Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Class Compendium: Warlord. New format and flavor, same mechanics.

The first chapter of Class Compendium has come out today, barely making it into this month’s issue of Dragon magazine. I am mildly disappointed, not for any lack of quality in the material itself, but because I half expected it to have more ambitious goals. The article consists on a reprinting of the Warlord class, as originally seen on the first Player’s Handbook, but reformatted to match the new style introduced in the Essentials books, and incorporating all existing errata, and a lot of clarifications. The number of functional changes has been kept to a minimum, though, and this is the point where I have been let down.

To be fair, even without mechanical changes of note (apart from a much needed rewriting of Commander’s Strike for clarity purposes, and the redesign of a couple of daily powers), the article holds more value than I had imagined. The Essentials format takes up a lot of space, but it does read much better than the dreaded Walls of Powers in the original 4E books. There is quite a lot of added flavor, which some will consider filler, but at the very least is quality, well written filler. And although the effects of most powers remain unchanged, their text has been extensively revised and polished, becoming much more clear and formal. Putting my old PHB next to this article, it is now evident how rough the writing of power description was in the early 4E days, so this is definitely an improvement. Also, even though the Warlord has suffered relatively little errata, it is nice to have a reference text where you know that everything is up to date - previously, we had to resort to the online Compendium, which is handy, but a bit cumbersome if you intend to read the whole class.

Now, the only question remaining is, was the Warlord unchanged because it’s the overall policy of the book, or because the class is that good? The answer is relevant because some of the other classes and builds compiled in Class Compendium are in greater need of functional updates, such as the Wizard (which should see its encounter powers overhauled to match the miss effects introduced in Heroes of the Fallen Lands), and the much maligned Strength Cleric (which suffers from a remarkable lack of options). And here, I must admit that Warlords were in pretty good shape, to begin with. There are very few things that really stand out as wrong (including the Battle Captain paragon path), and a couple of lesser updates that I’d like to see but are far from vital (such as changing Knight’s Move and similar utilities from ranged to close burst powers). So it is perfectly possible that other classes will see more changes, because they deserve them more. We will see...

By the way, it is probably a mistake that will get fixed at some point, but at the time of writing this, this article can be freely downloaded, despite the fact that is marked as subscriber content. My guess is that the intention was for the actual errata (which is compiled as a separate sheet) to be offered for free, while the article itself remained behind the paywall. At any rate, if you are not a DDI subscriber, you could do worse than downloading it and checking it out, while there is time.
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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Adventure Tools updated, now with 100% less Monster Builder!

Those who have been following this blog for a while know that my attitude toward the D&D Insider service errs towards a cautious optimism. Today's news, however, offer me no bright side to look upon. A new version of the Monster Builder has been released, completely devoid of the most basic elements you would expect in such a tool - notably, the ability to Build Monsters. Thus, for the first time ever, I have sent Wizards of the Coast an Angry Letter (tm), which I reproduce here for your enjoyment and shared indignation.

To: Wizards of the Coast customer service
Re: Missing feature (Monster Building)

The newly released online tool for DDI has been wrongly announced as a Monster Builder. This is an unfortunate mistake, since its monster building capabilities are almost nil. The removal of this essential feature would have been a serious letdown to me, had it been properly communicated. However, there has been no official word on the matter, and I have only found out when browsing the tool, by clicking hopelessly in search of the most basic functionality. This makes things so much worse.

This is not a product ready for public release. I have been following its progress since the beta, and I can see the polishing effort that has taken place since then. However, its current feature set provides no value at all to me, being little more than an alternate interface for information that I could already access from the Compendium. I was excited to see this tool, because it didn't cross my mind that it would be released without editing functions.

I honestly wonder what led you to think this could be a good idea. If editing features are to be added at some point in the future, you should have waited until they were ready. If they are not, I guess this still has value exclusively as a component for the virtual table - so you should have released it whenever the VT came out. The importing feature could have been a redeeming point, if not for the fact that the original Monster Builder has been bugged into almost uselessness for months now, so I am unable to generate non-corrupt monster files. The only thing this tool has managed to do is annoy me.

Please, don't do this again. I can take delays and cancellations, and even a certain amount of bugs and instability on a release, but trying to pass off some hollow piece of software as the real deal is utterly pointless, and a waste of your time, as well as mine.

Edit (23/03/11): The following comment has been posted by WoTC_Trevor on the official forums, addressing many of the concerns expressed above. I'm not sold on their arguments, and it comes a bit late, but it's certainly better than nothing.

Now on to the topic of "why did you release something that wasn't feature complete?" questions/complaints. Main reasons, short and sweet - we wanted to give all the DDI members a chance to check out what we're working on, and we wanted to make sure that all DDI members had the chance to use the MB to import monsters into their VT games during the next step of the VT beta.

You still have access to the classic MB (you can download it right now). We won't be doing any more updates to it, but it's still there and still usable. Yes it has issues, but I'm hopefully most people understand that we won't be working on the old tools while adding features to the new tool. With the web-based MB, we have something that gives very basic functionality and is usable with the VT that we wanted to get into everybody hands, not just the small group of testers that we had before.

The VT point is a bit more tangible - Having the web-based MB out, even in this limited form, makes imputing monsters into the VT 1000% (statistic completely made up) better for DMs. So getting this out to DDI subscribers who will very soon be testing out the VT seemed a pretty important thing.

I am definitely sorry that I haven't given you more news on what to expect with this AT release these last few weeks. I'm also sorry if I led you to believe that the AT would be more robust than what the closed beta testers had access to. We did add a couple features, but the biggest changes are on their way. I will be back in the coming days with more information on the features we'll be implementing, focusing on whatever the next big thing is.

So at least we can expect the current state of affairs to be temporary - editing will be added, eventually.

Also, although I haven't seen it documented anywhere, there IS an upside to the latest update, as they have introduced a very cool feature that I could actually enjoy using. The Monster (sigh) Builder now has the ability to display pictures for each monster in the catalog. Currently, only a very limited selection of monsters features any art (try looking at Monster Vault or Monster Manual I creatures, for example), but they intend to add it for all of them.

The idea of having art in the MB was definitely a good one and we want to do that as well. For now we've implemented a lot of the art that was in the Monster Vault along with some additions, and we definitely want to get more art in there. I personally would love to have some contests for people to submit some art for those creatures that don't have any, and then use the winners as our official pieces of art in the MB. We'll see how things work out as we get more features/content.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Monsters of the Trollhaunt IV: Encounter W1

Monsters of the Trollhaunt: Index – Previous - Next

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 adventurers finally get to the main dungeon. I update the opponents in the first dungeon encounter, and suggest a new monster to spice up the fight.

The most defining feature of this encounter is the gate of the Great Warren, which can create a huge bottleneck if blocked by a Warren Troll (or by the PCs). This can easily degenerate into a static fight at the gate, with half the trolls being unable to get to melee at the narrow passage. Because of this, I replaced two of the Warren Trolls with soldier trolls armed with spears, with enough reach to fight behind the Warren Troll at the gate.

Warren Troll (Level 11 Brute)

This is a big, dumb brute. It’s slightly more interesting than the baseline Troll, in that it has a respectable encounter attack, so I just added a push effect to its melee attack, and updated the stats.

1. Issues identified:
- Outdated stats.

2. Changes introduced.
- Toned down Troll Healing - see previous article about trolls as a race.
- Added push to claw attack
- Increased damage and accuracy
- Fixed defenses. These were way too low for a monster of its level. I brought them up to be on par with the standard guidelines.

Warren Guard (Level 11 Soldier) - New Monster

1. Issues identified:
I needed some of the melee trolls to have reach, so that they could fight from the back lines in the Warren Gate encounter

2.Design goals.
A straightforward melee troll with reach. The soldier role seems fitting for this theme, and a marking melee attack and a punishing power would have great synergy with the reach, and be quite interesting to play.

3. Implementation Notes
- Take Warren Troll as baseline, changing stats to match Soldier role.
- Give it melee reach 3.
- Greatspear (melee basic attack) - A simple attack that marks for a turn, whether it hits or missses.
- Troll Revenge (immediate reaction) - A basic attack that triggers when a marked enemy ignores the troll. It can trigger from a range of up to 3 squares, and it knocks prone on a hit for added fun.

4. Gameplay notes
I half feared, half hoped that I could use these trolls in some sort of phalanx, with the brutes blocking the way and acting as a meatwall, and the soldiers hitting from behind and being all kinds of annoying. That was not to happen, though, as my paragon tier party proved to be far more mobile than I had expected. On the first round of combat, the Assassin teleported through the gate troll, while the Monk ran over the walls past it, and the Sentinel summoned a critter in the middle of the room. So it ended up as a chaotic skirmish where the troll guards’ reach didn’t matter much - but the monsters themselves performed quite well, doing soldiery things all around.

Marrowmaw Impaler (Level 9 Artillery)

The Marrowmaw Impaler is an artillery monster without artillery stats. The usual accuracy boost is nowhere to be seen, as are the reduced AC and HP. Add to that its Troglodyte Stench trait, which significantly improves its survivability in melee, and you end up with a ranged monster with a better ability to resist melee attacks than the average soldier of its level! This clearly needed a revision.
Apart from that, I found that I liked the concept of the monster’s main attack (Impaling Shot, a rechargable ranged attack with a chance to restrain the target), but not its execution. The restrain trigger is both very powerful and very random, making for a monster whose effectiveness swings wildly depending on how the dice roll. I knew I wanted to make this effect easier to control, at the cost of requiring some setup.

1. Issues identified:
- Stats don’t match artillery role.
- Impaling Shot mechanics too swingy.

2. Changes introduced.
- Lowered AC, Fortitude, HP. This brings these stats much closer to what is expected for an artillery monster. I still has slightly above average HP, and the Troglodyte Stench aura to make it sturdier than other artilleries.
- Removed Claw attack. I guess this was there for flavor reasons, but a second melee attack that is strictly worse than the alternative is a waste of space.
- Increased base damage and accuracy. To match its role, and the new damage guidelines. I left damage for its basic attack a bit below expectations, to compensate for the added effect and the great rechargable attack.
- Redesigned Impaling Shot. I removed the secondary attack roll, so that the attack now always restrains on a hit. The catch? It now can only be used against enemies granting combat advantage, which isn’t easy to pull off at range. Of course, I very conveniently changed the base Javelin attack to cause the target to grant combat advantage. Because of this, the Impaler should now present a sequence of attacks: use basic attacks until you hit, and then Impale the target. It also makes multiple Impalers focusing on a same target a deadly proposition...

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......

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Heroes of Shadow previews

Heroes of Shadow, the first D&D book that will be released after the Essentials line, isn't easy to classify under 4E standards. We have grown accustomed to structured, predictable book series, but these seem to have come to an end, in favour of a more freeform style of publishing. Its content will consist in options for player characters, that much is for certain, but other than that, the book looks like a strange hybrid between a Player's Handbook 4, a Shadow Power book, and a Players Essentials: heroes of the Shadowy Places.

There are the new races and classes usually associated with a Player's Handbook, with a mixture of brand new stuff and subclasses for existing archetypes (similar to those in the Essentials player books). But the format and pagecount coincide with those of a Power book (a 160 page hardcover), and there are also new builds and powers. Also, the information is structured like in the Essentials style, with separate progression tables for each class, and a lot of flavor. Add to this that the builds featured in the book are corrupted (shadowy) versions of classes from all kinds of power sources, that there were rumors of DDI-exclusive material getting reprinted, and that we didn't even have clear estimations on the number of races and classes to be included, and the result is a very confusing product. That is, until we got to see a preview of its content table.

We can now tell that the book includes one new class and three subclasses, each with two builds and a paragon path. In addition, we get new builds and powers for cleric/warpriests, warlock/hexblades, and wizard/mages. On top of that, there are three races, ten paragon paths, four epic destinies, and a bunch of feats. Here is a detailed summary of what we know about them so far.

Reprinted material: Executioner and Revenant
Let us start with what is probably the most controversial issue related with the product: the Executioner assassin subclass and the Revenant race. The reason why these are problematic is that they were originally released on the digital magazines - as DDI-exclusive material. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if Wizards was just putting to print a random Dragon article - after all, there was the precedent of the Dragon Annual. But they went and made a point about how this specific class and that very race were awesome material that wouldn’t be available in book form, and how only subscribers to the digital service would benefit from them. What’s worse, the Executioner got published just a few months ago, yet there was no mention of its eventual reprint until the time came for it to get included in Character Builder. Oh, well. At least it is good material, but I would have preferred some clear communication on the matter from the beginning.

New class and subclasses: Blackguard, Warlock, Vampire
Anyway, on to the new stuff. The three subclasses introduced in the book actually look pretty cool. We get a corrupted Paladin in the Blackguard, which adds the shadow power source to this divine class, and changes its role to striker (since shadow characters are a bit morally handicapped to perform as defenders). The Blackguard rules seem to mirror those of the Cavalier build from Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, with a similar structure but turning Cavalier Virtues into Vices (the ones included in the book are Domination and Fury, and we should expect a few more on a DDI article in the following months. The marking features have been replaced by an extra damage mechanic, and they get ways to hurt themselves to improve their attacks. Finally, the smite attacks have been replaced by an encounter power that deals extra damage and ongoing damage on top of that. Overall, it looks like a very nice subclass, though I’m still not sold on the way it fits into the paladin archetype. It’s nice that they are thrown together to remark how they are anti-paladins, but letting blackguards get any power or feat from the good guys feels a bit wrong. Maybe after seeing the whole class it will make more sense.

The second subclass that tries out the ‘corrupted by shadow’ trick is the warlock, though in their case it’s not so much about getting corrupted as corrupting in a different way, as warlocks were pretty nasty to begin with. Anyway, the Binder Warlock switches the class role to controller (not a huge shift, as warlocks were among the most controlling of strikers) and adds the shadow power source on top of arcane. From what we have seen so far, they will keep many of the classic warlock features, including Shadow Walk, a revision of Prime Shot, and possibly their Pact Boon (though they get their own, separate pacts - Gloom and Star, in this case). Also, the power structure seems to follow the original at-will/encounter/daily pattern, meaning that Binders should be able to freely choose powers in all slots (with some likely restrictions for at-wills, following the warlock tradition). Since controller powers are supposed to be stronger than their equivalents from other roles, Binder attacks are getting a reduced effect for non-binder warlocks (as any other build-specific power), but the fact that players can pick and choose between subclasses is encouraging. The only point of concern is that some previewed character sheets included really lousy attacks, particularly in the daily slot, which brings to question just how efficient Binders will be at their role. I just hope these bad powers are an exception, or that they get fixed on the printed book.

The new full class is the part of the book we know the least about. The Vampire class is fully shadow powered, and includes two builds, or bloodlines: the Beguiler and the Stalker. From their names, one should incline towards control, charm and domination (classic vampire tropes, after all), and the other seems to favor stealth and subtlety. But other than that, we haven’t been told much. I expect the class role to be striker, though this is mere speculation. It does look like a very nice concept, and a bold approach to class design at a time where most niches were starting to get filled. If it works out well, we’ll probably get a lycanthrope class sooner than later, and maybe some other monster-inspired class. As a side note, this class was originally rumored to come out with the Ravenloft campaign setting, but they probably chose to move it around when the book (box?) was delayed.

New builds: Death Warpriests, Gloom Hexblades, Death and Shadow Mages
As for the new builds (which are a level below subclasses, for those confused by the Essentials character categories), they are shadow-themed options for cleric/warpriests, warlock/hexblades, and wizard/mages. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean that only Essentials characters can benefit from them, as they should include many new powers available to any character of their class.
Clerics get the Death Domain for the warpriest subclass, which will probably involve a ton of necrotic-based attacks, and powers with debilitating effect. This build should present a much reduced emphasis on healing, compared to other clerics, and there is even the possibility of changing the leader role or at least changing the Healing Word feature... though I wouldn’t count on it. Apart from the array of encounter powers included in every warpriest domain, there is a section with new powers that will likely have necrotic daily attacks and deathly utilities.
I don’t know much about the Gloom Pact for the Warlock Hexblade, other than it should make warlocks the class with the most absurdly high amount of builds in the game. I wonder why they chose to name it Gloom, when there is precedent of a Shadow pact for the classic Warlock, but it probably has to do with the strong drow theme of the original shadow pact, which has little to do with the Shadow power featured in this book. Anyway, there will also be a bunch of shadowy dailies and utilities for all warlocks.
Finally, Wizards will have two new mage schools focused on dark magic: necromancers and nethermancers. These seem to have a strong focus on summons, with an interesting twist: unlike with most summoning spells, the creatures brought by a necromancer or shadowmancer do not disappear at the end of an encounter. The trick, then, should be at managing to keep them alive. Another unprecedented change for a wizard build is how some of these powers will not be available at all for non-shadow wizards, which is unorthodox, but not a bad way to keep balance and preserve the uniqueness of the new ‘mancers. More worrying is the notion that these summons ,and as a result the new builds, might in fact be significantly underpowered. The previewed powers look quite unimpressive for a wizard, at the very least.

Races: Shade and Vryloka
Leaving aside the reprinted Revenant, the races featured in this book introduce an interesting mechanical concept: racial utility powers. That is, on top of the usual encounter racial, there is the possibility of using utility slots to gain more powers exclusive for your race. This looks like something that could easily be extended for existing races, and I wouldn’t mind finding that on a future book or magazine article.
The one race we have seen previewed so far is the Shade, and I must confess it looks a bit underwhelming. Not because of the much-commented fact that it is the first 4E race to have an actual drawback (unless you count small races), in that they get a -1 penalty to their amount of healing surges - I think this is a touch that adds flavor with a minimum impact on real character power. But even without it, the other features are nothing to call home about. Their racial allows them to use the stealth skill (on which they are always trained) with the slightest of cover or concealment, and can be used at-will... but has a prohibitive cost of a standard action, meaning that it should only be worthwhile to use outside of combat. The previewed utilities are cool, but not strong enough to justify playing the race in the first place. Since it is doubtful that the book will include any race-specific feats, the Shade’s future looks a little dark, unless they somehow got changed before going to print.
Less is known about the oddly-named Vryloka. Do not let the fancy name deceive you: this is a “human vampire” race. Although it may seem an odd choice, given that the book already has a vampire class and that this brings strange interactions such as characters with the vampire class, the vampire race, and maybe a vampire bloodline just for fun, it actually makes a lot of sense. The vampire is a strong stereotype with a lot of versatility, and it’s cool to be able to mix it with all races and classes in the game, so that you can make an elf vampire or a vampire wizard, if you want.

The rest
As could be expected, most of the paragon paths and epic destinies included in the book have a Shadow, Darkness or Gloom in their names, though they have managed not to make them too repetitive. I rather like the one path that has been previewed, the Shadowthief, which isn’t terribly powerful but introduces a new resource in a kind of shadow points that you gain by killing enemies that can be then used for various effects - a mechanic I always enjoyed.
The book also includes some generic feats for shadow characters, but I am surprised about the little space devoted to them - a mere 3 pages. This is way less than what we usually see on a player book (there are Dragon articles with more stuff, for that matter), but if they have the same general purpose and overall quality as the feats found in Essential books, we might still get a lot of mileage out of them.

Obviously, we haven’t still seen enough of the content to properly evaluate the product, but judging from the previews and the structure alone, we can tell that this is a very different book from anything that has preceded it. The old, predictable formulas, which I happened to enjoy a lot, seem to be gone, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I can see a lot of innovation and weird experiments going on in this book, and many great ideas. Barring some serious screwups in implementation (of which we have seen a few in the previews, unfortunately), this has the potential to be an awesome and enjoyable book, and I’m certainly going to give it a try. And whether this new approach works or not, we already know that there will be at least one more book following it: Heroes of the Feywild, scheduled for this November.
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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Class Compendium in this month’s Dragon

When half of the scheduled books for 2011 got cancelled, we were told that the material in them would be released in ‘other ways’. The logical solution seemed to be converting them into DDI articles, though it was not clear how long it would take for them to see the light this way. It turns out, not too long - in this very issue of Dragon magazine, we’ll get to see the first sample of this material, in Class Compendium: Warlord.

Quick recap: Class Compendium, Heroes of Sword and Spell was a book originally scheduled for february, 2011, intended to reprint part of the class material from the original Player’s Handbook. Specifically, it would include the main four D&D classes (Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric), plus the Warlord. These wouldn’t be new builds, but the PHB material reformatted to match the current Essentials style, and including all published errata. Also, I was half expecting that they introduced new errata with this book because, honestly, it was too good an opportunity to pass up on: at the very least, they should update wizard spells to include magic school keywords and miss effects on encounters. But there was also lots of clarification and minor rebalancing (Sure Strike anyone?) they could make without much effort. On the other hand, this would tread into ‘4.5 edition’ issues (by reprinting and invalidating previous material) more than any previous book, including the Essentials line, so perhaps it wouldn’t be such a good idea.

Anyway, whatever was going to be in the book, we are getting the first chapter at some point in march. The article description suggests it will include ‘the most current updates to many powers, features, and feats’, which doesn’t seem to imply there will be any new updates, other than the ones already seen in previous errata. I’d much rather see them adding new fixes, as the article would feel like a waste of space to me, otherwise. I mean, there is some merit in releasing a book that merely changes the format and adds minor corrections to existing stuff, because it’s a physical product that new players can buy instead of the much errataed PHB. But on DDI? Subscribers already have access to errata pdfs, updated class descriptions in the online compendium, and up-to-date character builder - so these compilations won’t add much value to them, unless they bring some actual changes. We will have to wait and see.

To conclude, I’d also like to point out another article in this month’s magazines which, while not horribly innovative, is going to address something many players have been asking for ever since Heroes of the Fallen Lands was released: alternate ability score bonuses for all races that still haven’t got one. This is a simple, yet extremely useful idea, and I’m glad they are finally doing it. And it looks like it will be open to all readers (rather than just DDI subscribers), to boot!
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