Friday, September 30, 2011

Wizards of the Coast's Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium

Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium fulfils a need that D&D 4e has had since its inception: cursed items. While I could go on and on about how it has tons of really great new weapons, weapon powers, weapon feats, magical items, and flavor text, what you're really buying it for are the cursed items. I suppose I should back it up just a little bit. MME is presented, loosely, in the fom of a book written, but then later redacted and then destroyed, by the archmage Mordenkainen. He adds in some nods to his archmage buddies (including Tenser, of Tenser's Floating Disc fame, and Bigby, as in Bigby's Grasping Hand), but mostly pontificates about himself. It's a nice stylistic flourish that makes the book more fun to read, and also is an excuse for the authors to have a bit of fun in writing it. All throughout the book, there are little sidebars with knocks about certain items by Mordenkainen, which, for the most part, are pretty entertaining, and each chapter is introduced with a longer monologue about the topic in Mordenkainen's distinctive style.

The book does have some good mundane and magical items in it. It unlocks the "superior" training feat, as well as specific weapon-based special attacks utilizing superior weapons training (and superior weapons); along those lines was something I suggested myself in one of the early days of this blog. It goes into much more detail with arcane implements, with new wands, orbs, holy symbols, tomes, staffs, foci, and totems, for all sorts of character classes that can utilize such things. Up to this point, one could easily call Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium "Adventurer's Vault 3" (which it is) and be done with it. However that would completely belittle the fact that this book is organized and presented in a far superior way to either of the Adventurer's Vault books, and is ultimately a lot more useful than those books (when it comes to wondrous items, and other magic doodads). However, my favorite thing about Adventurer's Vault 2, immurements, did not make it back to MME, which was a bit of a disappointment.

The last part of the book concerns itself with artifacts and cursed items. It defines artifacts, broadly, as those sorts of items which are more important, narratively, than mechanically. Many of the examples they list are items created by or formerly owned by the gods, and which possess extremely potent innate abilities. However, the introductory piece on artifacts makes it clear that their proper place is as the "McGuffin," an otherworldly item which moves the plot in the adventure forward, and so therefore the PCs' possession of that item may be very brief. This is a concept which I think is pretty cool, and I think the only thing lacking is variety in examples. I think there were about two or three items per tier listed.

But the cursed items are exactly as you'd expect. Many are an obvious nod to earlier, more deadly editions of D&D, recreating some infamous items for the 4e world. One of the best comments that the book makes, however, is for DMs to consider: cursed items, by and large, are extremely powerful magic, requiring a lot of time and effort, and sometimes a lot of resources to bring together. Therefore cursed items should not be used lightly, or indiscriminately. Because of the considerations involved with the manufacture of cursed items, one must assume that most are made, specifically, for the torture and punishment of one specific individual. Cursed items for cursed items' sake, therefore, would be gratuitous. But this warning about considering the cursed item's past also is a very strong reminder to justify why you, as DM, are inserting this item into your adventure; what is its background, why is it there, who was it intended for, was it successful? The best part about cursed items is that they are virtually indistinguishable from the item that they are intended to copy until the curse is activated, in which case it is too late. Mercifully, though the cursed items usually cannot be removed after they've been triggered, it is not unnecessarily difficult to remove them outside of urgent situations.

Overall, a fan of older editions might criticize Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium's cursed items as not being nasty enough. But, overall, they fit well into the general schema of how things work within 4e. I believe it is by far the best in the "loot" series of books, but is also not remarkable when compared to the others. However, a completist will find it more than satisfactory, and if one were to only buy one of the three loot books, I would argue that the Emporium would be the one to choose. There has been a clear evolution of thought and style over the course of 4th edition's publishing history, and Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium reaps the benefits of this.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wizards of the Coast's Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale

The first time I read it, i was ready to declare Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale the greatest book ever published under the Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition moniker. While my feelings at this point are much less enthusiastic, I will still readily declare that it is a fantastic book. By the title, one can identify that it probably is in line with the "Essentials" line of products, which to many people will probably make it sound next to worthless. While I do have my own reservations about Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, I do not believe that wholesale disapproval of the Essentials line is justified, since there are a few products (this included), that stand out, even above many "non-Essentials" books published over the last few years.

The title of the book suggests both that it is a sequel to the first Monster Vault (which it is), and that it will focus primarily on the Nentir Vale (the default setting for Essentials). Unlike the first Monster Vault, it does not come with a prewritten adventure which utilizes the monsters contained within, but instead takes a more organic approach, which I think is much more successful. The book begins with an introduction of some of the "powers that be" within the Vale, and then goes in to descriptions of the sorts of monsters found there (to build upon the first Monster Vault), and, in doing so, takes a narrative approach to describe why and where these monsters might be encountered within that setting, including often multiple adventure hooks to go along with them.

There are a few monsters in the book that seem a bit "tacked on," in that they initially seem inappropriate for the locales of the Vale, but through narrative description, their presence is justified. Many of these "tacked on" monsters were classics or peculiar ones from previous editions that had not yet been statted out, so their inclusion in the book I can understand, but the fact that the authors went out of their way to try to coax them into the narrative of the rest of the book made them really believable and appropriate. Foremost among these, for example, are the Cadaver Collector and the Penanggalan, which are pretty out there as far as creatures are concerned, but with the descriptions one can quite easily come up with ways to use them. Still, most of the statted enemies in the book are ones mentioned specifically in the introductory area, so that they are not just vague background noise, but actual, legitimate "threats." So therefore many of the described enemies are factions.

To me, the best part about the entire book are all the factions.  Factions are not a new concept in 4e; they've been used, with varying success, in almost all of the location guides (Hammerfast, Vor Rukoth, Gloomwrought, etc.), but I thought that the factions presented in this book were particularly colorful, interesting, and believable. Upon reading about many of them, I immediately had ideas in my mind about how to create an adventure featuring them as allies, antagonists, or even both at different times, as well as ways to transport them "out of" the Nentir Vale into my own game world and use them independently.

This last point brings up another aspect of the book: modularity. While it is ostensibly set in the Essentials world, in the Nentir Vale, there is not one creature, faction, construct, anything, that couldn't be lifted out of its "set" location and used elsewhere. There are a whole flock of creatures who dwell in and around the Witchlight Fens. Got room for a swamp in your campaign? Drop them there, even in the Shadowfell, in the Oblivion Bog.

The dragons in the book take a tack which has been more common in more recent D&D publications. Namely, that rather than ascribing them a color and a demeanor, the dragons are all given names and personalities. Calastryx is a three-headed red dragon; Shadowmire is a black dragon changed by his long residence within the Witchlight Fens. Dragons are among the most interesting (and enduring) enemies in the Dungeons and Dragons universe (they're even part of the name!), and so therefore the recent emphasis on individual dragons, who could be poised to be one-off adventure-ending opponents, or just as easily tier-long orchestrators and more distant threats, makes the seem a lot more interesting, alive, and, most importantly, usable.

A personal favorite from the book are the Felldrakes, low level monstrous drakes magically mutated by the corrupt wizards of Bael Turath to serve the empire and their Tiefling masters. These creatures specifically would feel right at home in Vor Rukoth, and actually I think would significantly improve the playing experience of a party exploring that city. Vor Rukoth by itself didn't seem unique enough; it had lots of locations and lots of adventure hooks, but still nevertheless didn't feel very populated, since there wasn't any time spent really getting in to the sort of things that had taken up residence there. Adding in marauding Felldrakes, gone wild from being abandoned for so long, would be a great looming threat for adventurers exploring the ruins there, and would be a great go-to creature to throw in to just about any encounter that needed a few extra jaws to chomp on the good guys. While the Felldrakes themselves are only levels 1 to 4, there are special ones described, Dark Drakes, that go up to level 8. Combining them in different ways and scaling the numbers up, one could pretty easily come up with felldrakes of any heroic or low paragon level.

Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale is probably the best Essentials-keyed product on the market, and even a strong contender among all of the monster manuals among the 4th edition products. Oh, and it comes with a two-sided fold out map (as everything seems to these days), and 8 sheets of die-cut tokens (ditto). All of these things are enclosed in a sleeve, rather than a box, so you have to be careful if you want to keep everything together to squeeze it well while you're taking it off the shelf, or else things might slide out the bottom. I could dock points for the packaging, but I'm sure they expected most people to throw the map in whatever box they have that has all their other maps, pop the tokens out and throw away the sheets, and to just file the book on the shelf. I don't use tokens, so I just keep all of it together for propriety's sake.

Winter Is Coming- New Monster [D&D 4e] The Iceshard Skeleton

This is a second entry in response to T.W. Wombat's  Winter Is Coming RPG Blog Festival.

The Arnerian Empire once stretched across thousands of miles in the furthest north, but now resides only in legend. Before their slow and steady invasion of their more southerly neighbors, it was assumed that nobody, and nothing, could survive in the impossibly high and hostile mountains known, aptly, as the Roof of the World. Tales of the brutality and unforgiving nature of the Arnerian Empire have been passed down from generation to generation and survived, even when descriptions of their people and their cities have been lost to the ages. Nothing, however, stands out as much in the imagination as the strange and terrible tales of the dark magic that the Arnerians were said to control. It is said that even the gods feared the powers that were under the Arnerians’ command; that their powers came directly from those beings from outside the gods’ domains, from the strange and terrible beings that occupy what we now call the Far Realm.

The secrets of the corrupt magic dreamed up by the Sages of the Arnerian Empire have been lost, many would say thankfully, forever, but their legacy in their creations remains. The most fearsome and terrible of their ranks were their Frost Giant slaves, magically bound to guard their lands, and tortured until death if they refused to obey or became derelict in their duties. But the torture for the Arnerian Frost Giants did not end at death: the Arnerian Sages had the flesh stripped from the giants’ bones, and then reanimated them in a state of undeath so they could continue to serve even beyond the length of their own lives. Any mind or spirit left from the Frost Giants were irrevocably lost; the giant skeletal forms did not recognize kin or kind, only the need to kill instilled in them by their masters, and the will to obey even the most terrible of commands. With the Arnerian Empire destroyed and lost beneath the shifting snow, the skeletal giants continue in their duties, directionless, without an empire to protect or commands to fulfill. Usually, the presence of one or more of these monsters is the only indication that there ever could have been a citadel or tower amidst the wastes, sometimes standing without moving for hundreds of years.

At first, the Frost Giants of the Verdenstak Mountains made war upon the abominations. Directly succeeding the downfall of the Arnerians, the giants sought revenge for their enslavement, laying waste to their wasted cities and trying to destroy everything that they had created. However, it became soon evident that wherever the skeletal monsters were felled, they seemed to eventually rise back from the rubble, and then even the giants began to shun the accursed lands. Now nothing walks among the peaks and passes at the Roof of the World, abandoned even by those who would wish to call these lands home. All the time, the silent, unmoving, unthinking guardians of the carcass of the Arnerian Empire remain, ready to confront any who dare trespass in their forgotten lands.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Winter Is Coming- New Monster [Shadowrun 4e] The Golo-Golo

This is an entry in response to T. W. Wombat's Winter Is Coming RPG Blog Festival.

The Golo-Golo is a creature with no accepted taxonomy, which has only been documented within the last twenty or so years, though as with anything, there are sketchy reports of sightings from before that time. The name is a bastardization of a pidgin Russian name, Golodnaya Gololed, hungry hoarfrost; a reference to the only time the creatures seem to be prevalent, which is on the heels of a particularly cold weather front. It has not been observed where they go when temperatures warm, because they are never found when the temperature on the ground is above freezing. It is thought that they have some degree of burrowing ability, or some other means by which to sink underground and keep their bodies cooled. Not surprisingly, it has been found that they have a particular weakness to heat or fire, and that is the primary means by which they are repelled.
The creatures themselves resemble a large, meter- to two meter-wide whitish-gray pancake, with no discernible orifices, sensory organs, or appendages on their dorsal side. Their skin is rough, similar to shark skin, but much more pliable (and remarkably resistant to puncture). However, caution should be taken when handling them, because their skin excretes a small amount of a venom which has a powerfully narcotic, soporific effect.

On their ventral sides, they have a complicated series of mouth-like organs which excrete digestive enzymes and also reabsorb the resultant digestive slurry. All around the edge of the animals are curved, venom-containing hooks, which the animal can either rapidly flip into an upward-facing direction, or else seem to involuntarily flip up if sufficient pressure is applied to any part of the dorsal side of the animal. The result is that if the animal is stepped on, the hooks flip up and pierce the ankle of the offender, and deliver a powerful dose of its venom. Within seconds, the victim begins to become dizzy, sluggish, and weakened, finally collapsing on the ground, usually only steps away from the animal. It then uses a rhythmic contraction of its muscles to slowly propel itself over top of the victim, where it will engulf them and begin excreting digestive enzymes from its many mouthparts. Since it continually exudes its soporific venom from its skin, the victim will usually not awaken while it is being consumed alive, and, ultimately, there is little that remains. It should also be noted that the venom seems to be remarkably volatile, readily soaking through layers of clothing and being absorbed into the skin, but also not remaining in the material for more than twenty or thirty minutes before dissipating.

The creatures do not appear to have any sort of eyes, but do exhibit a small degree of thermal sensing in addition to what seems to be their primary sense of detecting vibrations in the earth. Additionally, their ventral sides seem to have thicker skin, and more ability to resist heat than their dorsal sides, evidently a mechanism by which to resist the body heat of their prey while they are feeding. The animals seem to have no capacity to right themselves if turned upside-down, nor any ability to move whatsoever. A strange observed ability is that they seem to be able to move themselves through thick snow much more quickly than they can simply by wiggling across the ground. It is not certain whether this is merely observers’ bias, or if it is actually an innate ability by the creatures.

The most unique aspect of these creatures is their paranormal abilities. While they do appear to be dual-natured (this is debated), they do not seem to have any ability or desire to astrally hunt. They do, however, appear to have a marked ability to compel victims which approach within a 30 meter or so diameter to move directly towards them. The area of their psychic affect seems directly connected to their size, with larger creatures being able to influence victims from farther away. This psychic influence does not seem limited entirely to compulsion, either, as many people have nearly trod upon the creatures without noticing them, before being pulled away by a more observant (or less readily affected) companion. This effect seems to function in the astral plane, where they are frequently overlooked amidst the other astral noise of the area. Finally, it has been observed that there might be a correlation between frequency of blizzards and number of Golo-Golos in the area, indicating that they might have some sort of limited ability to influence the weather, based on some as-yet unobserved psychic link between the animals.

Transporting the creatures has proven to be an extraordinarily difficult endeavor, as well as creating an environment for them in which they can survive for more than a few hours, drastically limiting the ability for study in controlled environments. Nevertheless, some very enterprising (and resource-laden) individuals have captured the animals and created enclosed environments for them as curiosities.

Note: both the Dual-Natured power and the weather control powers are optional, based on how the creature is intended to be used.

Average Size
B    A    R    S    C    I    L    W  Edge Ess  M  Init  IP
4     1     4    2     4    2    0     3       2      6    4     7     1

Large Size
B    A    R    S    C    I    L    W  Edge Ess  M  Init  IP
5     1     4    3     5    3    0     4       3      6    5     8     1

Movement: 2 / 5 (through thick snow)
Skills: Infiltration (5), Perception (4), Unarmed Combat (4)
Powers: Compulsion (Paranormal; Movement only), Concealment (Paranormal), (Dual Natured,) Enhanced Senses (Vibration), Hardened Armor (2/4), Immune (Cold), Magical Guard (3), Natural Weapon (digestive enzyme: DV 4P, AP 0, acid damage), Venom (Soporific; see below), [Weather Control (Blizzard)]
Weaknesses: Reduced Senses (Blind), Vulnerability (Heat, Fire)

Soporific Toxin:
Vector: Contact
Speed: Immediate
Penetration: -2
Power: 10
Effect: Disorientation, Stun Damage
Penetration is negated by a sufficiently high rated environment suit (such as the Mitsuhama EE Suit, AR55) which protects against environmental toxins. Effect is immediate, often within 20 seconds or less, with delirium and disorientation taking effect before unconsciousness. Stun damage from this poison does not carry over into physical damage.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: The Cleric

This is apparently going to be part two of me talking about Dungeon Crawl Classics classes. Today, we're going to be talking about the DCCRPG cleric.  Let me just start this off by saying that I love clerics, and I am happy to see DCCRPG handle them in a way that is honestly pretty great.

First, clerics have a "failure" table just like wizards do. Unlike wizards, clerics do not suffer horrific, permanent mutations and deformities. Rather, they receive relatively minor, temporary effects to reflect the fact that, in failure, they have earned their deity's disapproval. Typically the time required to gain a deity's approval back is just 24 hours, but for some effects it can take up to 1d4 days. But like the wizard, it is resolved randomly, and so occasionally the required atonement action would not make sense with the character (for instance, would an evil god really want an evil cleric to go on a quest to heal the crippled?).

Also unlike the wizard, there are myriad ways for clerics to get around disapproval, and it results in them feeling like much more multifaceted, interesting characters. The base mechanic is that a cleric can cast a spell once per day, but then each additional time the spell is cast it is at a cumulative -1 penalty, ostensibly to represent the increasing burden on the cleric's deity to "intervene." And, of course, each time risking disapproval again.  Penalties can, additionally, be shaved back off by the cleric making sacrifices, usually to the tune of goods worth 50gp, per -1 penalty removed. Additionally, the GM can judge a "great deed, quest, or service to a deity" to be a sacrifice as well. In short, clerics are far more useful than wizards.

Clerics also have some neat little additional abilities for flavor, like how laying on hands works better on characters who share a similar alignment to the cleric than those of opposite alignment; additionally, healing someone of an opposed alignment can count as a "sin," which can curry disfavor from the cleric's deity. For some reason, on the deities list, Cthulhu is there, as a neutral deity, as "Priest of the Old Ones." Clearly, this is not your mother's Cthulhu.

The last perk of DCCRPG clerics over D&D clerics is that turn undead doesn't just turn undead. It has been reskinned as "turn unholy," and then you refer to your deity list to determine what, exactly, the deity constitutes as unholy.  Apparently Cthulhu doesn't like mundane animals OR monsters, OR werewolves, OR perversions of nature, in addition to undead, demons, and devils. So, in short, be a neutral cleric, since your "turn unholy" repels just about everything (...). Hopefully the finished product will have a LOT more details on the deities, because this is pretty sketchy.

The only thing I might add to the DCCRPG cleric would be, on the theme of making sacrifices to stave off penalties, for the cleric to be able to take a stricture which limits or constrains their ability to perform a kind of magic.  For instance, a lawful cleric might worship a god who specifically hates demons, might have an unlimited ability to utilize turn unholy against that specific kind of enemy, maybe at the expense of using any other kind of magic in the interim. Something, at least, to play with. Since there is no paladin in DCCRPG, the cleric sort of functions as both, and should be satisfying as either. The ability to play a neutral or evil cleric is an added bonus.

I went into this expecting to cut into the cleric like I did the wizard, but I'm surprised that honestly, with the system the game sets up, I feel like the cleric works pretty well. I have been reading, by the way, a lot of other people complaining about how single-minded the corruption table is, and a lot of people suggesting building their own custom corruption tables based on the wizard's patron... which seems like a lot of work, at the beginning, but also probably a lot more satisfying in the long run for the player.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: The Wizard

There are many things that I like about Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics Role-Playing Game (the name is not one of them). Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (henceforth DCCRPG, blech) is, to a degree, a retroclone, in that it intentionally harkens back (in book art as well as rules) to the early days of Dungeons and Dragons. But it is a particularly deadly, dangerous game, even compared to others of its relative ilk.  This being said, probably the "worst" type of character one could play in DCCRPG is the wizard, based purely on the degree by which bad things can and will happen to the character.

The game world supposes that magic is inherently an extremely dangerous, alien, and corrupting thing, so that the more often someone uses it, the more likely it is that they will be permanently changed, maimed, or worse. When a wizard PC rolls a one on a spell check, the player must first roll on the spell fumble table, which can be as innocuous as a small explosion nearby, or as bizarre as a torrential rain of iron ingots (it doesn't say that they will necessarily cause damage, but I can't imagine a situation where heavy metal suddenly begins raining down upon your head and it NOT hurting). But ADDITIONALLY, the wizard character must also face a roll on the corruption table, since when magic goes wrong, it goes very, very wrong. Corruption is, for the most part, permanent, and also very obvious.  It can be the character's ears falling off, their limbs turning into tentacles, a permanent case of weeping pustules all over the face, one's mouth being replaced by a beak, or growing a tail with a third hand at the end. One can only imagine a very old wizard to being a repugnant, shivering mound of flesh, worse than a chimera and hardly able of speech of locomotion. Furthermore, one wonders why anybody, in this world, would want to be a wizard at all. Given, there is only a 5% chance of failing, and given that many corruption effects are not that bad, over time, the probability becomes staggering. Pair this with the fact that when a wizard learns a new spell, it is possible that it will be difficult to cast, requiring the use of a d14 or a d16 rather than a d20, raising the likelihood of corruption to 6 or 7% every time a spell is cast.

In analysis of this, I can only guess that this system was put into place as an alternative to the Vancian system of older editions of D&D. Typically, in DCCRPG, if a wizard succeeds on a spell, it is not lost and can be cast again. This is a great improvement, in my eyes, over the set-and-forget one a day Vancian system. However, if the spell fails, one suffers all of the effects above, plus the loss of the ability to cast that spell anymore for the rest of the day. So even after all that, you still fail. Unless, of course, you perform some horrific act of self-mortification called "Spellburn" to regain the spell, which can even result in temporary stat loss (there is a picture of a wizard stabbing a knife through his hand) until the wound heals. All of these things, corruption, mercurial magic, spellburn, spell fumbles, are completely random. You have to roll on tables.

This is completely insane, to me. It completely takes away the roleplay aspect of the wizard, and makes it seem like the character is not in control of their own actions. Especially in regards to spellburn, it seems like it would make a lot more sense for the player to be able to choose what type of self-mortification they would like to engage in, for a similar level of effect in regaining the spell. For instance, maybe the player only wants to burn some of their hair; maybe then that the spell would be regained, but instead of a d20 you can only roll a d12. The most bizarre spellburn action is if you roll a 1 on the table: "The wizard sacrifices one pound of flesh per spell level, which he must carve from his own body with a knife that is holy to a powerful outsider." WHO CAME UP WITH THIS? One, if you cut a pound of flesh out of your own body, YOU WOULD ALMOST CERTAINLY BE MORTALLY INJURED, and even if you weren't, you'd be bleeding so badly you couldn't do anything except lay there for a while until you died or passed out. Secondly, where would this holy knife suddenly appear from? What if you rolled a one, but shucks you were fresh out of holy knives to powerful outsiders? Would you have to roll again to try to get another result? This doesn't seem to be a very well thought-out system, and honestly if I ran a DCCRPG game, I would not include this rule, period. Losing a spell on a failure is fine. You get it back the next day, you'll just have to use your crossbow until then.

Let me take a second to recompose myself here. Anyway, this is not a case of "he who summons the magic, commands the magic." This is a case of "he who summons the magic is completely screwed." Though magic comes from immensely powerful and ineffable extraplanar entities who obviously do not have much stake in humans besides as playthings, the onerous punishments for being an ordinary wizard doing ordinary wizard things seems a bit extreme; the idea is great, but I can't imagine an actual person playing a wizard in this game and having fun for long, as they become less and less able and more and more hideous, while the Fighter literally can do no wrong. If I were to run a game like this, I would be very tempted to highly modify the wizard rules in order to make the class more playable. I can't tell whether DCCRPG wants to be more deadly and serious, or more zany and goofy, since it seems to want both, and it creates a very jarring experience in the process.

Foremost, I would allow a willpower save against the corruption every time a spell is failed. Spell misfires are fine, I can deal with that, I just wish the table was more expansive. I would also allow for the possibility of the corruption effects being reversible, however at great cost or very difficultly is completely fine. An alternative to that would be from within the rules themselves: many effects from misfired spells wear off after 1d7 days, 1d7 weeks, 1d7 months, etc.; an arbitrary and random amount of time, that'd be fine.  Rather than the wizard becoming an increasingly disfigured mound of undifferentiated flesh with tentacles, beaks, claws, and wings sticking out of it like some miniature toy breed of shoggoth with bad acne, give the guy a break.

Wizards receive their magical power from extraplanar patrons; why can't they try to appease their patrons after failing a roll by accepting this... alteration, but then after a period of time they are returned to (mostly) normal. Or maybe they can remove a sign of corruption by giving something up; a spell, one point off a stat, something to the tune of the spellburn table. Or maybe they can even just temporarily lose the use of the spell that caused the corruption altogether, until they can overcome the corruption it caused. Give the player a little bit of control and a few choices, or else the forced randomness only creates a different kind of rails for the game to follow. Warriors deal more damage, more easily, with fewer penalties for failing, and look better while doing it. There is no mechanical reason in this game to be a wizard, and in fact players will probably end up feeling like they are being punished for playing one. There has to be a better way to handle a world where magic is inherently dangerous that does not involve systematically (and randomly) deconstructing a character and transforming it into something that the player wouldn't want to play anymore.

Postscript: I suppose it should be mentioned that these are the beta rules, so the wizard might be much less unplayable in the final form. I am a little disappointed that the publication date for the final rules was pushed off until February, this is one of my most anticipated new games, despite my less than generous attitude in this article. Even with these rules, I would love to run a game in which there was a wizard, maybe even two wizards, to see how the rules actually play out in practice, so all of my comments above are purely on a theoretical level having just read the rules.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Alignment and the Banality of Evil

One of the biggest problems in any game I've run that deals with "Alignment" are those roleplaying choices that the players make that technically violate their listed alignment.  It's very difficult to judge what would just let slide or when I, as the game master, should call them out on it, or at least question their judgment (are you sure your lawful good paladin would be ok with slaughtering all of these orcs in their sleep?).  But as I develop my "custom" game world, I'm going to be increasingly insistent that actions have consequences in terms of alignment.  It works both ways, too.  If a PC can slowly become neutral (or even evil), an evil NPC could also become more neutral (or even good). 

I do believe that these sorts of alignment change questions, when relevant to the PC, should be discussed with the player outside of game, and perhaps privately.  Other characters might not notice the change at first, but become slowly aware of changes in the character's personality that do not mesh with what they usually expected from them.  In the case of a divine character, I don't see why they should lose their divine powers (even in the case of one who worships a lawful good deity), but the powers become warped somehow. Or perhaps they change allegiances.  As they stray further and further from the path proscribed for them by their deity, their holy symbol darkens, tarnishes, fades, or chips, something which can be noticed by their fellow adventurers. This can be played out in game, as well.  Perhaps a crusader for Bahamut begins to feel disillusioned by being constrained to only do good, even when it might, ultimately, allow an even greater evil to flourish, and instead strays to the side of the Raven Queen as the impartial Ultimate Mediator.

Corollary to this idea of alignment change is the idea of betrayal.  I have never actually had a game where one of the PCs betrays the others, but there are some games that make it much easier (such as Call of Cthulhu).  Chief in my mind here are the Horus Heresy Warhammer 40,000 novels where the titular character, Horus, is corrupted by chaos, and it slowly becomes more and more apparent to Garviel Loken as time goes on, as he acts further out of character and quickly begins to make Loken legitimately concerned.  Certainly a PC betrayal would, in most situations, result in the PC being ejected from the party and, at best, becoming an NPC.  But is there a situation where a character could become evil in a group of good PCs and still remain mostly in line with the party goals?  I can only jokingly think of the Order of the Stick, where the other characters have to keep Belkar in line, because he is Chaotic Evil, something which they have to keep a secret from NPC paladins who might otherwise want to smite him.

An evil (but otherwise harmless) PC might create similar hijinx when dealing with an uncertain populace, and constantly having to corral that character in, given an accepting group, might create fun and funny roleplay experiences.  I will be very interested to see what Rob Schwalb does with 4e Book of Vile Darkness, because I am constantly trying to think of ways to create more situations than just "good characters kill evil badguys, everybody win."  Life is more interesting than that, so why shouldn't the game be more interesting than that?  Supposedly good people are compelled into doing evil things all the time, whether by circumstance, trickery, or plain folly.  A game which allows for the "banality of evil" would probably be more interesting, but I've just never had the opportunity to put something like that together.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Magical Schools of Thought

I have been thinking, a bit facetiously, about the disconnect between Vancian magic in older systems of Dungeons and Dragons to the more unlimited "power" based approach of magic in 4th edition.  It seems that wizards, or to generalize any class from the "arcane" power source, got a considerable leg up, especially at lower levels, with 4th edition.  Besides just shrugging and making any number of arguments about why 4th edition breaks D&D or is an MMO on paper, the disconnect between earlier edition wizards and 4th can, potentially, be put to good story use in-game.  I must admit that the inspiriation comes partially from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, specifically the wizards (wizzards?) at Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork.

Chiefly, what if Vancian magic is just a theory?  Like, in the D&D universe, what if wizards traditionally were able to only cast one spell a day because that's just what they were taught?  This assumes that wizards undergo magical training at some sort of wizard school, which is well within the bounds of the theory about wizards generally.  One also can easily harken to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, with Mr. Norrell being representative, by and large, of the Vancian theory.  Magic should be properly respected, especially by younger, more inexperienced, wizards, and so it is not only improper but potentially dangerous for an inexperienced wizard to go wild with Magic Missile before he truly understands the arcane energy that he is summoning together in order to coalesce it into the force commonly referred to as a Magic Missile.  Additionally, by casting it once a day a wizard can be certain that he will have assumed all of the proper concentration and focus necessary to ensure that it will land and have an effect.

4th edition, by contrast, is a much more free wheeling, damn-the-consequences theory of magical practice, and as a result of that, is less effective.  The compromise for breaking in to the arcane energies faster than with the Traditionalist school is that, quite often, magic can come off only partially formed, and fizzle out midair rather than land its target. A missed die roll in 4e represents a failure to summon together the proper arcane forces and is not so much an abject failure on the count of the wizard himself, but a consequence of trying to do too much, too fast, which is largely representative of this school of magic to begin with.

One can almost assume that earlier editions of D&D took place in an earlier, more chaotic time in the collective D&D'verse's history, and, as time went on, not only did the world change, but the ideas of the people in the world changed as well, and part and parcel to that, one can certainly expect a paradigm shift in magical theory.  The older, more cautious Vancian approach is almost entirely subsumed beneath the newer, flashier 4e system that allows for such (in the eyes of the Old Guard) unnecessary ostentatious displays as "Jim's Magic Missile."

In game terms I see absolutely no reason why a player, even in 4th edition, couldn't create an "old style" wizard who still insisted on making the tradeoff from having At-Will powers to having spells have a much more definite chance of hitting.  Whether this is practical or simply stubbornness, it doesn't ultimately mechanically matter.  Perhaps take a page from the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG and have powers that are usually At-Will not be expended if they miss, but have powers branded Encounter or Daily powers continue to get the Vancian treatment.  There would almost necessarily have to be some power creep involved in the powers themselves, to counterbalance the more limited expression they'd take with this system in 4e, breaking the balance of the game.  But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.  How this would look in Epic level though, I have no idea.  Perhaps it might be worth, at level one, awarding the Vancian "Old Guard" wizard one additional feat in order to trade off for the power imbalance.

One of the things I really appreciate about the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is that it makes dabbling in the arcane arts extremely dangerous.  While DCC might go a little overboard with it, the lesson is still there.  Vancian magic shows a bit of respect for the forces that are behind what makes magic "work," which is something that completely disappears from 4e.  Magic becomes frivolous and carefree, which not only loses its flavor compared to other similar-leveled powers from other classes, but also makes it ultimately less interesting to play a wizard as opposed to another arcane class that might deal more damage, like a sorcerer.  Adding a little more danger, or uncertainty, or even flavor in this way might be the solution to the otherwise uninspiring wizard. If anyone tries this out, let me know how it works.