus (among other benefits) depending on the subrace you choose. For example all dwarves gain a bonus to Constitution, while hill dwarves get a bonus to Strength and mountain dwarves get a Wisdom bonus. I think this is a big step to putting them on par with the human's bonus to everything.

While racial weapon proficiencies are still a thing, scaling damage dice are out. I disliked racial weapon proficiencies in 3rd Edition, because the rate that attack bonuses scaled pretty much always favored classes that would have proficiency with them anyway (though allowing some to treat exotic weapons as martial was kind of nice). I would be interested in seeing how useful, say, an elf wizard with a bow in Next is.

Other changes include the halfling's Lucky trait triggering on natural 1's, instead of being limited to twice per day, and gaining advantage on saves against fear instead of being able to just end it on a whim. Personally I would love to see this applied to the elf for charm and sleep effects. On that note, elves now gain advantage on Wisdom checks made to see and hear things, instead of skill training.

I did not like that all clerics got Martial Damage Dice and a Martial Damage Bonus in the previous playtest, and I do not like how they all get Deadly Strike, now, particularly clerics of the Arcanist and Lightbringer. I heard mention that some of the Channel Divinity options were changed up, but am not going to compare all of them with the previous update to confirm. My main criticism against them is how spells in general work, anyway, which still makes no sense.

The druid strongly reminds me of 3rd Edition, except that it can wild shape at 1st-level. , but unless you opt into the moon circle you can only ever do it once per day. I really dislike this severe limitation, but

Edit: It looks like you can wild shape more than once per day. Thanks to Ezra for pointing out an entire column that I missed.

I do like that it is limited to specific forms, which moon circle expands upon. Kind of reminds me how 3rd Edition started offering form-specific polymorph spells to help pare down abuse during its end run.

For example, at 1st-level you can assume the Shape of the Hound. This gives you an Armor Class of 12, boosts your Speed to 50 ft., and changes your Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution to 13, 15, and 10 respectively. You get a +5 bonus to detect hidden creatures and a bite attack (+4 to hit, 1d8 + 1 piercing).

I loved the druid in 4th Edition, because despite your wild shape not changing much except what powers you could use, having form-specific evocations made the class really fun and dynamic. Hopefully they will ease up on it down the road, as well as offer more options, as I think it is silly that every druid starts out only knowing how to turn into a dog and learns specific forms at specific times.

One thing that would help is if a druid picked from a list of forms at certain levels, with the option to upgrade existing ones. So at 1st-level you might be able to change into a wolf, bear, or tiger, and at a later level learn how to trip, crush, or pounce on targets respectively. You could even roll in other benefits, such as an increased Armor Class, advantage on certain ability checks or saves, and more.

A good start, but they need to open up wild shape and, as usual, fix the spellcasting system.

Fighters have a lot more going on, with only four levels giving them absolutely no benefit outside of hit points. Maneuvers are now funneled into a series of four thematic class features, two of which you gain at 1st-level. While there are warlord-esque options (especially strike command, not to be confused with commander's strike) that let you boost the AC and saves of your allies, none of them offer any healing.

You also gain bonus feats, which would remind me of 3rd Edition, except that you only get three, two of which are gained in the first two levels.

As promised your damage automatically scales at certain levels, starting at 5th. As in 4th Edition you multiply your weapon dice and tally it all up, making your choice of weapon somewhat more relevant. The increased damage only applies to one attack you make, but you cannot use it at all with Multiattack, which you gain at the same time.

I think that Multiattack would be a lot more useful if you did not have to choose to sync it with melee or ranged attacks, and opt to divvy up your damage dice as you see fit. So at 5th-level you can deal double damage to one target, or normal damage to two. At 10th-level you can deal triple damage to one target, double to one and normal to another, or normal to three.

As with previous playtests, the fighter yet again takes a step in the right direction, but it is not quite there. If they are going to get warlord-type powers, then one of them needs to be sustainable healing, or something that helps reduce damage and/or grants temporary hit points. I would also provide options that make fighters better with certain weapon categories, as well as medium and heavy armor and shields.

Aside from having their Martial Damage Dice and Martial Damage Bonus replaced with Deadly Strike, and losing maneuvers, monks seem pretty much the same. Their barebones unarmed capabilities can be picked up with the Martial Arts feat, which they receive for free. My only gripe is that I wish they had some more 4th Edition flair built in.

Paladins start out with some common features (sense celestials, fiends, and undead, use Charisma for saving throws), but like clerics and domains are customized by their oath, which lets you model a classic paladin, anti-paladin/blackguard, or a kind of nature-y, semi-4th Edition warden, and in this way remind me of 4th Edition's hexblade.

Mechanically oaths determine domain spells, Channel Divinity options, and what kind of mount you can eventually summon at 8th-level. I think that 8th-level is a bit much, and as in 3rd Edition would start them more mundane at a lower level, and scale up from there. However, like 4th Edition, I would also make them optional.

I know some people dislike the warden, feeling that it does not match the capabilities or theme of 4th Edition's warden, but I think it is a good start. I liked the 4th Edition cavalier's virtues and blackguards vices much more, but I want to see oaths customize them even further, and additional options within each, so not all paladins with the same oath are, well, the same.

The ranger comes across as an entirely new animal: there is no longer any assumption of wielding two weapons or a bow, you can cast spells right from the start, and Favored Enemy is not severely limited like it was in 3rd Edition, where it gave you an attack and damage bonus against a sometimes very specific type of creature. Instead, you pick a more general type of creature and gain thematic bonuses against any creature that first the bill.

For example, Brute Hunter assumes that you hunt orcs, goblins, and other evil humanoids. At 1st-level, you gain advantage on Intelligence checks made to recall information about them, as well as negating surprise for allies within 25 feet, so long as you are not surprised. Dragonslayer gives you advantage on Intelligence checks made to recall information about dragons, but also makes you immune to fear in general (though I think advantage would suffice).

I do not think that rangers should automatically have access to spells, instead making it one of several options, which could include enhanced animal companions, terrain-based bonuses, specific skill bonuses, and so on.

Rogues see a fairly hefty change up, looking very much like their 3rd Edition predecessors, with everyone getting Sneak Attack (which increases every other level), as well as classic class features like Uncanny Dodge and Evasion.

While I am not a fan of every rogue having Sneak Attack, at least they are no longer as consistently capable in melee as fighters, with their version of Deadly Strike capping at triple damage. Rogue schemes are slightly changed, giving you a couple of features, and some bonus skills and feats.

Finally, wizards. The only real change that I saw was giving them Arcane Recovery, which lets you recover expended spell slots. The number of times you can use this, as well as the maximum level spell slot, increases as you gain more wizard levels, up to 3rd-level spells, three times per day at 5th-level.

The complaint that I have always made, after every packet release, still stands: level-based spell slots do not make any sense, especially when you add in magic that you can use whenever, as well as magic that you can use whenever given enough time.

Lumping on the ability to recover "slots" just makes it worse. How come at 5th-level I cannot use Arcane Recovery to regain a 1st- and 2nd-level slot? Why not even two 1st-level slots? Why can I not burn all three uses of it to regain even a 4th-level slot?

You still start out with four skills, but your skill die starts at a d6. As you level up you get the option to add a new skill or increase your skill die, up to potentially a d12.

As before I do not like all skills having the exact same bonus, all the time, but I am also not a fan of the new skill list: Conceal an Object? Break an Object? Administer First Aid? This sounds even worse than the original run of 3rd Edition, where you had one skill to conceal objects, another to pick up on slang terms, and three wilderness-oriented skills.

I would consolidate the skill list, and allow characters to pick up something akin to 4th Edition's skill powers, either based around the class (so fighters emphasize physical stuff, while wizards get lore-based bonuses), purchased with feats, or something else that you get just by leveling up. Also, why are the descriptions of skills in another document entirely?

Feats are grouped into categories, a lot of them got changed, and, well, there are some new ones, too. Like Open Locks, Pick Pocket, and Read Lips, because reading the lips of someone is definitely on par with stuff like Weapon Mastery.

I am not going to get into detail of all the feats, but I think that being able to pick a lock or pocket should be the purview of skills (or even one skill, as in 4th Edition), with stuff like reading lips linked to another skill (like perception or spot), or a skill trick/power that you can choose.

Next Time
Aaand that is it for now. As with most playtests, I am of the opinion that the game is still gradually improving with each release. There are other changes to equipment, spells, magic items, actions, conditions, and so on and so forth, which I will touch on in the next few days. The exploration rules made it in, and I am hoping to give them a test run this weekend. According to the Read First doc, "many monsters have been revised", too.

March 21, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

Wandering Monsters: Dungeon Denizens

And here I was starting to think that we were just not going to get a Wandering Monster article this week which, given the playtest packet that is getting released today, I could forgive. Well, maybe. Depends on what it looks like.

Gelatinous Cube
I always thought it was weird that gelatinous cubes were uniform in size. I would start them out at Medium, or even Small, and scale them up as needed. Also, while it is probably refreshing for adventurers everywhere that they no longer paralyze on contact, it would make a very devious optional trait to tack on from time to time.

Gray Ooze
I am pretty happy with how these guys are presented mechanically. Unlike 3rd Edition, they do not automatically destroy metal weapons, instead penalizing your damage rolls until the penalty reaches a certain point, after which it is destroyed (which I think should be ported over to the rust monster). They also only have cold and fire resistance as opposed to outright immunity, making them more dangerous than usual to both warriors and wizards alike.

I would consider having them penalize armor, as well, considering it destroyed when the armor bonus is reduced to zero.

I also liked the bit of Ecology in 2nd Edition, where it mentioned some smiths using very small oozes to etch their works. Could make a nasty surprise for characters poking around in an underground forge, especially if they can mimic the color and texture of the surrounding terrain. Speaking of mimicking things...

I both like and dislike limiting the mimic to copying nearby objects. I think it is a fine restriction for "young" mimics until they learn to refine this ability to change shape or, to keep things simple, increase the DC to detect the mimic if it copies an object that it can see. You could also combine the two, and just make younger mimics easier to pick out of the lineup.

For some reason, which might be 4th Edition's object mimic and/or an article I read on scorpions, I also envision them crushing prey, dissolving them with acid, and then slurping it up. At any rate, you could give them an optional trait that lets them vomit acid on enemies, or deal bonus acid damage to creatures that are stuck to them.

Ochre Jelly
This is an example of where I drastrically prefer the 4th Edition version over the previous iterations: it dealt acid damage, ongoing acid damage, and split when it got reduced to half its hit points.

I do not get why it is unaffected by lighting or slashing damage. Is the assumption that each slashing attack cuts it in half? If just breaking its membrane of whatever does the trick, then piercing attacks should also suffice. I would just make it split when it is reduced to half its maximum hit points.

These are actually pretty cool: they can grab you, throw you around, and use you as a shield. The limited telepathy also syncs with their aberration type. The only immediate additions I can think of are the otyugh variants (neo and charnel), and a disease-transmitting bite (like they had in 4th Edition), perhaps as an optional power.

Also pretty solid, though I think that a more elegant solution to its weakening tendrils would be to just impose disadvantage on Strength checks. This would also allow you to give grappled characters an opposed Strength check to resist being reeled in.
March 20, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

Legends & Lore: Wednesday Packet

There is a new playtest packet coming out this week, and just in time for the debut of my sandbox playtest campaign, to boot. There will be new classes and spells, as well as some changes to the math, fighter, skills, two-weapon fighting, and more.

The druid sounds like a kitbash of 3rd and 4th Edition; you can wildshape at 1st-level (but it is a daily thing), you get to choose a circle that makes you better at either spellcasting or wildshaping, and it has healing on par with the cleric.

Having played a druid in 4th Edition and seen a druid in action in Dungeon World, I am not a fan of making wildshape (and most things, actually) a per-day ability. If it must be usable a specific number of times per day, it would be nice to explain why. I would also take a page from Dungeon World and restrict a druid to terrain types/animal forms that they are familiar with.

I like the non-combat forms, which was an issue in 4th Edition as they tried to balance it out by preventing you from having a fly or swim speed if you changed into a bird or fish. Even more bizarre was the inability to manipulate things, even if your form should have allowed it (such as a monkey or bird carrying things).

I dislike the healing, because I do not think that the game should assume someone is playing a healing class, and think that it would greatly benefit by foregoing that assumption, but at least according to them it will meet the threshold as established by the cleric.

I am going with the more charitable interpretation of the statement that they are giving us paladins of various alignments "for the first time ever", to mean that they are giving us a trio of more distinct classes from the start, instead of adding new things (like the warden and blackguard) down the line, because we could already make paladins of any alignment at the start of 4th Edition.

While I think it is nice that they are paring down detect evil to just undead and fiends, I think this is kind of odd for blackguards, and especially so for wardens (at least, if they are going to be as nature associated as their 8th-level mount implies). For blackguards I can at least get behind it insofar as it allows her to sense where the evil dead are hanging out, presumably so she can help them plot to swallow souls or defeat chainsaw-wielding protagonists.

For wardens I think that undead are still pretty good as affronts to nature go, but that aberrants/aberrations work better than fiends as symbols of all things unnatural. That, along with the 4th Edition warden's pseudo-shapechanging dailies, would go a long way to help differentiate them.

Finally, I think that 8th-level is a bit much for a summoned mount, especially one that is "fairly weak" without specializing, and as seen in 4th Edition's cavalier sub-class would be a lot better to grant early on, if the player even opts to choose it at all.

1st-level spellcasting? Automatically part of the the class? Really? I am of the mind that spells should be one of several options that rangers can pick up, along with favored enemy and whatever it was that those terrain-based options that the hunter in one of the Essentials books were called.

Speaking of favored enemy, I like the idea of thematic bonuses that can be applied to various monster types. 3rd Edition's favored enemy was too rigid, and often became obsolete as you leveled up and things like orcs were no longer viable threats. 4th Edition's hunter's quarry changed it into a hefty damage bonus, which made it effective all the time if maybe a bit boring. This could make for a more dynamic middle-ground.

Everything Else
Martial Damage Dice is getting changed back to Expertise Dice (yay), fighters (and other martial characters) are getting multiple attacks (yay?), and they have to spend actions to regain spent dice (again, yay?). It will be interested to see what fighters can do, especially given that they no longer have to decide between dealing more damage or doing something potentially more interesting.

I hope that rogues do not scale at the same rate, and that fighters will have ways of regaining spent dice in other ways, such as by landing a critical hit, defending an ally, watching a nearby ally drop, getting "bloodied", and so on. I think those could make for interesting class feature choices.

Not sure what to make of skills, but I am glad to hear that two-weapon fighting is being changed to reflect a "options make you good, not competent" approach. I think it is interesting that they changed words of power to swift spells. Sounds like they are one step away from just re-creating 3rd Edition's swift action, which I am totally okay with.
March 18, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

Wandering Monsters: Creepy Crawlies

With the exception of the rust monster and a few touches here and there, I think that everything here is mostly fine. Of course, when it comes to monstrous bugs and bug-ike things, there is not much that could go wrong, which is why I would like to see more, I dunno, controversial stuff like angels and such.

Though each edition has added its personal touch to these Large, acid-spraying, insect-like monsters, they have not changed much. Though I do not find anything particularly wrong with them, I think it would be interesting to add optional powers to make them unpredictably terrifying, such as blinding acid or an agony-inducing sting.What about ankhegs that form colonies, like cow-sized termites? Why not add a touch of Alien by having them lay eggs inside creatures?

Carrion Crawler
Like the ankheg, the carrion crawler has not changed much over the editions, and like the ankheg all I can really recommend is creating some variant powers that either change what its paralyzing touch does, or just make it worse, such as by causing some kind of rotting disease, or eggs that animate corpses as zombies so that they can potentially provide a larger meal for the larva.

Purple Worm
Though it was Gargantuan in 2nd and 3rd Edition (despite my Huge-sized minis saying otherwise), I think making the baseline purple worm that big is a bit much (though at that size it does make a good candidate for an ancient, probably unique beast). At the least I would give us stats for smaller, younger versions to throw at the characters so that there is a wider level spread. Oh, also a version with serpent-like tentacles in its mouth.

Rust Monsters
A controversial change in 4th Edition—that I preferred—was how a rust monster's touch did not instantly destroy metallic gear, but instead weakened it until the encounter ended. This meant that the only way for it to completely destroy metal gear was with its encounter-based devour metal power (which recharged on a miss, so odds were pretty good it was going to eat something).

I think a good middle ground is to have a rust monster's touch impose penalties—attack and damage for weapons, Armor Class for armor and shields, and maybe reduce bonuses provided by equipment for the rest—but have them persist until the item is repaired, instead of just going away after the encounter ends. Once enough penalties have accrued (like, say, -5 or something) then the item becomes useless.

This would mean that characters still need to be careful, without completely hosing a warrior type because of a few bad rolls.

Given that these guys still deal hit point damage with their blood drain instead of Constitution points, I think they are pretty much fine (especially because in 3rd Edition they could drian so, so much).

Legends & Lore: Managing Magic & Complexity

Magic is one aspect of Dungeons & Dragons I have never fully enjoyed, so when I hear Mearls make references to "fighting with tools designed for previous wars", and that they are kind of, but not really changing magic, I just apathetically sigh.

The added flexibility is all well and good, but I feel like they are not really making the most of this playtest by giving us numerous spellcasting systems to play with, and/or some optional rules to really spice things up. At this point I would settle for a mechanics that, if a wizard tried to explain it to someone, would make sense, or at the least some interesting flavor.

As it stands the mechanics are boring, predictable, and safe, things that I would not normally associate with magic. Let us see the variant magic systems we keep hearing about. Bring back the sorcerer and warlock, and maybe some other classes while you are at it. Throw some optional rules like exhaustion, sacrifices, or other variables at us and see what sticks (3rd Edition's Unearthed Arcana has a lot of this stuff, by the way). This is a playtest, so let us try something out besides pseudo-Vancian.

While I am less than thrilled about the current state (and the future) of magic, I am more optimistic about giving the players the choice to enhance existing abilities or pick up new ones. Assuming everything goes to plan, this could allow players that want complex characters to branch out, or just stick to a handful of stuff if they do not want to bog themselves down with too many options. The problem is if they design abilities that are too good to simply not pass up, such as an accuracy or damage boosting option, particularly one without a cost.

I think that this--as well as flexible NPC stat blocks--would be a great way to avoid a kind of entry bar, without saddling the new player with a simple and ineffective class like the fighter. 4th Edition's Essentials line made classes even simpler, but did not sacrifice efficacy. I am running a 3rd Edition Age of Worms campaign at work, and while I wanted to introduce a new player by having her roll a fighter so as to avoid overwhelming her, I instead opted for a warblade because despite it being slightly more complicated it would be effective for a much longer period of time.

Really if you want to make it easy to teach new people to play the game, make sure that you create a kind of cheap, "red box" product to go with it from the start. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire made it very easy for both the players and game master to learn as they go, and there is no reason why you could not do the same and allow players to ease themselves in. In fact, you could do something like this for each mode of play as people become more familiar with the system.
March 11, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

A Sundered World: Mes-Atbaru, City of the Dead

Note: Josh and I had some pretty busy weeks, and had to communicate these ideas mostly through email, which is part of what contributed it to being around a week late. Sorry for the delay, but hopefully it is at least partly worth the wait.

A lot of mortals have rituals where the wealthy dead get buried in tombs or burned with their treasure. Since in A Sundered World the souls of the dead manifest and stick around for awhile, being buried with your stuff would be kind of boring, and burning it would be even more counter-productive because then you would not have the opportunity to interact with (read: defend yourself from) would-be looters.

Besides, rich or poor, not all undead are shambling zombies or brainless skeletons. Being undead means that you do not spend a lot of your time sleeping (typically none, except for vampires), which gives them a lot of free time. Since many at the least retain shreds of their personality, not only are not all of them flesh-craving monsters--though some do love them some flesh--but they can also get bored. What if you could take your treasure and celebrate your newfound unlife?

Normally when I think about a city populated primarily by undead, I envision a bleak, crumbling, hopefully isolated necropolis, filled with undead both unintelligent and free-roaming. Maybe there are some haunted areas, where the scenery changes to force the characters to bear witness--or maybe even become participants--to a past atrocity. In other words, a hostile place for most character builds and creature types.

Mes-Atbaru is, well, pleasantly different. No, I mean that. It is really not a bad place.

Located within the midst of a demiplane with strong ties to the Netherworld, most of the realm consists of a lifeless, black desert. A dark river of icy water cuts through it, nourishing nothing. Mes-Atbaru is nestled within the center, a shining beacon in the darkness where undead can indulge their various hungers and instincts, and prolong their sentience through continual exposure to exciting and changing experiences (which is particularly important for ghosts, who can become haunts or wraiths if their memories wane too far).

Though nothing natural dwells with the surrounding desert or river, the city itself is situated even more firmly within the shadowy grasp of the lingering echoes of the Netherworld. The closer one gets to the center of the city, the more blurred and uncertain the line between life and death becomes, as ghostly figures become tangible and opaque, allowing them to more easily work alongside shades and visiting mortals (and be imprisoned if they become problematic).

To call the city ostentatious is an understatement: the streets are brilliantly lit by magical lanterns that can instantly shift color, costumed skeletons continuously parade through the streets, engaging in carefully instructed performances, illusionary fountains spray multi-colored water, set to flawlessly orchestrated music, restaurants cater to any taste (no matter how exotic or grim), flying undead offer tours above the city, as well as less innocent vices such as brothel houses and gambling halls.

Even for undead living in the city costs something, whether money or memories. For undead and mortal alike, there is no shortage for demand for bodyguards and menial labor as the city is constantly repaired, buildings modified or newly constructed, and the undercity excavated. Skilled artisans, performers, and guides can likewise frequently find work as the city grows to accommodate new arrivals and tastes.

Mortals have a slight edge in that they rent themselves out as temporary vessels so ghosts can engage in various, well, "physical activities", innocent and not. Blood can also be donated to vampires, who are willing to pay extra to take it directly. Both services are often employed by the living servants to help pay for their owners' residence and excesses.

Finally the truly desperate can always opt to pawn off memories; the more emotional and/or rare the memory, the more it is worth, and there are more than a few adventurers that use this secondary market to greatly supplement their income.

The city is ruled by the flamboyantly-dressed and gregarious lich, Lord Theobald Rictus. He is a frequent sight, touring the city to personally observe (and participate) in events, patronize establishments, and, if need be, harshly enforce his will through powerful magic and servitors.

Despite his continual presence and reputation, denizens still sometimes vanish from the streets. Mortals are sold into slavery, butchered as delicacies, and/or have their memories extracted for use in vice dens or sold to information brokers. For undead, ghosts are the ones typically in danger as their essence can be distilled and their memories sliced.

Adventure Hooks 

  • The characters must guide a soul to the city. It promises to reward them with a portion of its treasure on arrival.
  • Smugglers along the transspatial leylines have been engaged in a bloody conflict over the newly emerging street market for ectoplasm, and must stop it at it’s source. 
  • A legendary minstrel has consigned his afterlife to an indefinite regular gig in Mes-Atbaru. Now that his days are numbered, he needs the characters help to renege on his deal with Lord Rictus.
  • A conclave of ancient liches have come to Mes-Atbaru and they don’t really appreciate Rictus’ fresh look on the afterlife. They intend to drag the undead denizens of the city back into the shadows where they belong. What side do the characters fall on?
The Name
One point of consternation is the name of the city. Mes-Atbaru, to me, gives it a suitably ancient sounding name, because the place was not always, as Josh described it, an undead version of Las Vegas with a 24/7 Mardi Gras going on. Josh wanted to go with something more suitably lively and upbeat, like San Lucent. Melissa pitched Datura, which is a kind of witchweed that can induce hallucinations and/or death.

What do you guys think? Do you like any of them, or have something else to pitch?

D&D Podcast: Blood of Gruumsh & Warlords

I actually finished the podcast this time, so that is a plus. I also finally picked up a set of Blood of Gruumsh earlier this week, and agree that the minis, in particular the ogre, are pretty good. Though I have yet to play Dungeon Command, I am strongly considering snagging a second set just to round out my horde hoard. I do, however, disagree with Mearls's regarding everything warlords and hit points.

The warlord is one of my favorite 4th Edition classes. It was interesting, fun, new (or fairly new if you count the marshall from 3rd Edition's Miniature's Handbook), played well with tieflings (one of my favorite races), and had an absolutely awesome level 29 daily exploit (Defy Death) that I never got a chance to use. It was also a fully viable replacement for a cleric, which is very important for me in a game where formerly the only simple and reliable solution was basically a sorcerer-ized cleric.

Despite a limited access to maneuvers--currently capping at all of five at 10th-level--I am actually okay with warlord exploits existing as fighter maneuvers. After all up until Martial Power 2, where you could pick an archer-type class feature, the warlord was primarily a melee warrior that could dole out benefits to her allies.

What I am not okay with is it losing out on healing because of Mearls's oddly narrow interpretation of how hit points work, by essentially making the argument that William Wallace shouting at someone to heal them does in fact not make sense.

Frankly this statement sounds awfully like the kind of argument that 4th Edition haters used to try and levy against the game several years ago. It did not make sense then, and unless 5th Edition is going to have some sort of injury system as part of the core hit point rules, it does not make sense now. What makes his whole argument even more bizarre, is that it differs greatly from how he tried to explain hit points and healing surges several years ago (which starts around the 11:50 mark).

Obviously William Wallace could and should not be able to regenerate people's limbs no matter how much he shouts or encourages them, but since when have hit points represented solely physical trauma? For that matter when have hit point damage ever resulted in grievous injuries in the first place?

In every edition of Dungeons & Dragons characters are, by default, perfectly fine until they are reduced to 0 or less, so can characters function just fine while carrying their guts? I guess it just fixes itself after a few days of rest, even without serious medical attention. Will healing potions allow you to regrow lost limbs, since it is magical healing?

A more accurate question would be if, in a game where hit points represent a variety of very abstract things, from physical punishment, exhaustion, luck, combat prowess, mental stress, and more, often on an attack-by-attack basis, would you expect a guy to be able to restore them through some form of inspiring presence?


There should be other classes that can feasibly substitute for the cleric, which by itself should not be mandatory for play. The warlord is an excellent class, and I want it to be able to buff the rest of the party, as well as be able to heal them if the player wants to emphasize that. Maybe not to the degree that a cleric could, but at an acceptable baseline.

Magical healing should also not be required, especially since hit points have never consistently represented physical trauma. If the most basic rules cannot accommodate a party of adventures without magical healing, then the design team needs to address the definition of hit points and how they work so that players can more freely play what they want, without having to worry about houserules, optional rules, or DM handouts.

March 07, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

Wandering Monsters: Cats & Dogs

More dogs than cats (or rather, cat), this week's Wandering Monsters talks about some iconic monsters that are pretty much the same as they have always been. As a quick aside, I once played a half-blue dragon, half-blink dog in a 3rd Edition one-shot. His name was Sparky.

Displacer Beast
Aside from the displacement ability, the displacer beast has not changed much over the editions. I actually like how Next does it, imposing disadvantage on attacks until it gets hit, which shuts it down for a bit (as does pinning it down).

However, the Lawful Evil alignment strikes me as a bit odd. I think that Neutral Evil makes more sense, thought it depends on where the Lawful component comes from. Story-wise I liked the displacer beast's Fey origin from 4th Edition, which could also help explain their animosity towards blink dogs.

Blink Dog
While I like the flavor content about how their presence can alter the environment, I am not a fan of the blink dog's dependably-spaced teleportation, especially when it covers distances of 500 feet.

I guess I envision the blink dog finding rifts in the planar fabric that it can exploit, and since distances between the natural world/Prime Material and the Feywild/whatever accounts for the Feywild in other editions is not always consistent, an unreliable teleportation (recharge?) with a variable distance makes more sense to me.

Like the displacer beast I find the Lawful alignment odd, think that Neutral Good is a better fit, but would still buy it if there was a good reason for it to be Lawful.

Hell Hound
Hell hounds are pretty straight-forward: they are dogs from hell that can also breath fire, and mechanically I have no complaints. I think that some variants, like Canian hounds that breathe cones of cold and have cold resistance/immunity, as well as some alternate powers befitting a fiendish heritage, such as a fear inducing howl or some kind of "smite good"-ish attack, would be cool to have.

Winter Wolf
These Large contrasts to hell hounds are alright, though decorating their lairs with jewelry seems kind of silly. The only part that I am a bit leery about is their level compared to a frost giant, though if 5th Edition's flat-math plays out right I do not think it will be an issue like it was in 3rd and 4th Edition.

Like hell hounds some alternate powers, like howls that can summon arctic gales or being able to create walls of ice with their breath weapon, would be nice. Oh, and also winter wolves with a stronger elemental association.

I was going to ask what differentiates worgs from dire wolves—seeing as they were virtually the same mechanically in 3rd Edition, and too monstrous-looking in 4th Edition for my tastes—but then I checked the playtest bestiary document and saw that they were, in fact, variant dire wolves.

It would be nice for them to have something about their appearance and/or mechanics to distinguish them, but that is more of a nitpick than anything else. Maybe something like one of the goblin traits? They are pretty intelligent, after all.

Legends & Lore: Expanding Rules

A Legends & Lore article on a Friday night? Just to clarify—because he did, at least on EnWorld—this article was apparently posted on accident, and (perhaps more importantly) he is referring to throttling the rollout of new crunch options/splatbooks, not rules modules, in favor of focusing on flavor material.

Reducing crunch could be good: I remember how pretty much every monthly release for 3rd Edition initially included feats, prestige classes, items magic and mundane, virtually none of which, for a variety of reasons, we ever used. The Complete series started adding classes to the crunch bag which, again, we almost entirely ignored.

Do not get me wrong: I like a lot of character options, it is just back then a lot of them did not do what they were supposed to and/or quickly became non-viable (fighters), rendered other class obsolete (many prestige classes, especially for fighters, sorcerers, and wizards), did not play well together (fighters and wizards), or did minor, fiddly things that were easy to forget, highly circumstantial, or both (many, many feats and magic items).

4th Edition, to me, at least got races and classes right (well, mostly right for classes: they had a lot goingon). I think that in my group we used virtually everything with the exception of some of the Essentials sub-classes, and even that is basically due to a lack of time. I even liked a lot of the racial and class feats, especially when a racial feat let you do something thematic within a class, though to be fair it had its share of fiddly feats, and until Mordenkainen's Magical Emporium I did not care for a lot of the magic items.

So while I was initially wary as to Mearl's statement of "sticking to things that make sense and resonate", I think this is what he is aiming for. Fewer, but more interesting, flexible, and meaningful options that work. Feats seem to be going in that direction, at any rate, by giving you several benefits, allow you to craft items, or cast spells, instead of just giving you a +1 to a stat, or +3 in very specific situations (though a few, like Sniper, seem to miss the mark).

The most important part, for me, is to be able to make a thematic character. I disliked the invoker not because I felt that the class was underpowered, but because when I wanted to make a tiefling that worshipped Asmodeus I was unable to choose enough interesting fire-themed prayers. If I wanted to go Raven Queen there was even less to go with, so when I finally got a chance to play one I was lucky in that my DM let me homebrew basically everything.

I hope that what Mearls is not saying is that we will not get things that we have not seen before, or depart from "tradition". The battlemind and shaman are two of my favorite classes, both giving you access to things that you really did not see before, at least not so early on in your career (though the former suffers somewhat from the lack of theme I mentioned above). The seeker and runepriest, on the other hand, are examples of classes that could have been folded into other classes (or become prestige classes), but could have benefited from better support and story content.

On the topic of story, I have fond memories of 2nd Edition campaign settings. Well, Planescape and Dark Sun, at any rate, probably because they were different than the typical fantasy fare. 3rd Edition also brought Eberron, which was also a nice departure from the more vanilla settings, so despite their often poor track record with adventures—as they have their share of gems—it is possible for them to churn out something decent story-wise.
March 03, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

D&D Next: Heal Check

For the past few weeks Legends & Lore has brought up the issues of healing, first by asking if removing the cleric as a necessary element of play was something that they should be doing (Yes!), then by pitching an adjustable-yet-flat healing rate (No!).

Both 2nd and 3rd Edition have pretty much always assumed that you had a cleric, or someone else capable of casting cure etc wounds spells multiple times per day (which in 3rd Edition could be summed up as either a favored soul, or the stop-gap approach of "guy with lots of healing wands"). Otherwise you had to rely on natural healing which, to put it nicely, was slow: if you wanted to keep adventuring you got back one-a-day, but if you stayed in bed recovered either three per day in 2nd Edition (I think, might have been two), or one-per-level in 3rd.

The major downside, similar to wizards running out of spells, is that running out of healing magic effectively puts a stop to the adventuring day, unless you have access to a bunch of magic items that can heal you. I find it strange that for so long, the party was often reliant on one person to keep everyone up and running, especially when a single die roll could kill your character: I ran a short-lived Age of Worms campaign sans cleric, and my players did not enjoy burning through a huge chunk of cash for a wand that only the bard could use, which unfortunately required that she be conscious (which was a hard criteria to meet when you have an AC of 14 and only 8 hit points).

Another issue is the expectation that you will have access to healing magic, regardless of what kind of cleric you were wanting to play, which was lessened when 3rd Edition allowed clerics to swap out spells for healing magic as long as you were either Good, or Neutral and opted to channel positive energy (and even more so in 4th, where every cleric had access to a few encounter-based heals). For some clerics--Healing, Protection, even War--I can buy it, but what about those that want to worship a trickster, or a god of knowledge or crafting? Why do they have automatic access to healing magic?

For several reasons 4th Edition made it very possible to adventure without having a cleric--or really, any kind of healing class--on hand. The biggest step was by giving every character access to a measure of self-healing in the form of healing surges. The amount that each character had access to depended on your class and Constitution modifier, but since they always restored a quarter of your total hit points, fighter-types tended to have more, and benefit more from them.

Another, more controversial change, was that a long rest topped you off in every regard: hit points, healing surges, and per-day abilities. For better or worse this meant that, aside from the odd disease, that after a good night's sleep you were ready to head back into the dungeon. Finally, there were plenty of other, equally serviceable classes that could substitute for a cleric, each with their own theme and playstyle.

As of the eight playtest packet, the default healing rules in 5th Edition are kind of in the middle: you get a number of Hit Dice equal to your level, which vary depending on your class and Constitution modifier, so at the least fighters tend to recover more hit points than wizards. While you regain everything after a long rest, you do not get many (again, the number equals your level), so most of your healing depends on how many healing spells the cleric has access to.

I think that the best approach is to build a system where there is no assumed healer or access to certain magic items, but the party can keep on adventuring without having to spend several days taking it easy. By not requiring players to pick certain abilities within certain classes, it provides a lot of freedom on both sides of the screen: Dungeon Masters can run low-or-no magic campaigns, hand out the items they want in high magic campaigns, and worry less about time-sensitive adventure objectives. Cleric players can worship and pray for whatever spells they want, without having to worry about making the wrong choice or running out of certain spells.

3rd Edition's Unearthed Arcana has a lot of hit point sub-systems that can be mined, in particular Vitality and Wound Points: though more complex than just having a single pool of hit points, you could make effects that apply to only one pool. Vitality points would be based on your class and represent how hit points can let you evade blows, or turn an otherwise lethal blow into a minor wound, while Wound points would be derived from your Constitution score and represent your overall physical toughness.

The refocus action (and warlord powers) might only restore Vitality points, and they could completely fill up after combat is over as part of the whole short rest routine. Wound points would recover more slowly (at an hourly or daily rate, ideally based in some way on your Constitution), but could be restored using magic, or maybe on a limited basis using healing items and skills.

I have said before that being able to make a useful fighter/wizard early on is part of my litmus test for liking a Dungeons & Dragons game. Being able to make a viable adventuring party using any iteration of the hit point and healing rules is another. I get that they want to make the "basic" setting of the game, well, basic, but I think that people can handle fairly simple mechanics like Hit Dice/healing surges/reserve points. At the least I would like one set of healing rules that lets the party get away without a cleric, but does not see a massive power boost by the inclusion of one.

March 01, 2013
Posted by David Guyll


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