Saturday, December 4, 2010

Further impressions of the Knight

My initial playtest encounters with the Knight went well, but I recently pitted the party against a group of enemies that included 4 highly mobile skirmishers (Thri-Kreen scouts) and 2 brutes with a push on their MBA's (Blackscale Lizardfolk). Against enemies like these, the Knight is virtually helpless.

The Lizardfolk weren't a problem for my Knight, per se, because he's a Dwarf. But any non-Dwarf Knight is extremely susceptible to forced movement, as enemies can push you away from their allies (leaving them out of your aura, utterly preventing you from doing your job). With the traditional marking mechanic even if you were unable to punish enemies too far away to violate your mark, at least they still had the -2 penalty to attack against everyone but you.

The Thri-kreen had an encounter power that lets them jump their speed without provoking OAs. Deathjump spiders are another nasty skirmisher that can do this. Point being, the enemy neither attacked an enemy while in the aura nor shifted, so the punishment mechanic doesn't apply. The movement itself doesn't provoke OAs, so they can basically move wherever they want and the Knight can't stop them. The Scout in my playtest got obliterated when multiple Thri-kreen swarmed him, and he spent about half the fight on the ground dying.

This makes the Knight the swingiest defender I've seen in action. They can be extremely effective, but have a situational weakness that renders them inadequate as a defender.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Balanced Spring Sentinel build

Purpose of this build:
This build is designed to be a versatile, playable leader that focuses mostly on defensive buffing, healing and funneling damage to the companion or a summon, while still packing some offensive punch. Summons serve a double purpose of increasing your damage soaking capabilities (which ultimately prevents damage to the party), while incidentally boosting your DPR in the process.

Damage funneling is accomplished in several ways. 1) The summons chosen provide lockdown capabilities, which set up the summon or companion as the only available target for a monster to attack, 2) Utility powers and your at-will are used to buff melee allies taking advantage of the wolf's aura with AC boosts, invisibility, and THP. Enemies can either attack buffed allies with reduced effectiveness, or attack the unbuffed companion and have damage wasted, and 3) the wolf's CA-granting aura should be enough to incite many enemies to attack it and get rid of the offensive buff, especially if you have allies that can do extra damage with CA (Rogues, Scouts, and Wild Shape Druids).

This build has a respectable amount of healing, especially from Paragon onward. It should be plenty for any party, especially given how much damage prevention is emphasized via buffs, THP, and most importantly the damage-soaking companion and summons. Save-granting ability is fair, with Knack for Success providing some respite in Heroic, and Clear the Chaff being your big-guns, mass save granter/buffer.

You don't actively grant many (if any) offensive buffs, but the wolf's aura is active as long as it's on the field, providing a solid, consistent boost for ally attacks. You also pack more personal offensive power than most leaders thanks to Combined Attack. Your typical nova round looks like this: Standard action: Combined Attack. Action Point: Tending Strike (you can only use Combined Attack 1/turn, despite having multiple uses of it). Instictive Action: whichever summon you have active. Basically, if you have a summon out and use an action point, you're making 4 attacks in a turn, which isn't too shabby at all.

Race: Half-Elf
Class: Druid (Sentinel)
Paragon Path: Spiral Wind's Ally
Season: Spring
Level: 11

I chose Half-Elf because the new racial power offers some leader functionality that otherwise isn't available to low-level Sentinels. Dwarf is also a superb choice, as your companion regains a surge's worth of HP for free when you second wind, which the Dwarf can do as a minor action. The Paragon Path is currently the best option for improving the leadership capabilities of a Druid, offering plenty of additional healing. Spring was chosen because the Wolf's aura provides a good counterbalance to the otherwise highly defensive nature of this build. Obviously the Bear works well for a purely defensive build, but I prefer a more balanced approach. All leaders should contribute to offense in some way.

Ability Scores:

Str-11, Con-21, Dex-14, Int-12, Wis-21, Cha-9

Con and Wis were bumped at each opportunity. Alternatively, you can switch Dex and Int around which reduces your Initiative, but you can qualify for Blade Initiate (Swordmage M/C) which allows you to use heavy and light blades as an implement. Doing so frees up your weapon enchantment for something other than an Alfsair Spear.

Hit Points / Bloodied: 93/46 (12 base + 21 Con + 50 level + 10 Toughness)
Healing Surges: 14 (7 base + 5 Con +2 Durable)
Healing Surge Value: 28 (1/4 HP + 4 Swift Recover +1 Belt of Vigor)

Since you want your animal companion and summons to soak as much damage as possible, you want to make sure that you have enough HP and surges to take that punishment. More importantly, you want your surge value to be as high as possible. This is because when you re-summon your companion after it's been reduced to 0 HP, it comes back with HP equal to your healing surge value. It also gets free HP equal to your healing surge value when you use your second wind, so the higher your surge value the more damage your companion can soak.

AC: 27 (10 base +5 level +5 Con +2 enh +3 Hide +1 shield +1 feat)
Fortitude: 24 (10 base +5 level +5 Con +2 class +2 enh)
Reflex: 20 (10 base +5 level +2 Dex +2 enh +1 shield)
Will: 22 (10 base +5 level +5 Wis +2 enh)

Initiative: +7 (+5 level +2 Dex)

Speed: 6

At-Will Powers
Animal Attack
Tending Strike

This build is primarily focused on defensive buffing, so Tending Strike is a natural choice. It's best to buff up melee allies that focus on enemies within your wolf's aura; this way enemies must choose to either attack a buffed PC, or the damage-soaking companion. Either way you're doing your job.

Encounter Powers
Combined Attack x3
Spiral Gust

Combined Attack can't be traded out, so you might as well make the most of it. Focus fire on an enemy that a Summon will use its Instinctive Action on for impressive burst damage for a leader. It'll be your go-to attack when Tending Strike's THP aren't needed. It's also useful for shuffling around your companion's position (Move action: you move adjacent to an enemy, companion shifts. Standard Action: Combined Attack allows companion to move its speed as a free action, and you both attack target).

Daily Powers
1: Summon Pack Wolf
5: Life Blood Harvest
9: Summon Crocodile

The Pack Wolf synergizes extremely well with the Wolf companion, resulting in enemies being locked down (via the Pack Wolf's prone and companion's OA) next to a summon and a companion, both of which you want to funnel attacks onto. The Crocodile works much the same way, only by directly grabbing an enemy and holding it in place (make sure that place is in your Wolf's aura). Life Blood Harvest gives you a nice emergency heal for when your Healing Words and buffing/damage funneling just won't cut it.

Variant 1: Destructive Harvest makes a good alternative to Life Blood Harvest if you find that you don't need the healing all that much (especially true if there's another leader in the party). It's great against solos and elites, as it provides a nice damage buff to allies adjacent to the target. Works particularly well if you have a lot of melee multi-attackers in your party (Rangers, Monks, and Whirling Barbarians).
Variant 2: This is another variant on your level 5 selection. If you want to go with a full summoning theme, and if your party can coordinate to keep enemies from running away, Summon Shadow Ape simultaneously brings a defensive buff, a DPR boost, and damage funneling to the table.

Utility Powers
2: Barkskin
6: Camouflage Cloak
10: Clear the Chaff
F: Swift Recovery (heal)

Barkskin and Camouflage Cloak both provide excellent defense buffs to allies with a minor action. They can both help you funnel damage onto a summon or your companion if you use them on melee allies that are taking advantage of the wolf's aura. Once again, enemies must choose between attacking buffed allies or the annoying wolf that's providing CA. Clear the Chaff is a phenomenal save granter, which by this level is probably going to get plenty of use. Prior to this Knack for Success was the only way you could grant saves.

Variant: If you prefer to have more offensive buffing power, choose Guided Shot (perception) for your skill power, which turns an ally's missed attack against AC into an attack vs Reflex (which will likely hit, if it didn't miss by much initially).

Misc Powers
R: Knack for Success
U: Restore Life

Knack for Success is the major reason why Half Elf was chosen for this build. Because Sentinels get Combined Attack forced on them, they have fewer leader options during combat that other leader classes.

1: Melee Training (Wis)
2: Versatile Expertise (spear weapon, spear implement)
4: Swift Recovery
6: Skill Power
8: Toughness
10: Durable
11: Armor Specialization (Hide)

Other feats that work well for this build are Improved Defenses, Superior Will, Strong Willed Summoning in late Heroic or early Paragon, and Battlewise if you prefer getting your wolf into position before your allies take their first turn (however, since you don't specialize in offensive buffing or de-buffing, you don't really need to go first as much as some of the more aggressive leaders or your controller counterparts). Blade Initiate is an option if you want to wield something other than an Alfsair Spear, and if you want to focus more on off-striking with Combined Attack then damage boosting feats like Weapon Focus, TWF, etc are useful. Check out Initiate of the Faith (Cleric M/C) if you want an extra Daily heal, though you may want to train it out once the build's healing capabilities start to pick up.

Main-Hand: Alfsair Spear +2 with Siberys Shard of the Mage +1
Off-Hand: Light Shield
Armor: Lifeblood Armor +2
Neck: Healer's Brooch +2
Arms: Iron Armbands of Power
Waist: Belt of Vigor
Companion: Friend's Gift

Lifeblood Armor makes sure that you're buffed with THP at the start of every encounter. You'll need the Alfsair Spear to use both Weapon and Implement attacks. You'll definitely want to use implement attacks, as Summons are much better than most of the weapon-based dailies. The Shard and Iron Armbands keep your damage up to par since Combined Attack pretty much forces you to be an off-striker. Belt of Vigor boosts your surge value, and the Friend's Gift gives your Animal Companion extra HP when you spend a healing surge to have it re-gain HP. This definitely works when you second wind, though it's unclear whether it works when you re-summon. "Doing so causes your animal companion to appear in the nearest unoccupied space, with hit points equal to your healing surge value." IMO it works fine since the companion goes from 0 HP to surge value HP as a direct result of you spending a minor action and a healing surge, but the wording is a little ambiguous.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Essentials Playtest

Long time since I've posted! I guess that'll happen when you've been living in free Forest Service "housing" for several months.

Anyways, I decided to take some of the new builds out for a spin, via a couple of "solitaire" encounters. The party was 6th level, and consisted of a Half-Elf Spring Sentinel, an Elf Scout, a Dwarf Knight, and an Elf Predator Druid (since I know the class well, and I wanted at least one non-essentials PC).

Knight: I'll start with this guy since he was released first in HotFL. It was kind of nice, especially for a solitaire encounter where I was controlling everything, that the mechanics for defending were so simple without compromising effectiveness. The defender aura is more intuitive than marking, and doesn't require minis or tokens to be labeled. Honestly, it was a pain before when multi-marks (from Come and Get it, for example) would end after a turn and I'd have to remember to remove labels so I didn't over-extend marks accidentally. One less thing to book-keep.

Mark punishment was brutal! Since it's an OA instead of an immediate action, you can punish multiple enemies per turn. Plus you benefit from whatever stance is active, and you can make punishment more deadly by using Power Strike with it. Higher level elite brutes usually have no qualms about triggering punishment and soaking the damage to do whatever they want, but when the punishment is enhanced with a stance effect and a Power Strike even they start to think twice! Even with two stances, I found it tactically engaging to juggle them on any given turn. You may want one stance for your standard action attack, but another one might work better with your OAs. Assuming you're already in melee, you can switch stance, attack, and then switch stance back. Both of my stances (Defend the Line and Hammer Hands) were useful for standard action attacks and OAs, albeit under different circumstances. A savvy player could certainly be satisfied with the tactical options that the Knight presents, despite its apparent lack of variety in powers.

I'd like to note that I started the first encounter with Measured Cut, and for the first 2 or 3 rounds found myself wishing that I had Hammer Hands. I basically just stayed in Defend the Line for those rounds, and finally decided "screw it, it's a playtest so I'll trade out stances mid-encounter!" As frequently as Hammer Hands was useful, I actually didn't have much luck with it, though that was purely the fault of the dice. Fortunately the Predator could cover the forced movement whenever the Knight missed, but at the expense of other options.

Sentinel: I was really excited about this build, but the play experience was a little dry. That may have been because the Knight and Scout were so surprisingly fun whereas the Sentinel was pretty much what I expected it would be. I also made some "beginner" mistakes with the positioning of the wolf. Basically, the wolf and Knight didn't play all that well together because there were several occasions where I wanted to use Hammer Hands, but it would have pushed the enemy outside of the wolf's aura. Plus you almost always want the wolf to get attacked since it's such an effective damage sponge, but the Knight's aura basically shut that function down. The wolf should almost always go off to establish a "second front" to attract the rest of the party to a focus-fire bonanza, with the Sentinel either joining it or helping the defender. It's hard to judge with a solitaire experience, but I found that the Sentinel itself didn't get attacked all that much. Obviously they want the pet to take the brunt of attacks, but early to mid encounter it's beneficial give the companion free HP via second wind before it's knocked out. The Sentinel just never took enough damage to justify using a second wind. Perhaps he was hanging around the Knight too much.

I can see new players possibly being unsatisfied with the Sentinel, because it's difficult to appreciate how the companion prevents damage. I also found myself spamming Tending Strike most of the time, and it got to the point where the encounter didn't seem all that dangerous between monsters having to chew through THP and wasting attacks on the companion and summon. Effective, yes, but in a very passive way. In two higher level encounters (with one party member short, no less) I actually only used one Healing Word. I'm guessing that this subtle defense was a major motivating factor for the developers locking this guy into Combined Attack. I must admit it was nice respite from all of that damage prevention. Too bad I missed with the initial attack 3 out of 4 uses of it (at least the wolf always got to hit!).

Overall, the wolf's aura was pretty amazing. There was not a single round in 2 encounters that the Predator and Scout lacked for CA (it also helped that both had Cunning Stalker). The lockdown synergy with Summon Pack Wolf worked brilliantly, and I was almost sad when the monster was finally killed.

Scout: Ever since the first PHB I've wanted a Dex-based melee ranger, though the real disappointment had always been that Twin Strike spamming was so gosh-darn boring. Finally, my wishes have come true, and it doesn't disappoint! Between the Wolf's aura and Cunning Stalker this guy could pretty much do whatever he wanted and count on having CA for it (same goes for the Predator Druid, who had never gotten so much use out of Claw Gloves!). My Aspects were Lurking Spider and Cunning Fox, which was a very fun combination. Can't beat Lurking Spider for straight damage and nova rounds, but I found myself mostly sticking with Cunning Fox. Never have hit and run tactics been so easy and fluid to employ. Let me tell you, Scouts absolutely thrive in parties with a good controller that liberally applies immobilized/restrained/dazed/prone. Speaking of which, World Serpent's Grasp turned the Predator Druid into an absolute beast, especially with the Knight constantly slowing with Defend the Line. Probably another reason why these encounters seemed like cakewalks :)

Scouts may not pack the nova punch of their Two-Blade Style cousins, but they're not too shabby. I picked up the Rogue M/C feat for an encounter use of sneak attack (I literally always have CA, and use a rapier + short sword, so it's kind of a no-brainer). My nova round typically involved charging a lone enemy or an enemy in the wolf's aura (with a vanguard rapier). I'd be in the Lurking Spider stance for the extra damage, and I'd blow a Sneak Attack and a Power Strike, then follow up with a Dual Weapon Strike. Bazinga! Between charging, CA, and using light blades accuracy was not even remotely an issue.

I'm usually not the biggest fan of strikers, and the ones I do like tend to be good secondary controllers (Monks, Rogues, and Warlocks). But skirmishing around with the Scout was a blast! It's certainly not as tactically engaging as a controller or leader, but between bouncing around everywhere and juggling stances there's enough there to keep you entertained. Plus I love the Ranger archetype, so it's nice to finally have my vision of the class realized mechanically.

Looking forward to logging some more time with these guys, particularly some more challenging encounters.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Unifying Controller feature?

In a recent article on the upcoming D&D Essentials line, Mike Mearls notes that a new rules update that will be released with the rules compendium will give Wizards miss effects with their encounter powers. The example that they used was that Burning Hands will now do half damage on a miss (and this seems to be whether or not you're playing the original class or the Essentials version of a Wizard). Personally, I'm really hoping that this change will affect not just Wizards, but all controllers (Druids, Invokers, Psions, and Seekers, as well).

As was brought up in the blog Square Fireballs, this would make for a perfect "controller feature" to unify all of the controller classes, much like all leaders get a minor action 2/enc heal, all defenders mark, and all strikers get bonus damage. Thus far, controllers have fulfilled their role almost solely through their powers. Technically they'd still be doing that with this feature, with the major difference being that their encounter powers simply work fundamentally differently from the encounter powers of other roles. The precedent of powers working differently has already been set with the Psionic classes that use power points (Psion, Ardent, and Battlemind).

Ideally, the miss effects would embody more than just half damage - after all, controllers are typically more about status effects. Half damage would be the easiest blanket errata to implement, but miss effects could also be implement without re-writing every single encounter power. Perhaps effects could be ranked, such that a power that dazes on a hit might slow on a miss. The penalties of debuffs could be halved on a miss. For effects that don't have an obvious "weaker version," a -2 attack penalty could be inflicted (fluff-wise, the enemy was able to shake off the effect but the effort distracted and/or drained them enough to compromise their offense). Or perhaps missed powers with effects could still inflict the original effects, but would instead deal no damage.

Overall though, even just half damage would be pretty nifty, as a controller would be making a positive contribution every time it used an encounter power, guaranteed. Given that controllers tend to have a lot of AoE's, multi-target attacks, and/or "splash damage" attacks, even missing the majority of targets would result in decent total damage spread out over multiple creatures. Plus their ability to destroy minions would be unparalleled, such that a Monk with Five Storms or a Swordmage with Sword Burst could no longer become just as effective a minion sweeper as a controller.

The only concern would be that this type of feature might place controller classes slightly above the power curve, relative to the other roles. Or perhaps I've just gotten used to the balance of power as it currently stands. I still hear plenty of complaints about controllers, even if I personally find them perfectly competitive and sometimes brutally effective.

D&D Essentials classes

I know it's been a long time since I've posted, but with all the buzz surrounding the recent Cleric preview from the upcoming Essentials line I figured I might as well throw in my opinion. The similarity to previous editions, where new class features are gained through leveling, is readily apparent. This is actually one thing I didn't like about 3.x edition (the edition that I started playing; I can't comment on anything earlier), so I'm a little nervous about that. I always felt like certain class features were a big part of the appeal of a given class, and I kind of felt gypped when I didn't start out with them. The Druid's Wild Shape is the perfect example, as a Druid didn't gain that ability until 5th level. Our campaigns generally started at 1st or 3rd level, and were almost always one-shots. A failure of the group, I know, but I was still stuck with playing a Druid that didn't quite feel right (I liked shapeshifting). I know my group couldn't have been the only one that didn't get past low levels very often. After all, everyone likes to get experience with different classes.

The fact that the Druid gets Wild Shape right out of the box, and the Wizard can always cast spells (thanks to the at-will system), etc., were some of the biggest reasons why I was drawn to 4e. So a step backwards to level-dependent class features seems like exactly that-a step backwards. But then again, 4e classes obviously gained different abilities when they leveled; it's just that they were called powers. The main difference being that no one power comprised a huge chunk of a given class's essence, and there were often multiple "versions" of an ability at different levels. Scorching Burst may not be called Fireball, but for all intents and purposes it serves the same thematic purpose. Your Wizard could blast multiple enemies with arcane flame. Perhaps the Essentials class features will feel more like powers (or rituals), in which case I wouldn't mind such a progression.

Another major difference is that different classes will have varying levels of complexity. This is a welcome change, as new players would benefit from simpler classes, but also veteran players who control multiple PCs, for example, but don't want something quite as streamlined as a DMG2 companion character. Besides, the point that's been made about Daily powers on Martial characters not making sense is valid. I can live with it because it makes Fighters, etc much more interesting, but there's an appeal to having the more "realistic" version as well.

This brings me to my final point, on why I think that the Essentials line is overall a very good thing for the system. It adds variety, and has the potential to appeal to more people. This is especially nice in the case of those classes that have original versions and Essentials versions (Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric, Druid, Paladin, Ranger, and Warlock, for now). Say, for example, you really like the Wizard archetype. Now you have 2 different ways to play a Wizard within the same system. This goes beyond having a choice of builds. What the Essentials classes do is give you a different mechanical interpretation of a class. Personally, I'm very interested in how they re-imagine these classes. These new takes on classic classes may appeal more to some people than the original 4th edition version. And the beauty of it is that they don't render the original versions obsolete, because there are invariably going to be people who prefer those versions to the new ones. Personally, I expect that I'd rather play the original Fighter, even if I do recognize that a simplified non-Daily version enhances the game. And given the cross compatibility, and the fact that Essentials versions are free to pick up any class power, including the original ones, it seems like players can even create a class that's a happy medium between the original version and the Essentials version.

As always, more options are good.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

PHB3 Skill Powers

First of all, the reason for my recent lack of posts is because I have a seasonal job for the Forest Service, and where I'm living I don't have consistent internet access. Still, I may post something every now and then.

Now on to the subject of the post. I skimmed through the skill powers in the PHB3 and thought "meh." Some looked sort of useful, worth the Skill Power feat but probably not a replacement for a class utility power slot (unless, of course, it's one of the newer classes with fewer power choices, which inevitably leads to levels with no interesting choices). Then I was reading the WotC message board, and someone commented about all the new ways to heal, citing skill powers as one of them. My interest was piqued. I hadn't really read through the powers for Heal, but there are some real gems in there!

Starting as early as level 2, you can get an encounter "let an ally spend a surge" (albeit, a dying ally). At level 6 there's 2 melee range powers, one that lets you or an ally spend a surge, and one that lets an ally second wind without taking an action to do so (the former is a standard action, the latter a minor). At level 10 you can allow an ally to regain second wind. And at level 16 you essentially get the Cleric's CLW (underpowered for its level, but still).

Endurance is even better, at level 10. And immediate reaction to spend a healing surge when you become bloodied! As an encounter power!

So why are these skill powers that facilitate healing so significant? Simply put, it mitigates a role imbalance that has been present in 4e from the outset, namely that the most important role to have in your party is the Leader. Sure, every character has a second wind, but for difficult encounters most parties will need more than that to survive. Now, any character with the Heal (or Endurance) skill can boost the party's (or their own) survivability by trading out their own class Utility powers, or even better, for the price of a feat.

Leaders are still extremely valuable (for buffing, and for easier healing resources), but now most groups will feel less pressured to include a leader in the party just because they feel that they have to (especially since controllers share the responsibility of buffing/debuffing with leaders).

Plus, skill powers obviously make skill choice more meaningful. Heal and Endurance were fairly low priority skills before (at least in my experience), and this makes them more competitive. So in general, while skill powers tend to be slightly underpowered compared to class powers, they can be invaluable in filling gaps in the party, and having the option to either trade out a class Utility or spend a feat (or do both) provides even more options for customization.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Talamhlar - Session 6

Cast of Characters

Garret Kahneus - Half Elf Valorous Bard
Alaric Rose - Elf Archer Ranger
Zelmar Tarien - Eladrin Orb Wizard
Gaknar - Half Elf (formerly Goblin) companion character (striker)
Annie Ramsey - Human companion character (defender)

Into the Underdark

After they defeated Finch's debt collectors, the party entered a tunnel that took them gradually down, about 300 feet below the surface. Garret soon learned that the maps that they'd obtained were of fairly poor quality, as there were many side tunnels that weren't drawn in and many blank spaces. Still, the party traveled through the nearly total darkness (phosphorescent fungi and small lodes of glowstone occasionally offered dim light) until they rounded a bend in the tunnel and noticed a brighter (though still dim by surface standards) light up ahead. Alaric scouted it out, and discovered the King's Highway. On the map it showed up as simply a large tunnel, but this unique Underdark feature was carved by the god Torog himself. After being wounded and then cursed by his Primordial rival right before he delivered a death blow, Torog's injuries are unable to heal themselves, and he is trapped in the Underdark. He made the King's Highway in the late stages of the Dawn War as he rampaged, nearly insane with frustration, through his new domain. This section happened to carve through large lodes of glowstone (hence the light), and contained (as is common along the King's Highway) puddles of the god's immortal blood.

After walking several miles, the party heard footsteps coming from one of the side tunnels. They readied themselves at the entrance, and out stumbled Zelmar. He recently escaped a cave-in as his mentor stayed back to battle a rival, and unable to return the way he came he has been wandering through the tunnels for about a day. Alone in a dangerous place, he decided to travel with the rest of the party. He did use Mage Hand to grab a sample of Torog's blood in a vial, though when he turend it upside down it slowly started to dissolve the cork, so he keeps it out while they travel (the Mage Hand holds it, floating beside him). As they traveled further, they were forced to make camp in a small side tunnel just off of the King's Highway. They also heard footsteps and felt a strong mental presence while traveling the Highway, and were terrified as an Illithid passed through a junction in the tunnels opposite them. The intrusive presence that accompanied it seemed to be pre-occupied and in a hurry, which was lucky for the party. It simply looked at them and moved along. A few minutes down the Highway, they found the body of a humanoid that had had its brain eaten by it. Testing the effect of Torog's blood on flesh, Garret and Annie dipped the corpse head-first into one of the puddles. The blood seemed "excited" as it rippled slightly when the head was submerged, but otherwise it had no effect.

When the party finally reached Forgehome they were turned away at the gate. Security was heightened recently, and no outsiders were allowed in the city without being vouched for by a local. They tried to convince the guard to send for Brocc (the Gnome that they were seeking out), but he didn't allow them to pass. As they made camp nearby, they were approached by a Dwarf. His name was Heldrek, and he told the party that if they helped him out, he would get them into the city. He was a mining prospector that was currently working on a small mine nearby. About a week ago, his workers never returned. After a few days he assembled a team to investigate, but they never returned. Now it was the party's turn. They followed him and descended into the shaft. There were dozens of bodies (the miners), and all had been stripped of all metal (the wooden handles were all that remained of their tools). Their hands were all missing, and several large fungal orbs floated lazily about, with some fungal humanoids (Myconids) standing guard. The fight was extremely tough for the party, as the spore orbs floated in and boxed them at the bottom of the shaft. When killed, the orbs exploded. Zelmar's first round in the party was an awful one, as his AoE missed the 2 Myconids but hit 2 spores (catching everyone in the explosion). This was after the Myconids had used AoE's of their own. The party was already low on HP at this point, and it only got worse from their. The Myconids had the ability to spread damage, making focused fire virtually useless. The party never maneuvered out of their corner, making them easy targets for the Myconid's AoE's and the spore's explosions. Zelmar's dice were determined to cursed, as he consistently rolled extremely low (and with all of his AoE's, he had many chances to roll). Even Alaric's normally crit-enchanted dice were of little help. The combat dragged on with the party boxed in and constantly on the defensive, with many characters getting knocked unconscious often. Alaric spent standard actions to perform Heal checks on more than one occasion, and at one point Garret was able to spend a surge after rolling a 20 on his death save. Second Winds were used, and Garret's Majestic Words were all spent. Many potions were also drunk. In the end, Gaknar and Annie were both killed.

Garret was ambivalent toward Gaknar's death and for a while it was assumed that the party just left his body in the mine (after this fight they fled the mine). Heldrek wanted them to investigate further, and Garret finally agreed that if he payed for Annie's resurrection they would clear the mines of all hostile creatures. Heldrek wanted something valuable to keep as collateral. Garret offered the crystal that they were going to show Brocc, but Heldrek didn't think it looked like anything special. So while Alaric and Zelmar stayed with Annie's body at a temple of Moradin, Garret and Heldrek sought out Brocc. Heldrek went to an Alehouse (no outsiders allowed!) to learn the Gnome's whereabouts, and then they headed off to meet him. When Brocc opened the door a bucket of water fell on Garret's head. He then had Garret come inside (Heldrek, distrustful as he is, insisted that the Brocc meet them outside) to prove that nothing else would happen, but when Garret stepped back out a pressure plate caused a black, oily substance to spray in his face. Brocc found the practical joke amusing. Garret said that his friend just died and he wasn't in the mood, but Brocc didn't see what that had to do with anything. He offered to look at the crystal, but then ran into his house and shut the door. Garret simply sat down and cried for about 10 minutes, at which point Brocc came back out grinning, and stated "third time's the charm!"

Brocc was actually very impressed with the crystal. He told Garret that not only was this a Fenorian crystal, but it was a stable Fenorian crystal. The last time he'd seen one was when his grandfather helped Aston Grimslade (now a vampire, as the party discovered at the Grimslade Ruins) figure out how to stabilize them. Normally Fenorian crystals release a steady stream of uncontrolled energy, but once stabilized that energy can be more reliably harnessed (usually as part of a specific magical effect requiring a command word). Stabilized crystals are extremely rare largely because Aston Grimslade and Brocc himself are the only two people who can reliably stabilize them. A few other individuals (namely Vistun Selfeer) are known to be less capable at the process, often being unsuccessful or only temporarily stablizing the crystals. When Garret tells Brocc that this crystal was originally used to augment an Arkhosian sword, Brocc says that given time he can probably discern the crystal's function. He offers to trade it for the only other stable Fenorian crystal that he has - one of Aston's original creations. It's part of a ring that, when worn, protects the wielder from the effects of unstable Fenorian crystals. Garret tells Brocc about the Volksair monster, and Brocc agrees that it's almost certain that much of its power comes from unstable Fenorian crystals. The ring might allow the party to escape should they have another encounter with the monster, but they should excercise extreme caution when confronted by it, as the ring is unlikely to give them enough of an advantage to defeat it.

Satisfied of its value, Heldrek accepts the ring as collateral. The party then waits while Annie's ritual is being completed. Alaric decided that he would miss Gaknar, and Zelmar agreed to provide half the cost to have him brought back to life. Jokes about the two having joint custody ensued. Just for fun, they wanted to have Gaknar Reincarnated instead of simply Raised. So I drew up a Reincarnation chart, set the ritual's level at 6 (2 levels lower than Raise Dead), gave it a lower component cost, and finally rolled the d%. Turns out Gaknar was reincarnated as a Half Elf, and upon the party's request a d4 was rolled to determine his gender. So now Gaknar is a female Half Elf, though he still has the same voice and is still attracted to females (indeed, his new set of Half-Elf hormones have resulted in him finding Annie "cuter than she was before"). If Gaknar had been a source of comic relief before, the Reincarnation just stepped it up a notch. To top it off, now that Gaknar is the same race as the party member who dislikes him/her the most, I even gave him/her a Bard power as his/her Dilettante.

After a night at a very barebones inn (their rooms were a small cave with a boarskin on the floor for a bed), the party re-entered the mine. The next encounter was against several more Myconids. Dwarven bodies littered this area as well, though these seemed to be warriors. A rust monster was also present, and it went straight for metal-clad Annie and devoured her armor. The fight was still won fairly easily, and this is where we called it a night.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Talamhlar - Session 5


Garret - Half-Elf Valorous Bard
Alaric - Elf Archer Ranger
Gaknar - Goblin companion character (striker)
Annie - Human companion character (defender)

Back to Argondale

The party remained in Darhadash long enough for Garret to finally master several rituals which there hadn't been time for earlier. Alaric explored the city and the caverns around it, finding a way out that didn't involve going upstream in the river. Gaerbin decided to stay in the city and study it more thoroughly (the character's player will be unable to play for quite some time, so this was a convenient place for him to part ways with the party--for now).

After leaving the ruined city they traveled for several days along a path that followed the river. At one point Alaric spotted several sets of tracks. Some were barefoot Shifter tracks, and others were light, moccassined tracks (likely Elf). Sure enough, the next day they came upon a clearing that contained a structure of standing stones (akin to Stonehenge), where about a half-dozen Elves and Shifters were meeting. They reported that a local group of Gnolls has gotten extremely organized recently, and took out their respective tribes. They were the only survivors, and planned on dispersing into the forest and laying low for a while. The Gnolls marched onward toward the village of Whitehall after they conquered the tribes, and the PCs decided to follow them. Of course, upon getting to the main road they saw the Gnoll tracks heading north, but an odd set of tracks headed south toward Argondale. The left foot was a Warforged's, but the right foot was narrower and more humanoid-shaped (but very heavily booted). They headed south after this strange creature, and about a mile into their journey they encountered a large crater and pieces of some type of humanoid - just like the craters they'd encountered in Lyria Castle. So the Volksair monster was still running around.

As they travelled along the west side of the lake, they heard a lot of shouting coming from the northern wall of Argondale. They rushed to the ferry to the West Gate, finding an evacuation in progress. Annie knocked Garret out because of his irrational fear of water, and threatened the dock worker with her greatsword to let them onto the ferry on its trip back to the city for the next group of people. They woke Garret up by dunking his head in the water, and then attempted to pass through the gates. There were guards around, however, and they were trying to protect the people and wouldn't let the party pass. Garret tried to convince them that they could stop the monster (though the guard was not persuaded, he let them pass because they may have been the city's best shot against it). They stopped at the Moonveil Inn and found it abandoned (and in a hurry; Gaknar was able to loot several high-end drinks for his waterskin), then continued north toward the Oakroot Inn where Skamos was hiding (they assumed that Tintrim had sent the monster after Skamos). When they neared the North Wall, they saw about a hundred archers shooting down at the outside, and an occasional loud bang against the stone. They quickly slipped into the Inn, finding Skamos frantically trying to get things together from the trapdoor. He fled toward the South Gate, with the party in pursuit.

Once outside the city wall (though still on the island), Skamos turned left toward the eastern wall. Their way was blocked by a congregation of guards. Skamos' annoyance quickly turned to terror as he saw several guards go flying through the air from around the bend. The Tiefling's face turned white, and he fled to the ferries. Alaric, Gaknar, and Annie followed him, along with several of the guards. Garret wanted to try an experiment; he would stand still against the wall and see if the monster would ignore him. Soon the monster came into view; it was an amalgamation of several different creatures stitched together. It's head looked small, as it was from a medium humanoid (Human? Elf? Half Elf?), and it had a cannon attached to one of its arms (though it didn't replace a functional hand). As it passed, it struck Garret, sending him flying ~15 feet into the lake (and Garret has a reason for hating water; low athletics combined with chainmail and a shield). He managed to swim slowly forward, bloodied, until his feet scraped the mucky lake bottom.

Meanwhile, Skamos and the rest of the party made their way into the crowd (violently), and were relieved to find that the monster headed straight into the city via the South Gate. It would be several ferry trips before they could make it off the island though, so Skamos ran back the way he came, explaining that Kaeleth was preparing a private boat for him on the eastern side of the island. They weaved through all of the dead bodies to find Kaeleth dead, but the boat minimally damaged. Skamos, Gaknar, and Alaric set about repairing it while Annie coaxed the sodden Garret up. Skamos launched the boat before they caught up, and a rope was thrown to them (the boat was too small for everyone anyways, so Annie and Garret were stuck clinging to the back of it after pulling themselves along the rope). Annie kicked to help them move faster, but Garret clung in terror, about to pass out. When they reached the far shore of the lake, Skamos ran into the woods. The party followed slowly behind and made camp, deciding to head to Marblemount instead of following Skamos.


The next day the party traveled back to the main road, witnessing the destruction that the Volksair monster had left in its wake. Hundreds of people were camped out in the farmland surrounding the lake, and there was a sickeningly large pile of bodies at the docks on the island - those that didn't make it to the ferry by the time the monster came back out. The journey to Marblemount took 11 days (on foot), and the party was able to stock up on basic supplies (food, rope, arrows) in small villages along the way.

Being a town that sits on a mountain pass, the guards of Marblemount (a heavily fortified city) allowed the party to pass no questions asked (apparently it wasn't out of the ordinary for all races, including Goblins, to travel through the city, as it was the only way over the mountains for miles). They asked about Baern, the Dwarf that Tintrim had planned on sending the bounty hunter Orsir after when he refused to help the Wizard. They learned that he was a very well-respected sage that resided in his own fortress (which has been in his Clan for generations). They sought an audience with him, and learned that Tintrim wanted Baern to allow him passage through the city with a steady supply of slaves. This was the proposal that Baern had refused, and the reason why Tintrim was going to send Orsir after him. Shortly after this occurred, people started disappearing in Marblemount and the crime rate decreased sharply. Baern told the party that if the crime rate goes down that much, then the Shadow Vipers (the most powerful thieve's guild in the city) were busy with something other than crime. Baern suspects that they're working for Tintrim.

Garret also asked Baern about the crystal that Annie had recovered from the Arkosian sword near the Grimslade ruins. He referred them to Brocc, a Gnome expert on magical crystals. Brocc lived in the Dwarven mining city of Forgehome, in the Underdark. So the party split up, with Alaric finding Underdark maps, Garret selling party loot, Annie securing a room at an inn, and Gaknar disappearing on "business," which he simply told the party was "secret" when they questioned him later that night (after a few drinks). The next morning he bought the entire party the best breakfast that the inn offerred, as this "business" had apparently earned him some coin. The party is suspicious of the "shady" behavior that Gaknar is exhibiting, despite the fact that he's saved their lives on multiple occasions.

The party was ambushed on their way out of the city by a group of debt collectors seeking Garret, who owes quite a bit of money to a man named Aaron Finch. When all but the leader (a mage) were dispatched, he fell to his knees and surrendered. Alaric knocked him out and Garret left a note on him, saying that if Finch wants his money he'll have to come get it himself. They looted the mage and headed out of the city. After following a path for about a mile, they entered into a cavern that led deep underground.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Martial Power 2 Preview: Combat Styles

Today WotC previewed Combat Styles from the upcoming Martial Power 2. And there seems to be a lot of them! Lesser styles are feats that can be taken to modify at-will attacks (those listed for the feat), whereas greater styles affect encounter powers (again, only those listed). Styles only work while wielding a certain weapon, and they're also limited by class. It looks like there will be multiple greater style feats for each lesser style (likely to provide fewer restrictions on encounter power selection).

Overall, I really like this system. It serves to differentiate between weapons more (since the feats are weapon-exclusive), but since there's multiple styles per weapon it also allows you to make a unique character for any given weapon. What I like most about it is that it could provide some inspiration for backstory, as certain combat styles might be common only among a specific race or for a specific region. And despite being an extra "complication" for new players (in that it's an extra mechanic), it serves to guide players along a certain theme. If a newbie reads a description of a specific style and finds it interesting enough to base their character's fighting style off of that, then they conveniently have a list of powers specified in the feat(s) that are compatible. Those players intimidated by the thought of searching through 3 different books (PHB, MP, MP2) every time they level up just to pick the "best" power can rest easy; even sub-optimal powers will be more competitive with the bonus associated with a given combat style feat.

I'm actually pretty surprised that the developers have been able to keep the content for this book fresh and interesting. Of course the biggest variable that remains to be seen are the powers; there's already been some redundancy creeping into the system with just the first iteration of "Power" books, and I'm sure the authors were hard-pressed to come up with so many "new" things for a given class to do. Obviously the powers that are associated with the new builds will be unique (though they may resemble powers from other classes, which is fine by me). My concern is that the amount of redundant powers will be increased, and in that situation there's always one power that's "better" than similar powers, invalidating certain options. The classic example of this is the Barbarian's level 3 encounter powers Hammer Fall (PHB2) and Brutal Slam (PP). Brutal Slam is so much better than Hammer Fall it's sick; both do the same [W] damage, but whereas Hammer Fall knocks the target prone, Brutal Slam pushes it 2 squares, knocks it prone, and deals damage to an enemy adjacent to the target. Essentially, instead of tripping the guy you send him sailing through the air and he crashes into his friend. Brutal Slam has cooler imagery and it's mechanically superior. Hammer Fall, which used to be a decent pick, is not going to be picked anymore by players that have Primal Power. In effect, you've "de-valued" your PHB2 by picking up PP because certain powers become wasted space.

I'm not saying this is a huge problem; obviously with so many different powers to choose from some are bound to be great and some are bound to be sucky. What bugs me is that sometimes sub-par powers can be a viable choice if they adhere to a specific mechanical and/or roleplaying concept, but not if there's a better power that does essentially the same thing. It's probably not a big enough deal to worry about in the first set of Power books; I just hope that it doesn't become more widespread in the sequels.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


I've seen a few different reviews online that praise the new Underdark supplement, and so today I picked it up at Borders. From what I've heard, many people consider it to be the best DMing supplement released so far (at least out of the bunch that aren't DMGs). So far I've only gotten through the first chapter, but I've also skimmed through most of the book.

Anyways, I'm not going to post a comprehensive review, a) because I'm not that far in, and b) because it would be easier to provide a link for an existing review (the one that inspired me to buy the book, in fact). No need to reinvent the wheel. Essentially what this posts amounts to is another recommendation of the book. It's well-organized, and the ratio of inspirational fluff to the nature/origins of the Underdark to actual locations and monsters seems to be pretty spot-on. I'm sure that many people might prefer more "crunch," but I have enough monster stat blocks on the DnDi Monster Builder! So while new monsters are always nice to have, I appreciate that the section was relatively short. Also appreciated is a list of monsters from other products, organized by which areas of the Underdark they are most likely to be encountered. Sweet! It's helpful, going straight to the point without taking up much space.

The prose is fairly engaging, especially considering that the style of most D&D books tends to cause my mind to wander. At first I figured that the origin story and history of Torog would be a section that I'd struggle to maintain interest in as I tried to breeze through it as fast as possible, but it was actually one of the more interesting reads in any D&D book. Torog may be one ugly mofo (he's pictured toward the back of the book - not for the faint of heart), but his characterization is just downright intriguing. A lot of it comes from the complex relationship that he has with other beings, given that he's an evil god. During the Dawn War, all of the gods (good and evil) were fighting together against the Primordials. Torog got royally screwed over by his Primordial nemesis, who cursed him just before Torog finished him off. Essentially, Torog's wounds never heal and he can't leave the underdark. His throes of pain carved out some of the widest passages, which are now known as the King's Road and still contain splatters of the god's blood. Essentially, the rest of the gods abandoned him down there, though because of the curse he can't get back to the Astral Sea anyways (his power quickly diminishes upon leaving the Underdark). The perks of this arrangement are that he is the only god that has a direct influence on the world; the rest are forbidden to meddle in the affairs of mortals by the Primal Spirits who expelled both the gods and the primordials from the world toward the end of the Dawn War, so that the very world that they were fighting over wasn't destroyed in the conflict. Of course in the deepest parts of the Deeps there are rifts to the Far Realm, and so Torog is also a kind of guardian of the world, keeping abominations from the Far Realm at bay. Talk about a case study in contradictions! His relationship with Lolth and the Drow, who also share dominion of the Underdark with him, is complex but somewhat wrapped in mystery (followers of each god have their own "version" of things). And to top it all off, he has somewhat of a death wish, and who wouldn't given an immortal life of endless torment?

If only more of the gods were given such vibrant personalities then perhaps I would show more interest in the D&D pantheon.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dark Sun Preview Characters

This year's campaign setting is Dark Sun, and has posted up the sample characters (from DnD Experience, I believe). Now I've never really followed Dark Sun, but I've got to admit that after this it's piqued my interest more than the 4e incarnations of Forgotten Realms or Eberron have. It seems that Dark Sun won't offer any new classes, but it does introduce the Sorcer-King Pact Warlock (setting-specific fluff) and the Animist Shaman.

On top of this, players also get to choose a "theme" for their characters, which is basically just a way of further individualizing them. The themes from the previews are Gladiator (the Fighter and Barbarian), Veiled Alliance (Wizard), Templar (Warlock), Wilder (Battlemind), and Elemental Priest (Shaman). As far as I can tell the only benefit of a theme is that it grants an encounter power, which, don't get me wrong, is a great benefit! Gives 1st level characters an additional option. What I like most about these themes is that allows for greater specialization. For example, going with just the PHB you can make a one handed or two handed weapon Fighter. Martial Power introduced Tempest Fighter and Battlerager (which are more distinct fighting styles than simply weapon choice), Martial Power 2 is adding even more craziness (the Brawler Build is what we know of), and now you can add a theme too (well, not exactly "now," as Dark Sun won't be released until August). So a Fighter that started out as just a 2 Handed Weapon Talent Fighter may have been updated as a Battlerager after MP2 because it fit the player's concept better, and now that Battlerager could even pick up a theme (Gladiator, for example). Essentially, I like how it makes the character "imagination" process a bit more immersive.

Dark Sun also introduces 2 new races, the Thri-Kreen (essentially big Psionnic Mantids) and the Mul (Half-Dwarves). The Thri-Kreen is another Dex/Wis race, which apparently even has a speed 7, making it very similar to the Elf. Instead of sleeping, it goes into a Torpor (mechanically, this is like an Eladrin or a Drow's Trance), and once per turn it can draw or sheathe an item/weapon as a free action (multiple arms). The Racial Power is a Melee 1 attack that targets 1, 2, or 3 creatures for damage (the Thri-Kreen essentially mauls the hell out of everyone with its claws). Definitely a solid race (it helps that Dex/Wis are useful stat bumps), but the Elf is still the king of the Dex/Wis races; Wild Step and Elven Accuracy are just too darn impressive to be overshadowed by a racial Quick Draw and a melee attack racial power.

It's not really clear how the Mul works, as it doesn't have a racial encounter power. A Twitter message hints that they have some sort of resistance/save bonus against status effects though. Also, they do get flexible stat bumps: Con and either Str or Wis. They possibly get a bonus healing surge (though these preview characters are notorious for having typos), and they have an ability called Tireless, which basically means that they only have to sleep every 72 hours (they still benefit from extended rests that the party takes, but it basically means that they can stay up all night 2 out of every 3 nights on watch).

Interesting stuff! The only other detail that caught my eye was a new Shaman At-Will, Spirit Infusion. Fluff-wise, your Spirit Companion (SC) possesses an ally and attacks through their body. Mechanically, your SC disappears and the target (ally) with a +2 bonus to the attack roll! Plus with your SC disappearing as part of your standard action, and calling it back is a free action with Sudden Call, re-positioning the SC will be easier than ever! Overall an excellent "grant a friend a free attack" at-will, with by far the best fluff of the bunch!

Other recent news, the 4th PHB3 race has been leaked, and it's called the Shardmind. Pretty much crystalline humanoids. Uhhh, kinda lame but whatever. The 6th class has also been leaked (as well as the mechanics for the Battlemind, which I'm not impressed with): it's a Divine leader called the Runepriest. Seems different enough from the Cleric too! It's a melee leader that can switch between different "Rune States," the two known being "destruction" and "protection." Essentially, depending on which Rune State you're in, your powers will provide either an offensive or a defensive buff. So instead of choosing between offensive and defensive powers, you get both with every power you choose (and it sounds like you can switch Rune States each time you use a power). So a melee leader with a strong focus on buffing, and great flexibility between offensive and defensive buffs. What do you know, it fills it's own niche! Sounds much more fun than a Cleric too, IMO (the flavor just screams Dwarf to me). I'll bet it's not a very good healer, but that's what Clerics are for!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Math Problem for NADs

It's no secret that the math behind 4e's non-AC defenses (or NADs, as they're commonly referred) is a little wonky. There's a great post on the blog Square Fireballs that describes the problem. Of course, without a solution, discussion of the problem (while interesting from a theoretical point of view) is meaningless for all practical purposes. Hence, here is the proposed fix from Square Fireballs. Seeing as masterwork armor was already a math fix for AC, a system for masterwork neck items isn't too far-fetched. Instead of conceptualizing it as an item with better craftsmanship (as is presumably the case with MW armor), it makes more sense to envision it as an intrinsically different type of enchantment. Or, alternatively, perhaps you could fluff it as a sort of "lucky charm," the magic of which is separate (but stacks with) the enhancement bonus of the enchantment. Depending on the character concept, divine protection and/or protection of the Primal Spirits might make more sense than "luck."

In any case, I plan on incorporating this house rule into my Talamhlar campaign. And seeing as this is the first deviation from RAW that I've taken for Talamhlar, I might as well add another houserule to fix a feat tax that's always bothered me: Weapon/Implement/Focused Expertise.

So, to recap, here are the new Talamhlar House Rules:

  1. NAD fix (see post above), which includes masterwork neck slot items, lucky badges, and the banning of certain NAD boosting feats (the "tax" ones).
  2. Addition of an "Expertise bonus, which is an intrinsic bonus to attacks that functions as if you have Implement/Weapon/Focused Expertise as a bonus feat. Except that it's not tied to a specific weapon type (want to use an axe and a sword? The bonus works for both! By RAW, you'd have to take both weapon expertise heavy blades, and weapon expertise axes). And so you don't have to look up the feat yourself, the bonus is +1 which you recieve at level 5, it increases to +2 at level 15, and it becomes +3 at level 25.
So players in my Talamhlar campaign can rejoice, as they no longer have to worry about certain "must-have" feats and can instead focus on more flavorful options that help differentiate their characters!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Druid CharOp Guide

So I'm finally writing my own Optimization guide for Druids on the WotC forums: Master of Forms, Storms, and Swarms: A Druid Handbook. So far this has been even more time consuming than my Controlling 101 guide, so it's still not finished yet.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thoughts on Weapon Damage Dice

In a blog post on Fighting Fantasist, the logic behind all weapons doing 1D6 damage in OD&D is argued. I read this post a couple of days ago without thinking about it much, other than "huh, that's an interesting perspective." Today I found a post offering a rebuttal on the blog Elves Ate My Homework.

Obviously combat in tabletop RPGs is an abstraction, and these two different systems are merely different approaches to simulate the same thing. Both are imperfect, yet from a simulationist point of view it's difficult to argue for one vs. the other.

Consider the typical D&D combat with a diverse party of 4 or 5 player characters fighting an approximately equal number of monsters. It's easy to see how the 1D6 for all weapons is an oversimplification here, for the exact reason stated in the rebuttal blog: the Rogue is at a severe disadvantage using a dagger when fighting toe to toe with an orc wielding a bastard sword. Because of the significantly shorter reach, the Rogue is unlikely to be able to get close enough to deal an injurious blow to the orc. The fact that a round represents not just a single attack, but a span of 6 seconds (with the attack roll summarizing your overall success during that time span) means that using the OD&D rules, the Rogue would be able to deal just as much damage as the Orc. Truth be told, I simply don't buy this. Later editions of D&D (including 4th) in which the dagger deals 1D4 and the bastard sword 1D10 seems to approximate a better "average" for how well each combatant does.

Obviously a balancing factor for the Rogue who uses a dagger is going to be sneak attack. Extra damage is applied (and only when using a light blade, in 4th edition) when the Rogue has combat advantage (or is flanking, as is the case in 3.x edition before the term "combat advantage" was succinctly defined) because the enemy is distracted. The "all weapons are equally as lethal" argument in the Fighting Fantasist post is represented in a much different way; namely the sneak attack system shows that when the enemy is distracted, a Rogue can deal massive amounts of damage with an "inferior" weapon such as a dagger. It's clearly not inferior because of it's damage potential; a dagger can easily pierce a vital organ. It's inferior because of it's length, which is made moot if the enemy is worried about something else.

This brings up another important question though: why can't all characters deal "sneak attack" damage, and why can't they use bigger weapons to do so? After all, it represents taking advantage of an opening in the opponent's defenses. I'd buy the argument that an axe is too slow and unwieldy to capitalize on a short opening, but what about a bastard sword which can be thrust forward like a rapier? Is thrusting with a dagger really that much faster than thrusting with a full sized sword? The argument could actually be made that it's slower, as normally a dagger wielder wants to be outside of his opponent's weapon's reach, and to take advantage of a hole in their defense requires stepping forward and then thrusting. A bastard sword wielded against another sword user wouldn't require the forward lunge to be quickly thrust at the weak point. Clearly this system isn't an accurate representation of reality either.

Consider further the issue of "surprise attacks." You ambush someone in an ally who isn't ready for you, for example. Assuming they're unarmed and possibly unarmored, a solid blow in a vital area from any type of deadly weapon is going to be lethal. This is consistent with the Fighting Fantasist argument for all 1D6 weapons. But what about a blow that's not so expertly landed? Say, the opponent dodges at the last second and you end up hitting the shoulder. A dagger might hurt like a bitch, but an axe will likely take off the arm.

I guess the point is that there are too many variables in real life to sum up when and if a given weapon is going to have an advantage. The more accurately simulationist a game strives to be, the more it gets bogged down by complicated rules that constantly need to be looked up. After all, you'd also have to factor in what types of armor the opponent wears, and will that give certain weapons an advantage? Halberds are designed to pierce heavy armor, thus this weapon should be nearly as lethal to heavy armor wearers as opponents in light or no armor (in comparison to other types of weapons, of course). Conversely, an axe's lethality would be severely hampered by heavy armor. It's not accurate to target weak points, and the edge that's designed to cut will have little effect on steel (turning the axe into an inefficient bludgeoning weapon, essentially). Could you imagine how infinitely complicated a game would be if it strove to keep track of these differences in not only armor and weapons, but all of the combinations of weapon types vs armor types?

In the end, both systems (fixed die and variable weapon die) are situationally appropriate, and both suffice to summarize combat as an abstraction rather than as a simulation. One thing that I disliked about 3.x edition was that it strove for a relatively high degree of simulationism, but is still at its core an abstract system. I've never played an edition of D&D earlier than 3rd, but from what I understand 4e streamlined D&D such that it resembles earlier editions more than 3rd edition. Both 4e and OD&D openly acknowledge that they're not simulationist, yet partially through historical accident 4e retains the variable weapon die system. I think I like that best. It provides diversity and does well to make weapon choices meaningful, but at the same time it doesn't overly complicate things (a given PC is probably going to use one or two different weapons). One unfortunate side effect of this (which is absent in OD&D's single weapon die system) is that certain weapon choices are obviously sub-par. Character concepts designed around a certain weapon because that weapon "cool" may be penalized in a variable die system, whereas in a single die system all concepts are equally as viable as any other.

Elf Optimization Guide

So a while back people started making racial optimization guides on the WotC forums. Since 4e places so much emphasis on your role, class seems like the logical starting point when first coming up with a character idea. However, some people are attached to certain races, and prefer building their concept up from their. They care less about what their character will do mechanically, as long as the overall roleplaying concept is cool. They'll adapt to whatever works best in combat.

I waited, but an Elf guide never showed up. So I decided to make one myself, but unfortunately it was shortly before the big overhaul of the forums so the formatting ended up being royally screwed up. A few weeks ago I started fixing the formatting, and the guide is mostly ok now. So if you're interested, check out Estranged Fey: An Elf Handbook.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Talamhlar - Session 4

Cast of Characters

Garret Kahneus - Half Elf Valorous Bard
Alaric Rose - Elf Archer Ranger (player has enchanted dice that rolls a disproportionately high amount of crits)
Gaerbin Drake - Dragonborn Balanced Paladin
Gaknar - Goblin companion character (striker)
Annie Ramsey - companion character (defender)

Note: The player of the late Urogoth was supposed to show up with a new Wizard PC, but never did. I'll probably refrain from scheduling D&D at 9 am in the future.

Grimslade Ruins - Further Investigation

Last session ended with the party defeating a group of zombies and wights in the basement of an old temple. Stairs led up out of that room, and into a mostly destroyed room at the rear of the temple that contained only a teleportation circle (which Garret copied down for when he gets the Linked Portal ritual). They then decided to explore the other room in the temple (the path to the left from where they first fell into the basement). They found some loot, and noted that the religious art included older depictions of the old god of the dead, Nerull (thus indicating that this temple was at least a few centuries old), as well as newer (but still likely a century or more old) depictions of various evil gods + the Raven Queen. It would appear that even when Grimslade was a thriving community, there were some who secretly worshipped darker gods beneath the temple (the main floor of which depicted the majority of the default Points of Light good/unaligned pantheon).

The party decided that the next course of action would be to deal with the orcs--by unleashing the horde of zombies upon them. Unfortunately, the first snag in this plan occurred when they discovered that the zombies shun sunlight (they broke through the temple door when lured by the party, but wouldn't go outside). The PCs left the courtyard, hidden in the forest vegetation and waiting for nightfall. Because the temple was on the eastern edge of the courtyard, it recieved the last rays of the setting sun. The nocturnal orcs came out to investigate in the evening twilight, and soon found evidence of the party's tracks. As they made their way into the forest to look for them, the zombies emerged from the temple as the sun finally disappeared below the horizon. The orcs fled back into their stronghold (and old guard house), and as the zombies wandered around the courtyard those that came too close were shot at with arrows from the windows and arrow slits. The zombies gradually dissippated into the surrounding forest, though they suffered many casualties as groups of them came too close to the orcs. By midnight the zombies were gone, and the party decided to rest in the forest, keeping 2 watches for each shift. Around 1 am, a group of orcs which were fanned out, searching the forest came upon the party. They were dispatched (2 were killed in one hit when Alaric rolled a critical using Split the Tree, dealing a total of 98 damage to 2 targets in one round), and the PCs decided that it would be best to take over the stronghold while the orcs were "away." They were met with some resistance after barging through the entrance (of which the door was cracked open), but as the last orc stood against the party he shouted for reinforcements (in Giant, which none of the PCs speak). The orc chieftan then sprung an ambush with two orc berserkers and a dire wolf. This was modeled after the final encounter of the level 3 delve in Dungeon Delve, meaning that the chieftan was a level 8 elite brute. Yikes! Most of the fight took place in a bottleneck, with Gaerbin and Annie holding the line below a set of stairs. Still, things were looking bad and the party decided to flee when the wolf (who was blocking the hall that they could escape from) was killed. Due to some unlucky rolls, the wolf took 2 additional rounds to take down. Fortunately, the berserkers and chieftan suffered from a series of low rolls as well, otherwise Gaerbin would have been killed. After some impressive shots from Alaric the tide was turned, and the Chieftan tried to flee (Garret stopped this with Storm Pillar, his Dilettante power). Gaknar ended up dealing the killing blow to this formidable foe. An impressive haul of loot was gained, including a valuable (but non-magical) ring that Alaric insisted be his (for backstory reasons unknown to the other PCs).

The party fortified themselves inside the stronghold for the night. When morning came they investigated the temple one last time (to thoroughly search the room that the zombies had all come from), and when they emerged in the courtyard they saw a group of Lizardfold standing just inside the forest canopy (5 greenscales and 2 blackscales, all from the Blackmarsh Tribe). Gaerbin hailed them in Draconic, and learned that they wanted to discuss the events of last night. They were upset about the horde of zombies roaming their territory, but pleased that the party had taken out the orcs. Still, to prevent further disruptions in their territory they insisted that they escort the party out. The party inquired how they could obtain permission to cross the Lizardfolk territory in the future, and one of the Greenscales gave them a medallion. If they wore that, any Blackmarsh hunters that saw them would approach them without hostilities, and they could request permission at that point. The Lizardfolk led the PCs to an old road, and were told to follow it until they reached the river. The road disappeared, but if they followed the river they were sure to find settlements eventually. They left the PCs at the edge of their territory.

Ancient City of Darhadash

About a half mile after parting from the Lizardfold the party spotted an orc in the road holding an ornate looking Arkhosian sword. Gaerbin is a Chosen of Bahamut, and is on a quest to find the rightful heir of the Arkhosian Empire. Bahamut wants Arkhosia restored to its former glory, before its destruction at the hands of the Turathi and their demon allies. Gaerbin unsummoned his armor to better chase the orc, who fled instantly. After rounding a bend in the road with the party (buffed by Traveler's Chant) rapidly gaining, the orc reached the river. He got into a canoe and tried to quickly sabatoge the raft that was laying nearby. I used the skill challenge "The Rushing River" straight from the DMG2, though I changed the Guardians from Guardians of Nerath to Guardians of Arkhosia. I've always liked the set-up of this skill challenge; it has a good diversity of skills, and the different stages made it very easy to run (and provided and obvious way to hint at which skills would be required next). The first thing that the party did was have Gaknar repair the raft using Thievery and Gaerbin's rope (as much as the party complains about Gaknar, his skills are often useful). During the rapids in the canyon Garret nearly fell off the raft twice, the second time being after the river spirits were calmed and the DCs lowered. He already had a fear of water, and now he'll likely never set foot on a watercraft again.

After plunging underground, the river wound its way through a series of tunnels until it emptied into a large, calm pool. The canoe could be seen on the other side of the pool, and the party rowed toward it as fast as they could. They followed a tunnel into a large, open cavern with a sheer faced wall (of worked stone, definitely not natural). The orc was looking around for something, but Alaric shot at him while Gaerbin charged him. The two knocked him unconscious (Gaerbin planned on questioning him) before Annie and Garret arrived. Alaric searched where the orc had been searching and discovered a square depression in the stone that contained a lever. The lever caused a large portion of the wall to slide open, revealing an ancient city. The sword, confirmed to be Arkhosian in origin, contained a Fenorian crystal where a Dragonshard would normally be attached (in Talamhlar, the Arkhosian Dragonshards were literally fragments of dragon bone carved into a specific shape, which the Fenorian crystal was designed to mimic). The blade was also engraved, in Draconic, with the words "If you hope to discover/where the king can be found/then seek the river/of the thundering sound." Based on the grammar of the Draconic language, it was obvious that the word "sound" was a pun, referring both to "noise" as well as a body of water.

The party entered the city, first looking for a source of light (Garret detected residual magic that was likely used to light the city when it was occupied, but it had long since been tapped out). The party split up into two groups (though they stayed within voice range): Garret, Annie, and Gaknar and Alaric and Gaerbin. Based on their exploration of the city (and their historical knowledge), Garret and Gaerbin determined that this was the ancient city of Darhadash, a legendary location in Arkhosian Lore. The legend goes that when Bahamut first created the Dragonborn race, 5 patriarchs were sent out to find a land worthy of their empire (the Legend of the Five). One of the Five, Arjhan, founded Darhadash (which was not chosen by the Dragonborn people to be the land of their empire). A statue depicting Arjhan in the town square confirmed this. It could also be inferred that the city had not been settled for very long, as all of the art depicts events that occurred very early in Dragonborn history. Likely, after the "official" Arkhosia was chosen the Dragonborn probably abandoned Darhadash to migrate there.

As the party moved deeper into the city, they eventually came to an area where they heard a deep, throaty growl coming from between two buildings. They moved into advantageous positions and prepared for a combat, only to find that their positions were meaningless; a young red dragon flew out from the alley and blasted everyone but Alaric (who had cover behind an old fountain) with his fiery breath. He stayed in the air, just out of melee reach for Gaerbin and Annie. The party lured him into a partially collapsed building, staying under the roof so that the dragon couldn't fly. A difficult fight ensued (the defenses of red dragons are insane!), but eventually the party got the dragon down to about 60 HP, at which point it fled the confined area (provoking some OAs) and then used its second action point to fly off into a tunnel behind the city. This brought the PCs up to 4th level, and we ended the session here.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Talamhlar - Session 3

Cast of Characters

Garret Kahneus - Half Elf Valorous Bard
Alaric Rose - Elf Archer Ranger
Urogoth - Half-Orc Bleak Disciple Assassin (deceased)
Gaerbin Drake - Dragonborn Balanced Paladin
Gaknar - Goblin companion character (striker)
Annie Ramsey - Garret's childhood friend, companion character (defender)

On the Road Again

Last session ended with the PCs questioning Skamos, and then retiring to their rooms at the Oakroot Inn. At the beginning of this session the players woke up to the sound of arguing coming from downstairs. When they went down to investigate, they found Skamos arguing with Orsir about a bounty on another captive from Lyria Castle (Gaerbin Drake). Orsir had gone back to investigate (whether by breaking through the tar on the doors or entering through a secret entrance the PCs know not--they didn't ask), and found a recently awoken Gaerbin wandering about. Skamos insisted that he'd severed all ties with the Order, and that he wouldn't pay Orsir for Gaerbin's release. Garret had been aquainted with the Dragonborn in Helmund, and so they party paid for his release (using the gemstones in the party loot that Martok had found).

Since Garret's map of the surrounding area didn't include the Grimslade ruins, the party asked around and eventually learned that an archaeological expedition had occurred 6 or 7 years ago, and that one of the archaeologists, a Dwarf named Norvi Grimmordaen, still resided in Argondale. They sought him out and he agreed to be their guide. He insisted that they visit the Cave of Good Fortune a few miles north of the West Gate, and an eel spirit from a pool in the cave upgraded 1 magic item for each PC (though Gaknar was deemed "unworthy" by the spirit, Norvi obtained a magical archaeologist's pick that would allow him to dig faster).

As the party headed north the woods grew denser and the elevation steadily decreased. The terrain became more and more marshy. In the morning of their third day on the road the party came across a giant spiderweb blocking the remnants of the road (which was, at this point, a strip of land elevated about 4 inches above the surrounding wetland). Three large deathjump spiders jumped from the surrounding canopy, attacking the party with a surprise round. Two spider swarms (a custom creation of mine) also emerged from the webs during the surprise round. The Deathjump spiders won initiative by quite a bit, so they attacked first and then used their 10 square shift power to jump away back into hiding. This ended up being an extremely tough fight for the party, as Gaerbin was unable to lock down the spiders and the party was ill-equipped to deal with swarms (aside from a few AoE's that Garret has). Urogoth and Alaric both ended up dying, though Alaric was raised with a Raise Dead scroll that the party had found in Lyria Castle (I'd given them this because I knew they'd have a tough time without a defender; ironic how 2 players died in the first encounter with a defender). The player of Urogoth decided to roll up a Wizard because the party was definitely feeling the lack of a controller (he had to leave early though, so the Wizard hasn't seen play yet. I'm wondering if I'm going to regret pointing out Winged Horde and Enlarge Spell to him...). Urogoth was buried in the swamp and his gold and any useful gear were taken. Though Urogoth was consistently outdamaged by Alaric, I'm going to miss the assassin antics of teleporting at-will, etc.

The party had to fight their way through 2 more encounters as they made it through the swamp. The first was a fairly easy respite against a Vicejaw croc and 3 Bullywugs (the Bard's various slide abilities made the croc's grab completely useless). The second encounter was difficult in a very frustrating way. It was against three bullywugs and two (de-leveled) Vine Horrors. Yeah, the Vine Horrors have a close burst 5 attack that restrains and deals 10 ongoing damage (save ends both), and it's at-will. Most of the party spent most of the battle completely locked down (Gaerbin didn't get to use a single attack, though Alaric has amazing luck with foiling DM dice, as I tend to roll a disproportionate amount of very low numbers when attacking him). Yeah, I think I'll avoid encounters like that in the future because it really wasn't all that fun, especially for Gaerbin and Garret. Also, Norvi the Dwarf was killed. After the encounter the party decided to sit put (there were ruins of an old house nearby) so Garret could master the Comprehend Languages ritual before they took an extended rest. Norvi's journal detailing the route that the expedition had taken last time was written in Dwarven, which nobody in the party could read.

The Grimslade Ruins

After another day of navigating the swamp using Norvi's journal as their only guide, they eventually made it to drier ground. They camped, and reached the Grimslade ruins by late morning. They saw the castle, which was mostly crumbled down, though there was a tunnel leading underneath it that was apparently dug by the archaeological expedition years ago. There was also an old guardhouse with bones, weapons, etc. lying outside and graffiti depicting the Eye of Gruumsh all over the walls. Seemed like Orcs had taken up residence here. There were a few other small ruined buildings, as well as a temple that was in fairly decent condition. The party decided to go into the tunnel first. It led to a door that was warded with magical energy (I used the skill challenge Opening the Ninth Ward straight from the DMG2 here). I found it very difficult to describe successes achieved through Arcana, especially since 4 were used to break down the warding magic. Oddly, I found it easier to make the successes via History believable as I just said that the character recalls a short incantation that they read about, and each success used a different incantation. Perception checks I described as the character (Alaric, in all cases) noticing blocks near the door that could be slid, clicking into place. In any case, the door was opened and the characters continued onward, down a set of stairs (lighting a sunrod for a light source). They ended up in a large room, and those with low light vision could percieve a tall man standing next to a unicorn just outside the radius of the sunrod. While they were nervously greeting him, he stated that he was hungry and stabbed the unicorn in the neck with a dagger. Blood poured from the dagger, which was hollow, into a cup that was in the man's other hand. Once filled, he removed the dagger and the unicorn instantly healed the wound. Garret noticed fangs, and the characters all realized that he was a vampire. Alaric quickly glanced around the room, seeing only a pedestal in one corner with a broken urn on it. The party learned that the vampire was none other than Aston Grimslade, and that the urn had contained the essence of Vistun Selfeer, now a lich whose phylactery was never located by Aston. Aston was stationed in this room to guard the urn. Obviously, someone else had found the phylactery and used it to free Vistun (naturally, the party immediately suspected Tintrim, the leader of the Order who Orsir is quite certain was not killed in Lyria Castle). Extremely nervous, the PCs decided to bid the vampire farewell and leave the premises without questioning him further.

Next they decided to inspect the temple. They entered into a hallway, which ended with a door on the left and a door on the right. The left door led them into a room with double stacked sarcophogi lining the walls, and an altar at the far end. After investigating the altar (which had components related to necromancy on it), the party turned back but someone (probably Alaric) noticed a faint shimmer in the air which stretched across the room like a wall or a curtain. Garret recognized that it was some sort of arcane "trip wire," and Gaerbin sent Gaknar over to see if he could disarm it. After failing, Gaknar walked through it and awoken zombies in each of the sarcophogi (there were dozens). The PCs ran to the door, Gaknar jammed the lock, and Gaerbin tried to hold it against the assault. The rest of the party entered the next room, which simply had a few religious relics as well as a hole in the floor. After checking the hole, Garret recognized Annie, unconscious on the floor of the room 30 feet below. Meanwhile, the zombies had nearly shattered through the door. Gaerbin moved into the next room, yielding the hall (their only known escape route) to the zombies and barricading the second door from the inside (once again, Gaknar jammed the lock). The others tied a rope to one of the pillars and headed down into the hole. As the zombies started breaking through the second door, Gaerbin joined them. The zombies stopped at the edge of the hole, likely too stupid to know how to pursue them.

Garret revived Annie, who was a little disoriented. After some brief talk in which Annie asked the party if Aston had any crystals, they decided to continue onward (the room they were in had a door on the left and one on the right; since left had failed them last time, they went right). They found themselves in a room with a staircase leading up on the opposite side, and with pillars, rubble, and a large statue in the center of the room (which high Religion checks from Garret and Gaerbin revealed to be a statue depicting Nerull, a dead god who had ironically been god of the dead before the Raven Queen, over 2 centuries ago). The room also contained 4 zombies, 2 wights, and a deathlock wight (caster).

The session ended after this relatively easy fight. About halfway through the session, the players reached level 3 (it was one of the swamp encounters that did it). I'm pleased with the pacing so far, as I generally prefer characters to level each session (as both a player and a DM). Note that our sessions usually last about 8 hours, though experience gain might still be a bit faster than in an average game (part of this is because I usually run a lot of difficult encounters).

Monday, January 4, 2010

Talamhlar - Session 2

Just as a reminder, I'll list the PCs at the top of every session summary. Martok, the Goliath Barbarian, was not present for this session, leaving:

Garret Kahneus - Half Elf Valorous Bard
Alaric Rose - Elf Archer Ranger
Urogoth - Half Orc Bleak Disciple Assassin
Gaknar - Goblin companion character who allied with the PCs in Lyria Castle

The plot thickens. Whereas session 1 was essentially a dungeon crawl through Lyria Castle--full of fairly difficult encounters--session 2 took the clues planted throughout the dungeon and developed them into cohesive events that the PCs had a direct part in.

Escape from Lyria Castle

The session began right where the last session left off; after a tough fight against a group of Warforged near the castle entrance. Unfortunately, the player of Martok (the Goliath Barbarian) has gone back to school and so I employed somewhat corny hand-waving to account for his absence. A flaming bird spirit appeared before him and spoke in some language that the other PCs couldn't understand. Martok turned around, said "I hope you guys can do without me for a little while," and the bird proceeded to fold its wings over the Goliath and they both teleported to parts unknown in a spiral of flame. Yeah, I'll deal with the repercussions of such a theatrical exit later. At least he wasn't "with the party but not fighting," and it's in theme for the character to have close ties with various fire-related Primal Spirits.

Anyways, the room where the party defeated the Warforged was the only entrance to the castle, and there was a closed drawbridge. Unfortunately, the winch to lower it lay unassembled on the ground. There was a large set of doors that had been bashed open by something large, and the party decided to go through these. Two dead mages lay on the floor, which was also littered with broken glass and spilled liquids that were mingling and bubbling. There was a large stone slab bordered by 3 crystals on either side, and heavy duty looking restraints were broken. And most importantly, a cloud of black smoke (think the smoke monster from Lost). The smoke expanded to fill the room, and then flowed into the next room, covering all other doorways with a thick tar-like substance. The players were locked in the room, with their only exit being the drawbridge. I used a modified skill challenge here, with the winch being assembled and the bridge lowered over the course of 10 rounds. A standard action could be used to assemble a piece, but thievery or dungeoneering could do 2 rounds of work in 1 round, while Arcana could be used to ward one character against the smoke, making them invisible to it. Which brings me to the "modified" part. Instead of failures, I had the smoke affect each character in a random way. On a D6 roll, a 1 did nothing, a 2 stunned, a 3 dominated, 4 caused a surge to be lost, 5 caused an AP to be lost (re-roll if none were left), and a 6 was a 1/enc power (re-roll all subsequent times) which caused a Daily power to be lost (Garret lost his in round 1). As far as skill challenges go, I thought this one was interesting and engaging, albeit simple (since the list of skills was small). Alaric didn't really have any relevant skills (which I was worried about), but it turned out that he spent the whole time dominated or stunned anyways.

Once outside, the PCs verified that there were no other obvious entrances to the castle (and the moat filled with bubbly purple liquid made investigating any a suicidal endeavor). After taking the only road away from the castle, Alaric and Urogoth's passive perception allowed them to notice a backpack that had been torn, though it still contained fresh trail rations and a page torn from a diary. The entry was dated March 17 (the day that the PCs were originally kidnapped from Helmund was February 22), and read: "I've had enough of this. Tintrim is going too far. I'm going to leave tonight for Argondale. Hopefully I can find a safehouse there. Perhaps Kaeleth would be willing to reconcile." The name "Skamos" was written across the top of the page, and he is presumably the author.

On the Road

After about 45 minutes of travel, the party spotted a lone figure coming down the road toward the castle. They dove into the underbrush, but Garret and (ironically) Urogoth were both spotted for rolling low on their Stealth checks. The Eladrin addressed Garret when he approached, and asked him to take a message back to his boss that Orsir had arrived. Garret played along, and Orsir followed him to the castle. Urogoth and Alaric followed behind, though Gaknar (the goblin companion character) stayed hidden because he had 0 healing surges left. Once they all got to the castle, they tried to explain to Orsir what had happened after he threatened to turn them back in to the mages for a reward (for returning the escaped captives). Satisfied that they were telling the truth after seeing the tar that the smoke had left on the doors, Orsir left (but not after revealing to the players that he was seeking more details about a job that Tintrim had for him in Marblemount. In the previous session, the PCs had found a letter which explained that Tintrim was thinking of hiring Orsir to "deal with" a Dwarf named Baern, which was presumably the same job). The PCs also learned that the current date was May 16, the closest town was Argondale, and that Baern was in Marblemount.

The next day as the party continued onwards they heard some voices just off the side of the road. They were speaking Goblin, which only Gaknar understood. It was a Hobgoblin raiding party which the PCs decided to sneak up on and kill (Gaknar was ambivalent, but warned them that if they killed every goblinoid they saw in this region that they would run into trouble really fast). Later on a red arrow was shot, landing right in front of Garret and seemingly coming from nowhere. Nothing else happened so the party continued. Further down the road Alaric noticed what looked like pressure plates in the road. This was a spear trap set up by a Hobgoblin ambush party, but since the PCs decided to walk around the trap the Hobgoblins never sprung the ambush. Unbeknownst to the PCs, the Hobgoblins instead sent scouts out to warn a larger force comprised of dozens of soldiers and archers. The party soon found this out though.

The escape from the Hobgoblin warband was another skill challenge, though it didn't really seem as engaging as the first one against the smoke monster. I still haven't run many skill challenges, but I'll get used to them eventually. This one used Athletics as an option to sprint well out of arrow range or Endurance to steadily move just out of arrow range. Alternatively, Stealth could be utilized where cover was present to travel at a normal pace (within arrow range), but hidden under natural cover. This skill challenge was also modified, in that instead of 3 failures I simply had each failure cost the PCs a healing surge (which represented being peppered with arrows from the archers as the PCs were unable to gain enough ground). The PCs were pursued across a series of ridges, and as new terrain was encountered different skills came into play. Nature was utilized in some areas to choose more efficient routes (negotiate a scree slope, take a shortcut through boggy terrain, and locate a fordable section of river), and in rocky areas Thievery was used to set up makeshift deadfall traps that would slow the Hobgoblins down. During the beginning of this skill challenge, the party was rolling poorly and ended up failing a lot of checks. It's telling that by the end of the skill challenge Urogoth was down to only 1 healing surge (when I set up the skill challenge I defined failure as occurring when one character ran out of surges, which would have required the PCs to march through the night, as they had failed to outrun/outmaneuver the Hobgoblins before that). I eventually let Garret use Bluff to lead the pursuing Hobgoblins in the wrong direction (by running the wrong way in a convincing manner, getting to cover, and then doubling back), since he didn't really have any relevant skills and wasn't contributing much. At one point he led some Hobgoblins in the wrong direction, straight into a trap that Urogoth had rigged up. This actually completed the skill challenge, slowing the pursuers down enough to let the party get a safe distance away.

Where the skill challenge ended, a new decision had to be made. The road from the castle (which was largely in disrepair) joined a main road, resulting in a west fork and a northeast fork. The players decided to take the northeast fork (which led to Argondale, whereas the west fork would have taken them to Marblemount). While camping along this road, the party was attacked by a group of Halfling thieves. They got a surprise round, and rolled higher initiative than the PCs in the first round (since all but Alaric, who was on watch, were asleep and thus prone, this resulted in easy CA for enemies that get bonus damage when they have CA). The fight looked pretty bad after that first round, and I was starting to think that at least one PC would die. The fact that each of the opponents had Second Chance, which turned 2 critical hits into misses over the course of the encounter, didn't help either. Eventually, after 2 of the 6 Halflings were killed and 2 more were bloodied, the Halflings fled in different directions (pursuit was unsuccessful). I honestly expected the players to use this opportunity to capture a Halfling and learn more about the area, but they didn't take advantage of this (I did give them a magic item and a bunch of gold as loot for a consolation prize).

In the morning the party continued down the road, when Alaric spotted a figure stooped high in a tree overlooking the road. The Elf identified himself as Roedyn, and had the same tattoo scarred into his left cheek as Alaric has on his back. After cryptically referring to Alaric as "the lost one" he fled through the treetops, but shouted back "be seeing you soon." There is a large chunk of Alaric's past that he can't remember, though apparently Roedyn knows something about it. Soon after that they ran into a guy driving a cart pulled by two mules, coming toward them. His name was Lars, and he was a potato farmer. They told him about the Hobgoblin "army," and he decided to return to Argondale (where he was coming from with a load of potatoes) and warn the guards. Garret used Traveler's Chant to speed them up. During the journey, Lars droned on about various pests which affect potatoes and how to combat them, the advantages of planting and harvesting and different times of the year, etc. Garret said that he was attentive, in case he ever encounters a Sphinx that asks a riddle regarding potatoes. Oddly specific, but I just may incorporate that into a much later session and see if he remembers it ;)

Note: Essentially, I created Lars on the fly to give the PCs an opportunity to once again choose between going to Argondale or Marblemount. I wasn't satisfied with the generic fork in the road as a branch point, since the PCs didn't know where they were so it was really just random chance. This way, at least they knew which city they were headed for. Had they been more interested in investigating Baern's significance they could have let Lars warn the guards at Argondale about the Hobgoblins while they turned around and took the road toward Marblemount.

Arrival in Argondale

Argondale is a walled city built upon an island in the southern edge of Lake Lassen. A ferry was taken to the city (Garret paid Lars for the fare, and then some) and the party stayed at the first inn they encountered (the Moonveil Inn, a pricey establishment that caters mostly to the wealthy). As adventurers, the PCs may look grungy but they have the cash to enjoy some luxury. Unfortunately, after taking one look at Gaknar the innkeeper simply stated "we don't serve their kind here" (yes, sometimes I just can't help slipping a Star Wars reference into my game, so sue me. No don't sue me, that's the opposite of the point I was trying to make). Gaknar was thus locked in Garret's room, though Garret gave him a steak as a treat. During the night Gaknar curled up at the foot of Garret's bed (where Garret learned that he purrs in his sleep), and in the morning the Goblin was cuddled up against his leg, with obvious evidence of having an inappropriately exciting dream.

The next day Alaric sought out a tailor to replace his torn cloak (which had revealed the tattoo on his back to Roedyn) while Garret searched for information (and Urogoth drank at the Moonveil Inn). Garret soon ran into Edwin Crow, his former mentor from Tynus City (the oppressive city-state that he's from). A guard captain, Thaddeus Knight, had supposedly hired someone outside of Tynus to capture Edwin, though obviously he evaded his captors. Garret's childhood friend, Annie (a rash, aggressive girl) left town to hunt this person down (leaving a note with another friend, Barry, who notified Edwin). Edwin is now looking for Annie because he thinks she's in over her head. Since Edwin had been in town for a few days, Garret asked him if he recognized the name Kaeleth (from Skamos' diary entry). Edwin directed Garret to the Oakroot Inn in the government district (heavily patrolled by guards), where (after setting Alaric, Gaknar, and a drunken Urogoth up as sentries outside) he inquired about a friend he was searching for (Annie) and mentioned Lyria castle. Kaeleth (the Half-Elf barkeep) became deeply suspicious, excused herself, and then went into the back. Garret heard a trapdoor opening, and footsteps going down a set of stairs. She returned 10 minutes later and offered Garret a free night's stay at the inn. When Garret rolled well on his Insight check, I informed him (in my best Admiral Ackbar voice) "it's a trap!" Garret politely declined the offer, and reported back to Edwin (who had gone to the Moonveil Inn to wait for them).

After some additional information gathering by Edwin and Garret, they discovered that Annie had entered Argondale through the South Gate, but left about a week and a half ago through the West Gate (the road leading from this gate winds around the lake, heading north). The cities of Whitehall and Goldridge are the biggest cities in that direction, though Edwin wasn't convinced that Annie was headed there (besides, she had obviously learned something in Argondale, and Edwin was convinced that they too could uncover this information). Garret decided that, though risky, spending the night at the Oakroot might lead to some answers (he suspected Skamos was hidden in Kaeleth's basement, and the party was eager to question him). So Alaric and Urogoth rented rooms (Kaeleth hadn't seen them yet) while Garret claimed his free room. They set up a drunken Gaknar (he was given "the boozes" as a reward for his sentry duty) in the free room and waited. When Kaeleth and Skamos burst into Gaknar's room, the PCs rushed into the hall to confront them.

The trap had been set up because Skamos thought that the PCs were from Lyria Castle (he wasn't aware that everyone was dead, though he suspected that it would happen eventually). After this mix-up was sorted out, Skamos answered some of the party's questions.
  • Tintrim was the leader of the Order of the New Dawn, which is what the mages called themselves.
  • Karek was in charge of the Volksair Project, the goal of which was to create an aberrant super soldier (likely the entity that had killed everyone in the castle)
  • The sentient smoke was a side effect of the process used to create the Volksair super soldier.
  • When asked what the super soldier could have been looking for as he rampaged through the castle, Skamos stated that he was supposed to be 100% loyal to Tintrim, and if he'd gone rogue there was no telling what his intentions could be (the PCs considered that perhaps Tintrim isn't dead, but used the beast to destroy all other witnesses--except Skamos).
  • The fissures in the rear of the castle and the drill are part of a mining operation to extract Fenorian Crystals (essentially, there's a subterranean rift into the Feywild below the castle which infuses the crystals with Arcane energy). Azers were used as workers in the geothermal vent.
  • He is unsure what Tintrim may have wanted from Baern, but suspects that the Dwarf possesses some kind of artifact.
  • He also mentions that Aston Grimslade and Vistun Selfeer (see clues from session 1) somehow modified Fenorian Crystals in the past. Some of these modified crystals may still reside in the ruins of Grimslade Castle, and Skamos mentions that he's sent an adventurer to scope it out. Garret is horrified to learn that Annie was that adventurer.
Wow, that was an incredibly long summary! I guess that's what happens when so many story elements are revealed in one session. There were many questions that needed answering, given the circumstances that the PCs began their campaign in. Importantly, the PCs now have a proactive goal: get to the Grimslade Ruins and see what's going on there. Prior to this their goals have been 1) escape from captivity in the castle, 2) figure out where the hell they were, and 3) gather information in Argondale. Now they finally have some control over their travels, which will hopefully make the campaign a bit more interesting. Looking back, I'm actually glad that they chose to go to Argondale before Marblemount. Either one would have worked, but now the PCs have more information about the Order of the New Dawn earlier in the game, and there were more character background elements introduced earlier (Roedyn, Edwin, and Annie).