Monday, July 30, 2012

D&D Next Fighters: Combat Superiority

First read this - if we're going to have a conversation, context is good. It's an idea they're currently testing internally about how the fighter class might work in 5e, and I'd like to discuss what I suspect are the origins of the idea, some strengths, and possibly some weaknesses (or at least lingering questions). Ironically, it's also a lot like Samhaine's post this morning, but differs in one critical assumption. Let me start by saying that I absolutely encourage more decision-making and Stuff To Do on a fighter's turn than just rolling attack and damage, and more new benefits in character progression than higher numbers for attack, damage, and defenses. Bigger numbers are fun, but they aren't decisions.

So 4e had encounter and daily powers, which were more powerful than at-will effects, but could not be used as often. This was particularly important for fighters, as the game was going way out of its way to give fighters more tactical choices to make and more control over the playing field. At higher levels, the available encounter and daily powers do more damage, attack more targets, or have more desirable side effects, whether good for allies or bad for enemies. There's enough internal variation that first-level encounter powers can still be useful at tenth level and later, but eventually you are expected to drop some of those earliest powers in favor of higher-level options, often with very similar status effects, but more damage. If you gather enough data points, you could almost construct a point-based powers system (for all I know, WotC has something like this, but I kinda doubt it), allowing you to trade damage potential for status effects.

There's one other significant thing here: powers with the Weapon keyword (basically all martial-sourced powers, as well as most melee classes of other sources) based their damage on the weapon's damage die, expressed as 1[W], 2[W], and so on. That is, a d8 weapon deals 2d8, 3d8, and so on. They didn't keep talking about it later in development, but I recall a mention early in 4e of why this was important, as a development from 3.x. Specifically, at higher levels in 3.x, the base damage die diminishes in overall importance to a character's damage output, as the damage bonuses of Strength, feats, enhancement bonuses, and variable adds (flaming, etc.) such have scaled pretty steeply. Critical hits (and, in AE, Crushing Blows) multiply damage dice, but otherwise it's not common in 3.x. I've felt that 4e went in a good direction here, to make sure that weapon choice remained relevant and players didn't find it too easy to go for smaller damage-dice weapons with miscellaneous advantages.

That, then, is one of the things I see as a potential problem with the Combat Superiority plan here. All I have to go on is what they've shown in Legends and Lore (and other columns) and what's in the playtest documents. We can reasonably assume that a fighter's damage expression for a normal attack will be [W] + [CS dice] + Str + enhancement; there may be other factors as well, but all of these factors will definitely be present. It's probably reasonable to guess that the longsword will continue to use its classic d8 damage die, and a greataxe will use a d12 or 2d6. A fighter dealing [W]+d4+3 at first level is totally reasonable, as the d8's average damage is only one point less than the total damage of the rest of the equation. If the damage dice have scaled to 2d6 by fifth level, it's now less than half of what's granted by the rest of the equation, and a d12 is only barely better off - less so if the fighter has picked up a +1 weapon by this point, which seems pretty reasonable to me. For all that I've gone on about it, this question of math isn't a deal-breaker, but it does surprise me, and it factors into a point I want to make later.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The New Death and others, by James Hutchings

Recently, James Hutchings of Teleleli and several other blogs contacted me with a request, probably common for bloggers of more note than I, but new to me: he asked that I review his anthology of poetry and short fiction, The New Death and others. I'm hardly alone here - there's quite a list of blogs that have posted reviews. I haven't read any of those reviews, and as I write these particular words, I am about a quarter of the way through the book. It's not long; the PDF is 94 pages. (But at 99 cents for an electronic copy, that sounds like quite the bargain! Oh, and full disclosure: my review copy was free.) Of course, you can get snippets of content written in much the same style from his blog; think of those entries as the slightly-less-polished teasers for the book.

I'm not sure how to describe Hutchings' style, except to suggest that it might be the alchemical union of Sheldon Allan Silverstein and Howard Philips Lovecraft: two styles that many have attempted to emulate. I also detect a soup├žon of Sir Terence; the gods appear often, and the particular tenor of pettiness that Pratchett imagines for many cosmic entities appears here. Please don't take from this that I regard the work as being in any way derivative; that's the exact opposite of my intention. The playfulness of the text is often gallows humor, which as Kainenchen would point out is merely redundant; around the middle of the book it transitions a bit further into sardonic political allegory, which is always a good time (presuming that you, like all right-thinking Americans, agree with me. Ahem.).

Before I get into the piece-by-piece breakdown, I want to mention that the stories and poems are arranged so that one longer piece might be followed by two shorter ones, and so on. It's solid pacing, is what I'm saying here. I'm specifically focusing on the pieces that are top-shelf gaming inspiration, because after all this is a gaming blog, but the pieces that aren't getting a mention still show the same standard of craftsmanship and wit. "Everlasting Fire," for example, is a long setup for a comic reversal, heavily laden with puns throughout. Also, several pieces are adaptations of classic works to rhyme and meter - while those might be good text props, I feel a little odd giving those a nod as gaming resources. That doesn't detract from their interest as remixed texts, though.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Four Magic Items of Aurikesh

In gradually continuing to develop the Aurikesh setting, I'm working in no particular order - I'm just writing about ideas as they come to me. My focus is on defining and exploring the setting's aesthetic. I am particularly interested in making it clearly different from the other two settings I have written to any great depth, while still satisfying my tastes and goals in a tabletop setting. To that end, I'll be writing about four magic items that are specific to Aurikesh - these might even be items that I think will be in the core rules, but want to anchor to something specific in the setting.

I really like the focus that D&D Next plans to put on attaching story to magic items in the setting. The problem, such as it is, is that my settings seldom fit well with the story seeds that WotC publishes, since I'm not running the settings that they publish, or anything even close to them. It's easy to retool a vignette to fit the setting, right? Well... not really. Or at least, not for me it isn't. I'm usually coming to the story of this foreign object that doesn't quite fit my setting in the middle of a session, when I suddenly need something cool to give a PC. Actually rewriting it on the spot is a bit beyond my talents, unless some stroke of inspiration comes to me - this is why I've historically had a hard time firmly attaching magic items to the setting, even when WotC's text was showing how they intended for that to work. No, I'll have to have the storylet ready to go when I need it at the table (trying to backfill its importance is a recipe for continuity bugs, for me), and that will all work more naturally if the setting is sometimes written around the magic item, rather than the magic item always being written around the setting. This tends to affect how many other setting elements hook into the story of that particular item.

1. Taubresil
(Name contributed by Kainenchen.) The beruch, newly-arrived in Balioth, have brought with them The Taubresil, a single-edged sword made of bleached and polished wood. Its hilt is decorated with alternating garnet and topaz stones. The blade of The Taubresil is not perfectly straight, but follows a natural grain. Despite these irregularities, the blade has a razor-sharp leading edge. It is a +2 longsword, and while daylight shines upon it directly, it grants its wielder resistance to necrotic energy. If the wielder takes fire damage equal to one-quarter of her hit points from any single attack, the wielder gains resistance to fire until the creature that dealt that damage is unconscious. (If the wielder is not making a credible attempt to defeat this enemy, the sword loses all of its powers until the next sunrise.) Finally, some wielders have claimed an ability to commune with the ghost of Lady Taubre Sill, one of the ancient priests of the beruch who is regarded as a major saint of Tura Keshik.

According to the beruch, the sword is one of the last great treasures of their people, dating from the days in which they first tamed Erenn Kemesa. It played a central role in some of the greatest battles and duels of their history, from the slaying of the dread beast Volarna Vor (translated: Night Devourer) to the final days of the Seagate Siege, in which a force of beruch and creatures they had summoned turned back a mighty armada of sea-raiders.

It was cut from either the mast or the bowsprit (legends vary) of the flagship of the first fleet that the beruch ever built, the Lady Taubre Sill, constructed so that they might flee the isle of Erenn Kemesa while the volcano at its heart vented black wrath into the sky. When the eruption ended and the sun once again pierced the darkness, the fleet landed again on the northern coast, many of its people nearing starvation. They rebuilt the civilization that they had lost, and dismantled the ships; they swore that they would never again flee the volcano's wrath, but would be its masters. The Eye of Ychirra that ruled beruch history in later ages was their means of fulfilling this vow.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Armor Issues in D&D

The armor chart of the D&D Next playtesting materials is odd, as many have commented, but I want to start this post by making it clear that I'll be talking about 5e's armor only in general terms, not in specifics. I get that it's not a finalized design and nitpicking the numbers would be pointless. This will also reference the 3.x armor chart and the 4e armor chart. There are two things I want to discuss on armor. The first is the path of gear upgrades, and the second is whether characters have any incentive to own more than one suit of armor.

As we all know, improving your character's gear is one of the most rewarding goals of any traditional roleplaying game. We all want stuff that has more pluses, right? (Unless we're playing Alternity, in which cases we want more minuses. Anyway.) Gear upgrades are a tangible representation of achievement: you've either saved up enough filthy lucre to buy that new improvement, or you won the whole piece as treasure from a battle or a quest. The former can be satisfying when it's a decision that the player makes (because we all understand the feeling of scrimping and saving to get what you want). The latter is satisfying because finding out what's behind Door #3 is a surprise, or because you watched the bad guy use this piece of gear against you and you've been looking forward to claiming it.

But if you're a gamer, you know all of this. What's odd is how some of those upgrades manifest in the system. Gamist and simulationist urges are clearly in competition here, varying by edition. Also, this is going to run a bit long as I get into obsessive levels of detail. To be clear, I don't advocate treating tabletop games as gear treadmills, as even the most gamist of campaigns can have a more engaging story than that, and it's an awfully uncharitable way to treat a DM's efforts.

The core rules of 3.x have a solid variety of armor types, but many of them seem to be included just for traditional completeness. The cost-to-value judgment between padded armor and leather armor is such that I sincerely doubt players have ever chosen padded armor, but then the whole idea of padded armor is that it is a gambeson - it's the thing that goes under armor to make the armor comfortable. Let's set aside the extensive historical notes on the use and effectiveness of padded jacks, as they don't have much place in the fantasy-history that D&D sets out to create. My point here is that other than a desire for completeness in translation from 2e, there's very little reason to include padded armor. It makes me cry a little that scale armor is in the same boat, because scale is so awesome in real life.

In general, a D&D fighter is better off with either the next more expensive armor (a chain shirt) or the next less expensive armor (studded leather) because of the much lower movement and armor check penalties. It always bothered me that the game's default assumption and recommendation for starting gear was just not a good idea. First-level characters don't start with any flavor of heavy armor without some kind of variant rule in play, and once you're starting to pick up enough treasure to consider buying better armor, you're going to go for either the breastplate or banded mail, assuming you don't skip this step entirely and go straight for full plate. Splint mail and half plate are just not worth your time. Obviously, this is a little thing, not something actually worth getting worked up about, but it needs discussion for later points.

Okay, so you've got a pile of money, and you want to turn it into an armor upgrade. You can either choose a mundane upgrade (get rid of your old armor in favor of new armor) or you can get someone with Craft Magic Arms and Armor to enchant your armor, assuming the suit of armor was already masterwork. You almost certainly didn't start play with masterwork armor, given its price tag, so that's another upgrade concern. Figure out what type of armor you want to be wearing for the majority of your career, and save up enough cash to get a masterwork suit of that armor. These mundane upgrades might be anywhere from 165 gold (upgrading from leather to masterwork studded leather, for the rare rogue who can't be happy with a chain shirt) to 1625 gold (upgrading from studded leather to masterwork full plate). Don't bother starting with the magical upgrade track until you're done with the mundane upgrade track (but see below), because having to purchase and then dump +1 scale mail that is no longer worth your time is a painful waste if you're being pragmatic.

At long last, this brings me to the part that bugs me: some of these armors are just so inferior to other kinds of armor that no one should have made the conscious decision to get that suit of armor enchanted. A +1 suit of padded armor, scale mail, chainmail, splint mail, banded mail, or half plate are all a waste of money, because you could do better spending the 500 gold (to say nothing of the enchanter's 40 XP) on mundane upgrades. Still, the thing I'm noting here is a much more striking issue in D&D Next, as we'll see.

Much later on, other mundane upgrades show up: mithral, adamantine, or darkwood materials, with still more exotic options over the lifespan of the product line. This table comes from Pathfinder, but it strongly resembles ideas found in late 3.x materials. These mundane upgrades are often far more expensive than adding another +1 enhancement bonus to an existing suit of armor, but depending on your stats and character build, they may be a bargain at that price.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Seven Dungeons of Aurikesh

I realize that relatively few readers are interested in Aurikesh, but I have fun writing about it. For this post, I will create a list of seven dungeons or dungeon-like locations in Aurikesh, all famous enough that players could start play knowing about them, though that doesn't necessarily mean that characters know how to find these dungeons. As I've indicated before, dungeon-crawling is not a big part of the games that I run, but I'm throwing these out to players as options for things to do when they don't feel like dealing with other problems. (Not that I'm currently running anything in the setting; nor do I have imminent plans to do so. This is a casual side project.) As in other posts about Aurikesh, all domains have different names that the kagandi use for them, included in parentheses.

1. The Tower of Var Dyrak
Since Var Dyrak is Not A Nice Guy, it's entirely feasible that PC groups that don't include a Tiger's Claw warrior might look at this as a good place for some mayhem. In addition to the tower and some fortifications around it, there are extensive caverns beneath; these caverns are primarily a holding area for prisoners that Var Dyrak uses in experiments.

2. The Rubycrest Alchemists' Guildhouse
Rubycrest, a province in the coastal northern domain of Pereil, was the chosen retreat of the great kagandi alchemist Nianth (I'm still working on naming conventions for all of the cultures and races). Nianth had accumulated enough wealth from over a decade as the Master of Fires (one of the guild's most lucrative positions) that he went into semi-retirement and constructed a large complex to continue his research in private. The local lord in Rubycrest granted him nine hundred acres for this construction, on both sides of the River Hallor. Nianth hired a mix of foreign and local workers, informing them up-front that they would remember nothing of the work afterward; apparently they were sufficiently swayed when he paid in advance. There is no clear information on what they built, but they returned to their lives after eight years, surprised to discover they had ever left, but wealthy enough to never work another day. As for Nianth, he has not been seen since the Guildhouse's completion fifteen years ago.

3. The Dungeon of Three Deceits and the Prison of Three Gates
Obviously I'd have to finish writing this dungeon, ask my players not to read it, and adapt it to 5e rules. Anyway, the Dungeon of Three Deceits is deeply tied to the Prison of Three Gates, as it's kind of an attached mirror-demiplane. For Aurikesh, the Prison of Three Gates is in the province of Arandune, part of the domain of Kinterowa (which the kagandi call Hawklin's Hall). By including this, I'm implicitly including luminous water, crimson aether, and nightskein (not connected to its DtD usage) as materials that exist in Aurikesh. Psychic forces will necessarily have meaning and importance, and the Living Shadow of Ugrazhe is a significant campaign villain, probably worth a story arc of at least 10 sessions.