Friday, January 14, 2011

Rise of the Runelords progress report 1

I haven't really given campaign reports of the game that I'm now, in part because I'm not running it, so it's not really "my" game, and in part because it's just a published adventure path from Paizo that doesn't necessarily need or benefit from a lot of "reporting" anyway. But in the wake of our last session, there's been a tremendous flurry of emails back and forth this week amongst the group, and I think some of what we're discussing is of greater interest to the gaming community at large (particularly the D&D playing community, and even more particularly those who play games derived from the third edition d20 engine).

I was mistaken a bit earlier when I said that we were going to start adventure 3 of 6 this last weekend; we still had a bit of the second adventure to close out, and it ended up taking the entire evening. We are now in the "intermodule" phase; a bit of downtime is going to pass, and we've got a lot of cash burning holes in our figurative wallets to spend on stuff to "power up" before starting adventure #3 of 6, which we'll now do on Saturday Jan 22nd, it looks like. This final section of adventure #2 included a really nasty "boss fight." Now, to give some context, not all of our group really cares much about the strategic "character building" game within the game, nor are we necessarily all that interested in trying to develop phenomenal tactical acumen within the confines of the rules of d20. So it's fair to say that we often prefer quirky and unusual characters that are fun to play for various reasons, but who aren't necessarily "optimized" in terms of how they were built and often even less so in terms of how they operate during the actual course of an adventure. My character, for example, Nestor Legison, was build around the concept that he's a half-orc who refuses to admit to anyone that he's less than 100% human. He has a feat (taken at first level) from the Pathfinder campaign setting that basically means he looks completely human and his orcish heritage is not immediately apparent. His parents were both also half-orcs (he's not the product of the cliched orc rape scenario--he came from a reasonably loving family that lived outside of orcish territory). He has the three levels of the half-orc paragon class, from Unearthed Arcana (the rest of the group thinks its pretty funny that he's a paragon of half-orcishness while simultaneously strenuously denying being anything other than human--he even keeps his darkvision secret). I, however, simply see this as a collection of mechanics and ignore the "concept" of the half-orc paragon prestige class. It gives me a +2 bonus to his already prodigious strength at 3rd level, but it only comes with a d8 hit die, and I only got OK rolls on hit points to boot. After that, I took a single level of the Barbarian class (mostly for the extra Rage and the extra movement) and then settled into the hexblade class from Complete Warrior, which was really always the concept to begin with.

All of this means that Nestor is incredible at dealing damage. He now has two attacks per round, a 22 or 23 Strength, and he can rage to increase that even more. He carries a masterwork greatsword (soon to sport some enchantments when I spend the money we're sitting on.) With his fast movement, he can charge into combat very quickly and usually give amazingly punishing two-handed attacks. He's not so hot in battles of attrition, though. His AC is only OK, and his hit points are not what you'd expect from a character that acts, basically, like a barbarian.

I mention this, because character build strategies and combat strategies have occupied much of the flurry of emails that we've had in the wake of a fairly ugly combat against a "boss" monster that was quite difficult for us to face. We were also a few group members down, just due to scheduling, so lacking a cleric or a wizard, we had a bit of a rough time with a pseudo-barbarian, a rogue, a bard and a druid who acts as much like a barbarian as I do. In the end, the GM decided to account for what would have been the influence of our missing cleric and druid with some minor deus ex machina handwaving to combat, including the bard (or the druid, I can't remember which) mysteriously finding a scroll of dispel magic in the middle of the fight so he could remove some of the things that were kicking our butts in a targeted dispel, and the druid's animal companion, Old Tom, whom we'd left at the bottom of a rickety staircase, came bounding into combat midway through and had mysteriously acquired one of those St. Bernard rescue dog brandy barrels under his neck (he's normally been described as more of an Irish wolfhound type of dog), which had the effect of a potion of cure critical wounds for Nestor to take. And then, Old Tom is a decent combatant in his own right, with his ability to make trip attempts and, if nothing else, provide flanking bonuses to the rogue so he could roll his sneak attack damage.

In any case, after this, the flurry of emails commenced. Included amongst this were a few suggestions on how to make Nestor more effective, primarily by me "letting go" of my fetish for high movement and getting some better armor, which is completely contrary to the character as I envision him. One suggestion was that I upgrade my armor, and they buy some boots of striding and springing. I think, naturally enough, that it's kind of absurd that I would take seriously the idea that I should have to spend an inordinate amount of gold to get magic items that give me back abilities that I already have now, if I can just avoid using medium armor (unless I get it made from mithral, of course. Which I might do. I'm seriously considering spending the bulk of my money on a mithral breastplate to replace my aging chain shirt).

Of course, to me, this whole conversation highlights three things that I think are "broken", or at least highly undesirable, about most editions of D&D and certainly for d20 powered versions of D&D and similar games (including, but not limited to, 3e, 3.5, and Pathfinder--and to a lesser extent, d20 Modern, and d20 Star Wars, and d20 Wheel of Time, etc.)
  1. Why does the to-hit bonus continue to increase for characters as they gain levels, but the "avoid getting hit" bonus does not? It's very bad game design to have that inequity built into the system, and they clumsily patch it with expectations of heavier and heavier armor, or magical means of defense. If you get better at fighting, it stands to reason that you don't just get better at hitting your opponent, you also become more difficult to hit yourself. Most d20 games other than D&D have elegantly fixed this problem with a class-based Defense bonus progression. There's even an option for it in D&D too, in Unearthed Arcana. But it really should have been included as a core rule from the get-go.

  2. Related to that is the need for D&D characters, if they're to stay as potent as they're "supposed to", to be kitted out in an ever increasing ensemble of magical items and equipment. Rings, pendants, armor, cloaks, weapons, helmets... we're at sixth level by now, and we're supposed to already be draped in magic. Of course, there's no requirement that you do this, but a GM needs to be aware, then, of the capabilities of his party, and not assume that they're as capable as the rules and the modules assume that they are. This just sounds like solid GMing to me, and a basic skill that has somewhat been lost over time (an inadvertent casualty of the CR system, perhaps), but even though the solution is obvious doesn't mean that this isn't a problem "hardwired" into the rules as presented.

  3. D&D rewards the tactic of going up to something, standing next to it, and hitting it over and over again. This may be unintended (or perhaps completely intentional) side effects of the combination of attacks of opportunity and the multiple attacks that come with a higher base attack bonus, but its boring, and in particular, it doesn't appeal to me. I prefer mobile, swashbuckling type fight scenes, and D&D punishes them, either overtly by making your character take more hits for trying to move around in combat, or more subtlely by giving you a high opportunity cost by giving up your second (or third, later on) attack.

And this doesn't even get into the problems I have with D&D at high levels!

In any case, we have a good GM who's willing to work with us to bend the rules or houserule items, or even to let us "retcon" our character builds. I might revisit some of my feat choices to give myself Spring Attack next time I qualify for a feat (or now, if I can swing it) and maybe see if he'll let me take Pounce as another feat after that, with the prereq of Spring Attack. And although I woudn't have considered it before, I'm now thinking a mithral breastplate might be in my future. Heck, I even have an ingame reason for that change; one of the other characters is going to buy one, and I can have a good reason to be convinced in character to do the same myself!

No comments: