Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bloodless Magic of 5e

I love a lot of things in 5e. I love the action economy that keeps the game moving quickly and prevents a single character from dominating a turn by taking a stack of a dozen actions. I love the way skills work, there if you need them but equally small enough to ignore when they’d just get in the way, and how the skill system never tells a player: “NO!” I love backgrounds, and the races work, and I love how easy and fun the advantage/disadvantage mechanic is and how concentration prevents characters from layering up on the magical buffs. If I play another version of D&D, even my beloved Moldvay/Cook, I miss a lot of these things, and will sometimes even import them because they work really, really well.

But magic in 5e feels flat. It has no sparkle, no pizzazz. And I’m not sure why.

It’s not the spells themselves. With spells like Mirage Arcane, Crown of Madness, Dissonant Whispers, and Hunger of Hadar, 5e sports some of the most flavorful and evocative spells the game has ever seen (though I’d certainly not be against seeing a more consistent effort across the board to sex them all up, a la LotFP’s spell list). The neo-Vancian spell-slots thing doesn’t help, calling to mind capacitors and other technology-heavy metaphors. Still, preparing spells reads like magic; it tends to fall flat on its face in the actual implementation, when it goes from bundling components or chanting mantras and becomes bare bookkeeping.

And that, right there, is clearly one of the issues. What, exactly, does it mean to prepare a spell? The PHB treats it as nothing more than a bookkeeping chore:
You prepare the list of wizard spells that are available for you to cast. To do so, choose a number of wizard spells from your spellbook equal to your Intelligence modifier + your wizard level (minimum of one spell). The spells must be of a level for which you have spell slots. (PHB pg. 114)

It’s almost verbatim for every other class that casts spells. There’s nary a fig-leaf of mumbo-jumbo, woo, or the like to dress it up. Admittedly, this is not something we want to spend a lot of time on, and is best done between sessions. Still, at least a façade of mysticism would be nice.

We get the same sort of just-the-facts-ma’am attitude on how spells are acquired. Clerics and paladins clearly acquire their spells from their deity, which gives DMs wonderful openings for tying the PCs to their world. Wizards get their spells from books (mostly). But everyone else (including wizards) get spells when they level up.

How? It’s never explained.

It sorta makes sense with sorcerers. Since they acquire magic via genetics, the power grows like an exercised muscle. Druids and rangers can kinda crib from both clerics and sorcerers, saying that, as their experience with Nature grows, so does their ability to channel its wondrous powers. But how do you explain wizards and bards just suddenly acquiring new spells when they level up?

But the most egregious example is the warlock. Yes, obviously, they should acquire their new spells from their patrons. But there’s nothing at all in the books about how this works. I could see a scholarly warlock with a Great Old One patron actually having their mind expanded by reading the Necronomicon a few too many times, but really, there’s nothing in the book about how warlocks interact with their patrons. How are they contacted? What is the nature of the relationship? What do the patrons get out of it?

On the one hand, I appreciate the light touch that leaves lots of room for individual interpretations. On the other hand, there’s a ton of cool opportunities just left on the table, and, in the heat of the game, it’s easy to just ignore this sort of thing. And if you do that, magic kinda deflates into a technology with the wires and gears hidden behind sparkles and unicorn farts.

Art by Thomas Dewing.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: The Last Witch - Trust and Tension

The Last Witch Hunter is a Vin Diesel movie. By that I mean it's fun, it's exciting, it's a touch melodramatic (in a good way), and it's incredibly imaginative.

It's also a bit disappointing. Especially if you've seen Pitch Black recently.

A movie like Pitch Black is a hell of a thing to saddle an actor with early in his career. You know what he's capable of, and you want to see him hit those heights again. And when it's a near thing, it hurts a little.

What follows is less a review than a dissection of how so much can go right and the movie still be a near miss. If you're on the fence at all, go see it. It's fun. You'll be entertained. Diesel's character has a lot of heart, the visuals are entrancing, and if you've ever been attracted to the whole goth thing, you'll find something to enjoy in the world they've created. So yeah, close this post and come back after you've seen the movie.

Ok, so what's wrong? It's not the acting. Diesel's badass-with-a-heart might not be as dramatic as his badass-shocked-to-discover-he-has-a-heart from Pitch Black, but he's very much a hero you can root and cheer for. Michael Caine does his Alfred thing, which does a very good job hiding his character's dark secret.

But then there's Rose Leslie. From her very first line, we know she's set up to be the love interest in this story, and they never allow her to shake that feeling. And that undercuts everything that happens between the two characters. Their relationship is all about trust. He's the Last Witch Hunter, the immortal badass who slays witches. He's got a nasty reputation, and while we know it's not entirely earned, he certainly leans on it throughout the film. And she's a witch, a witch with a dark secret that ought to set our Witch Hunter's spidey-senses tingling.

But when they're forced to trust each other, we don't feel any risk in it at all. Of course she can trust him; he's the hero! He smiles at kids and risks his life to save little puppies! (Ok, not really on the puppies part, but if there had been any, you know he'd have totally saved them.) And she's the love interest! Of course he can trust her.

So there's no frisson there. No tension, no spark, just meh. Remember that scene in Terminator 2, where they take the chip out of Ahnold's head, and Sarah Conner is standing over it with that hammer in hand? She can smash him to bits. And everything in her background, her character, up to this point, says she's gonna do it. You can feel the tension in the air, feel how much she totally wants to smash that motherfucker to broken bits.

The Last Witch Hunter needed that moment. We needed to see Leslie holding Diesel's life in her hand (or worse) and we needed to see her tempted. We needed to wonder, "Oh crap, is she really going to do it?!?"

But we don't. We know she's totally trustworthy, so when that trust is put to the test, and passes, we just shrug and move on. And without it, there's nothing much else to get excited about with her. Oh, she's fun and all, and we understand, on an intellectual level, what her bond is with the Witch Hunter, but we don't feel it. Their relationship is simply taken for granted by the script, robbing it of pretty much any spark.

Which is frustrating when you consider how much we ought to be trusting Elijah Wood's character, but we totally don't and are not shocked at all by his third act betrayal. Again, Wood never earns our trust in this film, never woos us away from our loyalty to Caine's character. In fact, the warmth between Caine's character and Diesel's, and Wood's youthful, big-eyed face keep us from investing trust in him. We expect him to fail (more so to youthful naivete and inexperience, perhaps, but still). So we're very much expecting him to fuck up, prove he's not up to the obvious level of trust and admiration we have for Caine, trust and admiration so strong that when *his* betrayal is revealed, we don't hold it against him for a moment.

So yeah, I'm blaming the writing on this one. We don't feel the risk where it ought to be. We don't feel the trust where it ought to be. This film, in short, doesn't do enough to mislead us, to tease us and make us question our assumptions. Because of that, it feels very paint-by-the-numbers in its plot beats.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Agony Domain for 5e Clerics

My first 5e campaign is winding down, and folks seem to be enjoying it enough that we'll probably do that again. That being the case, I'm poking at some ideas for a post-apocalypse, dark-age sort of campaign. With that in mind, I'm crafting new character options to reinforce the themes. First of these is this Agony Domain. It's not been playtested yet, so if anyone does use it, please let me know how it works out.

The idea here was to create what amounts to a flagellant sort of mendicant cleric, the sort who'd wander about, stripped to the waist, thrashing themselves with knotted scourges and the like.  They acquire power from pain, so I tried to give them ways to fine-tune the damage they took, and then to profit from it.  Starting at sixth level, I can totally see PCs torturing themselves for the benefits of this class.

Agony Domain
There is a purity in pain, a mind-focusing wisdom that clears away all that is not vital and true. You might be an ecstatic masochist, seeking higher wisdom through pain, or a flagellant who wishes to purify mortals of the supreme sin of failing the gods in their greatest hour of need. Pain is your sacrament and your benediction.

Passion Domain Spells
Cleric Level Spells

1st Command, Heroism
3rd Beacon of Hope, Fear
5th Dominate Person, Geas
7th Mirage Arcane, Symbol
9th Shape Change, Weird

Experience with Pain

You have proficiency with marshal weapons.

Embrace the Agony

So long as your character is naked from the waist up and employs no magical AC enhancement, they enjoy resistance to all non-magical forms of damage, whether that’s blunt weapons, fire, acid, or whatever.

Channel Divinity: Share the Pain

Starting at 2nd level, you can use your Channel Divinity to inflict agonies you’ve experienced on one creature within 60’ of you. Your target needs to make a Constitution saving throw. Failure means they take as much damage as you have; that is, for every hit point you are currently below your max, they take one point of damage. If the target passes their saving throw, they take half that damage.

Serrated Illumination

Starting at 6th Level, the first time you are reduced to below half your hit point maximum in a fight, you regain all your level 1 spell slots.

Channel Divinity: You Can Take It

At 8th level, you can use your Channel Divinity as a reaction action to remove one status effect or active spell from another and put it on yourself.

The Ecstasy of Agony

At 17th level, every time you deal 2 or more points of damage to anything that can feel pain (not a construct or mindless undead) you may regain half as many hit points in healing, up to your hit point maximum.

Art by Carl Von Marr.