Friday, September 25, 2015

The Trouble with Rangers

Rangers are on some people's minds lately.

There are numerous discussions involving the ranger class for 5th Edition and how, as presented in the Player's Handbook, it doesn't quite match up to the other classes in some respects. The ranger ideas recently presented in an Unearthed Arcana also seem somewhat wanting, with abilities that encourage multiclassing in a way that give even my most min-maxing munchkiny friends pause to say, "You know, that's kind of crazy broken."

I had some discussions with other designer friends who maintain that the ranger suffers from a lack of coherent theme. I mean, what do you compare them to? Are they the Aragorn, who seems to be a fighter in all but title? Or are they the Drizzt, with bizarre combat expertise and unusual supernatural abilities? Robin Hood the archer, who is more woodsy bandit than expert tracker? The World of Warcraft beastmaster, that relies on the strength of their animal companions to augment their middling combat expertise?

I don't know the answer. You could design four completely different ranger classes based on those archetypes and not make anyone happy. Ranger can't really be summed up in a single sentence without taking some liberties, the way fighter (really good at hurting things with weapons) or paladin (the holy champion of a god or cause) can.

It's weird, because ranger was my favorite class back in the day. I liked being able to skirmish with enemies at range or up close and disappear into the woods between battles, but you could do all of those things nowadays with a well-designed fighter/rogue (or hell, just a fighter with good skill selection).

Maybe most popular ranger concepts don't even need a class anymore, just an archetype bolted onto an existing one. Aforementioned skirmisher could be a fighter archetype, and encapsulate Drizzt quite well (some of his statistical interpretations are actually much more fighter than they are ranger). I'd contend that the ranger-as-champion-of-good better befits the Oath of Ancients paladin archetype than the ranger class (as intimated in the UA article linked above which calls them "paladins of the forest").

So I started dorking around, as I am want to do, blundering through the murky forest of rules and bad ideas to generate concepts based on that line of thinking. A feral beastmaster could easily be a barbarian archetype, who shares a bond with a tribal totem animal and fights alongside it (just, you know, not a carbon copy of the totemic path already presented). You could make a more spellcastery variant of the ranger from a druid path, a militant wing of natural guardians that belong to a "Circle of Blades" or something similar.

I could be way off base, but until the ranger gets an answer to what fictional or historic archetype it's trying to emulate, I think we're going to keep running into design problems with the class. I don't think anyone's happy with rangers right now.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Designing for New Editions

Over the last weeks, I've been attempting to determine the Way It's Done as it pertains to our relatively new 5th Edition D&D. The Unearthed Arcana articles have been an excellent insight into the design process that goes on in the heads of their creative-types, but minimal exposure to finished products is leaving me with a lack of surety on whether my design instincts are correct in my homebrew stuff.

The College of Shadows bard and the Circle of Dust druid are problematic. I look back on them now, with the bushy-eyebrowed frowny-face of an overly critical creative person, and mutter garbled curses in the forgotten tongues of the elder races. I could beat myself up over it, but really I think the crux of my problem is not having enough official products to establish a pattern in their design yet. The UA articles give me an idea, but they shouldn't considered final products by their own admission.

Off the blog, I've been working on updating an old homebrew setting of mine (because you're not a Dungeon Master if you didn't have some stupid malarkey you thought was a good idea back when you were fifteen and now you want to Do It Right), and creating character races from that setting is actually much harder than I expected it to be. What's balanced? What's fun? What's the Right Way to do it from a rules perspective?

To that end, I bought a couple products recently -- Midgard Heroes and Southlands Heroes, both from Kobold Press. They're not first party books, but the designers put a lot of effort into them and while the settings from which they hail are not something I'm likely to play (despite their coolness), their races are fun. Some are extrapolations of monster races into player ones (i.e. Centaur, Gnoll, Kobold, Lizardfolk), or totally reminiscent of things they might not have been intended to be (tell me the Alseids aren't directly translatable into Bariaur from Planescape and I'll call you a dirty liar).

Some are crazy new and have some awesome design ideas, like the Darakhul Ghoul whose traits are partially contingent on what player race they were before being turned into ghouls.

There are a couple tricks they used that I really like. For example, the Tosculi waspfolk in Southlands Heroes who are totally not a way to design Thri-Kreen from Dark Sun with a bit of work has the concept of Alternate Racial Traits, where you can swap out some racial abilities for others at the time of character creation so you can make a character that plays more to the strengths of the class you select. This way, you aren't saddled with some traits you'll never use and don't feel obligated to find an excuse to do so.

Their Lizardfolk from the same book have the same idea, but the alternate racial traits are there to emulate Lizardfolk who come from different tribes inspired by other reptiles, like geckos, chameleons, et cetera.

I think this is a fun design space to work in, and it helps me quite a bit in determining how I'd build some of my old race concepts in the new edition. However, I'm a bit sad that the idea of Racial Feats doesn't seem to have taken hold, because I think there's equal usefulness there that hasn't yet been tapped.

I suppose there's evidence to suggest that they don't want to paint all Dungeon Masters into a corner so they must use feats (where some might not want to; it does list them as optional in the preamble to chapter six in the Player's Handbook, after all). Still, they naturally use a gating mechanism (player level advancement, unless you wanted to have variant humans and human racial feats for your setting) and a rules plug-in that's already comfortable and established in the minds of its veteran players.

Anyway, the two books bring up some ways to handle future conversion stuff on top of all that. Their Centaurs are Large creatures, which immediately sends up flares about combat balance; between reach and fighting space, this can create severe headaches. However, they do logically call out that the "human" part of the Centaur is still no bigger than you'd expect and they still only use normally-sized weapons and armor (and have no reach).

You may be saying, "Well duh, Marsupialmancer," but this honestly didn't occur to me until I saw it here, which is part of the problem. I'm having trouble determining what consistencies are safe to mess with, in this case Large being Large was something that was safe and logical.

I still don't know what Wizards considers safe yet, so I am taking my cues from those whose day job this is at this point. I'm still not entirely comfortable messing with what I think are the established boundaries yet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Circle of Dust Druid Archetype

This archetype came to mind as I was brainstorming more 5th Edition Dark Sun stuff. At first I themed the archetype and its powers accordingly, but realized it could technically be used in any setting where widespread, catastrophic or near-catastrophic ruin is pervasive.

The archetype is intended to be a give-and-take healer role, supporting already potent druid curative magic with "healing battery" and damage redirection powers. Circle of Dust druids are also capable of assuming a unique form using their wild shape power and leeching off healing done in their presence, giving them synergy with allies capable of healing or in the presence of enemies that can cast healing spells.

Its downsides are it being somewhat "gamey" as far as 5th Edition archetypes go (it makes use of hit dice as a resource to be expended during non-rest situations) as well as potentially interrupting the actions of other players as the druid piggybacks off of events happening during play. It may also be horribly imbalanced, but without a proper playtest in lieu of napkin-math, I can only go with my gut feelings on the numbers.

The Circle of Dust

The Circle of Dust is an order of druids seen as something of an aberration by more traditional druids of the Circles of Land and the Moon. Some are sad, wandering prophets offering succor through sometimes frightening powers coaxed from a ravaged world. The worst of the lot are misbegotten, insane harbingers of apocalypse that preach doom and bring further ruin.

Entropic Exchange

Upon selecting this Circle at 2nd level, the druid gains the ability to siphon life force from healthy and hale allies in order to mend the wounds of others. Both targets must be willing to participate and be within 30 feet of the druid. The druid may act as the source if they so desire.

The source of the healing may donate hit dice up to a maximum of the level of the druid initiating the exchange. The dice are then rolled as though being used to recuperate during a short rest, and the total is given to the target of the exchange. The druid may use this power only thrice before requiring either a short or long rest.

A source that does not possess spendable hit dice (such as a monstrous ally) or one who no longer has hit dice to spend may instead elect to suffer 1d6 points of necrotic damage for each hit die they would have otherwise expended, with the damage total being used to fuel the healing on the target. Any excess is lost.

Theft of Life

Even if the druid of the Circle of Dust does not choose to cast healing magic of their own, their unique abilities allow them to "steal" life energy provided by such spells and use it for their own purposes. Beginning at 2nd level, the druid may use their reaction any time a spell or other magical power that restores lost hit points is used within 60 feet (either by an ally or an enemy). The druid may immediately expend a single hit die and roll it to recover from damage as though they had used it during a short rest.

Naturally, the uses of this power are limited by the number of remaining hit dice the druid possesses.

Ash and Wind

When the druid reaches 6th level, they can expend uses of their wild shape ability to transform into a cloud of dust and cooled embers. The ash and wind form has the following traits:

  • You cannot make physical attacks, cast spells, or speak, but you gain resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage from non-magical attacks. You do not lose concentration on spells already cast. Upon reaching 18th level, you can cast spells while in this form (as per the beast spells druid ability).
  • When you transform, you assume a hit point total equal to your Wisdom modifier times your level. If all these hit points are lost before you return to your druid form, you drop out of the ash and wind form just as you would with a normal use of wild shape to become an animal.
  • You can fly at a speed of 40 feet.
  • You can enter any space that is not air tight either through gaps (such as under a door) or cracks (such as in a thin wall). You cannot use this ability to enter magically-sealed locations such as those warded by arcane lock and similar spells, nor can it penetrate any force effect such as a wall of force or globe of invulnerability.
  • You have advantage on Stealth checks to avoid notice, as you make very little to no noise.
  • You cannot enter water of any volume. Doing so immediately ends the form.
  • Natural high winds or the gust of wind spell can push you along easily; you are at disadvantage on Strength checks to resist.

Ash and wind otherwise obeys the rules and restrictions of wild shape in terms of duration, equipment, and actions used to assume or shed the form.

Resist Decay

Walking the line between survival and ruin grants a Circle of Dust druid significant resilience against effects that ravage the body. Upon reaching 10th level, the druid has advantage on saving throws against poison and disease and gains resistance to necrotic damage.

Wrack or Repeal

Suffering and destruction are such a part of the Circle of Dust that its most powerful druids can manipulate the echoes of harmful events. Upon achieving 14th level, a druid of the Circle of Dust can wrack or repeal as a reaction any time the druid or an ally within 60 feet suffers from any event that causes hit point damage such as from a physical attack or a fireball spell. The damage suffered is immediately halved and the druid can decide what to do with the remaining half, electing to either wrack or repeal.

If the druid elects to wrack, half of the damage is immediately inflicted back upon the attacker. This damage is of the same type as the triggering attack. For example, if a druid's ally is damaged by a fireball that causes 32 points of damage, using wrack reduces the damage suffered to 16 and inflicts 16 fire damage upon the caster of the fireball. If the caster were resistant to fire, they would suffer half of that damage.

If the druid elects to repeal, half of the damage is converted to healing and can be distributed to any number of allies within 60 feet of the druid, so long as they are not the same individual whose damage was reduced. Using the same above example, the druid could distribute 16 points of healing to any allies that are not the initial target.

The druid may use wrack or repeal once upon reaching 14th level, gaining an additional use at 16th, 18th, and 20th level (for a total of four uses). These uses recharge after a long rest.