Monday, April 30, 2012

D&D: The Clone Wars (Part 4.5)

Sometimes, when I am building a character card, I come up with a few variants of a card that seem just as effective.  I try to fool around with the details to find the one that works best but it does not always work out that way.  Occasionally, the differences are sufficient that I value both but they are not different enough to warrant an entirely new character.

On the other hand, sometimes the character lends itself well to multiple variants or instances.  The Clone Troopers are a good example of that.  It makes sense there would be many different varieties, different flavors, of Clone Trooper but that many of them would be similar.  I first observed this when I was building the character for what was originally "Clone Trooper" that would later become Hevy.  While researching what notable Clones used a Z-6 Rotary Blaster Cannon, I found both Hevy and Jek.

Jek, from the episode "Ambush"
Subtle differences from Hevy
The difference here is in race selection.  Hevy was a Githzerai while Jek is a Human.  Most notably, Jek has higher defenses than Hevy because he has not only the Human racial defensive bonus but also the bonus feat, with which I selected Improved Defenses.  So, Jek is very similar to Hevy but with a few different details.

Truthfully, given the Essentials Ranger's single reliance on Dexterity for most of its attacks and abilities, the Human seems a more optimal choice than anything.  The single stat bonus is all the Ranger needs and the bonus Human feat and defenses allows for greater customization and/or improvement of the base class.

Either way, this provides an alternative character for my upcoming Star Wars D&D adventure that I'll be throwing up here sometime in the near future.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Playing D&D

Recently, somebody told me that I clearly just play Dungeons & Dragons wrong.  It was something of a peculiar experience, since so much of the discussion recently has been "How you play D&D is the right way."  To have somebody so handedly dismiss me and my idea of the game was disturbing, to say the least, insomuch that it left me rattled for at least a day and I considered canceling all of my D&D games in response.  For whatever reason, I took it very seriously.

In resolving the issue, I had to spend a lot of time thinking about why my D&D experience was different than the apparent norm.  My experience with D&D, and tabletop role-playing, followed a slightly different course from some but I do not think it was such as to be considered "wrong."  I thought it would be appropriate to write a little bit about it here to provide some prospective.

Red Box Awesome!
I picked up my first D&D set, the Red Box Basic Set, in 1988, shortly after moving away from Los Angeles.  At the time, I was eight years old.  I was familiar with the idea of D&D as some family friends in Los Angeles played AD&D every now and then and I got to watch.  I knew what the idea was but I never got to play.  Now, armed with my own set, I could build the kinds of adventures and whatnot that I had seen and heard of from my friends and older brother.  Or, so goes the plan.

Years passed without me ever finding a group to play with.  I had kept up, getting books and sets here and there, even exploring the bowels of AD&D 2nd Edition.  My brother got involved with a group in high school and I would hear exciting tales of his games.  It was not until late 1992 or early 1993 that I finally cobbled together a group of people to play with.  For five years, all I could do was read and hear about how great a game this was without ever getting a real chance to play.

Gargoyles. They look evil.
Why is any of this relevant to how I learned to play D&D?  It is important because before I ever really played D&D, my perspective had already been colored.  From 1987 to 1991, I spent a fair amount of time playing the Ultima series on my home computer.  By the time I played Dungeons & Dragons, I already had fixed ideas about what a role-playing game would entail.  Most significantly, Ultima IV, V, and VI had impressed upon me the idea of what a fantasy world would be.

As to how this relates to the idea of me playing D&D wrong relates to the notion of monsters, alignment, and sentience.  By the time I played D&D for the first time, Ultima had already affected my perspective.  Ultima VI: The False Prophet taught me the importance of considering and understanding alternative perspectives.  The gargoyles, who appear to be a race of monstrous humanoids at first glance, are a legitimate race of sentient creatures with just as meaningful a claim on survival as humans.

Only evil monsters sacrifice the Avatar, right?
The gargoyles of Ultima VI are monsters when you begin the game, pure and simple.  They are Chaotic Evil (or, perhaps, Lawful Evil) monsters that seize holy sites across the world and kill people with reckless abandon.  They even try to sacrifice you in the introduction sequence.  As you play, you soon determine that these monsters are in fact civilized and have a developed culture.  However, they see you as the ruthless monster.  You, the hero, tore into their world, stripped them of their holiest artifact, and left their world to deteriorate slowly into nothing.  In D&D terms, you were the Chaotic Evil champion and humans were nothing more than monsters to kill or be killed by.  The importance of understanding perspective was huge in completing the game.  By the end, you have created a world where humans and gargoyles must work together to share in the wisdom of the holiest artifact (the aptly named Codex of Ultimate Wisdom).
But Meepo is friend!

When I finally got to playing D&D, the lessons of "The False Prophet" still resonated.  Goblins, orcs, and the rest of the intelligent races of D&D Land had just as valid a claim to civilization as any other.  So, when I read that a monstrous race was "always Evil," it bothered me.  It seemed very small minded, very ignorant to assume that a race was "always Evil."  The idea that Goblins or Kobolds were something you killed on sight, not because they attacked you first but because they're an evil race, did not correlate with my worldview.  I could not help but try to rationalize it in a modern view: "Yeah, we kill those goddamned <your_least_favorite_race_or_nationality> because they're evil!"  It did not settle well with me.  It bothered me that people would want a fantasy setting where killing people because of their race was acceptable (or, to a certain extent, desirable).

This... is... D&D!
So how am I playing D&D wrong?  Because goblins and orcs are there to be killed.  They are an evil race and they are there to be defeated.  That is how D&D has always been.  To try and apply big-headed philosophical notions of good and evil to a game about exploring dungeons, killing monsters, and getting treasure is just ridiculous.  In short, D&D has always been the original Munchkin.  It is nothing other than that.  To play it otherwise, in the opinion of this person I spoke to, was to play it wrong.

Obviously, after some consideration, this opinion is neither true nor universally held.  If Eberron taught us anything, it's that a D&D game can be complex, interesting, and morally ambiguous while still fitting within the framework of Dungeons & Dragons.  D&D did not have to be the mindless hack-and-slash and treasure-gathering that Gary Gygax's original adventures back in the late 1970s and early 1980s seemed to be.  Although Dungeons & Dragons may have its roots in a tactical combat game that developed into an adventuring game, the modern D&D has become much more than its progenitor.  But it does not have to be, if the group wants it to be simple.  Really, it's the game you want it to be (as long as you want a primary method of conflict resolution to involve violence).

I acknowledge that D&D started within a certain framework.  I also acknowledge that every group, every player, shapes the game into the game they want to play.  For me, it was complex.  It was ambiguous.  "Good" and "Evil" are relative terms and practically meaningless.  Goblins and orcs held just as valid a title to life and society as elves and dwarves.  This is how I play and this is how I continue to play.  The words of one close-minded player will not change that.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dungeons & Dragons: Zero

I thought I would take a break from the grind of Star Wars characters to bring something a little bit ... different to the custom character bank.  My first D&D 4E campaign was a bit strange, but it rather quickly involved a Warforged character.  I love the Warforged as a concept because it captures so much in the "intelligent construct" that works in a lot of different ways.  For some reason, this got me thinking "robot."  From that thought, something crazy and ridiculous was born...

Zero, the Maverick Hunter
Hunting Reploids with Z-Sabre and Z-Buster
My original thought was to make something more along the lines of Megaman.  However, when I first conceived of this character, I was not nearly as fluent in D&D character design to be able to determine what would best fit Megaman.  However, the Essentials line had just come out and I quickly realized that the Hexblade shared something quite significant with Megaman X's fighting partner Zero.  In fact, the more I looked at it, the more it actually felt like a perfect match.

For those curious, Zero is a Warforged Star Pact Hexblade.  The D&D elitists will notice that Warforged is not stat-compliant with the Hexblade.  Zero does not get the Charisma bonus he would normally want for being a more effective Hexblade.  However, he gets an Intelligence bonus (which influences his abilities) and a Constitution bonus (which improves his hit points).  I figured it would be a good enough combination (if not the most effective).

On Monsters Most Ridiculous

As a Dungeon Master, I always try to think about how the adventure, encounter, or situation would look if it were a work of fiction.  How would the story read?  How would it look on television?  How would it sound in a movie? If it would seem absurd or unbelievable in that context, I have to ask: why would I expect my players to buy off on it?  This kind of thought process really drives my development of adventure material.

Here is a brief illustration of what I mean:

*   *   *

As the Fellowship descended deeper into the Mines of Moria, they came upon a large chamber.  Frodo looked in awe at the cavern but quickly noticed a distinct odor.  He drew a deep breath, trying to identify the smell.  "Is that ... blood?"

Gimli shook his head.  "No.  It's rust."  He pulled his axe close, shaking his head slowly.  "I have heard legends of something like this, but..."  From the darkness, a high pitched hiss erupted, interrupting the stout dwarf.  He pointed towards the dark corner of the chamber.  "There!"

A peculiar, reddish beast stepped out of the shadows.  Gandalf stepped forward, holding his staff out defensively.  "Be cautious!  It is a rust monster!  It will consume the very metal off your bodies."  The wizened man looked towards Frodo.  "Be careful, Frodo.  Although the Ring's dark power protects it from the creature's attack, the beast will make quick work of Sting."

Frodo looked to Gandalf, concerned.  "But, Gandalf!  I thought Sting was a magical blade?"

Gandalf shook his head.  "It does not matter.  The rust monster destroys magical metals as readily as normal metals.  Be on your guard."

*   *   *

Right.  Had I been reading that book, I suspect I would have put it down and never picked it up again.  It sounds like the kind of thing a child came up with.  Or, perhaps more appropriately, it sounds like the kind of thing a bad dungeon master would come up with to upset his players.  Honestly, a good chunk of old school D&D monsters feel exactly like that. 

  • Displacer Beast? "Ooohh. It always appears a few feet from where it really is! That will confuse the players!"
  • Beholder? "Super anti-wizard wizard! Shuts them down with an anti-magic raye and then shoots lots of magics at them! That'll show them!"
  • Rust Monster? "I really regret letting Bob get that magic sword. This will solve the problem..."
  • Mimic? "This will teach those players to go grabbing my treasure chests!"
  • Trapper? "The floor as a monster!?! Super awesome!"

There is a really great series of articles written on the Internet that go through some of the ridiculous monsters and point out the inherent silliness of them, so I won't go through it.  In general, the design philosophy of that era appeared to be a competitive Player vs. DM style.  When considering the design style of some of those adventures (Tomb of Horrors, etc), it seems a consistent design philosophy.

As an adult role-playing gamer, I always focused on collaborative storytelling with some mechanical hurdles (combat, skill resolution, etc).  The enemies in the story should have some theme or organization.  They should feel like they're part of the story and they belong in the world.  Whether it be an undead army or a clan of ferocious orcs, I expect to use a lot of the same kinds of basic enemies but with different skills.  Honestly, I feel like an entire campaign could easily feature nothing but player races as enemies with basic animals for support.  No flying balls with eyes or monsters that jump out of the floor, as the floor.

The design style of those ridiculous, old-school monsters feels out of place in the kind of adventures and campaigns that I want to run.  In the kind of games I play, I find these kinds of ridiculous monsters jarring when they come up.  It's a strange thing to go from fighting undead foot soldiers or the cult of a dragon god to coming across a pair of rust monsters in a dungeon.  It takes away from what I enjoy in the game and it always concern me when people get excited about them.

This is my idea of Dungeons & Dragons.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

D&D: The Clone Wars (Part 4)

One of the interesting things I learned from trying to make a full party of Star Wars D&D characters was the focus on how certain things could be paralleled.  Star Wars: The Clone Wars is full of two types of characters: one-handed sword fighters with magical powers (Jedi) and soldiers with ranged weapons (Clones).  So, any character built has to fit relatively neatly into one of those two bins.

The Jedi came more naturally, at first, because there were already character classes that naturally fit into the Jedi mold (swordmage, bladesinger, avenger, etc).  The Clones proved to be a bit more of a thought process as I had to find things that felt like a soldier with a blaster rifle.  Sometimes, though, things just fell together in a way I could not have predicted.

Hevy, the Trooper from "Rookies" and "Clone Cadets."
Hevy, putting his Z-6 Rotary Blaster Cannon to use.
So, there are a few peculiarities with this character that need explanation.  This character is built on the Ranger (Hunter) Essentials class, which I have found to be a very interesting class from the Essentials block.  The Hunter is a very effective ranged combat controller (at least from my experience).  He is listed as using a Z-6 Rotary Blaster Cannon, as well.  This choice was because ... well, at the time, that was the only image of a Clone Trooper I could find.  That also dictates why he is named Hevy, as it is a picture of Hevy from the first season episode "Rookies."

As I continued to develop the character, the Rotary Blaster Cannon felt more in line with the Hunter's area burst ability, so I stuck to it.  Future clone troopers (without the cannon) would use a different class to represent them, was the idea.

As it ends up, I also created an alternative version of this character that I may post at a later time.  Same essential bits with a few changes to mix it up (and provide a certain amount of "difference").

UPDATE (5/29/2012): I changed the quote on the front of the card.  I felt like the scene in "Clone Cadets" where Hevy gets his nickname was a much better scene to draw from for Hevy.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

D&D: The Clone Wars (Part 3)

As I continued making characters for my Star Wars: The Clone Wars encounter group, I realized that I had not properly considered how this group would get any healing done.  I had already made Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker as non-leader types.  As I considered how to squeeze in a leader, it occurred to me that I had already found a way: the Archer Captain Warlord.  As for who to build in that style, it only made sense that General Obi-Wan Kenobi's lead clone, Commander Cody, was the appropriate character.
Commander Cody during the Clone Wars.
Aiding his allies is Cody's specialty.
Obviously, there are a few conceits in this character build.  A bow isn't really a blaster rifle, but it seemed a reasonable interpolation.  Further, I had originally thought to make all of the clones the same race so they would have similar racial abilities (thus creating some consistency across them) but I decided against that option due to class stat preferences.  The observant will recognize Cody as a Goliath (or, for Dark Sun fans, a Half-Giant).  The post-Essentials change to the Goliath stat bonuses made him suitable for a Warlord as it gained a potential Wisdom bonus (as an alternative to the Constitution bonus).

Here, Cody has a number of abilities that allow him to heal his allies and expose weaknesses in enemies for his allies to use to their advantage.  He also has the ability to direct a nearby ally to attack, whether it be a ranged basic attack or a melee basic attack.  One of the things that the Essentials did was make the Warlord abilities more useful; the basic attack of several of the Essentials character classes are more useful than they had been in original PHB classes (i.e. the slayer fighter).  Thus, Cody's ability to direct his allies attacks have more utility than they would have in an earlier version of the game.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

D&D: The Clone Wars (Part 2)

I almost feel silly putting Anakin Skywalker out there without his respectable Jedi Master, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Obi-Wan was less of a thought exercise as I jumped relatively quickly to the Bladesinger class in making him.  Some of his "force powers" are a bit strange but the effect is generally pretty reasonable (trips, pushes, etc).
Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, ready for action.
Introducing Niman-Style Attacks!
This was the first Star Wars themed character card where I did substantial research on Jedi lightsaber fighting styles.  I wanted to find a way to refer to the bladesinger's bladesongs in a way that sounded in-theme.  After substantial Internet research, I discovered that the combat style that integrates Force powers is called "Niman," or Lightsaber Form VI.  From there, a character was made.

The bladesinger really always felt like somebody had been thinking of Jedi and tried to implement them into the game.  Although I've always been upset that the bladesinger is a wizard variant instead of a swordmage variant, I've learned to accept it and continue creating bad ass character cards.  No matter what you call the original class, the Obi-Wan Kenobi character represented here is the kind of Jedi Master you expect to see in a guy like Obi-Wan.

D&D: The Clone Wars (Part 1)

A few weeks ago, I had this idea that it would be a great idea to create a coherent group of characters based on a single IP using Dungeons & Dragons mechanics.  Of course, being a fan of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, I began thinking about how I could make characters from that show into respectable D&D characters.  Some of them seemed obvious, but others felt like they needed more thought.  Many different ideas came to mind, but some of them seemed worth turning into character cards...
Anakin Skywalker, he who would become Darth Vader
"Impressive.  Most impressive."
Anakin was not the first character I assembled under my new "make the Clone Wars characters" paradigm.  In fact, the construction for this character came later, after I did far too much lightsaber combat research.  Having decided that Anakin was too young and inexperienced to really show a fair range of force combat powers, I felt that his efforts would best be demonstrated through lightsaber combat styles.  After some research and thought, this idea turned into "Fighter (Slayer)."
Some may notice the peculiarity of this character.  This is the first D&D character card I made that was most distinctively off-book.  Unlike your typical Slayer Fighter, Anakin is focused on Dexterity.  By taking Melee Training (Dexterity), Anakin's melee basic attack has shifted to Dexterity (rather than Strength).  As Slayers have a bonus to damage from Dexterity, this only seemed to make sense.

Those that look carefully will notice the strange abilities that Anakin Skywalker has.  Those that look carefully and compare with their D&D Compendium will realize that Anakin (as he appears here) has been created as a Gnoll Figher (Slayer).  It is a peculiar build, especially given that Slayer Fighters normally emphasize Strength.  However, given my recent discovery (regarding the Slayer Fighter and Dexterity), it seemed appropriate to try something different with this character card.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Resident D&D: "I have this...!"

Normally, I try to post a single alternate D&D character every week.  However, as this character is so close to a previously posted character, I thought it would be okay to post it out of sequence.  Besides, as I get better at these (and have more pre-made cards), it becomes a much quicker process on the design side (allowing my Illustrator work to catch up to my brain).

When the first Lair Assault came up, I experimented with a few characters intended to hit hard.  I also wanted to see what weird variants on the system I could come up with.  I found a rather interesting feat (Ruthless Hunter) and a class feature I had previously not noticed (Sneak Attack w/ Hand Crossbow).  From that, the Pistol Marksman was born.  Who better to be a better Pistol Marksman than Resident Evil's own Barry Burton?
"I've got this!  It's really powerful, especially against living things!"
Powers organized slightly differently.
So, like Guybrush Threepwood before him, Barry Burton is an Essentials Thief.  The difference with Barry is that he focuses on using the Hand Crossbow (or, as it appears here, the magnum pistol) instead of a melee weapon.  Although the card says Barry is a Human, most players should be able to identify him as Drow.  The Ruthless Hunter feat makes his Hand Crossbow do significantly more damage while gaining a critical hit bonus as well.  So, a typical Barry Burton attack, using his "Tactics: Isolate the Enemy" against a lone enemy, will result in 3d8+7 damage, plus an additional 1d8 if it is a critical hit.  So, yeah.  On crit, that is 15 + 3d8 damage (18-39 damage).  Throw in the "Tactics: Aim for the Head" for an additional +1d6.  That's nothing to sneeze at.

I originally intended for him to not have a melee weapon at all but I was concerned people would get upset.  Besides, Resident Evil characters always had a Combat Knife.  Honestly, if Barry is using his Combat Knife, we'll just assume it's because he ran out of bullets.

One thing I did differently with this character card is organization.  I took the powers that felt like tactical choices (the move actions, backstab, and his level 2 utility) and described them as "Tactics," giving them their own section on the card.  This was more of a test, to see how people would react.  It was meant to give different powers different "weights" than others.  So, where normally the two move actions would be one category of power, they now belong to the same category as Backstab and the level 2 utility.

Hopefully, this gives people something new to shoot with.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Legend of D&D: Skyward Sword

Unfortunately, one of the easiest classes to make re-skinned characters for has been Strikers.  Simply put, making characters that hit people is generally a pretty easy sell.  Making other roles tends to get a little bit trickier, especially when it gets to the Leader and Defender roles.

I was not terribly familiar with Primal character classes because I never played one and very few people in my D&D groups played one.  I had heard that some of the Primal classes were interesting and worth a look, so I did just that.  The one that caught my attention was the one I least expected ... the Warden.

Link, the Legendary Hero of Hyrule
Link has many powers to reposition his foes.
So, I had heard from a number of people that the Warden was interesting in that he had a funny mark-response power.  Specifically, he had two.  This gave him the ability to choose what he did in response.  Furthermore, he marked everybody around him, which was interesting.  As it ends up, the Warden is the class that taught me that only one Immediate Action could be used per round.  This was something of a downer, as Link became amazingly less ridiculous in battle.  However, it quickly made sense as the alternative was ever-so-slightly overpowered.

Other than that, most of the Warden powers were merely an opportunity to utilize all of the iconic Link tools that I could.  The Hookshot fit well into his pull powers, as did the Claw Shot.  The "transformation" power that Wardens get fit into the Majora's Mask "shape change" element; I just had to figure out which one he would best be represented by (in this case, the Goron).  Finally, naming the Mark powers after Navi and Midna seemed a good idea to tie him back to his source IP.

On Character Skinning: From Lounge Lizards to Sith Lords, and everything in between.

Some people, when they finish laughing at the absurdity of my custom character cards, ask why I bother.  That is a fair question but I want to respond with a side story.

In an Eberron game I am playing in, we recently added a player who will be playing a previously prominent NPC leading us on an adventure. A wealthy Lord, the DM made the character as a bard as he thought that captured the feel he was looking for. The player of this character had something to say about that, though...

"Song of Rest? No. I'm renaming that.  I call it '...the Sooner You'll Get Paid.'"

So, after a single session, the iconic image of a bard singing melodies of healing suddenly became an impatient nobleman prodding his hirelings to expedite the mission.  As he continued crossing out other power and feature  names only to replace them with more appropriate alternatives, the very nature of the character changed. He was no longer a bard. He did not sing or have an instrument. He was a cunning leader who knew the power of proper motivation.

And it's awesome.

That is the type of re-characterization that D&D4E can lead to. I think this is important to the game as it lets you take the mechanical trappings that the rules give you and make it the character you want.  With a little thought, any variety of ridiculous character can be created.
Now I understand tactical history!
  • Armchair tactician with a giant history book that he uses to defend himself? Lazy Warlord with a Warhammer & Shield (conceptualized as a single item).
  • Street Fighter's Dhalsim, a yoga master who shoots fire from his mouth? Pyromancer Mage.
  • Red Alert 2's Yuri, a mysterious psychic master with the ability to crush people with a thought? A psion.
I stopped playing AD&D back in the 1990s because I found the class system especially limiting. I felt you were pigeon-holed into what they thought you should be. A fighter fights and does little else. That never seemed fun.  I moved on to systems like GURPS, where I could make the character I wanted (and have to live with the consequences).  Now that I'm older, I realized that the D&D system can be flexible as you want it to be. You just have to be a little creative.

So, that is a good explanation for why I do this. Granted, the original motivation was to provide a series of alternative characters for D&D Encounters since Wizards of the Coast stopped providing new ones. However, it has become more of an expression of what the system really is capable of with the right thought process.

So, for those playing at a D&D Encounters game, I hope you use the novelty characters I have provided and enjoy the experience.  The sinister Sabrak dwarves of the Sunset Mountains, the vile Feywild hag Soryth, or the Lost Heir of Neverwinter will never expect Dhalsim, Link, and Leisure Suit Larry to stop them.

As an addendum, the art on this page was taken from the DeviantArt site for njay,  It has been used without permission but consistent with 17 U.S.C. 107 (Fair use).