With a few new characters having been introduced recently, it's probably a good idea to go through the gods they likely (or do) worship and what their goals are in the campaign. Just, in case, my players' characters have the urge to actually follow their god's wishes or something.
Pelor - God of the Sun, Strength, Light and Healing - worshipped by Chris's character (Geran).
Pelor has popped up in the campaign before due to the High Priest of Pelor, Alvares Yulos, being a co-owner of the Green Leaf Tavern where the adventurers spent a lot of happy evenings in the early part of the game (and where Lsuj and Will set up the "adventurer's board", which is how Martin's new character, Riardon and Frath joined the group). Alf is also on the ruling council of the Free City of Greyhawk.
Pelor is rather steadfast in his hatred of the undead, which have popped up in this campaign one or three times. His allies amongst the other gods include Zodal and Heironeous. Without doubt, by serving Pelor you pit yourselves against the forces of evil, although Pelor is not a fanatic's god: wrath must be tempered by mercy. Don't let the fight against evil blind yourself to good.
Heironeous - God of Chivalry, Justice, War and Valor - worshipped by Rich's character (Drakuld).
Whilst Heironeous hasn't really made his presence felt in this game, he's an important figure in this part of Greyhawk. The Knights of the Holy Shielding revere him, and they protect Greyhawk from the forces of Iuz. Most of their lands were taken from them in the wars, but one of their members - Lady Holly - rules Alhaster, a city-state on the northern shore of the Lake of Endless Depths (Greyhawk is just south of the Lake). And yes, that's Bradford's character from the Age of Worms AP.
Heironeous is a martial deity, and he very much approves of taking the war to the forces of evil. He particularly hates his twin brother, Hextor, but there isn't much Hextor-worship in this area (go to the Great Kingdom for that). He's much less forgiving that Pelor, but believes in the ideals of chivalry - especially towards women.
Zodal - God of Mercy, Hope and Benevolence - worshiped by Chris's character (Geran)
Unlike Pelor and Heironeous, Zodal believes that with kindness and mercy, even the most evil of gods can be turned to the path of good.
Zodal hasn't appeared in the campaign before now and I'm not quite sure how to run him.
Xan-Yae - Goddess of Twilight, Shadows and Mind-over-Matter
Xan-Yae has been absent from the Greyhawk campaigns for a few years, but she has been a major player in previous games. As the goddess of psionics, it's likely that Riardon (Martin's PC) either worships her or (at least) is aware of her. A few years back, her cult was pretty much wiped out in Greyhawk by the forces of Iuz and Vecna, but has been rebuilt by her high priest in Greyhawk: Yahlos.
Yahlos is actually my brother's PC from a pre-3E campaign I ran, which centred around the goddess. A later campaign had Xan-Yae very important in the denying of godhood to Vecna. Amongst her followers are thieves, monks and psionic characters. She's a goddess of the Baklunish people to the far west, so is alien to a lot of Greyhawk citizens. She's a true neutral deity, and doesn't get involved in many battles except when her interests are threatened: she'd far rather help her followers achieve their true potential.
Bardic Deities: Lirr (poetry, literature; good); Olidammara (music, revelry; neutral); Lydia (music, daylight; good).
No idea if Max (Adam's PC) worships any of these, but there you go.
Boccob - God of Magic
Boccob the Uncaring appears in the campaign mainly when the ruins of Castle Greyhawk are explored, as Zagyg was a follower of that god and several shrines remain throughout the dungeons. I'm pretty sure Lsuj followed Boccob, and Max might (to some extent) as well. Boccob is unlikely to directly interfere in the events of the campaign. Uncaring, you see?
Iuz - God of Deceit, Oppression, Evil and Wickness
Archibald betrayed the party to join with a cleric of Iuz, although it's a little unclear if he actually follows Iuz or just does what seems best for him. Iuz is a demigod who rules the lands to the north-west of Greyhawk - he's opposed in particular by the god St Cuthbert, but also by the good folk of Veluna, Furyondy and the Shield Lands. Not that the Shield Lands really exist any more, as Iuz's forces invaded them about two decades ago. Lady Holly of Alhaster is doing her best to reclaim them, though.
Iuz's realm is full of orcs, goblins and evil humans. For a long while, Iuz was trapped below Castle Greyhawk by Zagyg, but that's no longer the case, and after some setbacks following the Wars, he's rebuilding his power. It's not sure what he's up to, but he certainly has agents in Greyhawk. The group have foiled some of their plans in the past (often with Archibald involved).
Nerull - God of Death and Murder
The Necromancers of the Shadow Forest worshipped this god, and likely he has a lot of hatred for the group for stopping their plans. (That means Max and Drakuld in particular). Does he have a cult in Greyhawk? Almost certainly.
Kaima - ???
Possibly a goddess of rebirth; the group has been hearing a lot about her from the oklu in the Lost City. She's not known except as references in ancient texts. Whoever she is, she's been out of the loop for many centuries.
God of the Doom Dreamers - ???
The group fought agents of the Doom Dreamers during the Farika expedition; they have ties to evil elementals, and Archibald seemed to be aiding their plans. Exactly who they worship is unclear, but they don't seem to like you much.
Acererak - ???
Probably not an actual deity, but worth noting: the lich who built the Tomb of Horrors, whose plans the group seem to have been involved in stopping... but they're not done yet.
Orcus is dead. Just saying.
Thoughts from an Australian Board Gamer and RPGer
Archive for Merric Blackman
08 Nov 2011
- [+] Dice rolls
07 Oct 2011
Apparently, when I go on holiday, I stop writing as well. My plans for a few reviews managed to completely fall through. Sorry about that - I've just spent a week and a bit at home, reading and playing games. It was nice.
However, during that week (and a bit), the Golden Geek awards became available for voting. And, at that point, the horrible reality came crashing down on me: I really don't have much of a clue about the RPG section.
I'm a pretty devoted RPGer. On average, I spend about 7-8 hours a week playing RPGs. (I also spend 12 hours a week playing boardgames. Yes, I'm single. And I have a part-time job). I play more games than most people.
However, RPGs have this little thing about them that distinguishes them from boardgames: you play campaigns of RPGs. So, that RPG time is mostly spent in the pursuit of 3 campaigns - all D&D 4E at present - although we occasionally break away. (We've played Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds as well this year).
So, when it comes to voting on new RPGs, it's very, very unlikely I will have actually played the RPG in question. At best, I'll have bought it and read it. Sadly, the One Ring RPG game isn't there - so there goes one of the few new games that I own.
Looking at the nominees for best RPG, I find the following nominations:
Game of the Year:
The Burning Wheel Gold
Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple
Happy Birthday, Robot!
Gamma World Roleplaying Game: A D&D Roleplaying Game
Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition)
How many of them have I played? One. The new edition of Gamma World, which I ran at the Game Day devoted to it. (It was fun, but not a game I wanted to devote a lot of time to, although some of my friends really enjoyed it). I've heard of L5R, mainly because it's a 4th edition and it was also a CCG I've played, and Deathwatch I think is a WH40K RPG. I haven't even heard of the others.
Meanwhile, I wander over to the boardgame section of the awards. Here, I'm not the most typical boardgamer, although I'm probably more typical of the geek on BGG that elsewhere. I think there are very few boardgamers that stay just with one game.
So, of the Best Innovative Game category, I've played seven of them. Of the Best Strategy Game category, I've played seven of them. (I've got Troyes on order, but I've never seen a copy - it seemed to have been incredibly underprinted). Of the Best Wargame category, I've played seven of them. Thematic Game? Seven!
(Not surprisingly, I've played none of the abstracts).
Because the BGG voting system works by a comparative rating, my opinion of boardgames is far more useful than that of my opinion of RPGs. Yes, I've played Gamma World, but I can't tell you if it's better or worse than all the other RPGs. However, I can tell you that the seven wargames I voted on are all really, really good wargames and that separating them was extremely difficult. (#1 eventually went to Labyrinth, but there were several others that could have taken that spot).
What worries me about the RPG awards is that I'm not sure how typical I am. Are there enough "browsers" of RPGs on the site to give enough comparative votes to allow the best (most popular) RPG of the year to win? Or are we still at the stage where the top RPG goes to the one that gets five or six votes?
- [+] Dice rolls
23 Sep 2011
My group is one step closer to finishing the HPE series of adventures: we finished Kingdom of the Ghouls on Sunday. Ultimately, it was a tremendously disappointing adventure, which suffered greatly by being the middle act of the Epic plotline of Orcus vs the Raven Queen.
So, in essence it ends up being one giant chase which ends with you pretty much in the same place you were in: searching for Timesus with Orcus in possession of him... and it didn't have enough cool stuff to make the journey worthwhile.
There were a few nice touches, though. There's a really, really great theatre in the final stages which was tremendously fun to run. And it completely overshadowed the final fight against Doresain. Oops.
Speaking of Big Bads without personality, Doresain certainly qualifies. You never hear of him before this adventure, and you never will again. (Not after my party finished with him...) If there was ever an adventure that needed Doresain to be more visible, this one did. But then, its flaws were manifold.
What was interesting is that my group is down to 3 PCs and one NPC/PC (Splug) - my other player has left for a life in the theatre, and with so little remaining, it's not worth replacing him, especially as his replacement would likely be unfamiliar with Epic level D&D. Anyway, the four characters - a Fighter, Cleric, Rogue and Wizard - took on everything the adventure could throw at them, and I wasn't scaling things down to match the party. Indeed, I was scaling things up (damagewise) and it all went pretty well.
The last couple of sessions have each seen 4-5 combats in 3-4 hours. (This one was 3 hours long with 4 combats). So, each combat went about 40 minutes. That was a massive relief. It was greatly aided by having only three players - Splug only takes a moment or two to resolve. Mostly just by rolling a d20, seeing if he rolled a 1 and missed, and dealing 60 damage if he didn't. In case you weren't aware, Epic level Essential Thieves are really competent; we've just used an average of his damage dice to make it even quicker.
Even if I had five players, the length of combat at this level would still be quite reasonable. I remember my 16th level 3.5e game taking 2-3 hours for one combat - or all the players were rolling their dice during other people's turn (or doing it virtually) to speed things up. That wasn't as much fun as taking your turn actually during your turn.
Of course, once we finish Prince of Undeath, this campaign will change into an AD&D campaign, and I can work out how my memory has failed me when remembering playing AD&D.
But, for now, we're into the highest reaches of D&D 4E. It's not without its problem, but we're having fun with it and that's what counts - and Prince of Undeath looks like a really enjoyable adventure.
- [+] Dice rolls
22 Sep 2011
In the "reverse-earth" which we know as Oerth, World of the City of Greyhawk, the Frost Barbarians take inspiration from the Vikings of our world. So, in designing a home base - that is, a home village - for the players, I look to Viking culture for an idea of what should be there.
Of course, the needs of the party and game system also must be taken into account. From a very basic level, we need
* A leader of the village, possibly a mayor, but certainly a representative of the local (feudal?) lord
* A local priest - very likely of the Frost Barbarian pantheon, rather than of one particular deity. As I get older, I get more in favour of panthestic worship for the general population. Perhaps the priest is more in favour of the nature/weather deities (as this will be a farming village), but he represents them all.
* A village wizard, of 5th(!) level or thereabouts, who can act as the wise man/sage of the village, as well as being the mentor of any magic-user characters; within Viking tradition he'd also act as the runecarver.
* A village militia, to guard the village and go on raiding parties
In such a small village, the idea of a thief (per D&D) doesn't work so well. (Heh - maybe I should go with oD&D), but a thief could come with travelling performers or the like, or have apprenticed with such.
* A general store
* A blacksmith
An interesting part of Viking culture is that they kept slaves; such also goes with my conception of the Great Kingdom to the south, so having the Frost Barbarians keeping slaves will certainly make the campaign different to those that have taken place before.
* Also, we can add a Skald to the list of interesting characters of the village.
* And, as this will be a coastal village, a ship-builder
Talking about ships, it occurs to me that whatever trouble the group get into, one must ask why they don't just get on the nearest ship and raid the lands of the folk to the south? Attempting to find an explanation for this, I hit on the idea that a disaster has hit their home village: the ship (or ships) that it sent on the last raid were lost, along with the men who crewed them. This would therefore put the village in a very difficult place, with many of its menfolk lost to it. The PCs, being of an age where they've just achieved adulthood (after the ships left) would now be the chief fighters of the village... with all the responsibility that implies, and the adventure opportunities it creates.
Viking culture was made up of the Danes, the Norse and the Swedes. Which correspond to the Frost Barbarians? Either Sweden or Denmark would correspond to the position of the Frost Barbarians: southwards, with likely better agricultural land than those of their northern neighbours.
One particular contradiction to keep in mind is that of the popular view of Vikings (and their Greyhawk equivalents), and the actual reality of the Vikings as traders - yes, raids would occur, but trading voyages as well.
So, at some point in the future we have the possibility of the PCs being involved in a raiding party, or as guards on a merchant voyage. For the time being, we'll look at them in a (somewhat) impoverished town... and, nearby, a dungeon that possesses gold and silver that can get them out of their situation. And, furthermore, rumours of a large white dragon... the game is Dungeons & Dragons, after all!
- [+] Dice rolls
21 Sep 2011
Once upon a time, four friends (including two brothers) began a campaign in the World of Greyhawk. That time was now a very long time ago - over twenty years in the world of men - but what those friends did in that time still affects events now.
Two of the four were myself and my brother, Jeremy. During this campaign, I played a magic-user, Meliander the Mage, and Jeremy played a fighter, Brunak the Barbarian. As I recall, our DM got us to roll our homelands randomly on the table provided in the 1983 World of Greyhawk Campaign Setting. Meliander, thus, was from the County of Ulek, and Brunak was from the Wild Coast (Fax, as I recall).
However, between Jeremy making that roll and the campaign actually beginning, information became confused and somehow Brunak instead came from the barbarian lands far, far to the north-east. Exactly what a low-level Frost Barbarian fighter was doing in Mitrik we never ascertained, but so Brunak's path was set, and we went through many an adventure together.
I'm not sure exactly what level Brunak reached by the time we went our separate ways. Meliander reached 12th level by the time I was done with him - a very respectable level for an AD&D magic-user, and Brunak likely ended up somewhere the same. I must ask Jeremy if he can remember. (A copy of Brunak's character sheet might emerge from my old RPG papers, if I go look).
One of the last adventures Brunak participated in was the TSR 2nd edition module, Five Shall Be One and its sequel Howl from the North. These two adventures were the prequel to the Greyhawk Wars, one of those supplements that was terribly divisive for the Greyhawk fan community. (I personally don't like it, and avoid talking about it where possible). Five Shall Be One was an excellent Carl Sargent adventure, but Howl from the North by Dale "Slade" Henson was terribly disappointing. What was nice about the adventures was they were designed for a party of Frost Barbarians. Hey - they were designed for Brunak! Cool! And so, over a couple of afternoons, Jeremy and a few of our friends played through the adventure.
The adventure ends with Iuz the Old impersonating the Barbarian god, sending the Barbarians to attack the kingdoms below... and, in our campaign, setting Brunak up as King. One can only imagine what happened when the barbarians realised that they'd been had...
That was back in 582 C.Y. Since that time, I've run several Greyhawk campaigns, and the time has advanced to 600 C.Y. When discussing our next campaign with my friends, they expressed an interest in the barbarian lands of Greyhawk. So, it looks like we'll finally get a chance to find out what happened to Brunak and what's happening in the lands of the Frost Barbarians.
Back in 576 CY, the Frost Barbarian lands were not a happy place: due to a disastrous war, they'd lost most of their strength and were only just getting from under the thumb of their Snow Barbarian cousins (and rivals). Honestly, I don't see that having changed that much after the disaster of 584 CY. And a "broken" people makes for some great role-playing opportunities.
Adventure and role-playing opportunities are what I'll be looking for in this new campaign, which, due to a number of reasons, I'm intending to run using AD&D 1st edition (and without any of the supplements save monster books - not Unearthed Arcana, and certainly not the "guides").
So, what might be ahead in the campaign?
* Adventures in the mountain caves... allowing for some classic dungeoneering
* The politics of defeat... dealing with the Snow Barbarian overlords
* The world outside - Ratik, the Bone March and the ruined Great Kingdom
All of that is very vague at present. It'll be probably 4 months before we finish the HPE series and get onto the Barbarian campaign, and I'll soon start designing the home village of the PCs, and working up some initial adventure opportunities for the group. We'll see how it goes!
- [+] Dice rolls
20 Sep 2011
Once upon a time, there were these D&D designers who decided that clerics were boring. Why should every cleric have the same powers, even though one cleric was a priest of the god of battle, and another was a priest of the god of love...
Now, all of this makes a lot of sense. It really does. Why should the powers that one god grant be exactly the same as another's? Well, unless the gods all got utterly drunk one night...
Where things go pear-shaped is when you get to actually implementing it in the game.
D&D is designed, at its heart, as a team game. Each of the characters has their own abilities that are meant to be distinct from the others. The Fighter has good armour, lots of hit points, and hits things with weapons. The Thief has poor armour, moderate hit points, and attacks from positions of stealth and does lots of out-of-combat things. The Magic-User has no armour, poor hit points, and uses magic spells to kill monsters and perform various utility tasks. In pre-4e games, the Magic-User also had that strange aspect of Vancian magic: they had big effects, but a limit on how many per day, whilst the Fighter, like the Energizer Bunny, would keep running on...
The Cleric, as originally conceived, is a holy warrior. Their armour, hit points and melee strength is just a little lesser than the Fighter's, and they have a minor form of spell-casting; primarily curative and aiding magics.
As D&D has progressed, the Cleric's spell-casting has become more and more significant. At times, they've infringed very heavily on the Magic-User's turf (as the MU has infringed on the tasks of the Thief). One of the problems with the system of magic we have... which is very much "whatever sounds like a cool idea at the time" can go into a spell, without always a proper check of whether it actually fits the class or not.
However, during the design of 2nd edition AD&D, some of the designers had this bright idea of dividing up the spells into "schools" and "spheres". One was for magic-users and one was for clerics. The idea was that by creating these different groups of spells, it'd be an easy way to create differentiated clerics and magic-users. You see, Gary Gygax had included the Illusionist class in AD&D, as well as the Druid class. And the designers thought that it'd be the work of an instant to create eight specialist wizard classes just by dividing up the spells. Oh, and you could create speciality cleric classes (just like the druid) by doing the same with the cleric spells...
It was a terribly flawed idea.
The reason it's so flawed is twofold. The first is that spells are not created equal. Divination spells are not the equal of evocation spells. The second is that you actually expect a wizard to be more than "guy who cast spells". You need them to be "guy who casts spells to blow up our enemies". And cleric is "guy who cast spells to heal us and hits monsters with mace".
When you looked at an AD&D 1st level magic-user, you could be 99% sure that he had the sleep spell memorized, because it was what made the character worth playing at that level. Friends? So, not. The AD&D magic-user was the artillery that got the group out of the really bad situations they found themselves in. Just a few goblins? The fighters got into the action. A lot of goblins? Then out rolled the magic-user and his sleep spell.
The cleric was a support melee guy with support spells. Of course, this isn't always the most exciting role - which is why we got the horribly, horribly overpowered 3e cleric - but it actually does have a niche and doesn't step on too many toes. And it's important to have him in the group!
Unfortunately, AD&D 2e and the Complete Priest's Handbook with its "build your own speciality priest" managed to forget that the cleric had a role. They looked at the roleplaying conception of the class without actually remembering that it had to be played in a game.
So, you could have the wonderful sensation of having a Cleric of the God of War with all these destruction spells (but no healing), or a Cleric of the God of Love with all these healing spells, but nothing to help in combat...
It's little wonder that when 3e came along, the designers threw out all of this "make your own bad character" material and standardized the cleric. Now, if someone was playing the cleric, you knew what you were getting. It wasn't a poor wizard, or a wannabe fighter, it was a cleric - melee, healing and buffing. Priests of various gods were distinguished by domains. Of course, the balance of domains had its own problems...
4e continued with the 3e path, except it defined roles a lot better. The Warlord is a Cleric without the god bits. It actually plays quite differently, although they have overlap as both are "leaders" (i.e. buffing and healing). The domains are gone, absorbed into deity-specific feats, which are very sparse in the initial books. One expects that with the feats and paragon paths, designers of speciality priests in the future will be able to make some itneresting combinations. However, all of these things are based around the same core.
Of course, you can still customise your cleric with your selection of powers. What 4e does is say "this is your role, and you can fulfill its minimum requirements". Unlike 2e, which ignored whether you'd be any use to your party or not...
- [+] Dice rolls
19 Sep 2011
This was written in August 2008
Once upon a time, I adored 3rd edition D&D. I thought it was the best edition of D&D ever. Then Paizo came and tore up my good feelings, stomped on them, poured gasoline over them, set fire to them, and then buried the ashes in a garbage pit and stomped on them some more.
No, not really.
It is true, however, that a lot of my disquiet with how 3e handles things come from my experiences whilst running the Age of Worms adventure path. The adventure path is all kinds of awesome. Of the three Dungeon adventure paths that Paizo produced, it is by far my favourite and the only one I ran to its conclusion. (I ran the first two or three adventures of "Shackled City" before that group fell apart, and the first six or so adventures of Savage Tide before that group decided it didn't like the AP and wanted to discontinue it).
Other problems with 3e surfaced in my Ulek game, and I'll come to those in due course.
AC and Attack Bonus don't track. In the Age of Worms AP, the third adventure of the series is Encounter at Blackwall Keep. It involves a siege by Lizardmen. According to the CR and EL of the monsters and encounter this should be a significant challenge for the PCs, yet my PCs were barely challenged by it. "Barely"? It was a walk-over for the PCs.
The problem here derives from the 3e disconnect between the rate of AC increase and the rate of Attack Bonus increase, and the fact that the lizardmen have a pathetic attack bonus: sure, they get to attack three times, but at +1, there's not much chance of hitting the fighters in a level 5 party - by that time, the frontline fighters are probably moving up to AC of 20 or better.
In my Ulek campaign, Adam went out to break the player AC system, and did. I think, by the end of the campaign (which reached 15th level), his AC was something like 20 points higher than Sarah's Bard. Anything that could hit Adam would destroy Sarah, and that was a problem. (The bard has its own problems, but never mind those).
I also had the problem of ogres being too deadly for 1st level parties, a good challenge for 3rd level parties, and a walkover for 5th or 6th level parties...
The underlying reason for all of these problems is that the mathematical basis of 3e is poor. If you compare it to AD&D 1e, it's supercharged. All the numbers increase a lot quicker than in the previous edition. It works pretty well as long as you make sure that everything is about the same level, but, certainly with PCs, you can throw some of those numbers off a lot.
In AD&D, you do have the advantage of PCs not really advancing past 12th level. Any system that has such a wide difference in power levels as 3e does is going to run into problems if it isn't very, very careful. 3e wasn't that careful, throwing in plenty of bonus types and ways to achieve them. (To increase AC, you could get armour, shield, natural armour, enhancements to those three, dexterity enhancements and deflection... and those purely through magic items. Spells added more ways to increase AC which stacked with the foregoing!) In AD&D, you could have a limited Dex bonus, magic armour and a magic shield. Have a ring of protection? Bad luck, didn't stack.
4E pays a lot of attention to the maths. A lot of attention. Too much? Possibly. One of the things I really didn't like about Mutants & Masterminds is how everything was so finely balanced that it really was a case of you maxed out all the combat (attack or defense) powers you took, because not doing so was folly of the first order. Oh, and I hated the damage system. Give me HP any day! However, will I get that feeling from 4e? Will my players? (I was a player in M&M, and I haven't played 4e yet, only DMed it).
The problem that 4e may yet experience is that 1st level feels like 30th level. I believe this won't actually happen - although the relation between attack bonuses and defenses, damage and HP will stay moderately constant, the special effects that hang off those bonuses will change and be the determining factor of how interesting combat is. However, that's still just speculation. After all, I loved 3e for many years until Paizo Made Me Hate 3E.
Grappling Rules The World. This is somewhat related to the last point of the lousy maths of 3e, but there are a few extra things to be said here. I sort of knew Grappling had trouble in 3e (to be honest, it was almost completely unworkable in 1e & 2e... certainly I or any other group I played in never used the rules. In 3e, it worked well enough for us to use the rules. Unfortunately). However, it was in The Spire of Long Shadows that the big, big problems with grappling came to full light, because it was here that Martin lost his barbarian and didn't have him raised.
There are these big worm creatures in SoLS. They're big - probably Gargantuan. Cousins of the Purple Worm, except nastier. They're a really cool idea, but the implementation gave a few problems, and this comes down to the really, really lousy rules for grappling in 3e. It isn't that the idea of opposed checks is a bad one (it isn't), but rather that a disparity in check bonuses is multiplied badly when you're dealing with opposed checks. And, unfortunately, the disparity wasn't just that the Worm was stronger than Martin - it was, but not by a lot. It was that it was also bigger than him.
Now, I'm sure that it made a lot of sense to the designers to have size factor into the grapple check. There's just two problems here: first, size was already taken into account in the Strength score. (Make a creature bigger and it became stronger). And secondly, +4 per size difference was a hideously huge bonus when it came to opposed checks.
So, Martin's character got grabbed. Then swallowed. Then killed. All without him having a chance of escape. (Attack with light weapons inside the beast? Cool. Oh, grapple check to draw one? Forget it!)
Meanwhile, in the Ulek campaign, Dave's Druid was giving me the view of grappling from the PC's side. He had a bear. A grappling bear. A grappling, enlarged dire bear. Don't ask. It was cool, but overwhelming. And amusing given he was playing a particularly weak halfling. There was one point when he was in snow, and could only move 5 feet a round!
Grappling was just broken. In 4e, they got rid of it, almost taking us back to the days of 1e. Actually, 4e still has grappling in some form or another - Grab, a basic version that everyone can use, and more specific versions that some monsters or PCs can use. This does demonstrate one of the problems inherent in the 4e system: it doesn't support all the manuevers that you believe anyone (even without training) should be able to do. Some have been removed because they're so powerful, others you just wonder about. I really wonder why Trip isn't in the basic combat manuevers - especially as standing from prone doesn't provoke any more... although having Combat Advantage against a foe is possibly more effective in 4e.
The 15-minute Day. This problem also occurred in Spire of Long Shadows. Indeed, it's possibly the poster-boy adventure for the problem. However, the reason it exists isn't because the party is rorting the system and taking unneeded breaks to recharge all their powers. No, it's purely one of survival in SoLS.
Despite the problems with the CR/EL system in 3e, it is actually a remarkably good guide to determining how difficult an encounter will be for your party. (You do have to take into account how many Adams and Craigs you have distorting the numbers, though). When you get an entire adventure of APL+2 or +3 EL encounters (APL=average party level), you know your party is in for a rough ride. If they've got any sense - and, thankfully, my party did have - they're going to rest up after every encounter or two. Adventure flow? Not a chance.
This relates back to the lousy maths of 3e, and its very steep power curve. There isn't really that much of a gap between "very easy and doesn't deplete resources" and "we threw everything at the monster!" 3e combat can also be really swingy. Criticals and multiple attacks at high levels - plus incredibly damaging attacks - meant that a character could go from full health to dead in a single round, especially if ganged up upon.
So, if you'd used some of your major resources, you had to rest. High-level PCs could go somewhat longer, but the obsolescence of spells was also a problem. When you had 8th level spells, it was rare that your 5th (or even 6th) level spells had enough of a punch. Sometimes I really think that AD&D had the right idea with its non-capped magic missiles and fireballs: they were always relevant. In 3e, having 30+ spells could be misleading. 5-6 actually effective spells? Sometimes.
4e made a brave effort to tackle this. I'm not entirely sure it succeeded. Certainly, you can go longer now, especially as you're only expending a few major powers (and encounter powers are generally pretty good anyway). Healing surges do seem to be the determining factor of how long you can proceed, and they're a mixed blessing. They're a lot like Reserve Hit Points, and I really, really appreciate how they mean you don't actually need a cleric. However, because everyone has powers now - encounter, daily and at-will - the classes certainly appear very similar in how they work. It would be very nice to have classes that use a different resource management system. Is such possible with 4e? I hope we find out some day.
Rogues are Useless. This really was the fault of the Age of Worms as a whole, with its insistence on using undead foes. However, it's a problem with 3e as well. Rogues were balanced on the idea that you'd have a certain proportion of attacks against normal foes (where they outdamaged everyone) and a certain proportion against sneak-attack immune foes (where they showed new levels of suckiness).
You could see that Wizards had realised they had a problem in the latter stages of 3.5e. Two of the best weapon crystals were the ones that allowed the Rogues to sneak attack undead and golems. Of course, I gave Tom such crystals in AoW. Then came the last encounter.
Kyuss. With epic spell resistance, and immunity to sneak attacks. Tom 's rogue did all of three damage in the final combat.
One thing I really like about 4e is how it allows the strikers to do extra damage to everything. Mind you, it isn't at the same level as the 3e extra damage... which is a relief.
Clerics are Essential (and sucky to play). This problem was really apparent in Spire of Long Shadows (again!), but was noticable throughout most of my 3e games once they reached 5th level or later. You see, druids were cool (and fun to play), as Craig and Dave demonstrated again and again in my games. However, they couldn't protect the party against energy drain. Nor, which was worse, could they reverse its effects, or that of ability drain, which was remarkably common. Oh, that's right: Age of Worms = Lots of Undead.
Meanwhile, clerics were really useful, but playing them was often sucky. When it came to your turn it was "Please heal me". Sure, you could buff yourselves up in the first two turns to be a better fighter than the fighter, but you didn't get to actually use your buffed state because you were running around the battlefield bringing dying characters back to full HP. (Which is another problem with 3e's sucky maths). I'm sure some cleric players got past this, but we never did.
If there's one thing I love without reservation in 4e, it's how the 4e cleric functions. It's all types of cool. You don't need one, but boy do you notice if one is with your group!
Inferior school program. When you roll 20d6, you want the answer quickly, not in 10+ minutes. Me, I blame the teachers. And the inability of the government to provide everyone with PDAs like the one Craig used. Paizo? I don't have a problem with Paizo. Why would you think I did?
So, is 4e the solution?
Beats me. It's been a lot of fun so far, but it does a bunch of things that are new to D&D. I don't mind that the bard isn't in the core book (although I'm really, really looking forward to PHB2 and its inclusion), but the game isn't complete* yet and occasionally it really, really shows. More rituals, please! (*It's definitely complete enough to play, but there'll be a lot of development down the track, and options galore to expand our choices.)
The reason that I "blame" Paizo for making me "hate" 3e is because they allowed me to run a campaign that lasted from 1st to 21st level. (I ran two homebrews that ran until about 15th or 16th level). As they had different design parameters than me, they demonstrated aspects of the 3e system that worked poorly for my group - we'd have sidestepped many of them otherwise. Though not all - see Adam's vs. Sarah's ACs.
Would I run 3.5e again? Yes - along with any other edition of D&D. Mind you, I think my players are all very much enjoying 4e at present, so that'll be my edition for the foreseeable future.
And now I finally have the means to, it might be time to subscribe to Paizo's Pathfinder AP series again, and discover what cool stories they're inventing now.
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17 Sep 2011
One of the interesting things about AD&D is that - overall - it has a lot of junk in it. Gary Gygax included things that his friends thought would be a good idea, or that he thought was a good idea at the time, but ultimately didn't do that much for the game.
AD&D, as a system, is another step on the development of fantasy roleplaying since the initial publication of Chainmail. Chainmail was the basis for the original D&D books (and you'd have a lot of problems playing oD&D without Chainmail), and the game changed significantly over the next few years with the release of the supplements, in particular that of Greyhawk.
When you look over the development of D&D, you can see AD&D as a compiled D&D + supplements + magazine articles, with some things cleaned up, but with a lot of questionable elements. Original D&D doesn't have an initiative system: it inherits that from Chainmail. A different initiative system was published in Eldritch Wizardry, but Gygax returned to the Chainmail system for the one included in the AD&D DMG... and what a mess he made of explaining it!
The first time a talented developer and rules editor got his hands on the D&D rules we got Tom Moldvay's take on Basic D&D, which remains one of the highlights of early D&D: well explained and consistent throughout, it is a much superior system to the confused mess that is AD&D.
However, Tom Moldvay's Basic D&D does have one thing lacking: the variety of AD&D. Gygax included Elves, Gnomes, Half-Orcs, Dwarves and Halflings as races, and a full ten character classes. Admittedly, there are a couple of problematic classes - I'm looking at the monk in particular - but that variety is greatly appealing to me and, I daresay, my players.
The major element of Tom Moldvay's revision of the rules I expect I'll lift out for my upcoming AD&D campaign is the initiative rules; sorry, Gary: I can't understand what you want to happen with AD&D's initiative. (They're very much like what Magic Realm did, but then with rules that contradict other rules!)
Another interesting rules point I've recently discovered concerns Magic Item saving throws. There are detailed tables in the AD&D DMG listing the saving throws, but the notes about when to use the table are rather vague. Do you do it every time a PC is hit by a fireball or similar attack? Hit by a giant? Many DMs played it that way, and so AD&D magic items would often have a very limited lifespan. Original D&D provides the original intent: saving throws for items were made only if they were unattended (thus a fireball hitting a dragon's hoard) or if the owner was killed by the attack. That makes a lot more sense to me (and cuts down on the rolling), so I'll be adopting that.
Diaglo, a long-time member of EN World and other boards, often said that Supplement I: Greyhawk ruined D&D. As I become older, I become more sympathetic to that view. On thing in particular stands out to me: ability score bonuses. They cause ability score inflation more than anything else and - in their 3E and 4E versions - give the most balance problems of any element of D&D. Consider their effect on 4E defenses: at high levels, you can be looking at a gap of 9 in the bonus, which obviously translates to a big swing in effectiveness. (10 in one stat, 28 in another).
The original D&D gave a bonus or penalty to XP gained for your prime ability score, and a +1 bonus to missile attacks or hit points for the only other stats that did anything: Dex and Con. Oh, and Charisma influenced henchmen. When Supplement I came along, a 1st level fighter - with very lucky rolls - could get a +3 to hit and a +6 to damage compared to another 1st level fighter with a good (15) Strength. Hmm.
I'm very tempted to return to the original D&D's way of handling ability scores, but it's the one change to the AD&D system that I'm really not sure about yet. I'll work out more tweaks as I get closer to actually running the campaign.
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16 Sep 2011
After three years of running an D&D 4E campaign which will finish up at the end of this year (with the PCs at 30th level), I'm in the early stages of planning the next campaign, which will be a return to the World of Greyhawk campaign setting, but with a game I haven't run a campaign in for a very long time now: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
Why am I returning to AD&D? Combat length is a big part of it. As I've posted before, combat takes a long time in 4E and even longer in high-level 3E. I want to experience again a game where other things can exist apart from combat. This isn't to say that I want a combat-free game. I really enjoy combat, as do my players, but it does tend to overwhelm the other aspects of the game. Having 4+ combats in a session PLUS exploration sounds really good to me at the moment.
Another consideration is the length of time it has been since I ran AD&D. I'm fascinated by the development of the D&D system, but I feel I'm losing touch with how AD&D actually plays. There are bits and pieces that I think I know about it that I'm not actually sure are true.
I expect that when the players realise they need a cleric, their experience will change a bit. I'm actually quite interested in seeing how much the cleric ends up being "after encounter" healing and not "in encounter" healing - which is where the 3E and 4E cleric tended to live.
Then too, there are certain parts of AD&D that have de-emphasised in later editions, and I'd like to play them up in this game. In particular:
* Wandering Monsters
* Reactive Dungeons
Henchmen, in particular, have had a rocky ride. They were tremendously important in AD&D. In 2E, the system for henchmen disappeared, and became "DM makes things up". In 3E, the system became a feat - which we used. And in 4E, henchmen exist as part of the optional rules from Dragon magazine.
However, for a smaller group such as I have (4 players) where not everyone can make each session, they allow the filling of holes, and they also provide good world-building and roleplaying possibilities.
Wandering Monsters exist - to a certain extent - in 3E and 4E, but there are problems with their usage, in particular with how long a combat can take. (I'm rather pleased with the brevity of our 26th level 4E combats, but even so...)
Likewise with Reactive Dungeons. Actually, it's less of a system-specific thing than a DM thing. Gary writes about them in the AD&D DMG, where he discusses the different approaches of a lair to being attacked, then being attacked a week later after resupply. (I've a feeling that running a reactive lair is much, much easier when you've designed it yourself than when you're running from a published adventure).
I bring up Wandering Monsters and Reactive Dungeons precisely because I think they're the two biggest elements for stopping the 15 Minute Adventuring Day. We'll see how that goes...
Another thing that I expect will be greatly different between AD&D and 4E is the role of magic items. In 4E, magic items are (mostly) dull. They pretty much have to be - the design space they would have occupied has been taken by class powers. When a fighter gets a magic item, it isn't really granting him something that he couldn't do before. I think this is different in AD&D, but it will be interesting to see how it goes.
(I've already placed a wand of fear with 7 charges into the first dungeon... as I plan ahead by four months or so).
The other part of AD&D magic items as opposed to 4E is that 4E expects the characters have the "big three" items. It's part of the maths. It's less so in AD&D... with both damage and AC not really scaling that much. I'm going to be very interested to see how it actually plays, as opposed to my theorising about it.
Oh, and as for the campaign itself: A small village on the edge of the Frost Barbarian lands is in trouble: their last raiding party to the lands of the south was destroyed and their dragon ship with it. Now the village is being plagued by goblin bandits. The goblins have come into possession of a map to a mystical dungeon - a shrine to the old gods of the barbarians, now forgotten but holding old magic - but the goblins don't know what they have...
I do want to emphasize that this doesn't mean I'm abandoning 4E altogether: my existing 4E Greyhawk campaign will continue into the foreseeable future. Along with the other campaign I play in; currently a 4E Eberron game, but likely to become something else when we finish the current plot arc. (Martin keeps talking about running Savage Worlds, so it might end up being that).
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15 Sep 2011
Continuing on with the archiving on RPG Geek the significant articles I've written on gaming, here's one from last year.
I really like D&D 4E. I've been happily playing it since the day it came out, and I'll continue happily playing it until D&D 5E comes out (and possibly past them as well). I think that, in many respects, it's the best edition of D&D.
However, after having played it for the last 18 or so months, and having read the experiences of many other groups online, I think it's worth commenting on some of the problems I see with the core of the game.
And by that core, I mean the combat system.
D&D, in every edition, has at its heart a combat system. I believe that it's the best heroic fantasy combat system there is. The way that Armour Class, hit points and polyhedral dice interact may not be realistic, but it is fun, and when I play a game I look for fun. Apparently, so do the designers of D&D - especially if you look at the 4E DMG. So, D&D has a combat system and, in most games, combat is going to provide a fair core of the activity.
Games designers tend to want individual players to get a chance to do something fairly often. If you have to wait 20 minutes before you can do something, people tend to lose interest (unless listening to what else is happening is entertaining of itself. It can be). It could be accurately said of high-level D&D 3E that it took entirely too long to resolve one player's turn. In my final session of 3.5e, every player save one had a laptop which they used to roll their dice and track their modifiers and often ahead of time. Nathaniel spent all of everyone else's turns working out the results of his attack. Those last combats went by pretty fast... but required an exceptional and frankly unsatisfying solution. There was no hanging on the die roll of the other players - would they hit and save you or miss and doom you all? Nate would just reveal how much damage he'd done and we'd move on.
One of the great triumphs of 4e was to give players more options than just "I hit the monster", whilst keeping the individual turn lengths down. Why, then, are people complaining about how long combat goes?
Here's one of those little facts about the length of a turn that I'm pretty sure most of you know already: Part of it is the time taken to resolve the action. The other part is the time taken to choose the action to take. And it's that second part that 4e has a problem with.
The funny thing is that it might not actually take that long for a player to choose an action, but if it is the wrong action, the amount of time it takes to resolve combat increases just the same. As a simple example, if you're faced by three ogres, combat will end quickest if you concentrate on one ogre. Some groups don't do that, and so combat takes longer.
The other (hidden) part of this is in the character builds. Nate and Adam are two champion min-maxers (I say that in the nicest way). When they gave Josh some helpful advice on how to build his character, it suddenly changed from being "just ok" to being rather good. (I still can't say that it's the most useful character in the group, because Josh has Greg, Adam and Nate to contend with...)
Put those three elements together, and the cumulative effect are combats that can take greatly varying amounts of time. This is not, in itself, a problem. Well, it is, but it's something that you accept as a trade-off for having players doing more than saying "I swing my sword at the ogre" each turn. It's something you can live with, as a designer and a player.
Where things get interesting is when you start designing around how long combats ought to take.
It has now been some time since I regularly played AD&D, but I've got a feeling that an average combat would be somewhere in the realm of 20-30 minutes to resolve. Some would take more, some would take less. At low levels, all it might take was a single spell from a magic-user!
In 4e, it seems the average time for a combat, the time it was designed for a competent group to achieve, is about 1 hour. I have a couple of problems with that length in any case, but problems really comes for other groups who aren't as efficient as my group at getting past combats. Once a single combat takes 2 or more hours to resolve, you've used a fair whack of your gaming session. It'd be great if that variance could be reduced.
So, does 4E assume too much that the group will be effective at running/playing combat? My suspicion is that it does, and this affects people's enjoyment of the system.
Related topic: Pacing of Adventures
Is 1 hour a good time for an average combat to take?
The key part of running a good roleplaying session is getting the pacing right. D&D might have a combat system at its heart, but it isn't just about one combat after another. It's the context those combats come in that are so important: whether you're overcoming monsters on your way to save the princess, or exploring a old pyramid, or seeking to find the real reason the giants are now invading the kingdom. Combat is great fun, but it also is a great pause in the story you create in the session. Yes, occasionally something will happen in the combat that advances the story, but - in my experience - that's the exception, not the rule.
What I've discussed so far relates to the core of D&D 4e: the structure that make the game work. I'm now going to look at the game in play, using the campaign I've run with the published D&D modules for examples. Let's look at the compounded effect of long(ish) combat and combat-heavy adventure design:
There are a lot of combats in the Wizards adventures. The wonderful Rodney Thompson recently started a thread on EN World on their adventure design. At present, my group is getting towards the conclusion of the second Paragon adventure, Demon Queen's Enclave. The combats we've been facing have been difficult, consistently of a danger level above the average party level. (One hint for designers: It'd be nice to know what level you expect the party to be when they face an encounter in a multi-level adventure. We're mostly 16th level now, I think we should be 17th level, but I'm not sure when that should have happened.)
Tougher combats take longer. When *every* combat is a tougher combat (where are the easy ones, guys?) then you spend a lot of the session sitting there getting through tough combats. There are eight combats in this final section: the characters have breached Orcus's realm, and are now assaulting his final stronghold to deal with his champion. Where are the natural break points? I've got a feeling that you should get through most of it and be left with only the final encounter to go in a single session. It's taken us a lot longer than that - especially as we don't run 7 hour sessions... and that's presuming that all we did was combat!
But why is running this in a single session useful? Well, in my experience it is because D&D works best when the players are very clear on what their goal is. (Which is that context the encounter takes place in I mentioned before). When two ogres appear to bar the PC's way, the first thought in the players' minds shouldn't really be "oh, another combat", but instead, "They're blocking us from finding the princess. How do we get past them?"
If the interruption takes too long - and an hour is likely that, two hours is certainly that - by the end of the combat, the players have likely lost their original focus and then need to regain it. If you have two really long combat in the session, likely they've spent very little time thinking about what their actual goal is and the game has degenerated into a set of combats.
A long combat? Great for the finale - defeat the Giant King to save the princess. At the end of it they get their reward and it's all over. On the way there? Not so good.
Thinking about this just as a design consideration: after a combat, it helps if players are reminded of (a) their goal and (b) how overcoming the challenge has contributed to this. It's not necessary after every combat, but it helps. Of course, not every goal will be as clear-cut as "save the princess", but having consequences for a combat beyond "the monsters are dead" and perhaps "treasure, hooray!" helps elevate it in significance.
The other point about long combats is that they detract from the significance of other encounters and discoveries. Really, discoveries are something that the 4E adventures in the Heroic and Paragon tier haven't done that well. You could see nods towards it in Pyramid of Shadows - and it had a great backstory to go with it - but not enough of it was visible to the players, and there really wasn't enough meat for the DM and players to make it fantastic.
Adventure pacing is a tricky thing to pull off. Often, it'll feel too linear and railroaded. Sometimes, you have to leave it in the hands of the individual DM. However, when individual combats take so long, it's hard for even that DM to pull it off.
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