Saturday, May 26, 2012

D&DNext Playtest: The Caves of Chaos

Game Date: 5/26/12
DM: Rusty

Cliff - Elf Wizard
Greg - Halfling Rogue
Matt - Dwarf Fighter
Ted - Dwarf Cleric

On 5/24 WOTC released the first publicly-available playtest materials for Dungeons & Dragons 5e (a.k.a. "D&DNext").  I'd heard a lot of rumors online, but this was the first time I'd seen anything solid.  Glancing through the materials, a lot of it looked familiar, as if they'd started with one of the pre-4e editions and streamlined things.  So when when I came across something unusual, it really jumped out.

The Advantage/Disadvantage system caught my eye right away.  In previous editions, if you're making a d20 roll and there's extra factors that might influence the action, the DM might tell you so add or subtract from the roll.  Maybe you'd get an extra +2 on your bluff check because your target is drunk, or you'd take -4 on your crossbow shot because the ground is shaking.  In this version of D&DNext, if you're faced with uneven circumstances, you roll two d20s instead of one.  If you're at an advantage, you take the higher of the rolls.  If you're disadvantaged, take the lower.  It's an interesting idea - not better or worse, just different.

Actions are a bit different.  Instead of Standard/Move/Minor, you get an Action and a Move.  But it's not that big a change, because most things that used to be considered minor actions are now free actions.  This makes sense roleplay-wise, because many minor actions are things characters did while moving anyway.  But the biggest change is that you can take your Standard action during the movement.  So if you have a move of 25 feet, you can move 15, attack, then move 10 more.  And since there's no opportunity attacks (so far), you can engage, attack, and retreat in the same turn.

This is kind of quirky - if you catch your enemies by surprise, you no longer get an extra "surprise round" at the start of combat.  Instead, the surprised characters get negative 20 to their initiative rolls.  My first impression of this rule was something along the lines of "Huh?"  But I actually kind of like it in practice.  It means that if your initiative is high enough, you could still overcome your surprise.  Still, I think it would be easier to give the surprisers +20 instead of the surprisees getting -20, simply because addition is easier than subtraction.

Almost every time I came across something I didn't like, I soon saw something else that made up for it.  When I saw that character creation has you rolling for hit points, I thought, "Not this again."  But then I noticed that you start with your constitution score, and add the additional Hit Dice to that, which isn't so bad.  At least I don't have to worry about the Wizard starting with 1 hit point.  Speaking of the Wizard, when I noticed that he used Vancian magic, I was annoyed.  Then I saw that a few of the at-will cantrips were offensive spells, and felt it was a good compromise.  There is some concern that Magic Missile might be too powerful as a cantrip, but there's lots of balancing to be done before this game is released.

I'm not sold on the healing system, though.  Put simply: During a short rest, you can use a healer's kit to heal an amount equal to a die roll (the Hit Dice determined by your class).  You can do this a number of times per day equal to your level.  I'm sure it's hard to find a balance between too much and too little healing, and I'm glad they didn't use 4e's healing surges.  Still, right now it seems a bit stingy at the early levels (and maybe too generous at the high levels, but I'd have to see it in action to know for sure). Question:  If you're already limited to doing this a certain number of times per day, and the healing kits are somewhat plentiful (in that a 50gp kit can be used 10 times), isn't the healing kit itself a needless complication? 

My favorite thing about the system is just the basic process of character creation.  You pick your race, your class, a background, and a theme.  The background mostly gives you skill bonuses, while the themes add some extra features to your class.  It's hard to tell how much freedom you really have since I've only used pregenerated characters, but it looks like the different combinations give a lot of variety to the characters.  Dedicated fighters might pick fighter-enhancing backgrounds and themes, while a more jack-of-all-trades character might pick backgrounds or themes designed for other classes.  This could well be D&DNext's version of multiclassing.  It also looks like character creation is going to be extremely simple, and character sheets are going to be fairly short, two things I was really hoping for.

The playtest module itself - "The Caves of Chaos" - is a converted excerpt of the classic "The Keep on the Borderlands".  It's pretty open-ended and light on plot.  We only played a couple of encounters, so there's not much I can say about what did or did not work in practice.  We did run into several questions (a la "can we step over prone enemies?", etc) but that's just because the packet isn't meant to be a full ruleset.

It's still very early in the game's development, and the instructions say not to get used to anything.  The final product will probably be so different than what I just played, as to make this unrecognizable.  Hopefully they won't scrap the parts I like.  I really only have two predictions right now:  D&DNext will not suck... but a lot of people will hate it anyway.

The Slaad mini is actually an Ogre.  He was pretty tough, but we took him out.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

HeroClix: Heroes-In-Training

Game Date: 5/12/2012
Players: Matt vs. Rusty

I may have created a monster by getting Rusty interested in HeroClix.  I just hope he doesn't sue me when his new hobby drives him to bankruptcy.  But until then, I'm just happy to finally get a chance to play the game.

I started collecting HeroClix when it was first introduced (circa 2002... has it really been that long?), and I bought them sporadically for a year or two.  I collected Marvel, DC, and Indy minis, as well as props, maps, and miscellaneous third-party products.  But in all that time, I only actually played the game two or three times, and only using the Quick-Start rules.  Once I realized I just wasn't going to play it, I stopped collecting them for years.

But when I got them out to take pictures of them (pics here and here), I got interested in them again.  I went ahead and bought a few of the conspicuously absent characters, and I'll probably keep buying new ones now and then.  This past Saturday I finally played it using the full rules.

Game 1: 100 Point Teams
Matt: Mystique, Magma, & Shadowcat.
Rusty: Deathstroke & Damian Wayne.

My three characters were around the same point values, while Rusty's pair was less balanced - Deathstroke being a higher value than Damian.

Before the battle even began, we realized my team was going to have issues.  One of Deathstroke's starting powers had him shrug off 2 points of damage whenever he was hit, and none of my characters did more than 2 points of damage.  However, Mystique started with the ability to give a teammate a +1 modifier, so I planned to work with that.  I knew it was a long shot, but we were really just playing for practice.

The match eventually came down to Shadowcat and Deathstroke, both standing in the bushes (for a slight defense bonuse) trading blows.  As predicted, Deathstroke was the winner.

Game 2: 200 Point Teams
Matt: Supergirl, Batgirl, Spoiler, & the Huntress.
Rusty: Lex Luthor (prisoner version), Red Guardian, 3 Lackeys & 1 Vampire Lackey.

Early in the fight it looked like my team was a shoe-in for the win.  My heavy-hitter was Supergirl, and she truly looked indestructible at first.  However, the source of her durability was a power that allowed her to shrug off damage... a power Luthor could turn off at will with his "Outwit" ability.

We took out each other's weakest characters first, until it came down to Supergirl & the Huntress vs Lex.  Victory looked inevitable... and then it happened.  See, the interesting thing about HeroClix is that with every point of damage you take, all your stats and powers can potentially change.  A lot of characters realistically get weaker with every hit they take.  Some characters actually get stronger as they take damage.  The Hulk, for example, gets more powerful the angrier he gets.

Well, this version of Lex Luthor is an interesting case.  He starts off fairly normal... yes, he's just a human among super-beings, but he has the ability to out think his opponents.  So his "powers" in HeroClix basically represent his craftiness.  But when he reaches a certain click, he suddenly turns into a powerhouse.  Apparently this represents the part of the story where he reveals that he had planned for this contingency, and unveils some sort of enemy-nullifying technology. 

Long story short, Super Luthor kicked my ass.

It really is an interesting game, and a lot more complicated than the "Quick Start" version I had played previously.  I like that you don't need a character sheet; and that everything you'd need to know about your character is on the base of the mini itself.  But unless you have an eidetic memory, you're still going to need the power reference cards to know what all the different colors represent.  Plus, some of the newer Clix have unique powers printed on the cards that come with them now.

The way some of these powers interacted with each other was complicated, and the more characters you have on your team, the more powers you have to keep track of.  It's one thing if it's a power your character has all the time, but a lot of the powers change whenever you take damage.  It would speed up the game if everyone at the table picked their teams in advanced, and had time to really look at their powers and memorize them.  On the other hand, it's really neat when the players don't know their powers in advance.  I know Luthor's second wind surprised both of us, and that sort of randomness really made the session fun (even if it did cost me the battle).

Having spent the last couple of years playing D&D 4e, HeroClix strikes me as a bit unbalanced.  With the right set of wrong choices, it is possible to build a team that simply can not damage the opposing team.  But I suppose building your team is part of the game itself, and something I will get better at if I keep playing it.

So here's the question - is it better to make a team of several weak characters, or just a couple of strong characters?  I can see it both ways.  Like I said, some of the weaker characters can't even damage some of the stronger ones without special powers or teamwork.  If your team consists of several Lackeys against Superman, it doesn't really matter if there's 10 of you.  Your bullets just bounce right off him, and he can take you out at his leisure.  So it helps to have at least one powerhouse on your team.

But with more characters, you get more actions... sort of.  You don't actually get more turns for having more characters - you still only get a set number of actions per turn (1 for a 100 pt game, 2 for a 200 pt game, etc).  But the same character can't activate two turns in a row without penalty, so having more characters lets you go back and forth between moving them.  When you're down to one character, you may find yourself skipping every other turn so you don't take damage.

Really, the number of team members doesn't matter nearly as much as having the right powers available to you.  Luthor's Outwit power, for instance, is such a game changer as to make it almost indispensable.  Certain combinations of powers can work together well, so a power gamer could come up with a much better team than a casual player.  In that way, composing your team is a bit like building a single character in D&D.

HeroClix changed a lot during my hiatus.   The bases of the minis are much better - you can turn them much more easily now (the original starter sets included a ring that made it easier to turn them).  The maps are more detailed and better drawn, and include color-coded borders to indicate higher levels and rough terrain.  The only thing I don't like is the cards they include, because it's one more complication to a system I originally loved for its simplicity.

In conclusion, it's an awesome game, even if I do suck at it.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Alternative Miniatures

So, if I haven't made it clear in previous posts, I love WOTC's pre-painted minis. But alas, it was not a love destined to last. With both the D&D and Star Wars lines going pretty much kaput (though I am curious about the upcoming "Dungeon Command" line), not to mention that some some of my sessions are a bit on the weird side, I've had to look into some alternate sources to fill my miniature needs.

I'm sure the Hershey's Kiss had it coming.
I wish I was into painting miniatures, because there seems to be a much better variety of metal minis than WOTC's limited selections. But I'm just not into it, and there's no use pretending otherwise. Pathfinder has recently created a line of pre-painted minis similar to WOTC's. Some of the sculpts are quite nice, but since they're mostly sold at gaming stores, it's hard to find them for a reasonable price.

I spend a lot of time browsing toy sections for characters that look about the same size and shape as a D&D mini. You never can tell where a usable mini will come from. Sometimes I'll be browsing party supplies and see a bag of small toy animals that's the perfect size. Or I might be at a craft store and find a "Toob" of animals that would be perfect for my campaign. When I actually set out to find something, I never can. But as long as I keep my eyes open, I come across a lot of toys that give me inspiration for future sessions.

Penguins, Zombies, Frogs, and Sharks.
My gaming group is planning to eventually run a Mutants & Masterminds campaign, and we plan to use HeroClix minis for the combat encounters. HeroClix are slightly bigger than D&D minis, and their bases are just a little bit wider than the one-inch squares D&D uses. They should work fine for our purposes, but they wouldn't look right standing next to traditional-sized minis if I wanted to incorporate them into a D&D game.

Size comparison with D&D mini.
However, there is currently a line of DC/Marvel minis that is more appropriately sized. It's called "Heroics". I've seen these at Wal-Mart and a couple of other places, and they look pretty decent standing next to a D&D mini. If I was running a campaign where Batman gets trapped in the Forgotten Realms, this is the mini I'd use. The downside is that they're a buck each (you can find a lot of HeroClix for half that at Troll & Toad), they're blind packaged so you don't know which one you're buying, and they don't have a very big selection (so far there's only 10 Marvel and 10 DC characters).

Heroics Minis

Size comparison with D&D mini.
We've also got a Traveller campaign coming up. I don't know if we'll use miniatures much (I know my character hopes she never has to touch a weapon), but I like to be prepared just in case. Now, the characters themselves are easy enough; I've been going through all my most human-looking Star Wars miniatures for ones that might work as our crew. Though admittedly it was hard to find ones that weren't wielding lightsabers.

Possible candidates for our crew.
But what if we get ourselves in a space battle? I thought about picking up some Star Trek HeroClix or Star Wars Starship Battles minis, but those were a bit on the expensive side for something that might not get any use. Plus, they all looked too iconic - every ship in the Star Trek universe just screams "Star Trek" at a volume that's impossible to ignore; ditto for Star Wars. So I improvised. For just a few bucks I managed to find all sorts of generic plastic spaceships, which don't look too bad sitting on wooden block pedestals. Now let's hope we never have to use them.

In space no one can hear you fumble.
Just recently I found a deal on miniatures based on the Hunger Games movie. (Note: My review of the Hunger Games is on my other blog.) These minis were originally sold in blind boxes for around $3.50 each. But apparently they didn't sell that well, and I found them on clearance for - get this - 10 cents each at Walgreens. I bought several just to see what they looked like, and was pleasantly surprised. They're scaled very close to D&D minis, and have decent sculpts and paint jobs. They look like the kind of teenagers you might see in a slasher movie, so these would be fun to use in a modern horror RPG. My only complaint is that they're attached to these large grey bases that make them tower over the D&D minis. I might try cutting one of them off the base just to see how securely they're stuck on there. Ordinarily I'd be aghast at breaking collectibles, but for 10 cents each? Slice those suckers up.

Left-to-right: Several characters I don't know, Katniss Everdeen, several more characters I don't know.

Size comparison with D&D mini.
In an upcoming Gamma World session I've been working on, I'm considering throwing in some vehicular battles. I wish Micro Machines were still being made, as some of those were the perfect size, assuming you "zoom out" once battle begins (in other words, try not to have pedestrians and cars in the same battle). But Micro Machines are considered collector's items now, and it's hard to find them cheap. But that doesn't mean you can't find tiny cars if you need them. They might look a little silly, but Squinkies makes some miniature Hot Wheels cars that easily fit in a one-inch square.

Left: Hot Wheels Squinkie.  Right: Micro Machines '57 Chevy.
I've stumbled across a few more possible minis here and there.  For example, there's some Halo miniatures out right now that would work pretty well in a sci-fi game. But I just don't have the funds or the storage space to fill my house every mini I see.  Now, if I had a lot of money to burn, I'd order all the "Doctor Who Micro Universe" miniatures.  I don't know what I'd use them for, but I'd love to have them.

Well, that's enough rambling for today.  In conclusion, don't drink paint.