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Archive for July, 2010

One of the large complaints leveled at 4th Edition D&D, mostly by crotchety grognards like myself,  is that the new design and flavor of game has made it too much like a video game, and more specifically a tabletop clone of Word of Warcraft (WOW).  I came late to this edition, like almost 2 years after it had come out, and I had not been on a message board prior to picking up the books, so I was unaware of this opinion and the accompanying edition flame war that continues to rage on like the hulk. I have liked every edition of the game that I have played and 4th edition was no exception, no edition is perfect each has its flaws. I have never played WOW as it seemed like a black hole in which I might get dragged into never to be seen again or at the least transported to a world where monkeys are cruel overlords and Marky Mark is my only hope for salvation.  I have, however, grinded out many of Bioware’s games and so are familiar with the current genre (as a side note nothing compares to the old Baldur’s Gate games for the PC), so as I was reading through the core books and coming across things like the character roles, power effects, my spider sense began to tingle a little, particularly when I got to the magic items, but  it was just a tingle. It wasn’t until I started reading posts on the internet that were essentially how 4th edition sucks because it is a pen and paper video game/marketing ploy/calculated plot to wreck lives and bring about the apocalypse etc..That’s when the revelation occurred. I was like oh that’s what I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Sometimes I can be surprisingly slow on the uptake, especially for a guy who makes his living out of identifying and connecting themes.

I really enjoy 4th edition, as a DM it is a pretty smooth to run and prep for, which is great for a mathematically and creatively challenged guy like myself, but what I think I miss most is the old-school magic items.  In 4th edition there is just way too many magic items that are too similar and with ridiculous and almost useless powers that you can only activate once per day.  This, for me, is where the video game criticism is most valid and parallels my least favourite experience from current gen video games such as Dragon Age: Origins by Bioware, which is to quote Scott Jones “Loot Sifting”.  I can understand why this is, as the magic items need to match with the power system they created and not overbalance or break the game, but still there is something missing in a way that the majority of them seem trivial. I think this stems from the fact that the enhancement bonuses from the items are built into the math of the game and are required if you don’t want to your characters to fall behind the monsters as they scale in level and have their lunch handed to them. This sort of forces magic items to be numerous and abundant which I think then reduces their specialness and their overall potency. I miss my vorpal weapons with their chance to cut off someone’s head and my ridiculously powerful girdles of giant strength, what can I say. I don’t miss the girdle of masculinity/femininity,  as I still haven’t recovered from the narcissistic wound as a young boy watching my hulking and powerfully phallic Paladin become a women but I digress. I know they shifted a lot of the cool magic item effects to rituals, but my players don’t use them and it’s hard to get into them.  I have toyed with the idea of using boons or natural bonuses as they level to reduce the need for so many magic items thereby making them rarer, while at the same time making the ones they do find a little more potent by shifting some powers from daily to encounter or increasing the length or duration of some effects.  I am a little cautious about this as I don’t want start a cold war era arms race between the players and monsters, but hey you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, besides the monk has been getting a little big for his britches  maybe it’s time for him to get in touch with his feminine side.

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The Elfish Gene

I just finished reading The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing up Strange by Mark Barrowcliffe. My wife got me this book as a father’s day gift and I was touched because she would have had to put some thought into this gift, and instead of avoiding my annoying nerd hobby she choose to cater to it. The book follows the author’s life as a gamer from his first sweet hit of Dungeons and Dragons at the age of 11 and through the subsequent years of his full on addiction with RPGs, and ending with his recovery in his twenties. Overall, I found the book to be a really enjoyable read as it was like falling into a nostalgia pit. The author while reflecting on his youth conveys ambivalence towards his once all consuming immersion into the world of fantasy and gaming as he felt that it stunted other aspects of his social development. The areas where he felt were most adversely affected (and not surprisingly) was in talking to girls and the inability to fit in with the rest of the herd which can be quite painful in youth.

The author wasn’t just into fantasy; he wanted it to desperately to be real, from attempting to incorporate more Tolkienesque garb into his look (picture him wearing a homemade cape as a teenager) to pretending his bike was the famous steed Shadowfax, to relating and viewing all things in everyday life through a D&D lens (i.e. is that girl who seems interested a possible dryad trying to trap me). For those in the world who are not drawn to fantasy probably can’t understand this desire for it to be real. It is hard to explain how it just sings to you, whether through expressing and gratifying internal conflicts and dynamics or a defence against the boredom, grind, and powerlessness inherent to some degree in real life. The title of the book is apt as sometimes it does feel like your just hardwired differently.

The author’s nerd career and mine run some close parallels, despite his having six or seven years on me, which I think was what truly drew me into the book. He got his start in the biz with Lord of Rings and OD&D while mine was Lord of the Rings and Red Box D&D. We both branched out into Moorcock and Leiber and other RPG’s. His descriptions of his characters and their adventures reminded me how as children we would cheat/bend the rules to ensure that the idealized and projected versions of ourselves were truly powerful from ability stats to magic items. Like how my martial characters always seemed to have an 18 strength, and that somehow it seemed more believable in a self-rationalized way that it was an 18(94) instead of 18(00), or that most of my characters seemed to miraculously have psionic ability (a role of 00 on the old d100 every time). How did my paladin at early levels manage to acquire +5 plate mail, a +5 ring of protection, and of course a +5 Holy Avenger? Cut me a break I was only 11. In fairness, Aragorn (I know how original) slew a lot of monsters in our home games with me as the DM and he as the only PC, there was no way I was going to let him out in the adventuring world with others where he might face real dangers or a maniac DM (I was unaware of the amulet against chaotic DM that the author and his group used) as he was mostly for show and a looming threat that I could at any moment unleash.

My experience with fantasy and gaming, in terms social development, were different as I was good at sports and was able to mingle with girls a little more effectively and so was able to blend into the different clique worlds of the adolescent better, although I had enough internal angst to spare. My gaming group were also similar and not the motley crew of nerdley proportions that he seemed to inevitably roll with over the years. However, I have played and DM’d at the local game store and so have a good sense of what he is talking about. I highly recommend this book, particularly for old-school gamers, as it not only offers great nostalgia but a fairly sweet and humorous and sometimes painful look at the struggles that individuals face in forming an identity and negotiating relationships as they transition into adulthood.

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The beginning of the session found the party awakening from their rest in the middle of a hostile dungeon, somewhat surprised that they were undisturbed. They concluded that the rest of the guards must have fled at the mere thought of having to face them, after the carnage they had left in their wake (or the DM wanted to move the adventure along so he could get to his own stuff/he was trying to avoid a TPK, but whatever same diff). As the party exited their makeshift B&B, they were met with several large piles of body parts from their slain enemies assembled into arrows pointing them down a hallway they had not yet explored and ending in front of a set of double doors. Upon bursting in they were beset on all sides by undead, with a ghoul large and in charge and looking for some fresh meat. Rhogar, fearless, stepped into the room and allowed the vile creatures to surround him, shielding his comrades from the initial onslaught. Rhogar and Grimlock set to clearing some space to allow the party to get down to work. Kaz let loose the righteous brand of Torm, illustrating why you have a cleric in the party when you’re going after a death cult. Khaine once again created doubt about his intentions and lineage by blasting Rhogar with eldritch magic while under the influence of a

Kaz/Chris displaying classic gamer physique & obligatory food stain

homunculus.

The party entered the next room and was greeted by Kalarel’s under-priest who was awash in the blood of the innocents that was helping to fuel the dark ritual. The priest welcomed them and invited them to partake of the ritual by kindly allowing him to spill their blood into the collecting pool below. The party, after contemplating the offer, gave him the big middle finger and proceeded to bitch slap him silly. Both Rhogar and Grimlock went down in the ensuing donnybrook, as the fanatics of Shar fell upon them in a blood raged frenzy. Kaz said “not on my watch douche bags”, and let healing words turn the tide of the fight. After the battle the party was gathered around the 50ft pit in the room that provided access to the ritual room through blood drenched chains. A great debate ensued as the chanting from below grew and the keep began to shake about how to best make it down. Several members were unsure of their ability to descend quickly without hurting themselves and were concerned about descending slowly and allowing any potential enemies to pot shot them. The solution: douse a corpse in oil, light the corpse on fire then dump him down the pit to clear out the space and take out any enemies in the way. The result: a flaming corpse that fell into a pool of blood that was then extinguished with a accompanying voice asking “what the hell was that?”.

So the party then decided to slide down the chains and maybe get to foiling Kalarel’s plans. The final battle ensued as Kalarel called out to Khaine offering him an opportunity to join him. At that moment Khaine felt the overwhelming presence of his patron pushing him to raise his hand against his comrades. The struggle of wills went on until Khaine was able to push the influence back (apparently sides have been drawn in this war). Khaine also slighty confused/worried his commrades by calling Kalarel “brother” and saying that he was misguided in his way of worshiping Shar. Khaine then deduced the nature of the ritual and when the party engaged the forces of evil in battle they also set to unworking the ritual. It was a classic slugfest with Khaine finally cutting Kalarel down. As the big man fell he was sucked into the portal by a clawed hand, and as the portal began to dissolve a beam of dark energy shot out and enveloped the party, but surprisingly did not  inflict any pain, a voice echoed in their minds telling them that this was far from over. The party then beat a hasty exit as the Keep began to implode on itself.

Once back in town a great feast and celebration was held for the heroes. The party was unable to determine what if anything the necrotic beam had down to them, but they were feeling no pain at the time and enjoyed the festivities and gratitude of the town. Valthurn the sage provided Khaine with a journal of a Tiefling wizard named Qualeck containing his “interesting research”. The Party plans to rest up and head back to Cormyr, I hope their journey is uneventful…..

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So I recently finished reading the Player’s Strategy Guide which is written by Andy Collins and Eytan Beernstein and published by Wizards of the Coast. What is the Player’s Strategy Guide you ask? Well its’ kind of a guide to help players in creating and managing the raddest character they can while highlighting their role in helping craft rewarding and fantastic game experiences through battle tactics, party composition,  player etiquette, and story crafting. Why did I buy it you ask? Well I am a bit of a compulsive shopper and it had cosmo-style quizzes that promised tell me all about who I am as a D&D nerd (you can never go wrong praying on my narcissism).

The quizzes revealed that I am a Story Teller and Thinker when it comes to my role-playing style or gamer motivation. This essentially tells me that I gravitate towards the narrative aspects of gaming and immersion into the fantasy of the story that is being told and developed (AKA as a fantasy nerd who has read too many novels and engages in escapism) while also enjoying plotting out how to build a pimp character that can open a malt liquor size can of whoop-ass all over the bad guys (a polite way of saying that I am bit a min-maxer). I also apparently prefer to play Human or Half-Elf characters that are either wizards or warlords and who are generally of good alignment. I also apparently have a high Sex IQ, can never tell when a guy is into me, and am an over-sharer.

The majority of the book is about building mechanically sound characters through things such as matching racial stat bonuses with optimal character classes to feat and power choices and combinations that enhance the particular role of your character. (On aside note I am hopeful that eventually they will retcon the pre-PHB3 races into allowing more flexibility with ability stat bonuses to allow you to create whatever class/race combinations your heart desires without worrying about them sucking balls) I found this section only marginally helpful, as previously mentioned I am a bit of a min-maxer and find the “optimization threads” in the various online forums allow for a more in depth tutelage in this area. However, for people who are not as neurotic or consumed with such things, I think that this section offers a nice way to make sense of the mechanics of building an effective character in 4th Edition when particularly faced with the veritable plethora of choices and options available that can make things a little confusing.

The sections on strategy and tactics and building a party were pretty cool, particularly the sample parties that they provided. I think these sections are really helpful in educating how combat works in the game and how the particular class roles were designed to function independently and as a whole. It also provides helpful tips on how to organize and manage your character to help prevent the deer in headlights look when their name is called in the initiative order. For those either coming from other game systems or older editions of D&D, the combat system in the 4th edition is sufficiently different that it can be a little perplexing. For example it took a while for my players to understand why their fighters and paladins were always doing less damage than the rogues and warlocks that were in the party. If that had been clearer during character creation we probably would have had a very different party composition, more like 4 strikers and 1 leader (I forced the newb into playing the cleric in a hazing/paying your dues move).

The last section of the book emphasis the players’ responsibility in creating a good game, through being invested in the game and being an active participant in helping the DM craft stories and adventures around their characters. Peppered throughout the book were little sections where different people within the industry and entertainment world would describe their characters with cool back stories and other ways that they bring them to life within the game world. This was by far my favorite aspect of this book and well worth the purchase and read.

Overall, I liked this book but I can see it wouldn’t be right for everyone. I think for those new to the system and maybe struggling with the overwhelming number of character choices from feats, powers and skills and how they relate to character role and fit into your overall vision of the character then this book might be helpful. It can also be helpful for those who are struggling tactically in combat and are unsure why they keep getting smacked around. I can’t say I learned a lot in terms of character building or tactics, but I enjoyed the read and it helped reinforce not just mechanics but the importance of creating a character with a vivid personality and identifiable motivations which interact with and help shape the world that the DM provides.

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