Reskinning Shadowfell: Sir Keegan

As I said last time, I got started on my current D&D campaign by running Keep on the Shadowfell – the first official 4th Edition D&D adventure released by Wizards of the Coast. They’ve since released a PDF version for free, which makes commenting on the changes I’ve made super-easy as you all can follow along if you’re so inclined. Today we’ll be looking at pages 42-43, Area 8: Sir Keegan’s Tomb. My own rewritten version can be found here.

A detailed examination – and spoilers – after the jump. Continue reading

D&D4E, Dark Sun

Balic Rising: Cast of Characters

On a scale of “I suck” to “I suck” it probably surprises none of you to learn that I suck.

My last blog post was on the 26th of August – 74 days ago.

Like I said – I suck.

Now then, on to business. I left-off halfway through a review of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. I wish I could say “and tomorrow I’ll be finishing it up” but that would be a lie. So let me man the fuck up and give you all the facts:

  1. I just started a new job two weeks ago.
  2. I’m buried up to my neck in school work.
  3. I’m back home and even after two months, which affords me all kinds of opportunities to reconnect with old friends.
  4. I’m running a weekly DS4e campaign entitled Balic Rising.
  5. Right now, all of those things are just flat-out more important to me than blogging.

So there it is. Which begs the question of the future of The City-State of Balic. I got an e-mail from old friend Glen saying we should get back to work on FuckedWorld (he’s been crazy busy since changing jobs himself), and I wholeheartedly agree. But I’m done trying to pretend my life is the same as it was when I lived in the Arctic Circle – blogging is no longer the most fun way to spend my hours. To that end, I plan on discussing the Balic Rising campaign here. If Glen and I resume our FuckedWorld-ery, it’ll go up here too. Everything else? Is on an indefinite hold.

Except that half-finished Dark Sun Campaign Setting review. I’m going to finish it right here: it was awesome, the end!

Now let me introduce you to the party. Consisting of my girlfriend, brother, and three best friends, none of these folks have played 4th Edition before. At least one of them hasn’t played Dungeons & Dragons ever before and another one hasn’t played in over a decade. And the principal rule at our table: it’s just a game. I’m running adventures and telling a story, true – but I have had to accept that fun is more important than “realism” (a stupid concept when you rationally consider trying to make a fantasy setting “real”). That means some of these characters are somewhat silly. Some of them are very silly. I humbly suggest you get over it – I had to.

Alright. The party. Here we go – I’m going to do this alphabetically, for simplicity’s sake.

First up we have Anachia Ri, a tiefling battlemind with the noble adept character theme. Using the wild battlemind build presented in the DSCS, she wears scale armor, wields an executioner’s axe, and favors attacks that either push enemies back or knock them prone. A former student at Balic’s premier psionic academy, the Cerebran, Anachia left the school under circumstances that are somewhat vague (she may have dropped out, she may have been kicked out, we’re not entirely sure). Played by my girlfriend (who’s brand-new to D&D), I find it extremely amusing she’s playing a class that can glare you into a coma if you piss her off. So, you know, art imitating life.

Next is Ara’Darashee, elf ranger, and her not-long-for-this-world dagorran companion Esta’Imra. Played by one of my closest friends (and one of my current housemates), we don’t know much about Ara’Darashee’s past or personality yet, but I’m looking forward to digging into it as the campaign moves along. As I mentioned above, all my players are new to 4th Edition and Ara’Darashee is a good example of a character in the process of evolving to match her player’s interests. From level one to level two, she’s changed gears from beast mastery to archery specialization (thus the comment about poor, poor Esta’Imra – whose horrifying eventual fate will be the subject of a future blog post), likewise changing character themes from the melee-oriented gladiator to the poison-based Athasian minstrel theme.

Third in the lineup is Doctor Rockzo – yes, named after that Doctor Rockzo – played by another close friend and former co-worker. Doctor Rockzo is a dwarf summoner druid with the primal guardian character theme. Specifically, Doctor Rockzo is able to summon the mighty and powerful spirit of Carl Weathers the Goat – a goat who follows doctor Rockzo all the time, but has no statistical relevance except when summoned. Oh, and Carl is addicted to cocaine, so Doctor Rockzo doesn’t so much “summon” his goat, as throw a fistful of blow at the ground, which Carl Weathers snorts and then – being all “coked out” – the goat is ready to fight.

Yes, I am aware that there are no goats or cocaine on Athas. But Rockzo has fun with it, and makes it entertaining. He also likes to use his wild shape power to take a goat form of his own so him and Carl can get “intimate.” Yes, it’s going to be that kind of campaign. No, I won’t be offended if you choose to stop reading now.

Played by my brother, we come to Omega Doom – whose name changes every week to a different ridiculous movie character. Given how fluid the minds and personalities of half-giants are, though, I suppose it makes a certain sort of sense. A half-giant barbarian gladiator with a love of axes and SMASH!!! Omega Doom is brutal and merciless. He also drinks a lot, is the dumbest member of the party, and may or may not be attracted to all sexes, species and animals. Suffice to say that there are some jokes going around about Omega and Carl. Once again – I won’t be offended if you depart this blog in disgust. We don’t know much about this character’s past yet either – for the time being I’m happy to let my players focus on learning the game, and work out the story elements later on down the road.

Finally we have Zem, formally styled Zem the VI, played by my other housemate and real-life husband of Ara’Darashee. A dragonborn warlord with the noble adept character theme, Zem also attended the Cerebran – and may very well have been a freshman when Anachia Ri was being “cordially invited to depart our esteemed halls of learning, you base trollop!” He likely served his time in the Balican legions as a junior officer, which would technically have made him part of Andropinis’ templar bureaucracy – though not a “capital-T” Templar, invested with the sorcerer-king’s arcane might. Zem typically enters battle bearing a flail and shield, though later he’ll swap his flail for a longsword as well as develop a growing affection for javelins.

It’s an interesting party, and we’ve been having a lot of fun – with five sessions already under our belt, they’ve hit level two, grown comfortable with their abilities, learned to work together tactically, and (thusfar) murdered 41 living creatures. Next time, I’ll cover our first two sessions, comprising the mini-adventure Sand Raiders.

D&D4E, Dark Sun, Nerdstalgia

At the intersection of Nostalgia Avenue and Kickass Lane, Part I

As I’ve previously mentioned, I created this blog mostly to nerd out with brother-from-a-different-mother Glen. It offered me the opportunity to educate him on the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which he’d not yet had a chance to look at, and also gush about the return of my favorite setting. In the throes of great gush-itude, I made a number of predictions and guesses about what would be happening. Some were right, some were wrong, but there’s one I feel like hit the nail right on the head:

Make no mistake about it – there is going to be plenty for you to hate in DS4E, if you’re the sort of person inclined to hate it. When the original Dark Sun material comes into conflict with the game’s need to keep all individual elements in balance with one another? The developers aren’t going to trash game balance – they’re going to change shit about the setting. I for one am fine with that. Dark Sun, as it was originally, was a 2nd Edition product – DS4E will be a 4th Edition product. They won’t be the same – because you can’t drop 2nd Edition philosophy into 4th Edition rules, and expect it to work. It won’t.

Now that wasn’t exactly a tough prediction to make – you’ll hate it if you’re inclined to hate it – but I think it was pretty apt because things are different. They have to be, for it to work. Baker & co. had to choose between a properly balanced game product that played a little fast and loose with the setting in a few places, or an unbalanced game product that adhered to the setting canon perfectly but brought with it all the baggage of 2nd Edition. I may miss the quadruped thri-kreen, but I’ll never accuse them of getting their priorities wrong because they got them exactly right. To anyone still riding the hate-horse because things have changed, I say this: if you loved 2nd Ed. Dark Sun so much, who is stopping you from playing it?

Alright, enough of that, let’s really dig our teeth into the book here. I’ll be reviewing the Dark Sun Campaign Setting book exclusively here – maybe later I’ll dig into the Creature Catalog.

The Dark Sun Campaign Setting is a 222-page hardcover book that retails for $39.95 USD. As you’d expect from a Wizards of the Coast publication, the production values are excellent and the artwork is full-color and beautiful. I’ve got a few minor art gripes, only one of which I’ll mention below when I go voer chapter two, but with the rare exception every piece is nicely done and evocative of the setting. You can really get a feel for how this world is different and how its people are different from the typical, Tolkien-based fantasy setting.

Also in the package is a two-sided poster map, one side showing you the Tyr Region and the other providing you with an in-depth map of the city-state of Tyr itself. I like the poster map very much (it’s beautifully drawn) but have two problems with it – one genuine and one nit-picky. The genuine problem is that, at some point Wizards began including their poster maps by folding them down to fit inside the book and then binding them into the cover. The one portion of the map that is bound into the book’s spine is perforate so you can just easily tear it out, and then unfold your poster map to be useful. Maybe it’s just me, but I fucking loathe this method because on a spine of this length I find it extremely difficult to get the perforation to tear straight and always wind up taking tiny chunks of paper out of my otherwise beautiful and glossy poster map. I remember when I had a subscription to Dragon Magazine (the dead-tree, Paizo publication, not the current digital magazine) and every month it came with a post battlemap – which was also inside the magazine, attached by a tiny glue strip that was easy to remove without damaging either the magazine or the map. Whether the perforation method is being pursued for cost reasons or some other reason, I can’t really tell you but I hate it.

My nit-picky problem is that I’m fucking sick and tired of god damned Tyr. Jesus Christ, did the Tyrian Chamber of Commerce pay you fuckers off to constantly advertise how great it is? For five novels and three iterations of the campaign setting, it’s Tyr, Tyr, Tyr, Tyr, Tyr and I’m sick of it. Making it worse is that a map of every city-state is inside the book, at the same quality as the Tyrian map (the Tyrian map is also inside the book if you want to look at your poster map and strain your eyes at the same time). I’d have ordered my book through their website, and even paid a few extra dollars beyond the shipping, if I could have gotten any psoter map I wanted (say, ummmm, Balic). Anyways, it’s a minor point, but it’s just sort of pissing me off. Alright, on to the book itself.

Chapter One: The World of Athas gets the ball rolling nicely with a twelve page summary of Athasian society, culture, and how it differs from typical settings. While It never goes into too much detail, it neatly covers the lack of divine characters, a quick list of the world’s dangers, the social classes of the cities, literacy, coinage, languages, the Athasian calendar, a little bit of its history, the prevalence of psionics and the shunning of magic, the differences from the standard cosmology (in a nutshell the Feywild is being torn apart as a side effect fo defiling, and if you even manage to get the the Astral Sea – the typical home of the gods – you’ll find it an empty, desolate ghost-town of a plane). It amnages to do this is twelve pages, and I feel provides ample information for a complete novice to truly get a feel for what they’re embarking upon.

The only gripe I have with this section is it omits something when discussing the calendar. They mention, briefly, how years are named in two parts and mention the current year (Priest’s Defiance), previously year (Desert’s Slumber) and the upcoming year (Wind’s Reverence). They also mention that it is presently the 190th King’s Age – but they leave you completely ignorant of A) how long a King’s Age is or B) how to figure out the name of any year other than the three named ones. I own the old products, so I’m fine, but for the space it would have taken up I think it would have been worth including. Other than this, however, this section is fantastic and does a lot to help encourage those new to Dark Sun – and soothe we old hands, showing us the Athas we love and remember is still there.

Chapter Two: Races of Athas kicks things off by providing us with two Dark Sun-specific races – the mul and the thri-kreen. Muls pretty much shape up as I expected, with a few abilities I didn’t anticipate – specifically Born of Two Races, which lets them take either dwarf or human feats (and which I should have predicted) and Mul Vitality which gives them an extra healing surge. Also, the previously mentioned condition resistance appears in the form of Incredible Toughness, an encounter power that shrugs off a dazed, slowed, stunned, or weakened condition. Thri-kreen, meanwhile, I knew a lot less about in advance but seem to conform to my expectations. They get a +2 to Athletics and Nature, as I expected, and they get a boost to jumping which makes sense. I’m sure lots of people will be unhappy with the new thri-kreen, but I happen to like threm – and they get a lot of the old stuff (incredible spring attacks, paralyzing bite) in the thri-kreen paragon path anyways.

After the introduction of these two new races, the rest get a brief treatment. All of the Player’s Handbook 1 races, plus the Goliath, get discussed over seven pages. With the exception of the character backgrounds, there’s no mechanics here – this is strictly a discussion about how the various races function, socially and culturally, in the very different world of Dark Sun. I mentioned an art gripe with this chapter, and this is where I find it. I love the artwork here, my only problem is that there isn’t enough of it. Specifically, as each races is radically different from its “traditional fantasy setting” counterpart, why isn’t a picture of each race included to show you what they look like? Of the three missing races, most egregious is the absence of the eladrin and the tiefling as both were non-existant during the original Dark Sun product run – more than any other races, they ought to be depicted in this section. Other than that minor gripe, however, I think these chapter does a good job catching everyone up on what it’s like to be a resident of Athas and how the various races are different from their counterparts.

Lastly we get three paragon paths – the half-giant thug, the mul battle slave, and the thri-kreen predator. All of them are cool, and nicely fit both the setting and the race, and I can see playing as any one of them. I’d have liked to see more paragon paths – they obviously felt they had to include a paragon path for each new race, and added one more as they’d radically changed the “flavor” of the Goliath – but I also recognize that there are space constraints.

At the time of writing it’s been seven days since my last update – and in that previous update, I said I was going to be updating more frequently (technically every seven days is more frequent than every nine!), so I think I’m going to do this review in two or three parts. I’ve been busy this past week as, at long last, I prepare to get my Dark Sun campaign underway. I’ll be talking about my campaign, my sessions, and my players (who are dedicated to driving me insane) soon.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Hitting the Reset Button

One of the more interesting things about the new, 4th Edition take on Dark Sun is that they’re doing something I normally abhor – but in this case am actually right on board with. Am I making an exception for Dark Sun just because it’s Dark Sun, thus proving my pathetic fanboyish-ness? Probably – but I run a blog about Dungeons & Dragons. So I’m not exactly “Mr. Cool” to begin with.

The Prism Pentad series really gave Dark Sun most of its details and iconic characters. Rikus and Neeva, Agis of Asticles, Rajaat War-Bringer, Borys of Ebe, Tithian the Turd (though he may not have gotten that nickname until the Chronicles of Athas books) were all introduced by the Pentad. Well, to be fair Borys already existed, but just as “The Dragon.” It made the sorcerer-kings truly cool by revealing who they were and how they had come to power – then proceeded to take these amazing, awesome characters of near infinite power and kill most of them.

Similarly to what Hayden Christensen did to Darth Vader, the Prism Pentad series did to the sorcerer-kings – took something you used to think was cool, then ruined them. The sorcerer-kings didn’t become lame like Vader did, but it’s a moot point because the majority of them died, which meant – if you ran an “official” Dark Sun campaign – they weren’t of much use to your game anyways.

My favorite sorcerer-king was always Hammanu, who happened to survive the Pentad series, only to get bumped off in Rise and Fall of a Dragon King. Spoiler Alert. Don’t worry, the entire Chronicles of Athas series has been retconned as being non-canonical anyways – Lynn Abbey (and possibly the other contributing authors, I’m not sure) were pretty well known to have taken some “liberties” with the established material. Besides, there’s a statute of limitations on spoilers for novels published 14 years ago.

Anyways, the point I’m getting at – in my patented rambling fashion – is that the progression of the Dark Sun timeline was a mixed bag. The original Dark Sun was very mysterious, with little of the history of the world known or understood. The Pentad revealed most of that history – and, to give Denning his due, it was brilliant – but at the same time, some of the mystery and confusion was lost. And there is a very vocal contingent on any Dark Sun-themed board or community that wishes the “revised” Dark Sun campaign setting (the one that incorporates the Pentad) had never happened.

So it’s not that surprising that DS4e will be winding the clock backwards. Apparently the wayback machine will be transporting Sherman and Mr. Peabody to the time immediately following The Verdant Passage – i.e. directly following the death of Kalak, and prior to the war between Tyr and Urik. It’s weird, because retcons typically piss me off, but I’m cool with this. In fact, in my own eventual Dark Sun campaign I intend to wind the clock back even further, to the time when sorcerer-kings were seen as undying gods-made-flesh. The minute one of them bites it, the entire society and culture of the entire Tablelands is almost certainly going to begin to shift and change.

My attitude toward the Pentad, when I run the game, is that it’s a great novel series and an excellent go-to guide for Athas’ history – and that’s it. I guarantee, that even if I do start bumping off sorcerer-kings, the progression will be a very different thing than what’s detailed in the Pentad.

If nothing else, most of my friends are very literate. I don’t dare follow a roadmap that exists anywhere but inside my head if I want to keep them on their toes.

I’m excited to say that, my last Shameless finally garnered some commentary from people I’ve never met before – at long last, a chiming of thought and opinion from someone I didn’t date or go to school with. This is a trend I want to continue, so I’m going to start ending some of these posts with a call for commentary. How do you let novels and other sources of “official” canon affect the plotlines of your games? And, as a follow-up, when basing your campaign on a novel or movie, what do you do when you later find out one (or more) or your players has read it or seen it?

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Character Themes

It’s funny when I think about it, because I just realized that Glen should hate the concept of reducing the gladiator from its own character class to a character theme. There are reasons why he might be a little more cool with it this time around (not the least of which is that he’s now coming up on thirty, like myself – and not a prickish teenager, as all teenagers are), but I guess we’ll see.

Robert Schwalb explained it like this:

One way to look at [character themes] … imagine your D&D character right now as [having] two major legs: your class and your race define the fundamentals of your character. A theme is like a third leg you can add to your character … to define and push against what you’d normally be able to do.

From what I’ve seen and heard, character themes seem (to me) to be the love-child of 2nd Edition’s character kits and 3rd Edition’s prestige classes. Like prestige classes they’re open and accessible so long as you meet a few broad requirements, and like character kits they’re not a class replacement but are instead an optional add-on.

In 2nd Edition glatiatior was a Dark Sun character class – and also a fighter “kit,” an optional extra you could tack on to make a fighter a little more gladiatorial. When I told Glen about this (I had the Complete Book of Fighters that detailed the gladiator kit, and he didn’t), his response was something along the lines of “that’s bullshit, the gladiator class is awesome, the gladiator kit is shit, it’s stupid, and you like it so you’re stupid, fuck you and your stupid gladiator kit loving face.”

That’s a paraphrase, by the way.

Baker explained the concept behind character themes, instead of creating templar or gladiator classes, was that they were really more concepts than professions. Anyone who fights in the arena is, more or less, a gladiator – isn’t he? The old gladiator class was a modified fighter – but rangers, rogues or barbarians who fight in the arena are also gladiators. Why don’t they get their own modified classes to represent that? There was never really a good reason (it’s worth noting that, in our youth, we never thought to ask the question, but that doesn’t make it a bad question – it just makes us stupid teenagers).

Likewise with templars. A templar is, ultimately, a sorcerer-king’s bureaucrat whom the sorcerer-king can choose to channel his incredible power into. One of the weirder things was that sorcerer-kings could not cast divine spells, yet they could grant divine spells to templars. Which makes no fucking sense whatsoever. On top of which, the entire governmental bureaucracy was composed of templars. This was touched on in the Prism Pentad series, but was a central feature of the Chronicles of Athas novel series that followed was centered on a Urikite templar. If your generals are templars, wouldn’t it make sense to have martially-inclined templars (i.e. the warlord). Further there was always reference to defilers who practiced sorcery with their king’s blessing, in exchange for service – now, the character theme concept allows for all those character types to provide service to a sorcerer-king.

The basic manner in which themes work is like this: you pick one at 1st level, and you get an extra encounter power. Gladiators, for example, get a power called disrupting advance which dishes out double weapon damage, knocks the enemy back 2 squares, and hits him and any other enemies adjacent to the target with a slow effect. Pretty butch stuff. As you go up in level, when you’d normally get a new class power you will sometimes have the option of selecting a theme power instead. So someone who selects gladiator as his theme can focus heavily in gladiatorial combat, or only have the tiniest investment in it.

Presumably there will also be feats (and possibly paragon paths) that are only available to certain character themes.

So far the sample characters I’ve reference previously name five character themes: gladiator, templar, elemental priest, veiled alliance, and wilder (which is one of the “wild talent” themes, I believe). The details on what, specifically, themes offer beyond a 1st level encounter power isn’t provided.

Also, on the note of the templar, there’s one quick thing I should have mentioned last time. The warlock class, as 4e fans know, is predicted upon striking a bargain with otherworldly powers – demons, devils, powerful fey, or the alien beings that exist beyond the stars. A warlock needs to chose the nature of his pact at creation, which affects his power choices and the overall “flavor” of his character. The sorcerer-king templar pact will be introduced in DS4e as a warlock option.

I for one am excited for character themes. They open the game up, but avoid the limits of being class-specific like character kits (I think every character class had its own “pirate” kit, because everyone can engage in piracy – which was both redundant and kind of silly). It allows logic into the equation – effectively stating that there’s no reason why the scheming, power-hungry sorcerer kings would be so stupid as to put city bureaucrats in charge of their armies (instead of military men or women), or why a ranged fighting in the arena isn’t just as much a gladiator as the fighter. It address the complex issue of wild talents and game balance, and it gives a new range of choices to make your character cool and interesting.

One more month as DS4e hits shelves. I’m looking more and more forward to it with every post.

Honestly, I don’t know what I’ll talk about next time I look at DS4e. I’ve covered all the biggest topics. If there are any requests, toss them in the comments.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Character Classes

It’s kind of funny; I expected the review of character classes to be a big one, several posts in length. In fact, I was so certain this article would be so much work, I intentionally avoided thinking about it while I worked on my various school assignments. But, when I sat down and actually gave it some thought, I realized something:

I know fuck all about changes to the character classes in DS4e.

I had planned on doing one article on the Divine, Martial and (maybe) Primal power source classes. A second article about Arcane classes, and a third about Psionic classes. But I realize now, there’s not really any official word on changes. So, with that in mind, I realize that the few droplets of information I have can be tossed out in a single post. So here we go.

First of all, there won’t be any new character classes introduced in DS4e. None at all. The gladiator and templar will be in the game, just not as full character classes – I’ll be discussing them next time, when we hit up character themes. Suffice to say that it’s a pretty cool, pretty slick addition to the game (in my opinion), but if you’re going to hate everything that changes because it’s different? You’ll hate character themes, right alongside the 4e half-giant and thri-kreen.

The basic classes (i.e. those from the Player’s Handbook series) I’ll address below:

Arcane characters (bard, sorcerer, warlock, wizard)

From what I can gather, all of these classes will be subject to the defiling & preserving rules – whatever they may be. So far, the only official commentary on the subject I’ve heard is a sort of half-sentence Rich Baker made during the panel podcast (I think that’s where I heard it) indicating defilers can dish out some damage to those surrounding them. As long-time fans will know, defiling humanoid lifeforms used to be the strict purview of sorcerer-kings (and other defilers above 20th level), so I’m curious how this will be implemented.

Also, I realize this will make the bard into a defiling/preserving class, which takes a bit to get your head around. Nevertheless, I think it makes sense – the old edition’s fix for the bard’s spellcasting ability was to remove that feature entirely, which was fine because spells were a minor component of the bard’s overall abilities. In 4th Edition, the way powers are structured make the bards abilities almost exclusively spells.

Divine characters (avenger, cleric, invoker, paladin, runepriest)

This is an easy one – they’re gone. There are no gods in the world of Dark Sun, thus there is no divine power source. As best I can tell, elemental clerics are now addressed by the primal power source and an appropriate character theme. Likewise, templars are also addressed by character themes. How exactly that works will be examined next time.

Martial characters (fighter, ranger, rogue, warlord)

I don’t really anticipate any changes to these classes and haven’t heard anything. It’s worth noting that the massive material penalties from 2nd edition (bone swords, chitin shields, etc.) no longer apply – effectively metal weapons are considered masterwork, and bone/obsidian equipment will be considered “the norm.” This should prevent martial characters from being rendered ineffectual by the absence of decent gear.

Primal characters (barbarian, druid, seeker, shaman, warden)

Though only the druid existed in the original Dark Sun, these classes fit the setting perfectly. The shaman (and possibly the druid) seems poised to take on the role of the elemental clerics, worshiping the raw elemental forces of the world (fire, earth, air, water). If you check out the sample character sheets of DS4e characters, on page 5 there’s a thri-kreen shaman named Pak’cha with the character theme elemental priest. I’ll be discussing character themes next time, but from what I can tell the primal power sources seems (thematically) a better fit than the divine source for elemental clerics, so you won’t hear me complaining about the shift.

Psionic characters (ardent, battlemind, monk, psion)

Lastly psionic characters. I am not anticipating much in the way of changes here either, though I am curious how they integrate with wild talents – which I haven’t talked about much up until this point, mainly because I don’t know anything about them. I know that wild talents will exist, and from what I understand they’ll basically be cantrip-level effects – gone are the days where a good dice roll grants you a half dozen enemy slaughtering powers. Rich Baker basically went on record saying that if a character needs more psionic might, there are character themes that augment the wild talent concept. Beyond that? Multiclass into a psionic class, or just be a psionic character if you love psionics so much. I’m fine with that, though I’m curious whether psionic characters will get an extra cantrip-effect of their own to maintain power balancing. Maybe it won’t matter, I’ll have to wait until I see the rules to really say.

Alright, another day, and another subject down. I expected to need a week or two to blitz through the character classes, and I’m thrilled to see that I didn’t. Next time I’ll be tackling character themes, a completely new rule mechanic being rolled out with DS4e. I’m actually pretty excited about the idea, and think it really adds a lot of diversity to an individual character. See you next time.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Character Class Basics

It occurs to me, as I go to write this, that I’m sort of doing a piecemeal analysis of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons concurrent with my previewing of DS4e. I was sort of aware that I was doing it, but hadn’t really made any sort of conscious decision. I figure, before continuing, perhaps I should explain.

The original idea to do this blog came after I had a brief, but nerdfully-intense, conversation with legacy best-friend Glen. This geek-on-geek state of détente had, at its center, but a single topic – Dark Sun. Glen had not heard that Dark Sun, much like Jesus, was coming back from the dead. Indeed, Glen had not even perused the pages of 4th Edition. This severely curtailed my ability to explain, in the 20-30 minutes he was online, what DS4e was going to be like – I imagine it was similar to teaching carpentry to someone who has never seen a tree, nor heard of wood.

I then had an idea. I’d start a blog and write about that stuff. I immediately dismissed it – start a blog, just so I could share with my oldest friend the intricacies of a new Dark Sun? True, it would give me the platform in which to spout on and on about classes and game balance, explaining the inner workings and underpinnings. But, really? Wasn’t that a bit extreme? Maybe a little crazy?

Crazy like an Athasian fox-equivalent.

So that’s why you’re getting sort of a broad-strokes overview of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons intermingled with your Dark Sun coverage – because my intended audience is one dude, living in the People’s Republic of China, who probably hasn’t bought a roleplaying product since The Book of Vile Darkness. I really didn’t expect many other people to show up – though they have, and I’m grateful. Knowing other people are reading what I’ve written makes me feel like blogging is the sort of thing I could keep doing for a long time. Hell, the awareness that I have an audience beyond said one dude in the PRC is why I’ve been expanding the subjects of my postings, and I was pleasantly pleased to discover I’ve got more to say than I thought.

Alright, so, character classes.

If you’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for awhile, character classes in 4th Edition seem – at first glance, at least – to be all sorts of fucked up. This is understandable, because the entire character class system has been completely overhauled for the first time since, really, 1st Edition. I’ll say this, the designers of 4e? Have 6d6 balls – which is to say a lot of balls. It takes serious stones to decide “fuck the sacred cows, let’s fix this shit.”

First of all, there’s the concept of roles – in a sense, these take the place of the old 2nd Edition “overclasses” (Warrior, Wizard, Rogue and Priest). The key difference? Roles are functional, not thematic – a character class’ role immediately tells you what it’s good at. There are four roles: controller, defender, leader and striker. Controllers dish out area of effect damage and otherwise impair the combat capabilities of their foes. Defenders are shields, wearing heavy armor and having plenty of hit points, built to interpose themselves between the enemy and the rest of the party. Leaders augment the tactical abilities of the party, dishing up heals and buffs. Strikes tend to dish up agony and pain, dealing damage to singular foes.

Then there’s power sources. These are mostly thematic, and give you an idea where a class’ abilities come from. Over the course of three player’s handbooks five power sources have been introduced: arcane, divine, martial, primal, and psionic. The class breakdown is like this:

  • Arcane: Bard (Leader), Sorcerer (Striker), Warlock (Striker), Wizard (Controller)
  • Divine: Avenger (Striker), Cleric (Leader), Invoker (Controller), Paladin (Defender), Runepriest (Leader)
  • Martial: Fighter (Defender), Ranger (Striker), Rogue (Striker), Warlord (Leader)
  • Primal: Barbarian (Striker), Druid (Controller), Seeker (Controller), Shaman (Leader), Warden (Defender)
  • Psionic: Ardent (Leader), Battlemind (Defender), Monk (Striker), Psion (Controller)

I’m going to ignore some of the minor things, like how skills work a little differently and how the randomness has been taken out of hit point calculations. Beyond those basic components however, character classes break down into two different elements: powers and class features.

Character Powers

“Powers” are the cool things that characters can do, and they get a special name based on power source. Arcane characters get spells, divine characters get prayers, martial characters get exploits, primal characters get evocations, and psionic characters get disciplines. Don’t let the different names fool you, however – they’re all powers and they all work exactly the same. This means that all the character classes resemble one another a lot more than they used to.

Powers are either attack powers, meaning they dish out damage or are otherwise used offensively, or utility powers that have both in- and out-of-combat applications. How often a power can be used is determined by its type: at-will powers can be used every turn, encounter powers can be used once per encounter, and daily powers can be used once per day. Powers are broken down by class – a fighter’s exploits are not the same as a ranger’s exploits, and they’re much different from a wizard’s spells. Every character starts with four combat powers from their list – two at-wills, one encounter, and one daily. They get their first utility power at level two. They get more as they increase in level – a level 10 character still has his two at-will powers, three encounter powers, three daily powers, and three utility powers (which, depending on how powerful they are, are either encounter or daily).

This changes the dichotomy of every class, in ways too numerous to count, so I’m just going to address two of the most iconic classes in D&D: the fighter and the wizard (sometimes called the mage in previous editions).

The at-will fighter exploit "cleave" - previously a 3rd Edition feat.
The at-will fighter exploit "cleave" - previously a 3rd Edition feat.

Fighters were all about the basic attack – there wasn’t a lot for them to do on turn 3 that was different from turn 2, other than maybe changing targets. Maybe the occaisonal charge. The real problem? The fighter was boring more often than not. The introduction of feats in 3rd Edition went a long way to addressing this, because there were some cool combat options available if you invested a lot of feats in getting access to them – and the fighter got a metric fucktonne of extra feats. 4th Edition has decided to throw out the byzantine process of climbing the feat ladder – most of those cool options are now fighter exploits. You pick them when you level up, done deal.

Wizards, meanwhile, had the opposite problem. They were awesome but unsustainable. Their spells, especially beyond the first couple levels, dished out more damage than a fighter’s sword – but whereas a fighter could swing that sword with equal power and skill every turn, the “fire-and-forget” spell system ensured that a wizard tended to run dry. That doesn’t happen anymore – magic missile, perhaps the most iconic D&D spell, is an at-will. Burning hands is a level one encounter power. Acid Arrow (Melf’s patent seems to have run out) is a level one daily.

Wizards don’t ever run out of fuel and start hacking with their daggers. Fighter’s don’t chop chop chop, bored by the mindless tedium. This is, to me, a good thing.

Class Features

Class features are things that don’t fit inside the basic powers framework – typically they’re special characteristics, special “exceptions” to the rules for members of that class, or a special power that is important or iconic – no paladin can choose to not have lay on hands for example, because it’s a class feature and not a power the player chooses. A great example that gets a wide range of class features is the cleric whose features include Channel Divinity, Healer’s Lore, healing word, and Ritual Casting.

  • Channel Divinity is a special sort of encounter power. Basically a cleric can channel divinity once per encounter, like any encounter power, but she has a choice of two powers: turn undead and divine fortune. She knows both, but once she uses one, she can’t use the other. There’s also a “channel divinity” feat for every deity, opening up a third choice for clerics of that god (Armor of Bahamut, Corellon’s Grace, etc.).
  • Healer’s Lore adds the cleric’s Wisdom modifier to all healing prayers. The reason this is a feature, instead of a direct component of all cleric healing prayers, is that it is possible (through multiclassing and a few other means) to pick up a power from another class. Thus, if a fighter learns one of the cleric’s healing abilities, he still isn’t as good a healer as she is because of this feature.
  • Healing Word is another special encounter power all clerics get. Basically it’s a minor heal, that’s usable twice per encounter. Three times at 16th level.
  • Ritual Casting is a feat that clerics get for free. Rituals are a whole other bag of worms, which I may discuss some other day.

So, there’s the nuts-n-bolts of the character class system. It takes some getting used to, there’s no denying that. Fighters seem more like wizards and wizards seem more like fighters than ever before. But, at the same time, it puts everyone on a baseline. Fireball and cleave, for the first time ever, are both operating with the same underlying mechanic. Game balance may not be sexy, but it makes the whole game better.

Next time on DS4e, I’ll start digging my teeth into the character classes themselves. I’ll be starting with the easy ones – divine and martial, and maybe primal. See you then.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – The Mul, and Others

I’ve always sort of found it strange that Dark Sun, which came out in 1991, was the first product (that I’m aware of at least) to introduce the concept of the half-dwarf, which on Athas is called a mul.

A mul warrior, from the Dark Sun Monstrous Compendium II.
A mul warrior, from the Dark Sun Monstrous Compendium II.

Muls combine the height and cunning of their human parent with the durability and raw strength of dwarves. Unlike the other half-breed races (half-elves and half-giants), the mul is infertile – all muls come from one human and one dwarf parent. Given the cultural differences, muls tend to be a slave race intentionally bred in the pits – they make excellent gladiators and laborers.

Not a lot has been released about the mul, at this time. What little information I have comes from two sources: the D&D Experience panel and the sample character sheets, both of which I mentioned during my post about the thri-kreen.

During the panel, Baker stated that Mul characters would receive a +2 to Constitution and then another +2 to the player’s choice of either Strength or Wisdom. Further, it was mentioned that the Mul would have some sort of resistance ability against status and condition effects (such as being blinded, prone, or stunned – I picked three conditions at random, Baker didn’t specify).

Meanwhile, the sample character sheets (Morg, a Mul Barbarian, is on page 3) allude to an ability called “Tireless” which states that he needs only sleep 6 hours every 72. Not particularly useful in combat, though handy if he needs to press on without stopping much in a dungeon. He’s also receiving a +2 bonus I can’t otherwise account for to both Endurance and Streetwise – which would make good racial skills for the Mul.

I see no sign of how the “condition resistance” Baker alluded to is implemented, so I guess we’ll either have to wait for Baker to blog about it or for the book to come out.

The Other Races

I’ve covered all the races of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and the additional Athasian races introduced by the original Dark Sun boxed set. Of course, if you owned the “Expanded and Revised” Dark Sun boxed set (released in 1995), you may recall a few other player races being introduced. What about them?

There’s been no mention of the Aarakocra – though I have to assume a race that can fly is going to get the axe, given how difficult that would be to balance out.

As far as the Pterrans go, I don’t see anything wrong with them – I’m sure they could be built as a perfectly balanced option. I don’t really think they will be – they seem to be a pretty minor footnote in Dark Sun, I (a pretty massive Dark Sun fan with access to virtually every Dark Sun product) had pretty much forgotten them until I went to do my research for this article.

Ultimately, the Pterran just doesn’t seem as authentically Athasian as the mul, thri-kreen or half-giant – and given as how Baker was asked point-blank at the panel about “other” new races (after discussing half-giants and the kreen), he only mentioned the muls? It doesn’t look good for Pterran fans, sad to say.

One final addition. In my original post on the core 4e races, I discussed my own guess as to the Eladrin’s place in the Athasian ecology. Well, it turns out that I was wrong. Baker’s concept is good – very good in fact. In fact, it’s the first “this is new to the world” thing I’ve genuinely gotten excited about. I mean, character themes are kickass (I’ll be touching on them soon, I think) but ultimately that’s just rules stuff. And while the rules are the vital infrastructure on which the game is built, it’s the in-game stuff about the world of Dark Sun that always got my engine running.

Before, I was excited about Dark Sun coming back. Now I’m excited about Dark Sun 4th Edition coming out. Which makes me pretty damn happy.

Alright, races down. I figure character classes come next, then character themes, then on from the basic building-blocks of character creation and on to some other cool shit.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – The Thri-Kreen

I’m pretty much of the opinion that Dark Sun’s original creators had some kind of bug fetish. Well, bugs and lizards. Horses didn’t exist – instead you rode on a kank (a horse-sized beetle) or a crodlu (a lizard that ran on its hind legs). Instead of oxen or mules to pull wagons and carts, there were inix (sixteen foot long, four-legged lizards) and mekillot – enormous, dragon-sized lizards who could drag a small fortress on their backs.

Maybe they just didn’t like mammals. I don’t know.

The original thri-kreen, of 2nd Edition Dark Sun.
The original thri-kreen, of 2nd Edition Dark Sun.

But this fascination with an ecology dominated by reptiles and insects gave rise to one of the strangest, coolest, most alien (and most mechanically busted) player races in all of 2e – the thri-kreen. I have no doubt that if you hated the 4e half-giant? You’re going to loathe what’s being done to the thri-kreen.

I’m not even going to name all the issues with the 2e thri-kreen, but in summation? They were a mess. Incredibly overpowered. Let me give you just the highlights:

  • Quad-wielding. Yep, quad-wielding. The thri-kreen had six limbs, and four had opposable thumbs. Which meant four claw attacks, or carry four weapons and use whichever they wanted in a given turn.
  • They had a bite attack, which they got in addition to their claw or weapon attack. After 5th level, this bite delivered paralyzing venom.
  • Their exoskeleton was the equivalent of chain mail armor.
  • At 7th level, thri-kreen received a 90% chance to dodge incoming missiles, such as arrows or other ranged attack.

Their only real weakness was that they couldn’t wear armor, or use other “wearable” magic items – which made sense when you consider how almost any magic item wasn’t designed to be worn a six-limbed bug-man.

I have to assume that no one is surprised that the thri-kreen are getting a face-lift for DS4e. I mean, during the Dark Sun panel at The D&D Experience, Rich Baker referred to the thri-kreen as “just broken”:

So, we went to the thri-kreen and we said we’re just going to have to take this guy and put him on the same power framework, on the same footing, the same level as other characters. We can’t just have this guy be the best.

Not only did Baker discuss some of the changes but Wizards has released a PDF of the pre-generated character sheets used for the introductory Dark Sun adventure, and one of them happens to be a thri-kreen (Pak’cha, on page 5).

While there’s not really any way to tell what ability scores have been modified, my guess is that the thri-kreen will receive a +2 to both Dexterity and Wisdom. Pak’cha also has an encounter power called thri-kreen claws, that basically lets her make a second attack with her claws against up to three nearby enemies. She can also draw, sheathe or otherwise access an item once per turn as a free action because of her multiple limbs. She doesn’t need to sleep, only rest for a brief period of time once per day, during which she remains fully aware. Also, she’s wearing armor, meaning they seem to have dropped (or at least severely relaxed) the equipment restrictions.

Beyond that, I don’t know what’s in store for the thri-kreen, though I could make a couple guesses. They were designed to be the ultimate desert survivor and were also incredible jumpers, which means I’m expecting to see them get a +2 bonus to Athletics and Nature checks (every race seems to get some skill bonuses). Baker also mentioned that the racial paragon path will address some of the more powerful aspects of the race (like venemous bite, crazy jumping, and the like – I assume, he didn’t get specific).

There’s one more change that I have no doubt will bug (no pun intended) people. Much like my instinctual aversion to changing the backstory of the dray, I’m of a mixed mind on this one – I’m fine with changing mechanics and game rules, but I tend to be leery of changes to the in-character reality of the setting itself. That said, the reasoning behind the change is sound, and I trust Baker and Schwalb – listening to them speak about Dark Sun, you can tell that DS4e is being designed by a couple of fans who really want to be bringing it back to life.

You see, the thri-kreen are going to look different in DS4e. In effect, they aren’t going to look like thri-kreen anymore – at least, not the thri-kreen I know.

A DS4e thri-kreen, riding what I think is a kank. Click here to go to the artist's deviantart page.
A DS4e thri-kreen, riding what I think is a kank. Click here to go to the artist's deviantart page.

Rather than try to explain Baker’s statements on the change, I’m just going to quote him. And post the picture of the 4e thri-kreen, as featured on the cover of one of the new DS4e books (Marauders of the Dune Sea).

Back in the 1991-1996 stuff, thri-kreen were really built like giant preying mantises which essentially is almost [a centaur-like] build. They have a long body, they have a head/torso area, two arms up front, four legs, and they weighed five hundred pounds! And size Large – they’re immense. We went […] back to the way they looked way back in 1st Edition, we’re going to stand them upright and have them be insect-men not giant preying mantises that can think.

The decision makes good sense – centaurs are Large-size creatures, which means the centaur-like thri-kreen would be Large-size as well. All the issues and problems I discussed in my writeup on the half-giant apply in this case too. Some people will hate it – both because the thri-kreen is watered-down from its previous, killing-machine status and because it looks different. From my perspective, however, they really had two choices – make the changes, or make the thri-kreen a monster and not a player race.

Me? I’d rather be able to play a thri-kreen.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – The Half-Giant

Haters, welcome to your first big beef. If you’re the sort of person who gets angry when outdated material is adapted to a new edition, instead expecting a new edition to be adapted to the outdated material, then you’ll probably hate the new take on the half-giant.

For those new to the Dark Sun party, half-giants are (as you might expect) similar to half-elves; human/giant hybrids, though half-giants are the result of sorcerous experimentation rather than interbreeding. As an aside? I really want to create a bard who sings a soul song called Giant Fever, but that’s completely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

An Athasian half-giant, towering over a human or elf.
An Athasian half-giant, towering over a human or elf.

So, the original Dark Sun half-giant? Was, perhaps unsurprisingly, pretty big: 10 to 12 feet tall, weighing approximately 1,600 pounds. This enormous stature made them powerful, granting a +4 to Strength and a +2 to Constitution – of course, their gigantic heritage also gave them walnut-sized brains, resulting in half-giants suffering a -2 to Intelligence, a -2 to Wisdom, and a -2 to Charisma. They also received double hit points at every level (so while most fighters got 1-10 hit points for each level they gained, half-giant fighters got 2-20 each level).

To balance out these incredible benefits? Half-giants suffered the aforementioned penalties to Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. All half-giant equipment (weapons, armor, clothing, etc.) cost double since they were so much bigger. They were so heavy they couldn’t really ride many animals, or ride in wagons. But the primary balancing mechanic was their shifting alignment – effectively, there was a daily chance a half-giant would wake up evil instead of good, and kill the rest of the party. Seriously.

So, in a nutshell, half-giants were stupid piles of muscle, that existed for a single purpose – to kill shit. This was supposed to be balanced by the fact that the other players might wind up being the shit that got killed.

So, yeah, the half-giant was broken. Seriously fucking broken. Which was fine since (as we’ve already discussed) 2nd Edition, and Dark Sun in particular, weren’t really worried about game balance – broken shit was fine. However, that doesn’t really fly in 4th Edition, meaning the half-giant isn’t the same. Haters, start your engines (of hate!).

A pair of goliaths, the new face of the half-giant for DS4e.
A pair of goliaths, the new face of the half-giant for DS4e.

In my last races post, I mentioned that I wasn’t going to be talking about the PHB2/PHB3 races for now, with one exception. That exception is the Goliath – the new face of the Athasian half-giant. Introduced in the PHB2, fitting them into that “big, strong, smash” niche isn’t exactly a stretch:

Tribal nomads of the mountains, strong as the rock and proud as the peak.

Play a goliath if you want …

  • to be tougher and stronger than nearly anyone.
  • to master the rugged mountain slopes.
  • to be a member of a race that favors the barbarian, fighter and warden classes.

Doesn’t exactly sound that far off the mark, does it? Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect conversation and this is no different. I don’t hate the goliath as a half-giant, but I do have mixed feelings about it – though those mixed feelings are tempered by the fact that I can’t imagine a better way to incorporate the half-giant into 4e. So let’s take a look at the goliath.

Goliaths get a +2 to Strength and a +2 to Constitution, which certainly scratches the right itch. They get to choose between dwarven or giant as a bonus language, which I’d switch to just giving them giant for obvious reasons. They get a bonus to Athletics and Nature checks, a bonus to their Will defense, get to roll twice and keep the better result for all Athletics checks, and have an encounter power than grants them resist 5 (more at higher levels) to all sources of damage for one full turn. All in all, they have the right “Hulk SMASH!!!!” feel, in my opinion. So why the mixed feelings?

They’re Medium-size creatures – just like humans, dwarves, elves and most player races. They range in height from 7’2″ to 7’8″, and weigh between 280 and 340 pounds. It’s worth noting that this is taller than all other player races, and heavier than all but the minotaur (which weighs a little more). So you know, they’re big, but not giant – and half-giants were giant compared to the other races (implying that propert giants were really big – and they were).

Now I get why the half-giant is medium-size. A large creature uses larger weapons – and larger weapons dish out more damage. An ordinary (medium-size) longsword deals 1d8 points of damage; a large longsword deals 1d10 points of damage. Large creatures also have “reach” – meaning they threaten and attack all squares within two spaces of them. Medium-size creatures only threaten one square – meaning a large half-giant can smash people in melee combat (which they’re good at) who can’t attack her back. Further, anyone approaching a large half-giant so they could make a melee attack against her will trigger an opportunity attack against himself – an opportunity attack made with that bigass weapon that deals more damage. Those three factors combined, mean a size-large player race probably can’t be balanced under any circumstances – at least not without introducing “level adjustment” style rules.

So, given those factors I’m not angry or otherwise upset by this change in the half-giant. At the same time, I really liked the idea that half-giants were very distinctly larger than humans or the other races. I see two different ways to handle this issue. The first is to just get over it, and move on. Half-giants were part of Dark Sun, but Dark Sun wasn’t about half-giants. The second option is through “rule zero”-style DM Fiat. Off the top of my head? Half-giants can procreate with one another, or with other giants. Half-giant/giant pairings yield other, large-size half-giants. Half-giant/half-giant pairings tend to thin out the giant blood – yielding “giant-blooded” i.e. goliaths.

I’m not married to it, but it’s just a thought. At least it allows me to use big half-giants as monsters without having a logical fallacy. So, there’s that.

Not sure if I’ll get a chance to do another one of these from the road or not. Depends on how tomorrow goes. But next time the haters will once again get to rev their engines of fury and rage, because I’ll be discussing another broken (were any of the Dark Sun-specific races not broken?) race – the thri-kreen.