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).

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Talamhlar - Race update

I've updated my overview of races, namely adding a description of Dragonborn. This concept was solidified by the backstory of Gaerbin Drake, the Dragonborn Paladin who will be joining the group when available. I'd been tossing around the idea that Dragonborn would be desert dwellers, and reading Gaerbin's backstory evoked a lot of Egyptian imagery to me. I'm not sure if this was the intent, or if I just interpreted it as such since I was already thinking "desert." So Arkhosia is loosely based on the Egyptian empire, which will mostly be cosmetic (Arkhosian ruins, Dragonborn art, etc. will be reminiscent of Egypt).

I was unsure whether I wanted to stick with the default "canon" backstory of the Dragonborn ruling an empire called Arkhosia, but I kept Bael Turath for the Tieflings so why not? The main difference now is that in the default Points of Light setting, Dragonborn are a common race, whereas in Talamhlar they're rare. I may also develop a connection between Dragonborn and Yuan-Ti (perhaps the Yuan-Ti took control of the former Arkhosian territory?), but I'll flesh that out when (if) the party gets to Paragon.

Despite the fact that during large chunks of the year the group may not be able to get together, I would like to run the campaign at least up to mid-Paragon (I have an aversion to the concept of Epic Tier play, so if the group makes it that far then the PCs will be retired at some point in Paragon).