Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hierophant Druids: The Elemental Power Source is among us!

This week in Dragon magazine has seen the release of Class Acts: Hierophant Druids, yet another piece by Rob J. Scwhalb which, while solid enough (as all things Schwalb) would not be particularly remarkable on its own merits: it features some really nice and original flavor, but I found the mechanics that support it to be rather mediocre. That is, except for the little fact that they introduce a new power source to the game...

Unless I'm missing some obscure paragon path out there, the three powers featured in this article are the only ones in the game with the Elemental keyword - and I don't even know if there's any specific name for spells of the elemental power source (like divine powers are called prayers, and martial ones are exploits). And two of them aren't even fully elemental, but a combination of elemental and primal. So it's not like we can figure out the contents of an upcoming Elemental Power book from that (or rather, Heroes of the Elemental Chaos, if we follow the most recent naming pattern).

But there are some things we can tell about elemental, even from this tiny sample. The mere fact that they haven't dismissed the idea altogether, and that they are willing to release material related to it is encouraging - we didn't get to see anything labeled as 'ki' before that power source got axed, after all. We won't see any elemental-themed class in print this year, though - that much we can tell from the current release schedule (something about which I should write one of these days, by the way), which has Heroes of Shadow and Heroes of the Feywild as the only player-oriented releases for 2011. But, as I speculated above, it does look like a sign that we should expect a similar product inspired by the Elemental Chaos somewhere around 2012.

What can elemental offer, as a power source? I am a bit torn about it... on the one hand, I find the whole element concept pretty cool, and there is a lot that can be done with the four classic elements. Also, I just love how it all fits in the 4E cosmology, as the primordials are engaging villains, and the Elemental Chaos is a much more interesting place to visit than the plain old monochromatic, single-element planes found in the old Great Wheel. But is that enough to support cool new character concepts?

This is the greatest strike against an elemental power source, for me. I really can't think of a fantasy archetype that would make for a great elemental class. Sure, we have had our share of placeholder role/power source combinations in 4E, like Invokers and Wardens, which felt a bit too forced at first. But at least we had clerics and druids as strong pillars to base their respective power sources. Is there any concept out there that could fill that gap for elemental? Like the wizard is to arcane, or the fighter to martial?

It's not that the four elements lack design space - in fact, the opposite is true. But they have already seen so much use in other power sources, that maybe there's not a clear niche left. Arcane has always been strongly related to the idea of huge explosions of fire, ice, lightning and whatever it is that earth does these days. I am of the opinion that you can't do anything with fire that's cooler than the good old fireball, anyways. And primal magic also makes good use of the elements, usually spicing them up with some animal themes. Hell, even divine characters get to have some elemental fun every other day, particularly of the lightnign and thunderstorm variety. And any of them can choose to focus on a single element, or just use any number of them, so our fledging elemental class can't even hold to that.

The solution we have seen in the powers from the Hierophant Druid article (all three of them) is to introduce powers that use all four elements at once. Or, rather, a choice of one of the four each time you cast them. The implementation in this article isn't particularly brilliant, and I'm afraid the basic idea is flawed: you are just spreading the power too thin. It's difficult enough to come up with a power effect that is original, fun, and balanced - designing something with four variations that fill these criteria, and are somehow related but different enough from each other is a painful task. And it's not even particularly rewarding! I guess the added flexibility is welcome, and at least you can tell it's a different power source because nobody tried the four-elements-in-one shtick before, but what is the point? I honestly think any of these powers would be better off if they had focused on one, or maybe two of the elements.

So, what else could they do? I think that having powers that combine two or more elements in one single effect (rather than presenting a bunch of bland options) could have some potential. It's the same idea that led to the creation of hybrid elemental monsters in Monster Manual I: it still feels elemental, but opens up a ton of possibilities. Sure, single-element monsters (or, in this case, powers) feel more iconic, but they have also been done to death by now. I still don't see how this could be used as the basis for three or four classes, but it's better than nothing...
Read More......

Monday, February 14, 2011

Bards of Wolfstone

With Dragon magazine content growing more and more scarce in the last months, I don’t get much in the way of great articles to review. Thankfully, this month has brought us a small gem, in the form of a class article for melee bards called Bards of Wolfstone. Signed (like so much DDI material) by Robert Schwalb, the article is short (four new powers, three feats, and a couple pages of backstory), but makes up for it with a combination of polished mechanics and imaginative ideas.

Rules-wise, this article is remarkable in its lack of filler items. Granted, it would seem like this is an easy accomplishment when you are only delivering a handful of feats and powers, but I had grown accustomed to rates of 50% or higher subpar or unplayable items, regardless of article size. Here, there is only one skill-centric feat I’d be inclined to dismiss, and even that one provides enough utility so as to be useful in games where Intimidate checks are relevant.

We get four new encounter attacks for melee, weapon-using bards, distributed across all tiers. They all share the peculiarity of counting as both primal and arcane attacks (since an affinity for primal magic is the defining characteristic of the Wolfstone Bards referenced in the title), but are otherwise conventional bard powers. The mere fact that they are playable melee weapon attacks is good enough news for many bard players, as the range of options for melee builds of the class was pretty slim. Mechanically, these powers are based on the creation of zones that last for a turn, boosting you and your allies or punishing enemies that end their turns there. The fact that these zones work regardless of the attacks hit or not makes the powers particularly attractive.

Rounding up the article are three new feats available to bards of any build. My favourite is Battle Cadence, which boosts the sliding effect of your Majestic Word while providing a small damage bonus. Wild Virtue is also rather nice, as it grants free movement when your bardic virtue is triggered. Finally, Words of Wrath is the least impressive of the three, as it affects intimidate checks - but, that said, it has a strong effect if you do use that skill.

As for the article flavor, it has a clearly nordic inspiration, with bards leading barbaric tribes against frost giants and similar creatures on frozen regions. Interestingly, it follows up on a previous Dragon article (the also excellent Humans of the Wild, from Dragon 386) which introduced the community of Wolfstone. This is a rare case of continuity between Dragon issues, and I’d like to see more like it. There is even some mechanical continuity at work here, as the article cites yet another previous source (Class Acts: Bard. in Dragon 376) as including an ideal paragon path for this particular breed of bards. Of course, the fact that Mr. Schwalb is the author behind all these articles doesn’t hurt, and less prolific writers would have a harder time trying to pull this off.
Read More......