Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Role-playing vs. roll-playing in Pathfinder

As our group eagerly anticipates this weekend's finale to our long-running and highly-enjoyable Kingmaker campaign (thanks, Tayloritos!), I find my gaming style has changed dramatically from what it was perhaps 5 or 10 years ago. I don't know if it is late-onset ADD, but last week as we battled hordes of minions in our quest to lay a beatdown on the evil fey queen, I came to the conclusion that a part of me was subconsciously hoping my current character would bite it. "Why?", you may ask. "Do you not like your character?" On the contrary, Pesker, the Arcane Trickster, is actually quite awesome. Though not a heavy hitter in the party, our barbarian, our ranger and our summoner's eidolon are far more impressive at that. He is, however, supernaturally stealthy and often waltzes through combats without a scratch. He's also quite versatile, having potent spellcasting and skills to draw from.

So, what's the problem?

The new hotness has worn off....after four sessions! Yeah, this isn't even the guy I started with. My original character is Dakros the First, Priest-King of Drekmore. Once the kingdom was well-established, it became clear to me that King Dakros would not continue to wander about the hinterland, risking his neck. He needed to rule his kingdom and lead his armies. So, I retired him from adventuring and created Pesker to serve as the King's Man and deal with the dangers that threaten from beyond the temporal borders of the realm. I've learned a lot from the short time of playing Pesker. Having never played an arcane trickster (magic-user/thief in old-school parlance) in either D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, I never had a good feeling for how to get the most synergy out of the combination. I see now that while rogues are pretty weak in Pathfinder, combining them with arcane spellcasting can make them pretty solid, especially using the Arcane Trickster PrC.

Anyway, getting back to the point of this post, it makes no sense that I should develop so little attachment to my character, that I am already looking at a replacement. I remember in my teenaged years playing the same character for years and being deeply invested emotionally in their survival. I even remember playing a dwarven fighter for months after he had hit his racial maximum and could not advance any further in levels. I can't even conceive of doing that now. Strangely, it seems my 15-year old self had a longer attention span than my 45-year old self. Or is it the nature of game today that encourages players to invest more in the "build" than the character itself? How do we get back to the "character-as-alter-ego" concept that tabletop rpgs are based on as opposed to playing a package of stats more akin to a boardgame or computer game? Would we even want to? Do any of you guys see this same trend or is it just me?


Thursday, May 26, 2011

All feats are not created equal

Love 'em or hate 'em, feats are probably the most prominent feature of D&D 3.x/Pathfinder as compared to previous incarnations of the beloved game. They have changed the whole concept of character generation. In the past, you chose your race and class and you were pretty much done making decisions about your character. From that point on, character development was story-driven. With the introduction of feats, the powergamers could go crazy. It's not uncommon for players like me who enjoy us some hardcore min/maxing from time to time to generate a character with 15 or 20 levels of character advancement already mapped out before we ever get to the gaming table. Heck, I've been known to spend a few hours of leisure time generating characters I have no intention of playing just to see what combination of feats I can come up with.

Spend any amount of time generating characters like this, you will soon realize some feats are way better than others. Some, like Iron Will and Toughness are just plain good, no matter what class you choose. Others like Point Blank Shot, Power Attack or Spell Penetration are indispensible for certain types of characters. Still others, like Intimidating Prowess or Catch Off-Guard are so lame, nobody would ever think of wasting a precious feat slot on them. Rarely, however, does a feat come along that is so good, it literally dictates character design decisions. In Ultimate Magic, there is such a feat. It is called Versatile Channeler. It allows neutral clerics of neutral dieties to use both positive and negative energy in their channeling. Without this feat, a player must decide at the time the character is generated which type of channeling he will use. With this feat, he can use both. He still has to choose which type will be the dominant one, but he can channel the other energy type as a cleric two levels lower (i.e. -1d6). This is huge and it means playing a good cleric has suddenly become a really bad choice. Expect to start seeing a lot more clerics of Gozreh and Pharasma showing up in your Pathfinder games.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pathfinder Character classes - Ranking.

After responding to Rognar's post (which was eaten by Blogger) I got to thinking about the rankings of character classes. I am going to do something that I am sure not everyone will agree with put them in order of greatness. I guess what I'm really ranking here is there ability to do everything(or anything) and excel at it.

1. Summoner. I have to put the summoner first because its almost 2 characters in one class. The Eidolon is basically a tripped out killing machine. It can unleash almost as much damage as the dedicated fighters while having much better AC, HP, and other abilities. The summoner himself is no slouch either. When the Eidolon is not the right tool for the job, he cast Summon Monster as a standard action and pull from the vast selection of critters available. His spell list is awesome gaining early access to lots of great spells including tons of buffs and utility spells. As Cha is the primary spell casting stat she can act as the party face or use UMD to cast just about anything. A summoner's versatility is unmatched.

2. Wizard. With foreknowledge and prep time the wizard can do it all. The wizard works best when complimenting the party and messing with the enemy.

3. Sorcerer. The Sorcerer has been improved to the point where it may now be better then the wizard especially if using the Human favored class ability to get more spells known which is the Sorcerers main drawback. With Cha as the primary casting stat, Sorc make great party faces. If only they had more skills.

4. Druid. While these guys along with clerics were kings in 3.5, the nerfs to polymorph hit them hardest. Druids still have tons of versatility but no longer can be awesome at everything. They have to choose whether they are combat kings or great spell casters. The other side suffers. They can still summon things as back-up.

5. Clerics. While clerics have lost all of the splatty 3.5 goodness and their best spells have been nerfed, clerics can still do a lot. Clerics are still really scary at high levels. The problem is that I find clerics to be boring to play until you get to high levels. At low levels they are poor fighters without rounds of prep time and most of their spells suck. They are the best healer but generally you are better off trying to kill the enemy than spending your actions doing low amounts of healing. Cleric Domains are nice and can really add some power to the class but not enough to make me want to play one.

6. Oracle. Haven't played one so its hard to judge for sure. 9th level casting goes a long way. Most divine spells are not really the type of thing you want to spam cast. Would have to see a min-maxed one in action to really be able to judge.

7. Witch. Witches are awesome or awful depending on what you are doing. Their limited spell selection hurts but its partially made up with Hexes. Witches are near useless against anything that is immune to mind affecting effects which includes many high end monsters. In anycase, they get a bit boring since you tend to cast the same hexes in same order fight after fight.

8. Alchemist. There are several different Alchemist builds and I think most can work quite well. The class looks fun to play with a wide variety of skills and abilities. The alchemist is a class that can do lots of things reasonably well.

The next three are all very similar but with a different focus. Their ranking are almost interchangeable.

9. Magus. Not having seen one in action I am guessing a bit here. I've built a couple test PCs and they seem quite effective at all levels. Their biggest problem is that they seem to need to be in melee for their best skills to work. They can cast from range of course but then they are just a poor wizard. Getting into the thick of things means requiring decent scores in dex, con and str. Str can be dropped if you are will be to pay the massive feat costs for the Dex to Damage feat chain. Magii can do scary damage at high levels - imagine delivering a critical disintegrate one out of three casts/swings. Of course you need a high enough DC for your opponent to fail the save.

10. Inquisitor. Useful both in and out of combat. Many of its abilities are free or swift actions. I think it would a scary good archer as long as the bane ability holds out. Has great spells but has limited spells known and gets them a bit late.

11. Bard. Yes, the Bard. In the right party, the bard is a game changer. A clever bard can make combat easy for everyone else but it's hard for the bard to shine alone. Lots of skills and probably the best party face in the game.

12. Ranger. While not the damage dealer the fighter is, the ranger brings much more to the game. A few spells and lots of spells give the ranger something to do when not making the enemy a pin cushion. The rangers ability to ignore prerequisites to certain feats is very powerful.

13. Fighter. The King of Damage. No one can unload more hurt then the fighter. Sure there isn't anything he can really do but at least what he does, he excels at.

14. Paladin. In certain campaigns the paladin will really shine. BBEGs quiver in fear at the sight of a paladin charging towards them (or scarier still shooting arrows). Paladins have unmatched defenses with high Saves and likely high AC. When they are not Smiting evil they can still act as the party face and have a few spells to play with. The paladin code is a real downer.

15. Barbarian. Trades damage for a bit of versatility. Rage powers don't really make up for the loss. I'd go fighter over barbarian any day.

16. Cavalier. The biggest problem with this class is the focus on a horse. In a campaign where you could take a horse with you everywhere, this class would scoot up the list but as it is it's down near the bottom. It has some interesting flavor but I can't see myself ever playing it.

17. Rogue. The poor rogue. Terrible saves. No dependable way to inflict sneak attack damage from range. Other classes get almost as many skills and bring so much more to the table.

18. Monk. While I am still digesting the magical oriented monk in UM, the only decent build of monk currently existing is the Zen Archer. Any other monk is likely going to be underpowered. The base monk is highly mobile and can annoy spell casters, but that's all. The monk has some neat tricks but that's all they are and the monk is quickly out shined by other party members.

Keep in mind just because I ranked something lower doesn't mean I would not play it. I really like rangers but they lack the versatility of other classes and one of their big powers hinges on the whims of the DM (Favored Enemy).

I've updated this post here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I miss power creep

One of the most common criticisms leveled at D&D 3.5 was power creep. Every new splatbook upped the ante with more powergaming options. I had my own misgivings about power creep at the time, but now I think what I disliked was not power creep, but the related problem of rules bloat. I have come to this conclusion as a result of my experience with Pathfinder. The good folks at Paizo have made controlling both power creep and rules bloat a top design priority. As a result, their release schedule for rulebooks has been far more modest than that of WotC. Since the Pathfinder Core Rulebook was published in August 2009, Paizo has only released the Gamemastery Guide, the Advanced Player's Guide the Pathfinder Bestiary, the Pathfinder Bestiary 2 and now, Ultimate Magic. Now, I appreciate the wisdom of releasing only about three rulebooks per year, but I wish the books that did come out had more awesomeness in them. The Advanced Player's Guide, for example, introduced six new base classes. I have played one, the Alchemist, while my co-blogger, Obiri has test-driven the Witch (ok, that sounded dirty) and the Summoner. I did like the Alchemist and Obiri's Summoner has proven pretty effective, but the Witch did not impress me much and the other classes, the Cavalier, the Oracle and the Inquisitor are so lame, no one has even bothered to give them an audition. Furthermore, despite a mountain of new feats, spells and alternative class features, I have found very little in the book that appeals to me unless I'm actually playing one of the new classes.

Well, now we have Ultimate Magic. I will leave it to Obiri to review UM, but I will make a few observations. It introduces one new base class, the Magus, which mirrors the Eldritch Knight prestige class (and even uses the same iconic art). I like the concept of a fighter/mage and so I may try the Magus at some point, but most of the rest of the book follows the same recipe as the APG, an occasional morsel of meat floating in a thin, bland broth. The problem is power creep, or more precisely, the lack of power creep. It's a delicate balance to produce new options for character generation that are just as cool as the old stuff, but not more powerful. It is a balance that neither WotC nor Paizo seems able to manage. WotC chose to throw caution to the wind and just kept ramping it up. However, they were able to keep most of the core classes relevent by giving them lots of new hotness in parallel with the new classes they introduced. Paizo has chosen the opposite approach, introducing less new stuff, most of which is less appealing than what was already released in the core rules. I'm sure many will disagree with me, but I'm starting to look back fondly on the WotC way of doing things.

Let the flaming begin!


Mongoose and RuneQuest/Glorantha part ways

Mongoose has announced it will discontinue its licensing agreement with Issaries to publish RuneQuest II and any related Glorantha-specific material. It will, however, retain its core MRQII rules, which it intends to repackage as a new fantasy rpg called Wayfarer. It will port its other IPs that use the MRQII rules (Deus Vult, Wraith Recon, Eternal Champion) to the Wayfarer system.

I really like the core rules and don't care much for the eccentricities of Glorantha, so this looks like it might be good news. However, my general opinion of Mongoose is that they have a tendency to bite off more than they can chew. In the case of MRQII, the core rulebook and Monster Coliseum were both quite well-done, but some of the later supplements, notably Necromantic Arts and Arms & Equipment were seriously flawed. Also, Mongoose doesn't have a reputation for timely releases of errata. So, I'm, at best, ambivalent about this development. If Mongoose gives Wayfarer the attention it deserves, it has the potential to be a truly first-rate game. I sincerely hope they get this project right.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Rippin' on...BattleTech

80s retro art from BattleTech classics, courtesy of Steve and Zack



Friday, May 13, 2011

Chthonian Stars at long last

Chthonian Stars has finally been released to much fanfare...ok, no fanfare. Still, it was the best-selling pdf on DriveThruRPG for a couple of days, so I can't be the only one who bought a copy. To recap, Chthonian Stars is a mashup of Alien, The Fifth Element and Call of Cthulhu. A rogue celestial body is approaching our solar system emitting some strange form of radiation which is causing all manner of apparently supernatural phenomena. Weird cults are popping up all over the solar system, ships are disappearing, atrocities are being committed by otherwise normal people and rumours of monster sightings circulate. The publisher, Wildfire, originally intended to release the game through Mongoose, using the Traveller ruleset. Something changed their minds and the game is undergoing a reboot. The new game will be called The Void and will use a new ruleset. However, there was much hype and excitement about the original idea and Chthonian Stars was pretty much complete when they decided to pull the plug, so they released it in pdf format.

The look of Chthonian Stars is very reminiscent of Wildfire's other rpg, CthulhuTech. It has the same artistic style and the same interspersed pieces of short fiction, although in general, I found the quality of the writing to be a bit inferior to CthulhuTech. It seemed to lack the same ability to inspire dread in the reader. Choosing to name one of the characters in one of the stories "Capt. Zack Bradigan" didn't help.

The setting of Chthonian Stars is a veritable cornucopia of future history tropes; a global economic crisis, a bushfire conflict in the Middle East leading to WWIII, a terrorist nuke and then everyone coming to their senses just in time, a golden age of cooperation and a return to space, colonization of the solar system and then, inevitably, an end to the glory days as the colonies grow restless. It is certainly a script we've all seen before, but it serves the campaign setting well enough. The "present" is the latter half of the 22nd century as the Chthonian Star approaches the solar system and end of the age of humanity looms.

Chapters on character generation and rule adaptations follow the setting description and they are fine. The default character concept is the Warden, basically a government agent mandated to investigate and, if possible, eliminate supernatural threats throughout the solar system. While other classes are certainly possible, only the Wardens have the authority to go anywhere from the mines of Mercury to the lonely outposts of the Kuiper Belt, thus making them the best choice for a party of investigators and they have a wide range of backgrounds so no two Wardens need be alike.

Technology seems to be a bit of an eclectic mix. Firearms are the default ranged weapon type. There are no lasers or particle beams, yet, oddly, there are some very high-tech melee weapon options including monofilaments and vibroblades. There is a surprisingly large number of space ship designs included in the game, warships, freighters, transports, shuttles, rescue vessels and the special "Knight's Errant Class" corvette used by the Wardens. There is no FTL capability and no artificial gravity, so setting aside the cosmic horror aspects, the game is quite hard sci-fi.

Following the chapters on equipment and ships, there is a chapter detailing the planets in the solar system as well as major extraplanetary bases and colonies. There is also a fairly extensive bestiary, which may be my favourite chapter in the book. My understanding is that a more detailed bestiary entitled Horrors of the Void is due to be released this summer as a pdf. If it is as good as the one in the core book, it should be excellent.

The last two chapters in the book are intended primarily for gamemasters. One deals with gamemastering in general. It includes advice on how to run a game, as well as a list of plot hooks and rumours GMs can use to get things moving. The other provides a lot of secret information on the setting as well as a few short adventures. I was a bit surprised by how much of the background on the Chthonian Star was actually revealed in this section. It's common for rpg designers to leave a lot of those details up to the GM to decide, but not in this case. It is well-advised that players keep away from the last chapter.

All in all, Chthonian Stars is a decent offering and given that Horrors of the Void will be the only supplement released for the game in this form, it should make for a nice complete game requiring only the core Traveller book to play. The setting is, perhaps, a bit less compelling than that of CthulhuTech, but it avoids the clunky Framewerk game mechanics, making it, in my opinion, a better and more playable Cthulhu space horror game.


Cross-posted at Rognar's Space Horror RPG Blog

Rippin' on Magic the Gathering...again

Zack and Steve take another shot at MtG.

Magic the Gathering


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ultimate Magic

As subscribers start to get their PDFs, the spoilers are going up on the Paizo message board just as they did with the APG. It will be at least a week before our FLGS gets a copy so I have to get by on spoilers until then.

I am eagerly looking forward to this book for a couple reasons. My summoner character in our current Kingmaker game is level 16 and probably will only a gain another level maybe 2 before its over. My eidolon has pretty much maxed out its awesomeness and each level there is only a small list of evolutions worth considering adding. I'm hoping to see one or two that I can slap on before the big boss fight art the end of the campaign (although the last few sessions seem to be mainly big boss fights and we kill off the greater henchmen and minions).

The biggest reason I'm looking forward to this book is to redeem clerics and druids. In 3.5 these were two of the strongest classes but each has been hit rather hard with the nerf bat in Pathfinder. The druid now has to focus on either casting of shape shifting both of which are now weaker then they were in 3.5 when the druid could do both.

The cleric has great high level spells but the low level ones that are not buffs largely suck. Even some of the best cleric buffs have been nerfed. The default way to play a cleric is as a support character. I find support characters boring. To me the most fun part of the game is rolling the dice and support characters don't have to do that. Your fellow PCs are not going to try to dodge or save against your buffs or blocks your heals with Spell Resistance. The problem is with the current spell list its hard to play any other way until late in the game. Low level debuffs are terrible compared to a wizard, and clerics lack any other meaningful offensive spells. You can try to play as a battle cleric but to be offensive you need to buff yourself for a couple rounds since all of your good buffs have a really short duration. By the time the battle cleric is ready to party, the ranger has kissed all the women and the barbarian drunk all of the booze. The options a battle cleric had to buff in 3.5 are not available in Pathfinder. The only option is Quicken Spell and its not until level 15 or 17 that you can quicken the best buffs like Divine Power and Righteous Might. What I'm hoping to see is an expanded spell list for clerics that give them options to be anything other then healer/buffer.

The druid doesn't have it quite so bad (ie boring) but its spell list could use some jazzing up as well.

I'm looking forward to seeing the Magus. This sort of character which is a blend of sword and sorcery seems right up my alley but we'll have to see how it is implemented. The version in the Beta was ok but needed a stronger spell list for me to want to play it.