Sunday, November 27, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Age of Rebellion: Strongholds of Resistance

Daunting challenges of juggling work and family obligations nearing the holidays aside, I've finally made my way through the next book on my backlog. Feels kind of appropriate to finish reading and reviewing an Age of Rebellion book this close to the release of Rogue One.

One Moment In Time




Strongholds of Resistance came out in November of 2015. By this point in time, not only was the Disney acquisition old news, the Legends transition was old news, and The Force Awakens was nearly in theaters. In non-tabletop gaming news, this was also around the same time that EA's Battlefront was about to ship, which led to an interesting bit of (anti-)synergy.

To tie in with EA's Battlefront game, the Battlefront Twilight Company novel came out ("read the novel, so we don't need to do a story mode"). Although by the time of Strongholds of Resistance's publication we were well past Fantasy Flight including canon sidebars mentioning the sourcebook's place in the Expanded Universe, it still felt a bit odd to have this book come out about the same time as Twilight Company.



Specifically, Twilight Company goes into the liberation of Sullust and the timing of it, compared to the beginning of Return of the Jedi. While Strongholds of Resistance has lots of material gleaned from Legends as well as fully canon material, the Sullust description in Strongholds of Resistance leaned heavily on Legends material, which stood out compared to the Twilight Company novel. It doesn't affect the quality of the material or it's usefulness in game. It's still possible to tweak things a bit here and there to make both Twilight Company and Strongholds of Resistance true for a given campaign that you might be running, but the timing made the contrasting information stand out more.



The section on Chandrila takes some of it's history from the Rogue Squadron game on the N64, and the Tierfon Yellow Aces were reintroduced to current canon by the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary. The book also includes the G2 repair droids that first showed up in Disney's Star Tours ride, and while the G2s haven't made an appearance, the RX pilot droid showed up in an episode of Rebels. The history of Polis Massa as a Rebel base is part of the storyline of Battlefront II, back when Battlefront games had storylines. I'll stop now.



Crude Matter

Does anybody know what I'm going to say about the art, formatting, and general appearance of this book, based on what I've said about every other Fantasy Flight book I've reviewed so far? This one is no exception. In fact, the longer the Star Wars lines go on, the better they look, as more and more artwork is created and shared across the various card, board, miniatures, and RPG products. Like most of the "location sourcebooks," this book is 144 pages.

Introduction

After reviewing a few of the adventures, I had gotten used to the opening fiction tying directly into the plot of the adventure, or for it to introduce NPCs from the adventure. This isn't an adventure, so the one page digression into fiction is a first person account of an Imperial spy infiltrating a Rebel base.

Since this isn't an adventure, the introduction, in general is a bit short. It just mentions what chapters are coming up, and what the book is about--in this case, worlds sympathetic to the Rebel Alliance, and bases from which they operate. The chapters include Worlds in Revolt, Hidden Bases, Player Options, and Modular Encounters. Unlike Suns of Fortune and Lords of Nal Hutta, this book doesn't detail one region of the galaxy, but is more thematically based, jumping all around the galaxy.

Worlds in Revolt

Despite the title, these are worlds that have some kind of Rebel sympathy, but most of them aren't technically in revolt. There are in-depth profiles on Chandrila, Kinyen, Mon Cala, Sullust, Ord Gimmel (introduced by this book), the Roche Asteroid Field, Thyferra, Yavin 4, and the Independence (the Mon Cal cruiser that served as the flagship for the Alliance before Home One was constructed). There are also a few paragraphs each on Barkhesh, Chardaan, Contruum, Hoth, Kolaador, Mygeeto, New Alderaan, Sanctuary, Talay, and Vergesso Base.

There are a ton of adventure hooks in this section. That said, I wish there had been a more specific section that detailed potential adventures or campaigns on each of these worlds. For many of them, the adventures almost write themselves. although the idea of Rebels stranded on Yavin 4 after the evacuation is such a good one that I would love to have it as a full-blown alternate option to start Age of Rebellion campaigns.

Chandrila and Kinyen are a bit odd. Chandrila has a lot of potential for sneaking dissidents off world, attempting to break the blockade, and smuggling food and supplies on and off world. Unfortunately, a lot of the space on Chandrila presents the world in a bit more of a gazetteer fashion, rather than "why is it interesting in an Age of Rebellion game," and the planet comes across as a planetary Whole Foods that also exports debate club members and extemporaneous speakers. Kinyen is interesting, from the point of view of examining the Gran, their religion, and how all of that interacts, but it feels like it has the least direct connection to the Rebellion of all these worlds, except that some of the priests kind of like the Alliance. Even at that, Kinyen is a fun read, and Chandrila, in the sections where it talks about blockades and spies and the like, has a lot of adventure potential.

Of particular note for fans of creatures that showed up in the movies--this book has several well known creatures from The Empire Strikes Back statted out. Wampas and tauntauns show up in the paragraphs on Hoth, and the Roche Asteroid Field entry has stats for exogorths (space slugs) and mynocks.

Hidden Bases

This part feels like the strongest section of the book. There are several bases presented, and for each base, the size of the base, its general function, an NPC found at that base, and a few adventure suggestions are presented. Not only do I really like this format, but it also creates a nice template for the GM to capture the purpose and feel of bases that they might make on their own.



Echo Base, Polis Massa Base, Tierfon Outpost, and Defiant Core Base (created for this book) are all presented. Defiant Core deviates a bit from the way the other three bases are presented, in that the base is presented in multiple stages of development. This allows the PCs to either go on missions specifically to expand the base with resources, or to check in on the base between missions, and to see it develop as a means of seeing time pass in the overall campaign.

Each base also has a "Consequences of Discovery" section that deals with how the Empire might find it and what the PCs might have to do to get out safely and potentially salvage whatever the Alliance might need from that base. The Echo Base section essentially covers alternate things your PCs might be doing if they are stationed on Hoth during The Empire Strikes Back.



One of the things that struck me about this chapter is that you could definitely show the progression of the Galactic Civil War by the way that you stationed the PCs in the game, had bases discovered and evacuated, and introduced new bases. Just following the bases presented and the sample adventures (which are only a few paragraphs each, but have some good ideas), you have half a campaign structure right there.

Player Options




Polis Massans, Quarren, and Verpine are presented as player character species in this chapter. As with some other species presented in these books, the Polis Massans and Verpine aren't exactly common species in the galaxy, but unlike, say, the Drall and the Selonians in Suns of Fortune, who don't have much of a reason to leave the Corellian system, Polis Massans and Verpine have logical reasons for being Age of Rebellion PCs. All of the species seem to have some fun abilities and traits based on the information about that race, and none of them have a bonus so good that they seem better than any other similar species at a given task (I'm looking at you, Corellian humans).

If you have always wanted a ton of Mon Cal weapons, armor, gear, vehicles, and ships, this is your chapter. I have to admit wanting to see a Mon Cal run around in powered armor myself. Beyond that, a lot of the gear is either general "useful to Rebels" gear, or gear that might have a tie in to one of the worlds presented in the book.



Two oddities jump out at me. The Verpine Heavy Shatter Rifle (a Verpine railgun) does a whole lot of damage and uses the gunnery skill. While it's very, very expensive, it also isn't cumbersome, meaning that an average to low strength person with ranks in Gunnery can just tote this thing around, not mounted to a vehicle, and shoot it all day long without penalty. The other oddity is the Blaster Suppressor, which mentions a "stifling effect" on range and damage for weapons with the attachment installed, but doesn't give any actual stat modifications that indicate this. The book also introduces some interesting "stealth" but not "cloaked" stealth fighters and light freighters, and quantifies how that would work in the rules.

With the exception of a few hiccups, it's a pretty solid chapter, and with equipment like organic gills, repair droids that talk more than they work, false voice transmitters, and comlinks that can talk to some species directly in their brains, there is a lot more than just power gaming gear--there is some fun roleplaying material as well.

Modular Encounters

Like all of the "location sourcebooks" so far, this book has modular encounters. These are multi-page adventure ideas that aren't quite full adventures, but wouldn't take much effort to make into one, and can be dropped into other adventures fairly easily.

This time, all of the modular adventures are tied to locations explored elsewhere in the book, with adventures near Polis Massa, Mon Cala, Sullust, and Ord Gimmel.



A few things make these modular encounters stand out from some of the other ones that have appeared. First, different locations are definitely geared towards different specialties. Polis Massa favors fighter pilots. Mon Cala favors diplomats. Sullust and Ord Gimmel have a lot of stealth, slicing, and sabotage built into their plots. While it makes them individually a little less functional, the individual modular encounters all feel a little more meaty, and closer to full adventures than some in the past.

Polis Massa's adventure picks up almost immediately after a significant event mentioned for that base, and Ord Gimmel and the Mon Cala modular encounters further expound on the current state of those worlds. In fact, if you were wondering why Mon Cala isn't available for a full blown Rebel base if they just threw out the Empire, the modular encounter helps to explain that.

The Sullust mission feels a little strange to me. Essentially you are wrecking a bunch of SoroSuub's stuff in order to convince them that it's more trouble than it's worth for them to take Imperial contracts. While the SoroSuub agent introduced in the modular encounter is mentioned as being a former Imperial, how the PCs would find this out isn't really mentioned. The missions boil down to damaging a neutral party's stuff so they won't deal with your enemies, which feels a lot more like full blown terrorism than most Rebel missions do. I'm not so much against that kind of thing being brought up, but I wish the book had spent more time discussing the moral implications of this, and how this might be viewed inside the Alliance itself by different parties.

I really like the diplomatic mission to Mon Cala to keep the planet from falling into another civil war. I like that the Mon Cala aren't presented as the obvious good guys when it comes to their conflicts with the Quarren, the way some older Legends materials seemed to imply. That said, I really wish there were a few more mechanical tools in this modular encounter rather than just broad suggestions about what the ISB agent would be doing.

I really like the idea that there are names, motivations, and personality traits for a lot of the Imperials, even if they tend to be a bit two dimensional. My only nit pick would be that I would love to have a few more suggestions on how to introduce those names and personalities to the PCs in game, so they have a face to put on the leadership of the Empire while opposing it.

In fact, my biggest complaint about this chapter is that most of these modular encounters were intriguing enough that I wish they had been fleshed out as longer adventures on their own. I know I could do that, but I want to pick the quick and easy path, dang it.

Imperials Have Entered the Base




The biggest down sides to this book are that there are a lot of really good ideas that are only briefly introduced. A few pages on Chandrila and Kinyen feel like they could be sacrificed to flesh out the good stuff a little more. The early section of the book could have used more of the suggested adventure treatment and how to use this at the table advice that the bases chapter got. A few places begging to be further developed didn't get the attention that the ideas warranted, due to the format of the book.

Woo Hoo!




While there are some ideas that could have been fleshed out, because they were so good--those good ideas are still in the book. There are a ton of adventure hooks in this book. The base chapter provides lots of structural ideas for a campaign. The modular encounters can serve as full blown adventure seeds more easily than some. The development of Defiant Core base is a great way to model progressing time in an ongoing campaign. Mon Cala wearing powered armor, carrying torpedo launchers and spears that shoot laser beams!

Pulling Down the Statue

This is a very solid book. If you plan on running an Age of Rebellion campaign and want any kind of flexibility in campaign structure, this is going to support that very well. It's not quite as perfect for Age of Rebellion games as Lords of Nal Hutta seems to be for Edge of the Empire games, but it is still pretty close to being the best opening "setting" book you could hope for.

**** (out of 5)


















Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Sly Flourish's The Lazy Dungeon Master

I love discussion about running games. I mean, I love actually gaming, and talking about game sessions, and rules, and settings. But I also really enjoy discussing the act of running a game. What it takes, what can happen, best practices, and what can go wrong are all things that fascinate me.



In fact, you would think that as much as I read blogs and books, and listen to podcasts on the topic of running games, I'd be better at it. I can only think about how abominable I'd be if I didn't zoom out and think about the overall act--in the abstract--once in a while.

Because I love discussing the practices of the hobby, I've accumulated a few books about running games, and I always look for more. I can't tell you when I actually picked up the book that I'm reviewing in this post, except to say that I'm pretty sure I purchased this after 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons was announced, but before it was actually released.

Thankfully, the epub version of this book was fairly easy to digest in between taking care of Adult Responsibilities, so I could actually sneak this in while working on another book that I only have in physical form (which limits the places where I can sneak in a read).



Sly Fourish's The Lazy Dungeon Master was published in 2012, towards the end of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition's lifespan. The book itself doesn't have a lot of artwork adorning it, but it has a nice professional cover, and is professionally organized and set up, at least in the epub form that I read.

Because there are a lot of smaller chapters, I'm going to break the book into the main body, a discussion of a few points from the main body of the book, and the appendicies that come at the end of the book.

The Main Body

There is a wide range of advice in the book, revolving around doing less prep work and the practices that can make running games less arduous for a DM. There is also a discussion of what prep work actually yields the best results at the table, and some specific practices to utilize.

The book looks at games at the encounter, session, and campaign level, and tackle topics like what you need to know to keep a game moving, how much to improvise, and how much to delegate to players in order to free up time and energy for the DM.



Because there are numerous small chapters, and some topics are relevant at the encounter, adventure, and campaign level, there is a bit of repetitive advice. Additionally, there are a few digressions into 4th edition D&D specific issues, but those digressions don't last too long.

Callouts from the Main Body of Text

The section on utilizing index cards in specific ways to plan adventures, NPCs, and campaign arcs is very good, solid advice, and is widely applicable. It's relevant to just about any game except those where the GM isn't going to be primarily responsible for the overall narrative.

There is a section on delegating tasks to various players that could be useful. Depending on the particular game, some of the tasks delegated won't work as well. While many editions of D&D assume you aren't going to divulge defense scores for monsters, for example, there are fewer mechanics that get muddied if you reveal them to players in 4th edition than in 5th edition, as an example.

An opinion is stated that published adventures might be as much work to utilize as just creating a campaign from scratch, and there is a link to a Gnome Stew article by the always-interesting Phil Vecchione, but once this link is established, there isn't much of a discussion supporting the opinion posited in the link, and there isn't much further discussion of using published adventures.

While the opinion is perfectly valid, and there are other GM advice books that handle the topic, the main reason this jumps out at me is that several of the Dungeon Masters that discuss their best practices later in the book cite using published adventures to save time in prep, which seems to contradict this section of the book.

Dungeon Master's Toolkit

The first appendix in the book is a collection of lists to help a DM generate ideas for adventure plots, NPC names, events, and random items, to kickstart the imagination. These lists have a lot of solid ideas in them, but all of them are relatively short. They are useful and well written, but there are definitely more extensive toolkits available both online and in other books. What is here, however, is very useful.

Dungeon Master's Survey

The next appendix collects statistics showing where DMs that responded spent their time, regarding preparation of games. While it was interesting to see the author back up his assertions about where and when to spend time and effort, the raw numbers aren't particularly riveting. They definitely serve to reinforce the credibility of the author and underscore the effort that went into the book.

Dungeon Master's Preparation Survey

The final appendix in the book is actually my favorite part of the work. A collection of DMs that have worked as freelancers, have a presence on the web, or both appear in this section, answering some specific questions about prep time and how they handle running their games.

There are some really interesting discussions of where to devote time, and even the strengths and weaknesses of the various DMs and what they do in order to compensate for those weaknesses and to play up their strengths.

I actually wish this section of the book were longer. That said, because each DM survey is presented in the same way, in the same order, the structure feels a bit repetitive, even if the answers are all very interesting. I'm not sure if it would have helped to have given all the DM answers for each question at once, or if that would have ruined the "flow" of understanding their point of view.

Regardless, that's a minor quibble on my part, as the most valuable part of the appendix is the actual DM ruminations.

All Nighter

Some of the advice in the earlier sections of the book can be repetitive. There are a few digressions on 4th edition specific issues that won't apply to people not running D&D 4th edition. While professional, some of the organization makes the information feel a bit dry, especially in the appendix.

Roll Out of Bed and Run The Game

The specific discussion of how to utilize index cards to plot encounters, adventures, and NPCs in the campaign is immediately useful to a wide range of games. The DM survey answers are informative and entertaining to read beyond their functionality. Most of the body of the game advice is very conversational and easy to digest.

Dice On The Table



The DM advice section felt like a very solid three star product to me, but coupled with the DM survey answers, the book suddenly gained a lot more potential functionality for GMs, like me, that are obsessive about discussing the meta aspects of running the game.

**** (out of 5)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Dungeons and Dragons--Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide

When I first picked up the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, I rushed to a few pages to see what the status of a few things were in the 5th edition Realms, read a few entries pertaining to regions I had always enjoyed, and never gave it the full cover to cover treatment. What I read made me happy, but I didn't get a chance to return to the book as I had intended.



As in the previous review, I'm going to fully disclose my propensities, developed over decades of gaming. I love the Forgotten Realms, although the closer you get to the Old Grey Boxed Set, the deeper my affection. Despite my affection, even in 2nd edition, I started to cringe at the "we're only changing the proper nouns, and otherwise we're adding huge sections of Earth into the Realms" expansions. While Zhakara and Kara-Tur had their own high fantasy elements that I enjoyed, and felt they were unique, Maztica, the Hordelands, and the Old Empires were all a bit "on the nose" for my enjoyment.



Initially I enjoyed 3rd edition, but it started to become evident that many elements of the setting were being altered to fit game design considerations, and I came to loathe important NPCs being given stats. "Elves are a PC race, so they can't be in Retreat, let's end that." "Dwarves are a PC race, they can't be dying out, let take away a strong roleplaying element for the race." "Elminster can't do that, because he doesn't have the right feat for it."

There was also a bit of a drift in the way the novels handled things. Early Realms novels depicted average adventurers doing typical things in the Realms and solving local problems. Plots went from saving a city or an important person to saving a nation, continent, or an entire plane of existence. Protagonists went from being adventurers and operatives to being Heroes, and having the same Heroes show up over and over again, even if they were just in the background of a story.

You can find on this blog my skepticism about the revamped Realms and about 5th edition D&D. If WOTC hadn't released the Basic rules for free, I might never have changed my mind.



Seeing things reversed in the Realms made me happy in a lot of ways, but I mention all of that to point out that I have my biases, and I've had a relationship with the setting for a long time. I don't think that makes my opinion invalid, but it does mean I can't completely separate my view of things from my experiences.

What Is It?

Aside from the free Elemental Evil Companion released as a PDF, the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide is the first book outside of the Core rules (until the recent release of Volo's Guide to Monsters) that wasn't an adventure. The formatting of the book is appealing, and the artwork is high quality and professional, but like Storm King's Thunder, there are a few somewhat jarring styles clashing in the book. Clear utilitarian maps appear aside more "in world" seeming cartography, and artwork that is new and closer to the style used in core books appears along with some previous edition recycled art that has the "glossier" appearance used at the time. The book is 159 pages.

Where Did It Come From?

Like Out of the Abyss, which came out just before the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, this book was developed by Green Ronin. This continued the trend of 5th edition books utilizing 3rd party developers staffed by freelancers familiar with D&D, the others being Kobold Press and Sasquatch Game Studio.

Now that we've talked about my baggage, and what and where the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide came from, let's dig into the contents of the book.



Chapter One

This chapter is pretty sprawling in what it covers. There is a quick overview of countries that the guide isn't primarily covering, but which are important enough to the overall setting to mention.The book updates the status of many of these nations after the Sundering, the cosmic reboot button that rolls back a lot of the changes that happened to the setting in the 4th edition era, without rolling the actual clock back on the date. There is also a section that covers the history of the Realms in broad strokes. It doesn't go into specific dates, but does create a few general epoch and gives the highlights of that portion of time.

There is a section on magic in the Realms, which generally just talks about how people view magic, the theory of how magic works, and then oddly zooms in to explain Mythals, the special form of Elven High Magic that creates persistent magical effects across an entire region. Again, all of this is in broad strokes, but doesn't go too deeply into number crunching or hard rules.

Religion in the Realms is the next section in this chapter. There is a general discussion on foreign (to a given reality) gods showing up in the Realms, and what death means to gods. Essentially this information seems to be here to tell you up front that no matter how firmly a product may have claimed a god's death, it probably isn't true.

The topics of religions institutions and priesthoods are also covered, with a much better, clearer takeaway that while many people have a patron deity, most people in the Realms worship multiple gods. Patron deities are usually just the "most commonly invoked" god on a list. This has been mentioned by Ed Greenwood many times when discussing the setting, but often seems to get missed by designers of the setting.

The final part of the chapter gives the list of various gods in the Realms, with charts showing their areas of interest, aligments, and domains, and paragraphs giving some information on the gods. Much of this section says about what you would expect of many of the deities, but here and there the book provides some details about the daily worship and beliefs of the faithful that can be useful to "worshipper level" roleplaying.



Overall, functionally, this chapter is kind of needed for people running (and designing) in the Realms, letting you know what country and gods exist for sure after the upheaval of 4th edition and the Spellplague. That said, the chapter is a little frustrating. While I don't expect solid, definitive answers, many returning gods don't even have myths or rumors covering their return to life or their miraculous survival. What the Sundering is isn't really clearly explained, other than that "it's a big cosmic thing that happened and now things are like this."

While it was hinted by designers and in the Sundering novels that Ao might have reset the Realms after allowing the upheavals to teach the gods a lesson, or that the worlds just naturally drifted apart again after a time of conjunction, strictly reading only the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, it is strongly hinted that the Sundering is the recurring consequence of the Elven High Magic Ritual that brought Evermeet to the material plane from Arvandor and the Feywild simultaneously.

It's almost like no one really wants to address the actual Sundering, it's just a code word for walking back some of the bigger changes made to the setting in 4th edition. The overall feeling is almost like the months right after DC published Crisis on Infinite Earths, where different writers and editors couldn't seem to agree on how much of the pre-Crisis world the protagonists of various comics actually remembered. Let's hope there isn't a Realmsian equivalent of Zero Hour coming to clarify things.

Chapter Two

Chapter two details what the book's title has already clued us in on--this is a more detailed guide to the Sword Coast, specifically. What makes this section different from the previous chapter, and from a lot of other campaign sourcebooks, is that all of the information is provided by characters in the setting, from their perspectives. This means that the information is provided by unreliable narrators, and some of them even mention their own biases as they present information in the book.

The voices in this section are a Lord's Alliance Agent who was once a Knight in Silver from Silverymoon, talking about the formal adherents of the Lord's Alliance, a retired dwarven warrior discussing the dwarfholds of the North, an old gnome sailor discussing the Island Kingdoms off the coastline, the Independent Realms being covered by an elf ranger from Evereska, and the Underdark, as presented by a half-orc former slave. Most of the information is pretty straight forward, but each section has a few digressions that play up the voice and perspective of the chronicler in question.



This chapter, taken by itself, is a pretty compelling read. If you were familiar with the Realms from previous editions, changes to various regions are discussed in a nice historical progression, instead of abrupt "everything you know is wrong" manner. There are, in equal measure, adventure hooks for Dungeon Masters and character hooks to work into player character origins for players.

If some of this information had been "gamified" a bit more, with some "meta" sidebars explaining the themes, types of adventures, and ongoing story arcs of some of these areas, this chapter could have been perfect. As it is, it's good, and does what the best Realms products have done--made the Realms feel like a place where people actually live.

Chapter Three

This section goes into the races of the Realms. There are a few new sub-races detailed for player character use, such as duergar and deep gnomes, and a few new options for half-elves and tieflings that allow them to customize themselves a bit more based on their heritage. Oddly, while half-elves can customize to reflect that they are half aquatic elf, aquatic elves are not, themselves presented. In fact, many of the previous edition elf sub-races are presented in a sidebar that essentially calls them out as being so rare as to be almost mythical in the current age.

The halfling sub-race information adds Ghostwise halflings into the mix as a PC option, and also seems to find a middle ground between the wanderlusting 4th edition halfling travelers and adventures, and the more hobbit-like halflings of previous editions. This is done by assigning those traits to different sub-races.



There isn't a lot of new ground covered for the non-human races, but the best section from a setting or roleplaying point of view is probably the new human ethnicities introduced. While many of them already existed in the setting previously, they serve to make humanity even more diverse than presented in the Player's Handbook, and also introduce a few more languages to flesh out the languages spoken across the continent and beyond.

Chapter Four

Chapter four details classes and information about classes specific to the Forgotten Realms. This takes form in two different ways. Many (but not all) classes have a new "archetype" presented that is nominally related to something in the Realms, and just about every class has a section detailing that particular class and how it functions and is viewed in the setting.

Barbarians, clerics, fighters, monks, paladins, rogues, sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards all get new options in this section. Some, like the monk options, are very much rooted in existing material, translated to 5th edition rules. Others, like the Purple Dragon Knight options for the fighter, really don't have much to do with Purple Dragon Knights at all. In fact, they give the archetype the alternate name of Banneret for use with non-Purple Dragon Knight characters. This is probably more appropriate anyway, since the main thrust of this sourcebook, the Sword Coast, doesn't actually include Cormyr.

Some of the roleplaying information provided about the classes, like the location of bardic colleges and their current status, and the druid information, which further reinforces the polytheistic nature of most of the Realms religious adherents, is pretty interesting. It just doesn't feel as if the same level of effort was put into the setting information on all of the classes. There is even a sidebar about arcane casters, saying that most people don't differentiate between Warlocks, Sorcerers, and Wizards and that they all view each other as colleagues, that is directly contradicted by the material in the individual class information.

The chapter wraps up with some cantrips that are aimed at combat, doing thunder, fire, lightning, and force damage. They are pretty potent for cantrips, and they don't really have a specific tie to the Realms. They aren't even named for a particular Realmsian spellcaster  to create a tenuous link.

Chapter Five

Chapter five details new backgrounds for players to choose for their characters. Most of the backgrounds, with the exception of the Far Traveler, utilize traits from other backgrounds, while providing proficiencies, languages, equipment, and features tailored to the new background.

A wider range of backgrounds is nice, but none of them is particularly Realmsian in nature. There are sections where Realms specific examples of the background are given, but many of those are very broad, and a lot of them range much further than the Sword Coast.

Appendix

While Out of the Abyss, Curse of Strahd, and Storm King's Thunder seem to have dropped this section, Princes of the Apocalypse and the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide both had sections on adapting the material to other settings.

In general, most of the class options and backgrounds were already sufficiently broad that they don't need a lot of conversion to make them work. That said, I'm not sure the conversion work is as valuable as it might have been.

As an example, discussions of Battleragers and Bladesingers for other settings seem to imply that those types of characters are native to the Realms, when both were introduced in 2nd edition as race, not setting, specific options. The section on converting the monk material to Dragonlance implies that there are two monastic orders in the setting, mentioning Sargonnas and Zivilyn, and completely skipping over Majere--the god of monks.

It's a short section, but it's not overly useful given the broad applications of most of the mechanical options presented.

The First Flowering

The book does a good job of presenting the present era of the Forgotten Realms for DMs and players. There are lots of useful plot threads and character hooks in the book, especially in chapter two. While a few of the mechanical options in chapter four aren't stellar, there are still some interesting options, and the broader range of backgrounds for PCs from chapter five are a nice touch, as backgrounds are one of my favorite aspects of 5th edition.

The Spellplague

The book has a lot of good material that should have been followed up on with more "meta" discussion about how to use the material at the table. Instead, space for that material was taken up by generic mechanical options and rehashed material. Given that sourcebooks seem to be few and far between in the marketing plan of 5th edition, using pages of what might be the only campaign setting books for years to present very generic D&D options seems like a lost opportunity.

The Tablets of Fate

This is not a bad book. Chapter two makes it worth the read, especially if you like the Forgotten Realms, and if you don't plan on just playing the published adventures, the extra information on the Realms is much more relevant to your game.

The book really suffered from serving two masters. Introducing more generic D&D material in the book ate up space that could have been dedicated to suggested adventures, discussions of themes, rumors, and sample encounters for various regions. Perhaps the book suffers in my eyes because I read Storm King's Thunder cover to cover before this book, and saw the way that it presents the character of many locations in the Savage Frontier with NPCs and suggested encounters.

The book is worth the money, but I can't fully get over the feeling that it could have gone from "okay" to "really good" if it had been more focused on being an actual sourcebook and campaign guide, instead of being required to hit the check boxes of "what is back in the Realms," "why you want this if you don't play in the Realms," and "oh, yeah, it's also a sourcebook for campaigns."

*** (out of five)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sometimes A Giant Can Use a Kobold's Help

I have a lot of Kobold Press material. I love the Midgard Campaign Setting, but unfortunately, I haven't had much of a chance to use the setting itself. Currently, it's easier for me to use a published adventure set in the Realms than to build a campaign from the ground up. Not only do I have the structure already in place with the adventure, but decades of being a Realms fan (and 5th edition hitting the reset button a bit) have made it easy enough for me to act like I know what I'm doing with less prep time.



That said, as I look through the Kobold Press library that I have, I can see a lot of potential for people that might be running Storm King's Thunder to insert some "Kobold Enhancements." So I'm just going to call out a few items from a couple of products that could be used to reinforce the themes of the adventure.

And before you go any further, there will be some spoilers for Storm King's Thunder in this post.

First off, Giants are noted in Volo's Guide to Monsters as being more likely to learn rune magic than to dabble with the arcane traditions of wizardry, with the exception of Cloud and Storm Giants. Stone Giants are exceptionally versed with rune magic. The only problem is, rune magic isn't really a thing in 5th edition as of this writing. There are a few magic items in the adventure that play with runes in an interesting way, but that's assuming that giants make the runic items "offscreen."



Thankfully, Kobold Press has a 5th edition compatible product that is all about rune magic, Deep Magic--Rune Magic. In fact, right at the beginning of the product it mentions that some monsters might be attuned to certain runes and gain the benefits of the feats contained in the product for runes especially appropriate to their nature.

Some of the Giant leaders are essentially normal giants of their type with a few more hit points thrown into the mix. Giving some of the giant leaders access to appropriate runes is a way to make them stand out even more than the added durability of extra hit points. There are runes grant those who understand it's power additional radiant damage, granted by their gods, the ability to control weather, extra lightning damage and a strength bonus, and a host of other effects that would make sense for various Giant leaders.

Suggested Runes for Giant Types

Stone--Algiz, Ansuz, Berkanan, Eiwaz, Fehu, Gebu, Jera, Naudiz, Nykoping, Wunjo

Frost--Fehu, Hagalaz, Isaz, Raido, Tewaz, Turisaz

Fire--Ingwaz, Kaunen, Otalan, Sowilo, Turisaz

Cloud--Ansuz, Berkanan, Dagaz, Gebu, Hagalaz, Isaz, Jera, Naudiz, Nykoping, Otalan, Perto, Sowilo, Turisaz, Wunjo

Storm--Ansuz, Berkanan, Dagaz, Eiwaz, Gebu, Hagalaz, Ingwaz, Isaz, Jera, Laukaz, Mannaz, Naudiz, Nykoping, Otalan, Raido, Tewaz, Turisaz, Wunjo

Tome of Beast Substitutions

I love D&D monsters, but let's face it, some of them get used for similar roles a lot. On top of that, it's just fun to throw in new monsters once in a while. The Tome of Beasts has lots and lots of new monsters.



If you, like me, have seen a veritable legion of bugbears since running 5th edition D&D, you might consider substituting the Ratfolk Rogue from the Tome of Beasts for a few of them. Sneaky ambushers, and nothing about them makes them seem incompatible with the other monsters in Faerun (assuming you are running Storm King's Thunder in the Realms). Standard Ratfolk can stand in for goblins, and closer to the colder regions, the Fraughashar can stand in for Hobgoblins. Replacing goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears with animal folk and fey creatures also gives the adventure a slightly more fairy tale feel to it.

Giant-kin in the Realms (creatures with the giant type that aren't Hill, Stone, Frost, Fire, Cloud, or Storm Giants) are considered the bastard offspring of Annam's wife Othea, and they don't get treated very well by True Giants. Because of this, lots of Giant-kin could be pressed into service of evil giants, and either swapped out for some of the encounters in the Giant lairs, or added into random encounters as the player characters move across the North. Forest Marauders, Lake Trolls, and Trollkin Reavers all work in this capacity, as does the Corrupted Ogre Chieftain in Appendix A.

The Hunt Lords at Noanar's Hold are described as wights that ride warhorse skeletons, but the Ghost Knight in Appendix A of the Tome of Beasts is ready made for the description given for the Hunt Lords.



If the player characters accept the dragon Klauth's offer of the cultist crewed airship, the cultists don't have much personality, as presented. While the GM could work to add some individual personalities, it might also be worth it to leave the cultists as the "straight men" on the ship, and add in an Ash Drake or a Crimson Drake, who act as Klauth's supervisor among the cultists. The smaller creatures can get comically overblown egos as they boss around the crew or even butt heads with the PCs throughout their travels.

The original Twilight Giants novels included a rank in the Ordening above even the Storm Giants, that being the Titans, although the Titans weren't terrestrial dwelling giants. While the main adventure doesn't mention the Titans (probably because Titans got a bit confusing between 4th edition and previous editions--the Monster Manual even calls traditional titans Empyreans instead of Titans), it can easily be reintroduced into the storyline. Titans could have been cast out of their celestial homes as well, which gives the GM an excuse to use the Degenerate Titans from the Tome of Beasts.

Flab Giants can be introduced as simply fatter, less active Hill Giants, and they fit the theme of Hill Giants and consumption. Desert Giants fit the broad thematic tone of most of the "classic" true giants. While the Jotun presented in the Tome of Beasts are a bit outside of the scope of the adventure, Thursir Giants could easily be Giant-kin that are pressed into service by the other Giant types, especially the Frost Giants, who avoid forgework themselves due to the heat.

Also--this adventure is in the North. Lots of mountains. Potentially lots of snow. Find a way to use Bearfolk. I don't care how. Bearfolk are awesome.



Anyway, even if you aren't using Kobold Press' really awesome campaign setting, it might be worth it to look into some of their products if you want to swap out the more commonplace elements with something new, but still appropriately thematic.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Dungeons and Dragons--Storm King's Thunder

Technically, I'm still working on the backlog. I picked this book up not too long ago, and instead of playing Princes of the Apocalypse with my Thursday night online game, we decided to go with Storm King's Thunder instead. So why not double dip and get the cover to cover review done while I'm reading the adventure for my group?


First off, let me just throw out my total lack of objectivity on a few subjects. The first edition supplement The Savage Frontier is one of my favorite Forgotten Realms accessories, followed closely by the second edition supplements Volo's Guide to the North and The North boxed set. The Icewind Dale PC games were some of my all time favorite CRPGs (I know it's heresy, but I love it more than Baldur's Gate), and I have had a deep, abiding love of Frost Giants since before I ever read a D&D rulebook, dating back to the first issue of Thor I ever laid eyes on.



Giants as a theme to a series of adventures is a tradition in Dungeons and Dragons. Way back in the beginning, the Against the Giants series had adventurers defending the Grand Duchy of Geoff from Giant invasion. In second edition Dungeons and Dragons, after Troy Denning wrote the Twilight Giants series of novels set in the Forgotten Realms, the Forgotten Realms product Giantcraft was produced. While it's likely that WOTC wanted to evoke some of the classic feel of Against the Giants in this product, much of the lore on giants, such as the ancient kingdom of Ostoria, and the Ordening, are firmly rooted in established Realms giant-lore.



Storm King's Thunder just came out this year (2016), and is a hardcover book that is 256 pages. In general, it is an attractive book, but there are some things to note. Probably more than any other 5th edition book so far, the art style varies a bit. None of the art is bad, all of it fits the theme of the book, but it isn't quite as consistent as the art in Princes of the Apocalypse. The cartography is all over the place. The maps are usable, and present the information that the DM will need to run the adventure, but for no particular reason, some maps are very bare bones affairs, while others are closer to artistic representations on their own. Certainly not a deal breaker, but it feels a little odd when compared with some of WOTC's other offerings.

Dramatis Personae

Right up front, the book presents a Dramatis Personae, listing all of the main NPCs in the adventure, and I love it. It is a great reference for DMs that need to refresh their memories on who all of the movers and shakers are in the adventure.

Introduction



The background puts the adventure in context with other events going on in the Realms (in this case, the Tyranny of Dragons adventures). It also introduces the politics of the giants, a run down of the giant lords involved in the adventure and their plots. The factions and how they relate to the ongoing narrative (including a faction that is important and not one that PCs will probably belong to), also appear in this section.

There are sidebars on the Forgotten Realms calendar and when the adventure is assumed to take place, and a nice spread of some giant runes and what they mean, as well as portraits or pictures of the giant lords involved.

There is a section on running the adventure that includes a flow chart showing how the chapters are related to one another. The default assumption of the adventure is to use "milestone" advancement, where characters gain levels based on achieving certain goals, rather than gaining XP, but the adventure should be able to support both (but see Chapter One for more details). There is also a note on treasure. Many of the treasures indicate magic items, but only by what chart to roll on (intentionally, to allow for more flexibility), and a chart for determining the random bits that might be found in a giant's bag.

Chapter One



The first chapter is an optional low level adventure for people that want to start the adventure with brand new characters. The set up is that  PCs are sent to a town and discover that it has been attacked by giants, overrun by goblins, and the locals have gone to ground in nearby caves. The goal is to clear out the town and save the people, but there are a few steps in between.

The goblins are largely played for laughs in this section. Just about all of them have names, which might encourage roleplaying over complete eradication.There are opportunities to interact with Zhentarim agents. In the caves you can possibly cut a deal with one goblin willing to sell out her chief, as well as negotiate with the chief himself for the release of prisoners.

What stands out to me is that, while this adventure isn't written to be "dark fantasy" or anything, the text also isn't assuming the PCs are heroes, and puts a lot of "grey" options on the table. Additionally, the Zhentarim, which is usually portrayed as the evil faction that doesn't do much evil except evilly gathering information, is actually doing some underhanded things. Those things are just underhanded enough, but not too overtly evil, that even good PCs wouldn't rule out working with them for the greater good.

Chapter One moves into it's endgame by having a Cloud Giant wizard show up because he read signs and portents, and attempts to deliver them to one of three starting areas for the main adventure. The trip to the actual starting location isn't without incident, as emissaries from the Cult of Elemental Air ask for an audience and the Lords Alliance attacks the floating castle due to a case of mistaken identity.

As this section is meant to take PCs from 1st to 5th level, and is the prologue, this almost feels like a mini-review. The adventure itself puts some nice twists into what could be a straightforward "rescue the town" scenario, but the milestones seem really rushed in this section, handwaving PCs through four levels really quickly. There is some roleplaying material to be mined when it comes to exploring the town and finding the various dead, and interacting with the surviving family members, but much of this information is made less usable, being buried in walls of text.

The Cloud Giant arriving because the PCs are the "heroes of destiny" strikes me the wrong way, but the concept is redeemed a bit between tying this part of the adventure to Princes of the Apocalypse and having the PCs attempt to sort out what to do with the Lords Alliance raiders.

Chapter Two



There are three starting areas presented in this adventure, Icewind Dale, the Goldenfields, and Triboar, and each is subject to a giant attack shortly after the PCs arrive. In addition to the giant attack, various NPCs will hand out some side quests that, if the PCs choose to take them, will have them running all over the Savage Frontier.

Additionally, there are several NPCs provided that each PC will run in addition to their own character, in part to head off that age old question of "why are we the only ones defending this place where these guys live?" Those NPCs also serve as quest givers, and a few have roleplaying hooks that could reinforce the theme of a given scene or complicate it.

Initially, it looks like whatever locations you don't use are a bit of wasted space, but given that it's possible to traipse all over the north in this adventure, it's entirely possible for PCs to wander into a different "starting area" later in the game, and as long as Giants are still a threat, the attack still triggers.

Chapter Three



This section gives a lot of information on the Uthgardt barbarians as well as a broad sketch of some of the most important areas of the Savage Frontier, as it stands in this era. Many of the locations aren't covered in depth, but most have a short encounter sketched out that reveals the character of the location when the PCs arrive.

One thing of note here is that it may not be evident to someone reading the book linearly--why there is so much space devoted to the Uthgardt and their ancestral mounds in this section. There is a payoff as the adventure progresses.

There is actually a lot of ground covered in this chapter, and for a DM just running a game set in the Northern Sword Coast region, the "flavor" encounters might be worth it even without running the full adventure.

There is a chance to have an encounter that actually short cuts one of the quests in the next chapter, by potentially finding one of the Giant Lord's strongholds early (though the PCs may not know that they need a thing that they find). After the PCs have been to a few locations or finished up their errands, there is a "plot advancing" encounter in the form of an NPC that nudges them towards the next phase of the adventure.

Chapter Four



At a temple to the ancient Giant gods, the PCs have to figure out a few puzzles to get some answers from a magical oracle about what is going on, then get directions to one (or more) of the hidden strongholds of the biggest threats among the Giant lords.

The objective is to pick up a magic item that grants them access to the Storm Giant's fortress, to unravel the political maneuverings at their source. In order to get information on where a fortress is located, the PCs again have to set out across the North, find ancient Giant relics stolen by the Uthgardt. For each relic recovered, they can find out the location of another steading. The PCs only need to reveal one of these to advance the plot, but they may want to have a few options, depending on if they have a preference for what flavor of giant ass they want to kick.

There are two complications that come into play here. One is that the dragon that is actually instigating this mess shows up at the temple at some point while the PCs are using the oracle. Another dragon, wanting to find out what kind of crap is being stirred up by the first dragon, grants the PCs an airship crewed with Cult of the Dragon fanatics.

The antagonist dragon encounter is meant to foreshadow her appearance as the main villain, but the way that the encounter is played out feels a bit strained. The Giant NPC that brings the PCs to the temple holds her off while they run, and it feels a little Quick Time Event for me (for anyone that doesn't speak video game, the encounter assumes the PCs do a thing so they can escape, instead of playing it out as a regular encounter).

The Cult of the Dragon airship could be a potential goldmine of roleplaying opportunity. The cultists are evil, twisted guys, but as long as the PCs are just asking them to fly them from one place to another, they will happily do their dragon overlord's bidding.

Chapters Five Through Nine



Each of these chapters involves PCs heading to one of the fortresses of the Giant Lords and trying to find a magic item that lets them gain access to the Storm Giant fortress. Each one is set up in a similar manner, explaining ways the PCs can approach the fortress and  how likely they are to be seen, and they all have a nice roster section for the fortress which shows where reinforcements will come from if the PCs set off an alarm or cause a ruckus.

While individual encounter areas mention this as well, I noticed back in Princes of the Apocalypse that it seemed to be a little confusing to only have that information in a given encounter area, so I like that they have this listed right up front.

Each steading is essentially a small to medium dungeon, and most of them have a good amount of roleplaying opportunity as well as combat options. The Hill Giants are largely (sorry) played for laughs, and the most complex interactions are probably found in the Cloud Giant section.

Some of the fortresses do seem to have a bit more going on. There is a visual reminder of what the Fire Giants are attempting to accomplish that seems like it would be really, really bad for them to succeed, but some of the other Giant Lords have less visible plans going on.

I wish this section had added two elements. First, the fortresses have huge amounts of treasure, and earlier in the adventure, as a "fix" for large amounts of treasure, as well as literally large treasure, they mention just using the optional encumbrance rules. I wish there had been more thought put into this, because having some guidelines about splitting the treasure with local communities in exchange for hauling the treasures out might have made for some interesting material. Second, I wish there was more of a chance to actually need to visit more than one of the fortresses.

As written, you only need to go to one. If you go to one early (the Hill Giant fortress), you may not know what you are looking for. But in this chapter, once you find one of the items, you don't need to deal with the rest. The end of the adventure suggests that the Storm Giants may want the PCs to clean up a few more Giant Lords, but that's not needed to bring the adventure to resolution.

Also, I know they are staples of D&D, but wow, I'm starting to get goblin, hobgoblin, bugbear, and ogre fatigue.

Chapter Ten

Finally, a Giant court where you may not immediately be killed by everything around you! Well, maybe. Essentially, once the PCs get access, they have to maneuver around the Storm Giants that have been turned by the evil dragon main villain in order to actually talk to the Storm Giant princess holding everything together with the disappearance of her father. Depending on how they go about this, they could end up getting into a fight, but they may not.

The goal is to discredit the other princesses, reveal the adviser as a dragon, and figure out what the princess wants to do next. As a side note, there are some options presented for what happens if the PCs use Raise Dead on a figure that was murdered at the beginning of this plot.

Also, Storm Giant musicians play giant crab organs. That's kind of awesome.

Chapter Eleven



Using a clue provided by the princess, the PCs are to hunt down the abductor of King Hekaton, and if he gets back on the throne, things might stabilize a bit among the Giants. The clue leads them to a gambling river boat, which leads to the Kraken Society. They have been trying to destabilize the North by keeping King Hekaton hostage, and the dragon helped set up his capture.

The investigation portion of this chapter could take PCs to multiple cities, which have different costs and DCs for gathering information, and while there is a "cost" associated with each failed check, I wish there was more consequence for the investigation taking longer. Once the Kraken Society agent is found, the PCs need to find a ship (if they don't have one) and track down the ship where King Hekaton is being held.

If the PCs hang out in one location for over an hour after rescuing King Hekaton, THE kraken of the Kraken Society shows up, which is bad. This is a perfect spot to have some kind of consequence for all of those failures in investigating. Instead of assigning an amount of time that seems unlikely, why not have a track of failures, and depending on how many failures the PCs get in the investigation, that's how long it takes for the kraken to show up?

Chapter Twelve



The Ordening (rules of Giant society set down by their gods) was broken because they didn't do enough to stop their ancient dragon rivals from almost summoning their god (in Tyranny of Dragons), so King Hekaton hopes that by definitively putting an end to a plotting ancient blue dragon, that will be a sign to the Giant gods that things should go back to normal.

Because of this, the PCs get recruited to raid the dragon's lair, and they get to play their own characters as well as a storm giant each. One of the storm giants actually has an axe to grind with Hekaton and the princess, so there is a little curve to throw one of the PCs running the character.

Even in this chapter, they mention that rescuing Hekaton could be played up as the end of the adventure, especially if the dragon was already revealed as a spy in his court, sowing discontent. It is also mentioned that King Hekaton might extend the adventure by asking the PCs to help shut down the other Giant Lords that they haven't dealt with yet in order to firmly restore order.

Appendix 

The appendix to the book has sections on moving characters from other published adventures into this one. It also includes magic items introduced in this adventure, monsters and stat blocks for creatures that appear in this adventure. NPC stat cards, for the sections of the adventure where the players will be running extras as well as their own characters, are provided. There is also a section on alternate Giant abilities that you might give Giant adversaries to make things more interesting.

One thing of note that this adventure doesn't do compared to, for example, Princes of the Apocalypse, is devote time to translating this adventure to other settings. While I don't think it would be too hard to do for Greyhawk, I can see the terrain and assumed adversaries making it a lot harder to deal with converting this to Dark Sun or Dragonlance, for example.

Of the new magic items, it's probably worth mentioning the rune magic items. When I first read about these, I thought they were going to be similar to the gemstone items from the Magic Item Compendium in 3.5, where you could take an enhancement and "slot" it onto another item. This is actually more interesting to me than that.

Rune items have a specific form and set of powers, but you can choose to inscribe the rune onto a location or item (depending on the base item), and the item loses its magic. The location or item you inscribe the rune onto gains different powers. The powers of the item and the inscription are distinct, but share a similar theme. I like it, and I'd like to see more of these rune items in future products.

Maug

There are still a lot of D&D-isms in this book, like burying potentially good roleplaying material in walls of text that the DM may have a hard time finding when running an encounter. There are a couple of Giant Ex Machinas in the story that might not sit well with the player characters. The story builds to an ending, then provides a second one, and maybe another one on top of that.

Maat

Suggested encounters as a way of showing the personality of a location visited. Morally grey options presented as viable examples of ways to resolve a situation. Quite a few NPCs with quirks enough to make they fun to run. An adventure that actually does a good job of showing the 5th edition pillars of D&D, exploration, interaction, and combat, in a well balanced manner.

The Ordening



This is probably the most "Forgotten Realms" an adventure has felt to me in 5th edition. The lore is used really well, and is just light enough to let you know the setting you are in, and that it matters, but not heavy enough that you feel the weight of decades of canon.

It really feels like the flip side of Princes of the Apocalypse, that felt like it was an homage to Temple of Elemental Evil first, set in the Realms second, and the size and scope of the dungeons were much more important than the above ground locations near the dungeons. In this adventure, the "dungeons" are places the PCs need to go to accomplish a goal, and tend to be small to medium in size, scattered all over the place across the North.

**** (out of 5)