Sunday, April 24, 2011

Vor Rukoth: Review

I had been interested in this adventure site guide for a while, since I read about its publication on I have to admit that Tieflings, as a race, were not really interesting to me, as I think that their origin makes for potentially problematic gameplay. However, I do like the idea of an abandoned city with a dark past, so I thought I would revisit Tieflings through the setting guide, and see if I couldn't come up with some ideas for how to use them more effectively.

The first thing to note before even getting in to the module itself is that it sort of assumes that you already have the Player's Handbook Races: Tieflings book, which gives an overview of what Tieflings are, where they came from, what Bael Turath and Arkhosia were, and what happened to them. It references these things, and gives very cursory descriptions sometimes, but most of the time you feel like you do need a little more information about the background, which the Tieflings books provides.

Like the other setting guides, it consists of a cardstock "cover" which actually folds out into a map of the entire city, and encloses the actual book (which doesn't have its own cover), as well as a play map, which has an infernal looking "throne room" sort of setting on one side, and a generic ruined city street setting on the other. The maps are never alluded to anywhere in the book itself, but one can assume the throne room setting is the Horned Throne Room in the Ruby Court, where one would likely have the climactic encounter of the module, with Najala the lich queen. Unfortunately, Najala herself is never statted out, requiring you to either use a generic lich build from the MM or else build your own custom Najala. Her phylactery is statted out at level 15, however, and it looks like an interesting battle in and of itself.

There are a number of specific locations designated and described within the city (36 is the number, fact, although some numbered locations have other sub-locations), and with each location, a few adventure hooks and occasionally a statted special enemy. A lot of these are not very inspiring (as they are very specific), but most are adaptable enough to be usable. My chief complaint, however, is that since the location is intended to be a repeat adventure location over a broad spectrum of levels, each "neighborhood" has a variety of levels of encounters written in, but without much saying how players might traverse an area populated by high-level encounters in order to reach one with low-leveled encounters in a neighboring area. I suppose that is under the purview of the DM and limited only by imagination though, so it's not really even a valid complaint. They do suggest environmental effects: an earthquake, sealing off some areas and opening up others; flooding, revealing long-underwater locations while inundating others; even a meteor shower, destroying large portions of the city. Additionally, some of the adventure hooks also have their own environmental outcomes as a result of completing or failing their objectives which could have effects on large portions of the city. But it's all very sketchy.

In my current campaign, we began with The Slaying Stone , where part of the adventure was clearing the city out, so that one day people could move in again. I can foresee Vor Rukoth having a similar eventual outcome, having an epic-level campaign culminating in creating a new Tiefling homeland where Vor Rukoth is the new capital. But that's for the future, I suppose.

Overall, I wish that the module had come with more maps, rather than just the generic street view and the throne room. There are so many interesting locales described in the module, I'd have liked to have seen some settings for them to play upon without having to buy more and more dungeon tiles, especially because there are not a lot of "demonic" or "ruined" terrain tile options. With most "setting" modules, having only one map is not so bad, but with an adventure setting where the focus is tons of different locales, multiple maps would have been a plus. The adventure hooks, I feel, all said and done, are adequate enough to stimulate a lot of good ideas, and the locale descriptions, though sketchy, are still good enough to come up with more ideas. I'm excited to try to get one or more Vor Rukoth based adventures in my campaign, especially testing out some of the more interesting mid-heroic-level demonic enemies in the Demonomicon and the MM 1-3.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Adding a little Old School flavor to D&D 4e

I can't say that I honestly have much invested in the D&D "edition wars" that seem to be neverending, but I have nevertheless been observing sort of the back and forth between proponents of different systems. For instance, Pathfinder, at least to me, seems to be the system that has been fully adopted by people who didn't want to let go of 3.5, and then there are any number of "retroclones" for the previous editions of OD&D, AD&D, and even BECMI. I see nothing wrong with any of these, in and of themselves, I've even downloaded the OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord free pdfs and have been pawing through them in order to sort of see what the distinguishing features of those clones are, since it seems like even among the OD&D fans, there is dissention over what's the "best" part about that system.

But the property which I think really separates D&D 4e from ANY previous edition is the relative downplaying of magic items (and the devaluation of magic items that comes with 4's very casual dispensation of them) and the emphasis on "class powers" rather than equipment in and of itself. In other words, you've got your At-Wills, Encounters, and Dailies, and if you've built a decent enough character you may never even have to use a basic melee or a basic ranged. And it seems like this level of abstraction is what especially alienated a lot of OD&D fans, who were used to having to account for a lot more details, coming out of specific different kinds of weapons, rather than abstracting so much stuff like weight, length, shape, material, and attack style and just saying "1d6+Str." It doesn't matter whether it's a warhammer, a sickle, or a broadsword. Then even among the "military" or "masterwork" sort of weapons it's just a matter of another +1 or +2 bonus; weapons aren't interesting at all in 4e, they're just a nondescript vehicle through which to deliver (some) class powers.

So I've been thinking about this, especially with regard to 4e "Essentials" and the possibility of a 5e coming some time in the next couple years, and wondering why you couldn't build a weapons "subsystem" into 4e, which is already very modular and easy to modify, and create your own rules for weapons-heavy characters, emphasizing not only the particular qualities of the weapons themselves, but the proficiency with which each class handles those types of weapons. In other words, say you have a dwarven paladin with a particular proficiency in military hammers, which rather than to just simply get another +1 on attack rolls, you could unlock the "proficiency" option on a weapon, at the sacrifice of the regular At-Wills for the class, to instead use the weapon's special qualities.

So using the hammer example, you could swing the hammer in different ways in order to knock the enemy aside, daze the enemy, sweep the enemy's feet from under them, etc. in order to actually be "proficient" with using the weapon, and still get to keep class features, or have the option of turning one at-will or encounter into a "class feature" in order to still preserve some of those qualities. I haven't actually tried to stat out any specific weapons or make a build using this yet, so I'll have to see if it introduces too much imbalance. But I do think that it may be a way to introduce a more "old school" feel to the original game, and remove some of that abstraction that makes weapons by themselves sort of worthless, as well as remove the occasionally very silly and unbelievable class powers that have come out for each class. Though there would be a lot of work on behalf of the DM in order to set this up, it would be a much more satisfying, I think, exercise in the basic striker than what Essentials provides us with the fighter.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

New Terrain: Witchwood

Witchwood is a magical vine of uncertain origin. It seems to be more prone to growing in climates which are mild year-round, as any place where the ground is subject to a hard freeze it is never found, and where the ambient humidity is generally over 70%. Its true method of propagation is a mystery, as it has never been observed to flower, but it has been observed that it has a profound ability to self-propagate through cuttings of the stem or root, with the most vigorous regrowth coming from the transplanted root crown. Functionally, this means that if the plant is cut off at ground level, the aerial vine can re-root just as readily as a new plant will grow from the underground roots still remaining, and if the vine is chopped up into small pieces, each piece has the potential to grow into a new, separate plant. Its aerial parts can be readily destroyed by burning, but as the roots remain untouched by fire, it will regrow.

For most of the year, it appears as just a thick mat of intertwined thin brown vines, forming what looks like a net which covers existing vegetation, as well as climbs up and over buildings and other artificial structures, choking out whatever it grows over. In fact, the vegetation it grows atop has the tendency to wither and die at a rate much faster than can usually be accounted for by simply light deprivation, which is in accordance with its most infamous observed property: its seeming tendency to draw the life energy from living things in its proximity. Its growth habit is usually that a cutting will first grow underground to establish a root system, and then send out a thin rhizome just under the surface, from which small suckers grow from which, in time, will result in a mass of anywhere between 1 and 6 vines. They spread out in all angles, growing around each other and climbing whatever obstacle is in their way, eventually growing small, simple, opposite, acuminate leaves, of a greenish-red color along the length of the new vine and then dropping after only a matter of a couple months. New vines grow from the tips of old vines, or else from any place where the vine is broken or cut, and only new growth gets leaves. Very old growth, that is, growth that is undisturbed for several years, can create very thick mats that are so tightly interwoven and layered that it creates a more or less steady surface that one can walk across without falling through. The youngest vine growth is nevertheless very brittle, and is easily snapped.

Though it prefers places of high humidity, moderate to high temperatures, and high light, it can occasionally be found growing in places with no light, as the vines can sometimes grow into or underneath something and be nourished by the other vines attached to their roots that are above ground. Over time, one can occasionally find startlingly large growths of witchwood in caves and abandoned buildings, as long as it has another source of nourishment at hand. Namely, sources of arcane energy. Therefore, in some places where there is a lot of magical activity, such as mages' towers and lichs' phylacteries, witch wood can grow very vigorously and even completely conceal the entrances or the entire structures.

Functionally, witchwood has its strongest effect on wizards and warlocks and those who use the arcane power source. Standing in a square occupied by witchwood, one suffers a -2 modifier on all rolls which use the arcane keyword. Furthermore, if someone drops to zero hit points in a square occupied by witchwood, they get a -2 modifier to their saving rolls, and others trying to help them get a -2 modifier on heal checks. Additionally, if an arcane character drops in a square containing witchwood, they take a -4 modifier on saving throws, as it is sucking away their arcane energy.

Lastly, witchwood, depending on the thickness of the mats, can be either difficult terrain or hindering terrain, tripping characters walking across it.