Thursday, April 9, 2020

What Do I Know About Reviews? Legendary Bestiary, Legendary Actions for Low-Level Monsters (Dungeon Masters Guild)

For a while I have been discussing how I would love to see more alternate monsters with slightly different traits for D&D 5e, or more monsters with legendary actions. I have also mentioned how I like the idea of that one really tough, singular beast that lives in the woods, a creature that doesn’t need to be overtly supernatural to still be a much tougher example of it's kind.

It turns out, a product appeared on the Dungeon Masters Guild that addresses some of these concepts, The Legendary Bestiary. It’s a book focused on creating legendary actions for CR 1 through CR 3 creatures. I thought I’d take a look at it in today’s blog post.

The Monster Book of Monster . . . Actions

The PDF of the product is 35 pages, which includes an inside cover, a table of contents, and two pages dedicated to random tables for naming legendary creatures. The product has an eye-catching cover and title font, and makes good use of the DMs Guild art assets.

Individual monster images are accompanied by example titles, and a few of these also include a paragraph of description for various legendary monsters, all of which are monsters of a type detailed in the product itself. Font is very similar to D&D 5e standards, with a few variances from the typical headers, but the overall look is very polished.

The Belly of the Beast

The introduction states that the desired purpose of this book is to allow DMs to have a wider range of creatures available for climatic encounters, especially to create more circumstances where a single opponent can be a challenge for a party of adventurers. It mentions that this should be something you can do even for low-level adventurers, with situationally “legendary” creatures like bandit captains.

There are some notes on how the legendary actions included were designed not to move the monster away from its current “niche” in the game, and includes some quick ideas for boosting XP rewards when turning a standard creature into a legendary challenge. There is a little bit of wording under the bullet points for the design principals that feels like the sentence is incomplete, but overall, the introduction provides the thesis statement for the product.

Expanded Monsters

The general guidelines that the product follows for legendary actions are that CR creations only get one legendary action, CR 2, two, and finally, CR 3 get the typical range of three legendary actions. Lower CR creatures usually don’t get the typical “may make an extra attack” legendary actions that many of the Monster Manual legendaries get, and several thematic “leader” creatures get actions that set up or support other creatures.

Support abilities often grant movement, temporary hit points, or even extra attacks (sometimes with disadvantage, to represent the lower impact of these legendary actions). There are also a good number of “setup” abilities, legendary actions that allow a creature to gain advantage on a later attack, to do more damage, or potentially recharge an ability earlier.

In several cases, various animals are given abilities that are very much either thematic for the animal, or directly references hunting or defensive tactics for those animals. I appreciate this, because it feels like a lot of real-world animals get less design space to make them interesting than fantastic monsters, and that’s a shame. Bears can slam an opponent to the ground or scare them with a roar. Lions can bolster their pride with a roar. Eagles can snatch an opponent and fly up into the air with them. Several animals get the ability to use their senses to sniff out prey.

Another style of legendary action that makes several appearances in this product are “partial” uses of other abilities that the monster has access to. For example, Duergar can buff up just a little to do extra damage, or turn partially invisible to cause opponents to have disadvantage, but not need to pinpoint their locations. Quasits can partially shape change to get a new movement mode for their next turn. Imps can make it darker and murkier, creating cover, without fully casting darkness.

Some creatures have some interesting extrapolations of their current abilities. For example, Gelatinous Cubes can spit those little undigested bits at people for small amounts of damage. Ghouls and ghasts get the ability to each corpses to regain hit points, and can then cough up crawling claws. I love that. Ochre jellies can detonate jellies that split off from them, and Nothics can echo spells that they have seen cast in their presence.

There are a few of these legendary actions I wanted to look at because I think they attempted to get a little too ambitious, or maybe pushed the general boundaries of 5e logic a little. Both dryads and harpies get an ability that lets them command a charmed opponent to make an attack for them, and since both of those monsters very specifically call out that they charm their opponents, and charm has a very specific effect in 5e, I feel like these legendary actions muddy the current boundaries of what charmed entails, and might cause confusion over the effect more broadly. Githzerai get an ability that lets them reroll initiative, and I can’t help but feel like that’s just too disruptive, especially as an action that they might take every turn in combat. Quaggoths get an ability that let them steel themselves to the damage they take, and take in a variable number of rounds later, and while that sounds cool, that feels like fiddly bookkeeping, again, especially if it gets used more than once in the same encounter.

Some of the CR 3 monsters have very situationally useful legendary actions, and I worry that they won’t get much use out of all three of their actions as written. Additionally, some predators, like tigers, don’t get a damage boosting ability, or an attack probability boost, but get the ability to move and hide, but given the tiger’s size and the requirements for hiding, this probably isn’t going to help them all that much without an accompanying alteration for the conditions under which they can make a stealth check.


There are a lot of imaginative expansions of creature abilities included in this product. I especially like the idea of making sure that a monster can use even a lesser version of one of its signature abilities before the fight is over, or more often than usual. The fact that animals that use these abilities feel more dangerous and more like themselves is a big plus as well. Beyond just using these additional actions as legendary actions for lower CR creatures, some of these feel like just good abilities to add to the creatures' stat blocks to make them more varied or more versatile.

Tall Tales

Because of the action economy of D&D 5e, if you try to turn a CR 1 or CR 2 creature into more of a “boss fight” but only allow them 1 or 2 legendary actions instead of three, I don’t think it’s going to create the desired effect. I also feel that several creatures have legendary actions that are so situational that their legendary actions will go to waste. There could stand to be a few more “all-purpose” legendary actions for those creatures.

In many cases imagination pays off in creating evocative abilities, but in a few places, what sounds good on paper (roll initiative again, prepare multiple kickers for actions to be taken later, delay damage) may be a huge pain to actually utilize at the table.

Qualified Recommendation--A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

If you are like me, and wish 5e had more “nastier specials” like 13th Age monsters get, and generally want more mechanical toys for monster stat blocks, you may be interested in this product, but I can see how the lower CR range, and even using the product exactly as detailed may not appeal to every 5e dungeon master.

What I saw in this product does make me want to see additional volumes with a wider range of creatures, maybe with just a little bit fewer of those “delayed” opportunities or very useful but only in limited circumstance abilities. When this product resonates, it resonates hard with imaginative abilities that are in tune with the “story” of the monster.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

What Do I Know About Reviews? Shadowmancer (5e OGL, Dungeon Masters Guild)

I love the concept of shadow magic in fictional settings. I have ever since I saw characters like Cloak, who could tap into a dimension of darkness for their powers. There is something compelling in going against the tropes of many stories and having a hero that controls the darkness as a weapon to do good.

I was not a fan of the Shadow Weave in the Forgotten Realms lore of 3rd edition. There had been references to shadow magic before, but there had never been an underlying separate power source for magic. The additional lore wouldn’t have been so much of a problem, except that the additional power source was, in various contradictory fashions, not evil, but also the creation of Shar and part of her master plan for taking over/destroying Toril, and also portrayed as the Dark Side to the Weave Light Side of the Force, without, you know, being evil.

All of this is a huge digression, however, because what I’m really looking at here is one of my favorite 5th edition 3rd party pass times, seeing creators from earlier editions recreate a class from an earlier ruleset for 5th edition D&D. Previous examples of this were the Warlord and Warden as envisioned by Rob Schwalb, and today, I’m looking at the Shadowcaster, as created and now re-envisioned by Ari Marmell.

The Shadowcaster wasn’t directly tied to the Shadow Weave in Forgotten Realms lore, because it didn’t come about until the 3.5 book, The Tome of Magic, which was one of my favorite rules expansions for 3.5. I’m not going to say everything worked mechanically well from that book, but I will say that I liked it because it took more risks with what it did with the rules of 3.5, and didn’t turn into “look, here are more of the same options, but better,” which cause a lot of rules bloat and escalation in the late game of 3.5. Shadowcasters didn’t quite use spellslots the same way as other casters, studied and trained more like wizards, and sort of cast more like sorcerers.

Of the classes presented in the Tome of Magic, the 3.5 Shadowcaster was probably the best realized, followed by Binder and trailed way behind (unfortunately) by Truenamers.

That’s a lot of preamble, but I guess the concept of shadow magic casts . . . a long shadow?

The Silhouette

The Shadowcaster PDF is 32 pages long, with grey on grey bordered pages, and bold red and blue formatting for headers and sub-headers. There are several full, half, and quarter page images of various shadow themed characters throughout.

There is a front and back cover, and a credits page, which includes the DMs Guild boilerplate, and because this is a DMs Guild product, there is not a full page OGL page included.

Introduction and Class Basics

The introduction of the class goes a bit into the philosophy of shadow magic, reiterating that it is neither good, nor evil, but it tends to have a negative reputation, and then it details how Shadowcasters get along with other spellcasters.

Looking at the class features section and the Shadowcaster chart, the class is structured in a similar manner to Warlocks, with the biggest departure being that Intelligence is the Shadowcaster’s casting stat, instead of Charisma. They have the same armor proficiencies and hit dice, and share a similar spell progression, complete with a shorter number of spell slots that default to a base spell level, which refresh on a short or long rest.

The Shadowcaster also departs from the standard Warlock structure in that there is no pact bond equivalent. The subclass is chosen at first level, much like a patron is for the Warlock. Mysteries share a similar function for the Shadowcaster as the Invocations do for Warlocks, with an added mechanic. Various spells are grouped into Spell Paths, and the number of spells known from different Spell Paths may serve as the prerequisite for various Mysteries.

The Shadowcaster picks up the following tricks as they gain levels:

  • 2nd level, Eyes of Night (Free darkvision with some additional benefits)
  • 3rd level, Gloaming Feast (You subsist on shadows, so sleeping and eating are different for you)
  • 7th level, Shade-Touched Soul (You get another proficient save)
  • 20th level, Never-Ending Night (You get a spell slot back if you start a fight without any)

All of these feel pretty thematic for the class (5e really does hate for people to go without darkvision), although Gloaming Feast feels a little awkward. If you are a species that doesn’t have the elf’s four hour rest feature, that’s what you more or less have now, but unlike, say, giving darkvision out to a species that already has it, elves specifically now only trance for two hours. Given the story of how and why elves “trance” instead of sleep, I’m not sure this tracks, but the main thing I wanted to point out is that as this ability progresses, you really need to remember that you only get the benefit of a long rest once per 24 hours, because if you forget that detail, this gets really wonky.

Penumbral Ways

The Penumbral Ways are the subclasses for the Shadowcaster. Those subclasses are as follows:

Dread Witch (exploring the personal ramifications of shadow)
Noctimancer (the scholarly pursuit of the study of shadow magic)
Shadow Scion (exploring the boundaries between the material and the Plane of Shadows)

Each one of these subclasses adds additional spells to the character’s spell list, in keeping with the theme of the subclass. For example, the Dread Witch adds fear and controlling spells, the Noctimancer adds a lot of “metamagic” style spells to the spell list, and the Shadow Scion gets shadow flavored weather effects to simulate calling in a touch of the plane of shadow.

Dread Witches add the following tools to the toolbox:

  • 1st level, Dread Presence (intimidation and a fear aura)
  • 6th level, Fear-Weilder (even more intimidation, and a bonus inspiration effect when fear targets you)
  • 10th level, Dread Master (resistance to psychic damage, reflect fear at other casters)
  • 14th level, Living Nightmare (gain a foothold on a creatures mind for dream effects)

This is probably the subclass that gives the class it’s worst reputation. I’m actually a little disappointed to tack “witch” on to this one, to be honest. The “adrenaline boost” effect of being targeted by fear is kind of interesting, but I have to admit, even though fear is less onerous in 5e than it has been in previous editions (not moving closer is much better than running away until the effect ends or whatever breaks the effect), it’s still not one of my favorite things to have make a major foothold in the player character’s profile.

The Noctimancer subclass abilities are:

  • 1st level, Knowledge Arcane (comprehend language and identify as rituals)
  • 6th level, Eldritch Ward (use your reaction to impose disadvantage on spell attacks against you)
  • 10th level, Arcane Secrets (pick up wizards spells not on the Shadowmancer spell list)
  • 14th level, Mystic Siphon (capture magical energy when you counterspell or dispel other magic)

The player in me is very interested in this subclass, and I like the flavor of this subclass as the “scholarly” version of the class. The DM in me is not as excited about the potential to encourage people to frequently use counterspell, but that’s a deeper issue baked into 5e from the start.

The Shadow Scion rounds out the class with the following abilities:

  • 1st level, Warding Shade (you can use your reaction to have your shadow make an attack)
  • 6th level, Child of Two Worlds (ignore weather effects, choice of resistances at the trade off of vulnerability to radiant damage)
  • 10th level, Flesh of Shadow (turn into a shadow elemental)
  • 14th level, Maelstrom of Shadow (restrain creatures with a storm of shadow stuff)

While I don’t dislike the Dread Witch, I can’t quite warm up to it, so I’m glad that I like the Shadow Scion in addition to the Noctimancer, as it serves as the more aggressive counterpoint to the more studious and defensive Noctimancer.

While the Shadowmancer isn’t a Warlock, the similar structure does give us some benchmarks to look at, and most of the abilities, while unique, don’t feel too far from the scope of what the individual patron abilities look like for similar levels.

Mysteries of Shadow

The next three pages of the product are the Mysteries of Shadow, special abilities that the Shadowmancer gets at various levels that either modify existing abilities, or grant them abilities outside of the scope already provided by the class and subclass abilities.

This mechanic begins to play more with the Paths, which are concentrated areas of study that have spells grouped within them. Some mysteries have a prerequisite that require a Shadowcaster to know spells from various Paths, while others require a Shadowcaster to know all of the spells of a given path to gain access. In general, requirements that call for broader knowledge grant access to broader abilities, while Mysteries calling for specific mastery double down on how well you can do things associated with that path.

For example, Path Savant lets you cast all of the spells in that path without using components, while Greater Path Savant lets you cast one of the spells from that path without using a spell slot every long rest. Darkest Creeping Shadow, which has a prerequisite of learning spells from multiple paths, grants access to new cantrips and lower level spells.

Beyond the Mysteries that play with the Path mechanics, you have other mysteries that provide shadow familiars, add your ability score damage to cantrips, potentially regain more hit points when resting in shadows, the ability to cast invisibility in areas of low light, and, of course, Mysteries that let you access 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th level spells.

Shadowcaster Spells

The Shadowcaster spell lists include spells that are considered class spells for the class, and in addition to listing the spells by class, the spells also note what paths they belong to as well. In addition to noting the path in parenthesis behind the spell name in the regular list, there is a follow up list that summarizes the paths and what spells are in each path.

In addition to brand new spells presented, there are also spells from the existing spell lists in the game that have entries noting how the spell functions for the Shadowcaster. For example, Control Weather has a more limited range of weather that can be generated, and Conjure Umbral Servant is Conjure Elemental that only summons Shadow Elementals.

Side Note: In the copy that I’m writing this review from, it looks like the modifications to Storm of Vengeance is tacked on to the end of Spirit Guardians, without a distinct header.

As you might guess, there is a lot of cold and necrotic damage, illusion effects, and the ability to move through shadows. Some of the added spells for the subclasses tack on spells that play with fear, even more spectacular damage effects, and dispelling/countering options.

Spell turning is a returning spell from older editions, which instead of being an active spell used with a reaction, is an ongoing ward that deflects a given number of spell levels. Investiture of Shadows creates a shadow flavored version of the other Investiture spells. Hypnotic Shade creates a hypnotic pattern that is adjudicated in a slightly different manner, and Shadow Out of Time slips the caster out of synch into the plane of Shadow, watching what’s going on in the real world and able to take extra rounds to prepare, not unlike Timestop. There are a lot of other spells, but the point is that many of them do similar things to existing spells, and have a similar scope, but adjudicate effects in just a slightly different manner.

Arrow of Dusk is the Shadowcaster equivalent of Eldritch Blast, but with far fewer Mysteries tied to its use. If it knocks you to 0 hit points, you stabilize instead of dying (which I remember from the 3.5 version of this spell). Black Candle may be one of my favorite utility spells, as it is effectively a light spell, but it can’t counter darkness, and the only people that can see what you illuminate are the people you designate when you cast the spell. That’s a nice touch.

I Have My Weaknesses
The final page of text is the stat block for the Shadow Elemental, which can be summoned and is also the alternate form used by the Shadow Scion subclass. This is the part where I have to say that I love the concept of shadow elementals, and the shadow elementals that were in the 3.5 Tome of Magic got used as part of the final encounter for my multi-year campaign that I ran for that edition, where the players wrapped up their adventures at 13th level, versus a ton of shadow creatures.

Soothing Shadows

While it’s always hard to get a handle on a 20 level class in an initial read through, this looks very thoroughly mapped to the power curve of the existed expectations of the Warlock, but with the added benefit of not being quite so tied to the Hex and Eldritch Blast pattern of that class. All of the subclasses look good, even if I lean much more heavily towards two of them. I really enjoy that the new spells map well to existing effects, but add some interesting thematic kickers or slightly different means of adjudicating the effects they produce.

Lost in the Darkness

I have seen complaints that Warlocks are one of the less powerful classes in 5e, which means if you are one of those people, mapping the power curve of the Shadowcaster to that class may not be what you want to see. I don’t know if I agree, but I do know that the Warlock is one of the trickiest classes to get a handle on, with all of the interactions between spells, invocations, pact bonds, and patron abilities.

While the Shadowcaster doesn’t have a commensurate pact bond ability, the path system may actually make the Shadowcaster a little bit trickier to master than even the Warlock abilities. It may be challenging for people to tackle unless they have a pretty good grasp of what the class does and how the mechanics interact.

Recommended--If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

There is a certain irony in that I liked the 3.5 version of the class because it didn’t stick too closely to how other classes worked in staking out its own way of doing things, and I like this version of the class because they found a good analogous set of parameters and readjusted to fit the shadow theme. That said, I think that’s because the hard frameworks of 3.5 existed more nebulously, i.e. what hit dice, how many good saves, what’s the attack progression, while I think the framework of 5e is more constrained, but can contain more individualized effect.

I knew that the 5e Warlock was very much a hybridized version of the 3.5 class with trappings from the Binder from the Tome of Magic, but I had forgotten that there really is some Shadowcaster DNA in that class as well, and I think that’s part of why using Warlock as a base works well for the Shadowcaster, even though the class itself has a different story to tell.

I was a little more hesitant to give this a flat “recommended,” because of the complexity of the class, but honestly, that’s also part of what I like about it. The complexity may be daunting, but it doesn’t feel random or awkward. It’s something I kind of want to engage with to see if I can make the class sing.

I’m just sad I can’t figure out a way to shoehorn Toll the Dead into the Shadowmancer’s known spells.

Friday, April 3, 2020

What Do I Know About Product Lines? Conan, Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of RPG (With an Eye Towards Culture and Representation)

In light of the recent Modiphius Conan release and the reaction to it, I did a LOT of research into the Conan, Adventures in a Time Undreamed Of RPG line. In 2018 I picked up the package where all of the books get added as they are released. I had originally started breaking this down by individual release, but it  makes a lot more sense to visit the line in chunks.

I also wanted to say that this is the kind of mistake a lot of company’s make when they produce material for an intellectual property. I like some elements of the game. They nail the tone of the game, and the 2d20 system does a lot with turning the dials on the game currencies, and I’m currently running Star Trek Adventures, which uses the same core system, but manages a much different tone using the same base.

Prehistoric Issues

The biggest problem the line has is that it is VERY concerned with being true to Howard, and that translates badly to presenting a setting. While it isn't good, it is a lot easier to forget some (definitely not all) of the racism in the story when it happens in framing a story.

It is 100% white privilege to do this, and it's not good, but it's too easy for a white man to read a Conan story, read about the racist framing of the culture Conan is visiting, and then lock that in the background once Conan takes center stage in the story.

However, when the sourcebook is about the setting, and you can't suddenly have Conan occupy center stage, you are building on the details, and all of the details, in the background, are built on a structure of racism and dismissive reductivism.

Core Conceits

One of the worst ideas that is baked right into the rules is that you might have an "Ancient Bloodline" that makes you more likely to take certain actions over others, and rewards/punishes you based on what that bloodline drives you towards.

The core book spends a lot of time mentioning that they are working with Howard scholars to do the setting justice, and they are primarily concerned about "getting it right." There are few to no disclaimers about Howard and the world he presents, especially in the main book.

The closest we get to that is the section mentioning women in the setting, and how there are a lot of "damsels in distress," but there are also women action heroes, so you can play the action hero women if you want.

Art-wise, the covers and the big chapter pieces are very much inspired by the Frazetta paradigm. Nearly naked people, women in passive poses, big powerful Conan. The interior art depicting things like PC archetypes are more varied and less sensationalized. Even at that, there are trends that tell a story, even if that wasn't the intent. Black characters are almost always from "less civilized" archetypes. Even scholarly types from Stygia are always portrayed as more middle-eastern in presentation than black.

White presenting characters might be barbarians, knights, scholars, nobles, merchants, whatever. So even if there are tribes of white barbarians, they aren't the only white representation. That's not exactly true of the black characters presented. There are all kinds of references in the books that use terms like "this culture doesn't mix blood with outsiders," that just sounds awful. They use Howardian prose, in Howard's style, at the worst possible time to do so.

Narrow Cultural Lenses

Even before the Conan the Wanderer sourcebook came out, there is a jaw-dropping comment about Khitai in the Books of Skelos supplement:

"The Khitan mind is nearly as alien to the West as that of pre-human cultures."


I have heard people mention that in the old West End days of Star Wars, a lot of alien cultures were extrapolated on what little we saw of a character, so you got cultures like Rodians all being hunters, because Greedo was. That's what most of the cultures look like in Conan. If Conan ran into someone and thought they were debased and slothful, that's how the books depict the culture that character came from.

This isn't a defense, because there is a part of the core rulebook where they clearly outline the inspirations, but it’s almost like there is a disconnect between the racist and harmful stereotypes because these are fictitious cultures that never existed, based on actual historical cultures.

I think because a lot of cultural connection to Conan comes from visual representations in movies and comics, those mediums remove us from the same kind of framing that Howard's stories provide. We see commoners affected by evil nobles, so we disassociate them and don't get Howard's narrative that the culture has certain intrinsic shortcomings. We see Conan associate with characters that are people of color, and we don't get Howard's framing that they are "the good ones."

We certainly don't ever hear Arnold or Jason Momoa saying that it would be better for white women to die than to be ravaged by black men. And yes, that's something Conan said in a Howard story.

We do get a brief disclaimer at the beginning of Conan the Adventurer, the primary sourcebook on the Southern Lands, which includes what Howard imaginative named The Black Kingdoms. None of the Conan books include the same kind of "H.P. Lovecraft was racist" disclaimer that you see, either in soft or hard form, in most Lovecraft related material now. Possibly because instead of being in the public domain, Howard's IP is managed by a media management company.

Unreliable Narrators

There is a framing device that could have been used to great effect in the line, in that most of the setting material is presented as historical records, written by different scholars in the Hyborean Age, discovered by a 1930s era historian.

The problem is, most of these historians, instead of giving a more nuanced view of the settings they are presenting, either reluctantly trash their own culture by saying all the worst things are true, or embody the worst aspects of their setting (like the narrator from Khitai).

The 1930s narrator that they present is taken from Howard's mythos stories, so that it’s all tied in to his IP. The problem is, a 1930s perspective historian isn't all that great at trying to give context to ancient era racist portrayals. There is a section in Conan the Mercenary that has the 1930s era historian criticizing the rise of nationalism, but then he kind of praises the virtue of mercenaries just fighting to make money and get by in a world that just can't help but need killing done.

Defined Boundaries

There are also a lot of uncomfortable archetypes presented for players, and without much in the way of safety discussions, that makes the inclusion of those archetypes a bit fraught. For example, in Conan the Barbarian, one of the player character archetypes is slaver.

The biggest problem is that I don't think Modiphius CAN add a lot to the setting that wasn't expressed in some manner by Howard, and what was expressed by Howard has its basis in racist reduction and misunderstanding. Without being able to criticize and expand, it's hard to escape.

Where it Works

I love how the momentum spends and skills work in the game to present the kind of visceral fantasy that Howard writes. There is a lot of good work in the books, especially in translating genre to game mechanics.

There are a few books in the line where Modiphius appears to have a little more breathing room. For example, there is way less cultural reductivism in the Kull of Atlantis sourcebook, because Howard didn't detail the setting as much or draw as many direct lines. Conan the Exiles is a tie in product to an online game, which creates a separate region within the Hyborian Age were people from all over all exist, trying to survive, which allows for diversity of characters without inherent cultural coding provided by Howard.

I'd throw in that the Horrors of the Hyborian Age book is an interesting read as a general bestiary, although it's got a lot of Howard's propensity for throwing the word "black" in front of anything evil or dangerous. I mean, he does that A LOT.

Honestly, if I knew up front what the books would detail, and I just had to run a licensed Howard Conan game, I'd probably skip almost all of the setting based supplements, pick up the Kull and Exiles books, and do my best to avoid the worst depictions that Howard wove. While I still felt it was a bit too apologetic towards Burroughs, the John Carter of Mars RPG put out by Modiphius does a much better job of actually addressing some of the issues with that material, and instructing GMs to avoid the worst aspects of those stories.

The State of the Game

What I really wish we could get from this line is more direct criticism of Howard, and the ability to frame all of the setting information as "the stories came from one set of histories, but we're presenting an alternate set of histories, with more context," allowed to move beyond. But in all honestly, much like with John Carter, I kind of think it’s almost easier to just play in a setting LIKE the books, without some of the book's baggage, that can rebuild the genre without including some of the setting's worst aspects.

"Look at all these neat building blocks, but what's this goo all over them?"

"Sorry, that's intrinsic racism. If you use the building blocks, you have to use them how they
are provided."

"Fine, I'll just try to turn whatever a build so that you can't see the puddle underneath."

Monday, March 30, 2020

What Do I Know About Reviews? Seas of Vodari (5e OGL)

I am a simple creature, and certain combinations of elements trigger my Pavlovian responses, like “D&D Campaign setting” + “pirates.” Given that I actually have two Kickstarters from last year that I backed for which this description applies, I’ll elaborate and say that the one I’m referring to this time is Seas of Vodari.

I did a first look based on the quick start for the setting, but now I’ve got the final PDF, so I’m really interested to revisit the setting now with all of the pieces in place. I’m always interested to see the balance that third party publishers strike between setting material and mechanical information, as well as how the project, as a whole, turned out.

The Logbooks

This review is based on the final PDF. I backed for a hardcover copy as well, but let’s face it, we live in strange times, and I wanted to look at this now, instead of waiting for the world to be less chaotic.

The PDF is 270 pages long, with full-color illustrations. There is a a two-page spread of continental maps, and full-page pieces proceeding all of the chapter breaks. There is a light parchment style background color to the pages, and formatting similar to the 5e books with the headers, sidebars, and section breaks, but with different font.

There are several full-body shots of characters from the setting, with titles that introduce where the character is from and what archetype they embody, and these characters are used as the iconic adventurers for many of the full page chapter breaks.

There are a wide range of skin tones and features on the characters in the setting, which is both diverse, and also highlights that many of the regions of the setting, despite drawing a bit from history and historical fiction for inspiration, don’t conform to any 1/1 comparison from the real world.

Chapter I: Welcome to Vodari and Chapter II: A World to Explore

Chapter one serves as a broad overview of the setting. It provides a description of what is coming up in the following chapters, as well as a “Six Things You Should Know About Vodari” opening pitch. This includes some paragraph-long summaries of key setting concepts, like the disposition of the gods, exploration as a focus, and a higher focus on technology.

The gods are grouped into three related pantheons that include the Creators, Preservers, and Destroyers. The overall grouping of pantheons based on philosophical roles brings to mind Dragonlance, but the personality of the gods is less “embodiment of cosmic forces,” and closer to the Greek pantheon’s collection of powerful humans with really big feelings.

One element of settings that often doesn’t get addressed when cosmological elements are introduced are psychopomps, and I love that there are three distinct ships that ferry the souls of the dead to the afterlife in this setting. Not only does it introduce the passage of the dead as a setting element, it also lets you play with some Davey Jones-style Pirates of the Caribbean style storylines as well.

Other high-level setting elements are addressed as well, like calendars, currency, languages, and the existence of an Arcane Council. It’s not universally illegal to practice magic without the approval of the Council, but they do expend a lot of effort to cast doubt on the credentials of those not aligned with their organization.

The next chapter goes into detail on various individual nations in the setting, including capitals, populations, rulers, exports, and languages. Most of these cultures are present on a particular island, and separated from their neighbors by the seas (of Vodari). The continent itself was shattered centuries ago during a conflict between the gods, meaning that every nation that becomes a power must become a naval power. At the end of each location overview is a section of adventure hooks. The number varies, but is usually around three or four, one of which usually draws in the PCs to a major political happening for that culture.

The setting itself has lots of archetypical nations, from the nation on the verge of revolt, to the religious zealots, to the crime-infested society run by syndicates. There are pirate isles ruled by a vaguely honorable pirate council, and other, much more reprehensible pirate havens. There is a society pushing the edge of technological advancement.

There are elves that have always kept to themselves, and elves that have spent most of their time associating with other cultures. The mountain dwarves serve as the defenders of the surface world from underground abominations, which has caused some conflict with hill dwarves and other species as they conscript others to help them fight what they see as the only fight worth engaging in. In a bit of a twist, there is conflict between rock gnomes and forest gnomes because of the rock gnome culture of exploiting nature for technological advancement.

In addition to homes for the “traditional” D&D ancestries, Vodari has its own goblin nation, which is fighting to be taken seriously and included in the trade and political considerations of the other nations. Minotaurs have their own culture where they seek to become the greatest at their own personal projects in life, and while there is an orcish land of violent and dangerous orcs, there are also orc exiles living with stone giants and creating a less violent way of living. I would be remiss in not mentioning the frost giant raiders that not only build really big boats, but who make their armor out of ships that they have destroyed in their raids. I love that detail so much.

In addition to the more settled islands, there are many more locations detailed that house lost magic of the Ancients (a culture that once dominated Vodari, but disappeared ages ago), lost treasure on islands from before the shattering of the continent, and multiple undersea cultures that are touched on lightly, with a sidebar noting that another sourcebook will detail what lies under the Seas of Vodari in the future.

I appreciate the level of detail that cultures that usually aren’t given much thought get in this section, such as the goblins and minotaurs. I like that the traditionally monstrous species of D&D aren’t cast as universally evil, although I wish the orcs got a little more slack in their section. It’s also interesting to see rivalries and enmities cast in a new light, such as the mountain dwarf need to conscript others for their wars underground, the clash between gnomish cultures, and even the idea that the drow aren’t so much evil demonic underground dwellers, so much as they are political maneuverers that wanted the elves to become more expansionist, and fought a losing war for that opinion.

When it comes to characters and diversity in the setting, one of the setting’s queens is married to another woman, at least one character is noted as non-binary, and the general feel isn’t that any of this is abnormal to the setting. It’s a minor ding, then, that I’ll point out that several of the adventure hooks seem to default back to a young woman in love with a young man that she shouldn’t be involved with, which causes complications. A little more variety on this theme might have been nice.

Chapter III: The People of Vodari and Chapter IV: Character Options

The People of Vodari chapter includes both a discussion of how various ancestries native to D&D in general have slightly different assumptions in the setting, as well as providing mechanical statistics for new character race options (which are, sadly, referred to as race, in keeping with 5e OGL norms).

The new ancestries include the following:

  • Cursed Soul (Characters that are essentially living undead)
  • Sea Dwarf (Magically mutated undersea dwarves)
  • Minotaur
  • Siren (With two subraces, one of which can grow a merfolk tail)
  • Voda (Shapeshifting sea humanoids)

Cursed souls are interesting, especially when comparing them to either the original revenant in Unearthed Arcana, or the recent Supernatural Gift: Hollow One in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. Instead of carving this out as a subrace, which limits what kind of revenant/cursed soul you can have, there is a list of traits that get carried over on a case by case basis. That means this option isn’t just limited to races that have subraces, but it also means that any races not covered in this document (which includes base D&D 5e races as well as the new races introduced in Seas of Vodari) will have to be converted as a house rule.

Some of the touches that I like for cursed souls include a “reason for curse” table, in case you can’t come up with a good idea on your own, and the roleplaying hooks that they may forget aspects of their life or remember them as a fact instead of as an experienced memory.

For anyone keeping track of myriad minotaurs at home, looking at both Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica and the Midgard Heroes Handbook versions, Vodari minotaurs get the seam statistic bonuses as both of those minotaur varieties, but they don’t get the charge feature of either. Ravnica doesn’t give them powerful build, which Vodari does, and in addition, they gain weapon training with some big, intimidating weapons. Not charging doesn’t particularly bother me in a primarily nautical campaign setting.

While some of the other options in this chapter are derived from external inspiration or extrapolated subraces (like the Sea Dwarf), Vodas are unique to the setting. They are a hidden people, that, due to their shapeshifting ability, can easily stay hidden. Living in remote locations, they venture out in disguise to learn about the rest of the world. That’s a great character hook.

Moving on to the Character Options chapter, we’ve got one new class, and a whole slew of subclasses introduced in this book:

  • Gunslinger (with Arcane Gunmaster, Musketeer, Pistolero, and Sniper subclasses)
  • Path of the Buccaneer (Barbarian subclass, a boarding party specialist)
  • College of Nature (Bard subclass, with special abilities based on favored terrain)
  • College of Shanties (Bard subclass, with coordination abilities)
  • Spirit Domain (Cleric domain representing polytheist abilities, with a spirit buddy to help)
  • Circle of the Deeps (Druid subclass, with the ability to crush and overwhelm foes)
  • Cannoneer (Fighter subclass, get your own personal cannon to carry around)
  • Corsair (Fighter subclass based on luck and the four winds)
  • Way of the Wild (Monk subclass, with animal-based stances)
  • Oath of Discovery (Paladin subclass, explorers that want to share new knowledge)
  • Stormcloak (Ranger subclass, which gets lightning powers from their closeness to storms)
  • Mask (Rogue subclass, all about being a masked vigilante, complete with sidekick)
  • Scoundrel (Rogue subclass, with special mechanical implementations for dirty tricks)
  • The Council (Warlock patron, representing a supernatural conglomeration that recruits the warlock as an agent)
  • School of Mistwalking (Wizard subclass, specializing in illusions and enchantments, as well as shifting around vision effects and changing form into mist)

In addition to the above, warlocks also get a new Pact Boon, the Pact of Ink, which lets them store a spell in a tattoo, and additional Invocations, which give the Warlock some benefits while they have particular types of spells stored in that tattoo.

I’m not always a fan of introducing new classes to 5e, even though every time I say this, I find another one that I want to include in my campaigns. That’s essentially the case here as well, as I like the ability to introduce subclasses to the gunslinger by making it its own class. The caster combo class is one that I think a lot of gunslingers in a fantasy setting are going to want to try out, just by virtue of “magic + guns.” The pistolero isn’t just good at using smaller firearms, but this is the subclass that gets access to experimental weapons at higher levels. Snipers are good at range, and then there is the musketeer.

I really like the musketeer, and if it wasn’t for the heavy reliance on firearms, I would love to try and convert this as a general “agent of the crown” subclass. All of the gunslinger subclasses get access to a resource called bravado, but the musketeer can spend this in social situations, and I love the idea of either using this to get out of trouble when undercover, or demanding that miscreants stand down in the name of the queen!

I can’t think of any of these subclasses I would have a hard time introducing into one of my games, as most of them fit some pretty traditional D&D themes that haven’t been fully addressed yet with official options. If I had this available when the campaign started, I may have even tried to talk my Eberron DM into allowing my orc bard to become a College of Nature bard.

A few of my favorites that I’d like to call out:

  • I enjoy the Spirit Domain, because it immediately puts me in mind of dwarves from both Dragon Age and Shadow of the Demon Lord, and their religion of ancestor worship (although the stated concept is more about polytheism than ancestor worship).
  • The idea of a council of supernatural beings choosing a warlock as an agent and champion strikes home really hard with me. That is, again, some really strong story flavor for a character right out of the gate.
  • I really like that the Oath of Discovery for paladins is framed as an oath with potential downsides, and a belief system attached to it. It would be very easy in a setting like Vodari to say, “I swear an oath to explore,” and that oath isn’t all that demanding. Adding the kicker that, “I’m going to share that knowledge, and lying is antithetical to exploring for new knowledge” is a great angle.

The only subclass that gives me any kind of hesitation, and this is more based on the story ramifications than the mechanical ramifications, is the cannoneer fighter. It doesn’t bother me to think of adventurers delving into an ancient ruin with rifles or pistols, but something seems very strange about dungeoneering with a portable cannon.

The next part of the chapter introduces new backgrounds, and new variant backgrounds for the setting. While these aren’t quite as revolutionary as the Epic Paths in Odyssey of the Dragonlords, they do a nice job of adding in more story depth with features that largely conform to the 5e standard. For example, Castaways and Revolutionaries can survive on less food than other characters, and there are variant sailors covering different positions or styles of sailors, like navigators, ship’s surgeons, and privateers. In addition, there are substitute bonds that are flavored for the campaign setting, providing 12 setting specific bonds. I would love to see more content like this in published settings, to help jump-start a connection between the character and the setting, I just wish there were more than 12 of them listed.

There are four new feats, all of which feel in line with 5e standards, usually offering a situational bonus and a small stat boost, flavored for nautical situations like fighting on a deck, diving, or being lightly armored. Additionally, there is a Firearms Expert feat that makes it easier to reload and shoot at short range.

Chapter V: Equipment, Chapter VI: Ships & Cannons, and Chapter VII: Magic Items and Spells

The equipment chapter reprints some weapons and armor from the core books, and adds a few specific items suited to the setting, such as uniforms, leather coats, or bucklers in the armor section, and grenades and simple and martial firearms in the weapon section. There is also a section that expands on what classes have proficiency in either simple or martial firearms in the setting.

Adventuring gear, tools, and trade goods that make sense for the nautical theme are added as well, but my favorite part of this section is the list of Seas of Vodari specific trinkets that are included.

Nine ships and six types of cannons are added in the next chapter. The ships are detailed in a manner that will look very familiar if you have seen the ship section of Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Ships have a size, crew and cargo capacity, travel pace, statistics, actions, and an armor class and hit point entry for each distinct section of the ship (in this case, with the individual cannons getting their own sections of the stat block).

Cannons work like other 5e siege weapons, with their own bonus to hit. Damage can range from 2d6 for the smallest cannons, to 10d10 for fortress mounted defensive cannons. Most cannons take three actions to load, aim, and fire, with their accuracy coming in at +6 to hit.

Firing cannons is going to get expensive, with individual cannon balls costing from 5 silver pieces up to 8 gold pieces, and also requiring anywhere from ½ pound to 8 pounds of gunpowder, sold in 100-pound barrels of 100 gold pieces a barrel. There are also specialized forms of ammunition, like grapeshot or bar and chain shot, for when you really want to mess with enemy crews or their masts.

There are hull, movement, weapon, figurehead, and miscellaneous upgrades for ships. Many of these imply magical modifications, such as sails that allow the captain to invoke seaborne ghosts to allow the ship to become incorporeal, or figureheads that can turn enemy crews to stone. The entries for these upgrades list a cost in gold pieces and several weeks for installation. The costs range from 5,000 gold to 25,000 gold. Ships are a great way to answer people asking what you use gold for in 5th edition D&D.

There are two kinds of example ships included in this section as well. There is a 12 entry chart providing a paragraph-long description of various ships giving a quick name, captain, and general goal for ships, and four more ships that have upwards of a half-page of description, giving multiple crew members, short histories, and ongoing goals for the ship and it’s crew.

The next chapter includes sample magic items for the setting, including magical firearms, pocket watches, compasses, bags of wind, goggles, sashes, lanterns, spyglasses, and other nautically themed magic items. Several of these magic items have thematic ways of recharging them instead of regaining their abilities at the dawn of the next day, such as soaking an item in alcohol for the night. Several legendary items represent the last remaining works of the Ancients, which involve various crowns, orbs, and one particularly sinister trinket that binds the user to an entity of the depths.

The last chapter in this section wraps up with new spells for Bards, Clerics, Druids, Rangers, Sorcerers, and Warlocks (sorry Paladins). The theme of most of these spells involve songs, mist, and water, with a few more that involve ghostly powers, magic guns, and the utilitarian Major Mending, for when you need to get your ship back in shape quickly.

Chapter VIII: Gamemaster Tools and Chapter IX: Allies and Adversaries

The first section in Gamemaster Tools involves duels, and providing extra support for running them. This includes establishing what dueling codes might look like in various regions, as well as how to mechanically model duels. The text specifically points out that this section doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so for the most part, duels work like regular D&D combat, except that a condition is set for the end of the duel.

In addition, this section introduces the concept of Duel Points, which are points that essentially act as a buffer to make sure that the duel isn’t over before everyone can attempt to do something cool. Duel points can be expended for advantage or a bonus to initiative, but until duel points are gone, hits remove duel points first before resolving regular combat.

This section also introduces new actions for combat, including Bind Weapon, Give Ground, Tackle, Tag, and Toss Debris. Binding a weapon is essentially a grapple to keep a weapon from being used, give ground allows a character to lower damage against them in exchange for backing up, and tackle is pretty much what it sounds like, you and/or an opponent are going to end up down in the dirt. Tag is a maneuver that does something intimidating to an opponent to make them more susceptible to being frightened, and toss debris lets you blind an opponent with pocket sand or whatever else you want to throw, but can only be used once per rest.

I like Bind Weapon, Give Ground, and Tackle, but I’m less sure about Tag and Toss Debris, mainly because they feel a little cumbersome. I get that the action described in the Tag option is very thematic for the genre, but not many martial classes get to do anything with a fear effect, so it feels weird to mark someone with a “Z” so your cleric or wizard can actually scare them. Toss debris just feels kind of weird because it’s limited per rest. I get that’s to keep it from being spammed, but it still feels strange in this context.

There are several forms of gambling outlined, including how to figure the payout for various games, which I appreciate, because I hate trying to figure out odds for gambling payouts on the fly, and it makes me much more likely to abstract gambling. Even if you do abstract things, this gives you a few setting specific games that characters are likely to indulge in.

There are random charts with paragraph-long descriptions for Inns and Taverns, Shops, Docks, Rumors, Weather, Sailing Encounters, Plunder, Captain’s Quarters, and Chase Complications. I really like the utility of these lists, although I have a few minor nits to pick. I have no idea how to use wind direction with wind speed to do anything useful in the game. There are mechanical effects listed for speed, but not direction, and I don’t know enough to wing it on my own. Also, in the copy of the PDF I’m working from, the captain’s quarter chart is switched with the chase complications chart, which means you can find a small whirlpool or an aquatic monster when you open the door to the captain’s cabin. Surprise!

The next chapter has stats for Allies and Adversaries, which means lots of stat blocks for monsters and NPCs. In fact, there are 36 pages of stat blocks in this section.

Many of these monsters may be expected for a nautical setting, like new sharks and eels (with some nice magical twists), coral golems, carnivorous plants, sea dragons, sea monsters, undead pirates, weresharks and wereorcas, and enormous while whales. There are also stats for beasts that make sense for this setting as well, such as monkeys, parrots, and crabs.

Among the more unique monsters are the Glass Menagerie, glass representations of animals that gain special abilities when they start to break down or when they shatter, and fey creatures that resemble otters, that serve an archfey opposed to the master of the Glass Menagerie. And then there are the Kallidus. My sweet little kallidus.

Kallidus are magical fish that can mentally control unintelligent sea creatures to do their bidding, and have minor telekinetic abilities. They use these gifts to build mech suits to TRY TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD! I love evil mad scientist fish. I didn’t know it until I read this book.

The NPC stat blocks provided use the new subclasses introduced earlier in the book as their basis. Since NPCs don’t need to be built the same way as PCs, I am actually a big fan of seeing what an NPC version of the class looks like, without giving them all of the unnecessary bits that a PC build would have.

If there is any particular oddity in the stat blocks, I think it may be that the Glass Menagerie and the fey that oppose them take up a lot of room, and all of that is connected to about one paragraph of story in the earlier section of the book. I don’t mind, it just seems to give a lot of weight to that particular story hook out of so many others.

Chapter X: Starter Adventure

I have always found starting adventures to be a potentially very important inclusion in setting books, in that they can serve to show your audience what you expect them to do with the setting you have just introduced. They need to hit your themes hard and bring home the feel of the setting, as well as showing the game facilitator what they should be including to capture the feel.

The weird bit about this adventure is that it both does and doesn’t do that. Vodari is clearly a setting focused on pirates, freebooters, and privateers doing their thing in a world that has the same assumptions as the D&D baseline. In this adventure, the PCs find a treasure map, worry about the crew of a rival ship, find a magically disappearing island, and deal with cursed undead pirates barring them from the treasure they have been seeking.

All of that is very on-point for the setting being presented, but it lacked just a few more “personal” touches from the setting itself. As written, this could be an adventure that takes place on the Sea of Fallen Stars in Faerun, or on the outskirts of the Blood Sea in Krynn, and the main thing you would have to change is the proper name of the deity whose temple exists on the island.

This is not a bad starting adventure at all, but I wish there was just a little more about THIS setting throw into it, like mad scientist fish or even just some roleplaying with the unique races from the setting. I don’t want to sound overly harsh, because this is a solid kickoff adventure, I just wanted a little more of the elements that make this setting what it is.

Hoist the Sails

Going in to this, I was curious at how much this book would feel like a unique fantasy setting, and how much it would feel like a third party mechanical expansion of d20 rules. As it stands, it’s a pretty solid mix of both, with many of the added mechanical elements working both in this setting, and being expansions that would make sense in other D&D settings. I am very glad that the setting isn’t just a means of facilitating nautical fantasy, but also adds in its own personality, like conflicts between gnomish subgroups, mad scientist fish, established goblin culture, and magical ship modifications.

The story hooks, tailored bonds, and customized backgrounds are exactly what campaign setting books should be doing. The dueling rules, most of the new actions, and the new character options give you a wide range of modular items to try out even outside of this setting.


Orcs still feel like they got the short end of the stick, being “mostly evil,” except for those that get exiled from their homes, and I wish they had the same level of depth added to their culture as the goblins. There is a lot of conflict in the setting based on cultural divisions that are not unique to, but could be seen as an extension of, ethnicity. While I personally disagree with the idea that any setting drama based on racial divisions should be excised, I do think that it is important to make sure that it is handled in a very careful, thoughtful way, and to that end, I wish the book had a few more sidebars regarding this, and on safety in general.

Recommended--If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

Early on, in reading through the setting material, I got it stuck in my brain that the setting was a mashup of Earthsea, Dragonlance, and 7th Sea, and while I was not disabused of this notion, I’m pretty happy that all of those elements were pretty evenly put into a blender to produce a unique concoction.

Generally speaking, this setting does a very good job of avoiding the pitfalls I’ve seen in other campaign setting books, where I have to dig to find out what the conflicts should be, and how much player characters are expected to engage with them.

If you are a 5th edition player or game facilitator that likes looking at well executed 3rd party mechanical options, there are so many in this book. If you are a 5th edition fan that just likes to see what you can do with a campaign setting that hasn’t been thematically explored in any of the existing WOTC material, I think you will likewise find information you will enjoy. It’s bright, colorful, fun, feels like D&D, while also feeling like a unique setting that has its own niche to carve out.