Product Discussions and reviews

…because his name is on the box.

Drizzt Do'Urden (Duh!)

Yesterday, my group and I got together to celebrate the belated birthday of one of our own. He’s a huge R. A. Salvatore fan so we got him the new Legend of Drizzt board game.  I had purchased the Wrath of Ashardalon game some time ago and it had been received well, so I figured this would be an excellent gift.  Wrath of Ashardalon is a fun game and makes for a quick D&D-esque experience and is easy to play even after a drinking way too much beer from watching football before sitting down to play a game. Why wouldn’t Drizzt’s own boardgame be any different?

Indeed, it is pretty much the same set-up as Wrath of Ashardalon. And like Wrath of Ashardalon, it is a quick game for bored gamers who can’t decide on what type of campaign to get involved in or what character to make once a campaign has been decided upon.  The game designers incorporated some new elements in the Legend of Drizzt that separates the dungeon from the Ashardalon dungeon.  I am glad for this because I was afraid that this would be an exact duplicate of Wrath of Ashardalon.

Also, the character powers were custom-made to parallel their counterparts in Mr. Salvatore’s novels.  My friend had a huge smile on his face as he summoned Guenhwyvar. You know, the big cat that follows Drizzt around. Yeah, well if you play Drizzt you get to have Guen…

There are, however, plenty of choices so playing Drizzt, Wulfgar, and the team can be different each time you approach the game.

I played Bruenor only because, for reasons beyond my understanding, the game designers decided not to have Thibbldorf Pwent make an appearance. Seriously. Where is the battlerager? While I am not a huge Salvatore fan (I prefer the early years as opposed to the past 10), I thought Thibbldorf was pretty cool. I’m pretty sure most people do to. Why did they not include him? The saving grace (from my perspective) was that Bruenor can take an extra point of damage to inflict another point on a creature he recently attacked.  Drizzt, of course, gets to make two attacks…and have a cat…

I got the impression that Drizzt is a little over-powered. But I guess that should be expected as his name is on the box.

We all (generally) enjoyed the game, but not enough to play for too long. I think its fun, but it is not really a substitute for role-playing with your gaming group. A nice distraction, but that is all.

But this latest installment of the Wizard’s 4E board game series led me to ponder the following:

What is it with Wizards of the Coast game designers obsession with so many game components? There are so many pieces to the board games, that Jer, a member of my gaming group and NOT a fan of the board games, basically said he would rather jot down his condition on a piece of paper. (which I responded, “so shouldn’t we be playing D&D?”)

But even the table top version of 4E is littered with too many components to it now (fortune cards, power cards, miniatures, etc.) that I am not exactly sure what I am playing anymore.  It has just recently struck me: why, when I print out a character sheet from the character generator, do I get 8 pages of cards? I don’t want to play Magic, I want to play D&D. What is up with the all the cards?

I digress. Legend of Drizzt was a fun game, even if some of the pieces seemed a little superfluous.

4E Psionic Power Sourcebook: So…where are the psionic powers?

So…what happened to psionics in Dungeons and Dragons? Seriously.  Because I will be running a Dark Sun campaign in a few weeks, I purchased the Psionics Power Sourcebook.  Some of the options provided are nifty, but what I am disappointed with is that there are no non-combat abilities for the would-be wielder of psionic powers.  I suspected something was amiss when the Psion was given the Ritual Caster feat as a class ability in the Player’s Handbook Three.  Why is a psion learning to cast rituals? Shouldn’t there be an equivalent for the psionic player?  “Perhaps,” thought I, “the Psionic Power Sourcebook will provide more to the player in a similar manner as prior incarnations of D&D?”


That is my biggest problem with the Psionic Power Sourcebook.  It provides a few more options to players with respect to combat and class builds, but it provides nothing by way of rounding out what is arguably the most unusual character class option available to players.  The Psionic Power Sourcebook proves, yet again, that the game-designers of 4E were more concerned with combat options than with role-playing options.  It is unfortunate.   In addition, the psionic power point system seems incomplete or rushed.  It is a great start, but why stop at only replacing encounter powers? Why not give the psionic players more points and more options to augment there at will powers? Why have augmentable at-wills and then have daily powers? I feel like this system was not thought all the way through.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea. I think it is a good start.  I think psionics should have a different feel than magic.  It adds a nice element to the role-playing experience, but this system feels incomplete.

Fortunately for me, I have a player who enjoys discussing rules and rule modifications. Fortunately for me, as I am in between jobs at the moment, I have a lot of free time to come up with my own set of Psionic Rituals that I am calling “Psionic Manifestations”.  I will be presenting these when the rules are completed and play-tested.  The basic idea behind these manifestations is that a successful psionic manifestation will give the psionic player an additional bonus to a skill.   For example, a first level fighter trained in Athletics, with a strength of 18, will have a +9 to a jump skill check.  So, to make a 20 foot jump (DC 20) they would need to roll 11+ on a d20.  That is a 50% chance of success.  Contrast with a 1st level psion who needs to make the same 20 foot jump.  If they are not trained in Athletics and they do not have a strength bonus, they will have to roll a 20 to succeed.  That is a 5% chance of success.  But, if they use their Psionic Manifestation that I call “Mind over Matter” they can add their intelligence bonus to the roll in addition to any other bonuses to the roll.  Therefore, if our psion has an intelligence score of 18, they can now succeed at the roll with a 16+.  This effectively adds 2o% chance of success.  While not as good as the trained warrior, the psion has just proven that the mind is truly a powerful tool.  I will give more detail as I play-test the psionic manifestation system.

Is it Dark Sun? Or just 4th Edition in a desert?

Many, I’m sure, were as eager as I to purchase the 4th Edition Dark Sun Campaign Setting when it was announced over a year ago.  I was so desperate to read and dive head first into the Silt Sea and start wrestling with Silt Horrors that I pre-ordered the book.  When the great tome arrived on my doorstep the first thing I noticed was how thin the book appeared.  Sadly, I would discover that the book’s thickness reflected the effort put into the remake of one of D&D’s more legendary campaign worlds.

First, let me explain why I was so eager to read the 4th edition version of Dark Sun.  The world, in a nutshell, is different from any fantasy gaming world out there.  Sure, there are now post-apocalyptic games available, but at the time Dark Sun was first released back in 1991, D&D players had little to choose from.  Indeed, the campaign source books available were very similar in scope, history, culture, and plot.  Since its release, no other campaign world by TSR/Wizards has compared to the distinctness of Dark Sun.  What made Dark Sun so memorable?

Obviously, the research and writing that went into creating Dark Sun was stellar and the results of such work unique.  The setting focuses on ecological disaster in a world reminiscent of Sumeria or Babylonia.  The gods of this post-apocalyptic world are either dead or they have abandoned the population to the arbitrary whims of the Sorcerer-Kings.  Civilization hangs on by a thread as the people starve under the yoke of their cruel masters.  The writers, Troy Denning and Timothy Brown, went to great lengths to rewrite standard D&D races to reflect how such poverty, resource depletion and godlessness would affect their cultures. Who doesn’t remember the first time they tried to shake hands with the not-so-jolly halfling cannibals of the Forest Belt? Or tried to negotiate with an elven dune trader in Baalic? Not this guy!

But what really made the world of Athas unique and come to life was that the 2nd edition rules changed to fit the world.  The world was no longer a backdrop for a dice game, but the world affected the mechanics of the game itself, which added a level of reality to the role-playing experience.  For example, to reflect a defiler’s abuse of the land and give a player an incentive to be evil, the defiler class gained levels faster than their preserving counterparts.  Psionics were commonplace and operated with a wholly different system than magic.  As metal was scarce, weapon attack and damage penalties were added to reflect the materials the weapons were made from, thereby making combat more brutal and desperate.  Armor was so hot that a player would have to wear “piece mail” as opposed to the whole suit, which would affect the character’s armor class, thereby adding to the brutality of combat.  And finally, my favorite rule of all was that a player’s character could turn evil if the party ran out of water by failing a saving throw versus death.  Dark Sun was a beautiful amalgamation of rules and story-telling that I have not seen duplicated.  The effect of this brilliant game designing was a unique experience that forced the player’s, even those that don’t like to role-play, to role-play.  The 4th edition setting does not do this, or at least, not very well.

So what happened?  The authors Richard Baker, Robert Schwab and Rodney Thompson, provided aesthetic descriptions with few rules modifications, most of which are optional.  The net result is a watered down version of Dark Sun that does not reflect the desperation and survivalist themes incorporate in the original.  All in all, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting feels like 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons in a desert and not the burning sands of Athas.

To be fair, the campaign sourcebook provides some optional rules to make things “tough” on the players as they trek through the wilderness.  For example, they incorporated “Sun Sickness” and a -5 additional armor check penalty for sun sickness or endurance checks if a character is wearing heavy armor.  But, heavy armor is still available!?  Why!? The authors provide a flimsy reason: it is made from chitin with holes drilled into it to cool off the wearer.  WHAT!?  Furthermore, all weapons are presumed to be made from bone, obsidian or stone, so there are no penalties added to your attack and damage.   It seems as though the authors were afraid of upsetting potential players by taking away their favorite toys.  But taking away the player’s toys is exactly why 2 Edition Dark Sun was so memorable.   

Another disappointing aspect of the book is that it does not address the non-standard races that appear in Player’s Handbooks 2 and 3. The authors give each a mere 2-3 sentence paragraph and expect you, the Game Master to do all the work. The authors gave the standard classes the same short shrift as the races.  Now, I don’t mind working for my game, but I do not purchase a campaign setting so that I can do a bunch of extra work to make the campaign setting that I had just purchased. 

The problems with the 4E Dark Sun campaign setting are a reflection of the problems with 4E in general.  The game has sacrificed realism for ease of game play.  There are ways of manipulating the 4E rules to tailor your game and match your gaming style, but here the authors did not go far enough.  Indeed they seemed timid and their product weak.  The authors could have done so much more to make the Dark Sun 4E stand apart from a Forgotten Realms campaign or an Eberron campaign.  If you are an old-timer like me, then you probably have one of the Dark Sun box sets.  If so, use it as supplemental material.  I used them as resources to develop my own rules to make the world of Dark Sun more like the way I remember it: beautiful and brutal.