Thursday, December 30, 2010

Monsters of the Trollhaunt I: Trolls


This is a series of articles dedicated to redesigning the monsters for the adventure P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens. As such, they will reveal which monsters you’ll encounter in that module, so you may want to stop reading, if you intend to play it anytime soon. Apart from that, there will be no plot spoilers.

Troll (race)

It shouldn’t come off as a surprise that King of the Trollhaunt Warrens has an abundance of troll monsters. I mean, they turn up in the title, there’s one in the cover, the frakking adventuring zone is named after them... yeah, expect to kill a lot of these fat, smelly, regenerating, flammable buggers. So we’d better get the race template right, the first time around. As could be expected, I am taking the most recent Monster Vault versions as a reference. Monster Vault brought some interesting changes to the troll race and its main traits, Troll Regeneration, and Troll Healing.

Troll regeneration has been rebalanced so that the monster doesn’t depend so heavily on it - previously, trolls had relatively low starting HP, and made up for them by regenerating an impressive 10 points per turn. This sounds good in theory, but it led to trolls swinging wildly in effectiveness depending on player optimization and coordination. For efficient groups of PC that hit hard and were good at focusing fire (or were well equipped to deal with troll vulnerabilities), they could be significantly easier than a regular monster. On the other hand, a more casual party that didn’t happen to bring enough fire or acid attacks could find encounters dragging on forever. By reducing the regeneration but increasing the troll HP to that of a normal creature of its role, their average power level remains more or less intact, but these extreme scenarios are smoothed. This is a good design philosophy, and I believe it makes the monsters far more enjoyable.

In addition, Troll Healing got a minor boost by bringing back the dead monster with 15 HP rather than 10, making it slightly more difficult to knock the monster down again with a single blow - particularly if it is left one or two turns to regenerate. This brings me to the most significant revision I introduced in our campaign, for trolls as a race. Interestingly, it came up by an error on my part: I misread the new rules text for Troll Healing in Monster Vault, interpreting that any kind of damage (not just fire or acid) on an unconscious troll would kill it for good... and thought it was an awesome idea. No, it doesn’t really work like that, but bear with me for a moment.

As originally written, Troll Healing meant that these creatures would always keep rising again, unless you put them to fire (or acid). Which, once again, wasn’t that much of a problem for a well prepared group, but could randomly screw you the first time a troll came up in the campaign! There was still some room for improvisation to save the day (did the PCs carry flint and steel? Were they familiar with the Coup de Grace rule, and how it applied to this scenario?), but it was a messy deal in general.

I decided to use the following rule text, instead:

Troll Healing: Whenever an attack that doesn't deal acid or fire damage reduces the troll to 0 hit points, the troll does not die and instead falls unconscious until the start of its next turn, when it returns to life with 15 hit points. If an attack hits the troll and deals any damage while the troll is unconscious, it does not return to life in this way.

This is basically the same text as the Monster Vault version, with one crucial difference: any kind of damage to the unconscious troll will kill it for good. With this, fire and acid are no longer mandatory to defeat a troll, just extremely helpful. I’d say that spending an additional attack to make sure the monster is dead (and most of the times that will imply using a standard action, since auras and other sources of damage that don’t involve a hit, like Flurry of Blows, won’t work here) is a harsh enough penalty to unprepared adventurers, particularly when you have a limited timeframe for it. Having encounters that become more challenging when you lack the right tools is fine - making them unwinnable is just mean, and while it may have been fashionable for older versions of the game, in 4E it feels completely out of place.

As we are on it, I’ll give some DM advice on the use of Troll Healing: whether you use my version or the original, read the trait carefully. Twice. And use some kind of reminder to remember triggering it in-game. I am a rather meticulous player, and even more as a DM, and still I managed to forget about this rule the first time my group dropped a troll. Sure, I realized the following turn, but at that point bringing it back would have felt unfair. Not only that, but I also misread how it interacted with stuff like Flurry of Blows (basically I allowed FoB to kill unconscious trolls, which isn’t really allowed by the rules and mostly trivializes the trait), up until the point I started to write this article.

Finally, you should have a clear information policy between DM and PCs. Stuff like Troll Healing is fairly complex, and having your players not understand exactly how it works can lead to frustrating battles. Sure, take them by surprise the first time a troll gets back on its feet, and maybe let them experiment once or twice with ways to slay the creatures. I am highly in favor of letting players know the exact rule text of this kind of monster traits after one try or two - if you think it breaks immersion, offer the information through some ancient tome, or a sage, or knowledge checks.

Next: Encounters 1 and T2
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Monsters of the Trollhaunt: Introduction

After enjoying my brave human fighter for a whopping 7 levels, I’ve found myself once again at the DM seat, in time to introduce our group to the wonders of Paragon Tier. The module of choice is the King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, the fourth one in the official adventure path, and easily one of the best I’ve read so far. It still boils down to a huge collection of combat encounters, of course, but the simple backstory is interesting enough, the use of the main enemy makes a lot more sense than in previous adventures, and there is a good variety of environments. It also helps that the transition to Paragon is well portrayed through the abundance of large enemies (i.e. trolls), but also with the way that the fate of an entire city is put in your hands (which, in theory, also happened in Keep on the Shadowfell, except that now it feels more real, rather than a mere excuse to enter a dungeon and slay a baddie) and the use of exotic settings.

Anyway. Trollhaunt is great, but it suffers from the fact that it was written two years ago. In that time, the game has evolved quite a bit, particularly regarding monster design, which has benefited from a change in general philosophy, followed by amazing books such as Monster Manual 3, Dark Sun Creature Catalog, and Monster Vault. I knew from the beginning that, in order to enjoy the module, I’d need to take a long, hard look at every monster stat block, updating them to the new standards. This would take a good deal of effort, but I thought that I could find it enjoyable (I did), and maybe turn it into an interesting article series. Of which you are reading the first entry.

It goes as follows: in the following weeks, I will be sharing with you the redesigned monsters I use in the campaign, along with the reasoning behind the changes, and comments on how they play out. I will present them in chronological order, as they come up in the adventure encounters. Inevitably, I will spoil the composition of all encounters in the module, so non-DMs may prefer to keep away from the series, if they expect to play in the Trollhaunt anytime soon.

Before I start with the monsters, here’s a summary of my design goals:
- Use Monster Manual 3 guidelines. I’ve talked about these at length; they include significant revisions for Solos and Elites, rebalancing of Brutes and Soldiers, and an overhaul in damage progressions.
- Use ideas from Monster Vault, such as redesigned classic monsters (most notably, trolls and dragons), a more creative approach to resistances and vulnerabilities, and lurkers that hit hard, but only every other turn.
- Redeem Fortitude. Too many monsters have absurdly high fortitude defenses, particularly in earlier books, making powers that target fortitude a poor proposition. I’ll try to mitigate this effect, by making sure no monster has a fortitude higher than its level + 14 (or Reflex and Will lower than level+10, for that matter), and by making each monster’s best defense depend on role - controllers will tend towards high will, skirmishers and lurkers will have high reflex, and artillery will go for either will (for magic-based monsters) or reflex (for the rest). Soldiers and brutes would still favour fortitude.
- Keep it fair. Some monsters end up with abusive abilities or, more rarely, with pathetically weak ones. I’ll try to address both cases.
- Make them fun. As the DM, I like monsters that are interesting to play, with some variety of tactical options and reasons to move around the battlefield.

Next: Trolls
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Friday, December 24, 2010

Executioner Assassin: Ultimate final edition.

For those who have got lost with the different versions and updates for the DDI-exclusive new build for the Assassin class, this is the story so far. The Executioner, an essential-styled assassin variant mixing martial exploits and minor shadow features, was released three months ago, as a work in progress, so that the community could playtest it and provide feedback. Which the community did (here is what we had to say about the class), and apparently it got put to good use: after a confusing false final release, where an intermediate build of questionable quality(many saw it as a step back from the original) got to the public by mistake, causing considerable uproar, we have finally seen the real, complete version of the class. And it’s a killer.

The basic framework of the class is mostly intact from the earlier versions: many situational at-will attacks for specific situations, basic attacks as a default option, a single concentrated encounter attack (Assassin´s Strike) taking the place of all encounter slots, and special poisons in the place of daily attacks. That was a solid foundation, and I’m glad they have chosen to keep it.

That said, many details about the class have changed, almost unanimously for the better. Most notably, the selection of at-will attacks has suffered a deep revision. Previously, too many at-wills were excessively situational, to the point that the temptation to just forget about them and stick to the simple yet reliable basic attacks became too strong. In fact, going back to my *critique of the playtest build*, we can see that most of my complaints were related to at-will implementation - and they have all been addressed.

Both the melee and ranged builds of the class (Red Scales and League of whispers, respectively) get three at-will powers at first level, with each covering some specific niche (mobility, control, poison application) but also having potential for more general use - some of them sacrifice damage or have special requirements, but you don’t have to look to hard for a power that deals any damage and can be used without being hidden in melee (!), as before. Also, they are pretty cool.Quick Lunge replaces the power known as Unarmed Throw in earlier builds, and allows you to shift, damage a target and knock it down, and shift back. Ranged executioners now have exceptional accuracy, with both Bola Takedown (a ranged proning attack) and Precision Dart (a power for delivering poisons) targeting Reflex instead of AC.

The greatest loss in the at-will department is the jaw-dropping Unseen Spearhead, which was a highly complicated, yet awesomely rewarded, maneuver. The ability to make a coup de grace every two turns if everything turned out right (which didn’t happen all that often, even in dedicated builds) was considered too strong by the developers, so it got removed. It is a shame, but probably a good decision nevertheless. While I don’t agree that it was overpowered (all things considered, too many things had to fall in place to pull it off), it can’t be argued that it was an excessively swingy mechanic, which could result in trivializing some encounters or just wasting actions, depending on too few dice rolls. Fortunately, every other thing that made the class special is still in place.

As for performance, various numbers have been adjusted all around in order to make the Executioner a pretty decent striker. Damage won’t be spectacular, but it won’t feel lackluster either, and there are a few niches (such as concentrated damage or finishing off wounded enemies) where the class will definitely shine. It’s also fitting that, while basic attacks will still be your main offensive tool, using them with unsubtle two-handed weapons is no longer the superior choice - your striker damage now depends on wielding appropriate, assassin-y weapons. Moreover, proficiency with the light shield, which was always a bit unwieldy and off-flavor for the class, is now optional, and a choice to use dual wielding for an equivalent bonus is provided.

My final verdict is extremely favorable. This is one of the most original classes in the game, yet it manages to include both at-will, encounter, and daily powers, have a well defined personality both in flavor and mechanics, and be potent and interesting. Also, it is one of the best examples of the design potential opened up by the Essentials philosophy of classes that don’t necessarily adhere to the rigid 4E power structure. This one has certainly taken it’s time, but it’s been well worth the wait: it is a must-have.
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