Saturday, May 31, 2008

Review: D&D 4e Pt 8 - DMG 1 - "How to be a DM"

Book Two: Dungeon Master's Guide
Part the First: "How to be a DM"

1. There's a list of Player Types, how to engage them, and potential trouble spots to watch out for. This will be of help to players not all that familiar with Gamer culture, and it might be a helpful reminder to people who have been playing the game for a while. The "Types" are rather stereotypical, but I suppose they may be for a reason.

2. The next section covers how you can fill in gaps if you're missing certain character roles in your party. I should have mentioned this earlier, but making Healing part of the Leader role was a very good idea, and I'm glad they did it -- few people play this game so they can go around healing their buddies; but it's an important character to have in a group.

3. The "Kinds of Games" section lists various styles of play, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. For example, "One DM" vs. rotating DMs, Ongoing vs. One-shot, etc. I think it's a good summary, and helpful for beginners; as is the Table Rules section that comes next.

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4e (Part Seven)

Book One: Player's Handbook
Part the Last: Rituals

Some of you are probably quite sick of all this nerdy stuff by now. No fear! We're finished with the first book as of the end of this post, and then we only have *two more books* to talk about: the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual.

Thus far, as I was telling Jonathan last night, my impression is that a lot of the changes in 4e are steps in the right direction, but that they probably don't step quite far enough to get me to play the game regularly. Still, it's early to tell for certain; much will depend on the DMG (and not much will depend on the Monster Manual, but I like creature catalogs anyway -- they're fun).

Okay, so Rituals.

Rituals are essentially spells that take a little time to perform, and that are always read off of a scroll or out of a book. "Spells" in traditional sense are now mostly offensive or combat-based. Most of the magical effects that aren't specifically combat-oriented are now Rituals.

This makes sense for a couple reasons. The first is, as all the classes now have their own at-will, encounter, and daily powers that work mechanically like spells do, and since all those powers are combat based, it makes sense to let the magic-users focus on spells that will be useful in combat as well. This is very much borrow from MMOGs.

Secondly, in previous editions of D&D, where all the non-combat spells existed side by side with combat spells, choosing a spell like "Knock", which unlocks doors, meant that you couldn't choose something like "Magic Missile", which kills things. Which meant that hardly anyone bothered with Knock.

Rituals are a fairly elegant fix to both of those problems, and in addition it appears (at first reading) that they are not limited to magic-using characters. As long as you train a Ritual skill, you can use them.

As Will pointed out the other evening, the fact that Rituals take some time to complete also means that they can provide some tension, with several characters having to fend off attacking beasties as the other characters try to finish up the ceremony. Cool.

...And that pretty much wraps up the PHB. Next up we'll start on the Dungeon Master's Guide, which is of great importance to me, since 90% of the time I'm the one running the game anyway.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4e (Part Six)

Book One: Player's Handbook
Part The Eighth: Adventuring

1. Before we get into adventuring, I should point out something about Skills that missed on the first read-through: Skills no longer have a numerical value. You're either trained in a skill, or not. That simplifies things a *lot*, but it's also going to effect the game quite a bit in ways that won't be obvious until we play it.

2. At last, on page 256, we get to the rules about playing the actual game. Fourth Edition DnD has a focus on Quests that goes beyond older versions of the game, and probably stems (again) from MMOs. Regardless, Quests in a tabletop RPG can be a lot more flexible than Quests in World of Warcraft, as can the definition of "completing" them. The rules also allow for players to create their own quests, which obviously a computer game can't allow. As much as I have mixed feelings about the amount to which 4e follows MMOs, its strengths lie in the places where it makes itself recognizable to the MMO crowd, but then uses that to focus on the things it can do that MMOs cannot. That's what we see here in the Quests.

3. Action Points are something new to this edition. You get them for reaching "milestones", which apparently means that you survive two encounters in a row without taking an extended rest in between. You can use them to take an extra action on your turn, or to activate certain feats, or to use certain other powers. They also seem like a great place to house-rule; I can think of a dozen other uses that one could implement to change the atmosphere of the game. (And another dozen ways they could be rewarded, too -- this Milestones concept is a bit odd.)

4. The rules for travel times, light and vision, and rest are all fine, and don't really merit mention. The light and vision section makes me look forward to reading the DMG,'cause I'll be interested in the advice they give about dungeon making.

Part The Ninth: Combat

1. This section is the heart and soul of Dungeons and Dragons. It will be another make-or-break point for me; if combat feels like the equivalent of filling out my tax form, I will lose interest after the first couple rounds, and probably never play 4e except out of social politeness again. I'm also interested to see what they've done with the rules for grappling, which was something in 3e that everyone hated. I've had many players in 3e games go way out of their way just to avoid initiating a grapple check.

2. Minis are a must. The 4e rules assume that you use them, and the mechanics make abstraction difficult. There's a lot wailing about this from the internet; I don't think it really matters all that much to me; I don't think requiring visualization is necessarily a bad thing. Certainly it might make the game more difficult for a beginner, but at the moment the minis market is larger than the RPG market, and WoW of course beats D&D on visuals already. It isn't impossible to play without visualization, but it would be difficult. It is what it is, at least, and i don't fault it for it. Too many of my abstracted battles in 3e just became pounding-on-each-other contests, anyway. Also, it's not like you have to have Wizards of the Coast Official Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures to play -- use coins, use dice, use whatever.

3. Initiative is only rolled at the beginning of the encounter, not every round. I can't remember which way was in the 3e rules -- I've played it both ways before, and they both have advantages and disadvantages. This way means less rolling; the other way means that turn order strategies must be more fluid.

4. Attacks of opportunity, which I am notorious for forgetting about, still exist.

5. Of course, the proof of these rules will be in the pudding, that is, the playing. When will *that* take place? ....I'm trying to work that out. :) Soonish.

6. Grappling looks a lot easier. Thank the gods. Make a STR attack vs REF. If you hit, the enemy is immobilized until it escapes or you end the grab. While grabbing someone, you can move them with a strength vs fortitude roll. If you're grabbed on your turn, you can escape by making a successful Acrobatics check vs. Ref or Athletics vs. Fortitude.

7. Shifting (a move action where you simply move one adjacent square) does not allow for an attack of opportunity. That's pretty damn useful. Also, when you escape from a grab, you can shift as a free action.

Next Up: Rituals - What the heck are those??

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4e (Part Five)

Book One: Player's Handbook
Part the Sixth: Feats

1. Okay. I'm really not going to have much to say about Feats, because there're still a lot of them, and they're in a list that I'm not going to read just now. Plus, knowing whether or not their implementation has improved will depend a lot on how they are played in the game (and not on how they look on the sheet). So a quick read-through of the game isn't going to answer that question for me. As Will pointed out to me earlier, the game has spent an enormous amount of effort on standardization. That's a good thing, and will no doubt go a ways toward helping me out.

2. The other thing that I absolutely have to talk about is Multiclassing, which in 4e is completely tied in to Feats. By taking Multiclass feats, you are able to integrate the abilities of another class with your own class. You are, however, limited to one extra class at most: No Wizard/Warlord/Rogue/Barbarian/Druid hybrids here. (Although you could probably use Retraining to switch out if it came to it -- I'll have to check on that.)

Basically, you spend one feat to get a Multiclass, which usually comes with some small bonus or ability. Then you can use Multiclass Swap feats, which allow you to give up the ability you would get at this level for the ability you would get at this level from your secondary class. Any time you gain a level, you can choose that level's class power to swap, reversing your previous swap. You can buy another swap at level 8 and another at level 10.

If you buy all three multiclass swaps, at level 11 you can choose to continue to train in your multiclassing rather than take a Paragon Path. In 3e terms, this would basically mean that you were creating your prestige class incorporating the powers of two of the basic classes. It's a pretty elegant solution, I think, if you really feel it necessary to have classes in the first place.

Part the Seventh: Equipment
I'm skipping the Equipment chapter, since it's a long list of the Equipment you can buy.

Which means next up is Adventuring.

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4e (Part Four)

Book One: The Player's Handbook
Part the Fourth: Epic Destinies

So, as a game D&D 4e is split into three different segments. In Levels 1-10, your character develops its base class. In levels 11-20, your character receives their Paragon Path, which is a powerful specialization within the base class. Levels 21-30 are about preparing for the end game, and that's where you decide your Epic Destiny. An Epic Destiny is about paving the way toward character retirement. Epic Destinies aren't based on your base class; they're based on what you want the end of your character's story to be. Does your wizard become an Archmage and start his own school of magic? Does your character join the ranks of some Pantheon or another? Does your character simply become a wanderer? That's what choosing an Epic Destiny is about. Your choice, at level 21, will guide your character toward the end of his chosen path, aiding him with powerful abilities.

As the game points out, not every player group is going to play this thing to an end point. A lot of people are going to want to just perpetually keep going, leavin their character available for high-powered adventures. And that's fine; but it's also cool that the rules allow for a certain amount of mechanical help in bringing the game to an end. I approve.

The available Epic Destinies, in the PHB at least, are:

Archmage
Deadly Trickster
Demigod
Eternal Seeker

Does that seem like a small amount to you? I kind of think so, too; but I assume this is yet another area where future volumes will allow some growth.

Part the Fifth: Skills
First, the number of skills has been scaled down quite a bit. For example, Search and Spot are now simply Perception. In general, I like how they're handling the skills. I like Passive Skill use, and I like the Knowledge skills, particularly the Monster Knowledge checks, which let you know if your character recognizes the monster, knows something about it, and possibly knows its weakness. That's a handy bit of mechanics, there. Most of this chapter is a list of the skills and what they do: that's not something I'm going to read in this particular form.

Next up will be Feats, which I'm particularly interested in as they were always my least favorite part of 3e character creation.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4e (Part Three)

I was talking to Aaron just now and realized the enormous effect that World of Warcraft has had on the new D&D edition. It seems to me that nearly every design decision that went into this game was consciously moving either toward or away from World of Warcraft. Let's see. The artwork? A step towards. The absence of Gnomes? A step away. The class "roles"? Definitely a step toward. Choosing Tieflings as a character race instead of Orcs? Definitely a step away. Certainly, this whole game is Dungeons and Dragons informed by the experience of MMOs like WoW -- and that's not a bad thing, necessarily. WoW (like all other MMOs) exists as a direct descendant of earlier editions of D&D; so obviously there is some overlap. There are things that WoW can do that D&D can't; things that computer games can do that table-top RPGs can't (or at least can't do as well). But there are also things that table-top RPGs can do that computer games like WoW cannot -- and table-top RPGs will survive by carving out a niche in those places.

That doesn't mean that traditional RPGs can't learn a thing or two from MMOs. For example, the "Dungeonpunk" aesthetic familiar from World of Warcraft is definitely present in 4e. (And yes, I know it all really started with Warhammer and Planescape, but it was totally hijacked and made insanely popular via Warcraft). It's what kids these days want in a game, particularly in a pos-World of Warcraft age, and D&D would be silly, really, to try and use a more realistic Medieval aesthetic at this point.

Okay, but I'm reading about classes now.

1. As far as the classes themselves go, there aren't a lot of big surprises. There's a new class called "Warlords", and "Sorcerers" seem to have been replaced by "Warlocks." (Warlocks, by the way, are totally a WoW thing.) Barbarians, Bards, Druids and Monks are are gone (at least for this volume of the PHB).

2. Each class has a certain Role in the group, for easier party creation. Classes with the same Role are interchangeable: Warlords and Clerics are both Leader classes, although they go about their roles in different ways. Likewise, Fighters and Paladins both have high defensive capabilities, and so they're both intended to get up close to the enemy. When constructing a party, class roles will make it easy to keep track of what you have and what you might need. (They also stem from MMO experience, I believe.)

3. Here we get some more information about Paragon paths and Epic destinies. Paragon paths seem to be the 4e version of Prestige Classes. Epic destinies, I'm not quite clear on yet. But as far as Paragons, essentially when you reach level 10 you're able to choose a specialized extension of your base class, which grants you cool powers and so forth. For example, a level 10 Wizard can choose from the following Paragon Paths: Battle Mage; Blood Mage; Spellstorm mage; and Wizard of the Spiral Tower. You can bet that there will be other Paragon Paths in books to follow (probably there are more in the DMG, even). (Actually, the PHB promises us that in later volumes of the PHB (huh??) there will be more base classes; one would assume these new base classes will require new Paragon Paths to go with them.) Epic destinies, BTW, aren't simply extensions of the base-class; they're different somehow.

4. There are three types of powers: At-Will, Encounter, and Daily. At-Will powers can be used any time you like; Encounter can be used once per Encounter, and Daily can be used once every third saturday of the month. No, wait -- they can be used once per day, as one would assume from their moniker.

5. I have read nothing about Multiclassing yet; I seem to recall hearing something about it being rather different in 4e. More news as events warrant.

6. Each class now receives new fiddly-bits at the same rate as all the rest of the classes. The fiddly bits are organized well in each class's section (and color-coded, even!), but I am not going to read them until I have an actual copy of the book in front of me. My friend's advanced copy is not built for reading long lists like that. I will say, though, that the powers are just begging to have someone put them onto cards, which would make organizing and playing them even easier. I expect Wizards has something like that in mind; I seem to recall White Wolf has done it for Exalted (another game where such a thing would be a blessing). If I were to purchase and regularly run this game, I would want such an accessory at my table.

Next Up: Epic Destinies!

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (RPG) Part 2

Book One: Player Handbook
Part The Second: Player Character Races

Up to now, the player character races have been as follows:

Human
Elf
Half-Elf
Halfing
Dwarf
Gnome
Half-Orc

With D&D 4e, they've switched some stuff up, as follows:

Dragonborn - Humanoid dragon-folk
Dwarf
Eladrin (Think "High Elves")
Elf (Think "Wood Elves")
Half-Elf
Halfling
Human
Tiefling (Half-Fiend)

Just a few thoughts. Before I realized they'd split Elves into "Eladrin" and "Elf", I wondered why they had two elf-like races. But apparently they've decided to focus the Elves on their woodland nature-y side, and came up with Eladrin as the more Fey focus. That's fine. Were I to run the game, I'd have the collective slang for Eladrin and Elves be "Elves", and maybe have some people distinguish the High from the Wood Elves, and Eladrin be what the High Elves insist on calling themselves.
Obviously, another reason Elves have been split up so that Eladrin can be the Tieflings' foil. That's all well and good, except Tieflings already have a foil: they're called Aasimar, half-celestials. The foil of Elves are the Dwarves, and the Orcs.

Which brings us to the missing Half-Orc class. I've heard that one reason the Half-Orcs were scrapped was because it was assumed that they were the product of ravaging bands of human women forcing themselves upon orc males. The designers didn't really like the idea of one of their core races being implicitly the product of rape, so they replaced it with Tiefling. Sure; and Half-Orcs were never really my favorite of races; but why not replace them with, say, plain old Orcs? Bahamut knows they're more iconic in fantasy than Tieflings are.

Perhaps one reason is that Tieflings are intended to have that "TrollBabe" effect, where they're trapped in two societies but don't really fit in either. But they're not necessarily big and dumb like half-orcs usually were. Well...fine. I guess.

But let's talk about the Dragonborn for a minute. I...really don't like them for some reason. I think they look ridiculous; I think they're intended to fill a hole that didn't exist beforehand. They should be in the Monster Manual, not the Player's Handbook.

And Gnomes have been gotten rid of because they were never all that popular to begin with, and World of Warcraft has focused so much on the Gnome tinkering side that Wizards didn't want a part of it (much like Family Guy focused so much on Non Sequiturs that The Simpsons eventually stopped using them). That left the woody side of the Gnomes, which the Elves had already moved in on. So Gnomes have been sent to the Monster Manual, and probably not too many will miss them much.

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (RPG)

So, a friend let me have a look at his advance copy of Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, and I'm reading through the core books. Here are my thoughts on them, in real time.

Book One: The Player's Guide
Part the First: Character Generation

1. By default, Attributes are no longer generated randomly. Random generation remains an option, but the default is assigning each attribute one number in a spread between 10 and 16 (with the number 15 being conspicuously absent). (A third option allows for a slightly more complicated point-buy system, where all the attributes start at 10 (save for one which starts at 8), and each point you buy increases the cost for the next point in that attribute, a la White Wolf.)

2. Alignments have been overhauled, to the point where even choosing an alignment at all is optional. This is long overdue. "Chaotic Good" and "Lawful Evil" have been replaced with simply "Good" and "Evil", while "Lawful Good" and "Chaotic Evil" seem to be specializations of the other two. While it might be a little confusing, and a little asymmetrical (sorry, Planescape!), Lawful Evil especially (and to some extent Chaotic Good) always seemed to exist just to balance out the cosmology. Also, neutral alignments (Neutral good, neutral evil, and lawful, true, and chaotic neutral) are gone and done.

3. There is still going to be a heck of a lot of math in this game; that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just an observation. The main part of the game strategy is still going to be working out the special-case rule exceptions that your character's powers grant you. That's what ends up making the game line collectible, and it's what eventually turned me off to D&D 3.5e -- because it means a lot of rule-exception hunting, and a deep familiarity with the exceptions available; for which I don't really have time or patience. Whatever improvements the new edition has, (and so far I'm liking all the changes I've seen), the handling of the fiddly bits and exceptions will make or break this system for me.

4. Gaining hit points at character advancement is no longer random, either. Not that anyone really used the random rules from the previous editions of the game anyway.

5. PHB characters now go to level 30 instead of 20. This is basically making the amp go to eleven.

6. Retraining means that if you don't like something you chose for your character previously (a feat or a power or whatever) you can retrain and change one feat or power per character advancement. This is good: it means you don't need to plan your character's future quite so carefully and in detail as in previous editions, where I always seemed to know what I thought was cool *now*, but maybe didn't know what prerequisites I would need to get the cool stuff I wanted *later*.

7. There are a lot of fiddly bit-type stuff listed here that I don't understand yet: Paragon and Epic destinies? What's the difference between a Power and a Feat? Hopefully these are all differentiations to make it easier to keep track of things, and not extra stuff that I'm going to have to keep track of in addition to all the stuff in 3e.

8. Oh wow. Those class-specific character advancement tables are out, replaced by a single universal table. Heck yes. Simplify, simplify!

Next: Impressions of Character Races

Friday, May 23, 2008

Video Game Review: Sherlock Holmes - The Awakened

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Peanut butter and Chocolate. Two great tastes that go well together? That is essentially the question asked by this recent computer game, which mashes up the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft; combining the mythos of Sherlock Holmes with that of Cthulhu.

This is not the first time such a mixture has been attempted. There is an anthology entitled "Shadows over Baker Street" that was based on the same premise. From the reviews, the book is a rather mixed bag, which seldom scares the reade, nor delights them with clever reasonings and deductions. A pity.

The Awakened is also a mixed bag, as have been most Cthulhu-based video games,(for example, Call of Cthulhu: The Dark Corners of the Earth, which, despite what the title might seem to imply, did *not* try to combine Lovecraft with Patrick O'Brien.) Certainly, the graphics were not as polished as Dark Corners; but where that game's protagonist lacked any personality, this game has the familiar duo of Holmes and Watson. And what is the point of the horror genre if it is not the invasion of the familiar by something dreadful?

The other flaw of Dark Corners, I felt, was that it was based on one of Lovecraft's most famous stories ("The Shadow Over Innsmouth"). I already knew all the paces of the game beforehand. The Awakened is an original story, (albeit with certain necessary resemblances to "The Call of Cthulhu").

Does this make The Awakened a great game? No. Granted, the storyline itself was all right, and had some fairly creepy moments (my favorite is fairly early in the game, when you come across your first human sacrifice. You're in a dim and musty basement, and your lantern only shines so far into the gloom, and walking forward the scene emerges from the darkness: a tentacled stone idol, a blood-stained altar, and a corpse left in a bad way. The game is afoot!). But these aren't enough to save it for anyone who is not either a Sherlock Holmes fan, a Cthulhu-mythos fan, or both.

The game was released in 2007, but the graphics look as though they're from 2003. The camera work in the cinematics is all of that slow, meaningless panning and zooming that CGI is fond of, which causes unnatural pauses in the dialog as we wait for the shot to end(see early Veggie Tales videos if you're not sure what I mean). The character movements are stiff and stilted, although admittedly that may have something to do with the fact that the game takes place in England. Furthermore, there are *dozens* of clipping problems throughout the game and even (most damnably) in the cinematics! Sometimes, this can be creepy. Strange green lights hover in the corners of some of the buildings. Holmes, threatening a hoodlum with a sword in a cinematic near the end of the game, actually passes the blade through the man's head two or three times. Is the man a ghost? No, just a clipping problem.

The game is essentially an Inventory Puzzle game, which means that you go around picking things up and then finding places to use them later: this is not a genre that has seen a fresh use since before the turn of the century, and the Awakened does not revolutionize the mechanics whatsoever. This leads to some frustrating times; for example, at one point in the game you must fill a bucket with water to put out some flames. Unfortunately, despite the fact that you are right next to the ocean, and also near several pools of water, the game wants you to fill the bucket with the water in a specific barrel, which you have to find. No other water will do, apparently.

There are other problems with the game's implementation of its central mechanic: many of the puzzles, even if you have all of the ingredients in your inventory, the game will simply not allow you to solve if you are trying to solve them out of the order it desires. For example, in the New Orleans section of the game, going out into the swamp results in Holmes and Watson being attacked by thousands of mosquitoes. They retreat. On a piece of paper somewhere you find that lemon juice is a good deterrent for mosquitoes. So then, when I found a lemon tree sitting on a nearby balcony, it seemed reasonable enough to assume that I could just pick the lemons and head out into the swamp. But, no. The game won't let me pick the lemons until later on -- Holmes gives me some line about "I have no use for that now." Despite the fact that we were just down in the swamp, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. In several parts of the game I ended up having to use an online walkthrough just because *I* knew how to solve a puzzle, but I didn't know what hoops the *game* wanted me to jump through before it would let me beat it. (Another example: one of the inmates at an asylum you visit keeps talking about how they've taken away her "Matilda". Seeing a doll on a table in another room, it seemed elementary to me that the doll was Matilda, so I tried to pick up the doll and take it to the woman. Alas! The game would not let me until I had spoken to several other people, and accomplished several other unrelated tasks.)

That is, of course, another problem with the game. Sherlock Holmes is not, and never has been, MacGuyver; but from the way the game has you constantly jury-rigging solutions to your problems using everyday household items, you'd think he was. The game is rarely a whodunnit, and mostly a "combine this thigh bone with that strip of sail and the alcohol from the bootlegger's still to make a rudimentary torch. Now how can I make some fire?" ordeal. Inventory Puzzle games are notorious for this sort of thing, and Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened falls into the same rut for...well, for most of the game.

All of this I pretty much expected when I got the game in the first place. Quite obviously, I did not acquire the game for its mechanics, but for its novelty and subject matter. I don't expect anyone who is not a fanboy of either Lovecraft or Doyle to either play or, doing so, to enjoy Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened. My friend Sam will admit to enduring countless hours of terrible game play in the name of Star Trek, and so I myself must admit that the appeal of this game probably extends to no one else but me (in my group of friends). Still, like me, you're probably happy just knowing that such a game exists. To stay happy, I'd recommend the rest of you avoid playing it.

Bottom Line: **1/2

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Speaking of Alice Cooper and Things Marilyn Manson Wouldn't Do...

Part One:


Part Two:


Part Three: