Sunday, November 29, 2009

Talamhlar - Player Resources

First thing I'd like to point out is the official errata. This document contains the most recent updates, as well as all of the past ones in one convenient PDF. No need to look through all of this, but as you're making your character you might want to check to see if any class features/powers/etc. that you chose have been changed (the doc is organized by book).

Second, if you have some free time on your hands and enjoy reading about such things, the Character Optimization Guides on the WotC forums are a pretty good resource. A lot of the specific builds are built around Epic tier concepts, but the individual class guides give a great overview of your options and really help to narrow things down now that there's a huge amount of feats and powers to choose from.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Talamhlar - Campaign Brief

This document is designed to be an introduction to the Talamhlar campaign, and to help facilitate character creation.

Introduction to the World

The game world is called Talamhlar (derived from the Irish talamh [land] and lar [middle], as a hidden reference to the Old Norse Midgard, Old English Middangeard, and of course Tolkien's Middle Earth). It's not uncommon for people to refer to it simply as The World, though this term sometimes refers to Talamhlar as well as its two mirror planes, Faerie (the Feywild) and Umbria (the Shadowfell).

The Town of Helmund

This medium sized city (pop. approximately 8,000) lies 2 miles north of Lake Nevrir in the Brumewold. Helmund was originally founded by Dwarves centuries ago, but is now a racially diverse city. All of the common races are well represented, and all of the uncommon races are present in small numbers as well. Rumor has it that a crossing to Faerie lies nearby, so transient Eladrin and Gnomes are fairly common. If you are a member of a rare race, you may be the only individual of that race in town. If you're a Shifter or a Half-Orc, you are grudgingly tolerated but not made to feel welcome. Travellers stay in a large inn called the Granite House, which was carved from a single block of granite by the cities founders.

The Brumewold

The terrain surrounding Helmund
is comprised of rolling hills with patches of forest and agricultural land within a prairie matrix. The climate is temperate with 4 distinct seasons. Several local tribes make use of land in the Brumewold, which is largely free of monstrous races. A Quenyar (tribe) of Elves (pop. approx. 300) inhabits the Brumewold year-round, keeping a small amount of livestock but largely hunting and gathering. They are on good terms with the people of Helmund. A band of Halflings make use of the Brumewold's abundant game from late autumn through the winter during most years, occasionally taking refuge within Helmund during severe weather. There is also a wide-ranging nomadic tribe of Humans, Elves, and (not surprisingly) Half Elves that usually show up once a year, though when they appear and how long they stay is generally unpredictable to the people of Helmund.


The pantheon in this campaign is identical to that in the PHB. A variety of minor gods exist, generally ruled by the major gods, but they are not well-known and not often worshipped. Various Celestials (Deva, Angels, etc.) serve the gods (though they rarely answer to minor gods). It's not uncommon for Deva to leave the Astral Sea (the Divine Plane, where the gods and their servants dwell) and strike out independently. In the youngest days of Talamhlar, the Dawn War raged between the Gods and the Primordials. The Gods wished to rule over their creation, which the Primordials sought to destroy (their motives are not known). The war repeatedly scarred The World until the Primal Spirits (see Primal Power) intervened, banishing both the Gods and the Primordials shortly before the end of the War (which the Gods eventually ended up winning, though their stewardship over the World had been revoked). Thus the Gods are worshipped, but their ability to affect Talamhlar is very limited. The Primal Spirits, manifestations of aspects of the World itself born out of the calamity of the Dawn War, are guardians and maintain balance. Some say that their numbers are infinitely numerous, though they keep their affairs hidden from the sight of most mortals and do not accept forms of worship. Individuals that commune with the spirit world (e.g. Primal characters) are viewed as allies rather than servants by even the mightiest of the spirits.

Character Creation

See my post on the overview of races; any unlisted races are not available for Player Characters (PCs). There are no restrictions on classes, including those available only through DnDi (Assassin, Monk, Psion). If you want to make an Artificer, you're responsible for obtaining the Eberron Player's Guide. Characters will start at 1st level, and must be created using standard point buy (22 points) or one of the equivalent arrays (PHB p. 17). Alignment should be unaligned, good, or lawful good. Companion characters (NPC party members) will be present for portions of the campaign.


Most regions of Talamhlar are somewhat low-magic. What this means is that there are no "magic shops" where you can purchase any magic item that you need. Items can be created with the Enchant Magic Item ritual, obviously, and most cities will have a ritual caster capable of doing so (though not necessarily one of high level). It's recommended that at least one party member can cast rituals, because having an NPC do it will cost more than the market price. Magic was more common in the distant past, so magic items are more common in ruins or cities that have existed for a long time.

Though you're encouraged to create whatever type of character you want, I will not compensate for weaknesses in the party with encounter design. For example, if everyone decides to be a striker you will feel the lack of the other roles (in this case, mostly defender). I would also recommend striking a balance between melee and ranged.

Going along with this, I'd like to state the disclaimer that I may occasionally present the party with challenges above their abilities. Don't assume that all fights can be won (especially if the encounter is a result of some other failure or bad decision), and roleplay your characters realistically as people with a sense of self-preservation. Sometimes fleeing may be the best option.

Your Last Memory

I'm putting this out there just so that there's no surprises when the campaign starts, and so you have some idea of what to expect.

The last thing your character remembers is going about his/her normal business. You're alone, and suddenly, you have a strange feeling like you're being watched. As you begin to turn your head to look over your shoulder, everything goes black. Now your head is throbbing--no, your whole body is throbbing--and you wonder what awaits you when you open your eyes...

Talamhlar - Character Backgrounds

The following is an outline for developing your character's background in the Talamhlar campaign. Feel free to go as in-depth as you want, as long as these minimum elements are addressed.

Players Handbook 2 Backgrounds

The PHB2 provides examples of different background elements from 5 different categories (p. 178). When you create your character, choose elements from at least 3 of the 5 categories (listed below). You are NOT limited to the examples given, which are just examples presented in the PHB2.
  • Geography - Describe the environment in the region where you were raised (ex. desert, forest, mountains, urban, wetlands).
  • Society - Describe your social and economic status (ex. poor, wealthy, nobility).
  • Birth - Some characters may have unusual birth circumstances (ex. among another race, blessed, cursed, omen, prophecy, born on another plane).
  • Occupation - This is what you did before your adventuring days (ex. artisan, criminal, entertainer, farmer, mariner, merchant, military, scholar).
  • Racial Background - Use the racial overview for ideas, I'm not going to list off all of the examples from the PHB2.
Backgrounds come with minor mechanical perks. Background elements each have some associated skills, but these are flexible. Basically, if you choose a skill just make sure that it makes sense in the context of one of your background elements. You gain a background benefit from ONE of your chosen background elements (if you have an idea that doesn't fall into one of the 5 categories, feel free to use it). Your background benefit can be one of the following:
  • +2 bonus to checks with a skill associated with your background.
  • Add an associated skill to your class's skill list before you choose your trained skills.
  • Choose a language associated with your background (Common, Elven, Dwarven, Draconic, Deep Speech, Giant, Goblin, Primordial). If you're a member of some organization and it's appropriate, you may choose a "secret" language (for example, the members of some Druidic circles learn "Druidic," certain thieves guilds utilize secret languages, etc.).
Additional Details

In addition to the background elements presented above, provide the following information about your character.

  1. All starting characters have been living in the city of Helmund (or, alternatively, in the wilderness surrounding it) for at least a year (see campaign brief for details on the city). Describe how you came to be in the city, and what you've been doing there.
  2. List two goals that your character has. At least one of them should be one that you'd like to see developed over the course of the campaign.
  3. List two secrets about your character. One of these secrets your character is aware of, and the second is something he/she knows nothing about.
  4. List and describe 3 people associated with your character in some way. At least one must be friendly toward your character, and at least one must be hostile.
  5. Choose at least one other player character and describe a connection that your character has with him/her. This can (and probably will) be completed after all characters have been submitted.
Magic Item Wish List

This step is optional, but is highly recommended if you want to customize some of the magic items recieved as treasure. Note that if any PC has the Enchant Magic Item ritual, items of your level or lower will be available for the market value listed in the books (if you buy magic items from NPCs who can create/enchant them, the cost may be between 10-40% higher). Items recieved as treasure will be higher level than your character, and most likely out of your price range.

Your wish list can contain up to 5 different magic items. If you recieve an item that was on your wish list, you may add a new item to the list. You may realistically find items up to 6 levels higher than you, but lower level items are more likely to appear. Listed enchantments may not appear on the same weapon that you use, but the 4th level ritual Transfer Enchantment (AV) can, obviously, transfer it. I recommend you pay special attention to "The Big Three," which are 1) Weapon/Implement (attacks), 2) Armor (AC), and 3) Neck Slot item (NADs, or Non AC Defenses).

Friday, November 27, 2009

Talamhlar - Overview and Demographics of Races

I've been mulling over a campaign idea in my head for a while, and I'm finally planning on actually implementing it. I've tentatively decided to name the campaign Talamhlar (derived from the Irish talamh [land] and lar [middle]), as a hidden reference to the Old Norse Midgard, Old English Middangeard, and of course Tolkien's Middle Earth. This fits well with the D&D cosmology of The World sitting between its two mirror planes, the Feywild and the Shadowfell.

I'm not sure how often I'll be able to organize sessions (nor how consistent player participation will be), but it's hard to organize D&D these days so I can either make an attempt at it or not play at all. The campaign world will be more free-form than I'm used to running, with just local areas being detailed at first and the world being expanded as the game progresses. Usually I map out an entire game world and choose a small corner of it for the PCs to start in. As I map I conjure up images of what certain places are like, and sometimes during play I find myself constrained by this (plus the fact that I don't use the majority of my ideas). Anyways, before I detail the starting region, I'll give an overview of the races in my campaign world.

The following is a list of races available for PC's. In general, only the races in the PHB and PHB2 can be chosen (I'll reserve judgment on PHB3 races after it's released, but regardless all will be placed in "Rare Races"). Races from the back of the Monster Manuals exist in the campaign world, but cannot be chosen by players. Genasi, Kalashtar, and Bladelings
do not exist.

I've tried to keep the "default" flavor of each race largely intact, so most of these descriptions shouldn't come as a surprise. I do, however, clarify their origins and social tendencies, including how a given race is viewed by others.

The Common Races
Members of these races can be found in most regions, and are always well-represented in large cities. All are natives to the World.

Humans - Culturally varied and highly adaptable, humans can be found virtually everywhere. Along with Dwarves, they are the race most likely to build large, permanent cities and are usually the dominant race in racially diverse cities. However, they are just as likely to be pastoral or hunter-gatherer.

Elves - The ancient ancestors of the Elves strayed from the Feywild when the World was young, and finding it to their liking they stayed permanently. Their love of Talamhlar is so great that as a whole, their race has a deeper connection to the World and the Primal Spirits than any other. They are largely nomadic to semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, though some pastoral Elven tribes (or Quenyar, as they call them) exist. They never build cities of their own, though they can be found in appreciable numbers in the cities of other races. Organization varies from Quenyar to Quenyar, and usually from season to season as well. They are adaptable, and commonly occupy virtually any environment.

Dwarves - Dwarven society revolves around Clans, which are extended family groups, but Dwarven cities comprised of multiple allied Clans are common. Clans tend to be sedentary, but Dwarves are skilled at the preservation of food and can exist comfortably even where food is only seasonally available. Often, they trade with agricultural or hunter-gatherer societies (their stone and metalwork being prized commodities). They are most common in mountainous regions, though they may settle in landscapes dominated by caverns, karst, or canyons. Dwarven merchants travel in large caravans, often staying in their host cities for extended periods of time.

Halflings - Halflings have adapted to their small size in the opposite way as Gnomes; instead of hiding and relying on secrecy, they are gregarious and often openly aggressive. Whereas a Gnome will often use stealth and illusion to disappear or protect himself, a Halfling will use stealth to catch opponents unawares and set up ambushes. They are ubiquitous in cities, often travelling in large groups, though they also commonly form large, nomadic bands. They are skilled with horses, which they'll use to pursue large game. In areas with tribes of savage or monstrous humanoids, their bands will, on average, be at least twice as large as their competitors and enemies. They will attack significantly smaller groups without provocation, to the point where creatures like Gnolls and Orcs have grown to fear them. They are exceptionally quick, and will rarely handicap themselves with large weapons and heavy armor.

Uncommon Races
These races are either migrants from other planes or variants of native common races. They can be found in large cities in appreciable numbers, and may be present in isolated communities/tribes in the World.

Eladrin - Common migrants from the Feywild, some Eladrin settle temporarily (or permanently on rare occasions) in the World. In places where they're not commonly seen, they're often feared, believed to be wild, unpredictable, and prone to sudden fits of wrath. In truth, most Eladrin are ambivalent to other races, with the exception of Elves and Gnomes.

Half Elves - Half Elves are the offspring of a Human and either an Elf or (more rarely) an Eladrin or Drow. They often have reduced fertility, and pairings between Half Elves and Humans or Elves almost always result in a Human or Elven child. Different cities and tribes vary in their treatment of Half Elves, though they're only very rarely outright ostracized.

Gnomes - Very common (though rarely encountered) migrants from the Feywild. They'll often form secluded colonies in forests, sometimes on the outskirts of civilized areas. They get along fairly well with some groups of Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings but most individuals avoid members of other races. They are exceedingly talented practitioners of Arcane magic, and thus they may settle in cities where such magic is prevalent and/or prized (and transients are common).

Tieflings - They are the descendants of a long-fallen empire, Bael Turath. The empire was originally ruled by a triumvirate which included a Human, an Elf, and a Dwarf whose names are long forgotten. The human and a small faction of his relatives made a deal with a mischievous devil who delights in watching mortals destroy each other. He gave the humans a vast amount of power, allowing them to achieve complete control of the empire while at the same time retaining a degree of popular support. Elven and Dwarven factions retreated beyond the bounds of the empire, but Bael Turath began to quickly expand. The Elves and Dwarves united, and a group of heroes were able to infiltrate the High Palace and held the devil captive. The human ruler, driven nearly insane by power, professed that he didn't need the devil anymore and if they wished they could kill him. The devil immediately placed a curse on the Turathi, stripping them of their power but leaving its scar with them and their descendants. For generations the Turathi were hunted down, easily recognized by their fiendish appearance, for the crimes that Bael Turath commited. The survivors retreated to secluded places, and once the furor subsided into the misty past most peoples began to take pity on the Turathi (most of which were ashamed of what their ancestors had done). There are still some areas where Turathi are largely disliked, contributing to the heterogeneity of their distribution.

Rare Races
A few individuals of these races may be present in large cities, and small communities/tribes may be encountered in isolated regions. Most commoners have either never come into contact with individuals of these races, and may not even know of their existence.

Deva - Deva are by far the rarest race in the World; they have no known settlements, and most individuals seen are merely passing through. To most common people they have the same eerie, unearthly quality as Eladrin, though their presence usually has a calming effect. They are said to be the surviving servitors of the gods, no longer needed after the Dawn War (the war between the Gods and Primordials). It is said that there are still Deva in the employ of many gods, but most that are seen in the World are independent, seeking to merely do as much good as they can without divine orders. Though they often go out of their way to help the mortal races (as Deva reincarnate, they are the only truly immortal race), they are rarely able to relate to them. Though each of their lives is about as long as a human's, they find most mortals to be too fleeting. Even the exceptionally long lived races (Eladrin, Gnomes, and Elves) find them odd, as each of their lives are as fleeting as a human's, and in their next life (though it still be theirs) they rarely remember anything from their pasts.

Dragonborn - The Dragonborn once commanded the great empire of Arkhosia. Though powerful, the empire was localized in the Arkhori Desert. The Arkhosians were an extremely advanced people (as a race, the Dragonborn are young; Bahamut sought to create a perfect mortal form, blending the strengths of dragons and humanoids), and wisely held no desire to conquer beyond the lands that they already controlled and spread their power too thin. This wisdom eventually turned to folly as the Arkhosians became more and more isolationist. They were unaware when the human emperor of Bael Turath made a deal with a devil, but the Turathi nevertheless feared Arkhosia. Allying with a demonic legion, a force of Turathi secretely marched to the Arkhori Desert and swiftly defeated the Arkhosians. Even after the fall of Bael Turath, the demons (pursuing their own agenda against Bahamut) continued to hunt down the surviving Dragonborn until very few were left. The once proud people mostly became refugees and slaves, scattered throughout the world. Few Dragonborn communities now exist, and their locations are unknown by most people.

Goliaths - Goliaths are alpine specialists, rarely leaving their mountainous homelands. Tribes tend to be small (sometimes consisting of just an immediate family group) and scattered because food is scarce, especially at the high elevations which they prefer. Some tribes have domesticated mountain sheep and graze them at the highest elevations that the season permits, whereas others simply follow their prey to the lowlands for the winter. Individuals sometimes come to cities for supplies, and they are usually held in very high regard by the citizens.

Half Orcs - Humans and Elves are capable of breeding freely with Orcs, though the exact origin of Half-Orcs as a breeding race is unknown (see the description of the race in PHB2 for some possible explanations). The few Orc tribes that have historically incorporated Half-Orcs became largely dominated by them through outbreeding, probably because Half-Orcs are more intelligent and often rise to the top of the tribe's heirarchy (which results in more breeding privelages). In wilder lands Half-Orc tribes may stay in good standing with tribes of the common races (and individual Half-Orcs will sometimes join them), but they're very rarely encountered in cities (where, like Shifters, they're typically shunned).

Shifters - They are the result of a hybridization between an isolated tribe of humans and lycanthropes that occurred generations ago. Though many hybrids were sterile, there were some that exhibited simultaneous morph expression (a form intermediate between humanoid and the bestial form of the lycanthropes) which were able to breed. Thus, a small population of what are commonly known as "shifters" came to be. They are often not welcome in civilized societies, as they are extremely predatory by nature and won't hesitate to take humanoid prey opportunistically. They're typically nomadic, occasionally living solitary but usually forming small packs, coalitions, or tribes. They'll occasionally join groups of mixed race when they're accepted, leading a disproportionate number of Shifters to become adventurers.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Index cards

I'm currently planning an ongoing campaign (no, I don't have a name for it yet), which I've been mulling over in my head for some months now. I've DMed 4E before, but just a few times and they were always one-shots. Of course the players were new to the game and it was my first time DMing 4E (despite the fact that it's vastly easier to DM than 3.x, it was still a new system). One thing I noticed was that because combats tend to include larger numbers of enemies (often different kinds of enemies), I was flipping through the Monster Manual a lot. Even with pages bookmarked, it still took some time away from combat (not a whole lot, but the DM already monopolizes a lot of the combat time simply by virtue of controlling so many combatants!).

So as I'm planning this campaign, I think that I'm going to record the stat blocks of certain enemies on index cards. I've already created one custom monster, and statting it out on a card was the obvious choice since it takes up less space than a piece of paper (this is important at a crowded D&D table), and can by placed on a MM page without obscuring another relevant stat block. So while I'm not going to get rid of the MM for in-game use completely, I will keep a cache of stat blocks for the more common/recurring monsters that I plan to use. This should reduce the amount of time I spend flipping between pages in the book, as I can just glance down and all (or at least most) of the relevant stat blocks are right in front of me. Will this add more time to my planning? Sure, a little bit. But I'll likely only need 2-4 monster cards per session, which is only a couple of minutes spent copying them from the MM. Well worth it for the convenience, in my opinion.

While I'm on the subject of index cards, I should also note that I've found them invaluable as a player. The power system in 4E is nice in terms of balancing the classes, but it does result in more things to keep track of. Add to this the fact that on a character sheet that's printed double sided (once again, my preferred method for reducing clutter at the table as well as saving trees), the power list is on the back whereas most of the relevant information is on the front. And of course, the power list doesn't include space to write what your powers actually do. So you can either a) copy them down somewhere, b) buy WotC official power cards, or c) flip through the relevant PHB or __ Power book every time you want to use a power. Obviously "c" is a poor choice, since it increases the number of books at the table and/or may result in people needing to frequently share books. Option "b" can get very expensive, since a set of power cards is $10, and that only includes cards for one class from one book. So if you have a Fighter, for example, you'll probably need to spend $20 on PHB Fighter cards and Martial Power Fighter cards. Throw in an extra $10 once Martial Power 2 is released. Not fun, especially since you'll never even use the vast majority of the cards (unless you're an experimental player and retrain frequently and/or always play Fighters of different builds). Option "a" becomes so simple and convenient by comparison that I sometimes wonder how on earth WotC can even manage to sell power cards!

Index cards are a perfect match for option "a" (you probably saw that one coming). They take up less space than a sheet of paper with your powers written on them, and they decrease the amount of bookkeeping you need to do on your character sheet. For example, once you use a Daily power you can simply turn the card over and move it to the back of your stack. After each extended rest flip all of your expended powers back up. Simple. I would also like to note that for power cards, which tend to have less text than monster stat blocks, I cut 3x5 index cards in half. That part's personal preference, but when I first tried out power cards I would slip them into the sleeves of a three ring binder style plastic trading card page (only 1/2 cards would actually fit). This way I had all of my powers visible, and I could use a dry erase marker on the plastic sleeve to note expended Dailies, etc. I abandoned this system early on because having a stack was easier to deal with, could still be used to manage Dailies, and because the dry erase marks would sometimes smudge off if I leaned on the page.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

November 2009 Errata

What a pleasant surprise, to have found this little gem on the WotC forums! A LOT of problematic things have been fixed in this update, and I'll list a few of my favorites below:
  • Swordmage Warding applies whenever you're conscious. Before, if you were knocked out and then healed up, you wouldn't have your Warding for the rest of the encounter. It now pops back up as soon as you come to.
  • Call of the Beast affects enemies only now, making it actually worthwhile! Protect that flanked defender.
  • Bloodclaw/Reckless are encounter powers now!!! I can't express how happy I am about this. I really hate when an item is a must-have for several different builds (in this case all melee strikers). I've also never really liked that because of cheesy items like these strikers vastly surpassed other roles in terms of damage. Now secondary strikers (like my favorite class, Druids) are more competitive.
  • Storm/Hurricane of Blades is no longer dependent on Con. Yay for narrowing the gap between Ragebloods and Thaneborns!
  • Phrenic Crown/Earthroot staff only apply a penalty to the first save.
  • Avengers will actually wear cloth now
  • Double Sword isn't mechanically superior to every other option, but it's still viable because of the Defensive Property and the reduced cost compared to maintaing 2 separate magic weapons.
  • Cloak of distortion's defense bonus equals the enhancement bonus, instead of a flat 5 (more acceptable at lower levels now!)
  • Spitting Cobra Stance is an immediate reaction (happens 1/round) instead of an Opportunity Attack (1/opponent's turn)
  • Barbarian at-wills that require 2 handed weapons now work with versatile weapons wielded in 2 hands (so small characters can actually use them)
  • Needlefang Drake swarms aren't as scary
  • Storm Pillar is clarified to prevent forced movement abuse
  • Eldritch Strike can be taken by Warlocks at character creation instead of Eldritch Blast
There's way more updates than just these, but these are the main ones that caught my attention.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Companion Characters

Anyone who has picked up the 4E DMG 2 will probably remember the section on creating companion characters. To summarize the concept for those who may not be familiar with them, it's essentially a simplified mechanic used to create NPCs that effectively act as party members. They are built following the assumption of the baseline math progression inherent within the system. For example, their attack bonus will always be 4 + the character's level, regardless of the actual ability modifiers, equipment, etc. Defenses are also a base number + level (15 for AC, 13 for non-AC defenses, or NADs), though there are simple rules for adjusting the defenses (raising one and lowering others) to help the monster better fit its theme.

I just built my first companion character for a campaign that will (hopefully) come to fruition in the near future. The process was painless, and the most time-consuming part was writing the relevant data onto a large index card. Companion characters are set up with statistics that mirror those in a monster's stat block (except they have healing surges, whereas monsters do not). Since 4E monster stat blocks are very readable, concise, and intuitive this is a good thing. The fact that the old CR system was abandoned for monster levels helps to make this system work perfectly, since one 1st level monster is roughly equivalent to one 1st level PC. Because of this, companion character creation can be simplified even further in that you can simply use a monster's stat block straight from one of the monster manuals, with some slight modifications (adjusting the HP, giving it surges, and tweaking its powers a little (for example, recharge powers become encounter powers). The DMG2 provides advice on what kinds of monsters work best for this, and gives some specific examples of various levels. This will undoubtedly prove to be an invaluable tool for when the PCs do something unexpected, and somehow drag some hapless NPC into the party. BAM! Just open up the Monster Manual, make some minor tweaks, and you have yourself a fully functional party member!

It should be noted that companion characters are primarily designed to be built and roleplayed by the DM, but controlled by a player in combat. Because they have such a simple stat block, any player can pretty easily pick up a companion character as soon as he/she joins the party without it being a distraction from the player's actual character. This also gives players a little more to do in combat, which is nice in 4E since the DM is usually controlling a whole horde of monsters with the players each controlling a single character. And going along with this, the DM (who has enough to do already) doesn't have to worry about keeping track of the companion NPC in combat. Prior to 4E I used to make NPC party members by rolling up a completely statted out character. It took long, was too cumbersome for other players to use fluidly, and it was certainly impossible to generate one on the spot if need be. Needless to say, I can't wait trying out companion characters in my campaign!

The one flaw that I can see in the system is that since companion characters have such a standardized system for attacks and defenses, they don't benefit from magic items (PCs are assumed to have level-appropriate gear for the system's math to work out, but for the sake of simplicity companion characters are "level appropriate" straight out of the box). While this is great for keeping their design and influence in-game simple, what happens when PCs decide that they want to give companion characters their old gear? Makes perfect sense in the context of the game world, but it would result in overpowered characters if it were mechanically implemented. The easiest solution is for the DM to say, "ok, Carl is now using your old +2 longsword" but not actually factor it into attack and damage. If the companion is player run, they will certainly notice that the magical sword is doing nothing. Depending on your players, this might affect their suspension of disbelief and/or frustrate them since their "upgrade" has no mechanical benefits. It's simple enough for the DM to just explain how companion characters are already consistent with the system's assumed level progression, but players are used to upgrading their characters with magic items so it creates a bit of a disconnect. Overall it's probably not a huge issue, but there are some players I know that might turn it into one (which is why I brought it up). I guess the important thing to emphasize is that a companion character isn't a second character, or even a cohort (which they might be used to from 3.x edition). Very little thought should be given to the companion character on the part of the player, at least until the companion's turn comes up in combat. It's also important to emphasize that companions are DM run in terms of roleplaying, and thus actions in combat can (and sometimes should) be vetoed. The player shouldn't make the companion character do something suicidal for the benefit of the PCs. Companion characters may also have agendas and motivations that the PCs know nothing about. In fact, it's probably much more interesting that way :D

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Scales of War Spoiler

The WotC website contains a major spoiler for its Scales of War campaign. I'm personally not in a SoW campaign, but if I was I would be pretty pissed off by this. Pretty major oversight if you ask me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Leaders: A Focal Point of Party Synergy

The title of this post shouldn't be a huge surprise; after all, the whole point of the leader role is party support. As such, the composition of the rest of the party is more important for leaders than it is for other roles. It's imperative that any leader knows the capabilities of his or her allies and chooses powers accordingly, but to achieve true party synergy the party and leader must quite literally be built for each other.

Building an Optimal Party
At this point I would like to make a disclaimer: I am not advocating one way of playing D&D as "better" than any other. While most of this post should be of at least some interest to players in general, this section caters to the player (or more likely, group) that enjoys not only character optimization, but party building and optimizing synergy as well.

The most extreme strategy, but the one that will likely yield the highest degree of synergy, is to choose a leader class and then build the rest of the party around it. This is unlikely to happen in most casual games, since it puts a severe restriction on the character options of the players. A group can go about this in two ways: 1) go along with whatever the leader player chooses, or 2) cooperatively discuss how the group would like the party to function, and then determine which leader class will be chosen as a group. Number 1 only works if the leader player is really determined to play a specific build, but the rest of the players are non-commital. Alternatively, one player can build an entire party just as a theoretical exercise, and then possibly play-test it (or play a nice, embarrassing game of D&D Solitaire). Number 2 combines input from all of the players and thus it is more likely to occur in an actual game, but it still requires that the whole group be interested in party optimization (or, as the case may be, some players may be uninterested in the exercise, but happen to want to play a class that fits with the group's overall concept).

A less extreme approach would be for the leader player to wait until everyone else has come up with their character concept. The player then chooses a leader class which complements the existing party best. The leader will likely want to ask each of the other players about specific details of their build (for example, "will you put a lot of resources into improving your Barbarian's charges?"). This way the leader will know what to build their character around. Note that for a new player that's joining an existing group (and happens to be the leader), this is the best way to achieve synergy. In fact, this situation may be even more ideal than building the leader and the rest of the party simultaneously, as an existing group already knows how their characters function from experience rather than theory, or intent.

Finally, there's the inevitable situation wherein all of the players have a specific character concept in mind, and they're not necessarily thinking about party synergy. This probably happens in the majority of cases. Obviously some leader classes (or builds within a class) are better at certain functions (to be discussed later) than others, but only rarely will a leader be detrimentally incompatible to a party (the only example that comes to mind is an Eagle Shaman in a party of all melee characters). Regardless of how optimally your leader class fits with the rest of the group, you can always choose powers that synergize with the party, despite the fact that they may not be typical of your build.

Examples: These are meant to spark ideas, and do not necessarily represent a specific party composition.

An Eagle Shaman with a Sorcerer, bow Ranger, Fighter, and one other melee ally in the party (both the Sorcerer and the Ranger have good RBA's that the Shaman can exploit. The Fighter is usually the stickiest Defender, and so will have less trouble keeping enemies away from the rest of the range-heavy party. Another melee character will help fill the front lines with the Fighter).

A World Speaker Shaman with a Warden and several squishies in the party (the Warden isn't very sticky, and the Shaman's Spirit Companion (SC) can help keep enemies near the Warden and away from the squishies).

A Valorous Bard with low AC/HP melee strikers (those Temp. HP will keep them standing).

A Tactical Warlord with a Rageblood Barbarian, Paladin, and other melee allies with good MBA's (the TacLord enhances the strong melee presence of his allies, and puts Commander's Strike to devastating use via the Barbarian. Weak healing is made up for by the Paladin's Lay on Hands).

Leader Functionality
Broadly speaking, a leader is a support character. As such, you make the party better at overcoming encounters with minimal expenditure of resources. This may be accomplished by patching gaps or weaknesses of the party, or by enhancing the strengths of your allies.

Most leader powers can be categorized as either rescue powers (namely healing and granting saves) or enhancement powers (buffs/debuffs). Leaders often have powers that grant extra movement, and these can fall into either category. Sliding an injured ally away from the troll that's about to bash in his head is an obvious example of rescue, whereas sliding an ally into a flanking position is an enhancement of tactical position; specifically, the flanked enemy is de-buffed (grants combat advantage), resulting in a net +2 to-hit for the flanking allies (which may include a damage bonus, i.e. a Rogue's sneak attack or Druid's claw gloves). Rescue powers are defensive by nature, whereas enhancement powers may be either defensive (granting an ally temporary HP, for example) or offensive (granting an ally a damage bonus). Note that some offensive powers are effective for any party member (a to-hit bonus, or a flat damage bonus) whereas others are more situational (granting an extra melee basic attack is most effective on an ally that has a strong melee basic attack). The major difference between the two categories is that rescue powers are reactive, and enhancement powers are proactive. Any good leader should have some of each in their repertoire.

In a vacuum, offensive enhancement powers are the best choice. These consist of to-hit bonuses, damage bonuses, or granting extra attacks. They'll theoretically result in the party killing enemies faster, and since dead enemies don't do damage the party will lose fewer surges per encounter. Since fights are shorter and party damage is higher, the rate that the party needs to spend Daily powers will likely decrease. The overall mechanical effect is a longer adventuring day.

Of course there's a difference between theorizing on paper and actual gameplay. Sometimes the party makes a series of really unlucky rolls, despite the leader's buffs. Sometimes it's not readily apparent which enemy in an encounter is the most dangerous. Sometimes a foe has debilitating status effects. And sometimes the enemies simply take advantage of the terrain better. In all of these instances, something goes wrong and the party is placed on the defensive. It's the leader's job to either protect the party enough to get them through the fight, or to at least get everyone on their feet so that a retreat can be made. This is where rescue powers come into play (fortunately, all leader classes have their 2/enc. minor action heals, so even the most offensive leader has something to fall back on). This is also where an important line is drawn between theory and actual play; in theory, an offensive leader can help the party overcome the majority of encounters more quickly. However, the majority of encounters aren't life-threatening, and the party would probably be able to slog through them regardless. It's the tough encounters where the PC's lives are really on the line, and while good offensive buffs will certainly help in these encounters, the fact is the party is outnumbered and/or outmatched. Allies will fall, status effects will often be inflicted. Backing the striker up with a heavy defense will probably be more effective in the long run than giving everyone a small damage bonus.

In the grand scheme of things (and because of the unpredictable nature of actual play), there is no overall strongest or most optimal function that a leader should specialize in. The most important thing is to make sure that your abilities complement the party. If half of your allies are defenders, including a Paladin and a Life Warden, you won't need as many rescue powers. Conversely, if you have a reckless Rogue that likes to charge into melee and flank, while rarely (if ever) sniping from safety, you'll probably need a lot of rescue powers. Which brings me to my final point: while selecting powers based on what classes are in your party will go a long way toward ensuring that you can effectively support your party, you must also consider the other players. Cautious players might feel more comfortable if they know you have plenty of heals or defensive buffs for them. Reckless players might need these things, whether or not they actively tell you. Power gamers will probably appreciate an even bigger damage boost, while secretely you know that some of the credit for their kills is yours.

Understanding the 4E Druid, Part 2

In this post I will discuss each of the Druid builds, specifically in terms of how well they fulfill their secondary role.

Predator Druids

Predators are secondary strikers, and with the right feats and items they can become quite good at it. Some good places to start focusing your character are either picking up Enraged Boar Form and a Horned Helm to charge as much as possible (like a Barbarian), or Ferocious Tiger Form and Claw Gloves to become a Rogue-like striker. Going the "rogue" route will give you a higher payoff early on since Claw Gloves gives you an extra 1D10 and the Horned Helm is only 1D6. Plus, between your controller effects and flanking you should have CA almost every round (whereas you won't charge every round, since encounter and daily powers aren't usable on a charge). As you get higher in level (by late Heroic or early Paragon), you have enough resources to do both. Charging an enemy that you have CA against will get you DPR (damage per round) that's well into striker territory, and you can set that up at least a couple of times per encounter most of the time. Predators also have better mobility than some strikers since they can shift as a minor (or free) action whenever they wild shape (in Paragon they can even shift # of squares = to their Dex mod when changing from humanoid to beast form), and many of their powers incorporate mobility as well.

Because a Predator's damage comes largely from items and feats, they don't need to sacrifice much control (as control, in all controller classes, largely comes from power selection). All of your Dailies should be control oriented (unless you opt for Summoning, which is still control but will also add appreciably to your DPR), and I would argue that all of your encounter powers should be as well (though 1 pure damage encounter power isn't going to sacrifice too much control either). Also, remember to look for synergies; for example 1) Savage Rend + Primal Wolf for good damage and the ability to eat enemy actions potentially every round, 2) Entangle for a good beginning of encounter setup then a DPR boost throughout the encounter from the expanded crit range.

Swarm Druids
Swarm Druids make excellent secondary defenders. They may not be as sticky as Fighters, but they're nearly as sticky as Wardens (both have at-wills that slow, and both have low level Dailies that can prevent shifting). With Hide Armor Expertise (it's inevitable that they'll take it), they get good AC in addition to having ranged and melee damage against them reduced. Add to that a steady source of THP in Paragon (through Bolstered Swarm) and various powers that make them even tougher to take down (though this will come at the expense of control), and they can be harder to take down than many defenders. I don't have experience with Swarm Druids aside from playing around with builds, but it seems like they're the best defenders of any class that shares that secondary role, and if built right I'll bet they can even serve as primary defenders if there aren't too many squishies in the party.

If you're looking to optimize survivability, you might want to consider making a Longtooth Shifter Druid. The racial power makes you even tougher, and it's augmentable with the feats Longtooth Spirit Shifting (Primal Power) and Beasthide Shifting (PHB2). Note that the damage reduction granted by Beasthide Shifting stacks with your Primal Swarm ability that reduces damage (since it's technically not "damage reduction"). The racial bonus to your Wisdom is perfect, and the Strength bonus might not go to waste either since you may want to pick up Powerful Charge (PHB).

Guardian Druids
I'd like to start out by saying that I think Guardians are sub-par. The description of the Guardian Druid makes it sound like it's going to be a good build; after all, with a secondary role of leader it's the most logical translation from the average 3.x Druid. Unfortunately, the Druid doesn't have a ton of good leader powers, and most of the ones that it does have are not Guardian specific (some actually have Predator riders). As sub-par secondary leaders (see above on the importance of a Druid's secondary role), Guardians become sub-par overall given the heavy emphasis that the Druid class places on secondary roles. Guardians aren't much better controllers than the other builds. To make matters worse, Guardians have the worst build-specific riders, often simply adding your Con mod to damage. And here's the icing on the very sad, stale cake: the Guardian's class feature simply lets you use your Con modifier to AC, which is exactly the same as Hide Expertise (feat from Primal Power). Thus, Swarm Druids can match your AC at the cost of a feat, and they still get their pseudo damage reduction class feature (likewise, Predator's get their +1 to speed and maintain AC through Dex as a secondary stat).

In my opinion, the best way to salvage the Guardian's utility is to multiclass Shaman and take the Mending Spirit MC feat from Primal Power. This allows you to use Healing Spirit 1/enc., and the Spirit Companion is in general a decent way to block a square (control). Also, there are some decent Paragon Paths that tend toward the leader role (Keeper of the Hidden Flame, Guardian of the Living Gate, and, especially, Spiral Wind's Ally).

Note: I may have been a little harsh on the Guardian Druid initially. Though disadvantaged with a terrible class feature (Con to AC) and some sub-par riders (which merely grant Con mod bonus to damage), they do have some decent riders that expand the forced movement of some of their powers. If you want to play a controller that focuses on forced movement, the Guardian's probably your best bet. I suspect that once PHB3 is released, the Telekineticist Psion build will probably fill the same niche, though I suspect the Druid will still have more/better zones, which complement forced movement nicely.

Summoner Druids
Summons intrinsically provide an interesting control mechanism in that they take up a square and offer HP resource management. Essentially, if the enemy forces attack and kill your summon then some (or all) of the damage dealt is net HP wasted (equivalent to wasted turns). This is because summons have HP equal to your bloodied value, but when they're killed you lose a healing surge (which is equal to half of your bloodied value). You can get even more devious by dismissing yoru summoned creature as a minor action when it's very low on HP, which effectively negates all damage done to it (since you don't lose a surge for dismissing). Thus, summons provide an interesting twist in contributing to your primary role, but this post is mostly focused on the Druid's secondary roles.

Druid summons most ostensibly contribute to the striker secondary role. This is because their instinctive actions (actions they'll use automatically if you haven't given them a command by the end of your turn) add a great deal to your DPR while the summoned creature is present. Simple, low maintanence, and a good choice for Predators (though any build will benefit from an increase in DPR). They can also be used as a flanking buddy, which is advantageous for the Predator that has damage bonuses when they have CA. Summons may also have some limited utility for the secondary defender (Swarm Druids), namely because they take up space and can therefore be positioned adjacent to an ally to prevent them from being flanked. Also, the Guard Drake is a mini defender in its own right and is an excellent choice for a Swarm Druid. Summons don't greatly contribute to the secondary leader role of the Guardian Druid, but the Guardian Briar does give allies a defense boost so at least that's something. The Guardian's focus on forced movement may also allow them to easily position enemies adjacent to summons, increasing the efficiency of instinctive actions. Note that Guardians will have slightly more durable summons due to their focus on Con (as opposed to Predators), and more importantly they'll have more surges available for when summons are killed. To summarize, while each build is capable of using summons effectively, they'll contribute most to the secondar role of Predators. This is balanced by the fact that Predators will have fewer surges to spend on summons than Con based Druids, though they can get around this by dismissing their summons when their HP is low.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Understanding the 4E Druid, Part 1

Impressions of the Class
It's not uncommon to hear comments on the internet about how the Druid is underpowered. These comments seemed to peak in intensity shortly after the release of Divine Power, when the Invoker got it's boost. Now that Primal Power is out the three controller classes are on even footing, but it's still very obvious that the Druid is "different."

For a long time even I didn't quite get the class. This is significant because I'd been playing a Druid since the levels 1-3 preview went up, way before the PHB2 was even released. Ever since then, I've been a little obsessed with the class. I think it was mostly due to unfulfilled expectations from the 3.5 edition Druid. Which, don't get me wrong, was a great (and many would argue overpowered) class--if you played above 5th level. Which I only did once, in a one-shot, and all of my other Druid experience was low level. So what was so great about 5th level? The answer is simple: this is when you first got Wild Shape 1/day. So along comes the 4th edition Druid with its at will Wild Shape! I didn't care that Wild Shape was overpowered in 3.5, I just liked the idea of turning into an animal. Now I get to do that whenever I want! So again, I love the 4E incarnation of the class. But I still didn't fully understand how to best play one until Primal Power came out.

The common strategy to optimally play controllers is to focus primarily on status effects at the expense of damage. I did this for months, and was always jealous every time I looked over the Wizard class. The Wizard just controls so much better, and has more feat and item support that caters to this. So yes, I'll admit it: the Druid is an inferior controller than the Wizard and Invoker. But it was not until I tinkered around with a Swarm Druid build that I noticed something else that the Druid has going for it--something that the Wizard and Invoker are lacking. The Swarm Druid makes a superb secondary defender. This inspired me to give my Predator Druid some Claw Gloves (I'd recently purchased Adventurer's Vault 2) and retrain a feat out for Ferocious Tiger Form. I calculated normal at-will DPR (damage per round), then did the same assuming a charge, then assuming combat advantage (CA), and then assuming charging an enemy with combat advantage. Druids can charge very easily, and usually have no problem getting CA either. My calculations revealed that my Druid was well into striker territory with DPR! In striking style, Predator Druids get to play with fun tactics that a Barbarian (charging) or a Rogue (CA) would use. No longer would I underestimate damage (it also helped that Fire Hawk and Swarming Locusts, the two new at-will powers in Primal Power, are both very damaging without sacrificing control)! Thus Druids, like Warlocks (another class commonly called "weak"), sacrifice some power in their primary role to boost the effectiveness of their secondary role.

Controllers in General
At this point I'd like to call attention to the common belief that controllers are the most "expendable" role. This opinion generally annoys me since controllers are my personal favorite role (I like the tactical potential), but I must admit that my bias does cloud my judgement a little. Controllers are great fun to play, but if I'm in an adventuring party I'd usually rather have a leader, defender, or striker on my side. The biggest weakness that controllers exhibit is variation in the tactical potential of encounters. Some encounters present a wide range of tactical opportunities, and sometimes those opportunities will influence the difficulty of the encounter in very major ways. Essentially, when such an opportunity to severely hamper the enemy forces presents itself, and the controller is able to take advantage of it, he or she is hitting the "I win" button. Turning a very difficult encounter into a cakewalk, at its most potent. This is where controllers really shine, and when everyone is grateful to have them along.

Let's get back to reality, though. This isn't the case for most encounters (partially because a controller is limited in how often they can use Daily powers), where your influence on the battle's difficulty is more modest. And then of course there's encounters where few, if any, tactical opportunities exist and the controller is unable to make much of an impact on the battle. This is when people start to grumble about the controller being expendable. Unfortunately, the ratio of tactic-rich to tactic-poor encounters will depend on the DM. New or uninventive DMs are likely to design simple encounters that may not allow the controllers to shine. Note that the controller is the only role that suffers from this bias; a striker's damage output will always bring down the enemies faster, a defender's punishment/ability to soak up damage will always keep the squishier party members safe, and a leader will always be able to patch up/enhance their allies when they inevitably need it. A controller that isn't at least moderately proficient in one of these secondary roles will find themselves contributing less during some encounters.

Versatility and the Druid
Enter the Druid. Compared to a Wizard or Invoker their "I win" buttons may not be quite as potent or easy to use, or they may not have as many of them, but they'll never find themselves unable to contribute, as they always have their strong investment in a secondary role* to fall back on. In fact, "fall back on" is probably the wrong phrase to use because it underplays their ability to fill their secondary role. More accurately, they can fill in as needed, and do so competently enough that they don't feel useless.

Granted, some may argue against my assertion, invoking the "jack of all trades, master of none" argument. This isn't completely without merit, since a Druid will never be the most optimal controller, striker, or defender. However, classes don't exist in a vacuum. On paper, an optimized Barbarian with a bloodclaw weapon is clearly superior to a Predator Druid that's optimized for damage. However, the ability to also contribute significant control with little to no effort is a valuable asset that cannot be easily quantified. Also note that a Druid isn't trying to be a jack of all trades like the infamously underpowered 3rd edition Bard; rather, they focus on just 2 roles, making respectable controllers that are modestly good at either striking or defending.

In addition to being effective at 2 roles, Druids also gain versatility from their ability to fight at range and melee, and to easily switch between the two. This is thanks to that wonderful ability that keeps me loyal to the class, Wild Shape. This also makes Druids unique in that they're the only controller class that is designed to control in melee. So what exactly are the advantages to being in melee for a controller?
  • Melee provides the ability to flank. Flanking causes the enemy to grant CA, which is technically a debuff (so you're doing your job by virtue of position alone). More importantly, CA improves the odds that you'll hit with your powers, and often the effect of a power is more important than the damage (think of it this way: any class can do damage, but only controllers can inflict a large number of status effects).
  • Access to charging, which grants you a +1 bonus (or more if you want to spend feats on it) to-hit. See above for why this is important. Also, charging into a flank gives you even more bang for your buck. Charging is also essentially free movement, though this is a wash since non-melee controllers attack at a distance. As a Druid, the main reason that charging is attractive to you is because you can use Savage Rend and Grasping Claws while charging. So you can still exert control, while benefitting from any other bonuses that charging confers (usually extra damage).
  • Less friendly fire. Just compare Predator's Flurry to the Wizard's Color Spray. Sure, Color Spray has the potential to hit more enemies, but it can also hit your friends. Essentially, with powers like Predator's Flurry the Druid's available targets are dependent on movement, whereas the Wizard's are dependent on the geometry of the blast.
  • The ability to make Opportunity Attacks (OA's). These are decent attacks that also have control components (Savage Rend and Grasping Claws). For the Swarm Druid minoring in defender, the ability to slow via an OA greatly increases stickiness (which, in turn, increases effectiveness in the defender role). Note that post Primal Power, Druids can even make OA's at range using Fire Hawk.
  • Pinning a ranged enemy against a wall, sarcophagus, or any other form of blocking terrain effectively locks them down. If they shift, they're still adjacent to you. If they make a ranged attack while adjacent to you, they get smacked by you. Alternatively, you can run up to a prone or dazed ranged enemy to similar effect.
It should be pretty apparent by now that versatility is the strength of the Druid. Players that prefer playing more specialized characters will likely not enjoy playing a Druid. However, I hope that I've at least shown that Druids are not "weak" or "underpowered." They occupy a niche in the game that no other class does, and are not easily comparable to other classes. Moreover, while "control" and "versatility" are both beneficial to a party, but are very difficult to quantify. These abstract concepts are difficult to optimize on paper, but in-game a Druid's effectiveness is obvious to those that play to the class's strengths.

In part 2, I will discuss the 3 different Druid builds and their secondary roles.

*Note that this is almost always true for Predator or Swarm Druids, but as I will discuss in part 2, Guardian Druids lack a strong proficiency in their secondary role, making them mechanically inferior.

First Post

So I decided to create a D&D blog. I currently have a lot of time on my hands, and so despite not having a group to actually play with I still purchase 4E materials, regularly post of the WotC forums, and build characters just for fun.

This blog will likely consist of character concepts, mechanical discussions, reminiscences of past campaigns, and various other musings. In the event that I get a long term campaign going, I'll also post session summaries.

This intro is pretty skeletal, but expect insightful posts to follow.