Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is Essentials Essential?

Wizards of the Coast just recently started coming out with a new group of products for D&D called the Essentials line. It was created as a means to get new players into the game by simplifying the way certain things worked in the game and also smoothing out some of the language and the more complex rules. It started with the release of a new beginner's set in a red box - reminiscent of the red box the original version of D&D came in. While I don't have the boxed set myself, I have heard from people who do have it, and it is full of goodies - a map, plenty of counters for monsters and PCs, basic rules for PCs up to 3rd level, and an introductory adventure reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure book - every decision you make in the adventure guides you along the character creation process, and if what I've been told is true, it turns out to be quite an ingenious way to make a character, to develop the character in a simple and easy fashion.

After that, though, the Essentials products start doing some things I'm still not sure if I like. The main player book, Heroes of the Fallen Lands, introduces new builds for the most basic of D&D character classes - Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, and Wizard. There are two Fighter builds, the Knight and the Slayer. The Knight is a standard defender; he creates an aura around him that causes monsters to get penalties to attack anyone but him. The Slayer, though, is a new animal - a Fighter build for the Striker role. The Slayer wears heavy armor and does heavy damage, and that's it. Neither Fighter build has Daily power anymore; they were removed from the martial classes, as some people thought it odd that a class that relies solely on physical ability would have abilities they could only use once per day. This applies to the Rogue, too; now the Rogue build, the Thief, gets not new Daily powers, but various movement powers that let the Thief move around the battlefield more easily and in new ways. The Cleric build, the Warpriest, is essentially two builds in one, as you choose either to utilize the Sun or Storm domain. Each has different powers; Storm is more offensive, while Sun is more healing oriented. In the interest of simplification, the Warpriest has little choice of powers available; you can only choose Daily powers and Utility powers. The Wizard build, the Mage, is similar; you can specialize in one of several schools of magic, and they will effect what choices you get for Daily and Utility powers. The choosing of feats, too, has changed; now feats, at least in Essentials material, are not restricted to the various tiers of character advancement, but they are all available to anyone, as long as you meet the requirements.

I'm all for simplification of things for new players; sometimes the crunchy aspects of D&D can seem very intimidating when you are trying to get someone new to try it out. And I like the Cleric and Wizard builds, because the power choice, limited though it is, seems solid and flavorful, and very iconic. The changes to the martial classes, though, I am more worried about. Does WotC really think that players will be so turned off by their having Daily powers that they'll abandon the game? The cinematic aspect of a warrior or rogue busting out that one truly cool power at the best possible minute is one I find easy to visualize. But the removal of the daily power isn't what really worries me; what worries me is that they took a Fighter build and changed it from its normal Defender role to the Striker role. Now, I like the idea that Fighters can be flexible, but what if it spreads to other classes? Will we have Wizard Defenders, or Rogue Leaders? That will mean either a truly ridiculous number of class builds, or a confusing mix of options that dilutes everything until no class is unique anymore, where every class can do everything. And this won't be an isolated thing; the Heroes of the Fallen Lands book confirms they will have several more such role-jumping class builds in the advanced player book, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms.

So I'm very worried about the Essentials products. I don't want 4th Edition D&D to become a horrific, incomprehensible mess because they decided suddenly that all classes can be all things; niche protection of certain roles is part of what makes D&D the game it is. I'm still hopeful, though, because this comes so soon after the great products that are the 4th Edition Dark Sun books; surely, if they can do something like that, they can keep something like Essentials in check, not letting it go too far. Or, at least, that's my hope.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Comics for the Casual

I'm a big reader of comics, which is probably not a surprise to anyone who reads this. I know, though, that getting into comics nowadays can be very tough, especially for people who don't want to have to deal with 50 years of continuity: How many characters are related to Scott Summers? How many times has Jean Grey died? When did Spiderman stop having a relationship with Mary Jane? Which version of the Avengers are we on? How many Robins has Batman been through? How did Superman died, but not really, but then come back, but not really, and then turn into some electric guy? And what the hell is Final Crisis, and why is it so complicated?

All this kind of stuff is a pain to have to make your way through, and a lot of people are put off by the very idea of having to read through it - even if they want to get to some of the most classic stories in comics. So I thought I'd put together a small list of cool comics that, thus far, have a fairly limited run, and don't go on forever. Sometimes they're personal favorites, some of them are recommended by friends, and some of them are just because I have always had good luck with a particular writer or character. In any case, the list is this:

Planetary, by Warren Ellis. This takes place in the Wildstorm comic universe, but as a comic it is remarkably self-contained. It is collected in four volumes, and tells the story of the field team of the Planetary foundation, a trio, sometimes quartet, of superpowered people looking to uncover the secret history of the world. It has interesting riffs on many other popular comics; League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, justice League, Fantastic Four, Tarzan, the Incredible Hulk, and probably a few others, and deals with some truly bizarre encounters - a character from a fictional universe entering their own, an island of Godzilla-like monsters, a voyage to the moon by Victorian explorers, and hidden cities in Africa. It's well-written, fun to read, and always keeps my interest.

Invincible, by Robert Kirkman. Invincible is a comic set in the Image universe about a boy who discovers, one day, that he has superpowers, just like his father. And then finds out that his father is far, far different than he ever imagined. Invincible is a little like Superman, if Superman discovered that not only was he Kryptonian, but that Krypton was alive - and it wanted to conquer Earth, the planet Superman is sworn to protect. It mixes a story about a teenager becoming a man and the trouble that brings with a story about being the most powerful guardian of your world - and knowing that might not be powerful enough. Kirkman seems to have a lot of fun writing this, and it shows; Invincible is one of the best comics still running at the moment.

Fables, by Bill Willingham. Fables is a comic in the Vertigo universe, and has a spinoff, Jack of Fables. Fables is a comic about characters straight out of fairy tales and children's stories - Cinderella, Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf - and how they are refugees on our world, driven out of their own homeworlds by a great Adversary. They live, in secret, in a small community in New York City, with a farm upstate for those who cannot pass as human, and they live their extremely long lives. Some plot to get their old homes back, some look for ways to come to power in the modern world, and some just want to be left alone. Familiar characters from the fables and stories we knew as kids come to life and become much more interesting in this series, which eventually manages to defeat its great Adversary, at great cost. It's a great twist on old characters, and immensely enjoyable to read.

Global Frequency, by Warren Ellis. Global Frequency is a comic set in no set universe; it is a comic about an organization called Global Frequency, an independently funded and run group of experts on any number of things that gets called in to handle strange occurences. From the implications of creating actual cybernetic soldiers to doctors driven mad by bio-toxins who then turn their patients into freakish works of art, Global Frequency handles it. It only ran for 12 issues, but it's a good comic of speculative fiction and the kinds of things we humans can get into if we start messing around.

Powers, by Brian Michael Bendis. Powers is a comic initially published by Image Comics, and later on by Icon, a Marvel Comics imprint. It is the story of two detectives in a world where superpowers are real, though uncommon - and one of the detectives used to be a superhero. The storyline of Powers is part police procedural, part superhero tale, part 'VH1: Behind the Music'. It is sometimes funny, sometimes brutal, and sometimes just bizarre, but it is always entertaining to read, and the way it treats the superpowered community is something that isn't seen very often in comics.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Return of Dark Sun

Dark Sun, as I have probably mentioned before, used to be my favorite campaign setting in 2nd Edition D&D. It was radically different from the other main settings, like Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. It was one of several new and unusual settings that came to 2nd Edition, though sadly the others have not survived as well - they were either folded into the current realm of 4th Edition, such as Ravenloft, along with bits and pieces of Spelljammer and Planescape, or were totally forgotten, like the Birthright setting.

Now Dark Sun has returned; just a few weeks ago, it was brought out as the third official setting of 4th Edition, after Forgotten Realms and Eberron. It may have been the only decent thing to come out of last month; sadly, just a week after Dark Sun came out in stores, my dog, Merlin, reached a point in his health that we had to put him to sleep. I'm still coming to terms with that, but that's a whole different thing; I'd like to talk about Dark Sun, the new and improved version.

Dark Sun in 4th Edition is both similar to the original 2nd Edition setting and radically different. The timeline of the setting, unlike that of Forgotten Realms, which was moved forward, was actually rolled back to the timeline that the first version of the setting started - while the world is still mostly ruled by vicious sorcerer-kings, and threatened by the terrible Dragon, the city of Tyr has been freed from the tyrannical rule of its king Kalak. The world is still mostly a wasteland, much of it covered in desert; the ruins of the past dot the landscape, and the places of ancient kingdoms and cities where great populations must have once lived haunt those few who remain. Cannibalistic halflings live in the few forests that remain in the Ringing Mountains, and tribes of the insectoid thri-kreen roam the plains far from the human cities. Life is harsh and unpleasant, but there is some hope, and it is up to the players to find it.

Much like the old setting, there are a few new races for Dark Sun - the aforementioned thri-kreen, an insectoid race that are unfamiliar to most humanoids, but whose fate is also affected by the destructive powers of the Dragon and the sorcerer-kings, and the muls, a race that is a hybrid of dwarves and humans, bred for hard labor, slavery, and battle in the gladiatorial arena. The old half-giants are now simply reskinned goliaths, and the dray, a reptilian, almost draconic race from the original version of the setting, are now dragonborn. There are no new classes in Dark Sun - indeed, several classes are missing by default, as the gods of Dark Sun are all dead or gone, leaving no Divine power source. Several classes gain new builds, though, such and the Wild Battlemind, the Arena Fighter, and the new Sorcerer-King pact for the Warlock.

Defiling, the destructive use of arcane power, has a new and interesting implementation in Dark Sun now - it is an at-will power available to all Arcane classes. It can only be used to augment the daily powers of Arcane users, though - it allows for a reroll should the power miss its target, or should the user roll insufficiently high damage, though the second roll must be taken. In return, it deals damage to all nearby allies of the user equal to half of a healing surge value, damage which cannot be resisted or reduced. There are a number of feats that augment this power, making it more useful and powerful - and all you have to do is hurt your friends to use it. Preservers, the 'good' arcane magic users of the setting, refuse to use this power; in fact, for a few paragon paths, it is lost altogether. The two paths of magic lead ultimately to the big epic destinies of the setting - the Avangion, the ultimate symbol of preserving magic, and the Dragon, the ultimate expression of the defiler's power.

The setting also includes notes on what to do for weapons and armor in a setting with little available metal, including optional weapon breakage rules, and also a number of weapons which would be familiar to those who know the old setting. Potions and other liquid consumables are rare in Dark Sun, so instead of small liquid containers, they take the form of various fruits. Because of the lack of most traditional magic, they also include ideas from the second Dungeon Master's Guide, the granting of boons and special powers from various sources, such as the sorcerer-kings, elemental powers, the glory of arena combat, and the like. Finally, there is a section on how to handle the harsh environment of Athas - the most unpleasant of which, at least for PCs, is sun sickness. If PCs go without supplies for long enough, sun sickness hits them, and like the rest of Athas, it is harsh - 3 missed saves, and the affected person dies. Life on Athas is dangerous, even without monsters trying to kill you.

Finally, there is the atlas of Athas. It is a fairly short portion of the book, relatively speaking, but it covers the major areas of the land. It covers each of the seven major city-states of the Tyr region, from rulerless Tyr to the warlike city of Urik and the forested area of Raam. It covers many of the areas in between, as well, from the Ringing Mountains to the Ivory Triangle and the dry but still deadly Silt Sea. There are numerous areas of interest given in each, with enough information given to be a starting point, but not enough to box a DM in. It isn't a huge amount of information, but I'm OK with that - especially since I still have all my old 2nd Edition setting information to help give me some expanded setting areas.

Overall, I'm a big fan of the new Dark Sun. It satisfies my nostalgia concerning the old version, and does a great job of bringing the setting into the present. I only wish that I was going to be in a position to use the setting sometime in the near future. Sadly, while I am in a regular D&D game now, the game is ongoing and set in Eberron, and unlikely to change anytime soon. Don't get me wrong, I like my current group, but I'd like a chance to play in my old favorite setting. If you're interested, or have any ideas you'd life to talk about, or really anything gaming-related to talk about, feel free to comment here, or reach my by e-mail at jacobgreyfang@gmail.com or on AIM as knightveritas.