Thursday, April 28, 2011

I've Packed My Bags and Moved...Over Here

Well, seeing how easy it was to flip a switch and not be on a blog with as many comment issues (I hope), I've moved to Should be easy to remember, hey?

All of my gaming content, and some of my reviews, have been replicated at that new joint. So have all extant comments. It's basically here, but over there, and you should be able to comment freely.

Join me, won't you?.

Comments...For Reals?

So I've just heard from my players (driven en masse to the blog by my hunger for interaction) that it's apparently impossible, or at least difficult, to comment.

Now, I've had errors in comments on similar blogs (including mine on occasion) in the past, to the point where I always just ctrl-c my comment and then hit preview; after preview it usually works.

But I think I only had those errors with Safari, whereas now I'm a firefox man.

I am curious, for anyone what reads this, if they've had problems commenting--and can use that method to successfully leave a comment. Regardless, I'm looking at either a fix for the comment issue or a change of venue. Especially because I seem to be finding many threads asking for a fix to the comment issue, but none showing that such a fix exists.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A-Z Action: G iz da Greenskinz!

Orcs are important.

They're so iconic to a fantasy setting that when they crop up in Sucker Punch, it's not even necessary to ever say the name. You see the gross-skinned dudes and recognize them immediately. I've written something in the neighborhood of seven different campaign worlds in the last sixteen or so years, and orcs have played a major part in nearly every one of them. The complexity of my orcish cultures has grown alongside my familiarity with the rules, exposure to fantasy literature, and desire for a deeper gameworld. I find them such a useful foil to other societies in a campaign, and so convenient when you need a knot of hardbodies to throw at the players, that I'm continually attempting to refine and revisit how their society functions in relation to the rest of the world.

My "first" campaign was actually a research project for a class in middle school. I taught myself and a few friends how to play DnD, and then we played a game, and I gave a presentation on it. I managed to make DnD homework, and thus subsidize purchasing both books and dice. It may remain my proudest moment. However, the campaign itself was fairly generic, albeit homebrewed. I focused on a Norse-inspired campaign in a chilly waste, spread the civilizations out, and generally made things violent and rough. In that setting, orcs were pretty well just orcs. I was still learning most of the themes that undergird DnD, and fantasy in general.

My next campaign was a much more involved affair, entirely crafted from the ground up. I wrote the gods, drew up the map, and created my own riffs on the races; I think there were twelve different elven races alone, along with three dwarven races and three half-undead races. Orcs still lived in the far north, and generally kept to themselves. When their population reached a certain critical mass, however, they embarked on a massive military campaign that swept southward, crushing any kingdom in their way. This violence was partially due to the connection I drew between the race and Orcus (c'mon, look at the names); for these orcs, slaughter was a holy rite. To represent these violent traits, I created an exhaustive list of special orc weapons, because this was 2e and weapons generally had separate damage values for creatures of different sizes. All orcish weapons were less effective against large creatures, but generally a half- to full-step more damaging against medium creatures. Orcs were basically vicious slaughtermongers, and the party had a pretty thrilling stand against an army of them...which ended when one of the players just Wished that there weren't any orcs. At that point, the party was shifted to a version of the campaign world prior to the creation of the race....aaand, we graduated and didn't do much more gaming.

I was busy with pushups and pledgeship during my first semester of college, and being sad over the fact that there were no women at my school during the second semester. There was a lot of Dashboard Confessional during these days, and no gaming. I did become pretty involved with Warcraft, though, and the presentation of orcs in that lore helped me to see the race in a different light. I'm pretty sure Warcraft had actually influenced my Orcus-orcs too, since I'd played quite a bit of WCII during high school. However, seeing the orcs tied into a noble culture that was simply distinct from humanity was as impactful for my thought process as Jack Faust and Lovecraft had been.

My next campaign actually had more than one continent (a first for me) and orcs were relatively isolated from the "main" civilizations of the gameworld. They shared their homeland with a vast gnollish slaver society and a jungle full of cannibalistic elves and one of my four kobold subspecies. I still kept the traditional orcish focus on violence and warfare, but flipped things and made them extremely sophisticated. Their culture was a combination of psuedo-fuedal Japan and Aztec myth, all placed in an ashen volcanic wasteland. They rocked obsidian katana and served the first daughter of the grinning locust god of fire and the regal queen of winter. I still feel this is one of my more fascinating approaches to orcdom, even though it never got much of a spotlight in a game mostly focused on...and I swear this is totally different than Tinderbox...a goblin slave rebellion in the largest established empire of the gameworld.

It really was different, I promise.

I've already discussed the orcish presence in Tinderbox, but what has me thinking about them now is that I started recently started playing Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. I've long loved the whole Warhammer universe (Fantasy and 40k), and have read many of the army codices...despite having never played the game. I did play Dawn of War and most of its expansions, and of course had HeroQuest as a young lad. The Man Known As Larkins and I were going to try playing some 40k using the starter set, but every attempt we've made to do any sort of gaming seems to trigger crises and obligations on a cosmic scale.

Even without a direct experience of the setting, though, I'm thoroughly enamored with its themes and concepts. The tone is much darker than most fantasy (save maybe Joe Abercrombie's First Law, or Martin's shit-hot series I shouldn't need to name), and it revels in that darkness. However, there are elements of extremely grim humor scattered throughout the world as well, especially with the Skaven and---as you'd hope I'd get to, given the general topic of this post---the orcs.

So I loaded up WAR to check out that free trial, and after making my obligatory run at the pet class (Squig Herder), I tried a Black Orc. And I love him. For those unfamiliar, orcs in Warhammer are markedly distinct from their representation in other settings. They reproduce by shedding spores, for instance, and have a Saiyan-esque ability to grow more powerful through conflict. They also, awesomely, grow bigger, which you can see in WAR by comparing a Black Orc (which are, canonically, the largest and strongest orcs in a community) to a Choppa (which are, creatively, orcs what cut things). Orcs have dense muscles, thick skin, and heavy bones...they're elephants amok with crudely-sharpened weapons. They fight each other, they fight other races, and if you were to stand one in front of the mirror, they would fight that.

And this just works for me. Despite my predilection for complexity, despite my almost pathological need to dig just that little bit deeper into backstory, I love orcs who are dumb as bricks and built like houses. My very favorite part of logging into WAR is getting to the character select screen, where all the characters are shown arrayed on a two-level platform. When you mouseover each character, they display some sort of animation. The Chosen of Chaos unleash a mighty roar if they're blade and shield wielders, or a more demure fist pump if they rock a two hander. The goblin Shaman leaps back away from the pointer as though terrified of your attention.

The Black Orc repeatedly smashes himself in the head with his sword. And it is the bright spot in my day.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A-Z Action: F gets you Faustian Bargains

Unlike when I describe something as "Kafka-esque," I've actually read Faust. It was pretty great, and the same class also had us reading Il Corbaccio which lacked as much pinching of the pope, but provided some awesome names. Just about every Aeon I had in FFX had a name from Corbaccio. Including Corbaccio.

However, I'd been gripped by the idea of the Faustian Bargain since high school, specifically because I read a novel called Jack Faust. Jack was one of those books I happened to see at the Public Library (I spent 8-10 hours a week there during the latter days of high school) and grabbed on a whim.

The book pretty well follows the plot you'd expect, and that's a fairly spoiler-free Wiki article---especially since you probably know how Faust ends already. I'm going to briefly provide some marginal spoilers, though it's seriously all stuff you run into in the beginning of the book (at least, as well as I can remember from a book I read over a decade ago).

The one element in the Wiki article that is misleading is the suggestion that the story is a "modernization" of Faust. The jumping off point for the story was the same, but what happened next...well, it was profoundly impactful, and shaped how I've crafted my villains ever since.

Basically, Faust does get a visit from Mephistopheles, only the name is spelled with all manner of symbols tied to math and science. This is becomes the book's Mephistopheles is essentially an astral construct formed of the combined consciousnesses of an entire race of hyper-intelligent aliens. Placed next to humanity (especially pre-Industrial Revolution humanity), these aliens have vastly superior technology but infinitesimal lifespans. They've deduced that their entire race will die out within a small handful of human years, and have decided to bestow some of their wisdom and knowledge on the human race---through Faust---so that it will not be lost.

What's awesome, though, is that the Mephistopheles entity is not doing this out of any sense of altruism. Instead, it wants to do its level best to drive humanity to destruction before, or at the very least shortly after, it expires. Mephistopheles knows that granting Faust advanced scientific knowledge so early will utterly destabilize society, freak people out, and topple nations. It tells him this. In fact, part of the bargain its offering is that Faust has to agree to actually seeing the consequences of his knowledge (through some sort of psychic precognition projection) before it will tell him anything. Faust has to see the ruin to which he will bring the world, accept responsibility for it ahead of time, and then get into bed with the very entity who has expressed such an unwholesome desire for bringing it about.

Obviously, Faust signs the ledger. I'll be honest, other than a scene where a nun has bite marks on her thighs because she likes to get naughty, I don't actually remember much else from the book. It was a good book, and it had an ending, but that's never been what stuck with me.

Mephistopheles, though, is never far from my thoughts. The idea of an entity being so close to omnipotent, yet so utterly petty, is really compelling. You see the same thing in Goethe's Faust too, and it's a significant theme there to watch how bored Faust is with his power. But for me, understanding how to build a monster with that mindset is much more important. DnD has long had a malevolent menagerie of fiends, all striving to capture souls for their designs. However, as much as I love the old-school Larvae as currency concept, it never really justified demons getting involved with mankind to me. They'd come to the world, exert their power at the bidding of some master, wait out its natural lifespan, and then have, in essence, a dollar for their wallet.

Understanding how a creature could be brilliant, and powerful, and petty helped change that. It opened up other emotions that might influence or motivate an entity too; around the same time I read Jack Faust I got deeply into Lovecraft. Getting into Lovecraft while being a young man of mixed Norwegian/African American descent is probably an entry in its own right, but whatever H.P.'s views on miscegenation, the entities he crafted remain so very, very compelling. I've read nearly every "legitimate" Lovecraft story (meaning I haven't sat through everything Derelth passed off as his work) and particularly recall "The Music of Erich Zahn" and Azathoth a window into another way that a character could interact with an entity of greater power. It's only too easy to appropriate the core elements of that story in order to build, say, a Bard whose musical attacks are actually the discordant rhythms necessary to placate some fell and unknowable entity that dogs her steps. If the Bard stops getting into dangerous scrapes, stops sawing at her fiddle until her fingers bleed, then the entity will find the sonic walls of its prison thin enough to reach a glistening psuedopod into our world--surely with dire results.

The first article I ever wrote for publication--internet publication, for the Stygian e-zine produced by the Realms of Evil back when it was my gaming home of choice--discussed consequences of characters who draw power from otherworldly forces. Since I was still playing 3.x at the time, the focus was on how characters learning spells in the Vancian system risked damaging their psyches if the incantations had Infernal, Supernal, or even Draconic sources. It also posited the same risks for any sort of interaction with such creatures (such as by the various Consult... spells). I wanted to suggest that just dealing with that sort of immortal mindset was fundamentally opposed to the way a mortal's mind needs to function, and therefore twisted a lesser race's mind out of whack.

I'm still playing with bargains, power sources, and patrons with agendas. Fourth Edition's presentation of a Warlock who had three pact sources was something I immediately gravitated towards; as I think I may have mentioned in another entry, it's something some of my friends (as were others, and Wizards themselves) already played with in 3.x. I think that it's a shame I see so many Warlocks being rolled without any particular thought to the nature of the relationship between pact-granter and pact-signer, when for me that's probably the most interesting part of the Warlock. My first Warlock was styled as a Sumerian priest (the campaign was heavily focused on its desert setting) who had a monotheistic relationship with a (fictional) deity represented by a particular star. Essentially, he behaved as though he had divine powers granted to him, and was treated thusly by his peers. The harsh, unforgiving brilliance of the star he served helped shape a whole society--one that I wrote as part of his backstory--where the dominant faith wasn't actually worshiping a god, and thus had only limited and costly access to benevolent abilities. All acts of resurrection, warding, healing, and so forth were a result of ritual magic, not granted powers, and thus the priesthood focused on its punishing arm rather than its gentle one.

Similarly, players can tap into capricious Fey lords, but I rarely see them do so. The fact that the Fey pact combines an emphasis on psychic damage with invisibility, debuffs, and teleportation all suggest some frightfully domineering and manipulative masters to me. The tragically underserved Dark pact almost feels like a better fit for Lovecraftian entities than the Star, cosmic ties for the latter nonwithstanding. Despite this, I've never seen someone roll up a Warlock who serves a Cthulan deep-sea entity. My own Dark pact chestnut is a dragonborn whose patrons are three Deva of decadent and sinful pasts. His powers (all taking advantage of that feat which adds necrotic damage to poison damage and vice versa) actually represent him spiritually siphoning away their misdeeds. Their goal is to have him (and those who've come before, and those who are likely to take up the mantle after) bleed away all of their debauchery prior to their deaths, so that they won't rise as Raksha.

The Vestige pact, which I'd expect to be the most promising source of this kind of thing, doesn't seem all that well suited to it in practice. I think it's because the pact is presented so anomalously, serving as a collection of allegiances rather than a single declaration of loyalty with some smaller favor-currying, as the other pacts are. Perhaps if one reskinned the two base vestiges to represent organizations (something like the Scryer/Aldor of Burning Crusade) with some sort of enmity. That way the player juggles versatility in his vestige use with currying greater favor with one side or another; either way, he's even more motivated to learn as many new vestiges as possible in order to have access to powers that won't tie him to the two organizations.

How much of this sort of thought do you put into your characters, dear reader? Do you prefer to turn to the DM for such personalities and considerations, either by expecting them to have it already prepped or by letting them develop it in response to your character concept? Or is the entire idea of bargains with entities much more powerful than your character wholly unappealing?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A-Z: E is for Enmity

I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. It's all online via message board these days, though, and that's a medium with a tremendous turnover and failure rate. Awesome game ideas crop up, recruit players, and then...well, not every game comes back after a three month hiatus.

This means that I roll lots of characters, and that works out for me. Melding concept to prose and mechanics is my favorite part of the game anyway, and crafting characters and monsters are two very different sources for that joy. What makes creating characters for PbP different from most tabletop groups, though, is that it's generally a competition. I do most of my gaming with some fraction of the same eight or so person pool, but most of the games we run end up being open to the entirety of Myth-Weavers. This means that characters are almost never created in a vacuum, which is to say "Oh, this would be cool to play so I'm going to play it."

The decision matrix is usually more of "Hmm, lot of Defenders in the thread, little light on Leaders, I'll roll something in that direction." Since I've been doing the DnD thing for a long time, am a capable writer, and know the system, I'm usually not avoiding a well-populated roll to increase my chances of making the cut. However, I try to be understanding of the limits on some folks' time and inspiration, so unless I'm rolling into a game with the express desire I actually embrace these limitations, because having a few walls to bounce my thoughts off of helps increase my creativity. However, as a consequence of my looking at the constellation of submitted apps before I create a character, I almost never play strikers.

It's understandable that strikers comprise a significant chunk of almost any applicant pool. There are more of them, for one thing. They often feel more unique than other classes, I imagine, since the "thing" with a striker is that they have some special way of ladling on a little extra damage. I also imagine there's an element of the same issue that WoW is currently trying to solve in its Dungeon Finder, as well: people seem to prefer playing strikers. I think they're probably less stressful, especially in a full group with competent players occupying every role.

I'm not saying that playing DPS is easy, or doesn't require talent, or is for babies, or anything of the sort. Many strikers are actually very fragile, compensating for this with decent defenses. I think it's commendable that 4e has introduces some strikers who break this mold, and manage to be pretty beefy front-liners without stepping on defendery toes---though you think they'd appreciate that sort of thing (*rimshot*). But survivability is usually a concern with a striker, particularly if you have a DM who focuses fire on the greatest threats on the board (which are usually you, Jack Johnson, and Tom O'Leary).

Still, more people are willing to sign on for some roguery or a little sorcery than the burden of healing the party, taking those hits, or...and frankly, this one surprises me...controlling.

When I do have the chance to roll up some strikage, I find myself drawn back to Avengers again and again. This is interesting to me, because if I divided strikers into categories (I will not say tiers. I won't do it), Avengers would actually be just off the ladder. I'm not an optimizer, but bear with me:
  • Category Radagory These strikers basically just get their extra damage. It's essentially free, or requires next to no effort to arrange. I think of these characters as being "above" the core Striker curve, and it's worth noting that they arrived on the scene after the PHB. It never really seems like the quality of these classes' damage is penalized for their versatility. For instance, stack up the three boosts a Sorc gets (Damage increase, Resistance bypass, High damage dice on attacks) and compare that to a Warlock.

    Note that I'm not saying these classes are overpowered; they're awesome, and fun to play. I like knowing that if I'm getting someone into the game for the first time, and know they'll enjoy having big damage rolls and a high body count, I can hand them a Barbarian or Sorc and watch them go wild. And watching Hexblades go from ridiculous in 3e to utterly dope now is very entertaining.
    Classes in this category: Barbarian, Hexblade, Monk, Sorcerer
  • Category Gladegory These strikers still get extra damage, but it tends to require more work on their end. This work usually involves some combination of using an action and/or handling their positioning. That's cool, it provides a sense of strategy, but it's much more likely that a striker in this category finds himself incapable of rocking some critical damage on a key dude. That's why the "closest target" stuff seems odd to me: if I'm the party's archer (I would never be the party's archer) and the evil wizard, on the other end of the room, gets buck-wild on some nefariousness, it's my job to shoot him. Shoot him all Legolas style where he swats at the arrow in his throat, chokes, and falls down. But both Prime Shot and Quarry demand that I whittle away on the dudes closest to me.

    Was the idea that the guys closest to me were the biggest threat to my squishyness, and I need a boost for dropping them? I really don't understand it. Ultimately, I just feel badly for Warlocks, and am excited to see them get the Essentials bump to their efficacy. Rangers suffer too, I suppose; but if I'm playing a Ranger I am probably playing a beastmaster, and therefore enjoy much more flexibility in who I get wicked on.

    Interestingly, Rogues are vacillating between this category and the first one, thanks to the bump they got in Essentials (especially dealing their boosty damage once a turn) and some of the at-wills they now have access to. A player in the Red Hand game I'm in pretty well deals Sneak every round, often keeping his target facedown the whole time. I've loved Duelist's Flurry for ages (that article was one of the best Dragon has produced) because it changes the Rogue from a dude with a relatively light weapon to a rogue with a hyper-accurate maul. My preference with Rogues, though, is to bear down on that Rattling action and get the Str boost to my damage.
    Classes in this category: Rogue, Ranger, Warlock
  • Category Avadagory This category is pretty much the Avenger. And, as I said, I love the Avenger. I enjoy the flavor, how they seem to just reek of awesome at a basic level. I can make an awesome Cleric, or a really captivating Druid. But I don't really need to make an Avenger awesome; she's a super-dedicated chick who just wants to get that vengeance on. I think rolling twice is awesome. I think it's awesome, in no small part, because of my horrible dice luck.

    Fun Aside: I'm currently playing in an Epic game, where I replaced a departed defender (well, we actually have to kill that defender now, but the pilot abandoned the helm). I'm fighting creatures that I hit on a 5 or 6, for the most part. My last three rolls have been 2, 3, and 4.
Anyway, Avengers are also a class I tell new players about, because I think that the idea of getting a double roll is viscerally and immediately appealing. If you've never played 4e, you may have a hard time understanding how valuable "+Str" to damage, or even an additional 1d6, will actually be. Perhaps you know things have more hp in this edition compared to previous ones, so that further devalues the significance of a little damage bump. But a second chance to hit, and double your base chance to crit; these are things anyone can appreciate. But do you see what I did there? What I always do? I forget that Avengers have a damage boost; in my mind, their damage boost is just being able to roll twice. This is because Avengers are the only striker (did I miss something weird in Essentials?) who can't control when they add their extra damage. It's not even a question of positioning, or "Do I have a spare minor action?" It's also not an issue where you're choosing between doing your extra damage to a sub-optimal target or wailing away on the guy you want to shoot. The only way any of the Avengers get a bump on their damage is if the DM gives it to them. There's the occasional corner-case, of course: you could have the party's Enchanter make a dude hit you, so your Isolating Avenger gets a bump against his Oath target. I don't even think Fear-style forced movement (where you're actually forcing the target to move, rather than sliding/pulling/pushing him) triggers Pursuing's power boost. That does leave Unity Avengers, who have a much easier time triggering their bonus; they'll often play like a somewhat shabby Rogue. The leaderish elements of their At-Will helps balance things out slightly, so that while I may only be dealing an extra 1 or 2 points (at heroic, which is what I'm usually thinking about), I'm also bumping a buddy by 3 or so on a hit. Unity Avengers are interesting, though, in that you end up playing them more like the original 4e Battlerager; you don't want to go first, because you want certain other things to happen before you make your attack. Am I alone in seeing Avengers as being a class apart? I do grok that they have access to a wider array of deadly weapons than most strikers. Monks can also use lots of weapons, but it doesn't generally affect their damage without certain feats/features. Barbarians, though, can---and usually should---use tremendous two-handers, to which they're adding even more damage. Plus, rogues can just wield rapiers without a feat now, and that skews the whole assumption that strikers with big damage bonuses use weaker weapons.

So, again: Avengers, while beloved by this guy, feel as though they occupy a funny position in the world of strikers. Amiright?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A-Z Action: D is for Disciplines

Psionic Discipline, obviously. I love me some psionics, and have since 2e. I don't really count pre-2e manifestations as a full system, though some might make the same argument about the Complete Psionics Handbook as well.

As an aside, the first time I undertook to provide an in-depth counseling session as a young man, I tried to guide my best friend through struggles of the heart using only the knowledge of psychology gleaned from the back of the Complete Psionics Handbook. And, while he didn't listen, everything I said was completely accurate.

I think that I could hold up 2e's Psionics as an argument in favor of the streamlined, some might say homogenized approach of 4th edition. Back in the day, psionics gave players a tremendous amount of versatility and flexibility, but the cost was that a lot of the powers were incredibly unhelpful. This is not to say that it was impossible to find a use for seeing sound or feeling light, but the process of activating and maintaining most powers was Byzantine enough that you really had to work at it. Meanwhile, the fighter's kicking in the door and stabbing orcs, and the wizard is dropping lightning on dudes...but by dammit, if the evil Duke puts some poison in a goblet, you're sure as hell going to be the one to notice! After drinking it! Good luck!

It was tough, as a young man, not to gravitate solely towards the promise of the few Major powers that had some damage-dealing capacity. It was equally difficult not to fall to the temptation of just creating Dimension Doors and shoving dudes halfway through them, which was---if memory serves---the second-most damaging power in the book after Disintegrate. The mental powers were cool in theory, but prior to the simplified Dark Sun rules for mental combat, using them was...inelegant. Inelegant like pausing a tennis match and forcing both players to wrestle a greasy sow. Or that simile. The Metapsionic powers were so heartily dependent on a campaign full of psionics that I never once saw a player touch them. Again, though, we were in high school; I'm sure homebrew campaigns existed where psionicists engaged in pulse-pounding mental combat while chatting amiably with friends at a gala ball.

My campaigns, people mostly took Psychometabolic/Psychokinetic powers, made their hand a sword, and hoped they rolled something awesome on the Animal Affinity table.

Nonetheless, I loved psionics. I loved the Discipline presentation. Sure, mages and clerics had their spells compartmentalized into schools/domains (Were they called domains in 2e? Looking this up would be cheating, but I feel ancient for not knowing off the top of my head), but even a specialist wizard was basically just saying "I can sacrifice Charm Person for easier access to Fireball." The Disciplines seemed so exotic, so distinct, and so wholly defining that it felt much more heavily like a choice.

I loved Psionics in 3e too; both times, actually. The first iteration gave me my beloved Disciplines, an awesome new way to play in the Psychic Warrior (A psionicist who does die immediately when glared at!), and all of the slightly clumsy, fumbling complexity I'd come to expect. Still, I'm not going to claim for even a moment that I didn't prefer the reworking of the system for 3.5. Frankly, even though I bemoaned the creation of 3.5 alongside much of the internet, I vastly preferred everything about it.

I though that the new Augment approach was a powerful way to distinguish psionics from magic (Though I can tell I've fully settled in 4e, because that sentence was originally "psionic magic from magic."). I liked that it allowed characters to approach having "always on" powers at the expense of versatility. It's entirely likely that people were doing this for years prior through a combination of metamagic feats, but I've never liked metamagic feats; out of the several-score 3e and 3.5 characters I've made, I don't think I ever took one other than Natural Spell. Even without enjoying the metamagic approach, though, I appreciated how psionics provided a counterpart to its approach; instead of applying the same rote alteration to all of my incantations, I might tweak this power one way for a certain encounter, while fiddling with it in a different fashion later. Obviously, I didn't much care for metapsionic feats, which seemed unnecessary to me; I imagine they were necessary to someone who builds their characters with an eye towards mathematical optimization though, and so they existed.

This era's psionics did an even better job of distinguishing Disciplines, and making a character whose interest was telepathy feel wholly different from one who wanted to agitate molecules with his mind. I still fancied the psychometabolic powers, but I also fell fast and hard for the improved approach to metacreativity.

I love summons. I love options. I love refluffing powers.

Being able to combine those three was a dream. For me, the fun of running a summoner is in treating her minions as additional characters. Constructing their appearances, their powers, and their history was almost as fun as writing the summoner herself. I built one memorable character (whose update to 4e for the game I mentioned last entry is part of what spurred this topic) around a variety of Astral Constructs with names like "Screaming Aisha" and "The Orphan Forge." Each Construct was an elaborately described denizen of the Abyss, and I detailed their histories and ecologies before devoting at least a paragraph to how the character summoned each one. Obviously, that sort of reflavoring could just as easily be applied to summoned monsters, or even Nature's Ally creatures; but being able to build the monster to my specifications was something only psionics could bring me.

I wrote another beloved character using the psionics rules, including what I still consider to be the most broken element therein. Since psionic races manifested their innate "psi-like" powers by spending power points equal to their level (for free!), Duergar expansion quickly got ridiculous. I built a psychometabolizing ninja duergar who spent the entire game invisibly, Huge, and heavily beclawed. In the era of the one-encounter workday, being able to enhugify oneself for two hours was just about as good as permanent.

There's a reason, other than the alphabet, why I'm waxing rhapsodic about the psionics of yore: try as I might, I've yet to fall in love with those of 4e.

I already spoke about how dreamy the Battlemind is, and in particular how much I like Body Double. That's all true, but Body Double could be a Daily stance and I'd still be pumped about the whole thing. I also think Monks are neat, because I've always loved monks; but they're a psionic class in name (and feat selection) only. The "true" psionic classes, the ones with the wonky augmentation powers, don't get me as pumped as I would like.

I've rolled some, certainly, but most don't make it past the planning stages. I'm playing one now and about to submit two more to other games, but I'm largely doing the latter because I'm stubborn. I know I'm not playing psionic characters, I feel like I should, so I'm making some. I could as easily have presented either character as wholly different classes or combinations thereof. I'm excited about both characters...but I'm still not excited about psionics.

And, to return to the tip-topic of this post, I think the reason is partially Disciplines. It's partially the new Augment approach, though.

I loved Augmentation back when it was taking a power that stood on its own, and sacrificing future resources to make that power better at standing on its own by improving whatever it was already doing. Certainly, some augmentation options had other effects; my aforementioned Duergar got excellent use out of using his racial expansion reactively, for instance. But in general the idea behind each augment was direct. If the power didn't gain a linear or multiplicative bonus, such as doing more dice of damage or increasing its duration by a tremendous factor, then it usually gained some benefit to its core application---ie, an attack power targeting more creatures.

In 4e, I can use my at-will power to perform fairly standard feats, some of which can get impressive at higher levels; I can also spend some of my precious power points to get an encounter-power's worth of use out of the same attack. I'll do more damage, affect more targets, or have some other greater effect.

However, 4e augmented powers go through this awkward pubescent stage that feels like leveling a Magicarp. I can spend roughly half the resources I otherwise would, but gain an effect that is "better" albeit more hyperspecialized. So, so hyperspecialized.

Some of these middle powers actually remind me of 2e's Metapsionics. There's an obsession with the Will defense that doesn't serve much purpose if you're fighting goblin archers, or earth elementals, or (non-cranium) rats, or kruthiks. Some of the corner cases are handy, like the at-will I just picked up for my lvl 1 Ardent that can heal a dying ally. Since the power normally grants thp, being able to bring a friend back to his feet is great.

Except that for two power points instead of one, I could grant that same friend a healing surge. And if I choose to bring the friend back from the dead before I've popped that two-point use, and I'm level 1 (as I am) I no longer have that option for the rest of the fight. I can certainly see an argument being made that having 2 shots (for 2 power points) at bringing a dying ally back is better than one. But I also just spent two paragraphs scrabbling to find a justification for an attack. I don't have to spend two paragraphs justifying Spinning Strike.

Trying to pick powers for a 4e psionic character is an exercise in exhaustion, blended with guilt. It's exhausting to try and juggle the value of three different applications of each of five or six potential at-will powers, then determine which of your extant at-wills (after level 3) you're going to drop. It's a process rife with guilt, at least for me, because I find myself just skipping the middle powers. I absolutely appreciate the attention my beloved psionics got in 4th edition. I think it's awesome that they were given so many powers, with such depth. But I can't shake the feeling that the powers themselves would have been much more exciting---body double exciting---if designers hadn't had to worry about that weird middle state while designing them. And while I'm hoping to discover that the middle-tier options are super awesome, and I love writing things that I will later prove wrong, I feel like I'd be just as satisfied with my characters if they completely skipped those middle riders.

Or, at least, my Ardent. I recognize that psions get off a lot better than the melee classes, since so many of their powers pick up an extra target or throw out some more damage. It may be that I just don't like how Ardents work, which is part of why I'm rolling with one.

Either way, though, the other thing I miss from 4e psionics is the ability to specialize in a Discipline. I'm fine flavoring my powers along certain lines, and normally I love the wide open power selection of 4e. But I definitely wouldn't mind seeing psions, or even battleminds, get the Essentials Mage treatment. A metabolic battlemind picking up temporary hitpoints and forming weapons like the Warhammer: Age of Reckoning Marauder would be sweet. A psion who flickers and teleports all around the map, leaving deadly whorls of distorted space in his path, would also be awesome.

I recognize that the design intent seems to be a splitting of extant Disciplines into receptacles roughly shaped like the original 3.5 psionic classes, and as far as that goes I think Wizards was successful. But the end result is that the power source, as a whole, lacks that extra layer of depth that I've previously enjoyed.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A-Z Action: C is for Crutch (Is Writing Good Speeches for Stupid Characters Cheating?)

I'm a bad roleplayer. I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons, without significant gaps, for around 17 years. I built my first race about 12 hours after I first touched a PhB. By the time I finished high school six or so years later, I'd written two massive, sprawling campaign worlds, something like 30 races, a like number of classes, untold monsters, and so, so many pages of adventure plots.

I've probably played 200 different characters, spread out over all the Rpgs I've enjoyed. Many of them, I've loved. Many of them, other folks have loved. Occasionally (though less often than you might think) characters fall into both groups. I've played men, women, faeries, robots, elementals, bad ideas, and mythical figures. I've been the hero, the heel, the lover, and the speechless. I've had characters who've grown to dominate games, and characters who've grown to dominate DMs; to the point where they've built games to give the characters a home. I've made characters so vile, so domineering, or so weird that they've more or less broken games, sometimes before they even started.

I know the rules...for pretty much anything. I've spent hours pouring over rulebooks and builds and suggestions for games that I have never played, or played once, or don't even want to play (but love to read). It's pretty fair to say that my life is, barring the occasional John Cusackian romantic folly, dedicated to gaming.

And yet, I am a terrible roleplayer.