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Category Archives: Game Review

In 1995, Stewart Wieck published a game using the White Wolf Studios Storyteller System called Mage: The Ascension.  It had grown, partially, out of an earlier game called Ars Magica, and was based around the idea of actual magic-using characters in a gritty, modern-era world.  The crux of the conflict was the struggle between the Technocracy, who believed that magic would only damn the earth (even though they used it as well), and the Traditions, who believed that the freedom of mankind to have imagination and power over their world was best.  The Technocracy was waging war on the Traditions, all while mages driven mad by magic’s touch (Marauders) and those driven to try and destroy all of Creation (Nephandi) ate away at the roots of the world like some thaumaturgical Nidhoggr. (If you don’t get the reference, look it up)

This was, without a doubt, the most complex of all the Storyteller systems.  Not only did you have to create a character, but you had to create for them a belief system on how and why magic worked.  You had to design the very paradigm by which they could alter reality.  This wasn’t D&D where you just picked a spell list and worked with it; oh no, you had to do a lot of spell casting on the fly, with a lot of adjudication from your Storyteller.  This was not gaming for the casually minded, which is one of the things that drew me to it as my favorite of all the Storyteller systems.  I dabbled in Werewolf and Vampire, and to a lesser extent, the other titles.  But it was Mage that really caught me.  The Nine Traditions (plus the Hollow Ones, the red-headed stepchildren of the Traditions) were great carte-blanche examples of real-world mystical belief systems.  They were perfect, blank archetypes ripe for the embellishment.

After deciding to end the current metaplot in 2005, White Wolf moved to reinvent all of the settings they had into something new.  Mage: The Awakening was released in 2005, ten years after the original was released.  It was a whole new idea, with the Mages now being inheritors of Atlantis.  No world-wide struggle between two factions, no amazing wonders that the world could have.  Just more of a whimper.

This is not to say that I hate the new system; on the contrary, I love some aspects of it, which I will detail shortly.  What I didn’t like was the new flavor.  It was like going from a five mile long, all-you-can-eat buffet of every possible ethnic cuisine that exists, to a four dish mini-buffet of French fries, pizza, egg rolls, and steamed rice.  But, I like steamed rice, you say.  That’s fine and good, but don’t you want the options?

I loved the addition of a morality system for Mages.  It was something I always thought they lacked; after all, didn’t they stand to lose their humanity just as much as the vampires did?  Of course they did call it Wisdom, which to me is not really that smart.  Why not just call it humanity?  I mean, Mages are just supposed to be the pinnacle of human potential.  I liked the more succinct delineations of what each level of a Sphere could do, as well as the division of Entropy into Death and Fate.

But one of the things I didn’t like was the renaming of Arete to be Gnosis.  Now, Arete is a Greek term referring to excellence.  Arete was a quality you had that made you a leader, a paragon.  Gnosis, also a Greek term, refers to wisdom.  (Wait, they had two Wisdom traits?  Yes they did…) Not all Mages where wise when they excelled at magic, but they all did excel as that trait increased.

One of the other things I hated was replacing Quintessence with Mana.  Crap.  Absolute crap to pander to the video game crowd.  They shucked Paradox right out the window in favor of an unnamed system of retribution for Vulgar magic.  Also, only the Atlantean paradigm of magic was established as true.  There was no more room for the role-playing possibilities of an aboriginal shaman arguing with an urban techno-wizard over the finer points of True Names.  It was gone, gone.

I also don’t care for Merit system replacing Backgrounds.  In the old setting, Backgrounds were ranked concepts that could offer you a benefit as well as work as story devices.  Backgrounds such as Arcane shielded you from casual notice, and Avatar rated how strong the magical spirit was inside of you.  But those were replaced by Merits, which were a bastardization of the old Backgrounds and the old Merits from the Merits & Flaws system.  Now the old Merits & Flaws system was meant to be small tweaks to characters that either offered them a benefit and cost them Character Points (Merits), or offered them a difficulty and gave them Character Points (Flaws).  When watched over by a Storyteller worth his salt, these systems worked well.  But, they left them in the dust.

And, as much as I like the idea of the Virtues and Vices (yes, you pick a cardinal virtue and a cardinal sin as the opposing forces of the character’s personality), I really feel it lacks that power of the original Nature and Demeanor system.  Natures and Demeanors, in the original Mage game, were personality tendencies.  Your Nature was the personality tendency that that you were at your core; Demeanor was the personality tendency that you showed to the world.  They could be the same, but playing them as different allowed the player to create a personal tension that had less to do with morality and more to do with personal peccadilloes.

But there is something else they did right: they cleaned up the mechanic.  In the Old World of Darkness (OWoD), there were two variables to overcome: the difficulty of the roll (standard 6, but could vary), and the number of successes you had to achieve.  This could be a bitchy prospect at the table when many different circumstances came into play.  In the New World of Darkness (NWoD), they set a static difficulty of 8 for all rolls, and only your dice pool would vary.  You compared your success to either a static number based on the task, or on your opponent’s pool of successes.  Margins of success detailed certain effects.  Blam, done.  (side note: I do not like the NWoD format of rote spells as being dice pools based on Gnosis + an Attribute + a Skill.)  But their mechanic was cleaner, and it worked well.

What I see as happening in the near future is my own mash-up of the new basic resolution mechanic with the old flavor and minor mechanics to create a hybrid that works best for all.  I don’t know how soon I will have this done, but I am aching to do it.  I also find myself nostalgic for playing the game again.  I really do; I miss that kind of role-playing dearly.

What do you think?

I just picked up the Player’s Handbook 3 this week, for the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  Now, I am a big, big fan of the new edition.  It runs like mad, works amazingly, and has a great amount of room for roleplay interpretation.  The classes work well as a team, instead of working on the Speshul Snowflaek syndrome most other modern games suffer from.  There are four clearly defined roles that your character may fall into, and they work well in concert.  They have returned team play to cooperative games.

Multiclassing has been handled in a great way.  By taking a progression of feats, you can swap powers between your basic class, and the class that you chose when you took the Multiclass Feat.  As well, you get access to another skill and to a spin on a class feature.  But you never truly deviate from your role.  You instead augment and reflavor your character to be slightly different than others of your class.  Furthermore, when you reach 11th level and must choose a Paragon Path, you can then opt to instead full multiclass your character, swapping around powers a bit more to mix the two.  It works, and works well, because you still do your job, just a bit differently.

Well, they have pretty well screwed the pooch now.  This new player’s handbook introduces some cool new things, like the psionic power source, canon forms for the minotaur and githzerai races, even the return of the beloved monk class.  Hell, the skill-based utility powers are cool.  What are not cool are the hybrid classes.

Like I said before, this game works because of the simple statement, “Know Your Role.”  In this game, it is still about cooperating, being good at what you do, and being a part of a group.  It is not about a group of people that loosely associate with each other, and can outdo each other constantly.  Granted, that kind of dynamic can come up in the roleplay, but I am talking about mechanics here.  This is about how it all interacts; how each player contributes to the effort, and succeeds because they did their job, and did it well.  But with the way that hybrid classing has been handled, you can mix and match, and screw the concept of doing a job well right out of existence.

Let me run down the process of making a hybrid character for you.  What you do is, instead of choosing a class, you choose two hybrid class templates.  Then you start lining things up.  Any armor proficiencies that the hybrid templates for each class have in common, you gain.  All weapon proficiencies combine (which honestly makes no sense, consistency wise, given what you know for armor).  You get special partials for hit points and surges and the like.  You alternate power choices, always keeping a balance between your hybrid classes.  All in all, you half-ass everything.  Oh, and did I tell you?  If you have an ability, for instance, that is based out of your Rogue class, you can only activate it when you use a rogue power.

The ONLY way this works in the sense of what the game has set out to accomplish, is if you choose two hybrid class templates that fulfill the same role: two defender classes, two striker classes, etc.  If not, you end up being a half-assed version of each role that really cannot do the job it is meant to do.  In essence, you become a controller that can only sometimes alter the battlefield correctly, a leader that can only support his cohorts some times.  You become the epitome of a degree just below mediocrity.

I know there are those of you out there that are going to cry foul on me, or tell me the advantages of hybridizing your character.  To you, I offer the following:

“The hybrid character rules break down each class into parts.  The hybrid version of a class provides a portion of the game benefits of the normal class (hit points, defenses, proficiencies, class features, and so forth)…  …character classes aren’t designed to be broken down and recombined in this way…” (Player’s Handbook 3, page 135, How Does It Work? Sidebar)

And:

“The system of classes and roles in D&D is designed to ensure that every character has a clear purpose at the table and that no character can easily become marginalized by poor choices made in character creation.

“The hybrid character system discards many of the safeguards built into the normal class system.  Even though every effort has been made to craft a hybrid system that creates characters that are as viable as their single-class comrades, the sheer number of combinations available ensures that some combinations might feel less effective than others.

“If you find that your hybrid character isn’t as effective as you had expected, work with your DM to find a solution.”  (Player’s Handbook 3, page 138, Proceed with Care Sidebar)

They are saying right here that, more times than not, it doesn’t work; that it the very system they created flies in the face of everything they built the game to be.  The last quote in particular drives the point home.  Do you know how this DM would suggest you solve the problem?

Don’t play a damned Hybrid character.  Period.

This really is the first system I have seen in this iteration of the Dungeons and Dragons game, going back to my roots with the red and blue boxed sets, that the designers have almost openly said doesn’t work, right in the text of the game.  I am not saying it doesn’t completely work… I have found one way that it does.  But to do it, your choices become very limited.  You play your role.

This means when you hybridize, you pick to classes that fill the same role: two defenders, two strikers, two controllers, or two leaders.  Ideally, your combination choices should have at least one required ability in common.  It doesn’t matter if it is even the tertiary ability, but they need to have something in common.  This usually isn’t much of a problem, as many of the roles have ability scores in common.  Defenders like Strength and Constitution; Controllers like Intelligence and Wisdom; Strikers like Dexterity and Strength; Leaders like Wisdom and Charisma.  There are exceptions to this, but for the most part, these are the trends.

So, what you do is pick a class combo that blends fairly seamlessly.  A ranger/sorcerer would be good.  As would a fighter-paladin-warden combination of any kind.  Wizard/psions would work well.  As would ardent/bards.  But honestly, why not just use the multiclassing feat tree from the original Player’s Handbook?  It works.  It works well.  I think that is the biggest part: it works well!  And you don’t have to worry about making sure that the multiclass option you pick fits perfectly.  You are still performing your role.  The difference is, as a rogue, for example, your target isn’t going to know what to do when you lay down a Dissonant Strain (Bard power, Player’s Handbook 2), literally blowing his mind.  Or when your rough and tumble fighter lays a bit of divine healing in the form of a Healing Strike (Cleric power, Player’s Handbook).  But as you see, you are not changing your role, your purpose, in the game.  Instead, you are reflavoring yourself a bit.

So, in all honestly, I really think they should have skipped the hybrid character crap in this new handbook.  It is, to my thinking, an absolute waste of space in the book that could have been used for another new power source, like Shadow, Elemental, etc.  Or even just some new options for full-blood classes.

What do you think?

It’s been about a year since the fourth edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game has come out.  A previous blogpost listed here from my MySpace is a rebuttal from a video review I caught online.  Again, this isn’t saying that PugKnowsPro doesn’t have a right to their own opinion.  But this is me absolutely disagreeing with them.

When it was first announced publicly that the Fourth Edition was on it’s way, I was a pretty vocal opponent of it.  I was not a big fan when Third Edition came out, and was a very angry man when they put out 3.5, mostly that they dared charge me all that extra money for new books.  So I was rather hesitant when I found out that there was going to be yet another edition coming out.

Add in all the rumors and teasers I had seen regarding it, with a healthy mix of what I call “Old Dragon Skepticism”, and I was actually waiting to tear it apart.  I wanted to sink my teeth into this new pretender to the throne and leave it bleeding.

Then, a couple things happened.  One, I actually got a good long look at the mechanic.  It was cleaned up, simpler, and back to it’s roots as a conflict resolution system.  The skills were general and easily understood, the combat didn’t have enough optional mechanics to confuse an engineer, and everything you could do had some optional (and modifiable) flavor text.  Anything that was not necessary for quick, cinematic and fun gameplay was removed.

And yet, I was still reticent.  Yes, the way things moved seemed to be nice and tidy, but I have seen that before.  And seen it blow the hell up.  I ran it at the big release party at my store, and was rather impressed with how deadly the system had become.  There was a reason to plan out  how you act in combat, and decide what powers to use when.  I was getting swayed over.

Then I got to play it.

That is what did it for me.  Granted, I  rolled horribly at the table, and only some of my stuff went off well, but that was the dice.  And trust me, it was the dice… those rolls were so damned ugly even the Elephant Man would have dated them…

But it was fun!  It was fun again to play, to take up the mantle of a character, charge in, and fight!  It honestly felt like the gaming I had the summer I graduated from High School, like the gaming I had waaaaaaay back in the past, over 20 years ago when I started gaming.  I wasn’t worried about a production value when making something using a Craft Skill, I was more worried if I could track the goblins and dire wolves through the underbrush.

So, in short, it won me over.

And now, down to the nitty gritty:

D&D Fourth edition.

Running on a d20 plus modifier versus target number resolution system.  Probably one of the simplest resolution systems involving a single die roll instead of a pool, it lends itself to quick resolutions.  Situational modifiers are a small pool, and usually easily avoided if you plan your turn currectly.

Every class’ abilities are based on powers.  You have At-Will powers you can use turn after turn, Encounter Powers you can use once per encounter (and have to take a short 5 minute rest between to renew them… kind of like taking a breather after bringing out the big guns) and Daily powers that are very powerful (and only renew after an extended rest for at least 6 hours.  These are the ones that are so stressful you can’t do them real often).  You now have to actually think about when to use what, and what the best situation would be for each!

One of the biggest mechanical criticisms I have heard is the “Former Saving Throws as Non-Armor Defenses” one.  What, in Third Edition, were saving throws (Fortitude, Reflex, Will), have become defenses, and static values.  This eliminates the need for another dice roll to see if an attack resolves.  Now, certain attacks target these defenses, and if they do not equal or succeed the target number, the attack fails.  If an attack is based on stopping the body through shock or the like, it targets Fortitude (poisons, paralyzing attacks, the like).  If it strikes the body, but ignores the presence of armor, it targets Reflex.  And if it attacks the mind, it targets Will.

Saving Throws are still around in the form of a general die roll.  Certain effects (and it always states in the power that is being used if a save can end or prevent something from happening) allow you to roll a d20, and if you get a 10 or higher, your save succeeds.  That’s right, 55% chance of succeeding.  I have still seen ongoing damage rape a character at the table as he, turn after turn, rolled 9s or less.

Hit Points.  Tracking Damage.  How well do you hold up?  Well, I was a bit dismayed when I first read that many PCs would start with HP totals in the 20’s plus.  I though, “HOLY CRAP!  They are gonna be invincible!”  Wow was I wrong.

The new combat is pretty deadly, and they have placed in a couple of mechanics that make it both more dangerous and more fun.  If you are reduced to half of your hit point total, you are what is now termed Bloodied.  When you are Bloodied, some of your own (and some of your enemies’) powers are altered slightly.  Bloodied is your warning sign that things are getting real.

In addition, there are now Healing Surges and the once per ecounter ability Second Wind.  A Healing Surge is a numerical value equal to 1/4th your total hit points.  It represents your own ability to turn what seem to be dangerous wounds into mere flesh wounds (insert obligatory Monty Python joke here!)  Once per encounter, you can use an ability called Second Wind that lets you spend one of your Healing Surges (yes you have a limited number of these, based on your Constitution score and class), and renew that value of Hit Points to your pool, bringing you back into the fight a bit.  There are also a number of PC powers that can be used to allow you to spend a Healing Surge (many times, modified to give you even more back) without popping your Second Wind.  And it’s not just the clerics.

Now down to the flavory bits.

Races.  The old standbys are there: Elf, Dwarf, Halfing, Human, Half-Elf.  But there are some other ones they brought out as well.  Dragonborn: A race of draconic humanoids known for their honor and ferocity.  Tieflings: Now a unified race from a kingdom that made a literal deal with the devil in ancient times, and it shows.  And the Eladrin: much more Tolkien-esque high elves of grace and poise.

Other books that have come out have introduced the Drow (dark elves), Genasi (humanoids of elemental heritage), Deva (the re-imagined Aasimar, a race of angels that have taken form to change the world), Gnomes (Yeah, I used to hate em too, but the new ones are actually cool!), Goliaths (massive humanoids at one with the mountains and rocky places), Half-orcs (They don’t suck anymore!) and Shifters (relatives of lycanthropes that have minor ties to their more savage natures).

Classes: This is the meat of the new game when it comes to flavor. (Wow, did I actually term it that way?  I should have eaten breakfast.)

In the core book are some of the standbys: Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Wizard.  New are the Warlock (they make deals with otherworldly entities for power) and Warlords (battlefield commanders that are awesome at supporting everyone in the party).  Added in from other supplements are other well-known but reworked classes: Bard, Barbarian, Druid and Sorcerer.  As well, introduced are some new ones:
Swordmage (combination fighter wizard with some unique abilities); Avenger (holy warrior that is the shadow skulker to the paladins knight in shining armor); Invoker (conduit of the Gods’ will, the sorcerer version of the cleric); Shaman (yup, a spirit-calling caster that bolsters his “tribemates” in battle and out); Warden (A nature-oriented warrior suited to the wild places, the tank to the ranger’s skirmisher).

While we are at this, let me talk about Role.  This is a re-invited hallmark of the game.  For years, the idea of the party was that everyone had a job to do.  The fighter engaged the foe, toe to toe, while the cleric kept him healed, the wizard tossed artillery shell spells and the rogue came around for a solid strike to help cripple the enemy.  It fell to the way side, as everyone wanted to be the spotlight, instead of part of the team victory.

It’s been brought back  in this edition.  Each class falls into not only a flavor-oriented “power source” for their abilities, but a role to play in the party. There are four.  Defenders are the tanks, absorbing damage and keeping the attention of the bad guy.  Strikers are the moving skirmishers, dealing great damage in combat.  Controllers are the artillery, laying down fields of fire on the field, suppressing the minons of the enemy.  And Leaders are the ones keeping everyone in their fighting best, through healing, inspiration or even just plain buffs.

Add in the Ritual system.  Rituals are magic, plain and simple.  Wizards are some of the masters of it, but anyone with the right skill can do it.  Whether carrying around a Ritual book full of useful spells, or just reading from a scroll  you got from the wizards guild in town, Rituals are the Comprehend Languages, Raise Dead, Swift Travel spells of the world that are not suited to combat.  You too can now have a fighter that can raise the dead, if you want to spend the feats and time to do it.

Feats now, as well, are something that just augments what goes on in game, and are no longer game-breakers.

There is so much more that could be said, but what it comes down to is this: They have created a truly masterful, cinematic and enjoyable engine that resolves conflict nicely, encourages free-form roleplaying instead of structured dice-rolls to simulate creativity, and makes gaming fun.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide finally teaches you how to be a DM, instead of collecting bits and pieces and tables.  It also does a wonderful job of teaching you how you can alter the game to fit your own ideas.

I am not going to say it is the perfect game system; it isn’t.  But it is damn good.  It’s fun once again to game, it’s fun once again to run a game, and damned if it isn’t fun to even just think things up again.

Overall, I give it a solid A rating, but with a minor detraction in cost.  30 dollars per core book is a bit pricey for most people, and the supplemental materials that are worth it for even the players run the 30-35 average price range.  You don’t need them, but they do add a lot to the depth of the game.

Thoughts?