Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Random Playtesting Thoughts

I've run a couple more playtests using the same party as my last one.  Quick recap of the party:
  • Keyleth:  Elf Protector Druid (Predator)
  • Fen:  LT Shifter Berserker (Temperate)
  • Albanon:  Eladrin Warlock|Swordmage (S-K|Assault)
  • Bharash:  Dragonborn Warlord (Bravura)
One playtest was against a bunch of random Orcs, the other was against leveled Dragonborn (including a custom elite, the Legion Champion).  Both were level +3, with the party at level 6.

Calling the Fight
My second playtest showed very well why this is important.  The party had swiftly dispatched 2 level 7 Dragonborn Mercenaries (Skirmishers), and shortly after that the Dragonborn Soldier (level 8).  All that remained was the Legion Champion (level 8 Elite), who was still unscathed.  Bharash went down, and shortly after that the party bloodied their foe.  Bharash eventually failed all 3 death saves, and Keyleth failed 2 heal checks to revive him (given that it's a DC 10 and she has a +7 modifier, this was unexpected.  She rolled a "2" twice).  So there was a man down (the leader, no less) and the remaining enemy was now in pretty bad shape.  Still, I pressed on.  Fen had started mop-up with almost full health and all of his THP from Berserk Vitality.  Well, a few double attacks later and he was badly bloodied, and a round after that he was well below his negative bloodied value.  In hindsight he should have fallen back and let Albanon (who wasn't hit the entire encounter) tank.  He and Keyleth could have dispatched the Champion pretty quickly (Keyleth had only been hit once during the encounter, though she had also lost a surge when her Giant Toad was destroyed). 

Now let's think about this scenario.  The Legion Champion is an intelligent enemy who presumably has a sense of self-preservation.  The party has seen how hard his double attacks hit.  By mop-up the Champion knows he cannot possibly win, even if he can take out a PC or two as his final act.  Still, he'd probably much rather live to see another day.  With Bharash down, the best option for the party would be to let the Champion escape and tend to their comrade's wounds.  Heck, even if the DM asks for a surge expenditure to "call the fight," it's better in the long run than possibly dying.  Combat is dangerous.  The party started this encounter with guns blazing, and had it well under control until the string of bad luck in the mop-up phase.

Bharash the Bravura Warlord
Ok, so this build has been around for a good long while, but it's new to me so I'll say a few quick things.  First of all, Bravura Presence has got to be the best option for Warlords by far.  If an ally is going to spend an AP, that usually means it's a nova round.  What better than to get an extra attack?  Though it didn't quite work out this way, Albanon could have conceivably used Fey Step (+Eladrin Swordmage Advance), Standard, AP, and the free attack to use Eldritch Strike 4 times in a single turn.  As it turned out, he killed the only foe in range with his standard, so his AP was used later for a 3 attack turn.  Fen opened the encounter with Batter Down, AP Run Down, free MBA, hitting with all 3.

The problem I've been having with this guy is that his immediate actions tend to be difficult to use.  He has two (Vengeance is Mine and Inspiring Reaction).  The vast majority of the time when I'd really like to use one of these I can't because it's either my turn (provoking OAs or granting attacks with Brash Assault) or an attack just knocked me unconscious.  In this most recent encounter I did use Vengeance is Mine, but both attacks missed.  Later that round I wanted to use Inspiring Reaction, but since I'd already used my IA I couldn't.  Bummer.

Fen the Berserker
Alright, moving on to some Heroes of the Feywild stuff.   Before this encounter with the dragonborn I'd been using Fury too late in the battle, resulting in the THP from Berserk Vitality never being used.  This time I used Fury earlier (plus the encounter lasted longer than most), and the THP not only got chewed through, but Fen got knocked past negative bloodied.  Go figure.  Now that I've seen him in a Fury for more than a couple of rounds, however, I'm getting the sense that Berserkers might be slightly better in defender mode.  They still deal top-notch damage for a defender, have a VERY painful punishment, and are simply more durable thanks to the AC boost.  If enemies trigger your punishment you'll end up doing more damage than you would in a Fury anyways.  This will likely change at level 7, however, when I inevitably pick up Curtain of Steel, and the scales will tip even further at level 13 when Storm of Blades becomes available. 

Keyleth the Druid
In the encounter vs the Orcs Nature's Growth proved very useful.  I'd been counting on slowing an orc that was charging past me with Grasping Claws, but the attack missed.  Once the orc continued his movement, however, I realized that he was 1 square short of reaching his target because he had to move through 2 squares of Nature's Growth!  The room happened to be cramped (I was using the cave map from MV2), and in these circumstances it seems like Nature's Growth really shines.  It was also useful in the encounter vs the Dragonborn, as I placed my Toad and the zone in front of a Merc and the Legion Champion in round 1, leaving those monsters unable to reach Keyleth or Albanon without charging (the Merc instead went for Bharash, and the Champion attacked the Toad).

Even without an Alfsair Spear for prone shenanigans, Magic Stones proved to be a very good power.  The push was moderately useful against one target in the Orc fight, but the real kicker was that I got to attack 3 creatures, critting with the 3rd attack.  For my first level encounter power I went with Gust of Wind, which actually simulates what I would be doing with Magic Stones had I gone the polearm route.  Assuming you have Grasping Claws, this is probably the best power for action denial at this level.  Position yourself 1 square away from whoever you prone, and when they charge past you to get at your allies you can slow them (stopping their movement, since they've moved 2 squares once they provoked) if you hit with your OA.  Since the push is an effect you may even get some action denial out of it if you miss.  In the Dragonborn encounter I missed with it, and followed the push up with a Camouflage Cloak.  The other obvious use would be to push enemies into a pit or off a cliff, if one is available.  The last power I'd like to discuss is Wind Wall.  You'll only get the full effect situationally (if there's ranged enemies that target AC or Reflex present), but fortunately it's still a solid blaster power (I've been reliably hitting 2-3 targets with it), and in the dragonborn encounter the slide was useful in bringing an enemy within 3 squares of my Toad, which otherwise would not have gotten an Instinctive Action that turn.  I still miss Predator's Flurry (which is better for action denial), but Wind Wall definitely gives it some competition. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sandbox Resources

As I mentioned in the commentary of my last Red Frogs session summary, when designing an adventure or campaign it's really common for many DMs to adopt a railroad style.  In my experience, the problem stems from the fact that when planning, you get this idea for a "story" in your head and it becomes so entrenched that you expect it to be followed during play.  After all, a D&D adventure is really just a story with the PCs as the heroes, right?  Many DMs begin playing the game as players, and have participated in many a memorable narrative with their PC as one of the stars.  But DMing is more than just creating a story to be populated by the PCs.  D&D is, more specifically, cooperative storytelling.  Everyone at the table plays a part in telling it, even if the DM usually does the most work. 

Most people who GM RPGs are aware of the distinction between a railroaded adventure and a sandbox.  In the first type of game the story is on rails, and the PCs can't really get off the track.  The DM creates a linear set of events or encounters, with each one leading to the next in the series.  Most new DMs panic when the PCs try to diverge from the rails, and do everything in their power to steer them back.  It almost always feels forced, leaving the PCs at a loss for a sense of freedom (which, after all, is one of the biggest strengths of tabletop RPGs vs video games).  In the second type of game, the DM supplies the world which the PCs are free to explore and influence as they desire (much like a child playing in a sandbox, building sandcastles, etc. wherever they desire).  There's often not an obvious "hook," and the PCs won't have an employer that meets them in a tavern to tell them exactly what they need to go and do to obtain the treasure.  It feels very much like a living, breathing world.

The problem is that railroad adventures are much easier to design because you know exactly what you'll have to plan for.  While DMing a sandbox, you need to be prepared for almost anything, and you need to be at least reasonably comfortable improvising.  What sometimes gets overlooked, however, is that these two styles are not always dichotomous, and most campaigns exist somewhere between the two on a spectrum.  Indeed, this is probably for the best.  Not all players have the creativity or motivation to move forward in a sandbox campaign, and even those who can won't necessarily be doing it all the time.  Sometimes glimpses of a track are necessary to show players the way, or to get the creative juices flowing.  Likewise even the most apathetic of players will sometimes do something unexpected that causes the party to veer off the rails, and it usually works out for the better if the DM just goes with it (in an interesting and engaging manner), before eventually steering everyone back to the railroad. 

A good DM will be able to fine tune their campaign depending on their group, or even on how their players are feeling on a given day.  In other words, they need to be able to move across the spectrum in either direction without too much effort.  Because I personally have more trouble designing sandbox style campaigns, and because my group tends strongly toward railroading when they DM, I'm linking some helpful resources that I found pretty much by chance today.

  • The West Marches describes a specific campaign that lies very far toward the sandbox end of the spectrum.  The DM is explicitly neutral and has no ulterior narrative motive.  He just provides an interesting and detailed world which the players (which are many) are free to explore.  This type of campaign honestly sounds like a whole lot of fun.  The obvious downside is that there's no narrative structure, but that's by design.  It's just a different type of game, really.
  • The Slaughterhouse system uses a lot of sleek 4e design elements to organize sandbox campaigns.  The world is divided into zones (the author gets bonus points for using Metroid as an example) and zones are populated by factions (the exact meaning of which is left intentionally vague).  Each zone gets its own stat block, and are event assigned one of 4 roles (Lair, Outpost, Contested Territory, Uncontested Territory).  The stat blocks state who (which faction) occupies or uses a zone, how they use it and how they behave when confronted, their numbers, how the zone can be re-populated, and how its role can change.  Since the PCs will be directly affecting these things, each zone actually has multiple stat blocks describing possible outcomes (and since outcomes are very general and relates to the zone's role, this is far less intimidating than it sounds).  While I might not use this system exactly as presented, I'm definitely planning on heavily borrowing its elements as a way of providing tangible structure for a sandbox-style adventure.  It seems to me that just by actively using it the system encourages sandbox thinking over railroading, and therein may lie its biggest value.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Surprise, Surprise, More HotF Stuff!

An article about Heroes of the Feywild just went up today on the WotC website, and I figured I'd share it here.  Most of the discussion on the WotC forums has been regarding mechanical optimization, and I like that these articles take a step back and view the book from a different angle.  Seeing as I've had the book for several weeks now I've already soaked in much of the information, but this article provides some interesting tidbits that I overlooked as well as the author's reactions to some of the material.

First of all, tying together the references to fey bargains and souls was a nice touch.  There was a lot of backlash over why the Witch wasn't a Warlock build since the two are both arcane spellcasters who make pacts with otherworldly entities (and there is even a controller subclass of the Warlock, even if it is terrible).  I was admittedly among those who thought making the Witch a Wizard build was stupid.  But the thing is, difference between the two classes isn't who their patrons are or even the nature of the pact, but rather how that pact is made.  It's a subtle distinction, but I think it's important.  The Warlock deals directly with his patron, whether that's by physically meeting with them or through some other means.  It's straightforward, even if the Warlock doesn't necessarily know all of the terms of the agreement.  The Witch, on the other hand, is chosen by their patron and visited by the familiar, which is the patron's emissary. 

There is an air of secrecy in everything about the Witch - the Witch's power is gained by the familiar speaking arcane secrets (as opposed to the Warlock, who just gets his power).  This is why it makes sense that the Witch uses Int, since it takes a sharp intellect to interpret those secrets and employ them.  The Warlock's power is determined by their Con (how much power they can handle) or Cha (how much they can persuade the patron to give them).  At the end of the day, the Witch is still studying for her power, albeit from a very biased source (the patron, through the familiar).  Augury is a divination feature that allows the Witch insight into some of the campaign's secrets.  Finally, a Witch has to be secretive about how she practices, since (as the article emphasizes) there are witch hunters everywhere.  I hadn't really thought about the covens much since I haven't looked much at the Witch in general, but I like this structure for class features (it parallels the different circles that Druids join). 

I hadn't caught the "fey bargain" mechanics of the Sidhe Lord theme, and I hadn't thought much about the powers for the Tuathan that I noticed.   Now that it's laid out though, it does fit the flavor of the Feywild very well.  Even if those options aren't terribly strong mechanically, becoming a minor patron of sorts could be appealing to a lot of people.  I especially like the story of how the author's character convinced the Warlock that the Winter King would buy his contract from Asmodeus.  VERY nice touch.

Perhaps my favorite part of this article is the author's discussion of the book's art.  I'd registered that the art tells a story, but I hadn't paid enough attention to note how much it conveys the characters' personalities.  Of course Andronus ate the hag's cookies, because Satyr's are hedonistic!  Now that you mention it, that's one of my favorite pieces as well.  Seeing these specific illustrations next to each other also provided a contrast between Lyrindel's and Nistyncia's very different reactions to how his aloofness and lack of caution can cause trouble. 

And then there were Pixies indeed.  This discussion almost makes me want to play one of these little buggers.  The depth that he goes into regarding depicting the child-like nature of pixies is impressive, and I hadn't really thought too much about what implications that would have.  It does sort of highlight how disruptive a Pixie can be, both in terms of RPing and mechanics.  That's not to say that I think they're broken (even if they are "bent"), but they'll certainly be a source of friction in the party.

Anyways, that's about it.  Awesome book overall, and well worth picking up.  It's officially joined my "elite list" of 4e books, which include DMG2, MV, MV2, and Underdark.  You're in good company Heroes of the Feywild, and you're the first player book to make the cut! 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Recovery: Viral's Diary (Session 2)

Well, it's been over 2 months but the Red Frogs are adventuring once again!  And we should be back to a weekly schedule for a while, which is definitely welcome.  We're continuing the Viral's Diary arc, although the next DM in the lineup has said that he's scrapping his original adventure (the prologue of which we've already played).  This actually works out fine for me, because it allows me to try out some of the Heroes of the Feywild options in actual play sooner.  But I digress.  On with the session summary.

Cast of Characters

Lyra Cinderfield (my character):  Human Staff of Defense Wizard
Berylis Lindelenon (my character):  Elf Panther Shaman
Rozzle:  Elf Brutal Rogue
Unit 27:  Warforged Weapon Talent Fighter

Note:  The player of Zeus, our Wrathful Invoker, was out of town.  Hopefully he'll be joining us for next session.

Note 2:  I'd set Lyra up to be my primary character, but for this session I pretty much played Berylis as primary.  His skills were more relevant, I had more fun with him in combat, and I was just feeling his personality more than Lyra's today.  Perhaps it's also me distancing myself from her since I plan on possibly running a Druid again, and it would be a bit silly for me to run 2 controllers when there's also an Invoker in the party. 

Deadwood Falls

The party arrives at the edge of Deadwood Forest, following the directions found in the farmhouse.  Lyra uses Create Campsite to hide them because the forest had a reputation for being treacherous.  They wake to a heavy fog, and make their way through the forest.  Berylis and Rozzle scout ahead, and soon they hear something crashing through the undergrowth.  The party gets into position just before a party of goblins comes rushing ahead.  We roll initiative and attack.  The goblin leader gets a low initiative roll, but when his turn comes up he simply calls the other goblins off and says "no fight!" in halting Common.  As the party decides what to do, Berylis hears some rustling off behind them, and Lyra throws a stick in that direction.  All of the sudden 2 spider swarms erupt from under the dead tree that Lyra, Berylis, and 27 are under, and 2 Deathjump Spiders join them.  At this point Rozzle is across a small gully with all of the goblins, separated from everyone else (1 of the deathjumps is on their side).  The spiders are dispatched (with some help from the goblins), and the party continues their questioning.  They are able to gather that the Goblins are running "from Death," but they're unable to describe what they mean any further.  In any case, they're coming from the direction of Deadwood Falls, which is of course ominous.

Outside of Deadwood falls, the party comes to a clearing where many people are hung from nooses.  Berylis searches the area for tracks, and finds some that go off running, but it looks like the people were chased and then captured again.  Rozzle notices some nooses that were snapped, and it looks as though they were chewed threw.  With a very high Nature check, Berylis determines that the chew marks were from a humanoid.  Finding nothing else of interest, they head toward town, which is deserted.  It looks to be in shambles, and eventually the party stumbles across a child's arm clutching a diary.  The most recent entry talks about Gibs (the man that the party is seeking), who would always invite the local children into his blue house and tell them stories, and about how he became sick after returning from his latest adventure.  People who visited him also became sick, and they were all taken into the woods and didn't return with those who took them.  Eventually Gibs did come back, but everyone started screaming and Milty (the boy) was instructed to hide.  Sounds like a zombie infection if ever we saw one. 

Berylis searched the town's perimeter and found tracks leading everywhere.  He followed a set until eventually they confirmed the zombie theory.  They dispatched the zombie and then returned to town to look for a blue house.  With Unit 27 and Lyra standing guard outside, Berylis and Rozzle searched the house.  Gibs appeared to be a hoarder, and had some minor valuables as well as some magic items (these turned out to be a Skull Mask, which Berylis took, Surefoot Boots for 27, Scale Armor of Resistance (Necrotic) which was somewhat useless since only 27 could use it and he already had +2 Magic Armor, and 2 Sunblades which nobody in the party could make good use of.  There was also a chest on the second floor with 2 keyholes, one of which contained no tumblers (so Rozzle couldn't pick it).  Upon searching further, Berylis found a key which fit into the hole without tumblers, and Rozzle was able to then pick the other keyhole.  In the chest was many papers (including the deed to the house, which Rozzle claimed), as well as a journal detailing Gibs' last trip to Viral's Tomb.  Apparently, you had to get their by paddling a canoe downriver, deep into the forest. 

When the elves rejoined Lyra and 27 outside, Berylis heard approaching footsteps.  Soon the party was surrounded by zombies, which were approaching from all sides.  This zombie apocalypse encounter ended up being really fun, as it featured 10 zombie minions, 3 regular zombies, and a Dread Zombie (the former Gibs) that could only be killed by radiant damage (and since the entire party failed their Knowledge checks it was essentially invincible as far as they could tell).  For the next 4 rounds a new wave appeared, and each wave had an additional regular zombie and 5 more minions.  In total, the party blew through 30 minions, 7 regular zombies, and they had to flee from the Gibs, who they had no apparent way of killing.  Rozzle became pretty beat up trying to repeatedly kill the Dread Zombie (especially since he spent much of the fight out of range of Healing Spirit), and Lyra was the undisputed MVP with Stinking Cloud and enlarged Winged Hordes.  One of the players commented that the wire outline that I used for the Cloud's zone might as well have been an eraser as I moved it around the battlefield.  Also notable was Berylis' nova round, which consisted of Spirit Hunt followed by Twin Panthers via an action point, resulting in 60 total damage which was higher than Rozzle's nova round.  A zombie walked around his spirit companion later that round to bring the round's total damage up to 78.  Oh yeah, Panther Shamans are definitely formidable.

On the River

After fleeing from Gibs the party eventually located his old canoe and paddled down the river.  It was pretty late by this point, so they paddled in shifts (Berylis and Unit 27 while Rozzle and Lyra rested).  A few hours in a ghost appeared on the river, holding out his hand.  Berylis brought the canoe to the bank to talk with him.  His name was Nero Wimsley, and he fully admitted that he had been somewhat of a douche in life.  He surmised that the party was headed toward Viral's Tomb, offering to provide them information seeing as this was where he died.  However, this information wouldn't come free.  Nero was unable to move on because his body still lay in the tomb.  He asked the party to place 2 coins in his mouth and bury him, so that he could pay the ferrymen.  Berylis agreed to this, while muttering under his breath what ridiculous superstitions humans had.  Nero then informed the party that Viral's tomb was guarded, but behind the ancient cemetary there was a tunnel through the tomb of a man named Midos that led into Viral's tomb.  He also mentioned that there was a shrine to Avandra along the river that the party could spend the night resting in.  He warned them not to camp in the forest, for it was very dangerous at night.  He also told the party to be wary of a blue door in the tomb. 

After departing, the party decided to press on straight for the tomb instead of stopping at the shrine.  Whether or not this was a good decision remains to be seen.  Rozzle had only 2 healing surges left, but everyone else was perfectly fine (this is why glass cannon strikers annoy me sometimes).  Everyone was good on APs, and everyone but 27 had blown a daily in the zombie encounter (so he had 2 left).  So press on we did.  Unfortunately, luck was not on our side (sorry Avandra), as we kept seeing fleeting glimpses of ghosts through the trees as we paddled downstream.  Eventually, a group of ghosts became openly aggressive and attacked.  Rozzle played conservatively and didn't take any damage that I can remember (though he didn't deal much, either), however, Berylis and Lyra both got focus fired pretty hard at various points in the encounter (the crits didn't help either), so they are now significantly down on surges as well (Berylis has 3 and Lyra 4).  Still, no one was knocked unconscious and the party focus fired efficiently.  It was at this point that we stopped the session.

Further Commentary

The DM has asked that we "grade" his performance, which I think is very valuable for a new DM.  I've thought a little about it, and so I figured I'd post my thoughts here.  For overall adventure structure I think he's fallen into the tendency to railroad, as most new DMs do.  The information as described often presents 1 obvious option, and when pursued the party discovers new information that leads them to another obvious option.  Also, the contrivance of "party finds and NPC's journal which tells them what they need to do and where they need to go" is very much overused.  It doesn't seem organic, and it doesn't offer much in the way of roleplaying opportunities.  It feels very much like the PCs are forced to follow a script, and the only say that they seem to get in the matter is the style with which they go through the motions.  It's worth noting that most published 4e adventures share this shortcoming as well.  This is admittedly a really difficult habit to break as a DM, or at least I think so.  I still tend to imagine a sequence of events in my head and design my adventures in such a way that everything leads to the events in the correct order.  I think it was a big shortcoming of my last adventure, and part of that is the format of switching DMs for episodic mini quests.  With just 1 level (about 3 sessions for us) to work with, it's tough to really create multiple strands of plot and a sandbox of unique options.  For my level 8 and 11 adventures I'm already planning on departing a little from the railroad-style adventure, and I'll link elements from level 5 with these adventures.  In fact, I've decided to take advantage of the interstitial period between these adventures to move things forward behind the scenes, which will allow me to present the party with a wide variety of challenges and link events in ways that might not be possible if the PCs were involved every step of the way.  At least that's my hope.  In any case, the take home message here is to move away from the obvious railroading, with an acknowledgement that it's a tough thing to do and probably won't happen all at once.  I'll give adventure structure a C, because this is pretty much what you can expect from most new DMs.

The other obvious element to grade is encounter design, and the DM has come a long way since his last foray into the world of DMing.  Despite the fact that some of these encounters were admitted to be filler encounters, none were pointless or boring.  Interesting terrain was provided in all cases (even the simplistic layout of the zombie encounter had multiple enemy "sources" and choke points).  The first encounter had a nice twist when the goblins turned out to be so desperate to avoid combat, and there was always a tension with Rozzle being alone with just the goblins on their side of the gully (even though the DM was adamant that the goblins didn't look like they wanted to appear threatening to the party).  The mix of deathjump spiders and spider swarms was a good one, and deathjump spiders happen to be one of my favorite monsters as well.  In any case, RPing the conversation with the goblins provided a sense of the frustration of the language barrier without being annoying, as well as set the ominous mood for the rest of the journey.  All told, for a self-described "random, filler encounter" this certainly didn't feel like a waste of time.  A solid B+.

The zombie apocalypse encounter struck a very good balance on multiple counts.  First, the balance between minions and regular monsters was spot-on, letting the strikers (I'm including Berylis in this description) as well as the controller shine.  There were enough minions to make it feel like the PCs were against an entire army, but enough standards to keep things tactically interesting.  The second point of balance was the number of waves.  An encounter like this can easily turn into a grindfest where there's so much of "the same" that it becomes boring.  On the other hand, too few zombies doesn't feel like an "apocalypse," and blowing through an encounter like that can feel really anti-climactic.  It ended up running a little over an hour, which I think was just about right.  The DM also openly stated that he accounted for the presence of Lyra, as he's seen her enlarged AoE's and what Stinking Cloud is capable of.  This is why I believe the balance that was struck was intentional (consider that in a striker-heavy, AoE-light party 30 minions plus 8 standards would have been a terrible idea).  The encounter was damn fun, highlighted how the town could have gotten to be in such bad shape, and provided a strong incentive for the PCs to hightail it away as fast as possible.  Indeed, I think this would have been a more appropriate incentive to leave town than Gibs' journal entry (and more tension could have been created if the journal had been discovered after this encounter, with the party desperate to find a clue about where to go).  As far as the encounter itself goes, this one is a solid A.

Finally, the ghosts.  According to the DM, he included this encounter as a specific consequence of the PCs neglecting to rest at the shrine.  Which is funny, because that was a last minute impulse by me to make things interesting.  I figured the shrine was added to prevent a random encounter while the party slept, and didn't think that one would be sprung on us while traveling the river.  In hindsight it should have been obvious, but oh well.  In any case, having the woods filled with ghosts was a nice touch.  As an experienced backpacker who has had several jobs that involved walking around the woods all day, I don't find forests the least bit frightening and I usually detest the "scary, sometimes dangerous forest" trope.  However, if there's a reason behind a specific forest being scary (haunted, in this case) then it paradoxically appeals to me.  I like that these woods are crawling with ghosts, and that some of them will lash out against the living.  As for the encounter itself, it was pretty straightforward.  Still, an abundance of trees and the dynamics of the canoe on the river kept the terrain interesting, especially since the ghosts had phasing and some hid inside of the larger trees.  Annoying, but realistic, and to have just a couple employing this tactic was a good balance.  Lurkers would have been really appropriate here, but to be fair the actual monsters used was an on-the-fly decision (I don't think the DM expected us to turn down a rest in the shrine!).  The one near-miss was that at first he had a level 12 monsters on the map because it was a quickly-designed encounter, and the experience added up.  I immediately explained that this was a bad idea and he added 2 lower level monsters in its place.  Just to reiterate, monsters that much higher-level than the party are far too difficult to hit, which results in a grindy, boring, frustrating combat.  Add in the complication that the monster will also have an absurdly large pool of HP for their level and the problem is exacerbated.  Going along with this problem, monster HP actually scales too fast at higher levels, and in the early levels of a tier in particular it's assumed that PCs have achieved their massive power-jump.  Basically, the difference between a 10th and 11th level PC is greater than that between a 9th and 10th level PC, and a level 12 monster assumes you're on the other side of the Heroic-Paragon boundary, with its increase in damage-boosting options.  Quite simply, the system is not designed for this kind of thing.  If you want to represent a tougher-than-average monster, that's what Elites and Solos are for.  This allows for monsters of varying strength while keeping the basic mathematical assumptions of hit rate, damage, etc. intact.  Ignoring that almost-mishap, the encounter was somewhat run-of-the-mill but had a good atmosphere, and was a tangible consequence for a decision that the PCs made.  Altogether probably a B-, which really isn't too bad at all. 

In short, encounters all had a narrative purpose and were an appropriate challenge.  This DM's previous adventure saw us through several trivially easy encounters followed by an absurdly difficult one that resulted in a TPK.  A big step forward.  What needs the most work is overall adventure structure, keeping in mind that paid game designers often don't do much better.  Still, improvement in this area is definitely something to aspire to.  Providing multiple meaningful choices that allow the PC's decisions to matter, having stuff going on in the background, and working on improvising are all good things.  One thing that I've found helpful is the actually plan less.  Draw up encounters, but don't provide a road map to them.  Let interactions with NPCs flow naturally in response to PC actions as opposed to being completely scripted.  Make sure that major events can play out in more than 1 way.  For example, say that the king has been getting death threats.  Don't assume that the party will accept an offer to protect him simply because that's what the DM planned.  Have the party learn about the point of view of a rival, such that the whole situation is muddled in shades of gray.  Maybe the party instead decides to help the rival and ignore the king's plight, or even to help the king's assassins.  In short, give the PCs enough "say" to be able to drive much of the story.  It makes DMing easier in a lot of ways if the players do so much of the work for you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Heroes of the Feywild Playtesting

I decided to playtest some of the new builds from HotF using the same encounter as my last playtest, which consisted of 3 Raven Roost Outlaw Veterans, 2 Raven Roost Sharpshooters, and 4 Human Thugs (minions).  This was a level 9 encounter for a group of 4 level 6 PCs.  This was the party:
  1. Keyleth Arwyl (I built her backstory using the last chapter of HotF): Elven Protector Druid (Predator).  Note that she has the Beastwalker Circle feat, so she can Wild Shape.  New powers from HotF include Magic Stones (at-will), Gust of Wind (E1), Wind Wall (E3), and Summon Natural Ally.  Other powers include Grasping Claws, Summon Giant Toad, Sudden Bite, and Camouflage Cloak.
  2. Fen Silverfang:  Longtooth Shifter Berserker (Temperate Lands).  I went with Run Down and Stalk and Strike for his at-wills, and thanks to heavy shield proficiency his AC is top notch while his aura is up (25).  His other powers are Batter Down (E1), Brutal Slam (E3), Sweeping Cut (D1), Rage of the Crimson Hurricane (D5), Savage Growl (U2), and Cull Weakness (U6).
  3. Bharash Kenkholtet:  Dragonborn Bravura Warlord (with Battlefront Leader).  I probably should have went with a Skald, but I've always wanted to try one of these guys and all of the great MBAs in the party were just too tempting.  He has Brash Assault (with Harlequin Style) and Intuitive Strike as his at-wills (enabling and attack buffing).   Encounters are Vengeance is Mine and Devastating Offense, Fearless Rescue and Staggering Spin for dailies, and utilities include Shake It Off and Inspiring Reaction.
  4. Albanon Izariel:  Eladrin Warlock (S-K) | Swordmage (Assault).  Eldritch Strike and Swordburst (no surprises there) at-will, Grasp of the Iron Tower (re-fluffed to Uel's Warding Curse) and Dimensional Vortex for encounters, Vanishing Blade and Emerald Shield for dailies, and Ethereal Stride and Armanthor's Step for utilities.  This guy's a teleport-spammer, and has Eladrin Swordmage Advance.  
Interestingly, Keyleth, Fen, and Albanon all have very similar DPR with their basic attacks.  Assuming CA Keyleth has 16.05 DPR, and she has the easiest time getting it thanks to Cunning Stalker.  At one point she had a Horned Helm which had her charging DPR at 20.1 (well into Striker territory), but I decided to trade it out for Hamanu's Terrible Roar to make Magic Stones more interesting.  With CA vs a cursed enemy Albanon has 16.375 DPR (14.425 without CA).  Even though he tends to have the most difficult getting CA, in theory his total damage is beefed up with extra attacks (Aegis of Assault and Eladrin Swordmage Advance).  Fen's DPR with CA is 13.075 (or 16.85 while in Fury)If he has CA and charges, his DPR is the highest (assuming Fury) at 21.85.  In any case, Bharash will do very well regardless of who he hands out free MBAs to.  It's funny, since I didn't plan this party around MBAs, it just sort of happened that way.

The Encounter

The fight ended up lasting 6 rounds, but the final 2 rounds were mop-up and involved chasing down the Sharpshooters who were perched up on very defensible ledges.   If I remember correctly the only attack that was made in round 5 was Keyleth's Pack Wolf (SNA), because everyone else had to take double moves (actually, Albanon was able to charge but missed).  In a game I probably would have had these guys surrender after round 4.  Two action points were burned (Keyleth to administer a Heal check on an unconscious Bharash without losing her attack, and Albanon for a nova round).  One daily was used (Summon Natural Ally to summon a Pack Wolf).  After the short rest everyone healed within a few HP of full, and surge expenditure was as follows:  Bharash 3, Fen 2, Albanon 2, Keyleth 1. 

Now, on the to good stuff.  Instead of offering a round by round commentary, I'll just hit the highlights, organized by PC.  In general, the encounter was somewhat swingy.  The bad guys got an early advantage by rolling well for Initiative (whereas the PCs rolled crappy, except for Keyleth).  In round 2 Fen and Bharash both dropped, but once they recovered the PCs cleaned house.

Bharash:  Dragon Breath was used to pop a minion, which means Inspiring Breath was useless.  Battlefront Shift was used to get Fen into position to somewhat compensate for the party's crappy initiative.  Fen took a huge beating in round 1 because of it, but he took it well.  Bharash was unable to use Vengeance Is Mine because the two hits that I remembered I had it were from a minion and an attack that dropped him.  I think there was 1 opportunity where I could have used it but forgot.  Overall I was impressed with his performance, and he definitely lived up to the Warlord hype (I hadn't played one since before MP).  His risky playstyle (especially Brash Assault!) was really fun.

Fen:  It's a good thing Berserkers get such high AC, because he got attacked by almost everyone in the first/second round and stood up to the punishment really well.  After getting nailed by both Sharpshooters, Keyleth protected him with both a Camouflage Cloak and a Wind Wall, but one of the Raven Roost Vets managed to get some lucky hits in despite the invisibility.  He ended up critting with Batter Down, which contributed to him dealing the most damage of any PC despite mostly staying in defender-mode.  I did probably Fury too late (round 4), as none of the THP from Berserk Vitality got touched.  It would have been beneficial to Fury in round 3 instead when there were still a couple of melee enemies present, since Brutal Slam would have kept him sticky for a turn anyways and Savage Growl could have been used after that.  It'll take a few encounters before I get used to pinpointing the optimal moment to Fury.  I ended up never using Stalk and Strike but there was 1 round when I wished I had Aggressive Lunge.  Still, I think most of the time S&S will be the better choice, so I'll keep that in mind as I do more playtesting.

Keyleth:  Wind Wall was VERY effective against the archers in this combat, and was also able to easily hit 3 targets.  Obviously your mileage will depend on how often ranged enemies show up, but in my group archers in particular tend to show up a lot.  Unfortunately, I completely forgot about Nature's Growth so I can't comment on how useful it would have been.  I do remember some enemies shifting, and obviously that could have been prevented depending on the zone's positioning.  Gust of Wind was also a worthwhile power.  I ended up popping a minion with it and pushing a RR Vet 2 squares and knocking it prone.  I then Wild Shaped bringing me 1 square away with the shift (Pouncing Beast Armor).  All of my allies were behind me, so all the Vet could do was stand up and charge.  I hit with Grasping Claws for my OA, stopping his movement instantly (since he'd moved 2 squares already).  A perfect showcase for how Druids can eke more action denial out of prone and daze than other controllers.  I ended up using Magic Stones once, but the archer that I tried to push off the ledge with it made his save (and I missed the other one entirely).  Still a useful power, and had there been more minions I'm sure I would have had fun killing them 3 at a time with it!  The Pack Wolf was largely irrelevant since I'd summoned it next to one of the sharpshooters early on.  Its damage wasn't impressive (since SNA lacks the implement keyword) and without an OA it didn't stop the archer from shooting even after standing up from prone.  Against melee enemies it would be useful to deny their actions (in hindsight I should have summoned the Giant Toad instead).

Albanon:  Not much to say, except that he had some major action economy problems.  I never even got to apply his Aegis.

As a final note I'd just like to mention that I tried something new while playtesting this time.  I transferred all of the important info from the character sheets onto index cards, making mini character sheets.  It really reduced the clutter while playtesting!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Heroes of the Feywild: Build Your Story

In my review of Heroes of the Feywild I mentioned that the final chapter of the book contains a choose-your-own-adventure style background generator, which can be used in place of an existing background.  Curious about how this process would actually play out, I decided to utilize it for a Protector Druid that I'm creating.  I'm not sure if I'll actually use this character in-game, but I am planning on running some playtests of the new builds, and I figure now's as good a time as any to give this backstory generator a try as well!  After making the basic choices presented in the book, I wrote up a more fleshed out story based on that.  Here's what I came up with. 

Overview of Choices

  • Foster Parents (kind) > Peasants (Elf) (Heal or Nature)
  • Shinaelestra > Studied Wilderness (Acrobatics, Endurance, Nature) > passed Wis check
  • Discovery > True Identity
  • Murkendraw > Found Murkroot Trade Moot (Goblin, Intimidate, Stealth) >Failed Int check, Goblins turned on you and sold you to slavery
  • Captured
  • Harrowhame > Enslaved (Dungeoneering or Nature) > passed Con check, escaped tunnels into Brokenstone Vale
  • Brokenstone Vale >Traded Goods, bartering with civilized lycanthropes (Bluff or Insight) > passed Wis check, Acclaimed (civilized location, activity, skill without making check)
  • Sent to Mithrendain > Broke into Citadel Arcanum (Bluff, Stealth, Thievery) > autopass from acclaimed
  • Maze of Fathaghn (chosen from Acclaimed) > Dealt with Dryad Queen (Diplomacy or Insight) > Passed Cha check (rolled 17), Made Powerful Ally (go to any location)
  • Fey Crossing Hamlet > Cross Into World
  • Trained skills chosen from backstory: Nature (Druid makes you anyways), Endurance, Insight, Stealth, and Goblin as a language.

    Once upon a time there was a young elven girl named Keyleth, who grew up with only the vaguest memories of her parents. Her foster parents, Theren and Adrie Celedor, were from a neighboring village, and had told her that during a Gnoll raid her parents were driven into the wild to make what living they could, constantly being harried by the ever-growing Gnoll population. They gave Keyleth up to the Celedors, who had relatives in the Feywild whom they were going to stay with to escape the Gnolls more or less permanently. It was Keyleth's best chance to lead as normal a life as possible.

    Unfortunately, the Celedors had no idea that life in Shinaelestra would be so tough. They worked as farmhands on one of the local vineyards, at least when the city wasn't under attack by the fomorians. Thanks to the city walls and the tireless efforts of Calenon Thray's rangers, it was at least a safer existence than Keyleth left behind. As she grew older she took to exploring the wilderness outside of the city during her free time, both in the Feywild and in the mortal realm after the nightly worldfall. She became adept at identifying plants, and eventually got hired to collect rare herbs for a wealthy ritualist/apothecary.

    One night while wandering a familiar path in the mortal world Keyleth happened upon an old half-elven traveler. She stopped to chat, and the old man's eyes lit up when Keyleth told him her name, as some long-lost memory resurfaced. He had lived in the village where she was born, and he informed her that her parents had been influential Druids in the Circle of Shelter, and that their true mission had been to confront Decius Derakh, a powerful necromancer who was responsible for mobilizing the Gnolls (to distract people from his dark business, it was rumored). With heavy hearts her foster parents confirmed the traveler's story, for they knew that she would now want to discover what fate befell her birth parents.

    After discussing the matter with her employer, Keyleth decided that her best lead was to travel to the Murkendraw and seek out the Murkroot Trade Moot. Their illicit wares were known to make it outside of the Feywild to the mortal world, and a powerful necromancer would have benefited greatly from such a resource. She spent several years on the outskirts of the Murkendraw seeking out the Moot, and eventually it paid off (sort of). A naïve newcomer is an easy target, and Keyleth was not cautious enough. Goblin traders took advantage of her inexperience and captured her. She was soon sold to King Bronnor and worked as a slave in the tunnels of Harrowhame. She toiled for months, but eventually she learned the tunnels well enough to make an escape, only to emerge in the lycanthrope-infested Brokenstone Vale.

    She was much more cautious now, and soon earned the respect of some of the more civilized lycanthropes. She collected herbs throughout the Vale and sold them to a werebear witch doctor. She soon became a welcome guest of their tribe, and after ensuring that she could trust them she explained her situation to the tribal elders. After much deliberating, they advised her against going back to the Moot. Perhaps she would have better luck in Mithrendain, as the Citadel Arcanum has some of the most extensive records around. It was worth a shot, anyways.

    After being denied entry into the Citadel, Keyleth wandered Mithrendain for weeks trying to come up with a solution. Though she kept trying to rationalize against it, in the end there was only one option: she would have to break in. She spent the next week and a half planning it, and then it was time. The records were not as heavily guarded as other portions of the Citadel, and she had enough time to not only find the relevant books, but give them a fairly thorough reading as well. She learned that about a decade after she was born Decius had entered the Feywild through a crossing in the Murkendraw and made his way to the Maze of Fathaghn. There he had planned on taking a branch from the Mother Tree to use in a dark ritual, but he had underestimated the Dryad Queen and was defeated. Details were scant, but it was the best lead she'd yet uncovered. Unfortunately, the guards soon discovered her. The Watchers of the Night were impressed with her skill, and did not detain her long. They saw that she meant no harm, and she was given a light sentence of 1 year's banishment from Mithrendain. No matter, as Keyleth had another destination in mind anyways.

    As she got closer to the Maze Keyleth began to hear soft voices whispering to her, and in a strange way they were actually comforting. The boundary between the mortal realm and the Feywild was thin here, and the Primal Spirits had a strong influence. Despite her goal, she lingered in this place and listened to what the air, the earth, and the water had to say. She soon found herself capable of producing minor magical effects as she became more attuned to the spirits. She first learned to call upon the spirits of the air, and once she mastered this the breeze whispered that it was time to go on. The vegetation grew more densely as she neared the edge of the Maze, and the forest more quiet. For all the dangers of that place she found herself able to pass through unmolested, though she could sense the presence of many eyes watching her the entire way. Time ceased to mean anything, and after many hours (or days, or weeks even?) she stopped in a clearing with a small spring-fed pool. Stooped beside the pool collecting water in a large pitcher was the most magnificent dryad she had ever laid eyes on. The air seemed to pulse with her power, and Keyleth became very frightened. As the Dryad Queen turned around she fixed her gaze onto Keyleth, studying the Elf for what felt like an eternity. When the queen finally spoke it was as if the air had come alive as an orchestra, and yet looking back Keyleth could not recall the exact sound of that music, for such is the Dryad Queen's magic.

    Their words were brief, and the queen was sympathetic. Druids from many circles had warned her ahead of time of Decius' plans, and he did not get very far into the Maze before she had found him. Though he considered himself powerful, he was as nothing compared to a great Queen of Faerie. She stripped him of much of his power, opened up a portal into the mortal world, and tossed him through. She gave Keyleth a general description of where she had banished him to, which Fey Crossing would get her there safely, and then conjured up a small wooden box. Within this box sat a tiny fire spirit that burned without need of fuel or air. In the smoke that emanated from the box was the image of a face; the face of Decius Derakh. At their parting the Dryad Queen cautioned Keyleth not to pursue him so single-mindedly, but that eventually they would meet. In the meantime though, there was other work to be done. Keyleth's ties to the mortal realm and its spirits were strong, and the queen advised her to seek out members of the Circle of Shelter. Not only would they help her to realize her potential, but if anyone had news of her parents, it was them. The queen then waved her hand, and Keyleth was transported to a small Fey Crossing Hamlet. After gathering what supplies she could in town, she crossed over into the mortal world, into strange lands where she'd never been.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Magic Item Bloat

I know, I know, this topic has been beaten to death (even if not necessarily by me).  The basic problem is that there have been way too many magic items published in 4e, and only a very small subset of them see any actual use.  I probably just skip over 85-90% of everything in the Adventurer's Vaults, as it's gotten to the point where most characters that I create have the same go-to items.  For example, what character doesn't automatically go after Item bonuses to damage?  Anyone with melee attacks will probably pick up Iron Armbands of Power, and the vast majority of spellcasters gravitate to the Staff of Ruin (to the point where some specifically multiclass to gain proficiency with Staffs).  We've recently adopted a house rule in our Red Frogs campaign that fixes this (well, "recently" is an exaggeration, as for personal reasons we haven't played in over a month).  It was inspired by the inherent bonuses system, and it basically gives you an inherent bonus to damage that doesn't stack with item bonuses.  This virtually obsoletes certain auto-pick items, but as a consequence it allows players to branch out and pick up magic items with other neat effects that simply weren't worth losing out on damage before.  It also gives the DM more freedom to include such items as treasure, whereas before players would get resentful because the item interfered with their damage bonus (or they just sold it for reduced cost).  Perhaps most importantly, it evens the playing field for PCs who for whatever reason couldn't get that item bonus to damage (Shamans come to mind off the top of my head). 

Here's the progression: 

+1 at levels 1-5
+2 at levels 6-10
+3 at levels 11-15
+4 at levels 16-20
+5 at levels 21-25
+6 at levels 26-30

An alternative system would be to simply double the enhancement bonus of your weapon/implement when calculating your damage modifier (whether or not that bonus comes from the weapon/implement itself, or through the existing inherent bonus rules).  In any case, in my opinion any attempt to make PCs as independent of items as possible is a worthwhile endeavor.

On a semi-related note, I'd like to mention that Heroes of the Feywild (which I reviewed in a previous post) seems to indicate that this trend might be ending, or at the very least active contribution to the problem is dwindling.  The vast majority of gear in the book is flavorful out of combat stuff as opposed to a bunch of combat-relevant magic items with huge discrepancies in power between them.  The combat-items that are present are 3 new magic totems, all of which are pretty useful.  Besides, totems  have gotten notoriously sparse support, and this helps to alleviate that.  Case in point, with my inherent damage bonus house rule in place I'm most likely going to be using the new Shepherd's Totem when I roll up my first Protector Druid. 

The Fey Magic gifts in particular are things that I can see myself giving out as a DM, even if not necessarily in place of an actual magic item.  These all have mundane applications, but players immersed in their characters will appreciate such minor abilities.  Some examples include being able to pick up flames without needing fuel and without getting burned, sniffing out gold, silver, and gems, gaining the ability to talk with animals, and increasing the volume of your voice (which also grants a bonus to Intimidate checks).  There's plenty of roleplaying potential here, and it's also a good way to make a character seem a bit more magical or otherworldly.  After all, nobody comes back from the Feywild unchanged...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Heroes of the Feywild Review


I was fortunate enough to get my hands on an early copy of Heroes of the Feywild.  I was excited about this book ever since it was announced, but was cautious about getting my hopes up after the recent material that's been released over the last year or so.  Essentials provided some innovative class design, but much of it was underpowered and many builds were "pre-chosen."  Then came Heroes of Shadow which fortunately did not interest me much, because the material was largely pretty poor.  The Vampire and Binder were jokes, the Death domain and Necromancy and Nethermancy schools left me feeling unenthusiastic even if they were mechanically not terrible, which leaves the Blackguard and Executioner as the only solid builds (neither of which were of interest to me).  I could go on about the rest of the content for HoS, but I digress.  Point being, I feared HotF would suffer similarly, in which case it wouldn't be worth picking up.  But then previews and spoilers started trickling in, and my interest was piqued.  My hope increased.  A couple of days after the spoiler thread was started (which meant that premier stores got their advance copies in) I called up a FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Shop) to see if they had it.  They did, and I soon got to see for myself how great this book was!

Welcome to the Feywild

The introductory chapter gives a brief overview of how a player character will view the Feywild (whether they're a native to that plane or an outsider) and outlines some of the major locations in the land of Faerie.  A map is also provided, and I must say I love the aesthetic of it even if I don't necessarily use it in my campaigns.  It reminds me of a cross between a Middle Earth and Narnia map, and takes me back to that sense of wonder and curiosity that I get when reading those stories.  The art is top-notch (my only gripe is the portrayal of hamadryads), with small pictures of stone art, runes, leaves, toadstools, and impish little creatures scattered throughout.  Very evocative overall.  Finally, many of the sidebars in this book are short stories known as Bard's Tales.  These are meant to provide inspiration, and have a very "fairy tale" feel to them.  The color scheme and plant borders also serve to enhance the fairy story aesthetic as you read or reference this book, without being too over-the-top or cheesy.

Races of the Fey

I think a good balance was struck here.  Whereas HoS provided races with penalties that were obviously inferior to most of the existing races (aside from the Revenant, which already existed in Dragon), this book's races are all on-par balance-wise, if not slightly above the curve (in the case of the Pixie).  Hamadryads are a bit of a stretch as a playable race seeing as Dryads are typically bound to a specific home tree, but they justify it by defining the bond as not spatially restricting the Dryad (even though most Dryads don't stray too far from their tree).  Oddly enough, this race is technically an intermediate stage of an autumn nymph on the path to becoming a dryad.  Fair enough I guess.  They're always female, have Forest Walk, get a bonus to the most debilitating status effects (daze, dominate, and stun), and have a variety of minor benefits wrapped into the Oaken Vitality trait (don't need to sleep, conditional endurance buffs).  Their racial power is similar to the Wilden in that the Hamadryad gets to choose between 2 different aspects.

Pixies are the controversial race because they're Tiny and have a fly speed.  I'll say right now that I don't think they should have been made a playable race.  The altitude limit, while necessary for game balance, strains suspension of disbelief.  It will certainly provide a unique play experience though, and I'm sure a lot of people will really enjoy playing them.  My personal feelings aside, the designers did do a really good job of walking a fine line here; at first glance, Pixies appear to be a top-tier race that joins the ranks of Elves, Dwarves, Humans, and Half-Elves without outright surpassing them.  Admirable, given that their mechanics are so "out there."

Finally, the Satyr.  Arguably the most "traditional" race in the book (aside from being restricted to male only), it has relatively conservative features.  Still, the racial power looks like it can synergize really well with certain powers (it tacks a slide and CA onto an attack that hits), giving an otherwise average race a unique mechanic.


Not surprisingly, this is the most exciting chapter in the book.  Four new subclasses are presented, and not only are none of them failures (I think the last time this happened was PHB2, unless you count DSCS), but three of them look downright awesome! 

Barbarian (Berserker):  This is the first class that explicitly covers 2 roles.  It starts out as a martial defender (with an aura/punishment mechanic that is competitive with the Knight's) until you enter your Berserker Fury, at which point you become a primal striker.  You can trigger Fury by using any primal attack power, or by using a minor action while bloodied.  Your defender aura goes bye-bye for the rest of the encounter, some of your powers gain additional benefits (damage), and your MBAs gain extra striker damage.  Note that the MBA buff occupies the niche that Howling Strike, the PHB2 Barbarian's bread and butter at-will, does, so you need not be "taxed" into choosing it.  Existing Rage powers notably stack with Fury, although some Berserkers will undoubtedly pick up some of the new defender-oriented daily powers.  At each level there's typically one primal striker power and one martial defender power to choose from.  The martial powers look more appealing to me at first glance, but given that primal powers can be freely chosen from PHB2 and PP I don't see this as much of an issue.  The class will definitely present some interesting tactical options and I for one can't wait to try it out!  Even though I'm normally not too fond of strikers, I can see this being one of my favorite classes.

Bard (Skald):  This is meant to be a more martial style of Bard as opposed to the overtly magical PHB2 Bard, but the truth is nothing stops you from freely choosing powers from either source (or AP), giving you a wide spectrum to work with.  O-Bards can even take a feat to replace Majestic Word with the Skald's Aura, allowing for multiple avenues for "hybridizing" the 2 subclasses.  Speaking of the Skald's Aura, it's a new take on a leader's healing class feature.  Instead of two (or later, three) uses of Majestic Word the Skald has an aura 5 that is always active.  You or any ally in the aura can spend a minor action to heal, or they can allow an adjacent ally to heal.  This is a subtle difference, but it means that a) whoever doesn't need their minor actions could do the healing, freeing up the Skald's minors, and b) healing need not be done on the Skald's turn.  That last one has some pretty important tactical implications, and is certain to reduce the amount of lost turns from allies being KO'd.  The Skald's at-wills all confer additional properties onto the aura as a minor action, which are triggered when the Skald hits with a MBA.  Keep in mind that you're perfectly free to take O-Bard at-wills instead without gimping the build in the slightest (in fact, I think they're probably more powerful unless you're making a lot of OAs).  The new dailies work similarly, giving the aura additional properties at the cost of a minor action.  Encounter powers follow 3 basic patterns:  1) effects triggered when you hit with a basic attack, 2) minor action "enchantments" with a target of "1 weapon", and 3) immediate action effects triggered by various things (ally getting hit by an attack, enemy getting hit by attack, etc.).  This opens up more nova capacity, as a Bard can fire off 2 minor action aura (or weapon) enhancements (including a dailies if desired), charge with a MBA, and then utilize an immediate action encounter power, all in round 1 of combat.  Mixing and matching powers from O-Bards and Skalds will result in a lot of interesting builds, allowing for a wide spectrum of playstyles.

Druid (Protector):  Druids have sorely needed more humanoid caster support for a while now, and this book delivers on that!  Protectors get Nature's Growth, which is a minor action AoE encounter power that creates a zone of difficult terrain that lasts until the end of the encounter!  Most controllers conspicuously lack a class feature that directly supports their role, but this is exactly that.  The area scales by tier.  The obvious applications of difficult terrain are preventing enemies from being able to shift and slowing enemies down (particularly useful if an enemy is slowed, dazed, or prone).  Protectors also must choose a Druid Circle, which are the Circle of Renewal (Primal Guardian class feature plus allies in or adjacent to Nature's Growth heal more) and the Circle of Shelter (Primal Predator class feature, plus allies ignore the difficult terrain of Nature's Growth).  They get a Primal Attunement feature which are very similar to cantrips, and finally they get Summon Natural Ally, which gives them fixed summoning daily powers that are based on their circle.  As you level, you gain access to more powerful summons.  Each time you use the power, you can pick any of the options in your "pool" of summons.  The summons follow the pattern of other Druid summons, in that they cannot make OAs but they do get Instinctive Effects.  The instinctive effects are pretty much standardized to "attack adjacent enemy if possible, or move adjacent to enemy," and there aren't any summons reminiscent of the Giant Toad that can instinctively attack from range (none that charge either).  However, their attacks are more damaging than past summoning powers, each attack has some type of status effect tied to it (often mobility-denying), and some summons have encounter powers that are worth spending a standard action on if the summon can't attack instinctively.  In other words, they're competitive.  Protectors can also spend a feat to switch a use of SNA out for a standard daily attack power, and this feat also notably gives them Wild Shape (the only way to get both Wild Shape and Nature's Growth).  Like the Berserker and Skald, mixing and matching previous powers is very easy.  And speaking of the new powers, there's some good stuff, especially on the encounter power front.  Some early Heroic encounter walls exist, and virtually all of the new encounter powers have effect lines (usually the damage is tied to a hit and the control happens in the effect, but sometimes a hit provides additional control as well).  My personal favorite is Charm Beast, which is a level 7 encounter dominate that dazes on a miss, to boot.

Wizard (Witch):  I'll say it right now that this subclass has me the least excited.  While the Witch is certainly solid compared to other controller classes, it's slightly inferior (and blatantly so) to other Wizard builds, and given that Wizards can just freely poach the Witch powers anyways I find this to be bad design.  A lot of the new powers are close attacks, and oddly enough some healing utilities are introduced.  Unfortunately, Witches are not as durable as some of the other Wizard builds out there (Staff of Defense, Necromancers, Nethermancers), so I can see a lot of Witches becoming a liability if they choose a lot of these close burst/blast spells (unfortunately your 1st level encounter powers are auto-picked).  It definitely feels like a Witch through power selection, but from a pure optimization standpoint I feel like in the vast majority of cases there's always going to be an existing Wizard spell that's better (there is a handful of gems in here though).  Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising given how much support Wizards have gotten, but it definitely makes this the weak point of the book. 

Character Options

Four themes are presented, the best being the Fey Beast Tamer which is almost the Sentinel's animal companion without getting stuck playing a Sentinel.  The Fey Beast Companion attacks are much less damaging than a Sentinel's (especially at low levels), but for an OA and damage sponge (not to mention the aura) they do their job just fine.  The Sidhe Lord gets a Daily summoning power, though the Sidhe House Guard is pretty weak (HP= to your healing surge value?!?!).  Still, it has an immediate interrupt that allows it to take a hit for you, so it's at least going to give you access to a surge in combat and absorb status effects.  Tuathan is a theme that gets 2 options each time a choice is made, but is sadly limited to humans and half elves.  There's a focus on heroic luck and animal transformation (unfortunately, the latter is only available as a utility swap instead of a starting feature).  Finally, the Unseelie Agent is designed around a "Shadow Weapon," which is basically a free vanilla magic weapon that won't be as good as what most PCs will want.  It's a pity, as this theme has some great story hook potential.

Each new subclass also has its own Paragon Path.  Most are solid if not terribly spectacular, with the Deadly Berserker probably being the best of the bunch.  The 3 Epic Destinies are Shiradi Champion, Wild Hunter, and Witch Queen (seeing as I've never played in Epic I can't really say whether or not they're any good).

The feats section has the usual mix of good, ok, and bad.  Racial feats are apparently back, with the 3 new races in addition to elves, eladrin, gnomes, and wilden all getting new feat support.  The long-awaited Totem Expertise is finally here (ignore partial cover/concealment), and chargers get more unnecessary support with Two-Handed Weapon Expertise.  Two new familiar feats are pretty underwhelming, as are 2 of the 3 Fey feats.  Fey Shift, however, is awesome as it gives you a 2 square teleport speed (obviously it's epic).  The Barbarian feat is great (THP equal to surge value when you enter your Fury), while the Bard and Druid feats facilitate mixing and matching class features (O-Bards can get Skald's Aura, O-Druids can trade a daily for a use of SNA, and Protectors can trade a use of SNA for a daily, plus they get Wild Shape to boot).  Multiclass feats are a mixed bag; the Witch M/C is nearly useless (you get Augury?!?!), Berserker and Protector are solid (1/day use of Fury and Nature's Growth, respectively), and the Skald is simply incredible (1/enc Skald's Aura, giving you a 1/enc heal!).

The gear section lists some semi-magical mundane items from the Feywild, some of which look pretty amusing for the price.  Some new magic totems (including 1 that increases forced movement, and one that's essentially a "Vicious" totem), Wondrous Items (mostly "meh"), and Consumables (solid) are also presented.  Finally, Fey Magic Gifts are a new alternative reward, though by and large they're more mundane utility based as opposed to being comparable to magic items.  Still, some look fun for roleplaying purposes.

Build Your Story

The last chapter of the book is an interesting new take on creating a backstory.  There are sections on Upbringing, Locations (Civilized Lands, Wilderness Locations, and Dark Lands), and Events.  You go through several different options choose-your-own-adventure style, with ability checks largely determining how you fared in a given situation.  Each scenario has a few associated skills, and you can choose your trained skills based on what you picked up through this story as opposed to what class skills you normally get (you're still limited by the number of trained skills your class has, though).  You can use this chapter to generate an idea for a PC completely at random, or you can use the individual sections for inspiration.  It's a little gimmicky, but an interesting backstory generator nonetheless.  Most of the choices are open-ended enough to allow for creativity, but there's also enough detail to provide a cohesive backstory for players that aren't usually interested in coming up with something.

NOTE:  I've written up a post on a test run of this process, as I create an Elven Protector Druid.


I highly recommend this book.  Granted I might be biased because I really like the Feywild and how it was handled in 4e.  Furthermore, Druids, Wizards, Bards, and Barbarians are some of my favorite classes anyways, and to see them all get support in the same book is pretty cool.  Regardless of my personal tastes, there's simply a lot of really good design in this book.  The Berserker looks like a blast, is flavorful, and appears to be solid as both a defender and a striker.  First dual-role subclass was a success in my book!  The Skald's Aura is a tactically interesting healing mechanic, and there's a lot of unique new powers that interact with it.  The Protector provides much-needed caster Druid support, in addition to introducing an effective controller class feature.  The Witch is admittedly a bit disappointing, but there's enough to poach that it's not a complete waste, and if nothing else there's a lot of flavorful if not optimal powers.  Most of all I like the return to the classic AEDU design even if some Essentials style elements are incorporated (the Skald's emphasis on basic attacks, for example).  Unlike recent class design in the post-essentials era, these classes are not straight-jacketed into features and powers.  Existing powers work perfectly with the new builds, and older builds can take the new powers.  The designers even went a step further by including the Skald and Druid feats that let you mix and match elements of the different builds.  Overall there's a return to customizability exemplified by a high degree of compatibility between subclasses despite the fact that unique, new mechanics were introduced.  I applaud that the designers were able to not only pull this off, but to keep everything balanced by pre-Essentials standards*.

*Essentials marked a huge design shift, and in general the developers were overly conservative when balancing the new stuff, resulting in a lot of underpowered builds and subclasses.  It seems like the subclasses in this book have been brought back up to the appropriate power level, and I have a feeling that in-game play will support that.