Keep on the Shadowfell

With the D&D fourth edition rulebooks released in little over a week, I’m playing catch-up on the blog at the moment. While we still have the will, let’s look at Keep on the Shadowfell, the first official adventure released for the new edition. With a street-date of 20 May 2008, the adventure predates the core rules by three weeks, and therefore includes ‘quick-start’ rules to get you up and playing without further resources.

What I’m not going to do is spend time dwelling on the rules presented in the adventure. There’s nothing here that can’t be gleaned by checking a dozen different preview sites, and I’ll have plenty of time to expound on the new mechanics over the coming weeks.

A Note on Format and Notation

This is adventure H1. It is the first of a loosely connected trilogy of adventures (the others are numbered H2 and H3 for the numerically challenged). The “H” stands for “Heroic” as in the Heroic Tier of play (or levels 1-10 to you and me). There are two more trilogies planned after this. The Paragon (P) series (levels 11-20) kicks off later this year, and the Epic (E) series begins in 2009. H1 is designed to get characters from levels 1 to 3.

Keep on the Shadowfell is presented in a cardboard folio, similar to the 3e adventure, Shattered Gates of Slaughterguard. The folio is about the same size as the core rulebooks, with a proper spine so it looks like a perfect-bound book when it’s sitting on the shelf. Inside the folio are two coverless paper books, and three double-sided poster maps. These aren’t maps in the second edition sense, but rather battle maps of keyed locations from the adventure, divided up into a grid for miniatures.

The first book is the 4th Edition Quick-Start Rules. It is a sixteen page booklet, ten pages of which are given over to five pre-generated characters. Players have a dwarven fighter, halfling rogue, human wizard, half-elf cleric and dragonborn paladin to choose from. So far, so generic. The other six pages are given over to the rules and provide an adequate primer on how to play D&D, with details of hit points, combat, powers and skills.

The eighty page adventure book for the Dungeon Master includes a ten page rules primer that gives tips to the neophyte GM, but also reprints all the rules from the quick start guide. With space at an obvious premium I question the need to present the same material (verbatim, no less) in both books. Those extra six pages could have been used to improve adventure, but I’m getting slightly ahead of myself.

The cardboard cover, three maps and two books explain why the production costs on the adventure are so high, and why Wizards of the Coast feel justified charging the same price for this as they do a 160 page hardcover sourcebook. It goes without saying it’s got the glossy, full colour treatment through-out. Observations by other reviewers that the pages are a might thin and fragile, are justified. If you’re taking this adventure to the gaming table every week for a month then it’s going to fall apart – which is a little disappointing.

It will be interesting to see if the other modules in this series follow the same format. Thunderspire Labyrinth (which is published in July) will have no real creative need to present two books in a folio format. However, as the price point is the same I suspect that this is the new look for D&D adventures that will see us through to the end of E3 in 2009.

The Adventure

Enough of this messing about: onto the adventure itself. Wizards of the Coast have invested a great deal of time, money and effort into creating the new edition of the game. This adventure is designed to showcase the changes made to the game, and to inspire players and GMs to heartily embrace the new edition. Is it any good?

No. It isn’t. It’s pants. While not the most contemptible piece of trash I’ve read in my life, it’s certainly in the top five. Everything that I despise about D&D abounds in this pathetic excuse for an adventure. It is neither ambitious, nor engaging. It doesn’t paint a compelling story, nor give the players any true freedom of choice. It is an utterly linear, creatively bankrupt exercise in hack and slash.

Right up to the moment I opened the adventure, I intended to run this for my weekly group. I had hoped that it would save me some time, allow me to run a campaign to test the new rules for Iourn without consuming three evenings a week. That fleeting hope has now been thrown out of the window. I can’t run this junk. I fell asleep reading it, I can’t imagine I’d be able to summon the energy to run it. For the amount of work I would need to do to hammer this into a compelling adventure, I might as well have written a new campaign. So I will. Back to Plan A for September.

What alarms me more than the soaring price of petrol is that I haven’t read any negative review of this module anywhere on the Internet. Oh, there are some nit-pickers who would have liked Rule A printed in the quick-start book, but these aren’t true criticisms. By and large, D&D players seem happy with it! How? I don’t understand. They are congratulating Wizards on producing something happily old-school, something evocative of D&D’s roots. Well, D&D’s roots are rubbish! Have you actually read a 1st edition or basic D&D adventure? They make a Fighting Fantasy novel look like Horror on the Orient Express. Why on Earth would you want to emulate that?

As I’m not going to touch this module with a regulation-issue ten foot pole, I’m going to draw on specific examples to point out how bad this is. If you have the misfortune of playing this adventure any time soon, then you should stop reading now. Spoilers abound from this point forward.

The Mechanics

A lot of work has gone into the 4e mechanics, and it shows in the way they take up 80% of the adventure text. Maybe its just me, but when I write an adventure the stats take up 10% of the adventure text, the rest is filled with background, character descriptions, motivations and events. The priorities here are utterly skewed.

What strikes me reading this adventure is how difficult it is going to be playing 4e without miniatures. The text of the adventure reads like a board game, not a roleplaying game. It tells you to move your miniature a certain number of squares, that a monster can ‘slide’ one square after each attack, that you can attack with power X only after you move Y squares, and then you can back flip to square Z and so on and so forth.

This is all probably a lot of fun… as a tactical miniature game. I’ve never played the D&D Miniatures game, but I’m sure I’d enjoy it. But these things don’t have a place in a roleplaying game. You have two completely different types of game butting heads continually through an adventure. Well, not through this adventure obviously – there’s no roleplaying to be had here.

The encounters are mechanically imaginative, I will give them that. An effort has been made to make them more interesting. In the fight against giant rats, your foes are scurrying around stalagmites in an underground cavern – darting in and out of your vision and staying one step ahead of you. You fight the goblins in middle of an archaeological dig with various platforms, walkways and gantries to leap heroically from. Where in previous editions these would just be flavour text, in 4e they are built into the system from the ground. Although how you take advantage of such mechanics without a battle grid is debatable.

The Narrative

The narrative is where the adventure falls down. This is largely because there isn’t a narrative. The adventure opens on the way to the village of Winterhaven. The GM is provided with three hooks to get the PCs involved: 1) Check out reports of a dark cult; 2) Search for a missing mentor; 3) Make an accurate map for an institute of cartographers. It would probably be best to give them all three, if that doesn’t feel too contrived.

The adventure then runs thusly:

  • Walk to Winterhaven. Get attacked by kobolds.
  • Arrive in Winterhaven. Learn about kobold menace.
  • Leave Winterhaven. Get attacked by kobolds.
  • Go to kobold camp. Kill all the kobolds.
  • Return to Winterhaven. Learn about Shadowfell Keep.
  • Go to Shadowfell Keep.
  • Kill the goblins.
  • Kill the zombies.
  • Kill the hobgoblins.
  • Kill some random monsters for the hell of it.
  • Kill the ghouls.
  • Kill the priest of Orcus.

If the PCs are looking for their lost mentor, they can do a side trek which involves going to a dragon’s graveyard and killing the humans there. There is also the option of returning to Winterhaven after level one of the dungeon and fighting more undead in the local graveyard. Whoop dee doo.

The encounters in the village are presented in a novel FAQ format. There are selected questions that the PCs might ask followed by stock answers from various villagers. But these two line responses don’t actually succeed in giving these villagers any personality at all. Nada. There is nothing here to inspire the GM, no hints to make these NPCs rounded personalities with their own hopes, fears and drives. The noble in charge of the town isn’t even described. And this is supposed to encourage new GMs to excel at the craft of dungeon-mastery?

There is no problem for the PCs to solve, and no mysteries for the PCs to uncover. They don’t need to ask leading questions to discover the truth behind what is going on, it is all laid out for them on a plate. The kobolds are bad: go here and kill them. That cult you’re looking for is probably at Shadowfell Keep. Here’s a history of the Keep for you. Shall I laminate it?

The adventure is completely linear, leading the party by the nose from programmed encounter to programmed encounter. The party are taught to think with their swords. Anything that moves is swiftly stabbed, and the corpse is robbed before it is even cold. “Kill the monster and nick its magic item” indeed.

What makes it even worse is that there is a kernel of an idea in this adventure. It could have been adequate if the implementation wasn’t so horrendously botched. The creators have taken the time to give the keep a tragic history. It’s not a very original history, but it could have been compelling in the hands of the right GM. However, it is completely ignored. The PCs don’t even need to know anything about the place as long as they can keep sharpening their swords on goblin skulls.

The history of Shadowfell Keep should have been at the fore of the adventure. The town in the shadow of the keep should have had a unique complexion – a frightened and insular place, mistrusting of outsiders. An understanding of the history of the place should have been essential to the adventure. The PCs should not have been able to succeed in the adventure without having made certain alliances, performed relevant and interesting side quests and discovered certain facts.

None of this is present in the adventure. It’s a horrible piece of writing, that inspires me about as much as the rules for monopoly. I despair at Wizards of the Coast for commissioning this dross, and I despair that it seems to have been well received. I can’t believe that I’m so out of touch with the modern gamer. Am I?

In Conclusion

The perceptive of you will have gathered that I’m not very happy with this adventure. This shouldn’t be taking as a damning indictment of fourth edition. There’s a lot to like in the new edition… this is just a bad adventure – a really, really bad adventure. Possibly the worst adventure that I own (although some of those early Darksun ones were pretty dire as well, come to think of it).

Winterhaven has its place in the new ‘implied’ campaign setting presented throughout fourth edition. There are links to places such as Fallcrest (the town in the new DMG) and to Thunderspire Labyrinth (the location of adventure H2). A link to H2 is set up in Keep on the Shadowfell but it is so laughable uninspired that it made me want to go and play in the traffic.

I own this adventure because I’m a completist. That is also the reason why I’ll buy H2 and the successive adventures. I hope rather than believe that they will be better than this one. Save yourselves some pain and some money and stay away from this travesty. It’s more fun to write your own adventures anyway.

Next

The release of D&D Fourth Edition looms. Some shops have already released them early, and it is not difficult to obtain illegal PDF copies if you know where to look. I have a half day from work on the day of release, and I’m going to change the habit of the last five years and buy the books from my local gaming shop as opposed to online. Where does the blog go from here?

I will review the books chapter by chapter, highlighting new rules and pondering over the ramifications for Iourn. I doubt that will engender too much discussion. However, soon after the release I will begin looking at the sections on combat, feats, skills and powers in depth. Our goal is to streamline the rules to allow for quick and easy play without miniatures.

Here’s an example of what I mean. This is the description of Flanking as it appears in the quick start rules to this adventure:

Flanking provides a simple combat tactic for you and an ally to use against an enemy. To flank an enemy, you and an ally must be adjacent to the enemy and on opposite sides of the enemy’s space. You and your ally must be able to attack the enemy (with a mêlée or ranged weapon, or an unarmed attack). If there’s a barrier between your enemy and either you or your ally, you don’t flank. If you are affected by a condition that prevents you from taking actions, you don’t flank. You have combat advantage against an enemy you flank.

The lack of miniatures means no character has a definitive or verifiable location in relation to other characters and NPCs. This is probably how I would use Flanking in games I run:

If you and your allies are engaging an opponent at mêlée range, and if you outnumber your opponent by 2:1 then you flank that opponent. All allies need to be able physically attack the foe with mêlée or ranged weapons, or an unarmed attack. There can be no barriers between them and the opponent, and they cannot be suffering from conditions that prevent them from taking actions. You have combat advantage against an enemy you flank.

Until next time…

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Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters

The World has changed.
I feel it in the water,
I feel it in the earth,
I smell it in the air.
Much that once was is lost,
For none now live who remember it.

Worlds and Monsters is the second of two preview books for the new fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. It examines the iconic monsters, cosmology, world and planes of existence that will be supported and alluded to by the core rules. The designers of fourth edition have gone to a great deal of trouble to create a coherent rationale behind all the disparate elements of the game. There is a verisimilitude that has not been present before in D&D. The designers have created a grand narrative and mythology for the default campaign setting that is richer than I would have expected.

Which is all very curious really. Coherence and verisimilitude has not been a goal of the rules system. Everything from hit points to powers exist in the abstract. The mechanics seem to work well in the context of the game, but they don’t actually make any sense. However, that is an entirely different rant that I’m sure I’ll get to in due time. At the moment, I’ll just flag up that there are double standards at work.

In striving for flavour and ‘believability’, the designers have revised or dispensed with many of the tried and tested elements of D&D. Is this a good thing? It certainly makes a good read, but is it really wise to saddle generic D&D with such a specific back story? Should the core rules be providing this level of detail?

In previous editions, the rules have simply provided rules and the barest bones of a linking narrative; individual GMs and published campaign settings provided the flavour. The generic setting was simply that: generic. Angels were handsome men with feathery wings that did vaguely defined angelic stuff. Specific campaign settings might give angels different roles, or change their appearance, but the default angel was something everyone could recognise. In fourth edition the angels look more like a legless version of Robocop with wings. Now don’t get me wrong, I like the design, and I think they’re far more interesting than before; but they won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Shouldn’t the core rules be as bland and inoffensive as possible, to allow designers and GMs to customise from a tried and tested source? At what point do the core rules stop being D&D and start being something else?

That is an argument that has been raised on various message boards. Far from simply changing the rules, fourth edition attacks many of the fundamental and iconic elements that have been present since Dungeons and Dragons began. What’s happened to Plane of Fire? Where’s the Great Wheel, the outer planes? What have they done to the gnome? This goes far beyond simply redesigning the troll’s nose, and many have found these changes a step too far.

I’m not one of them. By and large I like all of the changes that have been made. I know that I won’t use all of them in the Iourn campaigns, because Iourn already has a mythology and established history. It didn’t conform to the third edition background, and it won’t conform to the fourth. It will continue to borrow from all editions. If it’s ever been printed in any edition of D&D it will find its way into the setting sooner or later.

The writers of Worlds and Monsters are keen to point out that all the various background material presented in the preview books and the core rules does not amount to a campaign setting. There are no maps, no NPCs and no plot hooks. Instead of a setting the core rules, and the generic sourcebooks that follow, hope to provide a collection of distinctive principles that all games purporting to be fourth edition D&D should, to some extent, subscribe.

What principles? The most important is the widely publicised concept of “points of light”. In D&D the world is a dangerous and generally uncivilised place, filled with dangerous monsters. Safe harbours are like points of light in the darkness. Even kingdoms only manage to tame the wilderness within a few miles of their cities.

Now if you think that parts of Iourn do not subscribe to that world view, then you would be right. The trouble with D&D is that, even after all these years, it is still basically written as a series of reasons to get PCs out of their cosy little towns and into the nearest dungeon. If you don’t run a campaign based around dungeoneering then you continually run up against mechanical and conceptual walls that need to be torn down before you can proceed. It’s quite possible to run D&D against type, I’ve been doing it since 1992, but the rules and the generic ‘setting’ is not built that way. It was too much to hope that fourth edition would be any different.

The Future of Campaign Settings

Before I get into the specifics from Worlds and Monsters I wanted to take a short detour to consider the other published settings. We all know that published campaign settings sell less well than books that are considered setting neutral. Call a D&D book Draconomicon: The Book of Dragons and it will sell well. Call a book Dragons of Eberron and you’re going to get a fraction of the sales. That’s why the third edition Races of Eberron was branded in the standard D&D colours rather than the expected Eberron livery.

In fourth edition, the designers are hoping the break down the prejudice against published campaign worlds. The guiding principles behind generic D&D will be applied to all the published campaign settings. The intention is to produce significantly less settings-specific books and more generic books. It is hoped that because all of D&D will be so stylistically similar that books like the new Draconomicon or Manual of Planes will act as expansions for (e.g.) Forgotten Realms just as much as for a home brewed campaign. And conversely, settings books and adventures set in specific worlds will become more palatable to players who usually ignore such books.

A good business decision, or a nail in the coffin of variety? Or both? The point is that with fourth edition, Wizards of the Coast are taking a very different approach to the their campaign settings. Every year they are going to choose one campaign setting, publish three books and then that will be it. There will be no further print expansions, to the line, although there will be continued setting-support online as part of the D&D Insider subscription.

This year, they are tackling the Forgotten Realms. The campaign setting is being released in August, with a player’s guide and adventure following in September. This same pattern of GM’s book, player’s book and adventure will be repeated in 2009 with Eberron. After 2009 we can expect to see some classic settings revisited. We don’t know which ones, but as Wizards are taking the trouble to reprint Ravenloft and Darksun novels I would seriously expect to see those settings back in print. Greyhawk and Spelljammer have also been mentioned. Whether they decide to tackle Dragonlance, Birthright, Al-Qadim, Mystara, Greyhawk and Planescape remains to be seen – although given the changes to the cosmology a new edition of Planescape would be unrecognisable from the last. We’ll see how many they can get through before it’s all change for fifth edition.

Anyway – all this is largely irrelevant for Iourn. I happily buy all the official campaign settings and poach the good bits at the moment, and I’ll continue to do so in the future. Although the idea of 4e Darksun has me stoked. If there’s ever a campaign I would run instead of Iourn, it’s Darksun.  I do like Darksun.

The Points of Light Gazetteer

Back to the plot. Despite not being a setting, the ‘points of light’ conceit suggests a number of key locations and historical empires that should fit into all D&D campaigns. Some of these fit in with the new back stories created for the iconic races, others are simply such fundamental mainstays of Dungeons and Dragons that it would seem a crime not to include them. I’m in two minds whether any of these merit inclusion on Iourn, even if I file off the serial numbers and locate them in some remote and far-flung land to the east of nowhere. Read on and see what you think. These are all features of the World (the Prime Material Plane, as it was in previous editions); we’ll get onto other planes in a minute.

In creating the World, the designers wanted to create something darker, more dangerous and more fantastic than before. They didn’t want a world with polite borders delineating a map. They didn’t want a world where humans are in control, or where countries and sites had a real-world analogue. Here’s how they did:

Bael Turath

Bael Turath is the fallen empire of the tieflings. The back-story of the fourth edition tiefling is that they were once humans, who swore pacts to terrible creatures in return for power. The humans were transformed into the new tiefling race. Bael Turath was eventually laid low in a mutual war of extermination with the Dragonborn empire and everything is now in ruins. Present-day tieflings are descended from those pact-makers, and they now have to try and integrate themselves in all manner of different societies.

Obviously, the race of tieflings on Iourn need an origin of some kind. They are a different race to the general class of fiend-blooded entities also known as “tiefling”. The race of 4e tieflings are obviously not prevalent in eastern Urova, but the world is a big place. There is room for Bael Turath (or some approximation of it) somewhere on Iourn. Any yet, the origin of the tieflings seems a bit simple to me. Are they just the result of a pact gone wrong, or are they something more?

The 4e tieflings on Iourn will have a history that is more firmly tied to the Iourn’s history. If they are going to take their place as a new core race alongside the elf and the dwarf, then they need to be more firmly wired into the past and the future. Tieflings as a race should have been active in the Great War (guess which side?) and earlier. I have ideas, some of them will come to the fore in the inaugural fourth edition campaign, the others will have to wait.

Arkhosia

One thing, I won’t be held to is a history of warfare between the tieflings and the Dragonborn empire. This empire, known as Arkhosia, was ruled by dragons and subjugated large portions of the world before it’s eventual fall. Well, not on Iourn it didn’t! I have my own plans for the Dragonborn. The great achievements of that race wouldn’t even be in the same millennia as the tieflings. However, I very much like the description of Dragonborn society and architecture. That will be staying.

Nerath

The last great human empire was Nerath. It was destroyed but a hundred years ago, during a prolonged conflict with rabid gnolls. One of the 4e designers is obviously a fan of gnolls because they’re getting a lot of attention in the new edition, none of it unwelcome. The logic behind Nerath is to give the setting an empire that existed just beyond living memory, and to create a world that still lives in the shadow of what was. A destroyed empire creates a destroyed and fragmented land, which is a land ripe for adventure – or ripe with opportunities for parties of adventures to climb into holes in the ground.

Obviously, there was no Nerath in Iourn history. One hundred years (read one hundred seasons) ago, the countries of Norandor, Salmaynak, Calclafique, Junos and Sorostrae were largely as they are today. The moon churches having created a stabilising influence upon them. However, during the dark ages after the end of the Hadradan occupation and the beginnings of civilisation anything goes. Many short lived empires rose and fell, even in civilised Norandor. Maybe one of them was called Nerath. Who knows?

Cendriane

Cendriane was the empire of the eladrin (the high elves). It seems to be Myth Dranor from the Forgotten Realms in all but name. The eladrin of Cendriane were powerful arcanists who opened a doorway to somewhere horrible. Within a few days all the citizens disappeared without a trace. There are certain parallels between Cendriane and the Iourn realm of Cyryth Allavorean that was destroyed one thousand years ago in the war against Karatath. Cendriane probably won’t appear on Iourn as an entity in its own right.

Zannad

This is an ancient empire ruled over by the progenitors of the Yuan-ti. This ancient race conducted ill-advised arcane experiments that transformed them into the Yuan-ti we know today. The most interesting thing about this entry is that it flags up the level of detail the designers went into, that they bothered to give the Yuan-ti a back story. I hope that this level of detail is reflected in the Monster Manual. I haven’t used Yuan-ti in the campaign setting yet, so their history is an open book. How much I end up borrowing from the ‘official’ history remains to be seen.

Other Locations of Note

In addition to the empires and history of the implied setting, there are also other locations that the writers expect will appear in all fourth edition D&D settings. Some of them are inspiring, others less so. These locations may appear in forthcoming adventures, so my players for the fourth edition campaign may get to visit them. Here’s the travelogue:

The city of Bael Turath, centre of the fallen tiefling empire. The fortress of Razortear that marked the boundary between warring tieflings and dragonborn. The Serpentus Rift was the pride of the Dragonborn Empire. Amethystra the Cendriane city on a cloud that drifts between this world and the Feywild. The Misty Isle provides safe harbour for rapacious halfling pirates. The Tower of the Impossible Staircase is a tower that floats five hundred feet in the air and is guarded by ghostly gnolls. And then there is the Temple of Elemental Evil (always a favourite) that has newfound life and direction in the 4e cosmology.

Dragons

So much for the world, let’s get on to the monsters and let’s start with a party’s  quintessential adversary: the dragon. Dragons are fundamental to the Iourn setting, so any changes to them directly affects the foundations of the campaign. To remind ourselves of where things stand at present:

Io, the first child of Fate, created the dragons from the matter of the newborn universe. He created them to mirror his own ninefold nature, thus inadvertently creating the blazing light of Aduro, and the terrible darkness of Barathrum. In creating the dragons, Io began the circle of life. All the Ancients only came into being because of Io’s actions.

Io created a world for his children: Iourn. As time passed war erupted between the dragons, a war that spilled out into the cosmos destroying countless worlds. Io brought his children back to Iourn to settle their differences. A peace was brokered between all the opposing sides. The dragon war was over, but it had left destruction on a universal scale.

The fourth edition game makes many mechanical changes to dragons. There’s a slimming down of age categories (from twelve to three would be my guess), and each dragon will have unique powers, tactics and personas. Dragons are designed to be solo opponents: one dragon should be more than enough to deal with an adventuring party. In 4e they come equipped with extra actions and continuous effects that make them a danger all the time, not just on their turn. Many of the special feats from books like the Draconomicon have become standard. What they don’t do is cast spells.

I can see the logic behind this decision. It’s confusing and time consuming to manage a dragon’s spell list as well as all its special abilities. The dragons presented in Monster Manual V don’t cast spells either, and they’re much easier to run. This is a theme of the new edition: play up what makes a race iconic, and get rid of the baggage. For dragons, spellcasting is baggage. Being a powerful sorcerer isn’t what makes dragons… dragons. Unfortunately, it is quite important on Iourn.

The concept of draconic magic is enshrined in the setting. Dragons can work magic. Because of this, those with dragon blood can become sorcerers. Those without dragon blood saw sorcery and tried to copy its effects, thus wizardry came into being. It’s a neat explanation, and one that much of the politics of Iourn revolves around. How does that work in fourth edition?

Dragons are inherently magical creatures. Perhaps this magical blood is enough to give their descendents the ability to become sorcerers. Mortal races can’t cope with draconic power, so the powers manifest in different ways – in spellcasting. That sounds fair enough, and isn’t a million miles away from where we are at the moment. No dragon that has appeared in the campaign so far has made a big deal of its spellcasting powers, so there’s no in-game inconsistencies that I can think of. Of course, there’s nothing stopping a dragon from becoming a powerful spellcaster as well. So there’s still room for Shalnazara.

I think it would be wise to wait until the sorcerer himself makes an appearance in fourth edition before making any firm decisions. The 4e sorcerer is likely to be very different to anything we’ve seen up until now, the world is filled with uncertainties.

The official mythology of dragons is very different to Iourn. It dwells on the war between the gods and the primordials. Io picked a one-on-one fight with the most powerful of the primordials and got cut in half. The two halves of his body became Bahamut (embodying honour, justice and protection) and Tiamat (embodying hubris, arrogance and greed). It’s a nice story. Maybe people somewhere on Iourn believe it. However it does explain why Tiamat and Bahamut are part of the default D&D pantheon.

Both Tiamat and Bahamut have appeared in the unending game. Both were generals during the dragon wars, and both were imprisoned by Io in the Walk Between Worlds for their trouble. Both have tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to influence Iourn. It’s quite likely that they’ll try again.

Finally, and perhaps importantly, the relaxation of the Alignment rules means that dragons are no longer defined by their colour. Metallic dragons tend to be haughty and fond of authority and control. Chromatic dragons are predatory, visceral and cunning. Any dragon can be evil, and any dragon can be good. I think that after the end of the Dragon Wars, dragons would have felt bereft of purpose. I like moral ambiguity, and I’m more than happy to embrace this ‘change’ to dragons. It doesn’t fell like much of a change to me.

Oh, and don’t expect to see any metallic dragons in the first Monster Manual. It’s chromatic all the way, and the chromatic dragons are also in the spotlight in Draconomicon I that is coming out later in the year. Where are our metallic dragons? I’m guessing that 2009 will give us Monster Manual II and Draconomicon II, and all our questions will be answered. But don’t expect the roster to be unchanged. When the metallics do appear in a Monster Manual we’ll be treated to Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron and Adamantine dragons. Farewell to Brass and Bronze. At least for the time being.

Giants

Considering how prevalent they are in D&D, giants have played a very small role in the Iourn campaigns to date. The PCs were attacked by a passing bunch of stone giants, and fire giants have been encountered living in a volcano, and acting as mercenaries for the Church of Fire. Very recently it was revealed that the country of Maldomoor is in fact a homeland of sorts for giants, or at least one giantish race. It was also revealed that the Maldomoori fought many expansionist wars in pre-Hadradan times, striking as far as Norandor.

However, Maldomoor itself has not been thoroughly explored. So while I have many ideas about that place, I can allow fourth edition to inform those ideas. In short: I won’t come up with anything that’s incompatible with 4e.

The default D&D mythology treats the giants as an elemental race. Ogres, trolls and ettins aren’t Giants any more. They might be big humanoids, but they are not of the Giant race. The primordials created servants from the Elemental Chaos, called titans. Titans of Earth, Titans of Fire… you get the idea. These ancient titans themselves created servants. These servants looked less elemental, and more like the humanoid races that already populated reality. These servants were the traditional D&D giants.

It is interesting to note that the creation of the titans and giants created ripples through reality and led to the emergence of parallel beings in both the Feywild (the Fomorians) and the Shadowfell (the Shadow Giants). I’m not sure how closely the whole parallel-planes thing will fit into the Iourn setting, but it’s an interesting idea.

The back-story of giants and titans includes a long period of time when they enslaved the dwarves; this helps to explain the enmity between the races. Although, I don’t need to keep this specific element in Iourn (and I probably won’t) there still needs to be something equally as plausible. I suspect there will be various weapons, spells or paragon paths in the new game that will play on this back-story, and I want the game to be able to take advantage of these mechanics.

Giants in fourth edition are races who have lost their culture. The imprisonment of the primordials have left them bereft. Some have lost their intelligence and their sense of self, others remember enough to be bitter and dangerous. Giants have become inherently more interesting. It would be a shame not to use them in that fashion.

The Underdark

The problem I have with the Underdark is: why? Why bother with it at all? Why do power entities insist on building dungeons, why are these dungeons linked to subterranean worlds, and why do thinking races bother living down there? The Underdark has always struck me more as a campaign setting in and of itself than something that should be part of all D&D games. It just isn’t that interesting! That’s why I liked Darksun so much. No Underdark.

However, there are so many iconic elements, and so many races attached to the place that running D&D without the Underdark existing (even if you never go there) is too tricky for words. And as Iourn is an everyman setting then it too has an Underdark, and I’ve run adventures set in it, and it hasn’t been too bad.

Admittedly the flavour text in this sourcebook does succeed in jazzing the Underdark up a bit. The descriptions are evocative, and now that the ability to see in the dark has been lost by almost all races, some thought has been given to how races can actually find their way around and exist in this hell hole. I would be interested if anyone has given the time to describe fundamental problems such as how one measures time in a land of no sun or moon. We shall see.

The text goes onto describe the key factions that dwell in the darkness. There’s no fundamental change to drow, troglodytes or mind flayers. Kuo-toa are repositioned as the insane servants of the aboleths. Even the myconids get mentioned, which is a little surprising.

It’s the Underdark – it is what it is. Iourn has never emphasised its role in the world, and I don’t intend to now. At best it is a hiding place to plot an attack on the real world, a mustering ground for horrible forces or just a place for exiles to call home. I don’t want to make too much of it, because as parts of the setting go, it doesn’t interest me that much and it never has.

The Planes of Existence

If you thought the game had changed beyond recognition already then you better find yourself a chair and a hot cup of tea. The changes wrought to the races and the prime material plane are as nothing compared to what has happened in the cosmos. In creating a new narrative for D&D the game designers felt obliged to rebuild the mythology. This was the right decision. The new origin stories for the races would not have fitted in the old cosmology. Whether they’ve thrown out the baby or merely the bath water is another matter.

In order to understand where we are, it might be an idea to remind everyone of where we came from. My understanding of the history of Dungeons and Dragons is not the best, but it is true to say that by the publication of the AD&D 1st edition Manual of the Planes in 1987 the concept of the inner planes, the outer planes and the great ring had already been laid. I don’t know how much of this was devised by Jeff Grubb, and how much was an adaptation of what came before. I’m going to start our journey in 1987 and move on from there.

In first edition the traditional D&D world was called the prime material plane. This was the world where adventurers lived, died and explored dungeon after dungeon. Beyond the prime material world were other planes of existence. The inner planes were the planes of matter and substance; and the outer planes which were the planes of ethics, morality and conscience. The gods lived on the outer planes.

The Inner Planes

The inner planes were made of the four traditional elemental planes: Air, Earth, Fire and Water. Added to this mix were the Negative Material Plane (aka Negative Energy Plane, aka the plane of death) and the Positive Material Plane (aka Positive Energy Plane, aka the plane of life) for a total of six core planes. All the elemental planes were inimical to life, and populated by elementals, energy beings and (oddly) genies.

Now things get slightly more complicated. Where the an elemental plane bordered another elemental plane, a para-elemental plane was created. There were four para-elemental planes: Magma (between fire and earth), Ooze (between Earth and Water), Ice (between Air and Water) and Smoke (between Air and Fire). With me so far?

Let’s complicate things slightly more. Where one of the four elemental planes bordered one of the two energy planes, a quasi-elemental plane was created. There were eight quasi-elemental planes: Lightning (between Positive Energy and Air), Mineral (between Positive Energy and Earth), Radiance (between Positive Energy and Fire), Steam (between Positive Energy and Water), Vacuum (between Negative Energy and Air), Dust (between Negative Energy and Earth), Ash (between Negative Energy and Fire) and Salt (between Negative Energy and Water).

The Outer Planes

The outer planes were ruled by Alignment. There were seventeen Outer Planes, and each Outer Plane expounded the philosophy and the traits of a particular Alignment (or a particular facet of an alignment). Supernatural beings of a given alignment hailed from the outer plane where that alignment was in the ascendancy. So demons came from the Chaotic Evil plane.

The outer planes were also the home of the gods. All the gods were aligned, so each god lived on a plane that shared its alignment. Rather than having their own planes to themselves, the gods carved out their own dominions on the planes itself. Infinite domains contained within infinite planes. The servants, clerics and followers of the deity went to the realm of that god when they died. Those that didn’t serve a god went to the plane that most closely reflected their alignment.

The outer planes formed a great ring. The plane of ultimate Law was in the left most position (at nine o’clock). Working clockwise around the ring the planes became progressive more chaotic until reaching the plane of ultimate chaos (at three o’clock). The uppermost planes were the planes of good, the lowermost planes were the planes of evil. This gave rise to the terms Upper Planes and Lower Planes. At the centre of the ring was the plane of neutrality, that bordered all other planes.

The outer planes – starting at nine o’clock and working clockwise – were as follows: Nirvana (Lawful Neutral), Arcadia (Lawful Neutral Good), Seven Heavens (Lawful Good), Twin Paradises (Neutral Lawful Good), Elysium (Neutral Good), Happy Hunting Grounds (Neutral Chaotic Good), Olympus (Chaotic Good), Gladsheim (Chaotic Neutral Good), Limbo (Chaotic Neutral), Pandemonium (Chaotic Neutral Evil), Abyss (Chaotic Evil), Tarterus (Neutral Chaotic Evil), Hades (Neutral Evil), Gehenna (Neutral Lawful Evil), Nine Hells (Lawful Evil) and Acheron (Lawful Neutral Evil). In the centre was the Plane of Concordant Opposition (True Neutral).

These planes would go through several changes of name over the years, as can be seen on the following table. Third edition was the compromise edition as far as naming conventions was concerned!

1st/2nd Edition Planescape 3rd Edition
Nirvana Mechanus Clockwork Nirvana of Mechanus
Arcadia Arcadia Peaceable Kingdoms of Arcadia
Seven Heavens Mount Celestia Seven Mounting Heavens of Celestia
Twin Paradises Bytopia Twin Paradises of Bytopia
Elysium Elysium Blessed Fields of Elysium
Happy Hunting Grounds Beastlands Wilderness of the Beastlands
Olympus Arborea Olympian Glades of Arborea
Gladsheim Ysgard Heroic Domains of Ysgard
Limbo Limbo Ever-Changing Chaos of Limbo
Pandemonium Pandemonium Windswept Depths of Pandemonium
Abyss Abyss Infinite Layers of the Abyss
Tarterus Carceri Tarterian Depths of Carceri
Hades Grey Hades Grey Waste of Hades
Gehenna Gehenna Bleak Eternity of Gehenna
Nine Hells Baator Nine Hells of Baator
Acheron Acheron Infernal Battlefield of Acheron
Concordant Opposition Outlands Concordant Domain of the Outlands

The Astral and the Ethereal

So how did you get from the Prime Material Plane to the Outer Planes and the Inner Planes? Two further planes of existence linked the multiverse. The Astral Plane connected the prime material with the outer planes. It was an ill-defined plane of thought, dreams and psionics. It was later established that the souls of the dead travelled to the outer planes through the Astral.

The ethereal plane was a misty realm that lay right on the border of the prime material. It was divided into the two distinct areas: the Border Ethereal and the Deep Ethereal. From the Border Ethereal you could see the prime material plane. Certain creatures such as ghosts lived partially out of phase, caught between the prime material and the border ethereal.

Beyond the border ethereal was the Deep Ethereal. Traverse this for long enough and you would reach the inner planes. The Deep Ethereal was also a plane where new planes were born. Floating in the Deep Ethereal were numerous Demi-Planes that had not yet been promoted to full plane status. The most famous were realms such as the Demi-Plane of Shadow, Demi-Plane of Time and (of course) the Demi-Plane of Dread (aka Ravenloft).

The Astral and the Ethereal never touched one another. This became and important constant. The only place with access to both the Astral and the Ethereal Planes was the Prime Material Plane.

The Planes Evolve

Through the first, second and even third editions of D&D the basic make-up of the planes stayed remarkably constant. Second edition D&D expanded the role of the Prime Material Plane. The prime material wasn’t just one world, but a crystal sphere. Inside a given crystal sphere could be one world or an entire universe. Magical craft called could ‘spell-jam’ between worlds though space. They could even journey between crystal spheres (alternative prime material planes) by entering something called the phlogiston that divided the crystal spheres.

This didn’t affect the outer or inner planes; they were beyond the crystal spheres and beyond the phlogiston. The planes had to wait until 1994 to get some love. It was in this year that the Planescape campaign setting was published. Planescape did not change the cosmology, but it did flesh it out. It explained and expanded upon planar descriptions and created a functioning multiverse. It remains the best thing TSR ever published: very difficult to run, but a damn good read.

Third edition made some minor changes to the cosmology. It created a new category of plane – the Transitive Plane. The Astral and Ethereal were obvious transitive planes and now the Demi-Plane of Shadow was promoted to full plane status to join them. The para-elemental and quasi-elemental planes were removed from the cosmology. The Astral and Ethereal were altered in nature. There was no longer a Deep Ethereal, thus removing all Demi-Planes from the game. The Ethereal Plane now bordered the prime material and only the prime material plane. It was simply a way of getting around the prime plane, nowhere else. The role of the Astral Plane was expanded, and now it touched both the outer and the inner planes. The Negative and Positive planes became much more synonymous with good and evil than they ever had been before.

An ‘in game’ story reason was given for these changes. In the module Die Vecna Die! (the last second edition adventure to feature the Planescape setting), the arrival of the god Vecna in Sigil profoundly affected the multiverse causing the cosmology to shift. These changes could have been carried through, and Planescape could have existed in third edition; but this was against the policy of the time.

The biggest change that third edition made was the advice it gave to GMs. The books stated: “Here’s the default D&D cosmology: please don’t use it”. In third edition, the emphasis was placed on GMs designing their own cosmology. All published scenarios and sourcebooks would use the Great Wheel in the same way they would use Greyhawk – as a simple default. GMs would only get the best out of their home-brewed world if they customised the planes. The planes of existence listed in the third edition Forgotten Realms and Eberron settings were far from the D&D default.

And so the third edition Manual of the Planes gave advice for GMs to create their own heavens and hells. It introduced many of new planes that didn’t fit anywhere in the cosmology – planes like the Region of Dreams, or the Plane of Faerie. The most successful of these planes was the Far Realm, a place of Lovecraftian horror filled with Things that Man was Not Meant to Know. The Far Realm had actually been introduced in the second edition adventure, The Gates of Firestorm Peak. It was a plane beyond even the outer planes.

The Planes and Iourn

Now, Iourn might have been created in the Summer of 2000, but it was conceived long before that. Iourn was originally intended to be a base prime material setting for a Planescape campaign. I wanted to run a campaign that crossed between the Planes and the prime, I couldn’t be bothered to read up on the Forgotten Realms so I decided to create my own world.

Once third edition came out, I quickly abandoned the idea. Using the Planes inevitably makes the Prime Material world insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I wanted Iourn to have a great significance and this wasn’t in keeping with the Planescape setting. What I had written of the Planescape campaign was eventually adapted to Iourn and became the Crucible of Youth campaign – which just proves that no good ideas are ever wasted.

However, Iourn was still based heavily on Planescape, and although I fiddled and tweaked with the cosmos and created my own multiverse completely different to the Great Wheel, there were still some commonalities. There were six elemental planes: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Life and Death, and these planes corresponded to the gods Terranor, Zephyre, Calafax, Sharrash, Vítaeous and Mortis respectively. In keeping with Planescape, the elements were all neutral. In third edition negative and positive energy were aligned. This was to create significant friction within the third edition rules; friction that I have never properly addressed.

I also used the Astral Plane in a similar manner as Planescape. The spirits of the dead traversed the Astral Plane via Astral Conduits to their place of rest. In the Iourn setting that place of rest is the Land of the Dead – a mustering ground where the souls of the departed wait for their next great adventure – and not an outer plane, but the principle was the same. This will cause friction with fourth edition.

Why do I care about all this? Why can’t I just say that my cosmology is different to the default D&D cosmology and leave it at that? The trouble is that I want Iourn to be a melting plot, a setting where any race or class from any published book can be dropped into. It’s not particularly imaginative for that very reason. Additionally, powers and spells and classes have a way of being linked to the cosmology in D&D. We didn’t get to Shadow Weave spellcasters in third edition Iourn, but the very fact they were published in third edition Forgotten Realms meant I had to leave a door open for them in my cosmology.

The cosmology and the planes of existence in fourth edition will have a profound effect on the game. As with magic, I want to minimise the impact. However, some of these ideas are simply too good to ignore. I’ve treated you to a lengthy history lesson. Let’s now have a look at the new game.

Fourth Edition and the Planes

The first thing I noticed about the Planes of Existence in fourth edition is that they’ve got much cooler names. The Feywild instead of the Plane of Faerie; the Shadowfell instead of the Plane of Shadow; the Elemental Chaos instead of the Elemental Planes. Fabulous. If I adopt nothing else, I’ll certainly be adopting the names.

So what’s changed? Well, there are no transitive planes any more. So no ethereal plane at all, and the Astral and Shadow planes are quite different. All the elemental planes have been lumped together into the Elemental Chaos. The Plane of Faerie now has a central role in the cosmology, as does the Far Realm. Most of the outer planes have been folded into other planes, with the majority becoming divine dominions floating in the astral sea. Change enough for you?

The New Creation Myth

Creation split the cosmos into two: the broiling elemental chaos and the shining astral sea. In the Astral Sea, the gods twinkled into being, while down in the chaos the great Primordials appeared. The Primordials were elemental beings of profound might. They started to reshape the chaos, and threw out all the bits they didn’t want. These leavings found their way into the space between the elemental chaos and the astral sea, where they cooled and coalesced into the World.

The gods looked on the world and were impressed, but they thought that they could do better. So they breathed life onto the world, creating all the thinking races such as humans, elves and dwarves. The work of the gods created ripples through reality, creating two distorted mirror images of the world: the Feywild and the Shadowfell. Each god then took on responsibility for a different aspect of creation, and used the essence of the astral sea to create the angels. Angels were neither good nor evil, but willing servants of any god that would have them.

The primordials were very annoyed that the gods had interfered with the elemental chaos (even the parts of it that they had discarded). They created their own servants in the shape of the titans, and raised vast armies of elemental archons to be at their beck and call. Soon war came between the primordials and the gods. The Primordials wanted to destroy the world to get back at the gods. The gods acted to protect it.

The primordials were more powerful than the gods, but the gods teamed up and hunted down each primordial together. They killed, or imprisoned the primordials one by one until eventually the war was won and the world was safe. Then they retreated to the Astral Sea. Fed up with war and fed up with each other, they created their own dominions there, and they retreated from the every day running of existence.

Today, the gods only act on the world through their clerics. There is still great enmity between the denizens of the elemental chaos and the gods of the Astral Sea. The world is in the middle, and is still used as a battleground as servants of the long dead battle servants of the long departed. And so it goes.

The Feywild

The Feywild is the magical, fantastic reflection of the world. It was created by the gods by accident and it is the home to the fey, wondrous animals and beasts, the eladrin and so on. It is a parallel plane, each point in the Feywild (above or below ground) corresponds to a point on the world. As a result it is possible to move between the two worlds at specific points or times. An echo of the real world, the Feywild sports analogous terrain with mountains, seas and forests present in both this realm and reality. However, it is not a perfect reflection and there are plenty of dissimilarities to catch adventurers out.

This is a realm consistent with the way the fey are portrayed in myth and literature, as opposed to way they have traditionally been portrayed in D&D. These are the fairies of the Brothers Grim. The Feywild is a wonderful and fantastic place, but it is not safe and many of its wonders are far from palatable for the average human.

The Feywild in D&D is populated by nasty creatures such as hags, yeth hounds, fomorians and so on. The eladrin have a civilisation here, but the Points of Light ethic applies just as well to the Feywild as it does to the World. Eladrin castles and fortified dwellings are cut off from one another by dark and dangerous woodlands. The fomorians (distorted giants that came into being when the primordials created the titans) dwell underground and have expansionist plans.

A number of published previews have also made the Feywild the source of arcane magic. We’ve already had discussions on power sources, the weave and magic. I won’t revisit that here. Suffice to say that Dungeon Master’s Guide will hopefully tell us more about the power sources and the planes they are allegedly connected to.

From the point of view of the Great Wheel, the Feywild is a combination of Arborea, the Beastlands, Olympus and Ysgard – but isn’t really like any of them. I like the fey. If they are used properly they can be extremely creepy and malevolent beings. I like that they have a plane to call their own. Yes, I like the feeling and the colour of the Feywild. I can do something with this.

On Iourn, the Feywild is effectively two different planes. After the defeat of Karatath one thousand years ago, the elves had had enough of the world. They created a realm called the Greymere and retreated from Iourn. The Greymere is a parallel plane that sits over Iourn, touching it at every point. As I mentioned when I talked about Races and Classes the elves of the Greymere are the Iourn equivalent of the eladrin. So that seems to fit. As far as the players know, the Greymere is a paradise. The elves created a comfortable home for themselves.

The Plane of Faerie also exists in the Iourn cosmology (I am hastily renaming it the Feywild). This is a bleak and devastated plane of twisted forests and barren moorland. It was abandoned after the cataclysm. Most of the seelie fey emigrated to Iourn. The unseelie remained.

So, in essence, I already have a Feywild. There is the Greymere which is an intrinsically nicer place than the published Feywild, and there is my Feywild (aka the  Plane of Faerie) which is an intrinsically nastier place than the published Feywild. Perhaps I could make parts of the Greymere nastier, and parts of the Feywild nicer (they are large places of course) but there’s no reason why the plots and the creatures of this plane cannot exist in one or both of my creations.

The Shadowfell

The Shadowfell is the second imperfect reflection of the world. Just like the Feywild, the terrain of the Shadowfell is similar to the world, but the Shadowfell is a dreary and distorted mockery. It is a dark landscape of shadows and muted colours, filled with ruins and danger. The Shadowfell is not inherently evil, but is a plane of melancholy and the macabre. It also has a fundamental role to play in the new D&D cosmology.

The Shadowfell is effectively a land of the dead. Shadow is a power source in fourth edition D&D – one that powers illusions, inspires fear and controls necrotic energy. Shadow is the stuff of necromancy, and so the dead and the undead are closely tied to the shadow plane.

When mortals die, their spirits first travel to the shadowfell. They linger here for a little while before moving on. Raise dead and similar spells only work if the soul is still lingering on the shadowfell. Once they have passed beyond then that is that. They cannot be brought back to life. Those that linger in the shadowfell might become undead. Those that move on, might go on to stand beside their god – dead orcs pass on to serve in the eternal armies of Gruumsh.

This mythology disconnects death and the afterlife from the process of divine reward and punishment. It is better than the standard D&D cosmology where death was a revolving door for adventurers but all the villains just stayed dead when they were killed. Death matters more because it’s difficult to come back. You also have the advantage of being able to use souls as a commodity. They gather in the shadowfell in great numbers – could they be found and tapped by the unscrupulous? Plenty of adventure ideas here.

So if the soul has gone, where do undead come from? Well, we have an answer for that. All creatures are made up of three elements: the body, the soul and the animus. The latter is a bridge between soul and body. When the soul departs the body for the shadowfell (as it does on death) then magic can induce the animus to grant locomotion to the body. An undead creature – even an intelligent one – is only body and animus. Those with a strong animus might remember what they once were, but this is torture to the creature. Without a soul it can never truly be as it was.

The most powerful undead are those that retain their souls for some reason – ghosts, vampires, mummies, death knights. Retaining a soul means retaining many of the abilities that they had in life. In the default pantheon, the Raven Queen is the goddess of the dead – her power transcending that of Vecna or Orcus, although these two are often the patrons of the undead. In fourth edition, dying is not evil; shadow stuff is not evil. And not all undead are evil either.

The major race native to the Shadowfell (and PC race as soon as PHB II comes out, I’ll wager) is the Shadar’kai. They were introduced in the third edition Fiend Folio. They’ve been polished up for fourth edition. They are a race of humans who made a deal with the Raven Queen. They offered their service in return for never having to die. They got their wish, but it didn’t work out quite as they intended.

The shadar’kai are not truly immortal. They are infused by the shadow plane and it eats away at them. If they rest, if they relax, then the entropy of this place will consume them and they will fade away. They need to anchor themselves in this reality to stave off the shadow. Most do this by keeping themselves in constant pain (studded armour with the studs on the inside, that sort of thing). They’ve become a race of masochists, replete with body piercings and a warped outlook on life. As the servants of death they are reminiscent of Clive Barker’s cenobites but with the power metre turned down. It’s odd that Wizards were happy with this, but baulked at the very idea of half-orcs. They do look fun though!

It should be clear that the fourth edition Shadowfell is an amalgam of the old Plane of Shadow, the Negative Energy Plane and (to some degree) the ethereal plane. In the Iourn setting, I’ve never really used the Plane of Shadow, so describing it in fourth edition terms rather than third is not an issue. However, the whole business of the dead, the undead and souls is a stumbling block.

On Iourn, when someone dies they go to the Land of Dead. In typical Planescape fashion they travel via the Astral Plane to get there. The Land of the Dead is much as its presented in the third edition Ghostwalk campaign setting – with a few tweaks. It is a place of rest and relaxation. It’s not the Shadowfell. But it could be on the Shadowfell, or part of the Shadowfell. Or something could happen to turn it from a paradise into something darker and more horrific.

It seems that the plot revolving around the closure of the Astral Plane is a cure all plot to cope with the change between editions. It’s an excuse for changing the way magic works, and its an excuse for changing the way the afterlife works (or at least tweaking it slightly). Of more concern is the lack of the Negative Material Plane.

On Iourn there are six elements. I’ll discuss this more at length at the moment, but each moon god is tied to a specific element and therefore an elemental plane. As the god of the dead, Mortis is tied to the negative material plane. Does the changes mean he is now tied to the Shadowfell? And if it does, does it really matter in the context of the setting? We know that radiant (life) and necrotic (death) energy still exists in fourth edition and (like second edition) it is unaligned. This could work to my favour. Let’s look at the Elemental Chaos before I discuss this further.

The Elemental Chaos

Take the elemental planes of air, earth, fire and water and pop them in a bowl. Throw in a bit of Limbo and a dash of Pandemonium. Whisk thoroughly. Decant, and display on top of the Abyss.

It’s not a hard concept to grasp. The elemental chaos is simply chaos. It is the building blocks of life all mixed up and muddled up. It is not as dull or as dangerous as the old inner planes. All the elements are present here, but there are also areas of respite – flat plains of earth with rains of fire, chunks of ice floating in the sky and so on. Many of the creatures that live here have still got to eat to survive, and the air is largely breathable so even humans can survive without magic.

So who lives in this soup? Well, there are the primordials of course (but like the Titans of Greek myth, they remain imprisoned). Most denizens are elementals, but unlike the elementals of earlier editions there is a much great variety to them. They are no longer just vaguely anthropomorphic beings composed of solely one element. Now there are elemental archons – soldier types that served the primordials in their war with the gods. The term “archon” no longer means what it meant in third and earlier editions. The celestial archons are a thing of the past.

Many of the elements (pun intended) you are familiar with from the D&D cosmologies are present here. The efreet and their City of Brass, the spawning stone of the Slaad (renamed the Pandemonium Stone!), the monasteries of the githzerai all exist within the sprawling chaos. Then there are the demons and the Abyss.

The story goes that a god whose name is never spoken didn’t fight with his companion deities against the primordials – instead he wanted to rule everything. He obtained a shard of pure evil, but the object drove him mad. He took this shard into the heart of the Elemental Chaos and the Abyss was born. The corrupting influence transformed some ancient primordials into the Demon Lords (Orcus, Demogorgan and so on). Elemental creatures were warped as well and became the demons. This god tried to marshal the demons and take over creation, but his fellow gods overpowered him and imprisoned him deep in the Abyss. Now he is known as the Chained God, or the Elder Elemental Eye.

Demons are monstrous, warped beings. Fourth edition does an excellent job of making the distinction between Demons and Devils. Demons are visceral, destructive entities. They lack the cunning of the devils. They are determined to strike back against the gods, but they can’t reach the Astral Sea so they take it out on the mortal world instead. To quote the book, demons are:

“…merciless, savage, hateful destroyers…varied by universally monstrous in appearance… fearless… eager to destroy the creations of the gods… difficult to enslave… disorganised… self-destructive… prone to gathering in hordes… not empire builders… not interested in negotiation… not interested in personal power, wealth or prestige… more include to use melee attacks than ranged attacks… more dangerous when injured…”

The Elemental Chaos is an obvious evolution of the Inner Planes from earlier editions. It is not so immediately deadly to player characters, and therefore supports more adventuring. Connecting the Abyss with the elemental planes gives a meaning to the term Elemental Evil and makes the old adventure the Temple of Elemental Evil slightly more understandable.

The history of demons (and devils) builds upon the two Fiendish Codex books, released in the dying days of third edition. The new edition downplays the Blood War to the point of non-existence (another reversal since the Planescape days). Also, Yugoloths – who never really fulfilled them potential in third edition, have now been relegated to the role of a demonic faction.

Does all of this have a  profound effect on Iourn? Well, the short answer is yes, but the effect is not insurmountable. I have a very different origin for the Abyss, which hasn’t been entirely revealed and I am still very keen on. The Abyss won’t be part of the Elemental Chaos – although it might still be connected via gateways and portals. I’m happy with the descriptions of demons, and although it means that the succubus has switched sides and is now a devil rather than a demon I can’t see as that makes very much difference.

The elemental planes have been presented as different places in the Iourn campaign to date, but no-one has actually gone there. The moons of Terranor, Zephyre, Sharrash, Calafax, Vítaeous and Mortis are doorways to their respective elemental planes. However, they could just as easily be doorways into the elemental chaos where certain elements are in the ascendancy. The moon of Mortis could be a doorway to the Shadowfell. The moon of Vítaeous could be a doorway to whatever plane radiant energy originates from. These things are mutable. They don’t really change the nature of the setting.

The Elemental Chaos is an intrinsically more interesting set up than the old elemental planes, para-elemental planes and quasi-elemental planes. I am more inclined to use it than not, but I will have to consult the new DMG to be sure.

The Astral Sea

Having run a third edition adventure in the Astral Plane, I have to say that (even using the rules from Planescape) it’s just not very interesting. A vast expanse of twinkling nothingness is difficult to imagine and dull to explore. In fourth edition the Astral Sea is still a featureless silver sea where Githyanki pirates ply their trade on magical ships, but now there is more in the Astral Sea to explore than before.

Just as a normal ocean is filled with islands, so is the astral sea populated by the dominions of the gods. It is possible to traverse the Astral Sea to find these places, or you could just use magic to access them directly. The dominions are where the action is at, and most of the creative energy has been directed into creating memorable domains for Moradin and Corellon and so on.

With the realms of the gods firmly secure in the Astral Sea this gives me somewhere to hang the gods in the Iourn setting (I’ve never really given it much thought). On Iourn there is likely to be a blurring between the Heavenly Realm and the Astral Sea, and as the Heavenly Realm has never been properly explained in game then I have no qualms about adapting it to fit in with the new edition.

One of the key concepts of Iourn is Aduro – the source of all good. It was inadvertently created by Io long ago when he created all the dragons. There is no plane of good in fourth edition. There are good dominions, floating on the Astral Sea but they are the constructs of the gods. Aduro is something more than that. By keeping Aduro and the heavenly realms that have sprung up around and within it, then I am distancing Iourn from the core D&D cosmology. This doesn’t bother me per se, although I’ll give it more thought it I wind up contradicting some hitherto unseen mechanical imperative.

One thing I will need to think on is the role that angels now play in the setting. Angels in Iourn have always been the angels of traditional D&D: solars, devas and planetars. Hell, I even refer to angels as aasimon (which is a major throw-back to second edition). Fourth edition brings us themed angels: Angels of Mercy, Angels of Death, Angels of Entropy and so on. These angels were created by the gods to serve, and they serve whichever god is thematically appropriate. In fourth edition, angels are as likely to be adversaries as allies. Go to the temple of Bane, and you’ll find it guarded by angels, not devils: nasty angels, but angels none the less.

I really like this direction. Demons and devils have enough to do without being continually summoned by the servants of evil gods. Certainly, evil clerics can probably still summon these creatures, but it’s more likely they would use an angel already serving their god. Sounds a lot safer to me.

Is there room for the old-style aasimon as well as the new-style angels? Of course there is. I’m a great believer in variety and I don’t see why the existence of one precludes the existence of the other. It will take a little thought to work out how these new angels fit in with the established history, with the Accord of Damocles and so on, but part of the fun of writing your own setting is coming up with this sort of back story.

Which brings us to the devils (or the baatezu if you prefer). The Iourn setting borrows a little from Fiendish Codex II, a little from Planescape and a little from real world mythology. The devils in my setting were once angels who are tasked with fighting the hordes of demons rising out of the Abyss. They were so enthusiastic that they adopted many of the enemy’s dubious tactics. The other angels cast them out of Heaven into the Abyss where they continued to war against everyone, eventually gaining a fiendish aspect and becoming devils. The devils managed to avoid getting sealed in Barathrum (aka the Abyss) during the Cataclysm and brokered the Accord of Damocles with the remaining angels. It was basically non-aggression treaty that the baatezu (being the devils they are) manage to get around left right and centre.

In the implied setting, the devils (led by Asmodeus) were servants of a deity, but they rebelled and slew the deity. The other gods imprisoned them in that deity’s dominion which Asmodeus then turned into the Nine Hells. Asmodeus is now a god in his own right and uses his power to bargain with other gods to aggrandise his power. His greatest deal was brokered with the evil gods, granting the devils the rights to the souls of evil mortals. This is evidently some scheme of Asmodeus’s, that is yet to pay off.

I’m not a big fan of the new back story for devils, but I can take solace in the fact that I probably wouldn’t have used it even if I did. The devils of Iourn may well have dominions in the Astral Sea, although many are confined to the Great Dark on Iourn. In my version, I keep alive the concept of the Blood War which has been all but lost from fourth edition.

The Astral Sea is potentially more interesting in fourth edition than it was in third. The new edition shies away from including anything that is not fun for the players to interact with. When the Chosen of Narramac return to the Astral Sea (regardless of what edition of the rules I am running them under) they will find it a more entertaining place.

The Far Realm

Beyond the Astral Sea, beyond the Elemental Chaos is the noneucyclidian Far Realm. A place of secrets and revelations. A place where all the angles are wrong. Is it organically folded time? Is it a giant amoeboid space? Is the product of creatures even beyond the gods? No one knows, because everyone who has even dwelt on the matter for any length of time has had their mind turned to humous.

The Far Realm occupies the same space in the cosmology as it did in third edition, only this time it has taken its place as a core part of the cosmology. The Far Realm is the home plane of aberrations – all those weirdo races that have no real world or anatomical analogue like illithids, beholders, cloakers, grells and so on have their origins here. Aberrations are either from the far realm or touched by it. This is a nice and neat explanation.

Because the Far Realm wasn’t really created until third edition, and because it was the far realm of third edition that I adopted into Iourn then there’s not really very much to change. It continues to function in my setting as it always has. The pseudonatural terrors neither diminished or enhanced. It’s nice to finish my look at Worlds and Monsters with something easy!

Next

Fourth edition is here! The first fourth edition adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell is released… well, actually it’s out now. I don’t have my copy just yet. When I get my hands on the thing I’ll post my comments here. Without giving away the plot of course. I still want to run it.

The Magical Weave and 4th Edition

While I was diligently writing up the review of Worlds and Monsters it occurred to me that I was actually writing a completely different article right in the middle of the review. The easiest thing is to pull it out and present it separately. This isn’t review, or comment. Call it more speculation. Call it a rant.

In the review of Races and Classes, I briefly mentioned the concept of power sources. I pointed out that Iourn’s dependence on a universal magical weave could be called into question by the mechanics of the new edition. There are still no solid facts, and there won’t be until read the new PHB, however there is some food for thought.

A very interesting article on the changes to magic in the Forgotten Realms setting was published a while ago on the Wizards of the Coast website. The idea for a magical weave on Iourn was largely poached from the Forgotten Realms, and then adapted to try and make sense of the third edition mechanics. Given this commonality, it’s worth having a look at how fourth edition will change magic on Abeir-Toril and see if we apply the same solutions

The original document is an article from the online Dragon magazine, which means that you will eventually need a paid subscription to view it. It’s all free at the moment though, and likely to stay that way for the Summer – although you may have to register. Pop over and read it now. Go on. I’ll wait.

Well, they don’t do things by halves in the Forgotten Realms do they? Kill the god of magic, destroy the weave, unleash a plague and then advance the setting by a hundred years. Blimey. You can tell why many Forgotten Realms players are up in arms about the changes. However, it is an effective way to cope with the massive paradigm change that fourth edition demands. It truly draws a line under everything that was, and sets a completely fresh standard for everything that is and will be.

Don’t worry. I’m not advancing the Iourn timeline a hundred years, I’m not killing the god of magic (largely because there isn’t one) and there will be no magical plagues. Well, except for the one the Chosen of Narramac unleashed on the Great Dark. The bastards.

What is very interesting is that all the designers and creators of the Forgotten Realms setting couldn’t come up with a way to make the magical weave work under fourth edition rules. If they couldn’t do it, can I? On Iourn the magical weave is the source of energy that is used for casting arcane and divine spells, manifesting psionic powers and doing everything else in-between. Everything that is classed as a Spell or a Spell-Like ability utilise the weave. Everything else (notably Supernatural abilities) use a different power source.

Well, in fourth edition everything uses a different power source. The power for arcane magic comes largely from the Feywild. The power for necromancy comes from the Shadowfell. The powers of clerics come from the gods themselves. Goodness knows where psionics fits in, the jury is still out on that one. Where there was unity, now there is diversity. There seems less need for a weave to even exist.

But it does exist on Iourn. It’s actually quite fundamental to the history of the setting. The Weave was created by Lolth as a boon to her favourite ancient race, the Eladrin – I’m talking the celestial Eladrin of earlier editions, not the arcane elves of fourth edition. Those eladrin that wanted to master Lolth’s weave gave up a portion of her power becoming the drow. Lolth’s weave gave the drow access to True Magic (effectively epic magic from level one). Unsurprisingly, magic was too powerful and the drow became an unbalancing force in the universe. Some of the drow who saw the error of the ways combined forces with the remaining eladrin and other celestial races to take up arms against Lolth. The fall of Lolth was known as the Cataclysm: when she was thrown in to the Abyss and all the doorways to that realm were sealed. The drow that remained loyal to her fled. The drow who rebelled became the elves, and their leaders became the Seldarine (effectively elven gods). The Seldarine rewove the weave, allowing anyone to access it, but making it less potent. True Magic could now only be performed by the most potent and experienced spellcasters.

All the various forms of magic that exist on Iourn, are merely the ways that different types of spellcasters interrogate the weave. Two distinct traditions emerged. The dragons were so magical that they learned how to manipulate the weave by using the weave itself. Their blood descendents (the sorcerers) retained some of their talent. Wizardry was the attempt of the mortal races to copy the instinctive power of dragons and sorcerers. The elves uses sound and song to coax the weave into action. They jealously guarded their powers, but a bastardised version of it still exists, and is used by bards. As time passed, other traditions using life energy (druids), willpower (psions) or soul energy (incarnum) emerged but the traditions of Blood and Song were first and foremost. Divine magic requires faith, not knowledge. Gods grant clerics the ability to manipulate the weave, but it is the clerics themselves who devise their spells.

Now, I’m happy with all of that. I like that background, and I’m not going to change it. So I am left with the choice of either keeping the weave unchanged and hammering it into fourth edition like a square peg into a round hole, or I drastically change the weave. And if I do change the weave, do I do it surreptitiously and hope that no-one notices, or do I change it with some bold and fantastic event that alters the way magic works forever?

As I said in my review of Races and Classes, I want Iourn to retain its verisimilitude. I don’t want to change the way things work without offering an explanation. However, I also don’t want to run a massive adventure that only serves to explain why the rules have changed. That’s just silly. I need to find a middle path. Something will have to give, but I do not want any changes to be massive. If the weave stops working one way and starts working another, don’t the magic-users need to relearn how to use magic? That might be all right if you’re having a hundred year hiatus between editions, but that isn’t much help for us.

One of the things the background of Iourn has acknowledged is that the weave has been changed in the past. The Seldarine did it after the Cataclysm. So if it can happen once then the precedent has been set for it to happen again. However, just changing it because Hasbro wanted to put new rulebooks on the shelf doesn’t sit well with me. Aren’t there enough things going on in the setting at the moment without that?

Of course there are those among you who know that the Weave is currently imperilled. In the current League of Light campaign, the githyanki and their phaerimm allies have sealed off the Astral Plane to try and stop the coming war spilling over into their domains. This has had the effect of making resurrection, teleportation and summoning magics impossible. Recently, the party has learned that sealing off the Astral has destabilised the weave which could result in it unravelling and destroying all magic everywhere.

Now believe it or not, I came up with this plot years ago. The whole point of it was not to deny the PCs access to potent spells, but to provide the opportunity to run an adventure that is normally not possible under the D&D magic system – a journey to the Land of the Dead to return a dead comrade to life. My plan was that when that adventure was finished, the party would then find a way to thwart the githyanki and everything would return to the status quo.

I say that was the plan. In the middle of implementing this adventure arc, fourth edition raised its head. I began to wonder if my rational for magic could survive the change between editions, and suddenly, I realised that I already had the narrative excuse to alter the weave if necessary. The PCs thwart the githyanki but the weave doesn’t work quite the same way again… It is very tempting to pull the trigger on this plot. Maybe I will. What I don’t know is how far I will go.

I think the upshot of all this rambling is that I am committed to keeping the Weave and the distinction between different orders of spellcasters that have always existed in the setting. I will try to keep the story-related explanations for changes to the rules to the minimum.

In fourth edition, each character class has a different power source. Non-magical classes have the Martial Power source (for powers that are dependent upon extraordinary skill). The magical classes are more diverse, giving us the arcane power source (wizards and warlocks), divine (paladins and clerics), primal (druids), shadow (necromancers) as well as other sources for monks, psionicists and so on. All these different powers could just be a way of tapping into the Weave, or the Weave could be the common route of all the powers.

I don’t know. If there’s an easy answer, I’m not seeing it at the moment. Maybe I’m putting the cart before the house. Maybe I should just wait and see what is possible when I have the rules in hand. But I just can’t stop speculating.

Any thoughts?

The Next Weekly Campaign

With the Game of Souls campaign coming to an end in seven weeks, attention is inevitably drawn toward what will replace it. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the release of fourth edition, nothing would replace it. I would be taking the year off running games to recharge my creative batteries and generally get on with other things. I do that periodically, and it’s jolly good fun.

But fourth edition won’t let me do this. Obviously, I could just refrain from running a weekly campaign come September, but the change in edition has me all of a tiz. I want to run a game, I want to put the new rules into practice and have fun adapting them to my own sensibilities. However, this desire is flying in the face of some rather harsh realities.

For whatever reason, the last two years have not been good to the weekly game. If everything goes according to plan between now and June, I will still have only run 40 sessions instead of 60. I’ve also found less and less time available to prepare for each session. Reasons don’t matter, only the results. The stark truth is that I don’t have the time prepare a new campaign to the standard I would like between now and October. I have some strong ideas, but they are not hammered out in to a plot or a setting yet, and frankly if I can’t do the ideas justice I’d sooner not use them at all.

But I still want to run a game. I still need to run a game to judge and to test the fourth edition rules. Therefore I am still going to run a game, but it’s not going to be original and its not going to be set on Iourn. For the first time since 1998 I am going to build the campaign around published scenarios. I will start the new campaign in October with the first published 4e adventure: Keep on the Shadowfell. Once we have played through that I’ll move on to Thunderspire Labyrinth and then to Pyramid of Shadow and so on and so forth.

So what does this mean – beyond me hoping that none of you are going to go out and read the adventure? Well, if I’m following published D&D adventures then there’s going to be a certain degree of dungeoneering. I’ve tended to shy away from that type of gaming because it tends to bore me to tears. However, running official adventures will put the system through its mechanical paces and it will give all of us a very good understanding of how fourth edition works. And how it doesn’t work.

At this point, I would like to make clear that I do not intend for the next weekly campaign to be a mindless dungeon bash – despite the source material, there will be plenty of scope for roleplaying. Neither will it be an extended year-long playtest for Fourth Edition Iourn, although will undoubtedly serve in that role. I have greater aspirations for the game than that. Back in 1998 I ran a successful Ravenloft game for a year. The entire campaign was built around one 32-page module (the excellent, Ship of Horror). By the time I had finished, the game bore only a passing resemblance to the module itself. I suspect things will follow much the same lines this time round.

The campaign will be open to any option available in the new Player’s Handbook I published in June. It’s my intention to get together for character generation at some point over the Summer in preparation for the campaign in the Autumn. It goes without saying that anyone currently playing in the weekly game is more than welcome to play in the new campaign. However, any player would need to put up with an unusual number of rules changes over the year, as I try out and discard house rules with alarming regularity.

As the game is not set on Iourn, I am freed on the need to record every event and character in excruciating detail for the purposes of the campaign log. What I will be doing instead is putting details of each session up on this blog, with a particular emphasis on the mechanics of the game rather than the events. Hopefully, that will be a spring board to interesting and helpful discussions. It will feel like all of you are playing the new campaign. We’ll have a cosy, community feel.

The campaign that begins with Keep on the Shadowfell will run for one year. Whether I keep the game to the university term time is unknown at present, and is somewhat dependent upon when Marc wants to run his game. However, there will be at least thirty sessions. Advancement is likely to be swift (i.e. as the rules suggest) so I can get a good idea of at Heroic (1-10) and Paragon (11-20) level adventuring. I can’t imagine that I’ll be running an epic game in fourth edition for some considerable time, so that can wait.

There is little more to say except… watch this space.

Wizards Presents: Races and Classes

Races and Classes is an odd book. It has the new fourth edition livery, it’s crammed with full colour fantasy art, and it’s written by the designers of the fourth edition game; but it’s not a roleplaying book. This is the first of two “fourth edition preview books” that are being released in the run up to D&D fourth edition.

There are no rules in this book. Races and Classes highlights the design process and seeks to explain why certain decisions were taken in favour of others. At best it is an interesting insight into the development of the new edition at Wizards, at worst it is little more than an expensive advertisement for books that are yet to be published. This is hardly essential reading for the new game – it’s more of a coffee table book for roleplayers with very small coffee tables.

And yet, and yet….

Buried in the descriptions and the dense text are snippets of information that tell us how the new game will function. There’s no actual rules, but there’s plenty of material about the rules. There are essays about the shortcomings of third edition, why some of the old rules didn’t work, and what was done to change them. That’s the sort of insight you won’t get from the new Player’s Handbook (and rightly so), and to me it is far from worthless.

In this article I am going to analyse the content of Races and Classes, teasing out as much information as I can. I’m not going to dwell too much on the new rules that are mentioned. There will be plenty of time for that when I analyse the new PHB. What I will do is look at the new D&D ethos, back story and policies and see how well I think these will translate to Iourn.

An Introduction

Work on the fourth edition game began in May 2005, about two years after the release of D&D 3.5. The remit was to create a better game that played up storytelling aspects, heightened the need for party cooperation, and gave the players interesting and meaningful options at every level. One of the goals was to expand the “sweet spot”.

What’s the sweet spot? Glad you asked. Traditionally, D&D has always played best at low to mid levels. For the first three levels you’re terrified that one sword stroke is going to end your character. From about level twelve onwards (according to me, Wizards say level fifteen) your character is too powerful. It has access to too many different abilities and powers and divinations that a group of adventurers of this level can basically nix any adventure before it starts.

This is what I really hate about D&D in its current incarnation, and we have seen it to some extent in the Games of Souls campaign already. When characters get to a certain level they are given a host of abilities that seem specifically designed to circumvent roleplaying. Want to play a compelling mystery? There’s no point, the PCs have access to legend lore and find the path. Have a series of wilderness encounters planned? No point. They can just teleport. The GM needs to write very different sorts of adventures to challenge these characters. It isn’t impossible, it’s just not very much fun. At least, not to me.

Fourth edition is designed (or so they say) to make the game fun and easy to run at any level. If that works, then every penny I spend on this edition will be money well spent. Unfortunately, another remit the designers were given was to make the new game compatible with the miniatures battle system. I still hate miniatures. Still, you can’t have everything.

From reading Races and Classes it is clear to me that more thought has gone into fourth edition than went into third. I’m not talking about more thought into the rules, arguably the fourth edition rules haven’t been as extensively play tested as third edition was. No, more thought has gone into rational behind everything. The designers have asked questions at every possible opportunity. Why does magic work this way? What is the source of magic? What role do gnomes actually play in the game?

All the sacred cows, all the rules that have survived from edition to edition simply because they have always been there, had to justify their existence. What is the point in wizards memorising spells in advance? If the Wish spell is so damn difficult to adjudicate then why is it in the game in the first place? If polymorph slows the game down to a crawl then ditch it and replace it with something that works better. If the gnome doesn’t have an identity beyond smaller dwarf then it needs one!

Everything needs to make internal sense. This was the approach I took when designing Iourn, and it’s nice to see the official game finally embracing the importance of consistency, rationalisation and believability (in context, of course). The problem is that some of these rational solutions that underpin fourth edition are not the same as the ones I used in creating Iourn. That’s the sort of thing that creates friction. I’ll come to those in a moment.

The Basic Mechanics

Roll 1d20 add modifiers and compare with a difficulty number; the higher the roll the better. This is still the d20 system. The mechanical differences between third edition and 4e are minimal. The big changes are conceptual ones: rules have been streamlined, building characters is much easier, monsters, NPCs and PCs don’t necessarily follow the same rules anymore.

Character advancement has been standardised. Reading between the lines, I think that all characters gain +1 per two levels to their base attack bonus, armour class, fortitude, will and reflex defences, and to all their skills. At every odd level they gain a talent, at every even level they gain a feat. Talents are class abilities (such as evasion, wildshape and so on). Some talents will have prerequisites and all classes will have access to at least three talent trees. Some abilities that used to be feats (e.g. Whirlwind Attack) are now talents. The feats gained at even levels will be from a specific list related to the character class.

There’s no mention of characters also getting a general feat every three levels as they do in third edition. However, this might still be the case. There is also no mention of a PC augmenting his stats by +1 every four levels. Again, Races and Classes, is far from a complete overview.

Even though all classes have the same bonus to base attack, defences and skills the selection of appropriate talents and feats can greatly increase these numbers, even at first level. So although, the fighter and the wizard will have the same base attack bonus, the fighter will still be much better in melee than the wizard because of his choice of talents and feats.

The blanket bonus to skills is interesting. The number of skills are reduced by half in 4e. Certain effects are combined (Listen, Spot and Search become the new Perception skill, for example). In the new Star Wars roleplaying game, which was the blueprint for 4e, the skills system completely did away with skill ranks: you either had the skill or your didn’t, and even those that didn’t still accrued a bonus as they went up levels. It seems 4e could be leaning this way as well, but we do not know for sure.

Options to advance from levels 1 to 30 are found in the new PHB. Thirtieth level will be the upper end of advancement, there is no level 31. The speed of advancement is even quicker than in third edition, with characters expected to gain a level every 2-3 sessions. That’s obviously ridiculous. At that speed Elias Raithbourne would be about sixtieth level by now, in fact he would had to have been retired at the end of the Notoriety of Kings campaign. I’ll be quietly ignoring that.

From eleventh level, PCs get access to “paragon paths”. These are more powerful talents that take the core classes in a more specialised direction. From twenty-first level, PCs get access to “epic destinies” which are even more powerful talents, for the most formidable characters. Whether a character gains a paragon path or epic destiny instead of, or in addition to, his normal talents is unclear.

Between them, paragon paths and epic destinies replace the concept of prestige classes. That’s right kiddies, there are no prestige classes in fourth edition!

What does all this mean to Iourn? Not a sausage. These are the mechanics that build characters, not the characters themselves. There are no story elements here, and nothing that changes the way Iourn works. Just because there are no prestige classes doesn’t mean that there can’t be highly specialised PCs or NPCs with weirdo abilities. Indeed, all the paragon paths presented in the new PHB will have names that any prestige class devotee will recognise.

Alignment

Can I pause for a quick mention of alignment? As you should be aware, I hate alignment. It’s pointless and annoying. I hate the way that it’s hardwired into third edition so you can’t excise it without dismantling the whole system. Well, guess what? Alignment is one of those things that is going away in fourth edition. You can’t see me, but I’m doing the dance of joy.

Good and Evil still exist as abstracts, so you still have angels and demons. However, most creatures and most characters will be completely oblivious to this. They will be unaligned. I’m still dancing. That means there will be no spells or abilities that can detect alignment, no spells, abilities, magic items or damage reduction that reflects alignment. It’s gone. Kaput. So long alignment. I’m dancing like Michael Flatley on speed.

But what does this mean to Iourn? I built Iourn to work with third edition, so I included alignment in its make-up. Does that cause trouble? In the origin of Iourn, it was Io that accidentally created the concept of morality. Io didn’t lean toward good, evil, law or chaos. When he created the dragons, his creations reflected the ninefold nature of his personality. In creating the dragons Io created Aduro (the Light), Barathrum (the Dark) and all the spaces inbetween. The interaction of these sources of conscience with the fabric of reality eventually gave rise to the Ancient races.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that there are powerful creatures such as angels, demons and so on that gravitate toward a certain type of behaviour. The reason for this can still be their primordial origins as laid down above, but there’s nothing saying even the Ancients have to behave in a prescribed manner. You can have evil Gold Dragons in fourth edition. There may even be mortals (like paladins) who champion one abstract over another, but that doesn’t necessarily make them “right”. What about the druids? Well, they are crusading against extremism. They want balance. Alignment doesn’t have to exist as a tangible entity for that to be true.

By getting rid of alignment, D&D has grown up and Iourn will too. Alignment is as infantile as it is pathetic, and we should all be very pleased to see the back of it!

The Races

Races and Classes presents seven iconic races, and it is a safe bet that these seven races will be the ones that appear in PHB1. In fourth edition, a lot of trouble has been taken to provide believable and compelling back stories to all the races. Some had ancient empires that warred in the dim past, others were slaves who rebelled and so on. While this is all very interesting, it is utterly irrelevant to Iourn. I have perfectly good origins stories and gods for these races, I don’t need to change them. What I want to know is whether the mechanics of the races, and indeed the choice of races that appear in PHB1, will require me to alter anything in the setting.

Powerful Races and Level Adjustments

But first a word on level adjustments. As the players of the Game of Souls campaign are aware, the third edition rules for level adjustment don’t work. I have cobbled together a temporary fix to balance the Tharkis PCs, but I’m not convinced it would hold up to scrutiny. The game seems to be working, I have nineteen sessions left to run, so I’m willing to let it lie.

Fortunately, fourth edition provides a completely different mechanic for playing powerful races and it looks as though it is far superior. Let’s face it: it couldn’t be much worse. A player’s choice of race will play a much more important role in a character’s make-up. Rather than gain a few minor abilities at first level and that generally forget about your race after that, you can continue to gain racial abilities as you advance in levels. However, those racial abilities will be at the expense of class abilities.

The first step in this progress has been to eradicate ‘vanilla’ races. All the races in fourth edition are more powerful (i.e. they get more powers) than in third edition. This brings all races up to about ECL 2 in third-edition speak. So you can play a drow from first level because the drow is no more powerful than an elf (or rather the elf is now as powerful as the drow).

One way of making races more powerful was to remove all negative stat modifiers. So all dwarves keep their bonus to Constitution, but no longer have their penalty to Charisma. Presumably there will be some races or monsters in the game that will have lower average stats than a human, and therefore have attributes that enjoy negative modifiers, but they are not PC races – at least not ones that appear in PHB1.

Not all racial abilities are gained at first level. In order to activate these abilities you will need to select a racial feat. However, if you take a racial feat then you are not using that feat slot for anything else. For example, in third edition drow can levitate as a spell-like ability. In fourth edition, levitation is not something drow can do from first level – it’s too powerful. A drow fighter who wants to levitate needs to select the appropriate racial feat, but by taking that feat he hasn’t taken expertise, or power attack or some other feat. And so it balances.

This is pure conjecture, but I’m guessing that monsters are built on racial feats. Something like a pit fiend will probably have all its feat slots filled up with racial abilities. That’s what the designers mean when they say monsters are built using a shorthand system of character generation: they just don’t have the same options. Presumably, a PC pit fiend could mix and match racial and class abilities like anything other character. I suspect those are rules for a far distant supplement.

Obviously, we haven’t seen how these rules work in practice but I’m optimistic that this could be just he change that the game needs. And now let’s look at those seven iconic races.

Humans

Well, it goes without saying that humans would be part of PHB1. They are still the most prevalent and versatile race. Their back story depicts them as a largely godless people, which makes they vulnerable to corruption, but also capable of acts of supreme good. The essays on the design of humans is actually very interesting. Because the game is written by humans all the other races are really just humans in different hats, how do they make humans suitably different?

In third edition, humans were given an edge in terms of extra skill points and a bonus feat. It was a neat package that made humans a desirable racial choice. They still have an edge, although Races and Classes is quite woolly about what it is. I suspect the human edge will be something to do with action points. Mark my words.

Dragonborn

The what now? A humanoid dragon race? Where did that come from? The dragonborn were first introduced in the Races of the Dragon supplement. In that book they were billed as the Dragonborn of Bahamut. They were not a race in their own right; members of any race could go through a Rite of Rebirth and become dragonborn. This is not the case now. According to their back story, the dragonborn were created by Io at the same time as the dragons, and were dragon worshippers through much of their history. Recent wars and the destruction of their empire has turned them into wandering mercenaries.

The dragonborn have already made an appearance in the League of Light campaign. The servants of Bahamut trapped in the Walk Between Worlds were dragonborn. They made up the army led by Nicos and Sulmaleera that battled Elias’s army of evil Tiamat spawn. So what dragonborn were these? A race in their own right, or other races that had been transformed into dragonborn?

Does it really matter? I think the setting is broad enough that both types of dragonborn can co-exist. I’ve no problem with that level of diversity. As to their back story, that will inevitably be quite different on Iourn. You may not believe me, but I had been intending to use the dragonborn again, and make them more prevalent in the setting. Their introduction as an iconic race is actually quite timely.

As you probably expect, dragonborn racial feats enhance the race’s draconic attributes. As characters gain levels they can choose feats that given them draconic wings, breath weapons and so on.

Although we won’t see a hitherto unheard of dragonborn enclave springing up in downtown Uris, the dragonborn will (over the next couple of years) begin to appear more often in campaigns. The new weekly game, scheduled for September 2008, will allow Dragonborn PCs.

Dwarves

The role and general demeanour of dwarves hasn’t changed. However, their back story has gone through some drastic changes. Dwarves were apparently the slaves of giant-kind for centuries, hence the enmity they have for the tall folk. The creation myths and history of dwarves on Iourn has never been properly mined (if you pardon the pun) so it’s quite possible I’ll incorporate anything that seems suitably nifty.

The biggest change to dwarves (and indeed many PC races) is that darkvision doesn’t exist in fourth edition. Dwarves can see better in the dark than a human, this equates to low-light vision (like a cat). Put a dwarf in a dark room and he can’t see a thing.

I can appreciate why this change was made. Darkvision is hell to adjudicate if you’re a GM. No race is the real world has ever evolved such a weirdo ability, but every other race in D&D seems to have it. My view is that we’re better off without it. However, this has an interesting side effect. As dwarves now need light to see underground, their cities and their way of life has gone through a profound shift.

In the default fourth edition background, dwarven cities are no longer underground (or at least no exclusively). They have enormous fortresses on the surface, and they farm just as humans or halflings do. Dwarven mines are lit by torches, and now all races can appreciate subterranean dwarven architecture because they can actually see it. This is a much more Tolkien view of dwarves.

This change can and should be incorporated into Iourn as it makes more sense. It’s also quite a painless addition. The clanhold Underbarron is partially above ground anyway. Bracks’s home of Kûlhazan is buried deep below the ground, but that is an exception rather than the rule. I’ve never properly fleshed out Dûnhazan or any of the Dwarven cities in the Auld Kingdom. I think it will all fit together reasonably well.

Elves and Eladrin

It makes sense for me to take these two races together. In fourth edition the elves and eladrin are the same race, divided by history. The official back story states that once there was one race of elves that dwelled in the Feywild (a plane of existence). This race as divided into three: the drow who live underground, the eladrin who remained in their castles in the Feywild and wield powerful magic, and the elves who live in forests and woodlands.

Elves and eladrin are playable characters with different modifiers and abilities. They encompass the two stereotypes of the elf: the woodland hunter and the proficient spell caster. Powers, abilities and racial feats will play to these strengths. But how does this distinction fit in with Iourn? Very well as it happens.

I already have a plane of Faerie in the setting (which I plan to rename the Feywild as it is a much cooler name), but there’s no need to keep that in the background of either race. I think it’s quite obvious in the context of the Iourn setting, that the elves who left Iourn for the Greymere are the eladrin, and those that stayed behind (like the Arboreal Guardians of Faerauth) are the elves. Problem solved? Not quite.

In third edition the eladrin are something in their own right. They are a group of celestial fey – they are to Arborea what the baatezu are to the Nine Hells. The eladrin in this form seem to have been completely written out of D&D. I can’t be having that. Aylisha Allenkai was an eladrin, after all.

In the Iourn mythology, the eladrin arose as one of the Ancient races. They had an affinity toward magic and gravitated toward Lolth. Some of the eladrin gave up their personal power in order to manipulate the Weave of Magic that Lolth had created. Thus the elves were born. There was a rebellion against Lolth and those elves that remained loyal to her (the drow). The Seldarine, the eladrin and the elves who stood against Lolth managed to imprison her in the Abyss. The drow fled.

In my setting the eladrin exist as one of the Ancient races. This doesn’t stop the elves of the Greymere (or perhaps specific sects within the Greymere) from calling themselves eladrin. Perhaps they aspire to become what they were before their race attached themselves to Lolth’s apron strings. It adds an extra dimension to the elves in the setting, and if the PCs haven’t heard of the eladrin before… well, it’s not as though you’ve had much contact with the elves is it?

Halflings

The halflings have gone through a succession of changes since second edition. Back in the days of AD&D halflings were hobbits, cast in the Tolkien mould. In third edition, the creators of D&D attempted to create their own identity of halflings. Instead of stay-at-home genealogists halflings became nomads, thirsting for adventure. They also wore shoes. In fourth edition, halflings are still travellers, but they have been given the rivers of the world as their home. They have also been greatly ‘Kenderfied’. The core race and its Dragonlance equivalent have come much closer together.

What I said about the dragonborn holds true here. I like diversity in my races. The halflings of the Wold in Norandor are Tolkien’s hobbits. They are sedentary and generally peaceful unless you rile them. But this is not to say that there isn’t room for the third edition horse nomads or the fourth edition boatmen in Iourn. It’s a big setting after all. I don’t see any problems here.

Tieflings

Hello, here’s another new face. The tiefling was first introduced in Planescape, and was a very popular PC in that setting. A human, or human-ish, creature with an infernal ancestor. No two tieflings looked he same, some might have horns, others might have forked tails and so on.

Things have changed for the tiefling in fourth edition. They are no longer descended from demons and devils; tieflings are a proper race in their own right. They all have the same look: ram’s horns, forked tails and red eyes. Obviously their race itself has an infernal origin, but you’re no longer going to get a tiefling throw-back born to human parents, or a demon siring a mortal and producing a tiefling. Or are you?

Once again, I think Iourn is broad enough to encompass both ideas. There is a race of beings known as tieflings. Vaguely demonic looking humanoids with infernal ancestors are also called tieflings. There are at least three distinct races known as changelings in the setting, and that hasn’t been confusing. I’m happy to stick with that idea.

Like the dragonborn, the race of tieflings will begin to make their presence felt in the setting the closer we get to the Great War. Tieflings are natural warlocks, and as warlocks begin to reappear, so too will this race.

Other Races

That is the seven iconic races that will appear in PHB1. I hope you have noted the missing races from the third edition game. Races and Classes goes on to talk about the celestials (presumably what they intend to call aasimar in fourth edition), the drow, the gnome and the warforged. All of these races are up for consideration and will may appear in PHB2. We’ll see some of them before then. The gnome will appear in Monster Manual I although it won’t have all the options of a PC race, it will still be playable. We’ll see the drow in the new Forgotten Realms campaign setting.

There is absolutely no mention of half-elves or half-orcs. Are the half-races out of vogue? That would impact on the Iourn setting and no mistake. Of course, it looks as though it would be easy to recreate them using the rules for races. I have read that there is conceptual opposition to bringing the half-orc back. It is a race based largely on rape, after all. Quite why rape should be unpalatable and making pacts with demons acceptable is anyone’s guess. I’m not removing any races from Iourn just because they’re not supported by the current edition of D&D.

Character Classes

According to Internet rumour, the new PHB1 will include eight core classes: cleric, fighter, rogue, warlock, wizard, ranger, paladin and warlord. Only the first five are described in any depth in Races and Classes, but remember that this book went to bed in August 2007, at which point the game wasn’t finalised.

What this does mean is that the sorcerer, monk, barbarian and bard have not made the cut. They will probably appear in PHB2 in June 2009, but for now they have not been updated for the new edition. I think this is a mistake on the part of Wizards. I can see why they have done it – put something fresh and new in the Player’s Handbook; don’t just make it a regurgitation of third edition. The fourth edition of the game needs more distance between it and what came before than version 3.5 did from version 3.0.

However, this means most existing campaigns can’t easily convert from third edition to fourth edition because the classes played by half the party won’t be supported. If you take the Chosen of Narramac, Arvan, Ravenna, Raza and to some extent Elias, cannot be converted. And that’s the reason the League of Light campaign won’t be using the fourth edition rules from the get go.

Class Roles

We all know that everyone has a role to play in an adventuring party. You need a fighter, rogue, cleric and wizard to have a well rounded group, right? Well that remains true in fourth edition, only the roles have been more formally defined. 4e identifies four roles in the adventuring party: the defender, the striker, the controller and the leader.

The defender is the hit point monster who puts himself between the rest of the group and harm and dishes out the damage. The fighter and the paladin are examples of defenders. The striker can dish out a lot of damage to a single foe, but can’t take it in return like the defender can. Warlocks with their eldritch blasts, and rogues with their sneak attacks are strikers. Controllers are those with the poorest defences who like to stand back from combat and annihilate their foes from a distance. That just screams “wizard!” doesn’t it? Leaders are not necessarily in charge of the other characters. Leaders have powers that improves the other characters, by increasing their chances to hit or do more damage; leaders also heal. Bards, clerics and warlords are the leaders in fourth edition.

These role demarcations mean nothing in game. They are simply a guide to building an adventuring party. In fourth edition every class is supposed to be able to pull its weight both in and out of combat. A balanced party will include a mix of the four roles. It’s not to say that you can’t have unbalanced parties (the Chosen of Narramac are all over the place), but this guidance is very useful especially for starting players. It doesn’t affect Iourn of course, but I thought I’d mention it because I like it.

Power Sources

Now, here’s something that will affect Iourn. In fourth edition every class will get “powers”. These might be spells, benedictions or simple martial manoeuvres. It isn’t clear from Races and Classes what the difference is between a power and a talent, but I’m sure that will be cleared up when we actually have the rules in front of us. If you’re wondering what a fighter’s “powers” are going to be like then get hold of a copy of the Tome of Battle.

Now, you’ll remember that I said earlier that more thought had gone into fourth edition than third? Well, in giving away all these powers the designers actually took the time to consider where the power actually comes from. For more ‘mundane’ abilities, such as a fighter’s Jon Woo inspired ostentations, one can chalk the power source down to skill. For spellcasters, the sources are different.

Fourth edition will “create more vivid differences between sources of magical power”. Arcane magic is good at blowing things up, divine magic is better for healing. Why is this? What makes them different? It’s an interesting train of thought, and something that really should have been thought of during the conception of third edition. But can you hear the alarm bells ringing yet?

In my treatise on magic, I ask similar questions. Where does magical power come from? However, my answer was based purely on the need to keep Iourn working within the third edition rules. All spells and spell-like abilities drew power from the Weave. The different practices of arcane, divine, psionic, song, nature and so on were all different ways of manipulating the weave, but the effects were similar. Supernatural abilities (like clerical powers) had a direct line to a different source of power. In fourth edition, I doubt there will be any such distinctions.

We know that the wizard spell list will be light on enchantment and necromancy because much of the high level enchantment magic is going to be given to the fourth edition psion, and the necromancy to the new necromancer class (maybe in PHB2). In fourth edition magic and psionics are different. This is probably the route I would have gone down in third edition, but I couldn’t be bothered to follow the ramifications through the whole system. There would have been many.

Also, I have been very keen on getting away from the idea of the cleric as a healer. Why should the god of toads grant healing magic? Shouldn’t spells be thematically linked to a god’s portfolio? Why should clerics be able to do anything else? Set ideas such as that loose in fourth edition and they are going to fly into a brick wall. So what is to be done?

Well, here’s the sneaky thing. I know that I have laid down in the Iourn site the nature of the Weave and the differences between all the different types of magic, but how much of that has actually come across in game? Think about it. How many times has the nature of magic, its source, and the way magic works been underlined during play? And I don’t mean players taking the magic rules into account, I mean the rules actually having a fundamental affect on the story? I changed the way bard magic works in 2002 and no-one really noticed.

Yes there have been a few occasions: among the moon gods, only priests of Vítaeous have healing magic, and that whole Potentate debacle are two good examples. But if the new system of power sources is flexible enough, I think those old stories could be made to work within the context of the new rules, and without having to impose an artificial story-based reason why magic works differently these days. Although, I do have one of those up my sleeve.

Incorporating power sources from fourth edition into Iourn will be a challenge. Once I get my hands on PHB1 we’ll see how much of a challenge.

Use of Powers

So, character classes get all these natty powers, but how often can they use them? There is no, or very little, “preparing spells in advance” in the new edition. Also powers that have durations expressed in units of time, or combat rounds are things of the past.

There seems to be four types of powers. Those useable at will; those useable once per encounter; those useable once per day; and rituals. Rituals are magical powers that seem to be useable at will, but take a very long time, special circumstances or special equipment to create. The others are pretty self explanatory.

Most powers seem to last for one either one round or one encounter. Quite how this works out of combat is anyone’s guess. If you create a burning bush for “one encounter” how is that adjudicated if you want to use that bush to keep you warm all night? But again, we don’t have the actual rules yet so I’m willing to cut them some slack on that.

Clerics

As you would expect, much of the discussion of the cleric ties it to the default pantheon presented in PHB1. This is not the same group of gods as third edition. There are less of them, and their relationships are less complex. I don’t have an exhaustive list but Corellon Larethian (now just Corellon), Bahamut, Asmodeus, Moradin and Bane all feature. However, as this is generic background material it has little impact on the Iourn game. I’m going to continue the practice of including any god that has been mentioned in any edition of the game. The more gods the better, dammit.

Gods in fourth edition are neither omniscient or omnipotent. The designers wanted gods to be able to interact with the world, and they wanted suitably epic heroes to be able to challenge and destroy gods. I’m therefore guessing that what were avatars in second edition, and aspects in third edition are now the gods themselves. This is no big deal. In the Iourn setting most gods are usually just phenomenally powerful Ancients who have accrued power through worshippers. All that seems to fit.

In fourth edition the cleric has battle prayers, spells and rituals at their disposal. Rituals are for more complex effects like raising the dead. Quite what the difference is between battle prayers and spells is anyone’s guess – perhaps something to do with how often they can be implemented. With the removal of alignment-based magic and all summoning spells (!), the cleric list has been augmented with a ton of new spells that we haven’t seen before in D&D. However, the text heavily implies that all clerics have the same spell list, and that all clerics can heal.

If this is true, it disappoints me and means that I’ll have plenty of work to do converting Iourn clerics into fourth edition. Perhaps if the description of the power source is compelling enough I might be convinced to let all clerics heal. We will see. However, I think it bears mentioning that in fourth edition everyone can heal.

In 4e, a character that has been reduced to half hit points is considered “bloodied”. Characters so wounded are at a disadvantage in combat. Fourth edition embraces the abstract nature of hit points to the full, and the amount of damage a character has taken is a combination of physical wounds and fatigue – it’s how they justify high level characters having so many more hit points than low level ones. Self-healing is not, therefore a magical effect. It is more akin to getting a second wind. Quite how this will be adjudicated is unknown. In the new Star Wars game, the character has to take partial actions for three rounds. However, I suspect self-healing in D&D will be dependent on action points. We know that action points have a role to play in fourth edition, although it will be different to the role they currently have in the Eberron game.

In any event, with healing in the hands of everyone, the need for the cleric to be able to heal at all is lessened. While I would love to use the cleric right out of the book I fear that this will be the class (once again) that will require the heaviest modification.

Fighters

There’s nothing campaign altering about the changes to the fighter. Weapon selection and specialisation are the fighter’s friend in fourth edition. Whether you choose to fight with two weapons, a two-handed weapon or a sword and shield there will be a plethora of talents and feats that make you significantly better with that weapon than any other.

Equipment has also been modified so that the difference between using a spear and using a long sword is significant. Fighters are better at wearing armour than any other class (they can retain a larger amount of their Dex bonus for example).

The combination of different feats, talents, weapons and techniques mean that players can create hundreds of different variations of the standard fighter. No two need be quite the same. Vive la difference. We have come a long way since second edition.

Rogues

Like fighters, there’s nothing in the alteration of the rogue’s abilities that affects the integrity of the campaign setting. The rogue’s primary weapon remains his sneak attack, which he can now use far more frequently. It is useable whenever the rogue has a “combat advantage”. This is a new game term, that I suspect will have wide-ranging ramifications once we actually understand what it means. Sneak attack is also more effective because there are very few immunities in fourth edition; the ability now works perfectly well on most undead and constructs.

The rogue still gets the most skills, but instead of non-combat skills being used to balance a rogue’s lack of combat prowess, the 4e rogue should be just as effective in and out of combat. When a rogue sneak attacks, he deals a tremendous amount of damage.

Warlocks

The fourth edition warlock makes its third edition counterpart look feeble. In third edition, the big selling point of the warlock was that it could use its powers repeatedly every round – but now all classes can do that, so the warlock needs a new selling point. In 4e the warlock from Complete Arcane combines elements of the Hexblade (Complete Warrior) and the Binder (Tome of Magic). He doesn’t just shoot eldritch blasts, now he lays nasty curses on you as well.

Warlocks don’t study like a wizard or pray like a cleric, they bargain. Their powers are a result of a pact they have made with a specific entity. There is a choice of four pacts: Fey, Infernal, Star (cthuloid entities by the sound of it) and vestiges (forgotten gods, spirits of powerful warlocks). The powers they acquire depends on the pact, and the most powerful warlocks can have more than one pact.

Warlocks haven’t made a big impact on Iourn yet. We know that a thousand years ago a number of warlock schools existed, and that the leaders of these schools remained neutral in the Great War until the end was nearly upon them – at which point they sided with the grand alliance against Karatath. An army of warlocks marched into the Great Dark and took the war right to Karatath’s front door. They might have even defeated him if they hadn’t been betrayed by their own leader, Takash, who switched sides and was remade as Eligos of the Thirty for his trouble. After this, the warlock schools were broken and most of the warlocks involved were either killed or imprisoned in the Great Dark when the elves created the enceinte.

All of the above was part of the background INdran and I worked out for his warlock ghost, Clara, in the ongoing Game of Souls campaign. It’s passed into canon, and although the idea of schools for warlocks seems at odds with the notion of a solitary pact-maker, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that at some point in Iourn’s long history warlock schools did exist. I’m not saying that all warlocks were necessarily members, or that all the different types of pacts were represented in the schools. Indeed, it seems likely that all these schools were teaching their students to treat with the same entity.

However, INdran took Clara’s background a stage further and wrote some really very interesting histories of the warlock schools, and origins of warlocks in general. Much of these histories are at odds with what is written in Races and Classes, but we’re both working on adapting it. The end result will hopefully satisfy everyone – not that this will have a great effect on the game for quite a while.

I think this will make things more interesting for INdran as he won’t know how much of his histories are true, and how much inaccurate supposition. It puts a little mystery back into the warlock that would have been missing if I subscribed to a definitive history so early in the class’s inception.

As a core class, we’ll be seeing more of warlocks on Iourn. Of course, this begs the question of where they’ve been hiding all this time. I think that the fact that they haven’t turned up so far, only indicates that they aren’t very prevalent in civilised Urova, or that they have been mistaken for sorcerers or the like. With the start of the second Great War, all manner of odd races and classes will be crawling out of the woodwork. I don’t have a problem with this.

Wizards

By far the biggest changes seem to have been reserved for the wizard. Take a deep breath and here we go. First up, arcane spell failure is a thing of the past. Wizards still might not be skilled in wearing armour, but armour itself doesn’t intrinsically stop arcane magic. This is a good thing as far as I’m concerned because arcane spell failure never made any sort of sense. I came within a whisker of eradicating it from the game; if wasn’t for the number of third edition classes whose main raison d’etre was to defeat spell failure, I would have gone ahead with it. Instead, I just rolled out spell failure to all classes. Everyone should be glad that is disappearing too.

So where does leave Ravenna, who has invested a couple of levels in the Spellsword prestige class? In game, Ravenna got Elias to teach her how to fight so she could use the Blade of Charity more effectively and defend herself better in combat. The spellsword was just a mechanically apt way of showing that. We can still recreate the same sort of thing easily enough. Ravenna would be better trained in wearing armour, and could wear heavier armour than a regular sorcerer.

Back to wizards. The schools of magic no longer exist as part of the game mechanics. Although there’s no reason why a character couldn’t refer to the nine schools in game, they are no longer how wizards learn or specialise. Instead, each spell is linked to a foci – a staff, an orb, a wand and so on. Wizards usually favour one token over the others and use that to channel their magic. Seeing what focus a wizard is using is an indication of the sort of magic that wizards favours.

Specialist wizards such as Illusionists and Necromancers will eventually become core classes in their own right. This means that there are fewer potent illusion and necromancy spells in the core wizard spell list. We won’t see specialist enchanters at all, as all the potent enchantments have been ceded to psionics. This is an attempt to give psionics their own unique voice in the system, and I applaud that. Finally, we won’t see specialist diviners, because alignment has gone, and most remaining divinations are no longer spells; they are rituals. Yes, it will take a serious effort to cast a legend lore in fourth edition!

This obviously means the mechanics for specialist wizards will have to change. Elegant though my house rules are, if they’re not compatible for fourth edition then they are out of the window. Will these changes affect the story of the setting? Well, it’s been established that specialisation in the schools of magic was an Hadradan thing, and that most wizards left on Urova are generalists. The only exceptions are the gnomes of the Five Colour Kingdom who specialise in illusions, and the Masters of the Schools of Magic in Arcanus.

Every specialist wizard in Urova (and I’m mainly looking at the clan De Chesiré here) has gone to Sorostrae and studied under one of the Masters to become a specialist. Now, I believe that the nine schools of magic can still exist in the Iourn setting as academic classifications of magic, even if they have no game effects. There will still be ‘specialist wizards’ in the game, but these are new core classes that haven’t been published yet. Necromancer and Illusionist are safe bets, but although we probably won’t see Abjurers or Transmuters I’ll bet that there will be talents, feats and paragon paths that heighten the effectiveness of certain styles of wizard. Specialist wizards continue to exist in one form or another.

But what about spellcraft? That skill has been used dozens of times in game to reveal the school of magic. Well, it has, but all that’s really happened is the spellcaster has used his knowledge to work out what a spell or magical item does, and then couched that knowledge in terms he understands. It isn’t really a fundamental shift.

What about the new classifications of magic: tomes, daggers, staves, wands, orbs and so on? This is a very different way of doing things. Well, that is a shift. Wizards didn’t use these things before fourth edition… or did they? What if, the study of magic in the Hadradan Empire has moved on. What if they long ago abandoned the using the schools of magic to classify spells, and moved onto these foci? We’ve only visited Hadrada once in game, and no time was really spent dwelling on the way magic worked over there. Perhaps, these new techniques are now beginning to be felt in Urova. Maybe they’re already common in Sorostrae and haven’t yet found their way as far east as Norandor. Say, aren’t the Chosen going to Sorostrae during Roleplaying Retreat IV?

Moving on, the rational behind magic seems to be that when a wizard casts a spell, a certain amount of time needs to elapse before that spell is available again. It works a little like Recharge Magic from Unearthed Arcana. Within that structure, the wizard has three types of magic:

Power words are useable at will. These are like specialised spells, that the wizard is so familiar with that he can cast ad infinitum. I’m guessing these are low level effects, but as the wizard gains levels they could become more powerful. Most spells can be called upon once per encounter. I guess this stops the wizard from casting fireball round after round. The most powerful spells (which are the most powerful PC powers in the game) are only useable once per day.

Mechanically I think this could work quite well. I’m prepared to abandon spell points in favour of doing things this way. It makes some sense to me. Whether it makes sense within the context of Iourn is another matter. I think it could be made to work. Wizards would still get their powers from study. It looks as though they still need their spell books, and they still need to rest to regain their spellcasting ability. Is that enough to justify the Arcanum Incognita and the Potentates? The jury is out on that one. Ask me again in June.

Metamagic and Item Creation feats no longer exist. The versatility afforded by metamagic will be built elsewhere into the system. The creation of magical items is now a ritual, and won’t require the burning of experience points.

It also looks as though the wizard (or indeed any spellcaster) will find it very difficult to cast spells without provoking attacks of opportunity (aka opportunity attacks!) Concentration could well be a thing of the past.

The wizard is the last class that is given significant space in Races and Classes. The book now dwells very briefly on another character classes, including the ones from third edition that didn’t make the cut. Seven of the following classes aren’t going to be in PHB1. Add in the Necromancer and this might be a list of the classes we’ll see in PHB2. Perhaps that is looking too far ahead.

Barbarians

Although not finalised for PHB1, barbarians are going to be all about raging, which seems fine to me. Heightening this class ability will further distance them from the fighter. Barbarians are to be linked more closely to druids as the sword-arm of their faith. That works well enough for Bronx, but not for all barbarians on Iourn. Fortunately, this looks to be a story-element which can be ignored.

Bards

Bards are also still a work in progress. At the moment, the bard draws power for his spells and abilities from an otherworldly patron who admires the bard’s work. This is a fundamental change to bards (on Iourn bardic magic is just the stunted descendent of elven sonorism). I will have to see how this can be properly incorporated. Frankly, the 4e explanation sounds more interesting.

Druids

Because druids are effectively good at everything, 4e has decided to focus the druid more sharply. While druids will still have spells in 4e, they won’t be at the heart of the character. The druid will be all about wildshaping. That is how the druid will fight his battles and solve his problems. In keeping with changes to the polymorph ability, druids will only be able to change into a finite number of forms. On the whole this change could have been written for Iourn. I have no problem with it at all, and it will fit in perfectly.

Monks

It seems that little work had been done on the monk by August 2007, although the designers do seem committed to keep the little bleeder in D&D. Sorry, Marc. The monk will probably be highly mobile striker (like a rogue) able to enter a battlefield and give the smack down to an enemy. I hope that the monk will be in PHB2.

Paladins

These will almost certainly be in PHB1. Conceptually the class remains the same. Mechanically, the paladin’s smite has been given a make-over, and can now do different things and has different effects as the paladin advances in levels. What I said for the barbarian also applies for the paladin: it will be nice to give the class an ability that grows as the character advances. It also seems that the paladin’s warhorse won’t appear with a snap of the fingers in fourth edition. Yay.

Rangers

The ranger will become the rogue of the wilderness. They are going to be the masters of guerrilla tactics, and seem to depend on mobility to be truly effective in combat. I suspect a number of the abilities from the Scout core class (from Complete Adventurer) has been folded into the ranger. Conceptually, the ranger hasn’t changed and I don’t think that the mechanical alterations will affect the game. Even if they do away with ranger spells in favour of other abilities, it isn’t really going to make much difference to the big picture. However, if the ranger becomes more rogue and less front line brawler, I suspect that a reconceptualised Brack will carry more levels of fighter than he currently does.

Sorcerer

Now that wizards can cast spells more-or-less when they want, the abilities that marked out the sorcerer as unique have gone. According to Races and Classes the sorcerer will be much a less sophisticated magic user than a wizard. They are instinctive casters, born with their abilities who barely seem in control of their magic. They use the example that a sorcerer who blasts an enemy with a cold spell might create a aura of ice around herself that protects her from the cold. The fourth edition sorcerer seems to be one part wild mage, and one part Wilder (from the Expanded Psionics Handbook). Does any of this sound like Ravenna?

The problem with Ravenna is that Jon created a sorcerer in the first session of the first campaign, before I really came to appreciate the inherent story-related differences between wizards and sorcerers. If I could go back and do it over again, I would have looked at Jon’s character concept and suggested Ravenna be a wizard instead. Sorcerers don’t have mentors, they are untutored beings with an innate understanding of arcane magic.

During the last seven years, I’ve never really known what to do with sorcerers. Yes, they gain their powers from having dragons somewhere in their ancestry, and from that I extrapolated that all arcane magic comes from draconic magic – this is something that might not hold true in fourth edition. I’ve given them a very different mechanic for casting spells, which is all very cool but does cause a fair amount of friction with the elements of the game rules I haven’t changed. I’ve looked time and again at changing the sorcerer, and introduced no end of house rules to try and make them different to wizards. I’ve never been completely happy with the results.

I suspect that I will end up adopting the sorcerer as it is written in fourth edition, and then looking how the different mechanics could have realistically been made to work in previous adventures. As for Ravenna, it could be that the most logical build for her in the new system is some sort of sorcerer/wizard/fighter hybrid. But then PHB2 is probably going to throw the Swordmage into the mix (see below) which could be tailor-made for Ravenna. In short, we’ll have to wait and see. Sorcerers are a problem for another year.

Swordmage

The swordmage will be a class that combines martial prowess with arcane power, much in the same way as an elven bladesinger. The swordmage will have magical powers and spells that increase his ability in mêlée – things like magical enchantments on weapons and armour, spells that make him faster and so on. This is the sort of character class that could be dropped into the setting without making much in the way of ripples. They’re effectively multiclass wizard/fighters with a tighter focus and (presumably) different talent trees. While it will be interesting to see how organisations like the Arcanum Incognita relate to swordmages, there’s nothing in the concept that I find particularly offensive.

Warlord

The warlord will be the eighth class in Player’s Handbook I. So, what the hell’s a warlord? The warlord is a non-magical class, in the Leader role. Warlords are skilled battle leaders and motivational speakers. They can raise their allies to new found heights, and coordinate them more effectively. They are based on the Marshal class from the Miniature’s Handbook, although they have greater utility than that class. I suspect that the rules for team working may also be folded into this class.

Warlords are actually quite common on Iourn. Why have the parties never met them before? Well, they probably have and didn’t notice. I seldom bother to stat NPCs, so I have a certain degree of latitude when assigning classes to them. Perhaps Arvan’s father was a warlord; maybe Alberdark has been a warlord all this time? Dropping the warlord class into Iourn isn’t going to change anything, except it gives players who would otherwise be playing fighters another option. It’s not as if warlords actually go around calling themselves warlords.

I think warlord is a much better fit for Elias Raithbourne than fighter. It will be really interesting to see how the Chosen of Narramac come out of a fourth edition conversion process.

In Conclusion

And that was Races and Classes. Definitely some food for thought here, especially in regard to power sources and the spellcasting classes. Everything else will probably slide into the Iourn setting without too much hassle. This article has been far longer than I intended, but it’s been fun going through this preview of the new edition.

Next up is the companion book, Worlds and Monsters, which is published in January 2008. You can read the blurb here. This book will concentrate on the default world and planes of existence that the designers have built, and we will also see how the powers and special abilities of monsters will work in 4e.

Fourth Edition: Initial Impressions and the Future of Iourn

And lo, there would be a fourth… edition.

By now the news that a fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons is to be released in June 2008 should be common knowledge. Every day new information is drip-fed on to the Internet some of it believable, some of it less so. Various theories as to what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ abound. The staff over at EN World are doing a good job collating all the rumours, and news snippets from various website and web logs. If you haven’t checked it out, then do have a look at the following pages:

EN World
Unofficial D&D 4th Edition Info Page

However, what no website or external source is going to tell you is: what does all this mean for the Iourn campaign? Will Iourn be converting to 4e? What about the existing campaigns and characters?

This is the first of a series of articles that will chart the impact of 4e on the unending game. Once the new books begin to be released, I’ll add opinion and comment to this site. Today, I’ll look at 4e in the broader sense and try to calm unease and mollify impatience.

4e. Will We? Why? When?

Yes. I will convert the campaign. Sorry Steve. From what I have seen, the fourth edition rules look better than their third edition counterparts. Yes, there are some things that are giving me pause – notably the ludicrous advancement of PCs and the seeming reliance of miniatures and measurement – but on the whole I’m optimistic. With significantly less reliance on magic items, more options to customise the basic classes, the potential for unique clerics and the demise of preparing spells in advance there is much to look forward to.

Plus there is a great attraction in starting again. I feel as though third edition is a wild horse that has got away from me. Too many spells, too many feats, too many prestige classes… if I’d just kept a tighter handle on the options as the books came out I wouldn’t be in this mess. As it stands, I must only utilise about 20% of the game in my GMing. I never did get my head around psionics properly. This is a chance, for me at least, to do it better.

But don’t let that metagame motivation detract from the fact that I think that we can build better PCs that are more accurate and in keeping with your character backgrounds than we ever could in third edition.

There’s an old saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” (as opposed to the gnomish saying, “if it’s not broke, quickly take it apart and find out why”), but I think that third edition is broken. Every change I have made for the good of the game – drastically cutting back magic items to make them meaningful, slowing down XP progression, introducing spell points, trying to revamp level adjustments – has been a response to my perceived deficiencies of the system. But every change has created more problems, and more holes. To run a game actually as its written (or a close approximation thereof) is very tempting. Too tempting.

So, we’re going to convert Iourn. The only question is how we go about it. How do we make sure the change is not for the worse?

Conversion will be a slow process. I don’t want to leap in feet first and ruin what we’ve spent eight years building. There is no formula for converting between third and fourth edition. Rather than converting, you would be recreating your characters. I want to make sure that everyone has the tools and the experience to do it right the first time. This is the story for the current campaigns:

Path Perfidious Campaign: This campaign will conclude in March 2008, before the release of fourth edition. It will be played in an unholy mishmash of versions 3.0 and 3.5 of the third edition game. There will be no great requirement to convert characters to 4e, as this is likely to be the swansong for most of the PCs involved.

Game of Souls Campaign: The current weekly game will not convert to fourth edition. I am aiming to wrap up the campaign during the Summer of 2008, perhaps as early as June. Even if the campaign did survive beyond this, the level adjustments and weirdo races make any conversion problematic to say the least. Fortunately, it won’t be an issue.

League of Light Campaign: With several more years to run, and a sequel campaign in the works, the PCs from the League of Light game will have to convert at some point. They will need to do so in such a way that their abilities are broadly similar. Take Elias for example: losing ‘invisible’ abilities such as Weapon Focus might be fine, losing Hedwig is not. That said, I am in no great hurry to convert our heroes. In 4e the PHB, DMG and MM are going to be annual releases. By all accounts it looks as though the druid, monk and sorcerer will not be featured in PHB1. I am not going to convert until all the party’s characters are officially in print. There may be some online support, but failing that we’re looking at late 2009 as the earliest conversion to the new edition.

September 2008: After the Game of Souls campaign is finished, the new weekly campaign will debut at the beginning of the 2008 Michaelmas term. This one will be fourth edition from the get-go. It will utitlise races and classes from the new 4e PHB1 and will be set in an area of Iourn that has not been largely explored.

As it stands, I am still toying with the idea of running Keep on the Shadowfell (the first published 4e adventure) when it is released in May 2008. That may or may not happen, depending on where I am with the Game of Souls campaign. I may just press on with the weekly game, and leave fourth edition for September.

4e and the Campaign Setting

There are two ways you can apply a massive rules change to a campaign setting. These options are happily exemplified by Wizard’s Eberron and Forgotten Realms settings. In Eberron they are not allowing the change in rules to affect the setting. The mechanics for magic and warforged and dragonmarks may have changed, but from a story point of view they have always worked that way. There’s no retconning to make rules changes consistent with the history of the setting.

The Forgotten Realms has a long history of bending over backwards to accommodate rules changes. During the switch between 1st and 2nd edition it was ruled that the death of the assassin god Bhaal during the Times of Troubles resulted in the deaths of all the assassins that worshipped him: you couldn’t play an assassin in 2nd edition, you see. This time out, something called the Spellplague will ravage Toril. When it’s finished, magic will stop following third edition rules, and start following fourth edition rules.

Whither goes Iourn?

The Eberron approach is more appealing. Iourn has always been a story-driven setting; very few NPCs have ever been statted and I’ve always been happy to completely ignore the rules if it makes for a better story. However, there are parts of the story that are grounded in the rules. Take magic for example: sorcerers are innate arcane spellcasters, wizards duplicate their powers through their studies, but must still prepare specific spells in advance. From this distinction, I have created a role for the Arcanum Incognita, and developed a whole history of magic in the setting. Change the way magic works, and you fundamentally change that. Doesn’t something like that need to be explained?

Look at this problem from the point of view of the Potentates. The Potentates are a subgroup of wizards who got fed up with having to prepare spells in advance. Using complicated ritual and some kick-ass artefacts they were able to cast spells spontaneously, as long as they drained the lifeforce of a sorcerer to do it. Now if the rules have changed, and wizards don’t need to prepare spells in advance any more, it rather beggars the question: why did they bother? The rules change attacks the integrity of the setting.

So you see my problem. My instinct is telling me that rules don’t matter, and the creative entity that is Iourn should be free of such shackles. But the anal world-builder who aims for consistency of character, calendar and purpose throughout the setting baulks at the idea of imposing a large paradigm-shift on Iourn without doing something to explain it.

Of course, we don’t know what these changes are going to be yet, and we don’t know which of these changes will need to be addressed. No one has ever seen dragonmarks on Iourn, so the fact they work differently now from the way they used to is irrelevant. Magic on the other hand, is as insidious as it is ubiquitous – how can I not address that?

So, will the change from third to fourth edition change the campaign setting? The answer is a definite probably. Clerics may gain different powers, their magic may work differently – any number of things may change as a result of the shift in editions, and some of these things will have to be explained in game. Any changes will be as small as possible, and any explanations will be as organic and logical as possible. Watch this space.

The D&D Insider

For those of you not aware, the run up to the release of 4e will see the arrival of the D&D Insider. This is an umbrella term for a significant amount of information that will be available online through the Wizards of the Coast website. Some of this information will be free, but most of it will be subscription only.

A subscription to the D&D Insider gets you the electronic versions of Dragon and Dungeon magazines every month (they’re no longer being published in print), and gives you live access to an interactive gaming table and character creator. The idea behind the gaming table is that gamers who live far apart can play together over the Internet. The character creator allows you to use all the rules from all the books to create a character and print it out.

I am not advocating a subscription to this service. I’m going to subscribe, largely because of a the following natty feature. Each published D&D sourcebook is going to come with a unique code that can be used to activate an electronic version of the book, thus gaining a copy of the title in PDF or similar format. It also unlocks all the rules from each book online. These rules are used to inform the character creator, but they also look as if they will build into a comprehensive database.

Pause for thought. A comprehensive database. That’s something I was trying to get off the ground with the third edition books, and eventually gave up on. If this facility on D&D Insider works, and works well, then it would create a powerful and extremely nifty tool that would (for me) be worth the price of admission.

Most of the D&D Insider content is going to go live for free before the release of 4e. Give it a go. Head over to http://www.wizards.com/dnd and register if you haven’t done so already. At the very least you’ll get a few free adventures.

Next

In December 2007, Wizards Presents: Races and Classes will reach the shelves. Billed as a “4th Edition Preview”, it won’t contain any rules but the various insights may be enlightening. You can check out the blurb here and next month, I’ll spend a little time writing on how I think this will affect Iourn.