Saturday, December 19, 2009

Talamhlar - Session 1

Today I DMed the first session of the Talamhlar campaign. We basically played the whole day (from 12:30 pm to 11:30 pm), with our only substantial break being to get pizza.


Garret Kahneus - Half-Elf Valorous Bard
Alaric Rose - Elf Archer Ranger
Urogoth - Half-Orc Bleak Disciple Assassin
Martok - Goliath Rageblood Barbarian


As was outlined in the campaign brief, the PCs had all recently taken up residence in the town of Helmund, with their last memory before the campaign being walking alone, with a feeling that someone was watching them. Then, blackness. They all woke up to the sound of a crackling noise, and they regain consciousness within circles of blackened (spent) residuum. The crackling sound came from another circle with an unconscious human suspended above it, surrounded with energy which seemed to be fed into a giant crystal in the center of the room. Then blood began to pour from his nose, eyes, and ears, and he collapsed on the ground. At that point the PCs noticed that each of them was bloodied, and they were down on healing surges. Not surprisingly, they were also missing all of their gear. The room was in shambles, with bookcases and tables turned over, and various alchemical fluids spilled on the floor. Against one wall a Goblin was chained. He asked the PCs to help him out, as he knew where their stuff was probably hidden. The Goblin, Gaknar, explained that some strange monster had torn the room apart, apparently looking for something. It was something he'd never seen before. He also informed the PCs that he was a lowly worker to the mages that had taken up residence in the castle, and that the mages perform various experiments (many of capture people like the PCs). He warned them that "the servants" had joined this monster in turning on the mages, and that various other creatures may have escaped containment.

The PCs spent surges to regain some HP, and then searched for some improvised weapons to use. Gaknar explained that they were in the north tower of a castle, and that their stuff was probably in the south tower. He led them out to an open-air bridge connecting to a wing of the main castle, which continued out the other side of the wing to the south tower. Bodies that looked like they'd be bludgeoned to death included some hobgoblin and human soldiers, as well as mages. Along the bridge and in many rooms of the castle, motes of blue and white energy, as well as black and purple shadow energy, floated through the air. Below the bridge the PCs could see a moat surrounding the castle, filled with strange, bubbling purple liquid. Yellowish smoke issued from windows in the ground floor of the rear wing of the castle. As they entered the wing (on the second floor), they had their first encounter. Some corpses were lying on the floor, being devoured by rats (2 dire rats, 2 giant rats, and 2 rat swarms). Terrain features included a bookcase that had been knocked over, a bookcase that was still standing (but could obviously be knocked over), a lit torch, and a smashed oil barrel that had spilled oil over several squares. Once violence ensued, the floating energy motes coalesced into energy orbs. Shadow orbs debuffed the attack modifiers of adjacent PCs, while the blueish orbs shot rays of radiant energy and exploded upon death (both types were minions). Given that the fight was with improvised weapons, it was fairly difficult (especially the swarms). Toward the end of the encounter the party was finally able to maneuver the swarms near the oil, push one in, and set it on fire.

The party eventually made it into the South Tower, but an "improved" goblin (with Bugbear arms and embedded with various crystals) guarded the tower (on the orders of "master"). This was a custom solo creature, with more energy motes present. There was also a weapons rack in the room, which allowed the PCs to at least fight with something useful. Luckily, the solo fight didn't drag. The PCs then recovered their gear and took an extended rest.

Fully refreshed and with their gear recovered, the party decided to explore the castle at their leisure. Various points of interest included the following:

  • A room with the floor on fire, apparently fueled by a viscous, orange liquid. A spiral staircase going down was on the opposite side of the room, but the players (wisely) didn't attempt to run through the conflagration (which would have resulted in certain death).
  • A room where a binding ritual had been attempted, using 4 large crystals, one of which had shattered and caused electrical energy to lash out at random, all around the room. A roof hatch discovered earlier led to a lightning rod, which Martok decided to retrieve and stick into the room (while holding it). He took a massive amount of damage and was knocked back, prone. Urogoth used his shade form to reduce damage taken as he ran to the other side of the room to retrieve some treasure.
  • A three-room encounter (a dining area, a food storage area, and a kitchen, all connected by halls and open doors) against flail-wielding Bugbear skirmishers and (leveled up) Goblin Cutters. Some energy motes coalesced into orbs, as usually happened in the castle during encounters, and a green slime that had been feasting in the storage area joined the fight in the second round. The slime spent the entire fight trying to engulf Gaknar.
  • An encounter against a decrepit flesh golem, a storm shard (lightning elemental), and several motes in a room with several teleportation circles and a broken obelisk with an aura of damaging necrotic energy (which the enemies were immune to, save the storm shard which avoided it).
  • After making it downstairs (which required finding a couple of keys to open locked doors), the party faced off against a wight, some skeleton archers, zombie minions, and (of course) the ever-present energy orbs. A pillar in the center of the room allowed the orbs to summon more orbs, all of which winked out of existence once the undead all perished. Patches of necrotic ground covered roughly half of the room, and it granted undead within it a damage bonus and reduced surge healing by half. The fight was surprisingly easy for the PCs, who were able to avoid the necrotic ground, keep the undead largely out of it, and didn't need to use much healing.
  • The ground floor of the rear wing contained some sort of generator which seemed to be powered by crystals, and in turn powered a drill. Fissures opened directly through the floor, and were spewing out the smoke seen from the bridges. Three Azers were dead on the floor.
  • The party decided to go the other way, toward the front of the castle. This was the final encounter of the night, which brought them to level 2 (they gained 150 XP from backstory, and fought 6 encounters, most of which were 3rd or 4th level. They took 2 extended rests). It was against a (modified) Warforged soldier, 2 Warforged Resounders (artillery), and a custom creation of mine, an Ironwood Warforged (Elite Soldier). The soldier had a recharge daze attack, and the Ironwood Warforged had a minor action (Iron Kick) attack which dazed as well. Tough encounter, as the artillery did substantial area damage.
Notes on Treasure

I roughly followed the parcel system as is laid out in the DMG, but I handed out many more healing potions over the course of their exploration (many of which weren't needed), and I gave each PC a magic item. I never really liked the idea of 1 player getting the shaft every level (even if it is a different player each time). This may result is slightly overpowered characters, but I tend to run difficult encounters and if it becomes an issue I'll just either forego magic items for a level to even it out, or provide lower level magic items for a level or two. Either way I don't think it will be a problem.

Clues Discovered

During the course of their exploration, the party discovered several documents (mostly letters or books) lying around the castle. I'll list these clues here as a reference, because some of them will tie into events later in the campaign.

  • Loose Page from a largely destroyed book found near the body of a mage on the north tower observatory. Reads "They've decieved us. They don't have what we need, so we've begun to look below."
  • A Book titled Geneology of the Selfeer's. Essentially, a quick skim (and a History check made by Garret) revealed that the Selfeers were the rulers of Lyria Castle. About a century ago, there was a city-state called Lyria that was conquered, and the region has remained largely unsettled since then. In the margin of a marked page on the last ruler, Duke Glenn Selfeer, is the note "see nephew." Another marked page revealed that he had 2 nephews, Clor and Vistun. Vistun's short bio showed that he was exiled for collaborating with one Aston Grimslade. No further details are provided, but this was clearly of interest to the mages.
  • A letter, which reads "Baern refuses to cooperate with us. Arrogant fool! He thinks his status and fortress can protect him. The Dwarf will suffer. Perhaps we can pursuade Orsir to deal with him. It would be an expensive bounty, but it would be worth it. Alive, if possible. Signed, Tintrim."
  • A letter which reads "their first attempt was mere NECROMANCY! I made it clear to Karek, et al. that we needed to take that extra step. I don't care what the smoke's doing now, we've almost completed a beta Volksair specimen! Signed, Tintrim."
  • Yet another letter, reading "Tintrim, we can't continue with the Volksair Project. The Smoke was an unexpected side effect, but we can't get rid of it. And now it's starting to do some...strange things. Signed, Karek."
  • A chapter in a book of local history titled A History of Grimslade Castle, with a note scrawled in the margin "Is he still there?"
Further commentary may come later, when it's not quite so late.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Advice on Playing the Controller Role

I have a guide on the WotC forums called Controlling 101. It highlights what the controller classes bring to the table, and how to best utilize their abilities tactically. Not much else to say about it; check it out!

The Ardent: A Theoretical Fix

I'll ignore, for now, the conceptual problem that I have with the Ardent (namely, the disjunct between its flavor as a "mood reader," or empath, and its mechanics as an exclusively weapon-wielding melee class). Fixing this would be an undertaking far too large for me to attempt, seeing as it would require a complete re-working of the powers to accomodate ranged implement psychic attacks, and wouldn't see publication anyways. So I'll grudgingly make my peace with the fact that there's very little in the mechanics that reflect the flavor well.

This leaves the AC problem. I'm assuming that the Ardent is going to be published as-is, so there's really no option for giving them shield proficiency out of the box. Pity, as that would have been a simple solution and provided an incentive for Ardents to wield something other than a polearm. This leaves a feat patch as a solution. There's precedent for feat patches (see Expertise feats), and there are also existing feats that serve as de-facto patches to compensate for design flaws (Chainmail Proficiency for Con Shamans). Sure, Scale proficiency or Light Shield proficiency could be taken to patch the Ardent's AC, but both require 13 Str and Scale requires 13 Con as well. So as it stands, improving the Ardent's AC exacerbates the inferiority of the class, as it requires a more MAD build. Thus, a new feat is in order.

Quell Savagery
Prerequisite: Ardent Mantle
If your off hand is free, you gain a +2 feat bonus to AC against all attacks originating from within your Ardent Mantle.

I'm assuming that the Ardent MC feat doesn't grant the Ardent Mantle class feature, so there shouldn't be any cheese with other classes stacking the bonus on top of their already respectable AC. Fluffwise, it fits the concept of an empath in that as an enemy is attacking, the Ardent projects a pulse of emotion into their mind to suppress their volatile temperament, reducing the efficacy of the attack. It also makes further use of the Mantle, which seems to be the Ardent's defining feature.

By going the Swordmage Warding route and requiring a free hand, deciding between a two handed weapon (likely a polearm) and a one-handed weapon is now a meaningful choice. The reason why I made the AC bump +2 instead of +1 was because A) +1 AC may not have been a good enough incentive for an Ardent to dump the polearm, and B) since Ardents should have gotten light shield prof. anyways, a +2 bonus represents the same investment that a Warlord would make to get heavy shield proficiency (1 feat, with the Str prerequisite being irrelevant for a Warlord).

Furthermore, there are tradeoffs that don't make it strictly superior to getting shield/armor proficiencies. In the case of Quell Savagery vs. lt. shield proficiency, the shield nets you a +1 to AC and Reflex, but requires a 13 Str. Quell Savagery gets you a higher AC bonus and doesn't require a Str investment, but it doesn't improve your Reflex and only applies to attacks originating within your Mantle (leaving you more open to ranged attacks). In comparison to Scale Armor proficiency, Scale would get rid of the armor check penalty that the Ardent keeps if he/she remains in Chain (with Quell Savagery). Furthermore, Scale may be attractive in that it offers enchantments not available to Chain (but once again, requires a Str and Con investment).

Overall, while I'm not a fan of "feat taxes" I'd rather have an option like Quell Savagery than requiring a class to become too MAD to fix an AC that's simply insufficient for a front line leader (and secondary defender, to boot). This way, a Mantle of Clarity Ardent can invest stat points in Cha and Wis and then choose to bump either Reflex (and possibly initiative) or Fortitude (and possibly surges) without being pressured into putting points in Str or wielding a polearm. This is especially important since new players might not see the necessity of these two courses of action, and will feel very squishy if they run around with a longsword and chainmail. At least Quell Savagery would be a fairly attractive feat choice for a new player, and it would be right in the first place that they often look for feats (the class feats list).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Debut: The Ardent

The Ardent debut article is up on D&D Insider, and it contains the Mantle of Clarity build for this new Psionic Leader. The full class will appear in the PHB3 in March.

What's in a Name?

First, a comment on the name. I hate it. A lot. Judging by the discussions on the WotC forums many people agree with this sentiment. The problem is partially that the word "ardent" is an adjective. You're left thinking, "so what exactly is this guy ardent about?" You can say that members of the class are ardent, but you can also say that Rogues are sneaky; does that mean that the Rogue class could be called "Sneaky" and make sense? "Sneak" would make sense, but that's a noun. Same goes for renaming "Barbarian" to "Reckless." Or we could just re-name the Wizard the "Intelligent." Grammatical faults aside, there was already a widely speculated name for the Psionic leader: Empath. The Empath was a Psion build in 3rd edition, so there's even a precedent (to be fair the Ardent was a 3rd edition class from Complete Psionic, but it doesn't resemble the 4E Ardent except that they both have "mantles"). Here's the kicker: the flavor of the 4E Ardent could not possibly be more suited for the name Empath. They Psionically read the emotional state of their enemies, as well as influence the emotional state of their allies. They're empathic. I liked the name Empath. It made sense. Ardent is just silly.


Anyways, moving on to the actual mechanics of the class. Not surprisingly, they use Charisma as their primary stat. Also not surprisingly, Wisdom is secondary for the Mantle of Clarity build (secondary defender). The other build, to be released in the PHB3, is the Mantle of Elation, and is a secondar striker that uses Constitution as a secondary stat. If you can't already see a problem with the Mantle of Clarity build, I'll point it out right now. Like certain builds of other classes (for example, Charisma Paladins), the Mantle of Clarity Ardent gets a primary and a secondary stat that contribute to the same defense, Will. That's a little odd for a secondary defender, wouldn't you think? But wait, there's more. Their armor proficiency goes up to Chain (so at least not having a secondary or primary stat for AC doesn't hurt them too much), but they don't get any shield proficiencies. That's an AC of 16 at 1st level. And they're a melee class. I'll reiterate that: the party leader (who is supposed to play backup defender) is sent to the front lines with minimal armor and no shield. This is the guy who you want to keep standing so he can heal you. And shouldn't the secondary defender build get Con secondary instead of the striker? So yeah, you'll have very few healing surges too. And if you want to improve your armor you'll need at least a 13 in both Con and Str (just Str if you're going for lt shield, but consider your surges!). And forget about a heavy shield completely unless you want to waste enough stat points for a Str of 15. So yeah, improving your AC is both feat intensive, and stat intensive. If you're a race that gets a bonus to Str it would definitely be worth it, but everyone else loses out. And with all the points you're throwing into Cha, Wis, Str, and Con, your Reflex is really going to suffer.

I'm thinking that polearms will be pretty much mandatory for these guys if they want to not die. You have proficiency with military melee weapons, and the picture in the article has a glaive. So have fun hiding behind your defender and attacking around him, just like every other Ardent will be doing.

Like the Psion, the Ardent gets an extra at-will power and can replace at-wills as they level with more powerful ones. These at-wills can be augmented to be more powerful with power points. They do not get encounter powers because of this (a fully augmented at-will is equivalent to an encounter power, and they get enough power points to cast the same amount of fully augmented powers as other classes get encounter powers). Power points recharge after each short rest. The benefits to this system are that Psions/Ardents can use the same "encounter" power twice instead of using two different ones. You can also augment an at-will with 1 power point instead of 2 (full), essentially giving yourself two weaker encounter powers instead of 1 standard one. All of this can be done spontaneously, when you attack. So yeah, great flexibility with how you use your powers, but less flexibility in terms of how many different things you can do. Example: whereas a Wizard could have an at-will that debuffs attack and an encounter power that dazes, a Psion would have an at-will that debuffs attack, with the ability to augment that power to either debuff more targets or debuff with a bigger penalty (whatever is laid out in the power). Kind of like a one trick pony that's really flexible with that one trick.


The 2/enc healing power is called Ardent Surge, and it's pretty standard in terms of what it heals (normal xD6 progression for extra HP). What makes it unique is that it has a different effect depending on your Mantle. Mantle of Clarity Ardents give the target a +1 bonus to all defenses until the end of your next turn, and Mantle of Elation Ardents give a +1 attack bonus. This is actually a pretty cool way to distinguish the builds that we (surprisingly) haven't seen in a leader until now.

In terms of other differences between the mantles, nothing else about the Mantle of Elation is specified. It can be assumed that it's similar to the Mantle of Clarity though, which is a constantly active close burst 5 "aura" that grants any allies within it a defense bonus against opportunity attacks (equal to Wis, your secondary stat) and a +2 bonus to Insight and Perception checks. Flavorful. Also, as I learned when playtesting my World Speaker Shaman, granting a solid bonus against opportunity attacks can potentially alter party tactics, reducing the risk of risky maneuvers (things that provoke OAs). Artful Dodger Rogues in particular will be virtually invulnerable to OAs, especially if they're Halflings.


I really like the flavor of the class. It's pretty much exactly what you'd expect a Psionic leader to be, minus the crappy name (if I ever make an Ardent I'm just going to call it an Empath). The Mantles are pretty standard in terms of their mechanical influences on the different builds, which is a good thing since I've heard that mantles in 3.x were not done very well. I've never seen Complete Psionic so I don't exactly know in what ways the 3rd edition Ardent was poorly designed, but I trust the prevailing opinions on the WotC forums, especially considering the Psionics Handbook (which I do own). I do suspect that the 4E Ardent will carry over the legacy of being somewhat inferior, and unfortunately the reason should have been easy to foresee on the part of the devolopers. Proficiency with the light shield at the very least would give Ardents an option other than polearms, and having some ranged implement attacks would mitigate the low AC, as the Ardent wouldn't have to be in melee constantly to be effective. And on top of all of this the Mantle of Clarity build's two highest stats feed the same NAD (non AC defense). The result is that Ardents will feel the need to "catch up" to their fellow leaders, most likely through feats (armor/shield proficiencies will be attractive options, but will require investment tertiary/quaternary stats, making the Ardent quite MAD (multi attribute dependent)).

Con-based Shamans have a similar AC problem (and similarly need to invest in Str for better armor), and people have been complaining since the release of the preview (and are still complaining, for that matter). The situation is arguably more dire for Ardents since they'll have to be in melee almost constantly. A simple comparison can be drawn with the Warlord, which is another exclusively melee leader and is known for taking a beating if played carelessly. The Ardent is at a disadvantage in terms of initial AC (since Warlords have shield prof.), and also in terms of improving AC (Warlords attack with Strength, the main prerequisite stat for armor prof., whereas Ardents would not normally want to invest in Strength). In particular this build (Mantle of Clarity) is supposed to play secondary defender, but will have stats spread out between Cha, Wis, Con, and Str if it wants to be even passably effective at it. I can't imagine any race except the Dragonborn being able to make this work.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Class Acts: Druid

This article has gotten some flak on the WotC forums because it doesn't present any caster-form options, but in my opinion that isn't necessarily a bad thing. There will be more Druid material in Dragon in the future, and I definitely hope that we get some new caster-form goodies. This article, however, had a definite theme of customizing your beast form so that different forms granted distinct mechanical advantages. This was an issue with Wild Shape when it was first presented before the release of the PHB2. People complained that while it gave the Druid access to a different suite of powers, the player's choice of specific form was just cosmetic. Even from the start some attempt was made at differentiation; after all, the PHB2 had Enraged Boar Form and Ferocious Tiger Form as Heroic Tier feats, Hunting Wolf Form and Stalking Panther Form as Paragon Tier feats, and several Daily slot items in the vein of Primal Wolf, Primal Wolverine, etc.

This article published several more Primal X powers, as well as some utilities and feats that support beast form specializations. I'll review each new feature, since the article was fairly short.

Heroic Tier Feats
Each of these feats augments one of the Druids original 3 beast form at-will attacks.

Patient Hunter: This is what Pounce should have been from the start. At least now it compares more favorably to Swarming Locusts. Druids with feats/equipment that enhance their damage when they have CA might consider this power now, especially if there's a Rogue in the party.

Ruthless Killer: Swarm Druids just became even better defenders. This feat would actually make real defenders jealous! What's better than a mark? At-will immobilize (albeit with the caveat of staying adjacent)! This might be a candidate for slightly overpowered, but not game-breakingly so. Essentially, a defender's mark is a form of soft control (do this or get an attack debuff and some sort of punishment), whereas Ruthless Killer gives a Swarm Druid hard control (the enemy has no choice in the matter). They still can't punish enemies for attacking nearby allies, but they sure are sticky now.

Unstoppable Beast: Useful for any off-tanks that want some extra positioning. Even Predator's might find it useful, though. Push someone into a zone/hazardous terrain and then guard the edge. If you can slide 2, this is useful for staying 1 square away when using Primal Wolf (for charge protection) while still benefiting from the increased slide range.

Paragon Tier Feats
Most of these serve to emphasize specific tactical strategies.

Brutal Grappler Form: Hey, this synergizes quite nicely with Latch On, Constricting Coils, and Scavenger's Prize! If you've enhanced your damage when you have CA you can be a pretty darn good isolating striker, especially if you have the Defensive Advantage feat (better AC when you have CA). In terms of actual grab attempts, it still doesn't make up for the fact that Str is a dump stat for you. Only bother with this if you have grabbing powers. Any build can be a grabber, but Predators should focus on grabbing opponents that are unlikely to use Str/Athletics to break the grab since they have a low Fortitude. Predators also have some notably good riders on encounter grab powers (Latch On and Scavenger's Prize). Swarm and Guardian Druids, conversely, shouldn't grab foes that are likely to escape via Dex/Acrobatics checks since their achilles heel is their Reflex. For any grabber, artillery and other ranged enemies are prime targets (even if they break the grab right away, they've still wasted a move action to do so and will thus provoke OAs if they attack).

Fierce Thrasher Form: I already have Rushing Cleats. I'm definitely taking this too. Anyone who likes forced movement will probably do the same. With both, you get a slide 3 with Savage Rend. Basically, I use Savage Rend as my primary damaging power since I can set up situations where I'm charging into CA fairly frequently (and have damage boosts for charges and CA). Now I can also throw my enemies all over the place while doing so.

Scuttling Crawler Form:
Hey, my cat form doesn't suck at climbing trees anymore! It's about time they released this feat. This was a major point of contention with wild shape when the Druid preview was first released, namely because Str is a dump stat for most Druids and yet, paradoxically, a lot of actions that animals should be good at require Athletics checks. Personally, I would have preferred a feat that lets you use Wis in place of Str for Athletics in beast form, but that may have been overpowered.

Venomous Fang Form: Given that Druids don't have a plethora of poison powers, you're unlikely to have very many of them unless you specialize in poison attacks. Furthermore, you can MC Assassin and get better poison resist/immune penetration. Pass.

Daily Powers
A mix of Daily attack powers, all of which are Primal Form, and Daily utility powers, which grant the Druid abilities which Wild Shape does not normally confer, much like Skittering Sneak and Black Harbinger from the PHB2.

Primal Spider: Solid and flavorful. Surprisingly inferior the the similarly themed Wizard's Web though.

Treetop Lurker: A Daily form utility, and a pretty specific one at that. Some Druids will probably take it for flavor reasons, but I can't really justify picking it for most builds. Maybe if it was 2nd level.

Primal Serpent: Assuming that this power doesn't contain a typo and you really can't save from the poison damage, it's still pretty weak. This level has some steep competition, including Primal Wolf, Summon Crocodile, Entangle, and Sunbeam. I really can't justify taking this, and my Druid's a Coiled Serpent (thought to be fair I don't use snake forms exclusively, or even most of the time).

Diving Fin: Wow, lame name. But still, a much sought after concept. I honestly expected this to be in the PHB2, and was a little disappointed when it wasn't. Then I forgot about it by the time Primal Power was released, but I'm glad the concept was finally published.

Primal Boar: This is actually pretty decent for striker and controller purposes. Position yourself so that you provoke OAs from anyone that you want to knock prone, and unless your DM is metagaming even intelligent enemies should take the bait the first time. It's slightly annoying for Predators that the powers in this article tend to be Con based, but at least the bonus isn't that critical for the function of the power.

Primal Crocodile: The -2 penalty to escape grabs probably won't be enough for most grapplers, especially if the enemy targets your weak NAD (tee-hee-hee). Still, if you're not a Predator this isn't overshadowed by Latch On quite as much. Plus it synergizes with Brutal Grappler Form.

Primal Lion:
I actually really like this power. It's a solid mix of controller, leader, and striker, it evokes truly spectacular imagery (ok, that one's subjective), and it targets Will! An excellent pick for this level. Did I mention it also only targets enemies? THP is Con dependent but this would still be worth it for Predators.

Primal Panther: This one I'm not so sure about. It's pretty much a pure striker power, but if you have Pounce you can basically give yourself permanent invisibility for the entire encounter (against a particular foe, that is). Anyone who wants to be a Displacer Beast will love it.

References: article link

Mini Review of D&D Insider

Yesterday I finally broke down and bought a 1 month subscription to D&D Insider. I think the main reason why I hadn't done so before was because the main computer that I use is my Macbook, and the Character Builder and Monster Builder are only supported for Windows. Sure, I could run Windows on my Mac, but I'm not going to buy an OS that I'm only going to use for two applications. No thank you. I got around it by lugging my desktop from college downstairs (where the internet connection lives) and installing the CB and MB on that. Then I took it back upstairs and voila, I have all the benefits of D&D Insider (thought I still wish I could use everything on my laptop).

I'm still not sure if it would be worth it to have a continuous subscription. The initial investment has the greatest yields, as you get the CB and MB which contain everything from every published source thus far (mechanics-wise). Don't feel like paying for Martial Power just because you plan on playing a Rogue in a one-shot? No problem, the CB has you covered! Still, having continuous access to the Compendium would be nice (searchable online database with all of the info from the CB).

Character Builder/Adventure Tools
So far the only one of the Aventure Tools that's been released is the Monster Builder. It's still a Beta version, but it's very nice. It's essentially a database of all published monsters, and you can change their level with one click (so you don't have to re-calculate everything yourself). You can also customize monsters, and create your own. Definitely worth it! Hopefully I can easily export stat blocks to PDFs or some other format, so that I can at least view them on my Mac outside of the program and print them if need be. I'm really looking forward to the unreleased Adventure Tools, and I hope that the next one is a mapping program.

The Character Builder I've already discussed a little bit. It's pretty nifty, with the main benefit being that you can build characters without having 5 different books sprawled out in front of you. I think what I enjoy even more is the content. I finally have the Assassin class (D&Di exclusive) and all of the options from Divine Power. I especially appreciate finally having the Artificer without having to buy the Eberron Players Guide. It's also really easy to find stuff from Dragon without searching through all of the PDFs. Mac users certainly get screwed by not being able to use these 2 excellent tools.

These alone aren't worth the subscription. I find the layout of Dungeon kind of annoying, with the adventures as presented being difficult to utilize. I actually haven't read through much of anything though; just seems so daunting and the reading so dull. Unless I found a specific adventure that would apply to my campaign, of course.

Dragon is better, though it's fairly well-known that some of the content is broken (i.e. overpowered). It's nice to have a steady stream of published material though. Each month the Dragon material (as well as anything from a newly released book) is added to the Compendium and the Character Builder. This means that if you don't have subscriptions every month, you can't update the CB. Still, updating every few months doesn't seem like such a bad deal, especially since you can keep track of the content offered to see if anything is of interest to you. If they release another D&Di exclusive class, release a crunch-heavy book, or do a really good article on one of your favorite classes, it would be a good idea to get another monthly subscription so you can get the updates. Another nice perk is that debut content appears in Dragon. Right now one build each of the Psion, Monk, and Seeker have been released, all of which will appear next year in the PHB3. I probably won't purchase that books since I've never been a huge fan of Psionics, but the Monk is neat and the Seeker looks very cool, and it will be nice to get these two classes without having to buy a book filled with a bunch of Psionic stuff.

The Verdict: The subscription was worth it, but seeing as I'm currently unemployed it's unlikely that I'll continue it beyond this month. As content is released, I'll almost certainly re-subscribe in the future.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Shaman: Altering conventional "when to heal" wisdom?

In 4E, leaders do a whole lot more than just heal, though all of them retain a basic ability to heal thanks to their 2/enc. class feature. Obviously characters with more focus on healing are free to take other powers that heal as they level up. Conventional wisdom suggests that other (encounter) healing powers should be used first during combat, saving the minor action 2/enc. powers for emergencies (and any Daily healing for even more dire circumstances). This is because they're burst 5 (good range but won't provoke OAs), minor actions (so you can do something else with your standard action), and usually provide a substantial burst of healing (they general formula is surge + xD6, where x depends on level). All good things for when you're in a tight spot (other forms of healing may suffer from being ranged (will provoke OAs) or even melee (touch), requiring that an attack hits, etc).

For more general guidance, check out this thread from the WotC forums. Here are a couple of points that the guide makes (on the subject of when to heal), which all support the notion that class feature 2/enc heals should be saved for later:

Rule 1: It is better to heal later than earlier.As long as your ally's are up in the safe zone, it is better to keep healing powers available in case of an unforeseen situation, such as sudden monster reinforcements, or a second encounter before you can take a short rest.

Rule 2: Surge-free healing before surge-cost healing.Healing surges are your main daily resource, and saving healing surges is the main focus of 4th edition resource management (after staying alive). If you have an encounter power that provides some free healing on the side, use it first.

Rule 3: Healing Strike before Healing Word (and similar)Attack powers that heal help decimate the number of monsters, so use them early. On the other hand, they can miss, so they are not reliable if an ally is down on the floor. That's why you should reserve your minor action class feature heal for emergencies.

Rule 4: Encounter before daily.Encounter powers that provide healing will be back after a short rest, so use them first. Daily healing like Cure Light Wounds should be reserved for encounters where you need more than the normal amount of healing.

Rule 5: Temp hp first, healing later.Temp hp go away at the end of the encounter, so use everything that gives temp hp while there are still monsters around.

Now that it's (hopefully) been made clear that class feature heals should be saved for when they're really needed, I'll bring the Shaman into the mix. Clerics, Bards, Warlords, and (presumably) Artificers all allow an ally to spend a surge + extra healing (in the form of D6's). Clerics grant the most extra healing (their Wis mod + the standard D6 progression), Warlords grant a baseline amount (standard D6 progression), and Bards provide a free slide and slightly more consistent healing than Warlords (Cha mod + standard D6 progression minus 1D6). All three of these classes can use Healing/Inspiring/Majestic Word to allow an ally that's in deep trouble to spend a surge and then grant them some extra healing. A Shaman's Healing Spirits, on the other hand, breaks the paradigm by providing spread out healing (the target can spend a surge and an ally adjacent to your Spirit Companion (SC) gets the extra healing, which is the standard D6 progression).

So why does this matter? For starters, it diminishes the power's use as an "emergency" heal because the ally in trouble isn't going to get any additional healing (from the base power; items and feats may add some) beyond their healing surge. Second, whether or not a second ally recieves extra healing is dependent on positioning, which may not be favorable during an emergency situation. Thus, Shamans are somewhat lacking in their ability to react effectively to emergencies if they rely too much on Healing Spirits. That's not to say that the power is garbage, because it does have its uses; namely, it's good for proactive spread healing. That is, you can let an injured character with surges to spare spend one, and let another ally with few surges get some bonus healing, mitigating their need to spend more surges than they have to. Note that the Bear Shaman's spirit boon does grant some extra healing (to both recipients of Healing Spirits, to boot), giving it more utility as an emergency heal.

In addition to the other tactical nuances that the Shaman exhibits, they have to worry about having a "weird" 2/enc healing power. This further reinforces what a complex class the Shaman is, and also affects how it interacts with the party. As I stated before, a low surge striker like a Rogue or Ranger would probably love having a Shaman in the party, provided that he (or another party member) had access to at least one other good emergency heal. Parties that lack characters who can easily get themselves out of trouble might not be the best fit for a Shaman. Overall, due to their spread out healing Shamans are good at keeping the HP of the whole party fairly stable, but if things go south they may not be able to deal with it as effectively as another leader class. It could be argued that a Shaman might make it less likely that an encounter will go awry by keeping everyone fairly refreshed, but regardless emergency situations will inevitably occur, and these are the times when the PC's lives are most on the line.

Just something for Shaman players to think about I guess. The thought occured to me when I was playtesting my World Speaker Shaman for the first time, and in a relatively easy encounter (level = party) I blew both of my Healing Spirits (to give the Rogue some surge-free bonus healing both times). I'd been running a Cunning Bard with this party before, and usually with an encounter of this difficulty I would have maybe used 1 Majestic Word.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Detailing a setting

This article came up today on the official WotC D&D website. It's not exactly rocket science, but setting up the ambiance is something that is easily forgotten when you're DMing. You're preoccupied with describing important details, answering questions, or perhaps you're trying to move the game forward to an exciting encounter you have planned. Rather, you should stop as soon as the characters enter a new area and heed the following advice from the article:

I want to put myself, momentarily, into the boots of my adventurers. I want to think about what the air feels like. Is it hot or cold? Dry or humid? What does it smell like here? Are there irritants around? Bugs? Sand in my sandals? And what are the locals—monsters and NPCs—wearing? How do they cope? What impact has this region had on their culture? Their dress? Their mannerisms?

As a player, I can conjure up a pretty imaginitive scene even without the DM describing details. Sometimes I wonder, though, what the scene looks like in the mind of the other players at the table. It's kind of strange to think that all of these characters could be exploring completely different areas in the minds of each individual player. Not that that's a bad thing necessarily, but as a DM I also have a very specific image in my mind and sometimes it's easy to assume that the players have a similar vision. When I DM, I like to present what I've created, but I acknowledge that I don't always do the greatest job of communicating what I'm seeing in my mind. Not only that, but sometimes even the tiniest, seemingly insignificant detail might act as a seed of creativity in the mind of a player, allowing them to conjure up an elaborate rendering of the secondary world within the game.

I also really like the real-world examples that the author used. Having lived in western WA for nearly a year, I can assert that it does feel very different from where I've spent most of my life, in Ohio. Providing a few environmental details of the setting could go a long way in establishing the difference of a particular location compared to the physical region of the players, which many players likely subconsciously project into the game world. I'm reminded of one campaign that I ran years ago in which the main continent that the PCs were adventuring on was in the southern hemisphere of the fictional world. After several sessions, well into the campaign, they were travelling a great distance south and were shocked when I described the weather becoming colder, until they reached their goal which had a climate similar to the northern taiga (boreal forest) of North America. Since I'd designed the world (more extensively than I needed to, I might add, but that was part of the fun for me) it was just a given that the continent that they were on was in the southern hemisphere, but for players which have spent their entire lives in the northern hemisphere it was a jarring experience.

So yes, better to provide too much description than not enough.