Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Magic Item Reset (XIX): Character Wealth and Rarity

Magic Item Reset: Index

In testing the new set of magic items, one problem I have come across is that of equipping new characters of a level above the first. Not owning the Rules Compendium, I consulted the guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.143), finding them rather inadequate for my purposes. The DMG suggests that characters starting at higher level should get three items (of character level, level +1, and level -1) and gold equal to the value of an item of level -1. This wasn’t a bad approximation under the default treasure rules, but with the introduction of item rarity, it leads to inaccurate results.

With item rarity, as a character gains levels he not only acquires more and higher level items, but also more rare ones. Since uncommon and rare items cannot be bought with gold, a character starting with less such items than expected for his level will never recover from this disadvantage, unless the DM somehow compensates for it. The table in this article is intended to give DMs a more accurate guideline for handing out starting gear in campaigns using rarity, as well as for knowing when a party has too little (or too much) treasure for its level.

This table shows how many magic items a newly created character of a given level should have, along with their rarity: common (C), uncommon (U), or rare (R). Assign item levels in the following way: the highest level item can have up to the character’s level +1. The next item can have a level equal to the character’s. For each subsequent item, the maximum level is one less than the previous one. For example, a 15th level character could have items of levels 16,15,14,13,12,11,10,9. A player can assign item rarities to each item level as he prefers. For a given level slot, a player can choose to have a lower level item instead, though no compensation is given. Any item slot can be traded by the sell value of the item in gold pieces (usually 20% for common items), though selling uncommon or rare items is extremely discouraged, since there is no way to regain these slots.

Variant Rule: Catching Up

An interesting alternate rule I have been experimenting with consists in having high level characters start out with little or no gear (barring plain magic weapons/armor/amulets of the appropriate enhancement bonus), but hand out treasure at an accelerated rate until they catch up with the expected wealth. I like doing this because higher level PCs, particularly those at paragon tier or above, can be quite complex, requiring players several sessions in order to grow accustomed to their abilities. Since magic gear is yet another layer of complexity, I find that delaying the access to magic items for a while provides players with a smoother learning curve, rather than an overwhelming set of options right from the start.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Broken Bits: Life Singer

Broken Paragon Paths, Part Ten
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The bard paragon path Life Singer is based on a cool and original concept: a pacifist character that tries to solve conflicts without resorting to violence. It is an unfortunate event that, because of an overpowered feature, the path ends up as a very tempting option for bloodthirsty killers...

The controversial path feature is called Serene Will, and it allows rerolling attacks against will. There is a small bonus thrown in if the attacks in question don’t deal damage, but otherwise nothing prevents you from going to town with Will attacks, violent or not. I have already discussed how absurd a reroll-granting feature is, so I’ll just say that it is really absurd, and in need of fixing.

A fix

It is not impossible to balance the ability to reroll most of your attacks, but it does require adding severe restrictions or some kind of drawback to compensate. Limiting the effect to attacks against will is hardly enough. A natural and flavorful solution would be to have it work only on non-damaging attacks but, alas, these are pretty scarce for the bard class, so we would be rendering the path unplayable, outside of weird multiclass builds. Still, the idea had potential, so I came up with this:

Serene Will (16th level): Before you use an attack power, you can choose to have it deal no damage. If you do, you can reroll missed attack rolls targeting Will made as part of that attack, and must use the second results.

There might be an uninteded interaction that breaks this rule in half, but I think this could work just fine. The rerolling is now tied to behaving like a proper pacifist, which is manageable but hugely restricting. On the other hand, it also grants the ability of using any power for non-damaging purposes, opening up a whole lot of combinations. Note that any area attack will lose its damage against all targets this way, so there should be no obvious way to exploit this to prevent hurting allies in the middle of a fireball.

A fix for a different issue

Though not a critical problem, the level 20 daily, soothing song, is worded so that the enemies you knock unconscious can’t be coup de grace’d by your allies - but nothing prevents YOU from slaying them, which is wrong on so many levels. I’d change the Hit line for the following:

Hit: The target falls unconscious (save ends). Each ally in the burst can spend a healing surge. If you or ally attacks an affected target, the target immediately awakens. The attacking character does not have combat advantage against the target for that attack and cannot make a coup de grace attack against it.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Monsters of the Trollhaunt VII: Encounter W5, W6

Monsters of the Trollhaunt: Index – Previous - Next

These articles update monsters in adventure P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens – reading them may spoil encounters in the module!

There’s one of these in every dungeon…

Adult Black Dragon (Level 11 Solo Lurker)

The template for fun, challenging dragons has been laid out in the Monster Vault, so the following stat block won’t be much of a surprise to anyone. Still, not all levels of dragons appear in that book, so I’ve had to scale the Young version all the way to level 11. For the most part, I left the original design untouched, except for one significant exception.

If you are interested in further discussion on dragon redesign, I recommend my previous articles on black dragons (now obsoleted by more recent books) and white dragons.

1. Issues identified

  • Acidic Blood is a beating. Seriously, I’m all for tough solos, but acidic blood can wreck any party moderately reliant on melee attacks, unless they are loaded with acid resistance potions. Shroud of Gloom aggravates this to ridiculous proportions.

2. Changes introduced

  • Level up: I used the Young Black Dragon from Monster Vault as baseline, and increased its stats.
  • Acidic Blood nerfed: I simply changed the damage to ongoing damage. This prevents multiple triggers from stacking, but is still painful enough for PCs to try and find a workaround, particularly if Shroud of Gloom is active (which it will).

3. Errata

  • Breath Weapon is enemies only. I missed this from my stat block (didn’t realize it had changed!), but it was not an intended change on my part. Note that I haven’t simply fixed the stat block due to the way the Monster Builder works (it doesn’t) – once I have saved as an image, I’m pretty much done with the monster, unless I want to start again from scratch. Incidentally, this is why I have switched to Word for stat blocks of later monsters.


Option for Encounter W5: one Water Elemental (Level 11 Controller)

I felt like the dragon encounter could use some spicing up, so I decided to add a Water Elemental lying in the pool. In this case, I merely took the monster from Monster Manual 3 and used it as written – I love when I can do that!

Warren Troll (Level 11 Brute)

See Encounter W1.

Boulder Troll (Level 9 Artillery)

One of the trolls is supposed to stand back throwing stones, so I switched it for a more appropriate artillery version. The Boulder Troll is described in Encounter 1

Nothic Gazer (Level 11 Artillery)

1. Issues identified

  • Lack of variety. Rotting gaze is not a bad attack, but it’s the only one. I usually like some encounter or rechargeable attack, to make a monster more interesting.

2. Changes introduced.

  • New power: Rot Burst. This is a strong area attack that requires rotting gaze to be active on a target. Typically, it will take a nothic gazer several turns before rot burst can be active, since an enemy can save against the rot before the nothic’s next turn. However, when you have multiple nothics in an encounter, they can focus fire on a target so that the second nothic will be able to use rot burst if the first one hit. Then again, a significant portion of the damage from rot burst is non-stacking ongoing damage, so a third nothic might prefer to use rotting gaze against a different target. At any rate, the mechanics encourage players to keep away from rotting allies, which is a flavorful and fun effect.

11-Nothic Gazer

All images are (C) 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. These statistics blocks were generated using the D&D Adventure Tools, despite the tons of bugs.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Magic Item Reset (XVIII): Item Reference Tables

Magic Item Reset: Index

This has taken a while but, finally, I have finished the Item Reference Tables, which compile all items in this collection, organized by rarity and level. The primary purpose of these tables is as a resource to quickly check which items are available at any given level/rarity slot. That said, I have added a random roll entry for those players and DMs interested in the optional random item generation rules introduced here – for all purposes, these tables count as the table T5 mentioned in that article.

Common Items

Uncommon Items

Rare Items

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Skill Math: A look behind the new Skill DC tables

Skills. It’s not an issue I cover much on this blog, mostly because I like to focus on combat-related rules topics, and because I tend to consider the skill system a poorly implemented mess: not broken beyond hope, but in need of a good overhaul. That said, It’s fair to point out that the skill framework did receive a significant improvement last year with the release of the new skill DC tables with revised math that actually matches skill bonus progression. Unfortunately, this update somehow didn’t make it to the errata compilations, and players who didn’t buy the Essentials books haven’t had the chance to use it.

Rather than reproducing the whole tables (which have entries for each level, and three degrees of difficulty), I have worked out some relatively simple formulas that give a good approximation of the DCs per level. Though not trivial, they are relatively easy to memorize so as not to need to consult any reference book while you play - I know I’m tired of looking for my copies of Heroes of the Fallen Lands or Forgotten Kingdoms in the middle of a game.

They are the following:

Easy DC:                7 + 0.55*Level
Moderate DC:   11 + 0.7*Level
Hard DC:              18 + 0.8*Level

Unlike most calculations in 4E, you should round these values to the nearest integer - so, as an example, the level 1 DCs will be 8, 12, and 19, respectively. These DCs have been chosen so that an incompetent PC using an untrained skill based on a tertiary ability will succeed on Easy checks roughly 60% of the time, whereas an expert PC with training on a skill and a primary ability score on it should pass 60% of Hard DC checks. Moderate DC is adjusted for PCs with either skill training or primary abilities on a skill, and they should succeed 60% of the time. The drawback of this approach is that the difference between Easy, Moderate and Hard is not constant across levels, and gets to be quite high at level 30 - DCs of 25, 33, and 42, respectively - meaning that, eventually, a character capable of succeeding on a Hard DC will never fail an easy DC, and vice versa.

It’s still possible to break these DC values by stacking skill bonuses, which can get pretty ridiculous when combining feats, backgrounds, and magic items. However, as long as you don’t put much effort into breaking it, the system will work fine. This is not the solution I would have chosen for skill progression (I may talk about that at some point in the future), but it is the only one that makes skills playable without having to adjust dozens of game elements.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Broken Bits: War Chanter

Broken Paragon Paths, Part Nine
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Most Paragon Paths in the game follow a very predictable pattern, with three class features and a bunch of powers. Of these features, one (gained at level 11) is always related to action point spending, with effects ranging from worthless to moderately interesting - but it is typically the other two that carry the weight, and make players choose a path over the rest. Enter War Chanter.

War Chanter, a Bard paragon path, has what is possibly the strongest action point related feature of the game in Inspire by Example. And, I’m sorry to say, it is too much. Inspire by Example provides a huge (typically between +4 and +8, depending on level), Con-based bonus to all attack and damage rolls of the bard’s allies for a full round after the bard spends an action point. With a moderate investment in constitution (a must-have for valorous bards, anyway), this usually means that the party will be automatically hitting with its attacks that round, and dealing much more damage than usual. Consider that these allies can spend their own action points during that turn, and that the bard (who isn’t affected by the bonus) has several ways to grant attacks to them, and madness ensues.

I opened a thread to discuss this paragon path on the official errata forums a while ago. You can find it here.

A fix

I toyed around with the idea of halving the bonuses provided by Inspire by Example, but this merely delayed the problem, rather than fixing it - bonuses of +4 were still possible at epic levels, and that was still problematic. Instead, I considered that the paragon path was already rewarding high constitution scores with Inspire by Word (an amazing temporary HP granting feature which more than justifies taking the path, by itself), so I could eschew reliance on Con to use flat modifiers with the values I considered fair:

Inspire by Example (11th level): When you spend an action point to take an extra action, each ally within 5 squares of you gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls and damage rolls until the end of your next turn.

A small bonus, but when you apply it to most attacks from your party over a whole round, it adds up to quite a bit.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My Minion rules

One of my favourite things about combat in D&D 4E is the existence of minion monsters. These little guys add a new dimension to encounter composition: we are no longer constrained to skirmishes between roughly equivalent groups, or straightforward boss fights. Rather, we can have the PCs face dozens of foes at a time, in battles of epic (though not necessarily Epic) scale. However, as much as I like the basic concept of minions, I can’t help but notice that their implementation doesn’t get everything right.

The point of minions is to be fragile. That is the tradeoff they present: lots of monsters which don’t hit quite as hard, and die like flies. In principle, having PCs slaughtering them with ease should be a feature, not a bug. However, the way this is handled in 4E can only be classified as, well... overkill. Area attacks are bad enough, but at least they take some commitment, and are not 100% reliable.What is really troubling is the interaction of minions with sources of automatic damage (mostly daily attacks like Rain of Steel or Wall of Fire, but also present in class features like Flurry of Blows), which most parties have in enough numbers to guarantee that, in any encounter featuring lots of minions, it is extremely rare to have any of them survive past turn 2.

The bottom line is that minions are not threatening, as monsters. It’s not just a matter of XP cost: more often than not, adding more of them to a fight only causes them to die in droves after managing to make just one attack (if any), unless you are fighting in huge open spaces, and the minions in question have ranged attacks. Recent monster design technology tries to mitigate this with tricks like death triggers, which are nice enough, but ultimately, the only reliable way to have minions impacting a fight past turn three is to have them enter the fight past turn three. In fact, I have found relative success with staged groups of minions in my encounters. Also, you can just add one or two minions to an otherwise normal fight in the hopes that they escape PC attention long enough to survive the dreaded first rounds - I have found that this often works. Nevertheless, the problem remains that you can’t just have a group of minions make up a significant part of an encounter, and expect it to work. This needs to change.

After a lot of trial and error, I came up with the following house rule, which has addressed most problems with minions in my games:

Whenever a minion takes damage that is not the result of a hitting attack, if it is not prone, it can make a saving throw. If the saving throw succeeds, the minion is knocked prone and the damage is negated.

What does this do? The rule is intended to tone down the most egregious minion-wiping methods, without rendering them completely useless, while leaving fair minion-killing powers intact. That is to say, it gives a minion a chance to survive a Rain of Steel, Flurry of Blows, or pre-errata Flaming Sphere, to name some of the most common examples, but doesn’t stop tamer stuff like Cleave. Autodamage remains a very useful tool against minions, since it still provides a 45% chance of killing, and 55% of proning - and multiple instances should kill just fine, as prone minions can’t benefit from the save. Missed attacks are unaffected, since they still deal no damage to minions.

Applying this rule in my Trollhaunt campaign took some time to get used to (particularly for the monk player), but I can say that it had quite a positive effect in many minion-heavy encounters. Attacks that would have single-handedly destroyed the enemy hordes now left a few survivors to counterattack. A few heroic minions were even able to survive until the later stages of an encounter, more of an annoyance than a threat, but one that contributed to make the fight more exciting - we even joked about promoting a particularly persistent troglodyte minion soldier to standard status, after its prolonged combat experience.

As far as I can tell, this rule only negatively affects attacks that were on the abusive side against minions, with one remarkable exception: the Wizard’s Magic Missile. This power has already suffered enough from errata, and is the perfect attack to allow guaranteed minion slaying, so I would add the following line to it:

“Special: Any minion targeted by this attack is automatically reduced to 0 hit points”.

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Monday, August 1, 2011

Monsters of the Trollhaunt VI: Encounters W2, W3

Monsters of the Trollhaunt: Index – Previous - Next

These articles update monsters in adventure P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens – reading them may spoil encounters in the module!

Something is rotten in the Trollhaunt Warrens – and it’s the monsters in today’s article!

Marrowmaw Mauler (Level 8 Soldier)

1. Issues identified

  • Claw attack is redundant, serves no purpose
  • Relies too much on Bite for damage.
  • Lack of mark punishment

2. Changes introduced

  • Attacks: reduced accuracy, increased ranged damage. Damage shifted from Bite to Greatclub. Note that this monster’s melee damage was already competitive with MM3 guidelines thanks to minor action Bite.
  • Defenses: –1 Fortitude
  • New power: Enduring Stench
  • Removed power: Claw

8-Marrowmaw Mauler

Kasszt (Level 9 Elite Controller - Leader)

1. Issues identified:

  • Claw attack is redundant, serves no purpose
  • Cavern Curse is extremely weak, no point in casting it.
  • Chant of Renewal has not enough impact for an Elite standard action power.

2. Changes introduced.

  • Attacks: Increased damage and accuracy for Quarterstaff, increased damage for Poison Ray, Cavern Curse. Quarterstaff now pushes. Cavern Curse is now at-will.
  • Powers: Double Ray now gives a choice of Poison Rays or Cavern Curse. Chant of renewal now costs a minor action.
  • Defenses: –2 AC, –1 For.
  • Removed power: Claw


Nothic Stalker (Level 11 Skirmisher)

1. Issues identified

  • Dazing Gaze too annoying as an at-will. Also, triggering Dazing Gaze off a Retaliate is too frustrating
  • No Skirmisher mobility

2. Changes introduced.

  • Attacks: Increased damage and accuracy for Claw, increased damage for Dazing Gaze. Dazing Gaze is now recharge 3+. Claw now grants extra shift.

11-Nothic Stalker


Troglodyte Mauler (Level 6 Soldier)

Using level 6 monsters against PCs of level 11 or 12 is downright silly. These should have been minions instead. I used 2 types of minions for this: Troglodyte Grunts, and Troglodyte Warriors.

Troglodyte Grunt (Level 12 Minion Skirmisher)

There is a skirmisher troglodyte minion in Monster Vault, which could be used with minimum update effort, once I had added some levels to it.

1. Issues identified

  • Lack of a ranged attack. I wanted at least some of my minions to have a Javelin attack, since the encounter was designed with Maulers, which have one.

2. Changes introduced.

  • Level Up:  +6 to attack and defenses, +3 to damage. +5 Initiative.
  • Attacks: I added a slide effect to the Club attack, to make it a bit more interesting.
  • Defenses: –3 For, +1 Ref, +1 Wil
  • New Power: Javelin ranged attack.

12-Troglodyte Grunt

Troglodyte Warrior (Level 12 Minion Soldier)

1. Issues identified

  • Old school minion. The warrior lacked a proper role, decent damage, and compelling abilities. Basically, this called for a completely new design.

2. Changes introduced.

  • Soldier Role: Since the Maulers I were replacing with minions were soldiers to begin with, I wanted these Warriors to be Soldiers, too.
  • Attacks: +2 attack and damage for Club.
  • Defenses: +3 AC, +1 Ref, +2 Wil
  • New Trait: Defender Aura. I could have used a mark as usual, but I wanted to experiment with different mechanics.
  • New Power: Ferocious Bite. I liked the Mauler’s Bite attack, but minor action attacks don’t make a lot of sense for minions. This is a vicious ability for this kind of monster
  • New Power: Ferocious Reflexes. I needed a mark-enforcing power, and the threat of Bite should be an effective deterrent.

3. Gameplay Notes

To my knowledge, there is no precedent for monsters with defender’s aura. I have been playing for months in a party with a Cavalier, and I must say I loved the mechanic and wanted to see how it played out on the monster side. And it was quite a success! These minions were not particularly sticky (since they did not punish enemy shifts), but the ability to defend a zone works great when present in multiple creatures. My players took a while to get used to it, but it felt fair, fun, and quite different from traditional mark mechanics. I’ll definitely use this for future monsters, both minion and not.

      12-Troglodyte Warrior


      Marrowmaw Impaler (Level 9 Artillery)

      See Encounter W1

      Ssark, Battle Champion (Level 11 Elite Soldier - Leader)

      1. Issues identified:

      • Excessive damage. The Battle Champion Tactics trait combined with two attacks from Double Attack and a third from Bite combines for impressive amounts of damage, that can be concentrated on a single PC. I found this to be too dangerous for a monster of its level.
      • Redundant Claw attack.
      • Inspiring Assault is very unimpressive. I had the luck of scoring a critical hit during my encounter with Ssark. Unfortunately, I can’t say this highly situational trait did much for the monsters – it needs to provide a better reward.
      • Soldier without marks. Too common in older monsters.

      2. Changes introduced.

      • Attacks: Reduced accuracy and increased damage for regular attacks. Bite damage was reduced, because Ssark already gets a damage boost with combat advantage. Added mark to Greatclub and Bite, and leader effects to Greatclub and Javelin. Changed Double Attack to prevent using both attacks on a single target. Changed Javelin to target one or two enemies.
      • Defenses: –2 AC, –1 For
      • Traits: Battle Champion Tactics damage reduced to 1d10
      • New Power: Champion’s Revenge – the necessary mark punishment mechanic.
      • Removed Power: Claw


      All images are (C) 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. I tried to generate the statistics blocks using the D&D Adventure Tools, but I’m fed with the endless bugs. I ended up writing them on Word instead.

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