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posted Sunday, May 31st 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

I thought I was doing well when D20 Source reached 700 subscribers, but Yax’s blog Dungeon Mastering leaves it in the dust: over 5,000 subscribers this month and counting. On top of that they recently launched Dungeon Mastering Tools, an online service for creating and sharing monster statblocks, monster templates, magic items, encounters, powers and traps for D&D fourth edition.

You can sign up to this service now for free. For today and tomorrow only, there’s also a special offer: upgrade to Premium membership and receive a free copy of Open Game Table, a 140-page print book collecting some of the best RPG blog material of the past several years. The book includes my 2006 adventure design essay The Invisible Dungeon.

Player’s Guide to D&D 4th Edition (For 3E Players)

posted Saturday, May 30th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionPlayer Advice

Reading an edition wars argument recently, I discovered that a lot of third edition players had misconceptions about D&D fourth edition, or had tried to play but found the rules differences a little much to take in all at once. It hit me that Wizards never wrote an update booklet to help third edition players convert to the new game. To help, I’ve written a short summary of the changes new to D&D fourth edition, for players currently familiar with third edition.

The Basics

  • Most rolls now add one-half the character’s level. This includes attack rolls, skill checks and ability checks. This prevents powerful high-level characters from having a puny +1 to a skill.
  • Fort, Reflex and Will are now called Defenses, and work like AC: they have a base of 10, and the enemy rolls his attack versus your flat number.
  • Saving throws refer to a different mechanic: at the end of each round you roll with a 50% chance to end an ongoing effect, such as being poisoned or on fire.
  • Players have “healing surges”, a sort of resource that renews each day and can be expended to restore hit points. A misconception is that this allows characters to freely heal themselves in combat. Rather, healing still requires a cleric or similar, and healing surges are limits on how much healing a character can receive in a day. Some 1/day or 1/encounter abilities allow a character to spend a healing surge on their own. Clerics can heal at-will out of combat, to the limit of each character’s remaining healing surges.

Continue reading this article »

Other Blogs Round-up: May 2009

posted Monday, May 25th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

I’ve neglected my weekly summaries of the D&D blogosphere lately. As popular as they were, it was just too time-consuming to do on a regular weekly basis. I’d still like to link to the blogs I read, so here’s a round-up.

6d6Fireball writes The Times are-a-Changing. Perhaps the most interesting is that they’re running a D&D 3.5 Adventure Writing Competition, open to non-professionals.

Critical Hits introduces a 4E house rule for Arcane Power, reviews RPG Omnifray and Monster Manual 2 in two parts, discusses Star Trek and considers it an RPG adaption, and links videos of Star Trek and a forty-minutes fan-made Lord of the Rings prequel.

Heavy-hitter Dungeon Mastering discusses D&D psionics, advises handling problem players, announces a job posting for a PHP developer, and discusses building scenes and stories. They argue two ancient debates: the edition debate, and roleplayers versus powergamers.

Oldschool videogamer Zeus (formerly of RPGamer’s Ask Thor) keeps up his blog and the hilarious Videogame Lookalikes, which asserts that David Bowie is in every game. He also announces Level Up, a videogame RPG podcast.

Jeff Rients of Jeff’s Gameblog discusses saving throws in old AD&D, in between pictures of William Shatner.

Mike Mearls’ Keep on the Gaming Lands updates once this month with pictures of his Dwarven Forge tiles, but supplies frequent updates on his Twitter page.

Kobold Quarterly interviews Sean K. Reynolds on Pathfinder RPG and the secret of Paizo’s success, announces the release of Kobold Ecologies, presents “Behind the Spells” articles on Explosive Runes and Drawmij’s Instant Summons, has Skip Williams offer sage advice on size in D&D, gaze attacks and grappling, and presents new monsters: the Frostfang Yeti (4E), Ychen Bannog, Great Beasts of Burden (3E), Dancing Tableware (3E), the Crag Drake (4E), and a comical “Dead” template.

Musings of the Chatty DM announces the list of entrants to their One Page Dungeon contest, offers advice on dealing with “insitgator” type problem players, reviews How To Host a Dungeon, attempts to define Gygaxian naturalism,

RoleplayingPro asks how versatile your gaming group is, thinks of RPGs they should make into movies, and ponders on how technology will affect the future of roleplaying.

Roleplaying Tips updates as usual with Issue 445: 4 Tips For Post Apocalypse Game Masters, Issue 446: Build Your Own Starship, Issue 447: How To Create Factions – 3 New Tips Plus: 44 Awesome Ready-To-Use NPC Hooks, and Issue 448: 8 Tactics for Mooks.

Stupid Ranger asks about legendary item creation, finding legendary items, and reviews Arcane Power’s material for bards.

The Alexandrian gives his opinion on X-Men Origins: Wolverine and WotC’s Dungeon Delve, and presents some OGL third edition rules.

If you’ve got any blogs you’d like to be added to the list, feel free to leave a comment and make a suggestion.

Is D&D Insider Worth $10?

posted Saturday, May 23rd 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

The latest news from Wizards of the Coast is that they’re increasing the one-month subscription price of D&D Insider from $8 to $10, as of July. Angry blogger TheUruguayanGamer calls it an unjustified price hike, while others aren’t concerned.

Does D&D Insider justify its subscription fee? It’s up to the individual, and what value they place on the content. What are D&D Insider’s components worth to you? Continue reading this article »

DM’s Guide to Creating New 4E Races

posted Wednesday, May 20th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceFourth Edition

Although Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition gives us eight races and sixteen monster races, there are times when these won’t do. Perhaps you’ve had an idea for a cool new race, or a player wants something different. Maybe you’re developing a new and innovative campaign setting, or want to introduce an interesting NPC or monster species.

The following guidelines should give you a start.

Step 1: Come up with a strong race concept.
Your initial idea is vital. Consider your race’s appearance, abilities and culture. What’s special about it? Where does it come from? What makes this different from other races? Why do members of this race make good adventurers?

“Animal people” are almost always a mistake. They’re generic, overused and at worst ridiculous. D&D has some classic animal people (including gnolls, minotaurs and hengeyokai), but you should aim to be more original.

If you’re really stumped for ideas, try a variation of an existing race, such as a new type of elf. Take the stats for your race and change some abilities to suit your purpose, taking care that the power level is roughly the same.

Step 2: Assign ability score bonuses
The ability score bonuses of a race usually determines its focus. Most are geared toward a certain class or range of classes. Consider what focus you want your race to have and assign ability scores as appropriate.

For a player character race in D&D 4th edition, a +2 bonus to two ability scores is the norm. Don’t be tempted to give out greater bonuses, as these break with convention and are probably too powerful. Unlike D&D third edition, 4E has no “level adjustment” system to balance overpowered races.

A flexible or universal race can use the human’s bonus +2 to any one ability score. This is slightly weaker than other races, so be sure to compensate them in other ways.

Step 3: Decide special racial abilities.
Racial abilities flesh out a race and create a reason for players to use it. You have a lot of freedom here to create innovative mechanics.

Take a look at the existing player character races to gauge the sort of power a race’s special abilities should have. The halfling and tiefling have three reasonably strong powers, while the elf has five weaker powers. You should have at least one particularly powerful ability, like the elf’s Elven Accuracy or the tiefling’s fire resistance.

Your race should also have a +2 bonus to two different skills. This helps to characterize the race as filling a certain role.

Step 4: Fill in the extras.
Finish off by filling in the race’s average weight, height, language, and minor statistics: size, speed, and vision type. Almost all races will be size Medium (unless it’s Small), have speed 6 and either normal or low-light vision.

Remember that unlike D&D third edition, it’s unusual for player character races to possess darkvision.

Step 5: Playtest!
Even if you’re sure your race is well-balanced, it’s vital that it gets some live testing before you publish it in the next RPG best-seller. Playtesting can uncover flaws and loopholes that you hadn’t noticed, or reveal that an ability doesn’t work as you had anticipated.

A final piece of DM’s advice is to take care when allowing players to create races for their own use. Players often make their own material too powerful, even without realizing it. Be sure to consider player material carefully.

Dwarves: Great Race, or Greatest Race?

posted Monday, May 18th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and mine is that dwarves have always been the best race in Dungeons & Dragons.

Dwarves were so good in earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, they had to limit them at higher levels in case they overshadowed the human characters. A dwarf of certain classes was limited to level nine or fourteen, with an optional house rule of charging double or triple XP for dwarves to level up. Dwarves were just the superior race.

Dungeons & Dragons third edition did away with all that, but dwarves still enjoyed a long list of racial benefits. They take a +2 bonus to Constitution, the ability score that every class benefits from unless they’re planning to become an undead, and pay only a penalty to Charisma, the dump stat for almost every class. They’re the only race besides half-orc to have Darkvision, meaning they can see in pitch blackness, and gain a +2 bonus to saves against magic and poison, the adventurer’s deadliest dangers.

Look at the class options, too. A high Constitution and resistance to being tripped makes the dwarf a natural barbarian or fighter. He makes a tough, if slow monk, and aside from a small Charisma penalty to turn undead he makes a fantastic cleric. The melee-type ranger finds himself at no penalty as dwarf, gaining extra bonuses should he choose goblin, orc or giants as his favoured enemy. Dwarven rogues have the advantage of sneak attacking in lightless conditions, while a dwarf paladin suffers only a -1 penalty to saves.

Even unorthodox dwarf spellcasters work remarkably well. The dwarf druid makes speed gains with wild shape and takes no penalty to spellcasting. A dwarf wizard has an uncharacteristic toughness that lets him get closer to the thick of battle, again with no racial weaknesses. The dwarf bard takes no penalty to his Bardic Song as he fights, and only a few of his spells suffer from that -1 Charisma penalty. Even the rare dwarf sorcerer, the race’s weakest class option, suffers only a -1 penalty to spell DCs and one fewer bonus spell for his battle-hardiness.

Lets skip ahead and look at the dwarf’s incarnation in Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition. Here he moves only one square or five feet slower than a human, with the advantage of retaining that speed when heavily armoured or encumbered. He gains now a whopping +5 bonus versus poison, which stacks with his +1 bonus to Fortitude from a Constitution bonus. He retains his third edition trip-proofing, and gains +2 to Wisdom and can use his once-per-combat “second wind” ability as a minor action instead of wasting a turn ducking out to heal as I fondly remember doing with my third edition dwarf.

What do the other races get to match this feature set? Dragonborn get +1 to hit when getting their ass kicked, eladrin can teleport a tiny distance once per fight, elves grant allies +1 to Perception checks, and half-elves grant allies +1 to Diplomacy (real useful in a fight). Tieflings get +1 to hit and a little bonus damage once per fight, and humans have a boring bonus feat in a game edition that downplays the importance of feats. Halflings can force an opponent to reroll his attack, but dwarves? Dwarves can heal a quarter of their own hit points without even spending an action.

You can keep your skill points and your bonus feats. My guy’s got Dwarven Resilience.

10 Ideas For Your Next Character

posted Saturday, May 16th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Player Advice

Thinking up new characters can be tricky. Here are ten ideas to inspire you. If you’re happy with your current guy, bookmark this page and come back to it when you next roll up a character.

  1. The last barbarian of a tribe, who dedicates his life to hunting down the monsters that wiped out his people.
  2. A dwarf of royal lineage, adventuring in self-imposed exile until he proves himself worthy to lead his people.
  3. A common thief, with a secret identity as an elite assassin.
  4. A loudmouthed cleric who secretly only does it for the money. For reasons unknown to him, his deity grants spells anyway.
  5. A disgraced warrior, falsely accused of treachery, who seeks to restore his name.
  6. A mage obsessed with finding and studying new and rare monsters.
  7. A paladin of the Lawful Neutral deity of commerce, hunting for treasure to stimulate the economy.
  8. A silver-tongued villain who plots to lead a rebellion and overthrow the king.
  9. An exile from a distant world who seeks a way home.
  10. A decorated military leader who hides a secret that he’s actually a terrible coward.

Handy, Edition-Neutral Treasure System

posted Wednesday, May 13th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceFourth EditionThird Edition

Here’s a handy system I use for dispensing treasure to my players.

First, create a list of treasure finds equal to one per encounter the players will face at the current character level. In D&D third edition you’ll generate fourteen treasure finds, while in fourth edition you’ll want to generate ten.

If you’re playing D&D v3.5 you can do this two ways. To randomly generate treasures, roll fourteen times on Table 3-5, “Treasure” (DMG pages 52-53), remembering to roll once each for coins, goods and items. Or, to assign treasures yourself, generate fourteen treasure finds whose value equals the entire party’s average treasure over fourteen encounters. You can use Table 3-3, “Treasure Values Per Encounter”, taking the row on the table for the current party’s level, and multiplying by fourteen. Adjust proportionally if your party level is more or less than four.

D&D 4E gives pre-assigned “treasure parcels” you can use (DMG pages 126-129). Pick the magic items now rather than during the game, to save time. Take care to ensure a good variety of magic items; every character, in the long run, should find items they can use. You can add some flavour by describing treasures; perhaps a 100gp gem is a small amethyst, or a magic shield bears the crest of an ancient kingdom. You can use the Gems and Art Objects for inspiration.

You could give one treasure per encounter, but it’s more interesting if some encounters give extra treasure (dragons), while others give none (giant bugs), and sometimes a treasure is found outside of an encounter (hidden loot). Each time you award no treasure, draw a small checkbox on your list. These are your “double treasure” tokens. Each time you award an extra treasure or a hidden treasure, tick the checkbox to cash it in. If your players regularly fight fewer, tougher encounters per level, add extra “double treasure” checkboxes to begin with.

Some encounters include opponents who can use treasure, especially swords and armour. Plan these in advance and work them into the opponent’s stats. It raises the stakes when your enemy has a powerful item you’ll be able to loot, and it makes a magic item all the more epic when you remember how you fought the unfortunate previous owner.

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