Review: The Mark of Nerath by Bill Slavicsek

The Mark of Nerath by Bill Slavicsek
The Mark of Nerath by Bill Slavicsek

When it was revealed that with the advent of 4th Edition that the newest edition of Dungeons and Dragons would be abandoning the setting of Greyhawk for its stock setting there was some outcry amongst fans.  Not much, given that Wizards’ utilization of Greyhawk was, to put it mildly, sort of half-assed anyway it didn’t seem like too big a change.  The “points of light” setting was an interesting concept, bits of civilization in a sea of darkness and danger that would leave room for players to expand their world however they saw fit.  However, over the last few years and with the release of the new Essentials line of products Wizards of the Coast has been moving to form a more cohesive background for their Points of Light setting.  The Nentir Vale, first introduced in Keep of the Shadowfell (or maybe before, but that is the first I remember of it) has been slowly becoming a more geographic distinct and well defined, albeit rather small in the grand scheme of things, place.  The release of Wizards’ head of R&D Bill Slavicsek’s novel The Mark of Nerath continues that trend.  While not quite world defining The Mark of Nerath expands upon the settings introduced in the adventures and supplementary materials that Wizards of the Coast has featured since the release of 4th Edition.  Which, while great for people who have explored those places with dice in hand, doesn’t quite work as well for the uninitiated.

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Some thoughts D&D Essentials

I’m really excited about this product.

That being said I am, to a certain extent, troubled by it.  For the skinny I highly recommend you check out the previews that have been running over in Bill Slavicsek’s Ampersand column (handily linked here for your convenience):

Fighter Preview 1
Fighter Preview 2
Rogue Preview
Wizard Preview
Cleric Preview
Rules Changes Preview

Now, before I go on, I should say that WotC has been very very careful and insistent that this is not a new edition.  Nor does it supersede the originally published 4e material.  While I’m willing to concede the former, though it definitely lays somewhere between the kind of large scale change of 3.5 and something new entirely, the later I find a tougher sell; though I’m not wholly unconvinced.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think that what we’ve seen in the Essential previews won’t work in your average 4th Edition game but I do wonder if it should.  While the core mechanic in Essentials remains the same there is a step backwards (in time at least) towards a more basic use of attacks modified by class abilities and powers from the power-centric approach indicative of 4th Edition.

Indeed from the upcoming re-release of Dark Sun, the pending resurrection of Gamma World, the Tomb of Horrors remake, the inclusion of more fluff in the Monster Manual 3, and the planned Gazetteer for the Nentir Vale it seems very obvious that WotC is looking backwards to direct their strategy going forwards.  A quick glance at the 2011 product line reveals a bevy of titles that include a number of box sets (Monster Vault, DM’s Kit, Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale) and old settings given fresh life.  All this I love and yet I am still slightly concerned the impact that the Essentials line will have on 4e as a whole.  To be fair it is the anxious excitement that is part and parcel of anything new.

Sarah Darkmagic has a post on her blog about Running the Red Box during Gen Con and has fueled my excitement.  Of note was her comment that:

Something to note about the adventure is the abundance of opportunity to explore and interact with the environment. Runes need to be understood, crates need to be busted open, and bodies need to be looted. This sort of detail fills my heart with joy. Similarly, they present skill challenges in a way that promotes conversation and the integration of challenges within the story line rather than as something that pulls the players out of immersion.

Which has me pretty excited as well.  This is something the encounter centric philosophy behind most 4e games has been lacking and I’m excited to see how the Red Box encourages this type of stuff for new (or experienced) players.  Over at Neuroglyph Games there is a lengthy interview with Mike Mearls and Rich Baker on the Red Box.  While it doesn’t divulge anything all that new it does help enlighten some of the design philosophy behind the new product line.  Last but not least the always awesome folks over at Critical Hits have actual Red Box play on their latest podcast (which I haven’t had a chance to listen to yet).

All of WotC’s recent product decisions and upcoming releases, be they success or flop, have done perhaps the most important thing: reinvigorate my interest in the game.  Dark Sun, Essentials, the Rules Compendium, the Ravenloft Board Game, and the bevy of material in the pipe for 2011 has me as excited as ever to roll me some d20s and have some laughs with friends.

Now if only WotC would start selling a box set of free time…

On Roleplaying

It’s time to Ramble On.

-Led Zeppelin

As I sat in a comfy chair last night, wearing my free Dragon Age t-shirt acquired at PAX ’07, and playing through the opening scenes of Mass Effect 2 (my Mass Effect t-shit was, unfortunately, in the laundry) I cringed as a notice popped up about earning +4 to my Renegade rating.  I stopped for a minute reviewing the conversation I, or rather Commander Shepherd, just had.  I didn’t recall saying anything particularly “bad.”   I let the moment of sick panic pass and pushed onward secure my good deeds would erase whatever slight misstep I had taken.

You see in every Bioware game I’ve ever played I’ve always been good.  Multiple play-throughs of Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, etc.  All good.  I’ve tried to play evil.  I have, really.  But something always stops me short.  A sick sensation in the pit of my stomach as I lie, cheat and extort.  A cold sweat that breaks out as I exploit the weak  or turn my back on the downtrodden.  I always abandon the efforts, returning to my goody two-shoes tendencies.  With Mass Effect 2 there is a faint curiosity that pulls me towards the glowing orange of the Renegade.  Part of it is a function of story.  I died.  I was brought back.  Two years of my life are gone.  The world around me has changed.  But, have I?  Distrust still exists amongst the various races.  The Alliance left me for dead but Cerebus, whose scientists I slaughtered as a Spectre, brought me back.  The Council sits on its hands unable to act while humanity is threatened.  They’ve turned a blind eye towards the threat the Reapers represent.  Did my old tactics of cooperation and open handed assistance even matter?

I repeat, I’m only three hours into the game.  Maybe it’s nothing Bioware did.  Maybe it’s me.  But I find myself, more than any other game recently, involved on an emotional level with what’s happening.  But I find myself wishing that Bioware made it harder to know precisely how my actions will affect my “alignment.”  Perhaps it’s a holdover from earlier games but more so than any other time I could remember I wish the game would let me just choose without the knowledge of precisely what the nature of those decisions might be.  Mass Effect’s Paragon/Renegade alignment system is fascinating but the foreknowledge of how your words and actions will affect that scale robs me of a certain level of investment in the preceding.  The system is visible, allowing me too much leeway to telegraph my actions to reach the outcome I desire.  The decisions don’t really feel like mine.

I still don’t know why I can’t be evil.  You see.  If you have ever gamed with me at the table you might be surprised to learn about my inability to be even the slightest bit mean.   Scratch that.  You would definitely be surprised to learn that.  Truth be told, you might even refuse to believe me at all since  absolutely none of my tabletop D&D characters has ever been GOOD.  Ever.

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Worlds of D&D over at Wertzone

I wanted to take a moment to point any D&D fans, new and old, over to the Wertzone where Adam Whitehead has been slowly eking out historical overviews of the various D&D campaign settings that have existed through the ages.  So if players just getting into D&D with 4e want to see some of what came before or if older gamers want to relive the glories of past adventures I can think of no better place to start.  You can find all the posts HERE or you can jump to a specific post:




They’re all really long so beware!  They’re all really good as well so enjoy!


Review: Plague of Spells by Bruce R. Cordell

A Plague of Spells by Bruce R. CordellPlague of Spells: Abolethic Sovereignty Book 1
Bruce R. Cordell
Wizards of the Coast, 2009

Plague of Spells is not a work without flaws and, for me at least, oscillated between frustrating and genuinely enthralling. The novel opens with the monk Raidon Kane as he returns home to his adopted daughter. The reader gets a brief introduction to the character, with the aid of his mother’s amulet he hunts abberant creatures; those things that D&D pilfered from the mind of H. P. Lovecraft. It isn’t long before disaster strikes as the Spellplague rips through Faerun destroying everything in its path. Well, almost anything since Raidon somehow manages to be saved, thanks in some part to his mystical amulet of the Cerulean Sign. Unfortunately it is while before we see Raidon again and we bounce back and forth between several other characters before the monk makes his appearance. The monk is drafted, almost press-ganged, into a war against a greater threat of an elder evil while at the same time he must shift through the ashes of his own past while trying to come to grips with the vastly changed face of Faerun.
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4e Review: The DMG

I’m going to try and be breif here.  For a comprehensive review of all the books, the DMG included, check out Martin Ralya’s review over at Gnome Stew, and for a decent overiew of the DMG I recommend Chatty’s review over at Chatty the DM.  I’m going to cover a lot of the same ground and both those guys are way better at me than this anyway.

The Basics:

More so than any previous iteration of the DMG this is a book designed to help instruct and prepare you for being a DM.  That may sound stupid to say but the previous editions of the DMG were more focused on providing tools and rules for DMs to use.  The 4e DMG is about practical instruction which is a fantastic change of pace.  With the diffusion of most mechanics into the PHB there is a more level playing field between what the players know of the rules and what the DM knows of the rules.  This in turn lets the DM focus on the more important aspects of his job: crafting challenges for players, creating atmosphere, and managing the story.  Definitely a change for the better.

That doesn’t mean that the DMG is absent of rules for “eyes only” so to speak.  Indeed the DMG has rules aplenty but they’re rules that pertain only to aspects of the game that only the DM is responsible for.  The majority are rules based on some sort of construction whether it be new monsters, npcs, whole encounters, or even house rules.  I’d say about the first third of the book is made of pure advice while the remain 2/3 is a mixture of both advice and rules.

What’s To Like:

Traps.  There is a feel of depth and complexity to traps that was never there in 3.x.  Traps function in a way similar to monsters (complete with stat block) that manages that complexity in an easily digested format.  Triggers and bypasses are typically laid out in specific terms and the rules try to cover what happens when PCs take a specific action (typically attacking a trap).  All in all good stuff.

Artifacts.  Artifacts are a fusion of the late 3.5 legacy weapons and the artifacts we all know and love.  Where old school artifacts were essentally plot devices that PCs were never intended to really touch new 4e artifacts are designed to be used and have specific limitations on them to prevent their use.  First off they only stay with PCs for a specific amount of time, typically defined as a certain teir (heroic, paragon, or epic) with powers dependant on what tier the item is designed for.  They are all intelligent but instead of the old ego score the PCs are encouraged to generate a rapport with their item represented by how the goals of the item match with the actions of the PC.  The more in line those are the better their relationship and, as a result the more powers available to the artifact user.  A cool system that makes artifacts both desirable and ultimately useful; rather than mere fluff.

A fuller explanation of monster roles.  I like how this keeps the players with a Monster Manual in the dark about what those terms mean.  In addition the templates are nice allowing for easy customization of monsters and the quick and handy NPC charts are damned handy.

What’s Not To Like:

Skill Challenges.  I hesitate to put them here because honestly I do like them.  It is unfortunate that one of the more interesting mechanics of the game is marred by a inadequet explanation of the mechanics behind it.  It is still a worthwhile and interesting mechanic, and the example skill challenges certainly help explain the mechanic, but the nuts and bolts of the skill challenge need some serious errata in order to make complete sense.  Again, this isn’t bad, just poorly defined.  Experienced DMs good at riffing on rules will find a lot of use here but will require a lot of stabbing in the dark with little help from the rules as written.

Treasure tables.  Again, not bad per se, and certainly better than the random tables in the previous editions, but at the same time fairly limited in terms of what you can do with them.  There aren’t any easy ways to do treasure and what we have here is certainly workable.

The Verdict:

This is a solid book and IMHO leaps and bounds ahead of the 3.x DMGs.  If you plan on DMing don’t let the book’s size fool you (it is the smallest of the three) it is chock full of information that you will find interesting, fun and, most certainly, useful.  A great book definatley worth the price of admission.  Novice DM, I think, will get a lot of mileage out of this book.

Monster Manual (4e Review): “I’m a MONster! Raaawwr!”

The 4th Edition Monster Manual rocks!  I’ve seen some complaints from other reviewers but I’m saying right now that I love it.  Like the PHB the Monster Manual cuts out the chaff, leaving a non-nonsense affair full of crunchy monster goodness.  If you were to take the AD&D Monstrous Manual strip away the lengthy fluff descriptions and replace the remaining whitespace with actual monster stats you’d get what we have here.

As a result, this book is exactly what it says it is.  A book of monsters.  Between this and the PHB we begin to see the overall design philosophy that guided the content for each of these books.  The PHB is the main book, it has all the rules on how to play at all levels of play (in 3.x rules were split between the PHB and the DMG).  The Monster Manual is a toolbox for DMs, a bag of tricks if you will, with the additional benefit of providing some optional races for PCs.  Last the DMG is the book about the game; the nuts and bolts of design and implementation and some general D&D philosophy to aid newer players in crafting their own personal play style.

What does that mean for this book in particular?  Well how about this: want to make a monster?  Too bad!  Not in here buddy.  While the book has a glossary defining certain terms it doesn’t have info on advancing monsters, or creating new ones.  This is a manual of monsters pure and simple.  That other stuff, being the province of the Dungeon Master, is by necessity in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.  To that I say amen!  Even the glossary is pared down to a bare minimum.  Where the 3.5 glossary read like a chapter in and of itself, with lengthy descriptions of types and sub-types and other nebulous things, the 4e glossary reads like…well…a glossary.  Short sentences define each term with no lengthy descriptions cluttering up the page space.

I’d have to look a bit closer but it looks to me like WotC did there best to never split a monster over two pages that weren’t both facing.  This is a huge boon as it means not having to flip a page to read the same stat block/ability.  The concise, easy to read stat block for 4e also helps in this.  Even complex monsters like Big T (a.k.a the tarrasque) and dragons take something like 3/4 a page length in their the eldest, and therefore most complex, variant.  True to their promise 4e contains fully statted dragons of each age level for the 5 chromatic colors (no metallics here); a huge welcome change from all the build-a-dragons in 3.x.

Like classes from the PHB all monsters fill a specific role.  They don’t use the same striker, controller, leader, defender breakdown that PC classes but each typically are an analog of one the forementioned roles.  Monster roles include artillery (ranged combatants), brutes (big beefy hitters), controllers (buff other enemies), and soldiers (front line fighters with a high defense and decent attacks.  There are other roles as well like the skirmisher and the lurker each of which seems to play with striker PC role if different ways.  One of my favorite abilities of a lurker (the exact monster escape me at the moment) is a garotte wire that lets the monster make a grab to start strangling a PC, maintaining the grab without the PC escaping for several rounds automatically drops the PC to 0 hp.  The same monster has additional ability that lets it use the grabbed PC as a body shied!  Absolutely fun, devious stuff for a DM to use; maybe not against the beefy fighter, but an unsupecting Wizard?  Ouch.

There are two meta-roles: the minion and the solo monster.  All minions have 1 hp and deal a flat number of damage (no rolling), they’re designed to keep PCs occupies while remaining at least a marginal threat.  They’re a cool concept designed to make even low-level PCs feel powerful.  Solo beasties, like dragons, defy the general encounter principle of equal or higher monster to PC ratio by pitting the PCs against a single opponent.  Solo opponents are fun and pretty brutal; as anyone who played in the White Dragon encounter on Game Day can attest.

This is another great edition to Fourth Edition that cleans up the sprawl of the previous edition.  It does come at the cost of fluff, which I admit I do miss, but the greater gain in terms of mechanical depth is well worth that loss.  This book has some recycled art which I think is kind of dumb; especially when it’s old art for the iconic drow; come on Wizards!  You really telling me you couldn’t spring for another piece of drow art?  There has to be tons of better art laying around the office that could have been used in place of the 3.x drow warrior art!  A minor complaint, but a silly design choice given the overhaul of the system at large.  If you plan on DMing, or want a leg up on your potential opponents, than pick up this puck and take a look.

4e Review: PHB, Part II: The Good, The Bad, and the slightly more Bad

Opening note:  “bad” is a relative term here and likely inappropriate.  “Less good” or “not quite as awesome” might be better.

The Good:

UPDATE:  Forgot about the no penalties thing!  All defenses are modified by 1 of 2 possible stats.  You choose which at character creation.  Have a lumbering fighter with low dex?  No problem, simple add your strength to AC instead of dexterity!  A wizard smarter than she is nimble?  No problem, use intelligence to determine your reflex defense in place of dexterity.  Again this all serves towards the general trend of defining your character by what the CAN do rather than by what he/she CAN’T do.

Save for opening chapter the PHB lacks fluff and is super crunchy.  Not different from previous editions, but reads more like a Manual than other editions.  Essentially this lets the player learn the game before settling into a campaign, and leaves the DM free to craft the environment and atmosphere of the campaign world.  I’ve always felt that established campaign worlds have a lot of baggage for a DM to manage, by sketching only the barest outlines of a game world WotC leaves things wide open from a creative standpoint.  Of course this leaves later, non-essential, supplements to add flavor and fluff to the campaign world.  For those who love their established settings late 3.x saw WotC place emphasis on the Player’s Guide to [insert Campaign Setting]; a trend I like and a trend that will continue with September’s Player’s Guide to the Forgotten Realms.  The separation of Player info and DM info is a good thing and a published guide for Players certainly takes some of the onus off of the DM for conveying the mountain of information often needed to introduce a new campaign setting.

Read on for more…..

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