Monday, August 31, 2009

The Invisible Blade

When I first saw the Invisible Blade listed in Complete Warrior I assumed that it was some sort of assassin class focused on sneaking and using blades. Well, we know what happens when one assumes. What I instead found was a bizarre punching dagger wielding character who is supposed to be a gladiator, or at least the master of one on one combat. What I did not find was a character who can turn invisible. Or even turn his blade invisible. It’s really a misleading name.

Invisible Blades are drawn from the ranks of rogues or fighter/rogues, though I actually think that a ninja is the best fit for the class (and they can actually turn invisible!). The requirements are 8 ranks of Bluff, 6 ranks of Sense Motive, Far Shot, Point Blank Shot, and Weapon Focus with a dagger, kukri, or punching dagger. And they also have to defeat a worthy opponent in one on one combat using daggers, or the other weapon options. Aside from the Weapon Focus (Punching Dagger) the requirements are not awful, though Far Shot strikes me as an odd one for this character. Rogue 6 (or human Rogue 5) is probably the most common way to get into it.

The basics for the Invisible Blade are a somewhat subpar offering; d6 Hit Die, Full Base Attack, one good save (Reflex), and 4+ skill points a level. Compared to the fighter they have less HD and 2 more skill point. Compared to the rogue they have 4 less skill points and a better base attack. Honestly, that is one of the weaker arrangements in the game, so at least they must have excellent class abilities to make up for that array. Right? Not so much. At least not until the fifth level of this five level class.

At first level and every other after that the Invisible Blade progresses it’s sneak attack. More sneak attack is always a good thing, even if it is restricted to daggers, kukris, and punching daggers. I assume the character is pretty committed to that arsenal by this point so the restriction isn’t that much of a handicap. They also get one of the most useless abilities around; unfettered defense. At first it seems okay. Add your Int bonus to your AC (to a maximum of the Invisible Blade class level). However, it only works if the character is unarmored. Yeah, no armor at all. This is one of the reasons why I think a ninja is better suited to this class. The Blade was most likely a rogue before coming into the class so there is no reason why they would not be wearing at least leather armor. Let’s do the math and see what needs to happen for unfettered defense to be worth anything. Plain old leather armor has an AC bonus of +2, which means there is no reason to give it up unless something better comes along (especially since it has no armor check penalty). So this character would have to have an Intelligence of at least 16 and be third level as a Blade to take advantage of this. Doesn’t really seem worth it. Any sort of magical armor only makes it worse. I suppose that it would work with Bracers of AC so it at least has that going for it.

Bleeding wound is the focal point of the 2nd level Invisible Blade. By sacrificing 1d6 of sneak attack on a hit the Blade can use their blade to create a wound that bleeds, doing an additional 1 point each round until a heal check or a cure spell. It’s alright if you expect combat to go for a while, but otherwise the sneak attack may be the better option. Coupled with Far Shot and Point Blank it seems as if the Blade should really be used in close ranged combat. It could actually be effective throwing daggers, moving around, and letting the enemy bleed out. If combat goes ten rounds or more then this might be the class for you.

At third level they receive what is essentially Improved Feint, allowing them to feint as a move action rather than a standard. This is a good ability for this type of character, allowing them to sneak attack when not flanking. At least they feel a little bit like a one on one combatant with this one. I do not understand why they call this ability uncanny feint and not just give them the Improved Feint feat, but whatever. When fourth level is reached the Blade can now take ten on a feinting attempt. And at fifth level they finally get a really good class skill, the ability to feint as a free action. I’m not sure that it is worth taking five levels of a below average class to get to, but they can mess up some enemies with that. I also feel that two weapon fighting is probably something that this class should have, especially if they really want to take advantage of all that sneak attack dice.

In the end I think that the Invisible Blade falls pretty flat as a class. There is really nothing that this class can do that a fighter/rogue can’t do, it doesn’t need it’s own prestige class. And seriously, what is up with the name? There is nothing invisible about this joker. If you really wanted to make a build with it I could see some sort of rogue/invisible blade/assassin as a sneak attacking machine, but other than that what is the point of it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bohnanza, the Bean Farming Game

For many of us the exciting and glamorous world of bean farming is an unattainable dream. But now, thanks to the card game Bohnanza, we can all experience what it is like to grow, harvest, and sell crops of beans! Thrilling, I know. Despite the mundane and odd nature of the subject matter, Bohnanza is actually a very fun game. It¹s simple to learn, but like all good games has enough strategy to make it worth playing. It also works great with larger amounts of players. The game is for 2-7 players and should take about forty five minutes to an hour for a game. The goal is to be the wealthiest farmer at the end of the game.

The game could not have simpler components. It is just a deck of bean cards. That¹s it. The cards are a bit too slick and thin for my liking, which makes them sort of hard to shuffle. They have a tendency to slip out of one¹s hands when mixing them up. Not a huge problem. There are many varieties of beans available to the ambitious farmer; red, chili, coffee, wax, really just about any bean you could think of. The art has a lot of personality, but it¹s not all that great. The beans are all portrayed in this anthropomorphic way that shows them embodying the characteristics of the bean. The coffee bean is totally amped up and hyper, while the wax bean is slipping on a shiny floor. The green bean? He¹s on the verge of vomiting, grasping a lamp post for support with a flask at his feet. The beans are all worth different amounts based on their scarcity. For example the relatively common blue bean is worth two gold for a group of six. However, the elusive cocoa bean brings in the tidy sum of three gold for three beans. The value of the beans also scales upward as the size of the harvest increases, which is a good incentive to hang onto a bean field rather than sell them the first chance that you get.

Players are each dealt five bean cards to start the game. The remaining cards form the draw deck. The rules state that the oldest player is responsible for shuffling all the cards, which I think is pretty funny. Each turn consists of several very easy steps. The active player must plant the first card in their hand into a bean field by placing it face up on the table. At the start of the game a player has two bean fields available to them for planting (at any time a third bean field can be purchased for three gold). Additionally the player may plant the next card in their hand, but they do not have to. Beans can also be planted onto the field of a similar bean, creating stacks that are worth more money. This is not a new bean field. The next phase of the turn is essentially an auction. The player draws two cards from the draw deck and places them face up on the table. They may do whatever they like with these cards; keep them, trade them to the other players for other beans, or donate them to another player. Any cards received by any player in this phase do not go into the players hand, but rather are placed to the side and must be planted in the next phase of the turn. Therefore any cards obtained in this manner must go right into a bean field. It’s a great way to screw up someone’s field by donating a card to them that they must plant. In the final phase of the turn the player draws three more cards and places them at the back of their hand. Next player goes.

Beans can be harvested and sold at any time, though a single bean is never worth anything. Only groups of beans gets the player any gold. The back of all the bean cards has a gold symbol which counts as one gold piece, when a field is harvested the appropriate number of cards are flipped over and go into the players bank, the remainders are placed into the discard pile. When the draw pile is exhausted all cards in the discard are reshuffled (by the oldest player!) and the draw starts over. Each time the pile gets smaller due to cards in play and cards that are now being used as gold. This happens three times and then the game ends. The player with the most gold can then hold their head up high, assured with the knowledge that they are a champion bean farmer.

One of the unique aspects of Bohnanza and what gives it, in my opinion, an interesting mechanic is the way that a player must manage their hand in order to be successful. Players are restricted in that they can only play their cards in the order that they are in their hand. Cards can¹t be rearranged, when a card is drawn it goes to the back of the hand and all cards are played in sequence. What it does is force the player to find ways to get to the cards that they want, often at the expense of helping another player by giving them a bean that they need (in the auction phase) in order to move up a bean in your hand. Makes sense? You may already have a field of green beans in play, plus two more green beans in the middle of your hand. Unfortunately there are several cards between you and those precious green beans. During the auction phase you may offer the cards that are next in the sequence to another player in order to bump up the green beans in your hand to the front of the line. Plant them and, if you like, sell them at the next opportunity.

Bohnanza is not a super intense strategy game that takes numerous plays to really grasp the concept and tactics. But rather it is a light hearted, fast and enjoyable game appropriate for any group. The bottom line is that it is a lot of fun, more so that a lot of other games that try much harder.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Dragon Shaman

The Dragon is the most iconic figure in the pantheon of D&D lore, so it makes sense that there are numerous classes, prestige classes, items, spells, etc… that all incorporate this mightiest of creatures into their flavor. From the Players Handbook II comes the somewhat bizarre, but sort of cool Dragon Shaman. At this point I would love to be able to sum it up in a sentence and say what it does, but really this class is all over the place. It has such a varied skill set that I hesitate to classify it as anything other than a non caster, since it has no spells I can safely say it does not fill that role. But what does it do? Well, it sort of fights, has some healing ability, can buff the party, and some other strange little tricks. And a breath weapon. And can fly (granted, at 19th level).

I guess the best place to start are with the vitals of the class. Base Attack as a rogue, two good saves (Fort and Will), and d10 Hit Die. I am pretty sure that it is the only class in the game with a d10 that does not have full Base Attack, and that sort of sends mixed signals. However, it also means that they can survive on the front lines, they just don’t necessarily have to be fighting things. The Shaman can wear up to medium armor and shields, which only adds to their survivability. Then again they are limited to simple weapons so they probably won’t be doing much damage. Honestly, I think it is sort of a interesting mixture of traits. The worst part, however, is the 2+ skill points. As a jack of some trades they should really have some skill points to throw around. And they just don’t really have any. Their class skills are pretty weak, but they do get additional ones based on the color of their dragon totem (see below).

It is said that some classes, like monks and rangers, are MAD (multiple attribute dependent). Dragons Shamans might be the only class that is NAD (no attribute dependent). What does the highest roll go into? I have no idea. They get a breath weapon with a CON based save, and some CHA based healing. Other than that it is sort of up in the air. STR seems like a waste since they are going to be pretty limited in combat due to the BAB and weapon selection. I think I would go CON for the hit points, or maybe DEX for AC and Reflex. I could actually see any stat other than WIS. In a way it’s sort of cool that the attribute selection for the class is so wide open, it allows for a pretty large range of shamanic types, which I like.

The signature ability for the class is the Draconic Aura, which is essentially a field of energy in a 30’ radius around the shaman that affects them and all allies. Shamans know a bunch of these (by 9th level they have learned all 7 of the auras), they can only have one active at a time but switching to a new one is a swift action. I’m not sure what this has to do with dragons but some of them are pretty good. The bonus for the aura begins at +1 and increases by +1 at 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th (when it becomes +5). Some of them give the appropriate bonus to damage, some DR or energy resistance, some social skills. I think that the best one might be Vigor, which provides fast healing but only affects characters at less than half their total. That is actually really useful for the post battle cleanup and lets the cleric save cures for an emergency. As long as you survive a battle you are going to wind up with half your HP. Not bad. And since the range of the aura is 30’ I see why it is important that they can hang with the meleers in the front, since they will benefit the most from most of the auras. Since it is dragon based it would be neat if there was a fear effect aura.

The other 1st level ability is the choosing of a totem dragon. The color dragon is chosen at this point and figures into some abilities later on, such as the type of breath weapon and some other stuff. They also get a couple of extra class skills, too bad they have virtually no points to spend on them. The skills are reflective of the nature of the dragon (i.e. red dragons gets appraise, bluff, and jump. Are red dragons known for jumping? I have no idea. I thought they flew). Later on the shaman is also given a skill focus in each of those skills (at 2nd, 8th, and 16th level). At third level they also get an ability based on their dragon color. Some are cool, like the bronze dragon’s water breathing at will. Some are not, such as the white dragons ability to walk across icy surfaces without making a balance check.

At 4th level comes the breath weapon, which is the most draconic thing that happens to this class. Unfortunately it is just not very good. 2d6 damage, plus 1d6 every two level. Con based Reflex save for half, usable once every 1d4 rounds. Cooler than it is effective. The idea of being able to spit acid at someone is pretty rad and is sort of a good way to start off a combat, especially when negotiations break down.

Touch of Vitality is the 6th level ability and will further endear the Shaman to his fellow party members, especially the ones frustrated with his lack of useful combat abilities. Each day they can heal twice their level x CHA bonus of hit points. 10th level shaman with a 14 Cha can heal 40 points a day. Once 11th level is reached they can also spend healing points to cure ability damage, negative levels, and other conditions. Combined with the Vigor aura this actually makes the Shaman a pretty good healer.

As they progress in levels they do not get many new abilities, mainly just a scaling up of the ones that they already possess. Some AC bonus, wings at 19th level, some energy resistance, and the ability to cast Commune once a week. Mediocre. I would like to see something at higher levels that allowed the Shaman to have more than one aura at any given time, that would make a huge difference at higher levels when the class seems to be pretty overshadowed by most others in terms of damage and overall usefulness.

All in all I don’t think the Dragon Shaman is horrible and there is certainly a place for them in a party, as a second fighter with some support abilities they should be okay. Give them Improved Trip and a reach weapon and stick them behind the fighter and they can make some contributions.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Murder at 40,000 Feet

Due to my lack of small games that travel well, the much maligned Murdero made the trek with me to Eastern Europe. I figured that it would work well on a plane since the cards you are laying down and the draw and discard piles should be able to easily fit on one of the awful flip down tables that they have on planes. I was correct on those accounts, it fit well. While flying over Rejkavik Jesse and I engaged in a game of this murder mystery rummy treat. On the bright side I was finally able to play it as a two player game, which I had not done though I sort of felt that it would be best between two players. It definitely does work better. It is easier to “solve a crime” and close out a set, but the major issues remain. The standout one being the games glaring lack of fun, regardless of the number of players. Really, the only reason that I brought it was because I did not have all that many options. Jesse had never played before but that did not stop him defeating me 128-56.

The best traveling game out there still seems to be a deck of cards. We had numerous good games of Rummy 500 in airports and on trains that made us quickly forget about Murdero.