Thursday, February 26, 2009

Who needs powers anyway? Using improvised damage.

One of my favorite rules in 3rd Edition is the “DM’s Best Friend”.  The basic guideline is that that when faced with a situation that gives either an advantage or disadvantage to the PCs, assign a +2/-2 circumstance modifier to the action.  This rule may seem obvious, but it codified something many Dungeon Masters had been doing for years.  Having the rule in place encouraged players to try something inventive in order to get that bonus (or something desperate in order to get a roll, even if attempted with a penalty).

The “DM’s Best Friend” still exists in 4th Edition, but it is now joined by the improvised damage rules.  This little gem is found on page 42 of the Dungeon Masters Guide (although you probably want to take a look at the DMG Rules Update, since the Difficulty Class values have changed significantly).

Improvised damage is used when the player tries something outside the scope of the normal rules.  The DM basically determines what skill or ability check would govern the attack.  The DM then determines if the task should be Easy (5), Moderate (10) or Hard (15), then adds ½ the character’s level (give or take a few).  If they make the roll, the DM then picks a level appropriate damage value from either the Normal (can be repeated) or Limited (one time/extreme) chart.  Viola, instant pseudo-power!

I love this rule because, like circumstance modifiers, it encourages players to be inventive and think outside the box.  The example given on page 42 describes a rogue swinging on a chandelier to push an ogre into a brazier of burning coals.  I am including some additional examples below to show the wide variety of situations improvised damage can handle.

The party is fighting a group of orcs when more start to come up a the stairway.  A 6th level fighter decides to buy them some time.  The DM had described two statues on either side of the stairs, so the fighter decides to kick one off its pedestal and down the stairs.  The DM decides it is a Moderate (DC: 12) Strength check to knock it off its pedestal.  The statue makes a Dex vs Reflex attack (using the fighter's Dex) against each orc on the way down.  Since it is affecting multiple targets and there is a chance for a second attack, the DM decides it will do 1d6+4 (Low Normal) damage.  The DM also decides that any orc hit must make a save or be knocked prone.

A 15th level warlock wishes to sabotage a permanent teleportation circle.  Since he is trained in Arcana and knows the Linked Portal ritual, so the DM decides it’s possible.  The DM decides the warlock needs to spend ten minutes, 100 GP of alchemical reagents, and make a Hard (DC: 23) Arcana check to alter it.  The warlock is successful so the next person (or persons) to use the portal will take 3d10+6 (Low Limited) damage and the circle will be rendered inoperable until repaired.

The party is traveling through a mountain pass which the DM has stated is prone to avalanches (in fact, the party already encountered one).  The party is attacked by a pair of trolls.  The 9th level halfling rogue decides it might be worth trying to bring down some heavy rocks on one of the trolls.  The rogue makes an Easy (DC:8) Nature check to find a precariously balanced group of rocks.  He then makes a Moderate (DC:14) roll to hit them with his sling.  Success will bring them down on the troll for 2d6+5 (Medium Normal) damage.

Obviously, this is just a handful of scenarios, but they showcase the usefulness and flexibility of the improvised damage system.  They encourage creative thinking in players without unbalancing the game.  So go ahead and give improvised damage a try.  I think you will enjoy the results.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Dollhouse disturbs me

Okay, I will admit it.  It’s only two weeks in to Dollhouse, and I am a little disturbed by the weekly rapes.  This is despite of, or more accurately because of, the way the rapes have been glossed over during the first ten minutes or so of the show.  In addition, it is made very clear that despite the action/adventure tenor of the episodes so far, that the primary role that all of the actives will find themselves in is that of a living sex doll.  With so many potential military and espionage uses for actives (programmable humans), the fact that they are mostly used as playthings for the rich is obviously a deliberate choice on the part of the writers.

Some people will probably cry foul at my characterization.  They may note that any sex that Echo has with her clients is consensual, or at least that the personality imprinted on her at the time consented.  This argument doesn’t hold much water though, as it is obvious that Echo is incapable of granting consent.  Her default personality is child like and seems incapable of doing anything except smiling and wandering around in a dazed state.  Meanwhile, her programmed personalities are tailor made to please her client, which means choice is really not part of the equation.

It might be possible to argue she signed away all rights when she signed on with the shadowy organization that runs the Dollhouse.  While I am not a lawyer, the contract she signed is obviously an illegal one.  First, she obviously signed it under duress, as she was in enough trouble that she felt she had no option except to join up.  More importantly, I don’t believe it is possible to sign away basic human rights, like the right not to be raped.  Of course, even if the contract is somehow “legal”, it still makes the actions of the Dollhouse morally reprehensible.

Still, I have a lot of faith in Joss Whedon.  The show is not attempting to present what the Dollhouse is doing as a moral, so it is probably a good thing that I am discomforted by their actions.  Also, Eliza Dushku has stated that Joss Whedon has a five year plan for the show.  This has me hopeful.  

One worry I had after the first episode was that the show could fall into a comfortable groove.  Sort of like Quantum Leap in a mini-skirt.  If that turns out to be the case, then using Echo’s programmed liaisons to “sex things up” is reprehensible.  However, if this is just an opening gambit in a five year arc, then I am a bit more willing to withhold judgment until I see where the arc is going.

So I am going keep watching and trust that there is a plan.  Don’t let me down Joss!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Random Reviews: The Guild Season II

The first season of The Guild ended on a note of triumph.  Despite their differences, the Knights of Good banded together to "defeat" Zaboo's mother.  The Knights of Good had entered Cheezybeards as a guild turmoil, but left it united.

The second season undercuts this sense of triumph in the opening sequence.  Codex reveals that Zaboo's mother was a real estate agent who managed to get Codex evicted from her apartment.  Even worse, she still has Zaboo living with her, and is still fending off his unwanted advances.

As the season continues, the cohesiveness of the of the Knights of Good continues to erode.   Almost all of the knights fall into cycles of self-destructive behavior.  This is primarily driven by the selfishness of its members.

Clara is probably the worst offender off the group.  When she fails to get the Orb of Nurr, she begins hunting an killing Vork repeatedly in the game.  She takes advantage of her husbands good nature, lying to get out of attending her sisters wedding.  She takes advantage of Codex's meekness by planning a big party to relive her Sorority glory days.  She is even spends some time swapping spit with someone other than her husband.  I have to admit, by the end of season two I have lost all sympathy for Clara.

Tink and Bladezz are equally selfish.  Tink uses Bladezz to satisfy her materialistic desires by leading Bladezz to believe that she will satisfy his carnal desires.  They circle each other with self-destructive behavior and ultimately both suffer the consequences of their actions.

Codex is a bit more sympathetic but, as she eventually realizes, she should have simply been honest with Zaboo about her feelings from the beginning.  On the other hand, Zaboo seems trapped in a cycle of falling too hard for women he barely knows.  

By the end, Vork has declared that the "Knights of Good" have become nothing more than the "Knaves of Hooliganism".  The dream is over and the guild lies in ruins.

So, what did I think? I loved it!  If you haven't checked out The Guild, I definitely recommend giving it a shot.  After all, at less than 10 minutes an episode, it's not like it will take up a lot of time!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

New Feats (And One Power) With Familiar Names

Here is my take on updating a couple of old feats to the new edition.

Weapon Finesse (Heroic Tier Feat)

Prerequisite: Dex 13

Benefit: When making a Melee Basic Attack with a light blade, you make the attack using Dex vs AC.  Damage is still determined normally.

Improved Weapon Finesse (Paragon Tier Feat)

Prerequisite: Dex 15, Weapon Finesse

Benefit:  When making a Melee Basic Attack with a light blade, your Dex modifier is used instead of your Str modifier when determining damage.

Deft Opportunist (Rogue Utility 10)


Immediate Interrupt     Personal

Trigger: An adjacent enemy provokes an attack of opportunity from you.

Effect: If you choose to make an opportunity attack against this opponent, you can use an at-will attack with the weapon keyword instead of a melee basic attack.

Tales of the Black Freighter

With Watchmen mania continuing to grow, I was curious if one aspect of it was going to make it to the big screen.  Namely, the infamous "Tales of the Black Freighter" comic book within a comic book.  While it appears that it will not, it will at least be making it to the small screen!

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood will be released on March 24th. It will not only include an animated version of "Tales of the Black Freighter", but a live action version of Nite Owls tell all biography, "Under the Hood".

But just don't listen to me blab about it. Check out the trailer yourself!

The Promise and Problems of Rituals (Part II)

In Part I, I examined some of the issues I saw with rituals in 4th Edition D&D.  Since then, Jonathan at The Core Mechanic came up with some interesting alternative rules that address many of the issues I spoke about.  It is definitely worth a read.

Nevertheless, I feel the need to present my own set of house rules on rituals.  I take a somewhat different direction than Jonathan, and I am curious to find out what people think about them.

Ritual Casting (Cleric and Wizard Class Feature)

You are able to master and perform rituals of your level or lower.  Unlike the Ritual Caster feat, you are not limited in the number of rituals you can master.  See PHB Chapter 10 for more information on how to perform rituals.

Ritual Caster (Heroic Tier Feat)

Prerequisite: Trained in Arcana or Religion

Benefit: You can master and perform four rituals of your level or lower.  You gain one ritual for free when the feat is first acquired.  The remaining three must be mastered normally (see Chapter 10).  Once you have mastered four rituals, you cannot master any more.  However, you can change which rituals you know through retraining.  When you retrain a ritual, it is removed from your ritual book and replaced with the new one.  See Chapter 10 for more information on how to perform rituals.  This feat can be taken multiple times.  Each time it is taken, you are able to master and perform four additional rituals.

Performing a Ritual (Modification to PHB Chapter 10)

Performing a ritual is very draining.  The number of rituals you can perform per day depends on your level:

At 1st - 10th level, you can perform two rituals per day. 

At 11th - 20th level, you can perform four rituals per day.

At 21st - 30th level, you can perform six rituals per day.

Each time you reach a milestone (see page 259), you regain the ability to perform one ritual if you have already expended that ability. 

After you take an extended rest, your ability to perform rituals is renewed and you start fresh with regard to the number of rituals you can perform per day.

Please note that there are no limits to the ability to assist with a ritual, or to the ability to utilize ritual scrolls.

Ritual Costs (Modification to PHB Chapter 10)

When using the rules above, it is recommended that both the purchase price and the component costs of rituals be cut in half.

Monday, February 9, 2009 has my number

I majored in English Literature in college.  Considering I work with computers for a living, that usually surprises people.  Nevertheless, I remain a voracious reader, devouring an eclectic mix of genres, including everything from literary classics to comic books to science fiction & fantasy.

PnPnZSo I shouldn't have been surprised to see recommended Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   Well, perhaps I shouldn't have, but I was.  Mostly because it is hard for me to imagine this book even existing.

Self-described as "The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!", author Seth Grahame-Smith is attempting to seamlessly integrate the original text of Jane Austin's classic with brand new scenes involving the living dead.

I wish him the best of luck.  Pride and Prejudice was never a favorite of mine, probably because it could be summed up as "SWF ISO SWM ~ £10,000".  So I can see where a bit of zombie action could only help!

I can only assume that has gained a frightening insight into my mind from my various purchases over the years.  Or maybe they recommended it because I have Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on my Amazon Wishlist?  You decide!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Promise and Problems of Rituals (Part I)

A friend of mine often bemoans the lack of options available to wizards in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.  He feels with the focus on combat spellcasting eliminated most of the non-combat "game changing" effects old-school Wizards were able to perform. I can definitely see his point. However, from my experience many people looking at Wizards in 4th Edition tend to overlook the importance of rituals.

Rituals are where you can still find the types of spells that were common in previous editions of the game.  Rituals are not combat focused.  They often have long lasting effects.  Certain categories of old school spells, like divinations, have moved entirely over to this category.

Because of this, I have found that judicious use of rituals can inject a bit of the feel of the old editions of D&D into 4th Edition.  When I first converted my Divine Oracle Issac Winter from 3rd Edition to 4th Edition, I worried quite a bit that the character would be unrecognizable.  While the old Issac was effective in combat, he really shined outside of it.  Issac was infamous for using divinations to prepare the party and confound his enemies.  While I won't deny that he is a bit more limited in this regard, a heavy focus on divination, exploration, restoration, and scrying rituals really help make him feel like the Issac of old.

That being said, I have several issues with rituals as they are written.  In many ways I feel they are almost an afterthought, existing merely to bridge the 3rd Edition and 4th edition.  Sadly, the embody some of the worst issues of that edition as well.

One problem with rituals is that the primary limitation on how many rituals you can posses or perform is financial.  Either you have the money to purchase new rituals and components or you don't.  While I like the feel of components being an important part of the game again, how much gold flows through a campaign can vary wildly depending on the DM and the nature of the game. 

Oddly, this is a design problem that the game designers at Wizards of the Coast already saw and addressed in another aspect of the game:  When the 3rd Edition Magic Item Compendium was discussed on the D&D Podcast, the concept that magic items were limited only by price was seen as an issue.  Since game designers can be a bit conservative at times, they tended to set prices high, often to the point where no sane character would ever buy them.  I already see this problem cropping up in some rituals.

Another issue is the Ritual Caster Feat.  I actually like the fact that the feat is open to any character trained in Arcana or Religion.  Characters like the Grey Mouser or Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer were portrayed as able to cast elaborate spells with time and copious amounts of study, but never as true wizards or witches. 

So why do I see it as an issue?  Well, mostly because rituals have what I call "the polymorph issue".  The spell Polymorph was infamous in 3rd Edition because a single spell allowed you to transform into almost any creature in the Monster Manual, limited by hit dice.  It was a case of one spell providing to many options to the player.  To make things worse, since almost every book produced had more monsters in it, the spell became better with every book.

The Ritual Caster feat has a similar issue.  For the cost of one feat, the whole world of rituals opens up to the character.  Also, like Polymorph, the number of options available to a Ritual Caster increases with almost every book Wizards of the Coast puts out.

Still, I think that eliminating rituals from the game would be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.  Rituals really add a lot of flavor to D&D 4th Edition.  They also fill an important niche in the 4th Edition ecosystem, namely that they are the only mechanism for casting magic outside of the rigid structure of powers. 

Rituals just need a little attention, and perhaps a little more "crunch" to make them a truly useful and viable part of 4th Edition.  That is where Part II will come in.  I am currently putting together a number of house rules for rituals which I feel will solve at least some of these issues without eliminating the flavor that makes them so appealing in the first place.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Talz Tales in Star Wars: The Clone Wars

I have a confession to make.  I have been enjoying Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  It may not be high art, but it reminds me of the kind of stories you would see in a Star Wars game brought to the small screen.  At least that is what it does for me normally.  However, I felt that Trespass, the most recent episode, was not very good.  FYI... my commentary below has a ton of spoilers, so don't read it if you haven't watched the episode yet.

The story starts simply enough.  For reasons never fully explained the Republic placed a Clone Trooper base on an uninhabited ice planet.   They lose contact with this base, so they decide to send a group consisting of Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, C-3P0, R2-D2, a bunch of Storm Clone Troopers, and two politicians from a nearby planet, who I will call Chairman Homicidal and Senator Jailbait.

They arrive at the base to find it deserted, with the exception of Clone Trooper helmets on spears.  Chairman homicidal immediately decides it must be the work of those wacky Separatists.  Were the spears the tip off?  In any case, they travel to the nearby Seperatist base, who apparently also love uninhabited ice planets, only to find the head of droids on pikes as well.

Eventually, it is discovered that the stone cold killers known as the Talz are responsible.  Apparently trained Storm Clone Troopers and Battle Droids are no match for primitive aliens chucking flint tipped spears.  Although, to be fair, decades later Storm Troopers fair no better against Ewoks.

Obi-Wan and Anakin go to speak with the Talz, and eventually receive their demands.  Well, one demand actually: "Leave or we kill you".  When this is reported back to Chairman Homicidal, he immediately decides to commit genocide.

Fortunately, Chairman Homicidal is pretty ineffective at wiping out the primitive Talz.  Taking some Storm Clone Troopers out on military speeders, the kind with shields and blaster cannons, they manage to get ambushed.  They then stop the bikes and engage the spear-wielding Talz with their blaster pistols.  Unfortunately for them, the Talz spears cut through Storm Clone Trooper armor like a knife through butter and Chairman Homicidal is fatally wounded.

Obi-Wan urges Senator Jailbait to make peace with the Talz, which is all she has wanted to do all along.  She then concedes to the Talz demands to leave the planet forever, and Obi-Wan praises her skill as a negotiator.  The End.

I know Star Wars often has plot holes you can drive a truck through, but it was seriously bad this episode.  The ice planet is a complete MacGuffin, and a bad one at that.  Everyone is fighting over the planet, but there seem to be no consequences for leaving it.  Similarly, Chairman Homicidal's evilness and Senator Jailbait's innocence are comically overdone.

Oh well.  Hopefully the next episode will be better.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Thoughts on the full DDI Character Builder

The D&D Insider Character Builder has arrived... and it's not bad.  Once I downloaded the full version, I figured a good test of the program would be to enter in Issac Winter, one of my Lord's of Tyr characters.  Issac is a 16th level Divine Oracle, so I figured he would be a decent test of how the Character Builder handles a mid-Paragon level character being entered from scratch.

The answer turned out to be "surprisingly well".  After launching the Character Builder and choosing to create a new character, I immediately clicked over to the Level Up tab.  I entered in 71213 and clicked SET XP.  I then jumped back to the start of the character creation process, half-expecting the whole thing to be mucked up. 

Instead the character creation process proceeded flawlessly.  Choosing abilities was simple and intuitive, even though I had a number of advances to take because of my level.  Choosing my powers was similarly intuitive, although I had to take certain first level powers only to immediately discard them.  Still, the ease of character creation was astounding, especially considering the level of the character.

Another nice touch is that you can unlock the panels of the character sheet.  This allows you to rearrange the data contained on the sheet to fit your tastes.  I can see this being very useful for certain characters or for picky players.

Now, this is not to say that the Character Builder is perfect.  At the moment, it doesn't support containers.  So Issac still shows "heavily encumbered" despite his Heward's Handy Haversack.  Also, support for house rules is limited at this point.  You can add names and information, but nothing that auto-calculates. 

I should note that according to the Character Builder forums, support for containers and for house rules that affect the auto-calculating sheet are coming.  Still, it does highlight a concern of mine.    I am used to working with the open source PCGen, which I still use to maintain my 3.5 Characters.  PCGen was designed with flexibility in mind.  Its open source nature made it relatively easy to hack into the data sets and change anything you wanted.  What PCGen sacrificed for this was ease of use (although it did improve over time).

Nevertheless, I am impressed with the Character Builder.  I have to admit, I have been somewhat skeptical of the value of D&D Insider so far.  The fact that the Character Builder is a useful and usable tool helps restore my trust.  I remain hopeful that the Character Builder, as well as the rest of D&D Insider, will continue to improve over time.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Random Reviews: Zot!

It has been awhile since I reviewed any comic books on my blog.  So I figure what better way to be relevant than to review a comic first published in 1987?

Zot Of course Zot! is not just any comic book.  It is an early effort by comic writer and artist Scott McCloud, who is most famous for his amazing comics about comics: Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics.  Reading these books changed the way that I looked at comic books forever.  They have even caused me to be a bit of a comic book evangelist; I feel that the potential of comic books has been squandered in this country and the medium dismissed as "kid stuff".

Despite this, I never sought out Scott McCloud's earlier works.  I am not sure why.  It might be that I was sure I was going to be disappointed in it.  I held his scholarly works on the subject of comics in such high regard that I was afraid of finding out that the emperor had no clothes after all.  It helped that his books were long out of print and hard to find.

When the black and white issues of Zot! (1987-1991) were compiled on one easy to find trade paperback, I figured I finally had run out of excuses.

I shouldn't have worried.  The stories focus on Zot, a young Flash Gordon style adventurer from an alternate universe set in the "retro-future" of 1965, and Jenny, a typical teenage girl from our world.  Technology from Zot's world allows the characters to travel between the two dimensions.  The comics are a mixture between the high adventure in Zot's world and the smaller, more personal stories on Jenny's.

This premise sounds pretty typical for a superhero comic.  What makes it special is the care with which Scott develops his themes.  Jenny is not a true pessimist, but she has to deal with all of the little disappointments of living in the our world.  Seeing Zot's "perfect" world throws these problems into sharp contrast.   On the other hand, Zot can't help but see the best in both worlds.  It's not that Zot doesn't see the bad, it's just that he believes it is outweighed by the good. 

In short, Zot is a character driven book, but it is a book about little changes, rather than big ones.  The action sequences are mostly superfluous, except in how they affect the characters emotionally.  It's hard for me to think of another book like it.  The best I can come up with is Marvels, but even that comparison comes up short in the end.

I guess I would just recommend that you check it out yourself!