Gamma World

Hi all! I don’t know how many people are still following me, but if you are, you’re awesome! I’ve been on a gaming hiatus, which turns out it meant that I was on a blogging hiatus as well. Fortunately I finally got some D&D on after a four month break. This past weekend I got to play at little Gamma World, run by my friend and fellow blogger @gamefiend.

If you’ve been under a rock the past few months as I have, Gamma World is the mutant, post-apocalyptic, very weird world of D&D. Rumor has it that it’s been around for quite a long time, but I hadn’t heard of it before it’s current incarnation was announced. The new edition is based on the D&D 4e rules, so jumping in to the game play was straightforward, although the characters are anything but familiar. Instead of the standard race/class combos you get randomly assigned two aspects (although you can probably choose two specific ones). I pulled “Rat Swarm” and “Electrokinetic”. You’re encouraged to develop how those aspects physically manifest themselves. Since “rat swarm” is just the generic name for any kind of swarm, I made my character an anthropomorphic swarm of sentient batteries. The other characters were some kind of radioactive android and a doppleganger. The monsters we faced were violent pig-men, radioactive birds, and gangster cockroaches. From my understanding, this craziness is pretty typical of the setting.

In addition to our random characters, we were randomly assigned Omegas which are scavanged tech items (in this world tech is rare and powerful), which seem to fill the spot of magic items. We also each got an Alpha power, which is a powerful one-use power. When you roll a 1 or when the encounter ends, you get a new Alpha. These represent powers your character has in different parallel universes, and receiving a new one represents that alternate universe crossing to the this one (or maybe it’s the character that is shifting, it wasn’t too clear).

Overall the power levels seem pretty amped up over regular D&D 4e, as we barely survived each encounter. Monsters could kill in or two hits and could out some pretty nasty effects, even at first level. I attribute our party’s survival to my character’s insane near-invincibility due to the combination of tech items, armor, high dex, and swarm resistances.

Overall I enjoyed the experience, but I don’t think I will go out of my way to play this game again. The theme doesn’t really do much for me. I think it’s because the whole setting feels too alien to be relatable. I wasn’t able to get into my character’s head; I couldn’t come up with goals and motivations or even a personality. Most of the species in this world seem to be mutant animals or machines, and it’s hard for me to see why they would be anything other than violent, impulsive monsters, let alone go adventuring. The other issue I have with the setting is the same one I have with Dark Sun, it seems to bleak to be worth saving. Maybe I have too many years of high fantasy to thank for that.

However there are lot of things I do like about the system. The random rolling for scores and gear reminded me of old school D&D. In particular you get a 18 and 16 to put into the primary and secondary skill, and the rest are done by 3d6, no choosing, no rolling a 4th die and dropping the lowest. It’s been a few years since I last had a character with a 7 in any stat. The random mundane starting items encourage creative thinking. It’s amazing how useful a flashlight, a gun, and a canoe can be when that’s all you have and you’re up against a giant cockroach gang. Also the constant churn of random abilities and tech give license to try new and interesting things in an encounter, and the lethality of the world forces you to “play big or go home.”

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It’s ENnie time again

The ENnies are the annual fan awards for tabletop role-playing game, awarded each year at Gen Con. There are categories for art, writing, products, podcasts, blogs, minis, etc. The awards were originally given out by the EN World site in 2001, and they have been expanding and gaining presitge each year since then. If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you are a RPG fan. This means you’re eligible to go vote now for your favorites. They use a runoff voting system, so you can rank your choices in each category.

Even if you don’t want to vote, you should check out the nominees. They represent the best in this year’s RPG offerings, and I can’t find a bad product or publisher in the bunch. Even the honorable mentions are worth checking out. You have until July 25 to vote.

Most of the nominees are based on the new systems that came out last year. Have any you played them (Shadowrun, Rogue Trader, Pathfinder, etc), and what do you think?

DM’ing in Athas

Today’s Penny Arcade reminded me that I wanted to write about my experience DMing the Dark Sun preview at PAX East. This has also been on my mind lately because I’m gearing up to run a homebrew one-shot tomorrow. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that got me in to the DM’s chair, but I found myself Sunday sitting at table in front of 6 strangers and a giant photocopied encounter map. I’m curious about what WotC provides the D&D Encounters DMs with, but all I had going into was a quick print-out of the adventure. I think the haste and low-bugetness of it might have been because they were just overwhelmed with the turnout; I had to use my own minis and borrowed Banagrams and DM screen from Sarah Darkmagic.

The adventure, Death in the Arena, itself was rather straightforward. The introductory paragraphs highlighted the main flavor points of Dark Sun, the elements that give it a post-apopolyptical feel: defiling magic, lack of gods, savage halflings, scarcity of metal, etc. There was also an explanation on the rules regarding magic, and the breaking of weapons. The author of this adventure, Chris Tulach, did a good job of understanding the DM audience, as there were a few pages devoted to the background of the adventure, the motivations of the main bad guy Gazal, as well as the motivations of the two pregenerated groups of PCs. In addition the adventure has an ending point that would make a logical jumping off point for a future campaign. My guess is that this will the model for the first adventure in the next season of Dungeons and Dragons Encounters, which will be set in Dark Sun.

So how was my actual experience? I was a bit nervous and very tired going into it. It’s been a few years since I last GM’d and I had never run a 4e game. I felt comfortable enough having read so many blogs, and having played the adventure on the previous day. My two biggest fears was getting the rules wrong or that that the party would not have fun. I also had the goal of really trying to make Athas fun and exciting, which is hard because it’s not a traditional setting. Thankfully I think the group did have fun, and I didn’t let on that I was a total noob at this. They were easygoing and not rules-laywery, which helped. The other factors that made it were a success was its one-shotness, no one was that invested on what would happen next time, and that the adventure game with pre-generated characters and was well-structured. And nobody complained that that the session ended early.

Some of the things that I learned:

  1. Skill challenges are hard to run. I tried my best to say yes to proposed actions, but if a skill isn’t used the way it’s listed you need to think fast on your feet.
  2. Monsters can be challenging, especially keeping track of and remember to use all their available powers. My Giths were cut to shreds before they could do anything because I forgot to use their teleport powers.
  3. It’s not solely the GM’s responsibility to keep everyone engaged and having fun. I tried really hard to be energetic, but since I hadn’t slept in a few days and it went through lunch, my energy faded towards the end, which the party resonated. If one of them had some extra energy, I probably could have activated my second wind. But despite that, I think it still went really well.
  4. DMing isn’t as scary as I thought. I look forward to my session tomorrow and perhaps some chance as well. Although in many ways its great when you get a written adventure with pre-generated characters, because they you don’t have to worry about making the encounter designs interesting or balanced.

Dark Sun Preview Review

At the request of commenter “The Hockey Czar”, I’m going to review the Dark Sun adventure I played in last weekend. I also had the chance to DM this adventure as well, and I’m going to have a separate post on that experience as it was my first 4e game on the other side of the table. The adventure, Death in the Arena by Christ Tulach features six characters that show off flavor of Athas: use of Psionic classes, lack of Divine magic, new races: Goliaths (as half-giants), the Mul (half-dwarf), and Thri-Kreen (humanoid praying mantis), attention to nature and magic that ravages the environment. Each of the characters also has a Theme which is an additional background choice that provides an extra encounter power, societal role, and I assume, paragon paths. The two big ones that I liked were Templar (a priest of the sorcerer-king) and Gladiator. Any character can take a theme regardless of class, although my guess is that some classes are suited better for some themes (for instance fighter or barbarian for gladiator).

The adventure itself was a lot of fun. SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the paragraph. The party starts off divided into two groups of three competing to win an artifact from the days when Athas was green and happy. The adventure rolls right into a skill challenge where each side makes a case to get the artifact. The negotiations end poorly with a series of interesting combats in the arena. These show off some of the new monsters  (the big guys had cool psychic blast attacks) and made use of some interesting terrain. The flavor text of the battles brings to life gritty combat in a hot pit surrounded by thousands of cheering or jeering spectators (showing off for the crowd is worth a few bonuses as well).  In the first battle the two groups are in separate yet simultaneous combats; something I haven’t seen in a long while. It challenges the DM to keep things fluid but to fun effect (you get to be a spectator in the other combat while being participating in your own). The combats are followed by a series of chase skill challenges, culminating in the final battle. The last battle was a bit pedestrian and anti-climatic compared to the first few, but the marketplace scene made for a lot of interesting strategy. The party wins by collecting the artifact and the text leaves off unsatisfactorily at the start of a grand adventure for the future.

Dark Sun Combat

Combat in Tyr's gladiator pit

The adventure, which will run at various conventions through GenCon, shows off the new campaign setting Dark Sun. For those of you don’t remember it from second edition, it’s a rough hot world where magic has literally boiled the land and burned the seas to the point where civilization is limited to a handful of city-states ruled by tryrannical sorcerer-kings and pockets of wildnerness controlled by mean-spirited demihumans. Oh yeah, and all the gods have been killed or driven off such that the priestly templars derive their powers from the sorceror kings (there’s a new sorceror-king pact build for warlocks). In 2E players were encouraged to roll up multiple characters and nott get too attached. Thankfully the setting seems better suited to 4e: while still very tough, the conditions, skills, and treasure bring that sense of danger without having to constantly overpower and kill characters (mileage varies by DM). If Eberron is Indiana Jones + Steampunk, Dark Sun is more like something you’d get if Ridley Scott directed Mad Max.

Some other features of Dark Sun:

  • Metal is scarce. Characters start off with bone weapons and carapice armor, metal is used as gifts and is a sign of wealth. To go along with this there is a new mechanic where if you roll a 1 on an attack, you can choose to let your weapon break and roll again (metal weapons have a chance of surviving). This is a neat bit of flavor, but everyone in the adventure wisely choose to protect their weapons when this came up…we needed them. I think this choice is the point of the mechanic, but it remains to be seen how this actually plays out.
  • Magic kills. Casting spells literally draws life energy from the flora around you. Arcane characters are generally despised for this. There wasn’t really a chance for this to matter in the adventure since it was a one-shot. Arcane casters can either be defilers or preservers, depending on their level of respect for the native plant-life.
  • City states. The adventure takes place in the main city of Tyr, ruled by the Sorceror-King Kalak.
  • Harsh environment. Although the adventure took place in the relative saftey of the a city, the hazards of a harsh world were mentioned in the flavor text, and we can expect dangerous terrain and elemental wastelands, so save up those healing surges.

Not surprisingly I had a lot of fun despite the DM being pretty bad. I am looking forward to the campaign setting coming out this summer, although I don’t want to switch to it from our normal campaign. I hope they do series like the D&D Encounters or LFR with it. In fact the preview adventure could benefit from a little expansion into first adventure of a campaign arc. The best part about the adventure were the characters. They all had interesting back stories and deep (for a one-shot) motivations. I almost cared a lot more about their indivdual stories than the adventure’s plot, especially since it ended so abruptly. On the plus side it took less than the scheduled 4 hours, and every extra minute was a boon at PAX.

If you get a chance, check it out, the setting looks very cool. If nothing else, you may be able to bring certain elements to into any standard campaign.

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…

Highlights
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:

Races

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.

Classes

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.

Feats

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.

Toys

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.

Summary

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.