Thursday, December 31, 2009

Using World of Warcraft Miniatures to play D&D

Although this blog tends to focus on the more mechanical aspects of D&D, for today's post I'd like to cover a more mundane subject - the choice of miniatures. I am an avid fan of minis, and I can't think of running a 4E encounter without them, but getting a decent selection for your games isn't an easy task. Ages ago, I used to enjoy painting miniatures, but my Warhammer days are long gone. In theory, the official line of prepainted, semi-random D&D miniatures would be the perfect product for me... if they were any good, that is.

Let us face it: minis are not Wizards of the Coast's forte. I have tried really hard to like them, but a combination of mediocre quality, high prices and low proportion of exciting figures has turned me down once and again. To be fair, they have taken steps in the right direction with the PHB Heroes line (non-random minis for PCs) and the new monster collections (with boosters that show one big, cool monster, and have additional, hidden random monsters). However, despite the improvement, the fact remains that, for any given pack, there is a majority of miniatures I don't care about, due to ugliness, lack of usefulness, or both.

I had almost given up hope when the answer to my problems came from the most unexpected of places: the World of Warcraft.

The World of Warcraft Miniatures game is, unlike its D&D Miniatures counterpart, a fast-paced game that condenses the essence of the franchise and, most importantly, is really fun to play. But the relevant thing for today's topic are the actual game miniatures (If you are interested in a full-fledged game review, the good news is, I already wrote one. The bad news? It's for Spanish speakers only). These miniatures share a property that was conspicuously missing from the D&D line - they look good.

As miniatures that are also plastic, prepainted and random, with a price tag slightly higher but close to their D&D equivalent, and being based on a fantasy setting generic enough to fit in the D&D aesthetics (once you get used to the king-sized weapons and shoulder pads), the fact that they are so much more pleasing to the eye can't be overstated. Simply put, where a D&D booster pack would yield maybe one or two worthwhile figures plus a bunch of filler material, each of the three minis in a WoW box tends to be premium material.

What are the differences, you might ask? In the case of WoW, the scale is slightly larger, allowing for some more detail while still fitting in a D&D battlemap. But what really sets them apart is the outstanding paint job, with a richer color palette (I can usually identify 8 different colors per mini) and frequent use of transparencies.

There is one important catch, large and round - the excessive size of the miniature base. Designed to fit into an even larger detachable, Heroclix-like base, it's area is appropiate for Large D&D monsters occupying 2x2 squares, but grossly oversized for the majority of Medium-sized characters. I was lucky enough that a Warhammer-savvy player in our campaign took the time and effort to replace most bases in our collection with others of appropiate size (not hard to find in most Warhammer stores), greatly improving our gaming experience. You can still play without doing so, but it can get uncomfortable at times, particularly if most of your minis are WoW ones.

Nevertheless, there is another redeeming factor in these minis: the selection is good enough that you will, more often than not, find a use for each one of them in your D&D campaign. All figures in a given pack belong to one of three factions: Alliance, Horde, and Monsters. The first two are great for PCs and NPCs, and while the last doesn't cover the full range of D&D creatures, does a good enough job. Most 4E races and character concepts should find matches here (with the notable absence of Dragonborn), though you won't find the most epic or bizarre monsters, such as Dragons or Beholders.
I have compiled a gallery of the minis most frequenly used in our campaign, to give you an idea of what they look like. A very important point you should be aware of: these are all Common figures that can be found online for as little as $1 each, so gathering a similar collection is pretty inexpensive. Enjoy!

Gallery 1.
Minis for PCs: Warlock, Paladin, Rogue, Warlord, Fighter, Wizard, Ranger, Cleric.(click to enlarge)

Gallery 2.
Minis for monsters: orc, ogre, skeleton, elemental, tiger (click to enlarge)

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Broken Bits: Hand of Radiance

Straightforward, not overly powerful but with a distinct personality, the at-will power Divine Bolts captures, to me, the essence of the Invoker class. A multi-target attack that takes away the risk of friendly fire inherent to most bursts and blasts, it communicates perfectly the fact that an Invoker, more than any other controller, is a team player. Unfortunately, Divine Bolt's career was prematurely terminated with the release of the Divine Power sourcebook, featuring an unneeded replacement in Hand of Radiance, which has essentially the same effect, but is capable of targeting an additional enemy.

Hand of Radiance is too good. Conventional wisdom tells us that damage spread over multiple targets is vastly inferior to focused fire, and that Controller characters should eschew damage in favor of action-negating and battlefield altering effects. Nevertheless, the numbers achieved by The Hand are high enough to override these concerns: three targets should net you a total damage exceeding that of a Twin Strike (the absolute benchmark for at-will damage calculations) by about 50%. Twin Strike is still the better power (or, for that matter, the best), but they are very respectable amounts.

Making it fairer

I'd like Hand of Radiance to remain strong without obsoleting Divine Bolts as it currently does. The comparison with the recently deceased Scorching Burst is inevitable but, as much as I liked it, the Burst had fallen behind the power curve, whereas Bolts are competitive with most other controller at-wills - except for The Hand.

Though toning down the damage is definitely an option, I am more interested in limiting the ability to reach the maximum number of enemies. Currently, and barring very extreme terrain, an Invoker should be able to target 3 or 4 foes from a safe distance without much effort. The change I propose would make this a little trickier:

Hand of Radiance: On the Range line, replace "Ranged 10" with "Ranged 5".

Short range is not an unknown drawback to the Divine power source and, as any Cleric player will confirm, 5 squares away is an awkward distance for a ranged character to be. An Invoker player would now have to choose between the brute force of The Hand, or the relative safety of Bolts - a comparison that probably favors the former, but not as overwhelmingly as before.
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Friday, December 18, 2009

Broken Bits: Come and Get It

(Broken bits is a series of short articles that will focus on unbalanced or otherwise broken game elements, one at a time.)

Overpowered attacks in D&D 4E usually fall in one of three categories: those that dish out huge amounts of damage (usually of the single-target variety), those that negate enemy actions with conditions such as stuns and immobilizations, and those that grant massive bonuses to a party's attacks or defenses. These tend to be easy to identify, since damage, enemy actions, and stat enhancenments can be objectively measured and compared as numeric values. Today I will discuss a power that, though not stellar in any of these variables, is nonetheless extremely effective.

How do you quantify strategic advantage? How much is controlling character positions in a battle really worth? These aren't easy questions, but looking at the Fighter's level 7 encounter power Come and Get It, the answers seem to be "Highly" and "A lot".

In many ways, Come and Get It is a success. There are few powers in the game that make such a perfect fit with the class they belong to. Indeed, for most other classes (and even most defenders) it wouldn't be more than a good way of dealing damage to lots of enemies, with an interesting side-effect. In the hands of a Fighter, the ability to attract most nearby enemies and hit them is the ultimate trump card.

It works like this: for a marked enemy, moving away from a Fighter is an annoyingly difficult and dangerous proposition. Under normal conditions, only one or, at best, a few clumped together enemies are threatened this way. But with Come and Get It, this turns into the whole opposing team. Moreover, since the forced movement is guaranteed, and the covered area is considerable, the Fighter has a wide margin for moving before the attack so that a lot of monsters are moved to, and pinned in, a very disadvantageous position.

It's an extremely exciting and amusing maneuver that every Fighter should try at least once in their career. I recently reached Level 7 with my Human Battlerager, and the power has been every bit as good as I expected. Though it is useful in many situations, you will often want to blow it on the first round of combat in order to take your opponents out of cover, mark everybody before your allies get hurt, and set up a barrage of whatever area attacks the party has at its disposal.

What is not to like? Well, for a start, being so terribly effective turns it into an almost automatic choice for the level 7 slot of any Fighter character. And being so convenient at the start of the battle makes it an all-too-common first turn play. But I think that to fully grasp the strength of this power, one has to DM against it.

Regardless of their actual efectiveness, fighters tend to be annoying opponents. Your creatures can't move, they can't safely shift away, and if you choose to stay and fight them, they take forever to bring down. But Come and Get It upgrades that annoyance to downright frustration. Forget about any clever schemes, because as soon as the guy with the sword starts his turn, all your incompetent lackeys will go rushing exactly where he wants them to be. And they won't get away.

A possible solution.

The power's brutality comes from two main factors: the size of the affected area, and the inescapability of the forced movement. A reduced burst would probably be a safe fix, but I'd rather keep the power as a burst 3, and make the pull conditional on an attack roll instead:

Come and Get It, mk2 - Fighter Attack 7
Encounter - Martial, Weapon
Standard Action - Close burst 3
Target: Each non-adjacent enemy in burst you can see.
Attack: Strength vs. Will
Hit: You pull the target 2 squares to a square adjacent to you.
Effect: Make a secondary attack.
Secondary Target: Each adjacent enemy you can see.
Secondary Attack: Strength vs. AC
Hit: 1[W]+Strength modifier damage.

With this version, there is some tension between reaching the maximum number of potential targets within the pulling burst, and having as many adjacent enemies as possible to ensure you can attack someone. The pulling attack can be extremely accurate, but the chance of missing, small though it may be, will make most players think twice about the way they use this power, which is a good thing in my mind. But don't fool yourself: even with this patch, you are still looking at a devastating attack.
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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Player's Handbook 3 Debut: the Ardent

A warlord with power points. December's preview class from PHB3 is called the Ardent, and consists in a psionic leader based on a great concept: emotion manipulation to boost allies. Also, it is mechanically innovative in that, like all psionic classes except the monk, it features an alternate resource system based on power points, replacing encounter powers. However, despite these interesting premises, Ardents have only managed to instill one emotion on me so far: disappointment.

Despite their other flaws, they do look good in picture.

More than any other class in D&D 4E, Ardents give me the impression that they have nothing new to bring to the game, other than a cross in the intersection of a power source and a role. The unfortunate comparison with the Warlord ("The Ardent is a psionic Warlord") appeared in the first developer commentary, and I couldn't take it off my head as I read the class description, because it's true.

In play, Ardents closely mimic the Warlord style of play, as heavily armored leaders focusing on melee weapon attacks. Their primary ability score is Charisma, but other than that, there's little to set them apart from their martial counterparts: In their case, psionic power manifests in a very mundane way, so most of their powers consist in weapon strikes that grant a boost here or a penalty there - just like a warlord. Oh, there is the occasional teleportation or zone and a couple of attacks even deal psychic damage. But most of the effects could have been done by a Warlord or a melee Cleric. And, what is worse, many of them have.

It's not that the power selection isn't solid, but I failed to find a single at-will or "encounter" (augmented, really) effect that the class could claim as its own. Likewise, the class features are decent yet unexciting: a bonus to defense against opportunity attacks, an encounter attack that grants free movement to your group and a healing word tweaked to grant bonus to either attack or defense, depending on build.

Maybe I am spoiled by the fact that almost every class design since PHB has been nothing short of amazing. To be fair, the class probably plays better than it reads, and it seems to be perfectly capable of fulfilling its role. The addition of psionic power points to a familiar archetype may be just a gimmick, but it does change the way a character is played.

Is that change for the better, though? The psionic resource system uses three augmentable powers for all your at-will and encounter slots. In the best-case scenario, this gives a player up to three at-wills and three encounter-equivalent powers to choose from, which is a net gain of one at-will power above a standard class, and three lesser augments on top of that. On the other hand, the ability to mix and match different styles of attacks is greatly diminished, since each "encounter power" is a stronger-but-similar version of an at-will. Furthermore, the lesser augments for this class are decidedly on the mediocre side, and I can easily see many players ignoring them altogether.

Another problem with the psionic system that I have found for Ardents lies in power progression. Starting at 7th level, whenever you would gain a new encounter power you replace an augmentable at-will with a new one. Psions handled this well, but in the case of Ardents, it is not always clear that each new level offers something you want to upgrade to! Oddly, one of the reasons fo this is the high quality of the 1st level powers.

Of the three level 1 at-wills available to ardents, two have very strong and interesting effects. Energizing Strike and Focusing Strike can be disregarded on first sight due to the fact that they are, essentially, a cleric's Sacred Flame power split into two different weapon attacks. On the other hand, Sacred Flame is one of the best, and more versatile powers in the game, and each one of these Ardent powers has improvements over the corresponding half. Aside from the fact that a [W] attack will typically do much more damage than Sacred Flame's measly 1d6, the temporary hit point power is based on a primary ability (netting 2-3 THP more) and augments into Healing Strike, whereas the saving throw one can also be used on oneself.

You really want to have these powers available throughout the character's career but, unlike Psions, Ardents don't seem to have strictly superior versions of lower level powers. So, when you get to 7th level, the level 3 at-will is actually the most likely to get replaced. And at level 13th, you might not even want to trade any of them...

We will have to see how psionics work in actual play, and how much the class improves when we see the remaining, unpublished half. For now, it leaves a bit to be desired.
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Monday, December 7, 2009

Fun with Dragons

This week's play session brought something totally unexpected: a fun encounter with a solo monster, a dragon from the first Monster Manual. It's one of the last fights in Thunderspire Labyrinth, and I am going to spoil a good deal of it, so you should probably stop reading if you intend to play that module. Which, by the way, I recommend. It has a slow start, and the first half could do with some heavy revisions or be skipped altogether, but the last part is one of the best dungeon crawls I have had the pleasure of exploring, packed with memorable fights. Enough with the reviews, let's talk dragons.


Solo monsters in 4E are flawed. That is not to say that it's impossible to have a climatic, exciting and strategically deep fight with one of them, but there are many things that can go wrong. Too often, the encounter with the Big Bad Boss ends up consisting in a dozen turns where the baddy sits there hitting someone, while the PCs surround him, unload most of their dailies and eventually repeat at-will attacks until he goes down. Alternately, if you play in a group prone to optimization, you can see the beast locked down for several (if not all) turns through stunning powers, being easily defeated without ever feeling like much of a threat. This happens, and it happens frequently. An unfortunate side effect of this tendency is that dragons, the undisputed most iconic monsters in D&D, are almost always Solos and, more often than not, they suck.

The recipe for a successful Solo battle is not a simple one. It involves a careful selection of terrain, with enough cover and interactive elements. There has to be some incentive for moving around, both for the players and the monster - traps are a great way to achieve this. Your worst enemy is monotony, as even the most well-designed monster is prone to repetition, when alone.

More recent books, like Monster Manual 2, introduce some new ideas to make Solos interesting, such as lowering their defenses and HP, but making them deadlier. But Thunderspire Labyrinth is one of the very first adventure modules published for 4E, and its monsters know nothing of such sophistications. So it has a lot of merit that the fight with the Young Green Dragon in the Wall of Demons works as well as it does.

The fight takes place in one of the poster maps included with the adventure, which is always a good signal. You have a long central room with a pit and a couple of altars, and one door on each extreme. This room is surrounded by a circular corridor, and around the corridor there are four rooms that are also interconected between them: a room with pools, a jail, a chapel, and a statue chamber. Overall, it's a huge and complex scenario, with few large open spaces, and lots of corners and obstacles that break line of sight.

Prior to the start of the encounter, the adventurers have collected four special items, and need to solve a puzzle with them in order to summon the dragon. The puzzle itself isn't particularly challenging, but it does contribute to the feeling of a climatic battle and, more importantly, requires the PCs to be spread all over the map. Once it is solved, two things happen simultaneously: the dragon arrives, and a series of traps activates throughout the map. Each chamber contains some kind of hazard that damages PCs and hinders their movement. In the corridor, a Sphere of Annihilation (!) appears that moves around, blocking movement and line of sight, and threatening to annihilate characters staying there for too long. Only the central room looks moderately safe, providing the players stay at a safe distance from the huge pit in its center, just in case. Problem is, each turn, one of the two doors leading out of that chamber is blocked by the Sphere.

Meanwhile, the dragon in question is moving through the scenery at lightning speed, picking any isolated PC and running away before the group can react. It is a Young Green Dragon, with an impressive array of methods for hitting and running, and many safeguards to prevent the players from locking him down. Planning a proper assault against it is far from easy, as it moves twice as fast as the adventurers, and the main corridor keeps getting blocked by the Sphere. It lacks the firepower to quickly destroy the PCs, so it tries to wear them down, using the convoluted scenario as both a shield and a weapon.

In our session, it worked out perfectly. The four players (I was playing a human fighter) tried to avoid the traps and join in the central room, to engage the dragon together. From there on, we had to move as fast as possible, with many turns of double run actions, and as many of moving and charging. Even the rogue had a good share of charges, which she managed remarkably well, given the fact that she neither had a good strength or Melee Training. Flanking the wretched creature was out of the question, as we barely managed to get within range - nevertheless, the rogue still managed to outdamage the rest of us out of sheer persistence and accuracy. My fighter prouds himself on his ability to block enemy movement, but in this case I couldn't achieve achieve this, as the Dragon used its powers to move while ignoring my Opportunity attacks.

The warlord also struggled to keep the pace, and was slowed several times, but eventually he got close enough to connect with Lead the Attack. This power is typicaly Game Over against a Solo, but in this case we found out that it only works while within 5 squares of the leader, which wasn't exactly a trivial task. Finally, the wizard (a gnome) kept moving in confusion from one extreme of the central room to the other, unable to get a clear shot to the beast. When she eventually got close enough, her Icy Rays and Ray of Frost proved invaluable to temporarily slow down the foe, but as soon as she missed an attack, it all started over again. She only connected with a couple of powers, but somehow managed to deal the killing blow. It had been a long battle, and we had triggered lots of traps, dealt several critical hits, and not suffered a great deal of damage. But it had been an awesome experience! The encounter was one of the high points in our campaign so far (we are at level 7), and I'll keep it as a reference for building homemade encounters against dragons, in the future. A complete success.
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