Entering the realm of bard-dom…

halfling bard

I’ve played a lot of characters in D&D or its variants. Fighters, rangers, wizards, druids, sorcerers, rogues (or thieves), clerics, even a witch now.

But there are two classes I have rather deliberately and pointedly avoided for decades. Yes, decades.

One is the paladin. The other is the bard. I avoid them for entirely different reasons. I avoid the paladin because I find the role playing constraints and GM or other player expectations to be too severe. I’m not much of a “black and white” morality kind of guy, and paladins are all about that. But I haven’t played a bard because… well…

Bards suck.

I mean even in the Order of the Stick online webcomic (online webcomic, that’s redundant isn’t it? Oh well…) the bard is the comedy relief of the party. Even the fundamental concept of the bard strikes nothing but laughter into the heart of most gamers. “Look out, he’s going to … SING!”

But I’ve decided to take the plunge and will be playing a bard in an upcoming campaign, assuming we can find a time when everyone can play. Yes, a bard. A halfling bard at that. So I’ve decided not only to play a class that is woefully unsuited for combat, I’ve picked the least combat suitable race too.

“Sparky” is his name. I haven’t yet created a miniature for him, but I will. Hopefully it will turn out better than my crappy miniature for Gil the Wonder Gnome. It almost has to, really.

So, why a bard? Well, mostly because the party we have already has all the other standard roles all filled, and I just wanted to finally take the chance to play a class I’ve avoided forever.

I am doing what I can to make him a competent member of the team, but mostly his focus is going to be on performing, diplomacy, bluffing and sneaking around in the dark. In combat he’s mostly going to hide behind the big beefy dudes and fling a sling stone out from time to time. Having picked the “detective” archetype, my bard won’t even have the ability to buff the party with the bard’s signature ability, the “sing a song to buff the party” ability called “inspire courage.” That’s sort of deliberate, and I certainly won’t miss the taunts of “fight fight fight the ugly ogre” from the rest of the team. But without that ability Sparky will have to make up for his limitations in other ways.

To make this work I’m going to have to be quite clever and resourceful. I’m looking forward to it.

“Down time” activities

One of the things about being a “gamer” that seems to bemuse some of my non-gamer friends and family is the whole concept of “player character downtime activities”, which is how we describe what our characters do when we aren’t playing them in an actual game.

dryad grove

The very concept of player characters having “lives” outside of crawling around in dungeons or otherwise engaging in epic combat or social encounters seems to confuse non-gamers. And, to be honest, it seems also to confuse some gamers too.

There is a tie-in here to the larger concept of “backstory” and “character development”, which are also somewhat befuddling to non-gamers (and, again, some gamers).

After all, these are things that are generally non-game impacting. From a pure sit-down-and-roll-dice perspective, whether a player’s rogue spent time “outside of the game” scouting out the local gambling casino or a player’s wizard spent time crafting a magic item really just boil down to some circumstance bonuses in certain skill or ability checks or adding an item and subtracting some gold from a character sheet.

But some gamers (and I admit to being one of them) actually enjoy exploring the personalities, histories, ambitions and personal growth of our characters.

For example, I have a wizard that has been in my “available character portfolio” for decades. He’s the first character I ever created and has not only an extensive backstory and personal development history, but I have laid out in detail, room, by room, his “wizard tower” and the island upon which he constructed it. That includes what is located in each room, where the local fauna lives and how he moves about the island and comes to and from it when he leaves to go “adventuring”.

So, I am now working out the details of the long-term home and possible retirement of my ninth level half elf/half dryad druid. That means I am designing her home, laying out the local forest and the major elements of that forest, including the local dryad grove, the lairs of any significant major carnivores and the paths to and from her little forest world.

There is probably some value to exploring the deep psychological needs this sort of thing reveals about me, and one of these days I may visit a mental health professional to discuss this bizarre behavior. But in the meantime, it’s actually a lot of fun doing this.

The only question I have right now is if I want to create an actual 3D world for these characters. My wizard’s island and tower is just drawings on paper right now. But with my recent foray into the realm of 3D terrain and building construction, there’s no reason not to actually build a scale replica of my character’s homes and local environs.

So, how weird is all that? (As if I really want to know…)

End of an era…

Sigh.. our excellent 4e campaign has come to an epic close. The final conclusion was very well done and for a while it seemed that evil would prevail. But the party managed to barely survive and defeat the god-slaying BBEG (or in this case ‘Big Bad Evil Chick’ or ‘BBEC’). As a sort of unusual “reward” the remnant powers of the gods that had been slain became available for acquisition and my legendary damage-dealing ranger, ‘Kataar’, has now ascended partially into the pantheon of deities as the new Demigod of Hunters and Assassins.

I’d like to thank Rae Vhen the GM for his incredible work as the GM. I learned a lot from him and I am sure my own campaigns will be better for having played in his. I’d also like to thank my playing partners for three years of fun and camaraderie. By the end of the campaign I believe Kataar was the oldest “surviving” character in the party.

Kataar was my first and only serious 4e character I’ve played. I did enjoy playing him, not just because of his crazy damage potential, but also because of his street-savvy and his clever utilization of magical toys and trinkets. He always was able to pull something out of his bag of tricks, and even in the final cataclysmic battle his “wonderful toys” gave us a critical respite from a crushing aura which was seriously hampering our combat effectiveness.

I do think Kataar was a surprisingly multi-dimensional one-dimensional character. Although he had the charisma of a garden slug, he excelled in sneaking around, climbing on or over things, finding stuff, opening things (although at the end of his career we had a more talented thief in the party…) and breaking stuff. He was particularly good at breaking stuff.

Although I have mixed emotions about ending such an epic campaign, I am actually happy to retire Kataar and move on. In the end Kataar may well be the single character I have invested the most time and effort into in my entire career of gaming. I can’t honestly say he is my favorite character (I tend to prefer complex, troubled spell casters over straightforward martial characters) I can say he’s been a blast to play.

Thanks again Rae! Excellent work.

Heh, as I was setting tags for this post I realized I now have to move Kataar from “active” to “inactive” in my categories… sigh.

Totally epic dude!

Well, we did it. My 4e group finally hit epic level. Level 21 introduces us to the whole new realm of epic adventuring.

Our first quest appears to be to hunt down and subdue the Tarrasque.

My ranger, Kataar, is as close to a munchkin character as I’ve ever played. He is a melee monster. A damage dealing dervish of demonic destructiveness. It’s sorta embarrassing how much damage he can do.

Which brings me to epic-ness…

I was expecting to see some bump in effectiveness for reaching epic level. I figured it would be more than a simple level up situation.

But I was amazed after going through the online Character Builder tool and comparing my post-epic Kataar to my pre-epic Kataar.

Basically he has gotten significantly better in every area he was already pretty darn good. The epic path he picked allows him to add a +2 to any two ability scores. Of course he picked dex and str. Plus crossing the epic boundary provides a boost to several feats just for moving from the “paragon” tier to the “epic” tier. For example, his “power attack” damage bonus goes from +6/+4 (main hand/off hand) to +9/+6. His weapon focus feat goes from +2 to +3. Etc.

The end result is that his attack modifier went from +24 at level 20 to +27 at level 21. Usually you see about a one point boost in your attack modifier per level. So in that sense moving from level 20 to level 21 is like advancing three levels in one step.

The question is going to be whether epic level encounters factor this sort of jump in, or if the AC, Attack and Damage progression is pretty linear for them. I guess I will find out.

I’ve only played a couple of characters in my 30+ year D&D career that got higher than level 12. Usually the campaigns I am in start at level 1 and peter out somewhere around level 10 or so. Playing a demigod-type character is an unusual situation for me, and it has its own entertainment value.

I am looking forward to our next session so I can see what sort of impact all these combat boosts have in, well, combat. 🙂

Yleris, as PF druid

OK, so I have pretty much settled on the Pathfinder conversion of my 3.5 druid, Yleris, the half-elf/half-dryad who was a ranged blaster druid in 3.5.

Since we are using pretty much only core Paizo content (Pathfinder Rule Book, Advanced Player Guide, Ultimate Magic…) there is very little “blasting” that druids do. So I had briefly considered developing a custom archetype but finally decided that takes too much toll on player/GM time, especially since we are near the end of our current campaign, and I frankly don’t know when I’ll get a chance to play Yleris again. Which is a shame since she’s such an awesome character to role play…

So instead I just went with a “lion shaman” with a tiger flavor instead of lion.

Other than that I did a straight conversion of attributes, feats, skill ranks, etc. only modifying what was different in PF from 3.5 (e.g. things like favored class bonuses to hit points or skill ranks). So she has retained her Point Blank feat tree feats (PB, Precise Shot, Rapid Shot, Many Shot), meaning she is mostly going to be summoning cats and then shooting her bow as her animal companion and summoned cats engage in melee.

Because she is a tiger shaman, she can summon cats as a standard action instead of a full round action, that helps a lot. Using her lesser rod of metamagic “extend” her cats have a duration of 16 rounds, which is more than the vast majority of fights.

She probably won’t wild shape much, and that’s probably good since her stats (e.g. strength of 10) are not really conducive to wild shape melee battle. But I think she’ll do OK. Although it may be a long time before she does anything but hike back to town after our last big boss fight.

Optimizing vs. Optimizing…

One of the huge debates I’ve seen on gaming boards for role playing games of all stripes is the role and value of “optimizing” characters.

In general that battle boils down to two polarized camps, the “role players” on one side and the “optimizers” on the other side. The first camp believes that conceptualizing a character around a personality, background and set of motivations should drive the player’s character creation process, while the second camp believes that characters should be mechanically optimized to fulfill their adventuring group role, such as striker, tank, healer, etc…

My own approach to the game is definitely more in the first camp than the second. However, when the “concept” of the character I am playing is specifically to be very good at a role that fits with the adventuring group roles, then there’s not a whole lot of difference in the end result of the mechanical aspects of the character, although I hope that the end result is still a very rounded and believable role playable character as well.

I am currently playing three active RPG characters in three separate games. One is in the old D&D 3.5 rules (although we are just now in the process of converting to Pathfinder), one is in Pathfinder and one is in D&D 4e rules.

The first characater is a 3.5 druid. In this case I went whole-hog down the character conceptualization process and ended up with a unique race (half elf / half dryad) and followed a concept path that was specifically directed towards a dryad heritage instead of a typical druid approach. So the result is a bow-wielding druid who has taken all the “Point Blank” feat tree choices and who spends as much time in combat using her bow as she does casting spells or wildshaping. In that sense she is far from an optimized druid. However, she is very effective at the role she has chosen. In the end she is sort of a cross between a ranger and a druid, except that she has all the full spell-casting abilities of a druid. Although she could certainly be more powerful, she is still more than adequate to fill the role she fills in the party.

The second character is a Pathfinder witch, and again I went whole-hog down the character conceptualization process and ended up with a male human witch who has taken charisma as his secondary attribute and operates as the party “face.” Charisma is typically a “dump stat” for a witch and this choice has again, seriously “gimped” the witch in comparision with a “standard witch” build. In this case the lack of optimizing the build has potentially hurt the party, in that campaign we are currently on the verge of a near party-wipe and will likely only survive by abandoning at least one party member to a horrible fate. Still the witch is a very compelling concept character, he is a drug addict who focuses on potion brewing and poisons, neither of which contribute a great deal to combat. But he’s still fun.

The last character is my 4e ranger which I have mentioned on this blog before. When I started playing in this campaign I was asked to build an effective melee ranger, and since this was my first 4e campaign, I did focus mostly on optimizing him for the “striker” role. This is the first character I’ve built that I did really focus on optimizing for a specific party role. Even then I deliberately chose a couple of non-optimized choices because I liked the flavor, but those are fairly minor things (like choosing a spiked chain weapon even though that choice cuts off the opportunity to multi-class the character due to the game designer’s bizarre decision to make this single weapon use up the character’s multi-class option, even though there is nothing remotely class-like about choosing a spiked chain as a weapon.

However, even with the spiked chain and choosing certain options to improve stealth and thievery skills, Kataar is optimized well enough that I would put him up against just about any 19th level optimized 4e striker build out there. It is not uncommon for his attacks to fail only in the case of rolling a 1 on a d20, which is an auto-fail by rule anyway. His damage output is off the scale and he really only has two significant weaknesses, one of which is an unavoidable consequence of choosing to optimize for damage, and the other I am looking at mitigating now. The first unavoidable consequence is that by focusing on damage output, Kataar has something of a glass chin and can’t take much damage. Since we have an awesome healer, that hasn’t been a critical failing so far in the campaign, but I have to admit that his build depends on an awesome healer, so that’s a significant weakness for a truly well-rounded character. His other weakness is related to his lack of good defenses against mental attacks (attacks vs. the “will” defense, to be specific). Because of this he is particularly susceptable to being dominated, and since he does so much damage on an attack, being dominated provides the GM with a powerful tool to attack the rest of the party. This has been a significant issue in at least three encounters over the course of his career so far, and after this weekend when he was dominated again, I’ve decided that I’ve got to do something about this weakness.

Still, even though Kataar is inarguably optimized to fulfill the striker role, I did still do my best to build a concept that makes him a compelling role-playing character as well. And I think I did OK with that since I do get lots of opportunities to role play him as a very unique and, I hope, interesting character even outside of his awesome damage dealing abilities. In a sense he is a sort of sword & sorcery version of The Batman, and I think the rest of the gaming group enjoys that aspect of his concept almost as much as they appreciate his mowing down of opponents in melee encounters.

The point of all of this is that I don’t see optimizing a character for a particular role and optimizing a character for role playing to be mutually exclusive exercises. I do admit that when you’ve mechanically optimized a character for a particular party role, your role playing options are severely diminished, which makes the role playing aspect more difficult to pull off, you can do both. And for those who do focus on optimizing for a role, I would suggest that you can still come up with a great role playing angle as well if you try hard enough.