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Dark Dungeons

posted Wednesday, January 31st 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & Culture

Depending on your point of view, Jack Chick is either an admirable Christian or a hateful propaganda writer. Back in the Christian anti-D&D fad of the eighties he published a comic called Dark Dungeons. It’s laughably inaccurate, and when I tried to edit the text to make a parody I found myself unable to make it any more ridiculous than it already was. If you haven’t seen this already for some reason, check it out.

Wield Improvised Weapons Without a Penalty (Feat)

posted Saturday, January 27th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

Someone on a message board was asking about a feat to let characters wield improvised weapons. Here you go.

Always Armed
You have a talent for using nearby objects as deadly weapons.
Prerequisites: Base attack +1, stunning fist OR proficiency with all simple and martial weapons.
Benefit: You can wield improvised weapons without suffering the usual -4 penalty to attacks. Effectively, you are considered proficient with improvised weapons. Furthermore, as a move action you can pick up an improvised weapon from any square into which you can make a melee attack, and you never provoke an attack of opportunity for drawing or picking up a weapon.

It’s balanced since improvised weapons are at best on a par with simple weapons or martial bludgeoning weapons. Why would anyone pay a feat to wield substandard weapons at a penalty? It needs extras to be mechanically worth really paying a feat for, rather than as a class extra.

One exception: I’ve been told that some splatbook or other has ruled that tables can be wielded as improvised two-handed 3d6 weapons. The idea of someone swinging around a magical shatterproof table on a full attack is so preposterous that I’m going to assume you don’t allow 3d6 two-handed weapons at no penalty.

Objective Evil vs Subjective Evil

posted Tuesday, January 23rd 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Fluff/Inspiration

An interesting point raised in the “evil” sourcebook Book of Vile Darkness is the idea that evil can be subjective or objective, depending on the kind of game you play. In other words, how “evil” something is can be universally agreed on by all people and creatures in your game world, or it can vary wildly depending on a character’s point of view. While BoVD covered this topic well, I think it’s a point that bears repeating.

Objective evil is what you want to use if you’re running a typical hack and slash campaign. If something is “evil”, then you can detect evil it, you can smite evil it, whatever. The reason for this is that the typical high-combat game will have you running around murdering monsters for their treasure, and really, questioning whether or not that’s always the right thing to do can only get in the way of this game style. If it’s evil, you’re practically obligated to kill it – naturally, hack and slash typically assumes that the player characters are the “good guys”, even if they’re only neutral, because if they were evil you’d have to hack and slash them too.

Subjective evil is a little more complicated. Essentially, evil is in the eye of the beholder. If a group of elves raids an encampment of “evil” orcs, perhaps the orcs see the elves as evil for hunting down their race out of racial hatred. Perhaps an orc shaman casting detect evil even detects the elves as evil and the orcs neutral, because it detects what the caster considers to be evil. Naturally, subjective evil can be troublesome if you’re playing “kick in the door” style because it require more thought and forces you to question the morality of some of the game’s basic actions. However, a more storytelling, “roleplaying” style can fit this. In the real world, what’s “evil” depends on your point of view – one man’s hero can be another’s villain.

It’s an interesting situation which should be considered when arguing whether or not D&D is primarily a hack-and-slash RPG. The current edition of D&D standardly assumes that you’re playing the basic entry-level game, and makes the roleplaying-heavy type of campaign into side note of “play this kind of game by ignoring a lot of the combat and magic rules”. In other words, roleplay-heavy is really D&D-light – a balanced way to play the game, but the rules as written heavily assume combat-heavy, objective-evil dungeon crawling.

What’s the Deal With Polymorph?

posted Saturday, January 20th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

Seriously, what’s the deal with polymorph? I was never a big fan of the recent changes, where what used to be aimless internet backlash against a little powergaming potential has exploded into a mess of botched errata and finally an attempt to assassinate the entire spell series and sweep the bodies under the carpet.

For those of you who have joined the game recently, let me explain that polymorph has never quite been able to sit still. Originally the spell came in three forms: a short-duration polymorph self, a permanent polymorph other for turning opponents into frogs (in practice, used to turn opponents into frogs) and the higher level polymorph any object. The first two were revised in arcane caster splatbook Tome and Blood, later changed and errata’d as core, and when the rushed 3.5 revision came and reorganised it into buff spell polymorph and the higher-level offensive baleful polymorph, the whole thing was hurriedly rewritten from scratch.

That last part really gets me because in the software industry it’s said to be one of the things you should never do – you introduce new problems, you reintroduce old problems that had already been fixed, and you risk breaking backwards-compatibility that people had been relying on. For example, if you’re a shameless, pedantic rules lawyer it’s arguable that polymorph allows creature templates, and an unlimited number of them, at that. Worse still is that for by some inscrutable reasoning an FAQ entry agreed with this suggestion, citing as its example the second-level spell disguise spell alter self allowing the form of a half-dragon orc – +12 Strength, amongst other bonuses. Why cast bull’s strength for +4 when alter self can give you ogre’s strength?

I don’t like this latest one-spell-per-form fix at all. It’s fine, but it takes away a lot of the versatility of the spell and destroys the flexibility we’ve been afforded since long before third edition. For the same reason I don’t like Frank and friends’ polymorph fixes in which the spell simply grants various monsterlike features (flight, improved speed, higher Strength); it’s far too mechanical and in the end doesn’t let you say, “today, I’m going to turn into a bugbear for a bit”. Even the well-balanced official baleful polymorph limits you to turning opponents into small animals – in doing so it has prohibited all manner of interesting forms, such as kobolds and other small humanoids.

So what’s a good solution? Honestly, I went through the available forms and polymorph’s not that bad. You do, however, need to use some common sense and careful balance. Require the player characters to have encountered a monster before assuming the form of one. Disallow players from assuming templated forms – if you do make exceptions, count the level adjustment against the hit dice and require that they’ve seen a monster of that type with that template. Feel free to prohibit or limit especially powerful monsters or monster abilities, but don’t be any stricter than needs be for game balance.

Finally, an honourable mention goes to Rich Burlew’s polymorph variant, which might suit you better than mine.

Prestige Class Balance

posted Wednesday, January 17th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

Something you may have noticed if you’ve been following third edition since the beginning is just how refined the balance of the game has grown over time. Yes, there a few glitches, with the Book of Vile Darkness widely perceived as overpowered and a stretch in 2005 where Wizards started to skimp on the editing, but the quality of both official and third-party material has definitely risen since the game’s inception as developers get a better feel for the rules and how to benchmark power.

It’s tough for writers to admit that their old stuff was just plain broken, but I congratulate Wizards of the Coast for shelving their pride when it comes to arcane caster prestige classes. Back in the day, most arcane PrCs fell squarely into one of three categories: too good, mediocre, and awful. Let me conjure up some examples:

The Embermage (Book of Eldritch Might), hailed from the Tome and Blood era of 5/10 arcane PrCs – that is to say, prestige classes which granted only five levels of wizard casting. While thematically cool, was awful in terms of power because it forgot an important rule of PrCs: the benefit must be equal to the cost. Lets call this the law of Equivalent Exchange. The abilities gained – for example, shooting fire rays or burning a monster to ash in an instant – could be easily emulated by the spells granted by those missing five levels of wizard. The modern quick-fix for 5/10 prestige classes, which involves upping them to a cleric’s hit dice and wizard, ignores the rule of dependency wherein each class complements the other’s weaknesses – a fighter and a mage together are superior (and more fun) than a pair of fighter/mage multiclasses of the same level.

Also somewhat rubbish was the transformational arcane prestige class, as per Dragon Disciple and Acolyte of the Skin. Cool prestige classes, the problem was that they were absolutely useless for serious arcane spellcasters because the abilities weren’t worth losing the power and versatility of the spellcaster levels you would give up.

The Loremaster (Dungeon Master’s Guide was the original arcane caster PrC, and like the sorcerer it erred on the side of mediocrity. Granting 10/10 casting progression, the cost of the class was a heavy investment of feats and (as with most PrCs) loss of familiar progression and two bonus feats. The benefits were somewhat weak and linked to Intelligence, but were not entirely bad. Thus this class was not incredibly powerful or special, and merely mediocre. As an early class, however, we might cut it a little slack.

Another artefact of the Tome and Blood era was the 10/10 arcane PrC which also granted some ridiculous amount of special abilities at nearly no cost. You’d have the nominal prestige class entry requirements, lose familiar progression and two bonus feats, and gain yourself some excellent benefits. The problem with these classes was that it raised the bar for every PrC and created a situation where it was ludicrous to go straight wizard when a prestige class could give you great bonuses almost for free.

So what’s the correct way to build an caster PrC? I imagine that writers must simply understand the flaws of early material and accept that some stuff was overpowered, underpowered or too dull. Modern arcane prestige classes typically cost one or two levels of spellcasting, such as one at entry and one at the last level when the ultimate class ability is gained. Any more than this and the spellcaster is set more than one spell level behind, which compromises their important role as a primary spellcaster.

The reason why 5/10 casting was initially considered a fair trade was in part that it was assumed that a wizard would lose only one quarter of his overall power. In reality, lost spellcaster levels are taken from your most powerful spell levels first, so when you trade in two levels you’re really losing ninth level spells in the long run and your ability has to be worth that. In retrospect, a particularly poor prestige class was one that offered a single spell-like ability in exchange for a spell level which would eventually be more powerful than the ability.

Naturally, being limited to 8/10 casting progression or better, sets an cap on how powerful a prestige class’ own abilities can be. However, another option is to take the Archmage route and trade powers for spells per day. Spell slots are very easy to judge and assign a rough gold piece value to.

Finally, you can always offer more powerful abilities than usual if you require a penalty

Holy Crap! Mearls Updates His Blog!

posted Sunday, January 14th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & Culture

The ever-busy Mike Mearls updates his blog for the first time in forever with four interesting crossbow feats. Why not drop by and leave a comment?

Steve’s Guide to Making a Really Sweet D&D Character

posted Friday, January 12th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & Culture

Something Awful makes a surprise Dungeons & Dragons foray with their new article, Steve’s Guide to Making a Really Sweet D&D Character. It’s not quite as laughter-inducing as some of the other stuff on SA, but the ridiculous character description at the end makes up for it.

Where Wizards Went Wrong

posted Tuesday, January 9th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

While I don’t think Wizards of the Coast will admit it, I think it’s a general consensus among players that the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons has been waning. Certainly it’s to be expected that some players will eventually get bored of any game. I think the question is, have Wizards made any decisions that, in retrospect, we would consider to have been big mistakes?

Here’s what I’m thinking.

  • Refusing to publish adventure modules. Wizards’ strategy of the Open Gaming License was innovative, to say the least, allowing WotC to publish only the most profitable material (core rulebooks, player character splatbooks) while leaving a free market of numerous small publishers to fill in the rest. However, relying on third-parties to produce all of third edition’s adventures was nothing short of foolish. In reality, the most successful third party publishers also realised that some material was more profitable than others, and put out a wide range of their own splatbooks. Without a steady stream of high-quality adventures keeping things fresh for players, a significant number of D&D fans no doubt became tired of their DM’s homebrew material and simply quit playing.
  • Eberron was ebber-wrong. Keith Baker’s setting was an ambitious project, and when I bought the main seting book I immediately found several things I liked about it – the backstabbing intrigue, the immortality of outsiders, and the elemental binding, to name a few. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool setting. The problem was that in releasing a plethora of Eberron products at the expense of every other setting, Wizards really put all their eggs in one basket – a basket that isn’t for everyone, because it doesn’t represent the traditional hack-and-slash D&D experience. Greyhawk, on the other hand, was shelved early on despite free advertising in the core rulebooks, and Forgotten Realms has been all but cancelled despite a huge fan-following from Salvatore’s Drizzt novels the popular games Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights.
  • The OGL was a flop – sort of. For third parties, the opportunity to write D&D content without paying a licensing fee was an incredible boon. Unfortunately, this had the drawback that Wizards made nothing from many third party products, many of which competed directly with their own books. What’s more, the growing PDF market gave rise to an awful lot of small-time self-published writers with absolutely no grasp on the subtleties of the d20 system, thus releasing all manner of low-quality or unbalanced products that may have discouraged players from the game in general.
  • Finding groups is still difficult. Dungeons & Dragons is not a solo game, and a player whose group dissolves often has difficulty finding another. The question is, why isn’t Wizards encouraging the retailers of their books to set up game days or clubs, or at least put up a noticeboard for players to find groups. I’m sure many shops do this already. Wizards is losing money because mine does not.

To be fair, however, there are several factors which have always been out of Wizards’ control, or perhaps couldn’t reasonably have been predicted.

  • MMOs have stolen everyone’s players. Of all modern RPGs, D&D is widely considered the most “hack-and-slash”. Although a D&D can be played without any combat at all, the entry-level game that gets most young guys interested is always going to be the competetive, gamesy old-school D&D where gamers play to win with consistent rules. World of Warcraft not only provides the multiplayer hack-and-slash experience, it does so on-demand and with flashy graphics. Why play D&D for four hours a week when you can get your powergaming fix online whenever it suits you?
  • People are getting bored. By now, many players who joined in third edition have done everything in the game. They’ve learned every rule, fought every monster, played every character. The novelty is gone, and that’s enough to get some people to leave for a new game. After all, D&D is only one game – would you still play PC games if the only one available were graphical upgrades and different expansion packs for Quake?
  • There are only so many prospective players. The market for games is limited. A lot of people just aren’t interested in rolling dice while pretending to be an elf, and cannot be convinced by any amount of marketing; of the people who would enjoy D&D, a lot of them already do play the game, and there are only so many books that one person can buy. For this reason, the game’s userbase cannot grow indefinitely, and with players quitting for various reasons it makes sense that the market will gradually shrink over time.

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