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Bone Mask of Life (Relic)

posted Thursday, February 28th 2008 by Jonathan Drain
Game MaterialMagic Items & GearThird EditionWondrous Items

This magic item originally appeared 17 Relics by The Le Press. A relic is a powerful magic item which once formed part of the body or belongings of some great figure. See Seventeen Relics for special rules on relics.

This relic, fierce as it appears, is actually a holy artifact made from the skull of the first aasimar to become a king on the material plane. The mask, with horns coming out of the front, covers the top half of the wearer’s face except for the eyes and nose. It attaches securely to the wearer’s face, resizing to fit anyone with a head of general humanoid form, up to a maximum of Large size.

While wearing the mask, its fearsome visage confers a +2 competence bonus to all Intimidate checks, but the wearer suffers a -2 penalty to Diplomacy checks. The fierce soul of the bone mask increases the wearer’s level by one for the purposes of turning (but not rebuking) undead, and grants the wearer a +1 divine bonus to saves versus any the special abilities or spells of any undead.

The bone mask of life takes up the same “magic item slot� on the body as goggles or eyeglasses.

Faint necromancy; CL 7th; Price 30,000 gp; Weight: 1lb.

Improve Your Game with The Art of War (Part 2)

posted Monday, February 25th 2008 by Jonathan Drain
Player Advice

This month I’m discussing how your game can benefit from the ancient advice contained in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Last week I discussed Chapter 1: Laying Plans. Today I’m covering the second chapter of the book and picking advice.

Part 2: Waging War

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardour will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. … Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays. There is no instance of a country having benefitted from prolonged warfare.

Sun Tzu begins this chapter with a warning against taking one’s time in combat. Fighting is costly and exhausts your resources, and a long fight without victory in sight leaves people disappointed. In D&D, your resources include finite equipment (scrolls, potions, gold, charges of magic items, and spell components) and renewable attributes (hit points, spells and abilities limited per-day). Further, the players themselves will get bored if you don’t hurry the game along at a resonable pace.

It’s thus usually to your advantage to hurry to the next battle and aim to finish the enemy off as quickly as is reasonable. An unnecessarily lengthy combat can drain your hit points and waste spell uses, while a quick offence can deny your opponent the time and people he needs to make use of all his abilities. Remember also that a wounded creature fights equally well in D&D as a fresh one, making it to your advantage to finish off weakened opponents first in order to save hit points.

Hence, a wise general makes a point of foraging on the enemy. One cartload of the enemy’s provisions is equivalent to twenty of one’s own… Our own flags should be substituted for those of the enemy, and their chariots mingled and used in conjunction with ours. The captured soldiers should be kindly treated and kept. This is called, using the conquered foe to augment one’s own strength.

Using your enemy’s strength to augment your own is nothing new to D&D players, who quickly celebrate each fight by looting the bodies. A quick victory ensures that they do not waste scrolls, potions or charges of items before you can use them. Better yet to steal and disarm mid-combat, providing this doesn’t draw out the combat or make it more costly in the long run.

More significant, perhaps, is the benefit to be gained by literally using conquered foes against them. Mind-control spells are the most obvious method of controlling a captured enemy, but this can also be achieved by trickery, bribery, intimidation or blackmail. Truly ruthless mercenaries or cowardly creatures can be quickly convinced to change allegiance. Enemies who refuse to fight their former allies directly may still help you indirectly by revealing pieces of intelligence, such as their defences, numbers, purpose, motivations, and weaknesses.

Another fantastic way to quite literally use the enemy’s strength against them is to raise the fallen bodies as undead. Depending on character class, you may have ability to create and control skeletons, zombies or something more powerful. Consider yourself to be at a disadvantage without a full complement of undead minions. Even if they drop after a single hit, that’s one hit you and your allies aren’t taking. You can also use them to set off traps, distract the enemy, and so forth. In essence, you’re using the enemy’s resources to save your own, and that’s the point Sun Tzu is making here.

Part 3 next week

Stay tuned for the next part of this article in a week’s time. You can subscribe to this blog via the RSS feed, the Livejournal feed, or if like me you prefer the old-fashioned method, simply bookmark the front page.

For Your Game: Seventeen Relics

posted Sunday, February 24th 2008 by Jonathan Drain
Site Announcements

Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting a series of new magic items to use in your game. Relics are items that once formed part of the body or possessions of some great figure, and by connection to these people they are mysteriously imbued with special power. These rare and priceless lesser artifacts were originally published in 17 Relics published by The Le Press.

What are Relics?

Ever since adventuring parties began coming together in the search for rare and valuable magic items, they have done so by looting the bodies of slain enemies and emptying tombs of their worth. Among the great and many magic items in invention, however, some of the most interesting are those rare artifacts which are not simply forged or created in the conventional sense, but unpredictably derive their power from some obscure, and often unique, set of circumstances.

A relic, in the traditional sense, is a piece of the body or possessions of a saint or other such pious person, often with some supernatural power attributed to it since the person’s death. In a world where many people, creatures, objects, places and beliefs hold magical power and the deities are many and influential, this definition can be expanded to include a greater variety of objects. In this sense, a relic is any part of a person or creature’s body or something very closely associated with them, which, despite not having been deliberately imbued with magic, has somehow found itself with supernatural power.

Relics cannot be made or replicated by the usual means of magic item creation – a relic’s power comes from divine providence, force of the original owner’s personality, unique and unusual circumstances, random bursts of magic or any combination of these. As such, you will not find item creation guidelines for any of these relics, nor should your character expect to be able to purchase them. The prices listed are given only as a guideline so that GMs can more easily judge their value as treasure. Should the player be lucky enough to find a relic for sale, its price may vary considerably depending on whether or not the seller realizes its value or knows how rare (often unique) the item really is.

Although earlier editions of the game defined relics as synonymous with artifacts, none of the items in this collection are beyond the power level of mortal magic items. However, they certainly are unique (or in some cases are nearly so) and are unusually resistant to the ravages of time and the wear and tear of daily use. GMs may consider making a relic the object of a quest or adventure, perhaps tying several adventures together in this manner. Alternatively, they might be given to the campaign’s villains or important NPCs, giving the players something to strive towards by creating potential loot or reward.

When Bad Monsters Get Smart

posted Thursday, February 21st 2008 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Roleplaying gamers don’t always demonstrate the same Intelligence scores as their heroic characters, and most of us have the anecdotes to prove it. Supergenius wizards fall for the Head of Vecna rouse again or forget that fire elementals aren’t immune to fire, while dumb-as-bricks fighters manage to solve fiendish puzzles and outsmart gods. Stories like these are what make the Dungeons & Dragons game truly memorable.

However, players may find it unrealistic when the DM has their characters constantly outwitted by creatures with the Intelligence score of a small duck. Likewise, even clever Dungeon Masters may find themselves hard pressed to represent the truly deific intelligence of a Pit Fiend. As a Dungeon Master you’re not strictly required to play monsters to their listed Intelligence score, but but to do so can add verisimilitude and make the game more engaging. Read on to find out how.

Continue reading this article »

Improve Your Game with The Art of War (Part 1)

posted Monday, February 18th 2008 by Jonathan Drain
Player Advice

Few ancient books are as well known nowadays as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a 6th century Chinese text on armed combat. It’s surprisingly relevant even today, since the nature of conflict hasn’t changed all that much in 2500 years. Given fantasy roleplaying’s origins in wargaming, it’s not hard to apply this ancient wisdom to both playing D&D and the art of Dungeon Mastering.

I don’t intend here to bend the meaning of The Art of War to fit the game, as I’ve seen done in the past – D&D isn’t 100% true to life, so not all of it applies. What I’ll do is to take some important sections and explain how that can be applied to your gameplay.

Part 1: Laying Plans

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy; feign disorder and crush him.

D&D characters often win by sheer combined strength, but according to Sun Tzu, this is not enough. In order to gain advantage over your enemy you must deceive him into making poor choices. Stealth can fool the enemy into assuming he is safe from an attack, and approaching in magical disguise may have him underestimate or overestimate your strength or misjudge your motive. Spreading misinformation about yourself may fool a villain about your intents or capabilities.

The effectiveness of rouses like these are limited by the Dungeon Master’s judgement, since your opponents’ tactics are not limited by game rules. However, a good Dungeon Master should appreciate your tactic if you describe it up front. For example, “I’ll use an illusion spell to disguise us all as orc raiders. I’m hoping the evil wizard will underestimate us and only use his weak spells at first, and by the time he realises we’re powerful adventurers it’ll be too late.”

Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat. How much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can forsee who is likely to win or lose.

Preparedness is key: fight smarter, not harder! As a player, I never take on any adventure before considering tactics in advance. What enemies are you fighting, and in what circumstances? If you’re a spellcaster, what will you need to fight the enemies you expect to face? If you’re a fighter, what equipment do you need to stock up on? If the monsters lose it’s because they’re not prepared for your arrival or the abilities you’ll bring to bear. If you lose, it’s because you were overconfident and didn’t plan ahead yourself.

This relates to perhaps the most famous Sun Tzu quote, which states that in order to avoid failure, you must know your enemy and know yourself. Knowing too much about your opponents in D&D can be considered metagaming (at worst, cheating), but failing to understand your character’s strengths and limits is a fatal flaw. Whether by divinations or guesswork, your adventuring group should find out as much as possible about their mission before they undertake it, and rather than simply relying on brute strength, make preparations to gain the upper hand.

Part 2 next week

I’ll update periodically by examining how the other twelve chapters of The Art of War can help you improve your game. Until then, you can subscribe to this blog via the RSS feed, the Livejournal feed, or if like me you prefer the old-fashioned method, simply bookmark the front page.

More on Four

posted Tuesday, February 5th 2008 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

We return with a brief foray into Fourth Edition and the official Wizards of the Coast Dungeons & Dragons website. Already my web browser informs me that the front page weighs in at a whopping 2.6MB, an incredible six minute load time for dialup users for what’s essentially an elaborate menu page. (By comparison, digg.com is one tenth of that size, and this blog is a mere one hundredth). As a freelance web developer, I’m still not happy about the cramped layout and tiny text sizes presented, but I’ll leave it up to them.

The latest news follows accusations that Wizards of the Coast have been stifling writers by allowing them to give their impressions on Fourth Edition, but only if they don’t say anything negative about it. While it’s only good marketing to aim for positive press, critics are arguing that it’s deceptive to ask contractors and employees to present a biased view. Writers like Ari Marmell seem to be presenting a positive outlook for the new system, but writers who haven’t been so impressed with the 4e playtest are finding themselves with a conflict of interest.

The most recent tidbit from the site is that negative hit points are to see a welcome change. As we know, one of Third Edition’s flaws was that it wasn’t well playtested at high level, with the negative hit points system the first casualty. Having a wounded character survive until -10HP works really well at first, but when you’re a high level character that -10 might represent only five percent of your hit points, increasing the likelihood that a single hit when you’re on low health can finish you off.

The new system in Fourth changes this. First, a character can survive into a higher number of negative hit points which increases with level, although he’s still unconscious until healed. Rather than losing one hit point per round (which could take a while if you can survive down to -60), you have a 50% chance each round to get worse (three of these without healing and you’re a goner), with any amount of healing bringing you around automatically. As usual, though, monsters can be assumed slain at 0HP.

I’ll tell you, I like it. Third edition made high level characters easier to kill but easier to raise, which cheapened death and gave players an invulnerablity complex. This made levels 15 onward very dull by dampening the sense of danger. A dying teammate is now a slightly more pressing concern, but you’re now less likely to be knocked suddenly from conscious to dead in one hit. There’s a slightly questionable clause that rolling a natural 20 to stabilize will suddenly boost you up to one-quarter hit points, but it’s not clear if that’s how the rule will work in the final game.

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