Monday, April 26, 2010

Heritage Feats

It’s fun to come up with an intriguing backstory for a PC. Give them some previous glory, a bit of an agenda, perhaps some skeletons in their closet that they wish to keep hidden from the rest of the party. Personally I’ve always felt that a character’s motivations are more important that their past, but it all comes together to make a complete character. Often though a lot of this is forgotten as a character gets involved in new quests and gets acclimated to the life as a member of a party. One way to keep a background as a vital part of a character’s present is through Heritage feats, a hint to perhaps some ancient ancestry that still shapes family lineage in the present. Scattered over a couple of D&D books, Heritage feats are a bit of a mixed bag. But are they any good? Are they worth a heavy investment for some pretty specialized abilities and resistances?

All of the Heritage feats require an initial feat to establish the lineage in a character, usually this has to be taken at 1st level and none of them are that good. The series of feats build on one another, making the previous one’s more powerful as the total number grows and the ancestry of the character begins to unlock. Honestly, I really like the flavor of it.

The Infernal and Celestial lines are open only to sorcerers and generally allow them to expend a spell slot for some other ability for a brief time. I like the flavor of an inborn spell caster having some extraplanar blood coursing through their veins, and since metamagic isn’t always the best option for a sorcerer these seem like they could be good. They are not. Let’s take a look at Celestial Sorcerer Heritage, the initial feat required for the Celestial line. It provides a bonus to saves versus electricity and pertification equal to the number of Celestial feats you have, and adds Protection from Evil to the list of known spells. Wow. That seems like garbage unless you plan on battling a horde of electrified medusa. The feats are all dependent on one another so once you take one you are sort of committed to taking others, otherwise they are entirely weak. The Celestial line does have one strong option, Celestial Sorcerer Lore. The problem is that is requires three Celestial feats to qualify for it. It does add three spells to the sorcerer’s spells known list (including Teleport). Knowing more spells is always a bonus for the spell starved caster, but a four feat investment does seem like a lot. The other problem with these feats is that they are generally fueled by expending spell slots for abilities that are usually equivalent to the spell they are sacrificing. Infernal Sorcerer Howl allows the sorcerer to create a sonic cone that does 2d6 damage for each level of the spell sacrificed. Sacrifice a third level spell? That’s 6d6 sonic damage. Not so good, especially when a Fireball or Lightning Bolt would have done more damage if the caster was higher than 6th level. The adventurer saddled with either of these awful lines of feats has no reason to thank their adulteress aunt for her liaison with a devil.

The winners of the bunch are Fiendish and Fey Heritage. Continuing the trend common in most D&D material, the later a book was published the more powerful the contents seem to be. Found in Complete Mage, the Fiendish and Fey lines offer some powerful abilities which can greatly expand the repertoire of a character. The initial feat required to advance the line are mediocre; those of Fey heritage receive a +3 bonus to Will saves versus enchantments, while their fiendish brethren get a similar bonus against poison. Again, not great but not altogether useless. Especially the enchantment bonus since some of those effects can be devastating. However, by taking these feats a character becomes eligible at 9th level for the Legacy feats, Fey Legacy and Fiendish Legacy. This is where the fun is. Fey Legacy allows a character to cast Confusion, Dimension Door, and Summon Nature’s Ally V as a caster level equal to their character level, each once a day. Fiendish Legacy provides Teleport (self only), Summon Monster V, and Unholy Blight. Those are both pretty solid packages. In the case of Fey that’s two 4th level and a 5th level spell for the cost of two feats. That is hard to beat. The best part is that it is open to non casters, so a rogue or a fighter can suddenly have a couple of really useful spells thanks to an amorous meeting of their great uncle and a pixie. Way to go. Adding additional feats can provide some damage reduction, some other lesser level spells, resistances, and some increased DC’s for spells.

The class that can most benefit from these is the fighter. With a ton of extra combat feats the fighter can afford to load up on these with the normal feats that all characters receive. Having some spell like abilities can make a huge difference to a martial type, especially mobility related ones like Teleport and Dimension Door. And the Summons are great to provide a flanking partner and some additional muscle on the front line.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

One Page Dungeon Codex 2009

No matter how creative and hardworking a DM may be, we could all use a little help from time to time when it comes to putting together that week’s adventure. I know that, personally, sometimes I just don’t have the time over the week to put together exactly what I want. Actual, non fantasy life does get in the way. It usually works out well, but in an effort to alleviate some of the pre D&D stress that occasionally comes along I went looking for some DM resources that I could plug into an existing game. I was delighted to come across The One Page Dungeon Codex 2009. What an interesting and well executed concept. It is a free collection of system neutral dungeons that can pretty easily be plugged into most campaigns. The common theme is that they all follow a one page format that contains both a map and a description of everything in it.

One important thing to note is that these adventures still require work from the DM. Since they are system neutral the DM, if nothing else, still needs to have stats for the monsters, place some treasure, work it into their world, etc…The thing that I like most about it is that the map is already made. I am not a dungeon map making type of guy so it is nice to have the most cumbersome aspect of adventure making taken care of for me. But really none of this is the interesting aspect of the One Page Dungeon Codex. The whole project came about as a collaborative effort from a couple of RPG blogs who developed the format and then had an open contest asking for submissions from readers. Judging ensued and then the best entries were put together into the Codex. It has three overall winners, but all together 21 entries are included. Some of them are great, others I don’t have much use for but overall it is a pretty nifty resource. It’s also nice to see people coming together to workshop and promote one another’s stuff.

The Best Overall Dungeon is called Secrets of the Old City by Simon Bull and it is put together very nicely. It is not ultra imaginative, it details an abandoned city underneath a city that is inhabited by a small thieves den and an ogre. But it is nicely done and can easily be slid into just about any urban setting. I am also a fan of The Grey Goblin Warrens, winner in the Best Hack and Slash category. It is a huge sprawling cave complex filled with goblins and many other nasties. I must say that I am extremely impressed with the amount of content that has fit into a single page. It is almost overwhelming. My favorite though is Arendt’s Old Peculiar. Taking the prize in the category of Best Pub, it is the story of a band of goblins that have taken over and reopened a semi famous but now in ruin bar. To be honest I don’t entirely see the adventure in it, it does not have a clear structure for the PC’s to follow. But not every adventure needs to be so linear and so apparent. The point is that it is a fun establishment and any worthwhile PC’s can have themselves a night in this place.

The file comes in at 54 pages, so it is substantial. The entire opening section is a sometimes tedious description of how the project came together. I enjoyed it, it’s always interesting to see how these projects come together. The adventures themselves remind me of the short adventures contained in the Greyhawk boxed set. Which is a good thing. At some point some of these adventures will wind up on our table. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

East Coast? West Coast? Which is the best coast?

We have been playing a lot of Ticket to Ride lately, it’s really a great game. However, a clear strategy has begun to emerge to me as to how the game should be played. Unlike some games (Puerto Rico and Starfarers of Catan come to mind right away) in which there are multiple winning strategies, Ticket to Ride seems to greatly favor a certain approach. And by this I mean to dominate the Western part of the board and take advantage of the long routes out that way. In our games whoever controls the West Coast usually rides their trains to victory.

So what it is that makes that part of the board so much more valuable that it practically guarantees victory? Well, I think that there are a couple of things going on here. For one it is perfectly feasible to also branch off into the Midwest and pick up some routes out that way. You can branch off from the West. Denver and Duluth, in particular, are excellent cities to go into because they have so many outlets to the rest of the board. This is especially nice towards the end of the game when you may be tempted to try and pick up another Destination ticket, those cities give you a lot of options. However, the West Coast is just loaded with points waiting to be had for the patient train operator. As a proud Philadelphian it kills me to say this, but the East Coast is far inferior to the West. Ugh.

Like just about every board game ever made, the efficiency of actions is paramount to victory. Games come to an end so it is essential to make every move that you take count as much as it can. In Ticket to Ride each player has a total of 45 trains that they can lay down over the course of the game, the longer a single route is the more each train winds up being worth. Obviously, the thing to do here is to place as many long routes as possible to maximize the value of your trains. Looking at the board it is very apparent that the West Coast has the majority of the big (5 or 6 train) routes. Let’s break it down and see just how big of a discrepancy it is. Roughly dividing the board into three sections (west, central, and east) and making some approximations yields this: East has five such routes, the Central has five, and the West seven (Note: this could be interpreted as nine as well. Portland to San Fran and San Fran to Salt Lake City are both five train routes, but they are double routes. So there are actually nine such routes, but a player can’t double up so there are really seven available to them.) It doesn’t seem like such a huge discrepancy, but if you look a little deeper it’s obvious that not only is the West possessing of the majority of big routes, but the East is loaded with small routes. The kind that really devalue one’s trains in the long run. Plus the West boasts four routes of six trains, while the East has only two.

Not only are the long routes more point efficient, they are also much more turn efficient. As an example take two players. Both players have spent the last 4 turns taking in cards and are ready to place some routes. Player A lays down a route from Phoenix to Denver (5 trains), Player B then places two trains between New York and Boston. Player A resumes picking up trains for his collection the following turn, while Player B spends the next two turns extending his route to Washington and Montreal. It has taken him three turns to place six trains (for six points), while his opponent has spent the same amount of turns and received ten points and also spent the last two rounds putting four more cards into his hand. There really is not much of a comparison.

The problem with all of this is that due to the luck of draw a player may wind up with Destination tickets that run through the East, thereby forcing them into that section of the world. That’s a problem, though it can be dealt with. Since you have to keep two tickets in the beginning of the game the best thing to do is look for some horizontal moving ones and try to get the trains out West. If that it not possible keep the lowest valued ones and hope that they do not hurt you much in the end. After that spend a couple of turns picking up Destination tickets and try to get some better routes.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Black Flame Zealot prestige class

There are a whole series of prestige classes that are really nothing other than the marriage of the abilities of two classes. At least in my opinion it seems like the creators went through all the classes and bred them with one another and tried to make some sort of prestige class about them. (How else can you explain something like the Daggerspell Shaper or the Shadowstriker?) A lot of them are very dumb and cumbersome, however one that does sort of interest me is the Blake Flame Zealot, a mixture of Rogue and Cleric that is part of some sort of evil society of assassins that really like kukris and fire. I could get into that. They sit around in abandoned temples, sharpening their curved blades over an open flame and plot the doom of PC’s.

So who does this society attract as devotees? Well, most likely Clerics and Rogues. The requirements are non good alignment, 8 ranks of Hide, Knowledge (Religion) and Move Silently, 2nd level divine spells, +1d6 sneak attack, Iron Will and proficiency with a Kukri. The easiest route seems to be Cleric 3/Rogue 2, though I think it might be worth taking another level of Rogue to get the extra sneak attack at 3rd level. This actually isn’t a bad character as is. Not going to be the star of any party, but enough resources to buff up for a fight and be useful outside of it. I suppose that Druid could also be an option, but since they will probably never get any Wildshape and the companion will stay weak, Cleric is the better choice. And flavor wise Cleric always gets the edge when the occult is involved. I do think that it should have a Profession (something related to fire) as a requirement, but I sort of think that everything should have ranks in Profession as a requirement, or Fire Domain if they are a cleric.

The vitals of the class are about average. D6 hit die, good Reflex and Will saves, medium Base Attack, 4+ skill points. It also advances spellcasting at every other level and sneak attack every third level. It has several class features seen in assassins, such as Poison Use and Death Attack. Both are okay, but nothing to go crazy over. Immunity to Fear (Zealous Heart!) is also nice, but it seems like every other class has that feature.

The signature ability of the Blake Flame Zealot is the supernatural power to make any weapon of their’s (presumably a kukri, you don’t want to anger the cult) burn with a…black flame! The weapon is treated as Flaming (+1d6 damage) and it lasts all day, which is pretty cool. Additionally, once a day for a minute it can be treated as a flaming burst weapon (which actually meshes very nicely with a kukri). The problem with this ability is that it is not available until 6th level. Which is actually more like 11th or 12th level. That is a long time to wait for an ability that is good, but not great.

The other primetime ability is Fateful Stride, which is just a once a day Dimension Door. I sort of have a thing for Dimension Door so I find this to be great. The Black Flame Zealot gets it at 5th level, so about the time that regular casters will be getting it as well. The final ability at 10th level is called Unholy Immolation and is not nearly as awesome as it sounds. All this does is that anyone slain by the zealotry of the black flame can only be brought back by a True Resurrection. If this class did not already scream out to be an NPC, it certainly does now. I mean, do any PC’s worry about foes coming back to life? I’m sure that it happens occasionally, but that is what ghosts are for.

I think that the reason that I like this compared to so many of those other awful hybrid classes is that it has a little bit of personality and makes sense. I can easily envision some rogues getting mixed up in a death cult and performing rituals, practicing unholy rites, etc…The opposite is true as well. Some evil death worshippers need to hone their skullduggery in order to kill the infidels on their list or procure body parts from graveyards. Whatever, it is usable in a campaign. Another aspect that I like in this class (and what I really see as the point of prestige classes) is that it creates a character that is otherwise hard to be. A sneaky cleric is hard to come by. This class is a reason to ditch the heavy armor and the mace and develop some other abilities. And seriously, if a group of these guys Dimension Door in somewhere an start flanking and stabbing they can do some damage in a hurry.