Saturday, January 26, 2008

Deconstructing the Pit Fiend

The Wizards of the Coast web-site has kindly provided us with another genuine 4th Edition preview. Last time it was the elf, and this time it's the Monster Manual entry for the Pit Fiend. I'm going to go through this sucker section by section, and extract as much game-systemy goodness as I'm able to.


Nobles of the Nine Hells, pit fiends form an elite ruling class that oversees vast numbers of lesser devils. Only the archdevils known as the Lords of the Nine stand higher than the pit fiends.

Each pit fiend is lord of a large domain within one of the layers of the Nine Hells and is vassal to the archdevil who rules that layer. A pit fiend might govern a city, command a fortress, lead a great legion, or serve as a seneschal or counselor for an archdevil. With the exception of Asmodeus, each Lord of the Nine commands no more than a dozen or so pit fiends.

As the lords, barons, viziers, and generals of the Nine Hells, pit fiends rarely confront adventurers in person. They are the progenitors of devilish schemes, and they step in only when important plans go awry or when great plots reach fruition. In the Nine Hells proper, pit fiends command vast numbers of lesser devils. Penetrating the defenses of a pit fiend's castle and destroying the mighty devil in its own demesne is a deed of truly epic proportions.

This hulking devil stands 12 feet tall and has red scales, leathery wings, and a long whiplike tail. It carries a massive mace and wears an ornate breastplate decorated with evil runes and symbols.

Alright, this is all pretty sound, and has the Pit Fiend playing much the same role that it did in earlier editions. My only niggling complaint is the assertion that only the Archdevils stand higher than them - it's a constraint on future designers that seems unecessary. But, a minor one, so no big deal.

Now, on to the stats!

Pit Fiend Level 26 Elite Soldier (Leader)
Large immortal humanoid (devil) XP 18,000

The top line defines the role that the monster is supposed to play in a combat. It's level 26, which normally means that it is an appropriate match for one 26th level PC. But a Pit Fiend is Elite, meaning that it is a match for two PCs. Monsters in 4e are apparently designed so that there will be one monster of equivalent level per PC. If a Pit Fiend is there, it counts for two, so ideally you'd face him and three other non-Elite 26th level guys.

The Pit Fiend's role is defined as a Soldier. This is the role that the monster is most effective in - other roles include Brute, Skirmisher, and Lurker. At my best guess, a soldier is most effective as a melee fighter with mostly defensive capabilities. But honestly, I don't know squat. The (Leader) after that is a mystery to me, although there is a Leader role defined for PCs that is for Clerics, and mostly about buffing other party members.

The Pit Fiend is Large, which probably means much the same as it did in 3e. It's type is defined as Immortal Humanoid (devil). This is a huge difference from what in 3e would have been an Outsider. I can only guess at what it means and what game effects it has.

And lastly there is XP, good old Experience Points. It wouldn't be D&D without 'em, and it warms my monster-killing heart to see the number right there in the stat-block.

Initiative +22 Senses Perception +23; darkvision

Wow, by 3e standards the guy is fast with a +22 to Initiative. It can only be assumed that, in addition to Dexterity bonus, monsters get some sort of bonus tied to their level. The same is true of the Perception skill, the new combination of Spot and Listen. The formula seems to be half of the monster's level (+13) plus Wisdom modifier (+5) plus another 5 for being trained in the skill. At a guess. Plus, darkvision is still in. Sweet.

Aura of Fear (Fear) aura 5; enemies in the aura take a –2 penalty on attack rolls.
Aura of Fire (Fire) aura 5; enemies that enter or start their turns in the aura take 15 fire damage.

Auras! The aura 5 written first up seems to be range - ranges and distances in 4e are expressed in number of squares on the battlemat, which is something of a throwback to 1e giving them all in inches. Then we get a no-nonsense write-up of what the aura does. They're both nice, useful, and quite easy to remember. I'm not a big fan of the fixed damage on the fire aura, but if it speeds things up at the game table it's all good.

HP 350; Bloodied 175

It looks as though Hit Dice are gone in favour of a flat hit point total. Blah. I liked having a defined upper and lower limit. The Bloodied condition is something that applies to creatures and characters when they hit half hit points. Some abilities only work on Bloodied creatures, and some monsters get abilities that only function once it is bloodied. I like it - it gives just a touch of realism to the abstract hit point system without losing the abstraction that is its greatest strength.

AC 44; Fortitude 42, Reflex 38, Will 40

And here we have the mechanic that replaces saving throws. First we have Armor Class, which means exactly what it always has. Fortitude, Reflex and Will were formerly saving throws, shown as a bonus that was added to a d20 roll. Now they work like Armor Class - the opponent makes an attack roll against a static number. So, for example, if a dragon breathes fire at you it makes an attack against your Reflex defense.

I'm having a hard time coming around to this one, as the saving throw mechanic is deeply ingrained into my subconscious (just take a look at the blog title!). It's a good mechanic, and it will probably work very well with the much-vaunted new math that's underlying the system. It'll just take some getting used to. Kinda like how I missed telling players to Save vs. Death when 3e first appeared.

Resist 30 fire, 15 poison
Saving Throws +2

And yet, here are Saving Throws! Some detective work has revealed to me that there is a saving throw mechanic for ongoing effects in the D&D Miniatures game, used against ongoing effects like being set on fire. You roll 1d20, and if you get 11 or over, the effect ends. In that context, a +2 is pretty good.

The resistances to fire and poison show how much damage a round of the given type is ignored by the creature (unless there has been a big change from 3e). The interesting thing is that apparently there will be very few flat immunities in 4e. The example given was that a Fire Elemental can still be destroyed by a dragon's breath. Sounds weird to me, but I suppose I can go with it. For the Pit fiend these immunities are good ones.

Speed 12, fly 12 (clumsy), teleport 10

Heh. That's about twice as fast as the average PC. Fleeing from this guy is going to be tough. I really like having the teleport ability, along with its range, right there.

Action Points 1

Ah, Action Points. These pop up in a lot of other RPGs, and are generally used by characters to accomplish things that would be otherwise impossible. It's strange to see them in the hands of a monster.

I don't mind Action Points in the context of other RPGs, but to my mind they are the antithesis of D&D. I won't houserule them out, but I'll be paying a lot of attention to their effect on the game.

Melee Flametouched Mace (standard; at-will) • Fire, WeaponReach 2; +31 vs. AC; 1d12+11 fire damage plus ongoing 5 fire damage (save ends).
Melee Tail Sting (standard; at-will) • Poison+31 vs. AC; 1d6+11 damage, and the pit fiend may make a free followup attack. Followup: +29 vs. Fortitude; ongoing 15 poison damage, and the target is weakened (save ends both effects).

These are the two regular melee attacks that the Pit Fiend has. We start with the attack type (in this case melee), followed by the actual attack (flametouched mace and tail sting, respectively). In brackets we see what action type they are - both are Standard actions, which means you can move and use one of these in a round (though this could be different in 4e).

Both attacks are at-will, which references the new mechanic that 4e uses for attacks, spells and powers. Spells have undergone the biggest change here, with wizards no longer preparing a bunch of spells that can be cast once a day. Instead they get a host of powers, some usable at-will, some once per encounter, and some once per day. It's going to be one of the most jarring transitions, but if it stops parties from wanting to rest every couple of hours I'm all for it.

Both attacks then have their attack bonus, and the defense that they target, in this case AC. Hopefully this means that AC will be the default defense for melee attacks. Damage is next, and it really seems very low for such a high-level creature. Hopefully the Pit Fiend will make up for this with its special auras and abilities.

Then we get ongoing damage, and the indication that a successful save negates it. This backs up the saving throw mechanic I mentioned earlier. I like it - having to track a lot of durations could become a pain in the arse. And anything that keeps a downed player involved is good - the chance to shake of paralysis every round, for instance.

The tail sting gets a follow-up attack, and this is the replacement for the Saving Throw. It targets Fortitude, deals poison damage, and weakens the target. The poison damage is the interesting part. It presumably comes of regular hit points, and not ability scores like 3e. That's good - tracking ability score changes in-game is also a pain in the arse. It also seems that Wizards were dead serious about getting rid of save or die effects. That's good for players, but I'll miss having a PCs fate hinge on a single dice roll.

It should also be noted that the Flametouched Mace has a Reach of 2 squares, while the tail does not. This is good; hopefully it will curtail idiocy such as trolls biting characters from ten feet away.

Melee Pit Fiend Frenzy (standard; at-will)
The pit fiend makes a flametouched mace attack and a tail sting attack.

This is bizarre. It's an ability which lets the Pit Fiend make its mace and tail attacks in a single action. Useful, but I'm mystified as to why it's listed separately from the other attacks.

Ranged Point of Terror (minor; at-will) • Fear
Range 5; +30 vs. Will; the target takes a –5 penalty to all defenses until the end of the pit fiend's next turn.

Now we get a ranged attack, one that seriously knocks the target's defenses down for a short time. The major difference here to the other attacks is that it is a Minor Action. I'm not sure how this will work, but it's probable that they take up less time than a Standard Action. Perhaps it's one Standard, one Minor, and one Move per round?

Ranged Irresistible Command (minor 1/round; at-will) • Charm, Fire
Range 10; affects one allied devil of lower level than the pit fiend; the target immediately slides up to 5 squares and explodes, dealing 2d10+5 fire damage to all creatures in a close burst 2. The exploding devil is destroyed.

Ahahaha! That's hilarious. My players will freak out when I bust this one on them. It seems especially effective when combined with...

Infernal Summons (standard; encounter) • ConjurationThe pit fiend summons a group of devil allies. Summoned devils roll initiative to determine when they act in the initiative order and gain a +4 bonus to attack rolls as long as the pit fiend is alive. They remain until they are killed, dismissed by the pit fiend (free action), or the encounter ends. PCs do not earn experience points for killing these summoned creatures. The pit fiend chooses to summon one of the following groups of devils:

8 legion devil legionnaires (level 21), or
2 war devils (level 22), or
1 war devil (level 22) and 4 legion devil legionnaires (level 21)

Nice. Gating in other devils was always the iconic feature of a devil encounter, and it had to stay in. And now, if those devils are too weak to properly challenge the party, their boss can just blow 'em up. Note that this is an Encounter power - that means it can be done once per combat.

Tactical Teleport (standard; recharge 4 5 6) • Teleportation
The pit fiend can teleport up to 2 allies within 10 squares of it. The targets appear in any other unoccupied squares within 10 squares of the pit fiend.

This is a good ability for a mastermind-type baddie. If the Pit Fiend is ever cornered by the PCs, it has instant backup. I'm not sure what recharge 456 means - possibly you roll 1d6, and the ability returns on those numbers?

Alignment Evil
Languages Supernal

Alignment is getting a major overhaul. Creatures can now be unaligned, for one thing. Devils used to be Lawful Evil, now they're just Evil. It's hard to say what this means without seeing the whole system, but it looks like the two-axis system is gone, and monsters have just one alignment. If it destroys alignment arguments, that is great.

Supernal is a new language. Devils used to speak Infernal. Supernal doesn't sound nearly as cool. I'd lay money that it can be understood by anyone.

Skills Bluff +27, Intimidate +27, Religion +24

Surprisingly, Bluff and Intimidate have survived unscathed. They're good skills for a master of devilish deception, for sure. Religion is the renamed Knowledge (religion), and it looks like they've folded it together with Knowledge (the planes). Good move - gods and the planes are pretty synonymous in D&D.

Str 32 (+24) Dex 24 (+20) Wis 20 (+18)
Con 27 (+21) Int 22 (+19) Cha 28 (+22)

Stats and their bonuses. Fear not, those aren't ridiculously high stat modifiers - those are the numbers for when a Pit Fiend attempts a skill untrained. If it wants to Jump a pit, it gets a +24 bonus. If the formula used is half of the monster's level plus the stat modifier, then the mods haven't changed since 3e. Huzzah!

Equipment flametouched mace, noble signet ring

I love the signet ring. It adds a lot of character to the devils and their hierarchy. But where is that breastplate mentioned above?

Pit Fiend Tactics
A pit fiend fights close to its enemies, catching them in its aura of fear and aura of fire. On the first round of combat, it spends an action point to use infernal summons. It then uses point of terror against a tough-looking foe and tactical teleport to place two allies in flanking positions around that foe. With its remaining minor action, the pit fiend uses irresistible command on an ally within range.

So on the first round we've got one Standard Action, one Minor Action, another Standard Action, and another Minor Action. Presumably that Action Point is used to make the first action count for free, which leaves us with one Standard and two Minor. That sounds reasonable.

A pit fiend alternates between point of terror and irresistible command, sometimes using both if it has a spare move action it can replace with a minor action. Otherwise, the pit fiend uses pit fiend frenzy, teleporting as needed to gain a better position.

A pit fiend does not sacrifice its life needlessly and makes a tactical retreat if death is imminent.

I like that it is spelled out that the devil isn't there to fight to the death. It's often really easy to forget that monsters have their own lives, and aren't just there to fight the PCs.

Pit Fiend Lore
A character knows the following information with a successful Religion check:

DC 25: Pit fiends are the nobles of the Nine Hells. Each pit fiend serves as a vassal to one of the nine archdevils and commands a fortress, city, or army in its master's domain.

DC 30: Once every 99 years, a pit fiend can grant a mortal's wish by performing a terrible ritual. Only the most powerful and promising of mortals are offered such a temptation.

DC 35: Well-known pit fiends include Baalzephon, one of the powerful circle of pit fiends known as the Dark Eight; Gazra, who governs the city of Abriymoch in Phlegethos, the Fourth Hell; and Baalberith, the major-domo of the palace of Asmodeus.

Brilliant. These were provided late in 3e development, and they are highly welcome. Deciding what the PCs actually know about certain monsters is always difficult. Having a numerical guide right there is really helpful.

So that is it, the new Pit Fiend. It certainly looks a lot easier to run than the 3e version. That one has a whole lot of spell-like abilities. They give thew creature a greater tactical range, but to be honest they're never going to see use in the average game. The new version is streamlined, flavourful, and looks like a challenging fight. Chalk up another win for 4e - I'm really coming round here!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Play Report: The Fountain of the Earth

My monthly D&D group got together over the weekend to game. We had a fairly fun session, but the enjoyment was lessened a bit due to a spate of untimely deaths. Three deaths in one night is a lot by my standards, and I can't say that I enjoyed them.

The PCs at the beginning of the game were Gordred (a human ranger 6), Elrohir (an elf fighter 3/wizard 2), Qwan (a human fighter 5), and Kael (a dwarf barbarian 5). Needless to say, this is a party with a heavy focus on melee combat. It's a deficiency that I feel like I have to design around, because the game isn't at its best when the party has no access to healing magic. I had a fix for it that I'll talk about below, but it didn't stop characters from dying anyway!

The game started where we had left off last time, with the PCs accusing their nemesis Elmyr of attacking them in a ruined temple and making off with a valuable golden statue. Elmyr is the best hunter in the PCs' home base, and he's got a lot of influence. Corwyn, Bastion's leader, was reluctant to go along with the plan, which was to make Elmyr enter a zone of truth spell cast by the town's cleric. We role-played this out for a while, until I had Elmyr agree to the terms, on one condition: Gordred had to enter the zone after Elmyr was done, and answer some questions. Elmyr also wanted to wander off alone for an hour (and I had something shifty planned that I can't talk about in case my players are reading) but the guys were smart enough to keep an eye on him. Next time...

Zone of truth is a pretty handy spell. I pulled it out to good effect in one of my rare forays as a player, and it's one of the few non-combat spells that my players have remembered. The saving throw is its one weak point, and I was relieved to discover that the caster doesn't detect when victims make their saving throws, because it is an area effect. There is one point where Third Edition has made my life easier, for sure!

Elmyr made it through his trial with ease, denying every accusation the PCs hurled at him. Did he make his saving throw? Was he telling the truth or not? Needless to say, I won't be revealing that here! Gordred's time in the zone was also without incident - he made the saving throw and was able to deny poisoning Elmyr. So, a potential major turning point for the campaign was avoided. Things could have gotten downright ugly in Bastion if results had been different, but that's the biggest strength that RPGs have got compared to other game forms - genuine consequences.

I have to say, it was fun to start the game with genuinely important NPC interaction. Very few of the NPCs in this campaign have had an effect on the actions of the PCs, apart from sending them on quests and such. We usually begin things in Bastion, and most of the time that involves talking to NPCs, but this was more fun because of the potential for things to come to a head. The PCs really wanted to catch Elmyr, and he really wanted to catch them as well. It's great when an NPC elicits that reaction, and I've only ever had one that was more hated (but Henri DuBont is a tale for another time).

The next part of the game was the more traditional quest structure. As the trial finished up, the local druid Arrek arrived back at Bastion, weak from a savage disease. He had left the town weeks ago, seeking some aid in the forest against the army of orcs that was approaching. Now he was back, telling the PCs that they had to cleanse the Fountain of the Earth to gain the forest's aid.

There's a bit of backstory here. The Fountain of the Earth was the only thing keeping the forest clinging to life without the sun (see my previous Play Report for the low-down). Centuries ago during the War of Nightfall, a great demon known as the Ravager of Souls was defeated by the elves of the forest, and fell back to be impaled on the fountain. The demon still lives on in agony, its blood running with the fountain and polluting the land. So, of course, the PCs have got to fix everything to get the forest on their side.

At this point I had the druid give the PCs a wand of cure light wounds. The last session saw the PCs running from the dungeon back home to heal, like a pack of sissies. It really annoyed me, so I thought I'd provide them with some healing ability of their own. I'm soft, really. Funnily enough, I think it might have contributed to some of the deaths. The guys got a bit confident with some healing at the ready, and probably rushed into some situations they otherwise might not have.

Following a map provided by the druid, the PCs ventured off to his grove. They encountered some elves there, bloodthirsty worshippers of the Ravager, and the first battle of the night got underway. The elves were pushovers, despite me giving them a form of true strike - their first attack in any combat had a +20 to the attack roll, guaranteeing them a hit unless they fumbled. They weren't the problem, though, as they only had 8 hit points each. It was the evil Blink Dogs. I gave the bastards 2d6 worth of Sneak Attack, and it was brutal. A Blink Dog's opponent is always flat-footed, so it was 3d6 on every hit (until we remembered that some of the guys had Uncanny Dodge!). Qwan was dropped below 0 at least twice, and it may even have been a third time - the poor guy kept getting healed, then knocked out again. The elves were killed pretty quickly, but only two of the Blink Dogs died - the other two escaped, and would come back to haunt the party later on.

After a quick search the PCs discovered some notes telling them that they needed a magic emerald held by the elves to cleanse the fountain. Two groups of elves were indicated on the map, but some convenient bloodstains obscured the pertinent clues. The guys worked out that one of the clues said 'Evil Beware', and interpreted this to mean that evil should beware. I had meant it the other way around (beware of evil), and it never even occurred to me that there was another interpretation! So they headed off in this direction, which was a big mistake.

At this point a couple of other players arrived - Quinlan (a halfling rogue 2/fighter 2) and Heidi (a dwarf cleric 4). I decided that these guys had been hanging with the druid before he was driven from the area, so I gave Quinlan the clue that the elves the party were heading for were bad news. The player decided not to tell anyone else, because he was itching for a battle to start off his game. They can't say I didn't give them fair warning!

The elven 'village' was nothing more than a massive tree with a lot of earthen mounds around it. The lake beyond featured an island with a green glow, and from that island could be heard screaming - the fountain, and the Ravager. They waltzed into town, little realising that it was fully inhabited (to be honest, I probably should have shown a few more signs of life). One failed Move Silently check, and the elves were alerted.

The elves burst from the mounds, eight of them to begin with, and a few more popped up with each round. I'd written this encounter to contain some 40 elves or so, thinking that the PCs would retreat as the numbers started increasing. I should have known better - I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I've seen D&D players retreat. I stopped adding guys at about 15, and that was plenty - especially when the two escaped Blink Dogs returned to the fray.

First Qwan went down to a Blink Dog. He got healed up, then he got knocked down again - all the way dead this time. I wasn't too phased by this one - the player (Dean) has a habit of losing characters, and this guy was only a couple of sessions old.

The second character to die was Quinlan, whittled away by elven archer fire (true striking on the first round, remember), and finally succumbing to those damned Blink Dogs again. This was a real shame, because the player (Aaron) had only arrived about an hour before that, for his first session in months. This character had a monumental Armor Class at lower levels, and this was the first time he'd been knocked below 0 hit points.

The other guys polished off the elves and the dogs, but it was in the balance for a while there. I probably would have had them captured if everyone was knocked out, but they managed to win through, and healed up courtesy of the wand of cure light wounds. It had started with 50 charges, and now it had 15 remaining.

The remaining party members explored the top of the tree, and there they met Min-Mordath, king of the elves and thrall of the Ravager. I learned an important lesson here - it doesn't matter what level a wizard is, he's going down to a party if he fights them alone. My original plan was to give this guy fire shield, but after decimating the party in the battle before I relented. I shouldn't have, because they wiped him out in two rounds. I was just itching to have him knock a character from the top of the tree with his ram's-horn staff, too...

That staff turned out to be housing the emerald the guys needed, so they hopped on a nearby boat and headed for the green-glowing island. Sure enough, there was the Ravager of Souls, impaled on the fountain and screaming in pain. There was a cave the PCs had to run into, avoiding the Ravager's devastating attacks. At this point I relented some more - I'd planned for there to be three entrances, and for the party to have to run from one to the other a few times. Instead I dispensed with three potentially tough encounters, as well as the possibility of more attacks from the Ravager, and proceeded to the end-game.

The PCs reached the heart of the Fountain, and the emerald started telling Elrohir to use his will to control its flow. He did so, requiring three consecutive DC 20 Will saves to increase it to the point where the Ravager would be destroyed. At that point four elven clerics crawled out of holes in the ground for the climactic encounter. I didn't think they'd be so tough, and to be honest I'd planned for there to be more of them. But with a depleted party, I stuck with one for each character. It was enough, because Kael and Gordred got hit with hold person spells early on. Gordred got stabbed in the throat with a poisoned dagger, and that was it for him - he failed the Fortitude save for the coup de grace.

This death hurt, I have to say. The character had been there from the beginning, and was probably my favourite one of the campaign. He'd certainly been the driving force behind Elmyr becoming a major villain, and now I'm certain that NPC won't have anywhere near the effect that he had before. I hate killing good long-term characters, and unfortunately I've set this area of the campaign up so that raise dead isn't available.

With half the party out, and Elrohir rolling really badly on his Will saves, I fudged it so he'd only need to make a single Will save. It took him a good five or six rounds to get it, and all four of the clerics were still up and about. But he succeeded eventually, the Ravager was destroyed, and the clerics died with their master.

The game was fun, and a good change of pace. I'd been running mostly dungeoncrawls for the last few sessions, so I sent the PCs into the forest for a change of pace. The difference was noticeable, and I need to stop relying on dungeons so much. They're easy to design and run, but the game gets stale with too many.

The next game is going to interesting. There will be a few new characters, and that always shifts the dynamic around. I'm hoping for a few more spellcasters, but I doubt that will happen - I seem to have attracted a group of melee-fiends. I must remember to have the NPCs react differently to them - sometimes it's easy to forget that a player isn't using the same guy. The game continuity will suffer a little, because I was planning on having the guys take a major hand in fighting the orcs once they arrive. They'll still do that I guess, but they might have to earn Bastion's trust a little before getting any authority. What I have to keep telling myself is not to go easy on them just because I killed a few characters. It's tempting to offer them a cakewalk, but I'll try not to. A D&D game without challenge is pretty pointless, really.