PAX East 2010 Report

Wow… I’m starting to finally recover from nearly 4 straight days of gaming. I have to say that PAX East was awesome. I got to play a ton of board games, video games and of course Dungeons and Dragons. I also had a lot of access to Wizards of the Coast folk to ask questions and bring up some issues. I also had a chance to DM the Dark Sun preview adventure. There was a lot of fun to be had and I highly recommend PAX (and PAX East) as destinations for RPG players. I met a lot of great people that I hope will be long-term gaming friends, but also unfortunately I met a few D&D Jerks (I didn’t know they existed). In the five adventures I played in I came across a whole slew of situations that will make great posts: effective use of skill actions in combat, dealing with bad players and dms, dark sun, organized play, PHB3, the DM’s challenge, upcoming D&D products (like the Player’s Strategy Guide), effective use of encounters and power designs, etc etc…

The people. I got to  meet lots of great people: including some awesome gamers from as far away as Portland and Canada. I don’t want to brag and name drop, but so far two the people I’ve gamed with Phill, the Chatty DM (who lived up to his moniker), and Sarah Darkmagic (my regular DM) have written up their experiences so check those out. I also got to meet a lot of local gamers, and I hope to seem around FLGSs and future cons in the area. In addition to famous and/or industry people, there were lots of gamers playing every kind of game in every corner of the convention center. From people like this guy: Lots of fun for all.

The Games. In addition to D&D, I got to play tons of board games, including the new Mystery Express from Days of Wonder, some Magic with the promo decks in the swag bag, got to meet some Interactive Fiction people, see lots of upcoming video games, including Prince of Persia and Civilization V. There were even meta games for the convention, and games for waiting in line (of which there was a lot of).There were also console games, computer games, and classic console and arcade games! I even got meet Luke Crane of Burning Wheel. Must play Mouseguard sometime before the year is out…

The Keynote and Panels. Wil Wheaton brought his A game (along with Pandemic, D&D, and Dragon Age), and really managed to speak to all the generations of gamers there. In addition to Wil, there were a lot of concerts and game industry panels. I didn’t get to many of them, either because the rooms filled up or I was busy gaming elsewhere.

D&D Activities

  • In addition to some unofficial side gaming, Wizards had a big booth in the Expo Hall with “live D&D” which allowed six people to take on six simplified characters and attack a single monster rolling real d20s. It was a fun, especially considering the whole experience with waiting on line was less than 10 minutes.
  • Learn to play d&d: I did not participate in this activity since I already know how to play, but this like all the organized activities “sold out” really quickly, and the people seemed to have a lot of fun.
  • Dark Sun: On Saturday I played the dark sun adventure. I was surprised by how young the other players in my group were and that they haven’t been playing very long. It was a weird switch for me. They seemed to have fun, although I think they were pretty distracted by the time last encounter came around after about 2.5 hours. It didn’t help that the DM was really bad. Thankfully for the group I DM’d the adventure on Sunday I learned a lot from his mistakes. I think my group had a lot of fun as well, and I hope I brought Athas to life for them. Although I’ve DM’d tons before, it was the first for me since 4e came out, and I was glad WotC was short-staffed enough for me to get the opportunity. I hope I’ll get more soon. I’ll blog a bunch about that experience soon.
  • Undermountain delve: This was another event that I did not get to participate in, but it looked pretty cool. Also I think there were prizes for the participants.
  • DM Challenge: There was a poorly advertised contest for DMs to come up with a short adventure based on the Underdark book. About 9 DMs participated in this, including our own Sarah Darkmagic. For me, the adventure started off really fun with a nice dynamic encounter, but our DM kept us there until well after 12:30 when the contest was supposed to only go until 11pm (although most were still going on at 12). He had a wonderful scenario set up and it was the first time I ever saw a complete set of minis where the actual minis represented the monster it was supposed to be. Unfortunately the adventure was one encounter too long and the big boss fight was too complex to deal with at that hour. Here is a picture of Dave the Game’s winning final encounter:
    Dave the Game at PAX East DM challenege
  • Save My Game Panel: The WotC hosts held a live session of save my game. Once again the differences between 4e and 3/3.5 became apparent by the types of questions that were asked depending on which edition was being played. I particularly liked that the panelists also let community members answer questions, and that there were lots of nodding heads along with the points I agreed with. I think this format would be great online as some kind of scheduled and mediated forum. Sort of like newbie DM’s new minicasts, but where anyone can answer. I’m looking at you @trevor_wotc.

It was nice that I got to sample a whole variety of games. I would have liked more time for card and board games, and to have a had the patience to wait in line to get signatures and meet more geekleberties.

Check out my pax pictures on flickr.

I’m at PAX East

If I’ve set things up correctly this post will drop while I am hanging at PAX East! It’s been months of looking forward to get my geek on, and I’m sure it won’t disappoint. Assuming my internet connection is good, and you want to meet up, tweet me @TheMikeKatz. The next few days are going to be crazy so I may not have a post ready for Monday. If not I’ll have my post-PAX post ready to go on Wednesday. In the meantime, this is how I’m preparing…




  • I’ve got my board games:
  • I’ve got my role playing books, paper, pencils, dice, minis, etc:
  • I’ve got snacks, nintendo DS, iPod touch, camera, and chargers…

Now all I need to do is figure out to cram everything into a small, unobtrusive bag and where to park…

Have a great weekend everyone! And if you’re not there, get your group together and play.

PHB 3 Review

I picked up the Player’s Handbook 3 at the game store when I was there for World Wide Game Day this past weekend. Normally I’d be on the fence about such a purchase (c’mon PHB….3, srlsy guys).  But, since I have been playing a Psion since they released it in Dragon magazine, I know I’ll get plenty of use out of it. Plus I’ve been looking forward to psionic feats and items to replace the normal ones I’ve been using. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book yet in detail, but I have skimmed the whole thing, and here’s my breakdown:


There are four new races: Wilden (a fey-plant hybird), Shardmind (humanoid crystal constructs), Githerzai (what elves would be if made by Ithillids), and Minotaurs. The Wilden and Githerzai don’t do much for me, as I think there are already plenty of exotic races. I did play a Minotaur over the weekend and it was a lot of fun; I liked being the literal “bull in a china shop.” The Shardmind are interesting-looking and I wouldn’t mind giving their teleport abilities a try once or twice, but I think I’m too traditional to play one regularly. I think the Githerzai, Shardmind, and Wilden fit the theme of the PHB3, but in all, this chapter is the shortest and weakest of the book.


PHB3’s main focus are the new Psionic classes, but there is also a new divine leader (Runepriest) and martial primal controller (Seeker). For the psionic classes, we’ve got the leader (Ardent), defender (Battlemind), striker (Monk), and controller (Psion). The psionic classes use power points to enhance at-will attacks instead of regular encounter powers. Their abilities focus on affecting emotions, as well as charming and confusing enemies. Unlike 3.5 psionics the flavor isn’t over-the-top and the powers are similar-enough to the other classes of similar roles, that they can fit in well with a traditional group. I previously gave a review of the Psion, but I haven’t had time to read the details of the other classes. The Monk is certainly the most interesting with their Ki focuses (non-weapon implements) and powers that insinuate crazy footwork and punching. The Monk’s power names are Evocative of Karate Kid, and I won’t be surprised if people have a house epic destiny of “Chuck Norris.”

The non-psionic classes are the Runepriest and Seeker. I played the Runepriest at the Game Day, and I wasn’t that impressed. The powers are all “Rune of…” or “Word of…” and I had hard time visualizing what exactly it was my character was doing on the battlefield to generate the power’s effect. Also each power seems to convey a series of situational bonuses and I had hard time keeping track of who had what and for how long. Because the different powers give bonuses to nearby allies on a turn-by-turn basis, I had to pay more attention to what everyone else was doing and remind them of their the particular bonus I was granting that round. If you’re into the rune-thing, this character might be fun to RP;  I imagined my character had runes carved and painted all over his gear and body.

The Seeker uses arrows to control enemies by create deadly zones on the battlefield and pushing around monsters. In the game day encounters the seeker was very effective with its Thorn Cloud (a zone you don’t want to stand near) and attacks that pushed or limited movement. I still think if I had an “archer” character in mind I’d go with a Ranger, but I think the Seeker is a very clever way to make a martial weaspon-based controller.

The next section of the Classes chapter is on hybrid characters. These feel more like the old-school multiclasses instead of the PHB1 feat-based multiclassing. To make a hybrid character you sorta blend the class abilities and choose some powers from one and some from the other. It’s nice that they give you a lot of advice and warnings when constructing these characters; because unless you choose two hybrids from the same role, you’re likely to end up with a 2E mage/cleric… very underpowered compared to your party-mates. The chapter has hybrid rules for every published class which makes the chapter long and non-scalable, but it has good per-class advice for how to build its hybrid version. Based on the fact that the first few paragraphs advise against making a hybrid character unless you have a 5th or 6th player makes me wonder why this section is in the book, other than to pad the pages. It seems like it should have been a Dragon article instead of a major release.

Rounding out the chapter are new epic destinies for the new classes. Since I have yet to play an epic-level 4e character I don’t have much to say about this part.

Skill Powers

Skill powers lets you select a from a list of alternate utility powers based on your trained skills instead of your class. Since they’re utility powers most of them aren’t too exciting. For my character, I would only choose one if it fit with the character’s concept better than the available class powers. The athletics and acrobatics powers seem the most useful in combat as they help with movement, the others are special rather situational (increased ritual speed, use one skill to make check instead of another, or get an extra shift or healing surge). I’m not sure if I will retrain one or not yet, but it is nice to have the options and does make skill training a little more consequential.


I won’t go too much into the feats since like the PHB2, it’s about 15% general feats and the rest are for the new races and classes, which are necessary to make the new classes as customizable as the existing races and classes. I’d like to see more feats like “Teamwork Defense” that increase in usefulness with each party member that has it.


As with PHB2, in addition to new feats there are usually lots of shiny new items to acquire. In particular I’ve been looking forward to items that work with Psionic classes, and this book does not disappoint. In addition to synergizing with the class abilities, many items can either restore power points or absorb power points for augmented abilities…very cool. The section starts off with “superior implements” which I don’t think I fully understand. They’re not magical, but have special abilities due to their exotic materials. They cost between 13 and 25 gp to get that special ability, which puts them on par with regular weapons and not so much with other exotic materials. The bonuses are in the vain of +1 to hit, +2 to damage, bigger crit die, increased range, etc. Which seems like something that would be taken care of by a magical item’s powers/bonuses. The confusing thing is that in order to get the benefit you need to to take a separate feat. I’d don’t appreciate how taking “superior implement” feat and hoping you get an accurate implement for +1 to hit is better than just taking “implement expertise” and getting a +1 to hit with any implement. Do the +1’s then stack? Does the +1 also stack with a +1 implement?

I won’t go into any detail on the individual magic items, but they span a range of items, with a big section Ki focuses (since this is a new focus area), and orbs and staffs for psionics. There are two new crystal consumables: Cognizance Crystals that let you recoup misspent power points and Talent Shards that give a bonus to skill checks.


PHB3 is a good rule book and of a far better quality than I would expect for the 3rd installment of PHB. I think the book got more polish and play than it would have if it had come out as the “Complete Psionics.” Unless one of the classes interests you, there’s no reason to pick up this book. You can get the race info and general feats pretty easy from DDI; the book’s value really comes from the new classes and the feat and item support for those. The artwork is nice and consistent with the other books, but nothing I found wanting to linger over. I assume there’ll be a PHB4, but I am afraid of what lengths they’ll go to make up new exotic stuff for it… perhaps bringing back Incarnum for another round?

EDIT (25-Mar-10): Seeker is primal, not martial.

Worldwide D&D game day

Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day Player's Handbook 3

This past weekend I participated in my first official, organized D&D event: Player’s Handbook 3 Worldwide D&D Game Day. The adventure started with our choice of 5 out of 6 pregenerated characters based on PHB 3 races and classes. The dungeon contained two levels with 5 combat and one 1 skill challenge encounters, based on the PHB3 flavor. As for the group, all the players at the table had 4e experience and the DM was experienced with all sorts of RPG and had run game days before. Because we all played before, the group came together pretty quickly as a party and synergized to really stick it to the bad guys.

I picked up the Minotaur Runepriest, Foostus, my first leader character. The Runepriest’s abilites combine buffing allies or debuffing bad guys to either increase damage dealt, or increase resistance to enemy attacks. It’s not as heal-y as some of the other leaders, and while I enjoyed the character I think I’d rather play a Bard or Cleric if when I lead again. What I did enjoy about the character however was the Minotaur race. The minotaur has a nice flavor with charge attacks. I think if I made a minotaur for a future game, I’d take more feats to really play up the charges. It works very well when the enemies wear red capes.

There were a few pieces I really enjoyed about the delve/adventure. The skill challenge had all the players go through scenes of abstract madness that had a very cinematic feel to them. For instance my character was confronted with a cloud of charged energy, and a room of total darkness. I liked that the effects were different for each character and came from a random table, something I haven’t seen yet in a 4e Wizards’ module. The other encounter I really enjoyed was a scene with a white dragon that we could either help through skill challenge or fight it. Somehow my character with his 8 Charisma was the diplomacy guy there, but we made it through unscathed and got some PHB3 treasure for our troubles.

Since PHB3 focuses on Psionics, the main bad guys this time come the Far Realm, a place of madness and aberrations (instead of the Feywild or Shadowfell from previous PHBs). To fit in with this theme, we fought some pretty gross monsters capable of causing madness and flinging their own body parts. The sheer flavor of them made it really easy to immerse oneself into the delve world.

I only have good things to say about the whole experience. Since the FLGS isn’t as local as I’d like, I got to game with @SarahDarkmagic (as a fellow player) and four fellows I never met before, but had a good time with. Everyone was friendly and we got along great, so the whole thing went smoothly and quickly. It’s been the first time gaming in middle of the day for me in a long time, and I think I prefer it to my normal evening game as I wasn’t ready for bed by the time it was over. I am also surprised at how much we had gotten done — about 6 encounters in under 4 hours, which beats my group’s average of 1.5 encounters in 3. I think Wizards must have playtested it ahead of time because it felt really well paced. And I have to give props for that to our GM who did a fantastic job both in adjucating and in preparation. The picture below is our party’s tokens which he prepared since the store didn’t get the official Gameday kits. I had so much fun gaming with strangers that it’s really got me psyched for PAX East.

Here’s a link to my flickr pictures from this day. Anyone else attend this or other game days? What did you think (feel free post to links to your own blogs if you have a writeup)? Anyone out here DM a game day? How much prep does Wizards give? Are they fun to run?

The party as an organization

In most of the campaigns I’ve played in, the PCs wind up forming a loosely-organized organization, regardless of how they come together. Sometimes the PCs are part of a broader organization like The Harpers or Knights of Solamnia, but generally they exist as their own company with a creative name like: 5 Adventurers for Hire, Dewey Killem and Howe, or The Travelling Killburys.

In some of my campaigns we’ve taken the “Party Group” pretty seriously, with the characters drawing up formalized business documents, appointed officers, and had written policies for hiring NPCs. Once or twice another player went to the effort of drafting up a paper charter. That prop was pretty awesome and well appreciated by everyone else at table; I wish I still had it to show you. I’m not suggesting that every group needs a formal corporation, but it is a nice way of bringing the individual characters together into a group that exists for a larger purpose.

In-game, the kind of company will depend on the players personalities. If the group is a bunch of chaotic mercenaries, there may be no agreement beyond mutual distrust and profit. Other characters may be fine with a handshake (a gentleorc’s agreement, if you will) to seal the group together. Particularly lawful characters may want a charter so the roles and rules are well defined, and mistrusting types might also want some kind of formal arrangement. In a party with one sociopath and four do-goody’s, a formal contract is a great way for that one jerk to fleece his compatriots.

Depending on how authentic you want to be, you can have the DM register your character with whatever governmental organization keeps track of those things. This formal organization might get the players guild memberships, voting rights, land ownership, protection from legal actions, but also might make them susceptible to tithes or taxes. NPCs may be willing to work for or help out a more legitimate enterprise than “some dirty dudes with swords”, unless that is the party name.

Out-of-game I don’t recommend drawing up an actual contract between players, but go ahead and have one as a prop to represent the one the characters agreed to. It’s something to keep in a file along with the treasure ledger and party photo.

Here’s a sample contract that I made sound as legalish as I could, based upon what I learned from bad sci-fi, law & order, and my rental agreement. Let me know what you think, and feel free to modify or use it for purposes.

We, the undersigned, do hereby agree to form the Corporation _________________ for the purposes of Adventuring. We agree to kill any form of bad guys and collect their belongings for the furtherance of adventuring activities. We agree to equally divide all treasure based on gold piece value among the undersigned. Other entities acting on the behalf of The Corporation, will be paid a wage summarily based upon their abilities, level, risk, and suggested value in the guidebooks.

Article 1. The aforementioned heirlings shall not get an equal cut of the treasure unless agreed to upon by all members of the undersigned. The party treasurer, as agreed to by unanimous vote, can disburse up to 15% of the party funds at his/her own discretion to pay for healing potions, inn services, bribe guards, or other sundries as needed for the purposes of Adventuring.

Article 2. The acceptance of any Quest requires a unanimous vote among all present party members. In addition, the group cannot consider any morally objectionable Quest unless it is the least objectionable of all options. No entity, material or planar, can usurp the current Quest without a unanimous vote of the board members.

Article 3. No backstabbing. All treasures found must be disclosed and shared with the group, but the individual finder may claim “dibs.” If one member of The Corporation does harm against another, the injured may seek redress in the form of financial compensation by the injurer by appealing the uninvolved member(s) of the party. In the case of insufficient knowledge or members to pass judgment, the injured party may appeal to a Lawful diety or high-level sage.

Article 4. The Corporation exists to provide a cohesive team for going on Adventures, and may not be used by legal authorities to incriminate the remaining members for one asshole’s behavior.

The Party






Marking your opponents

One of the difficulties in D&D’s combat is system is keeping track of all the different status effects. It’s not so bad when it comes to tracking the effects on your own character; you can use the boxes on a character sheet, status markers, or status effect cards to record multiple effects. Each player also has motivation to track the effect’s they’ve put on enemies, like status conditions and ongoing damage. The DM has the same burden but for all the monsters, of which there could be many.

What’s more difficult to track are the non-constant effects. That is effects that vary depending on which character’s viewing it. For instance if a monster provides combat advantage to some but not all of the PCs, line of sight, hiding, cover, etc. In particular this was an issue I touched on in my last post on stealth. When a monster rolls a stealth check against the PC’s passive perception, they may be hidden from 0-N players. In this case it may be important for a player to know if his character can see the monster, and it’s important for the DM to know which PCs can see the monster. This situation seems pretty difficult to track on the board. If I get time before our next game, I may pick up a small piece of plexiglass and make a “visibility token” with 5 or 6 small boxes that represent each player and can be marked for depending on who it’s hiding from. Doing the same for tracking player visibility is harder as there are generally a ton of opponents… however that’s a problem for the DM.

Another thing I wish was easier to track on the board is line of sight/cover. I have trouble remembering the deal about figuring out the unobstructed path from one corner to many corners. We’ve tried string and dowels, but rarely is there a nice flat path between two minis. Usually there is some kind of terrain with hard-to-follow rules about how it affects cover, as well as other minis in the way.  This prevents laying down something straight on the table.  This seems like the thing an electronic board would excel at (that and light/concealment). But without the $10,000 for a Microsoft Surface, I can’t think of viable alternative that isn’t more annoying than string and counting.

I plan on eventually getting around to reviewing some of the tools we use already for marking up the map, but in the meantime I’m interested in what people use, especially if players use any software that is more than a character sheet to help with this problem. I found this list on the ‘net and its pretty good.

More on stealth

Stealth seems to be a topic that I’ve been writing about a lot (see On Sneaking) lately. The reason why I’m writing about it again is because at our last game, we had a tough time of it.  Our stealth woes were so bad, my DM wrote about it on her own blog. On the surface, our problems were related to figuring out when to make Stealth and Perception checks, what bonuses to apply, how light, cover, and different actions change a character’s ability to hide. Digging deeper, the real problem was that the party got totally schooled in the sneak department by our Kenku opponents.

The problem with the Stealth rules is not just their complexity, but also that it has been errata’d at least once. For my own (and possibly your) future reference, the 4e erratas are kept here: In the latest update (March 2010), the Stealth rules are on page 15 of the errata, although that is likely to change as the document changes, so just search for “Stealth” and you’ll eventually get there.

Here’s the breakdown of how I think Stealth works:

  • You hide (and roll the opposed checks) at the end of the move action. That means you can’t move, attack, and then hide. Your character must be able to make a move action to hide (even if he moves 0 squares). As long as you end the move in a spot where you can hide, you’re can still make the check, even if the move happened out in the open.
  • You make the check against any enemy against which you have total concealment (invisible or obscured but not next to) or superior cover (behind a window, arrow slit, grate). That means you can be hidden from some enemies but not others. It’s incumbent on the player or DM not to use player knowledge to unduly influence a character’s actions in this case. If character that can see the hidden creature points it out his friends, I suppose they should be able to make attacks into that square as if it had total concealment (-5).This particular part bit us in that recent encounter against the Kenkus, since the Kenku Sneaks [DDI] have an ability to hide if it has cover from another Kenku. I believe our DM rightly and effectively used this power against us, even when the Kenku only had partial cover. The ability text refers to just “cover” and the Stealth rules explicitly state that a character can’t use an ally’s cover to hide, meaning this is one of those exception-based abilities the rules are so fond of. These exceptions are good for the game as it gives these monsters a unique flavor that others won’t have, but is frustrating as heck to a rules lawyer.
  • To stay hidden all you need is to maintain a little bit of cover or concealment, not make a lot of noise, and not attack. If you move more than 2 spaces you have to make a new Stealth check, but if you’re okay if you move two or less and have just a little bit covering.To me, this means if  one hides in the first round, and then in next round he attacks someone, it breaks the hiding.  But then he can use a move action to rehide (if he still satisfies the cover conditions). This is a pretty good deal for a sniper. In fact you can imagine a pretty good ninja-character sneaking in somewhere, killing a minion and then re-hiding with a move, silently sneaking from guy to the next, taking them out. Another interesting piece is that you need total concealment to hide, but can stay hidden with partial concealment. When dealing with light sources, you can go into hiding when it’s completely dark, but then sneak through dim light.
  • The one caveat is that you can’t rehide as part of an action that makes you loose hiding. So if you have a power that grants an move & attack as part of an action, you can’t use that move to hide after loosing the hiding from the attack: you’d have to do another move action. Also if you move out of cover/concealment or move more than 2 squares and fail the new Stealth check, you can’t re-hide at the end of that movement.

There are a few interesting questions that aren’t covered explicitly by the rules, and I wanted to take a stab at them, since they are likely to come up again as we fight more stealthy enemies.

  1. Generally, to be hidden an enemy needs some amount of cover or concealment. In that case I assume the normal rules for cover/concealment apply for attacking, which is generally a -5 when you can’t see the enemy. However what if the creature has a special power that lets it remain hidden without cover/concealment? Then I assume for standard attacks the rules are the same as if the creature were invisible (-5 to hit), but what about with an area attack? On page 281 of the PHB, it says that an close or area attack doesn’t suffer the penalty when attacking an invisible enemy. I assume the same applies in the Stealth case.
  2. What about forced movement? Let’s say I have an area force attack that pushes everything 3 squares. Does this mean a hidden creature is now exposed? Or do they get a chance to reroll Stealth to hide, even though it’s not their move action? What about if the forced movement is only 1 or 2 squares? My gut reaction would be that anything forced to move would be moved away from what it was hiding behind and is thus exposed.
  3. In a second post, Sarah wrote again about the Kenku situation, and postulated in her notes about moving the Sneaks around to give each other advantage. While devastating, I don’t think it is cheap tactic since an attack breaks hiding and they have to use a move action to rehide, so any sneak hidden by another can attack (breaks hiding), and move to provide cover but can’t rehide without cover/concealment itself. The now covered kenku can use a move action to hide, and then attack from hidden (for extra damage) but then can’t rehide that round (see my comment on her post). It’ll be tough but I think sending the  defender to limit their movements will help break the pattern.  This pattern I think is most useful for an archer on a rampart: he attacks (breaking cover), moves down to the next hole and rehides, and repeats this round after round.
  4. If creature A is using creature B to hide, and creature B moves, leaving A without cover, is A no longer hidden? I’m assuming that’s the case here.

So, have I gotten these rules completely wrong? After rereading the rules two dozen times in writing this article, I feel like I understand them much better and are no longer afraid to use them, but there still seems like there could be a ton of situations where logic and rules clash. I know it’s up to the GM to make the call and move on, but sometimes a fair ruling isn’t the fun one 🙂