Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Online Monster Builder, integrated DDI tools.

The D&D Insider service has seen better times. During the last months, subscribers have suffered a slow, but noticeable decline in magazine content (particularly when it comes to new options for players), a Monster Builder plagued by annoying bugs, an awkward transition of Character Builder to an online model (which many people perceive as a downgrade), and many delayed updates. The good news, such as the announcement of the beta for the Virtual Table(or rather, the confirmation that the VT would actually exist!) and the promise of a tighter development process for magazine content, were hardly enough compensation, and we couldn’t help but feeling that the service just wasn’t as satisfying as a year ago. The latest announcement from Wizards of the Coast may be the first step towards correcting this trend.

The long promised online Monster Builder is ready to enter beta this week, which should be great news for those who had been struggling with its buggy offline incarnation. As with the Character Builder, the move to an online model means that the tool is no longer usable if you let your DDI subscription expire, but the fact that the offline MB hasn’t been working all that well for a long time means that this time the change has a clear advantage for current customers. It could be argued that the most annoying bugs, which weren’t present when the tool originally launched, should have been more than fixed by now, but at least this is a solution.

Anyway, the bit that has got me excited is a different one. In the following days, the Virtual Table beta is going to incorporate new functionality, as they will enable the connectivity with Character Builder and Monster Builder. I think this is a great improvement, and the first tangible benefit we get from having online tools. The VT beta has been going for a couple of months, now, and I even received an invitation a while ago. I tried it out, and found that it was a solid piece of software, with a nice user interface and most of the features I needed (keeping in mind that I have no real interest in playing online sessions, but was intrigued by its potential as an aid for my tabletop games) except for one crucial point: creating characters and monsters was a pain. Integration with the remaining DDI tools was the logic solution, but not only was it missing from the beta: it wasn’t even mentioned for future plans. So it is a relief to know that they had actually though of this and that it is, in fact, almost done now.

So it seems like we aren’t too far off from a fully functional Virtual Table and Monster Builder. If we add to that the dozens of Character Builder bugs that have been addressed in the latest update, we are approaching a point where the DDI tools can have most of the functionality that was offered a year ago, and add some really cool stuff on top of that. Now they just need to put some actual content in Dragon magazine...
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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Monsters of the Trollhaunt III - Encounter T2

This is a series of articles about the monsters included in the adventure P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens- so you may want to stop reading, if you intend to play the module anytime soon.

The monsters in this encounter have little to do with the main antagonists of the adventure, but make for good recurrign villains in wilderness battles.

Chuul (Level 10 Soldier)

1. Issues identified:
- Soldier without mark: This comes up too frequently in earlier monsters... immobilizing with opportunity attacks or after three consecutive hits is not a reliable enough defending mechanic, so we should improve it somehow.
- False flexibility: The double attack can be focused on a single enemy or split between two - but why would you ever choose the latter? Spreading damage is rarely the strongest of tactics, and there’s additional incentive for focusing on your target in the immobilization trigger. This kind of flexibility contributes little to the monster, except the chance for a poor or distracted DM to make a suboptimal play. Also, when all is said and done, the chuul will spend all its turns doing the same thing: Double Attack a single enemy, not unlike a PHB ranger. And we know what I think about rangers...

2. Design goals:

I’d like to convey the idea that the Chuul’s attacks gradually paralyze its victim. In addition, it would be nice to make the number of targets to attack a non-trivial decision, so that the monster becomes more interesting to play.

3. Changes introduced.

- Basic stat adjustment: As an old school soldier, it required lowering the attack bonus by 2 points. Also, I reduced its Fortitude value from absurdly high to merely good (level + 14). Incidentally, its base damage was already on spot for a modern monster (meaning it was quite a bit overpowered under previous standards), thanks to the at-will multiattack. That said, the extra damage against immobilized foes is excessive even today, so I’ve toned it down.
- Gradual immobilization: The monster’s attacks got a general overhaul. I had it mark on every hit, and automatically immobilize on subsequent attacks against marked targets. This means that a Chuul can now be quite sticky against a single target, but also provide a respectable defender against groups. Spreading marks around is a good reason to consicer splitting a double attack, but the right call will usually depend on context. Finally, note that the monster’s marks only last until the start of its following turn to prevent immobilization from becoming too easy.

Will o wisp (Level 10 Lurker)

The Will-o-wisp presents a rare design, in that its mechanics have been far more influenced by flavor than most monsters in 4E. This emphasis in story elements is not a bad thing in itself, but in this case it has led to a set of powers that doesn’t entirely make sense, with redundant rules text, and game options that aren’t really worth using. Overall, I found this monster to be unusually complex, and hard to adapt.

As a side note, there are two versions of will-o-wisp printed, each with different wordings but almost equivalent functionality. The one in the Rules Compendium corresponds with the stat block from King of the Trollhaunt, and its wording is slightly more confusing than the other one (from Monster Manual 2).

1. Issues identified:

- Poor handling of insubstantial - Insubstantial is a trait that shouldn’t be thrown around without a reason. Unless it comes with some kind of vulnerability to bypass it, or a condition to turn it off, it contributes nothing of interest to a monster: damage is halved, hit points are reduced by a factor of two, and the net result is the same as when you started. The will-o-wisp falls in this trap, but it also fails to correctly reduce HP numbers, so it ends up with 50% more HP than expected for its level and role. This clearly needs to be addressed.
- Fey Light. This is the one difference between the Trollhaunt version (where this power makes little sense) and the MM2 one (where it’s slightly better). Basically, Fey Light is a free action power which has two different effects: turn on the wisp’s light, which doesn’t really have any effect, and turn it off, concealing the wisp, allowing it to hide, and preventing any attacks. In Trollhaunt this can be used as a free action power, meaning that it’s possible for the wisp to attack every turn and then turn off its light - so there’s no real point in having two states. MM2 fixed this by making it a 1/round issue, so you can expect the monster to become hidden every other turn. However, this has the side effect of breaking the Blink Out power, since Fey Light will typically be spent for the rond by the time the monster can use an immediate interrupt.
- Luring Glow isn’t worth it. As flavorful as it is, Luring Glow suffers from the lack of damage, to the point that it’s very rarely worth using.

2. Design goals:

More than any other monster reviewed so far, the will-o’-wisp is full of personality: it has great themes in its intermittent lights that let it switch from stealth mode to attack mode, and the ability to lure its victims to their doom. I’ll try to keep these ideas, while making the monster more functional and easy to use.

3. Changes introduced.
- Force damage ignores insubstantial - It won’t come up too often, but it should be more interesting than having insubstantial always on.
- Fey Light clarified - I replaced the complex 2-state power with two different game elements: a light aura, and a power to turn it off and hide.
- Increased lurking - I really like the new philosophy for lurkers of spending turns to hide, then hitting very hard, so I tried to add a bit of that to the wisp. To that order, I added a significant bonus to damage dealt from hiding, but reduced regular damage to compensate. Also, I made Extinguish Fey Light a standard action, so it now takes a significant investment... unless the monster can Blink Out.
- Stat changes - Hit points were too high, AC too low (I guess it assumed permanent concealment), and damage followed the old standards. All of this has been updated.
- Luring glow as a minor action - Dazing and pulling was cute, but hardly worth sacrificing damage for a turn - and sustaining save ends powers has always felt wrong, to me. I took the really iconic part of the power (the pull), and made it a minor so that it can actually see play.

All images are (C) 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. The formatted statistics blocks have been generated using the D&D Adventure Tools. But not with the last version, which lacks a Monster Builder. The one before that, which works despite the billions of bugs. Read More......

Friday, January 14, 2011

2011 Cancelled products, DDI news

The last week has been an interesting one, for D&D-related news. Fans had been worrying for a while about the mysterious disappearance of several books from the official 2011 product catalog, which was followed by their removal from online shops such as Amazon. Not only that, but the recently adopted changes in the D&D insider content schedule (moving away from a fixed content calendar to a fairly anarchic scheme where a list of articles was announced at the beginning of each week without specifying what got released each day) were resulting in several days in a row with no content whatsoever. Several fans complained about this state of things, as well as the lack of communication from the company... until, finally, this wednesday we got some official answers. And man, when it rains, it pours.

There is a lot of stuff going on right now, so I’ll try to give a brief summary: half of the D&D book releases for this year have been cancelled, Dragon and Dungeon magazines will have delays in the short future due to improvements in the editing process, monthly compilations for these magazines will no longer be provided, and DDI will provide weekly columns starting next week. There are reasons to be concerned, but also a few glimmers of hope (or, dare I say, points of light!).

Let’s start with the killed books. This is a harsh blow, particularly since the 2011 release schedule was pretty sparse, to begin with. Of the six books that had been announced, only three will make the cut. Heroes of Shadow, the only one with material for players, is delayed until april due to a change in format from Essential-like softcover to a more traditional hardcover. The remaining two are rather exciting DM resources: the Shadowfell boxed set and a new Monster Vault. The cancelled titles are a more strange lot, though. The Class Compendium was to be released next month, making this sudden change all the more surprising, but it was always a controverted book, and probably not an easy sell - consisting on a reprint (with Essentials-style format) of five classes from Player’s Handbook, plus some extras such as feats, rituals, and rules for better integration of Essentials and classic builds. Then there was Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium (aka Adventurer’s Vault 3), which is the book I will miss the most. It was suppossed to include enough flavor and description to actually make a readable magic item book... but also to provide some much needed Common and Rare items to use with the new reward rules. Finally, we had Hero Builder’s Handbook, originally due out this summer, which had a hazy description regarding non-combat related options for player characters. I was never sure what to make of this one, but Character Themes (à la Dark Sun) had been mentioned, which would have been a nice thing to see.

The changes to digital content production are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, putting up with weeks of content delays is an annoyance... but the upside is encouraging. As explained by magazine editor Steve Winter, from now on all digital content will go through the same development process as printed products. How is this different from the previous system? Up to now, both Dragon and Dungeon were reviewed by the game R&D team, which did a fairly good job but still left a good deal of bugs and typos. These were more often than not corrected in the monthly compilations, though. With the new methodology, the reviewing effort increases, and there are more people involved, so we should see a noticeable improvement in quality. Moreover, there’s talk of harmonizing this content with R&D’s long range plans for the game, which is an interesting prospect. One of the downsides of DDI articles has always been their random nature: the published articles depended on whatever got submitted and the preferences of the editor, but this led to an irregular growth of the game. As an example, some popular options, like fighters and wizards, ended up with a ton of content, but others (say, Seekers or Changelings) got left behind.

This brings me to some interesting speculation. In an official FAQ regarding the product changes, we find this explanation for the cancelled books:

We are constantly striving to remain conscious of the way our fans consume our content. We felt that the material in these titles would best be presented in other ways and we have plans to make it available in the future.

So, if future Dungeon and Dragon issues are to include R&D-sanctioned content, and the cancelled books will be presented in ‘other ways’, it’s not a huge logic leap to get to the conclusion that material from these books is likely to get salvaged for DDI. There is only one hole in this story: if they are doing this, why aren’t they telling us? Right now, these cancellations are only seen in a negative light - D&D content for this year is being kept to a minimum. If the books were going digital rather than disappearing altogether, the sensible thing would be to announce it, loud and clear! So either they are saving the announcement for a specific time (perhaps the Dungeons & Dragons Experience, at the end of this month?, or we are missing something important, or their strategy makes little sense.

Speaking of absurd strategies, the end-of-month compilations for Dungeon and Dragon magazines have come to an end. From now on, digital articles will have to be read separately, which is fine for regular readers, but not so much for those catching up after a time away. The official line mentions lack of user interest as the main reason, but that looks like a poor excuse. Very conveniently, this change discourages users from subscribing to DDI for one month once or twice a year, and downloading a lot of content in one go, not unlike the recent changes to Character Builder and the announced new version of Monster Builder. The fan response to this change has been almost unanimously negative, and not without reason - this is a straight downgrade in service, with little in the way of compensation.

Thankfully, not everything is grim in the future of DDI. A major change to the D&D website (that will benefit non-paying users to boot) is the introduction of free weekly columns! The only surprising thing about this initiative is the fact that they hadn’t tried it before - after all, this is the same company that gave us the extremely successful columns in the website for Magic:The Gathering, including the absolutely awesome designer insights from Mark Rosewater. Column series will include “Legends & Lore”, a game theory piece from Mike Mearls (which I really look forward to reading), “The Dungeon Master Experience” by expert DM Chris Perkins, “Design & Development”, which gets upgraded to a weekly feature” and “Rule-of-Three”, which will be a Q&A series. There is also a fifth title to be determined. Honestly, this looks like great news.

So that’s it for now. I expect some kind of follow-up in the near future, if only because many of these changes don’t make much sense unless there is something else going on. Time will tell...
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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Monsters of the Trollhaunt II: Encounter 1

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.

This encounter gives us our first taste of Troll goodness, as well as introducing a sneaky, spell-flinging monster.

Troll (Level 9 Brute)

Even the Monster Vault version of the basic troll is a good example of a bad brute: boring, and slightly underpowered. Fortunately, it didn’t take much to turn it into a worthy foe.

1. Issues identified:
- Subpar damage - The troll’s basic (and only) attack deals about 4 points less than would be expected from a brute its level. Easy enough.
- Unexciting power selection - A single melee attack with no special effect? Come on, give me something to work with! Admittedly, trolls have a fair amount of complexity in passive abilities, but this lack of variety in actions is too much for me.

2. Design goals:
Currently, this monster is nothing more than a plain brute with the troll racial traits. A simple theme could make it more interesting. I decided to give it powerful blows capable of pushing enemies, and occasional fits of rage that let it attack everyone around it - a combination that synergizes quite well, mechanically.

3. Changes introduced.
- Toned down Troll Healing - see previous article about trolls as a race.
- Rebalanced defenses - Like so many monsters, the Troll is too heavily skewed towards Fortitude defense. In this case, the Fortitude score was reasonable enough, but both reflex and will were hideously low. I upped Reflex by 3 points (up to level+12), and Will by 1 (up to level+10).
- Claw attack boosted - The hit damage was adjusted to match expectations for its level and role, and a push 1 was added.
- Claw Frenzy attack added - It’s a straightforward rechargeable area attack, to add some variation to the monster’s actions as well as a bit of resource management.
- Renamed to Troll Smasher

Boulder Troll (Level 9 Artillery) - New Monster

The following text can be found in the Tactics section of Encounter 1:

One of the trolls stands back, next to the old wall. It uses chunks of the wall as a missile weapon, hurling pieces of stone at the adventurers (...). Hurling a chunk of the wall is a +13 vs AC attack that deals 1d6+6 damage if the hurled stone hits.

This makes no sense! That troll is clearly trying to perform a different role (artillery), and under 4E philosophy they should have just included a new stat block for a troll specializing in ranged attacks, rather than forcing a brute to waste turns in a miserable, ad-hoc maneuver. They even left enough free space in the encounter pages for an extra monster... oh, well, we’ll have to make it ourselves.

1. Issues identified:
There should be a level 9 Artillery troll, to prevent its Brute brothers from embarrassing themselves.
2. Design goals:
I’d like this monster to feel like the Troll Smasher above, but using ranged attacks with large stones. So, pushing an area attacks it is.

3. Implementation notes:
- Take Troll Smasher as a baseline, change stats to match Artillery role.
- Boulder (ranged basic attack) - A simple attack that pushes
- Huge Boulder (area attack) - A straightforward burst 1 attack. Note that this one is at-will, since it’s ok for artillery monsters to do this kind of thing frequently. Yes, that stone has to be really big to cover so much area...
4- Gameplay notes
I find that encounters improve a lot when you add a ranged monster or two to an otherwise melee-only fight. Consider using the Boulder Troll if the adventure becomes too focused on melee combats, and adding at least one to random Troll encounters out of principle.

Oni Mage

1. Issues identified:
- Old fashioned elite: It has excessive AC and defenses, and in general is not good enough to make for 2 real creatures.
- Old fashioned lurker: It lacks a large damage boost to make it worthwhile to spend a turn going invisible.
- Tension between traits and powers. The extra damage works only with melee, but the monster really wants to be casting spells whenever possible.

2. Design goals:
What’s the monster about? I thought that its shtick should be hiding and blowing up the world with explosive spells every other turn. A lurker with a heavy dose of controller.

3. Changes introduced.
- Toned down defenses - Old school Elites tend to have excessive defenses. For this one, I lowered AC by 1 point (to level+14) and Fortitude and Reflex by 2 points. Note that this made Fortitude the second best defense (it was the first, of course) after Will, which can be justified by the fact that the Oni, though large and bulky, is a powerful spellcaster.
- Replaced “Combat Advantage” trait with “Unseen Assault” - To better fit the Lurker role, and make for a more interesting character. Bonus damage is increased, but it now triggers only while invisible.
- Improved all attacks: The melee basic attack is given the Eyebite effect (invisible vs target) on a hit, so it can trigger Unseen Assault and be generally annoying. Freezing Blast and Lightning storm got miss effects and accuracy adjustments. Damage in general was increased to MM3 standards.

4- Gameplay notes
The monster can wreak serious havoc by breaking invisibility with an area spell, then spending an action point to attack with the other one. Extra damage will only apply to the first one, but you can catch a lot of PCs this way. The recharging spells also interact nicely with the strategy of skipping turns to lurk.

Interesting fact: despite the invisibility, this monster is pretty bad at hiding, so it’s fairly easy for PCs to figure out its location.

All images are (C) 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. The formatted statistics blocks have been generated using the D&D Adventure Tools. But not with the last version, which lacks a Monster Builder. The one before that, which works despite the billions of bugs. Read More......