Monday, December 6, 2010

Behind the Screen Part 1: The Sleepy DM’s Frist Impressions of Amethyst

Today sets off a short series of posts where we take a much more in-depth look into the tabletop workings of D&D 4th Edition's most original setting, Goodman Games' Amethyst. Haven't heard of Amethyst? Worry not, errant traveler, you can read more about my view point creating a character and playing in a game a nice short adventure in the techno-tastic setting.

Today we get to take a look from the other side of the GM Screen. Yeah, it was awesome building a badass mech-piloting human hero and to use my sonic stunner and coilgun to show the worst of the worst who was boss and who decided when they got to move (being a controller was never so fun - trust me!), but what about that deviant soul who actually pits the monsters against the good guy? You know the person I'm talking about - the guy who gets a real kick out of the fact that not only you have to fight two giant monsters, but, oh yeah, many many smaller monsters fly off them when you actually do some damage.

Today we look at part one of a series of two guest articles written by our very own Mike, a.k.a. The Sleepy DM (the guy needs a kick of caffeine every once in a while - what's it to ya?). I've known Mike since Kindergarten, and he was probably the first in our group with a real interest in RPG's before we even were a group. He's one of our two main D&D 4th Ed GM's and plays pretty much everything else. Check back on Wednesday for the conclusion of his article and then again on Friday as we cap off this Amethyst week with a 10 Questions interview with Amethyst game designer Chris Dias. Enough of my gabbing, I'm going to let Mike take over.

The Pre-Game

I had originally found the Amethyst books online while looking for new settings to try and run Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition in our group. I was intrigued by the modern and magical setting, and was hoping to get a slightly different spin on the style of games that you’d see in other urban fantasy settings, such as Shadowrun. I originally passed on the setting due to lack of information, but recently managed to acquire a copy in a trade to our local friendly gaming store (Ed. Note: That would be Noble Knight, click the banner up top to help support The Hopeless Gamer!).

When I’m looking at a system and setting for the group from a DM’s perspective, I’m usually looking at a few important things. First, does the setting seem unique, and how much information does the player need in order to understand it? Second, how connected is the fluff and the crunch? One of my favorite things about D&D 4th edition is how easily things can be re-skinned for use in another setting or flavor. I was really looking forward to see if and how I could pull out the tech equipment from the book and re-flavor it as something similar to say, an unreliable version of steampunk.

The Fluff

The world of Amethyst was a bit different from what I was expecting, but I don’t think that's a particularly bad thing. The core book focuses on the continent of north America, after a series of events referred to as ‘Second Hammer’, which opens a sealed mystic gate that floods the world with magic, fey, and all the creatures associated with it. Magic inherently corrodes and conflicts with technology, and humans exposed to enough magic start to corrode and break down technology on their own. All tech using humans have holed up into steel fortresses called bastions with varying degrees of xenophobia.

The book suffers a bit from introducing the reader to terms a little bit early, and then referring back to them repeatedly later on in the book. The back story to races or locations are not kept in a centralized chapter, so it can be confusing to try and flip back and forth if you’re really trying to immerse yourself into the setting. For example, the races chapter begins informing the reader of various relations and traditions of the fey races, but if you’re reading the book cover-to-cover, you haven’t been introduced to any of them yet, so you’re unlikely to remember this information or be able to use it to build an idea of how the races would be played.

Most of the fey races presented in the book could be considered offshoots of various standard fantasy races. This causes a slight problem in that some of the elven offshoots appear to be stepping on each other’s toes when it comes to the fantasy niche that they would fit in. Between the Chaparrans, the Damaskans, and the Laudenians, unless looked at more closely, seem to be competing to get the title of Xenophobic Arrogant Elves. By contrast, the Gimfen and Narros are interesting variations on Halflings and Dwarves, who are presented as cargo-cult tinkerers and clean-shaven warriors, respectively. The Tilen are also an interesting spin on vampires, complete with a blood sucking racial ability.

The world of Amethyst is rather well presented and serves best to be integrated into a standard D&D 4th edition ‘Points of Light’ setting. There is a decent sized entry for each major capital city of various fey races and human technological bastions, but actual nations don’t really seem to exist at the level that you would see in the Forgotten Realms or Eberron books.

The Crunch

First off, I’d like to give some credit to the creators of the Amethyst setting for actually publishing errata. Some of it is minor typo corrections, but others actually buff or change abilities presented in the book, and helps out with several areas. I’d also like to give them some bonus points for some of the attacks listed in the book (such as attacking everything in a wall, allowing for a different style of tactical thought then your standard single target-burst-blast style of attacks). They also gave each tech class the option to take at-will powers to be used as a ranged basic attack something that we’ve seen in the later D&D 4th edition books, where some at-will powers can be used in place of a basic melee or ranged attack.

On the crunch side of things, the new races presented vary wildly. Chaparrans are rather forgettable. Most of their abilities are keyed to knowing how to use a bow, and being in the forest. If you’re not in the forest, there’s nothing special. Damaskans have a built in dual wielding power and can wall run with their racial power (and can even run on the ceiling when certain paragon feats are taken!), and their racial abilities present the image of knowledgeable but blunt elves. Gimfen have rather amusing abilites that encourage scurrying about while prone, and the ability to charge from one square away, leading me to want to play a Gimfen barbarian at some point in the future. Laudenians focus on mobility, something that might work well for rogues, but doesn’t seem to offer much of a benefit other then a potential escape clause. Narros are similar to 4th edition standard dwarves, but replace the dwarven durability and ability to avoid harm with more endurance and a final attack when killed. Paragon feats can up this to the ability to continue fighting while below HP but not dead as long as you’re still rolling death saving throws. Tilen are also pretty strong overall. They suffer from reduced healing from powers and effects, but are given a racial ability (errated up to twice per encounter and reliable!) that lets them inflict damage onto a grabbed opponent equal to their healing surge, and gain health up to that point.

When getting to the classes, I was a bit surprised. The designers suggest cutting out arcane classes except for the wizard, and keeping mostly only martial and primal classes around. I’m not opposed to restricting classes (Dark Sun, for example, has no divine classes, and discourages arcane power sources), but I think that classes like the swordmage and warlock would fit into the setting as described. I could see certain classes such as Eberron’s artificer being anachronistic in a setting with a magic versus technology setting.

The human Techan classes are all listed as a martial power source, which is nice because it allows them access to some of the feats listed in Martial Power.

Looking at the classes, even post errata, I think that the designers did not understand the mechanics that went into determining the class roles for each. The grounder is listed as a defender/controller, but lacks any real marking mechanic or any sort of consistent marking power, meaning that the grounder can’t really pull opponents to themselves on their own. They do have a lot of powers that let them push or prone enemies, so they clock in more as a striker/controller or a controller/striker. The marshal suffers from this as well, being pegged as a defender/leader and lacks any reliable marking ability. The marshal also lacks any sort of a team heal as a class feature, although its features do allow it to buff and enable his teammates like a tactical warlord ratcheted up to 11. The operator class is listed as a leader/striker, but lacks any serious firepower when compared to the grounder, and its heal class feature heals for the amount of the operator’s heal skill, not the standardized healing surge + Xd6 health recovered 2/encounter, causing it to lag behind the healing surge value of his party members. The stalker (originally listed as a defender/striker, errated to a striker/controller) is probably the closest to being true to his advertised role, but his damage boosting class feature (errated in) requires a minor action to use, and seems to fulfill a controller role more then a striker role.

The powers of the techan classes seem to be low damaging as well, although I’m waiting to see how they perform in game before making any final decisions. The equipment section of Amethyst is rather in depth and is understandably slanted toward the techan classes. I’m pretty excited to see how this all turns out.


  1. Well, I still think (and backed up by Essentials) that a defender does not need to mark to be a defender. :)

    Evolutions (the next book), by the way, throws down Essential builds as well as dozens of new alternate features and powers players can use more define their role. An option for the grounder is to remove his "controller-like" Area Denial, and replace it with a "defender-like" Action Shot.

    Don't worry Paul, you're getting a copy...

  2. The grounder did end up significantly more effective then expected, but in general it was more of a case of good use of bodyblocking power armor than the defender's class features. Their role as a controller was superb with specialty weapons, but they really lacked a mechanic of 'attack me or suffer the consequences beyond a -2 attack' that the other defenders tend to use.


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