What’s In Your Wallet?

Recently a friend shared a story where he tried to explain 3.5 after playing 4e for awhile. I don’t remember the exact quote, but he was describing how armor weight interplays with other gear weight (in non-linear fashion) when determining encumbrance for determining armor check penalty and speed penalties. Encumbrance is something I’ve generally always played without. My house rule is generally: everything can fit into the backpack, but nothing unusually large or heavy (doors, statuary, ladders, bodies, etc).

The advantage of an abstracted inventory is that it takes away tedious bookkeeping. Also by having a vast arsenal of items on hand, it makes it possible to MacGuyver up some interesting solutions to puzzles and other situations. The downside is that it takes away some of the challenge and a lot of the realism. But D&D is supposed to be heroic, not realistic… so I guess that’s kinda moot.

Besides the size and weight there’s also an issue of location. Obviously the equipped items are filling up some slot on the body, but everything else? Is it in a belt pouch, pockets, backpack, saddlebags, chest strapped to the pack horse? Normally an item’s location doesn’t make a difference; it’s always just a minor action away from my character’s hands.

But what about if an enemy wants to steal or attack an item? Called shots, sundering, and pickepocketing are out of the rules in 4e so I guess it’s pretty much at DM’s discretion. This is good for an enterprising player that wants to lift a key out of a guard’s pocket, but bad if the DM turns around and has an enemy ritual your sword right out of your hand!

To that end, even though I don’t fastidiously record the weights and locations of everything, I like to have a general sketch of where all my character’s items are, even if there is probably more than is reasonable in the backpack. That way if my DM is feeling evil, I can at least make a case for saying something is hard for an opponent to get at.

Photo courtesy of kevindooley on flickr.
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Why You Should Use a Torch

A sunrod [DDI] is only 4gp, lasts 4 hours, lights up 20 squares, and most importantly comes with the Adventurer’s Kit. On the surface this seems like a better deal than a regular torch [DDI]: for 1sp, lasts 1 hour, and dim lights 5 squares. From this seemingly one-sided contest, I’m going to try to convince you to buy torches for your characters!

Arugment 1: Torches are cheaper. To light 20 squares for four hours requires 16 torches, which is less than half the price of a sunrod. Even if you count the double distance for bright light vs dim, 3.2 gp is still less than than the 4 for one sunrod! “But Mike,” you say, “one sunrod weighs 2 pounds whereas 32 torches weighs 32 pounds!”

Maybe that’s true, and maybe that isn’t. What matters is that you should have at least one buff guy that has a 18+ Strength, so what’s an extra 100 pounds of easy-burning lumber to him?

Argument 2: Torches set shit on fire. Sunrods and even fancy everburning torches [DDI] provide light but not heat. Torches are flaming sticks and one useful property of fire is that you can use it to set other things on fire as well. A single torch can turn a dark dungeon into a dangerous inferno for your enemies. Some easy flammables your characters might find flammable: wizards’ desks, tapestries, inn common rooms, and Marty’s House of Torches. Not only can you light stuff on fire, but you can light most creatures on fire too. If you light an opponent on fire, he’ll take ongoing fire damage! Just don’t try it on a Tiefling.

Argument 3: Torches are smoky. In my personal experience, torches tend give off a lot of smoke, and if made from period materials, probably noxious, dark smoke at that. This smoke could draw attention of enemies if you’re trying to sneak around somewhere, but can also be used to your advantage. Natural beasts aren’t likely to want to come near all that smoke. You can also use a few torches to smoke out a room in a dungeon and make the inhabitants come rushing out into your devious trap.

Argument 4: Torches are intimidating. You don’t see angry mobs carrying pitchforks and glow sticks. A flaming torch tells people that you’re on a mission and they better not get in your way. Fire can also have religious or social connotations, and may add an extra destructive flair to a negotiation.

If this doesn’t make you go out and buy a ton of torches for your character, nothing will!

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.

Illuminated Ruminations

I was recently watching a show that mentioned the Treasures of the British Library.  Some of my favorite works in their collection are the illuminated texts.  Books come up pretty frequently in my games in the form of magic tomes, black market ledgers, and royal genealogical records. As important as the contents are, rarely does my group pay any attention to the physical object. In a medieval setting I imagine books are pretty rare due to the lack of printing presses and literacy, which should make them relatively expensive to start with. Any important book would probably have a cover made from exotic material (griffon hide or dragon scale), gilt pages, and written with exotic ink. On top of all that, if the book had special significance, it should probably be illuminated too.

Rothschild Canticles Illuminated pagBetween the time need to write and illustrate a book plus the raw materials, a book is going to be pretty valuable without regards to its content.  My first suggestion is for DMs to throw books in with scepters, jewelery, paintings, and statues as valuable “works of art” which are portable objects of wealth. My suggestion to the players is: even though craft has been done away with, using whatever attributes characters have in your game to make things, why not consider illumination as an artistic skill. This works nicely into the background of any divine-powered character, especially those trained in a monastery. It may not be as fun a craft as brewing is when you’re hanging out at the Dwarven hold, but its something that might get you noticed by a noble or church leader.

So far I’ve been talking about mundane drawings (although with fancy, expensive pigments). But in a fantasy world, there’s no reason why Illuminations can’t be magical. The act of drawing patterns, symbols, runes, or pictures in a book can be like applying a spell; in fact, this can be the implementation of how books get enchanted. Spells can be placed on mundane books to ward against fire, mites, and evil intentions. Other spells can make the text either legible or illegible to the reader, make the book invisible to thieves, change its appearance to keep up with the times, or let its owner know where it is at all times. Of course, the contents of the book itself can be magical; examples include a kingdom’s chronicles that updates itself, a biography that changes with its owner, or just a regular book of rituals.

The drawings themselves don’t have to be plain. Characters can get up and move around (like in Harry Potter); instead of just one snapshot of a battle or religious event, the illumination can be animated. A book can also be a scrying device that shows the target in vain similar to a crystal ball or silver bowl. It would be cool if it shown scenes were shown in a medieval stylization instead of appearing like a TV show.

The illuminations in a book can be a reward for an adventure, or the macguffin that gets the story going. Players should feel free to add depth to the world by inquiring about a book’s art, or describing the art in books owned by the characters. In particular pay attention to a character’s literacy, and just because he can read doesn’t mean he likes to.

(image courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/beinecke_library/ / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fantastic Phones

Before going on with the regularly scheduled post, I want to make you aware of DriveThruRPG’s amazing Gamer’s Helping Haiti offer. Donate $20 to Doctors Without Borders Haiti Earthquake Response and get over $1000 worth of indie press PDFs.

While going through a little bit of an existential phone crisis, I thought about how much our lives have changed with an always-on connection to everybody else on the planet. In a world with dragons and magic spells it certainly seems possible that adventurers can stay in touch with their friends and family back home in Winterhaven. The ritual Sending [DDI] seems like the most logical in-game analog to a cell phone. It’s heroic tier (6th level) which is not too bad, but at 50gp for 25 words, it’s a pretty expensive tweet (that’s over 3 months’ lodging). The 20th level True Sending let’s you send 50 words to anyone, anywhere in existence for only 4,000 gold, making Sending seem like a pretty good deal. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty steep time and cost involved sending a message this way, and it requires a Ritual Caster. Sending Stones get a little bit closer to something like a phone. I guess they work like a 1-time Nextel phone, for only 9 grand.

We start really talking with the Psion’s short-range Send Thoughts and Wizard’s Ambassador Imp, which just sounds like a hell of lot of fun (pun not intended). In my games, I keep trying to find a use for Send Thoughts, but its range requirements make it hardly more useful than speaking.

I think even with these item and power restrictions, it’s interesting to think about who a character keeps in contact with and how. My character is a bit of a persona non grata, so he probably uses his minutes for bejwelled. But other characters might send letters home between adventures. To letter sending to be possible, homebase Inn would have to have somebody who coordinates with merchants passing through to carry letters and hope that they somehow make its way to the destination. You certainly couldn’t send anything confidential or time-sensitive that way. Maybe the King has implemented a postal service, or perhaps the priests of Pelor provide a postal service. If a letter could take months or a year to reach its destination, what would he or she say in it? What would your character do if he intercepted a letter or was asked to deliver one to a remote location?

In a world with a higher level of magic, temples or wizard schools could have magic spheres that let people communicate between them for a nominal fee like a fantasy Western Union. If it was easy to stay in touch, who would your hero send messages to and how often?  There’s nothing more fearful than a Dragonborn mother who doesn’t think you call often enough! (Now I’m imaging a dragonborn with thick glasses and an apron sitting in the living room waiting all day for you to call).

In the world with easy communication, what happens when that communication is suddenly cut off? Are you nervous that your friends might be worried about you? Having the magical communication network suddenly go haywire also sounds like an exciting plot hook.

Did I miss any of the other communication options available in 4e?

So they don’t want items to be cool…

In a recent Wizards’ blog, Peter gives an insight into the R&D of magic items. He says:

The achievement of this design goal makes the discovery of a magic item often a prosaic event: unless it’s a piece of the character-building puzzle you’d been seeking (in which case you probably already knew how you would get it), it’s not that exciting.

Translated by me… “magic items are intentionally boring.” Peter himself says that the items that they can publish (ones that don’t break the game) don’t feel magical and that they’re’s nothing that they can do about it.

This the same problem I had with Chatty DM’s post on 4e economy which is on the side of allowing players to just choose their items….

Where’s the magic?

Now that I’ve finally be able to put words to my discomfort, this is the first time I’ve really felt let down about 4th edition. The reason why I enjoy the fantasy setting is for the wonderment and magic (if I just wanted super-powered items I could play a superhero game). There’s something neat about coming up with creative uses for invisibility rings, glowing swords, ice bows, and exploding apples. And I do miss the old days of hunting down powerful wizards to get ahold of their spellbooks.

Peter’s solution to this problem is to have the DM house rule special items or to use artifacts for the cool items. I don’t like the artifact suggestion because I enjoy coolness/uniqueness of an item and not necessarily its powers. Putting the burden on the DM is slightly better because you can tweak the power and fun-factor of item without having to go through too much process. The downside is that this does create a burden for the DM; if she is trying to run a mathematically-balanced campaign, she will need to keep all the party loot in mind when crafting an encounter.

What’s the player to do?

Let’s say you have a Duelist’s Epee +1, a nice but uninteresting weapon? Well you can beef up it interesting factor with fluff:

  1. Create a back story. Perhaps it was awarded to great duelist Agamar by Queen Cordelia three centuries ago for winning the grand tournament at the feast of Bahamut. It came into your posession from your father who killed Agamar’s scion in a duel to the death.
  2. Add flair. The Epee has a blue ribbon tied around its hilt that snaps in the air when you deliver a quick strike. Perhaps it has red-enameled holster that was a gift from your character’s mother the day he set out adventuring.
  3. Add effects. The tip glimmers silvery in the light and whenever you make a critical hit it leaves behind a silver-covered wound. The effects would have to be cool and agreed upon in advance, so they would have no numerical consequences for the game or lasting effects (so much for vorpal).

Another thing you can do is level up your existing magic items. One of the challenges of 4e is coming up with meaningful treasure parcels that suit the characters. Instead of having the DM hand out a 7-level sword in a parcel, convince him to let you level up your 3rd-level sword to the 7th-level version at the appropriate time (plus a monetary treasure worth the sale value of the 3rd-level item). This way you can carry along the item’s back story and fluff throughout the whole campaign.

It would be interesting if there were ability charms one can place on arms an armor. Something like a frost charm that adds the equivalent power of a +1/Frost weapon to an existing weapon (and would stack with its powers). Once again this gives an existing item longer life but allows for some interesting customization and flair. I’d be interested in hearing about any rules that describe how to do this in a balanced way.

Wonderful Wondrous Items

My favorite treasure has always been wondrous items. Magic weapons and armor are always nice, but they pretty much have one use. Wondrous items can tickle the imagination and inspire creative uses. And I don’t just mean the 1,000 uses sovereign glue. I’m talking about the time we summoned a small boat to bridge a pit trap that was too far to jump.

This past week our DM let us choose a fresh magic item to round out some treasure parcels to get the party up to our power level. Choosing a free item from any book in the compendium is a challenge worthy of XP as any encounter with Trolls. My party is made up people passionate about their characters and who want the best chance of success for themselves as well as the party. Before I reveal how we really handled this is as a group, here is a real-life skill challenge, inspired by this quandary:

nerdy fight

Photo curtosey http://www.flickr.com/photos/captaintim/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Take an item rusting in the party pool and exchange it for free with anything available in DDI; go! You have to make 5 successes before the DM decides to punish you all for taking too long or for fighting.

Arcana: You remember about a useful item from a Dragon magazine, get a +2 to your next History or Diplomacy roll.
Athletics: wrestle the Adventurer’s Vault out of your teammate’s hands.
Bluff: You get a party member to advocate for an item that really helps you although he thinks it helps him.
Diplomacy: You make an impassioned speech about why your character really needs an item and how much better off we’d all be if you had that Horn of Summoning.
Dungeoneering: The party is headed into the Underdark. Vote for an anti-Drow ritual.
Endurance: Everyone else is too tired to keep arguing with you. You automatically win.
History: You’ve been bitten by a Medusa the last time you played a 9th level Fighter. Argue for a mirrored shield.
Insight: Why does the wizard want a gem of soul trapping? He swore he wasn’t playing an evil character.
Intimidate: Let me have that Waraxe +2, or else!
Perception: You see that Deck of Many Things up the rogue’s hand. Call shenanigans, and he gets a -2 to Charisma-based checks.
Stealth: Where did Brad go? He must be a ninja. Give him a magic katana before he flips out and kills us.
Streetwise: How thoughtful of you to bring the DM glazed donuts. How’d you know they are her favorite?
Thievery: Steal all the handbooks. Now only you get to decide.

Of course that describes a hypothetical situation. What really happened was 20 minutes of us searching the books for the best item of that level for our characters in the current situation. I headed off the potential argument of which character should get it by suggesting we get a wondrous item that would benefit the whole party. Not only can such items be passed between players, but they are versatile: prone to creative uses in sticky situations.

fantasy map

Original photo courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/mararie/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

The item we chose was the Map of Unseen Lands [DDI] from Adventurer’s Vault 2. This map draws the nearby surroundings at the large building/geographical feature level. I thought it would be useful for tracking down the rogue wizard we are hunting in her secret temple lair. It also shows potential danger/xp zones like monster lairs and known and secret travel paths, which make for great escapes from bad places. Unfortunately I think my party-mates still think this is the Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter. This particular map doesn’t show people or fine building details, but I think this will be a great thing to have story wise. I guess we still need to come up with an explanation as to why we have it. The only downside mechanically is that redrawing the map counts as a magic item daily.

I wonder how other parties figure out up-for-grabs wish-list treasure?