Wednesday, November 15, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? In the Company of Giants (5e OGL)

Once upon a time, when I was still running Pathfinder, I started picking up third party products. I didn’t allow too many third-party products, but when I did, it tended to be items that were thematic to the campaign I wanted to run. One of those products was a supplement from Rite Publishing called In the Company of Giants.



Rite Publishing did several “In the Company of” products, which were supplements that allowed players to play monstrous races. These supplements were inspired by the 3.0 Savage Species book, as well as the racial paragon classes introduced in the 3.5 version of Unearthed Arcana, but spent a little bit more time delving into one specific type of creature.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I have a weakness for giants. I have no idea where this comes from, but I love the huge sacks of hit points. Despite this, I never ran a campaign where I allowed the material from In the Company of Giants.

The Pathfinder version of the supplement allowed you to play a Jotunnar, a giant-kin race that had the option to take levels in a racial paragon class. They either took this class at 1st level and only advanced as a Jotun Paragon, or they stayed one of “the stunted.”

The Jotun Paragon would pick an element, and various giant styled powers were grouped under the elemental types. For example, an Earth Jotun Paragon could take options to emulate Hill Giants, Stone Giants, or even Ettin.

Recently it came to my attention that Brandes Stoddard did a 5th edition D&D conversion of the mechanics of this supplement, and it took me until I got home from work to pick it up and read through it.

Giants in a Moderate Sized PDF

The 5th edition D&D version of this supplement is 16 pages, including an OGL page, a title page, and the front and back covers. The front cover shows a frost giant about to clobber a rider on a horse, so I’m all for that. Interior art is black and white with a sort of runic border.

Pre-Mechanical Pages

There are about five pages of background material about the Jotunnar included in this supplement. This covers some elements like appears, age, and naming conventions, but also includes a history set in the Rite Publishing setting of Questhaven.

It’s worth noting that many of the elements of giant philosophy presented in this background material lines up well with the Ordening and the concepts of Maug and Maat that govern the giants in the Forgotten Realms, so if you are using the current default D&D setting, the background presented doesn’t require a lot of manipulation to fit.

The Mechanics of Giant-Kind

As with the Pathfinder version of the supplement, Jotunnar are presented as a PC race. Unlike the Pathfinder version, there is no mention of only going down the path of the Jotun Paragon or forever being one of the Stunted.

The Jotunnar look to be around the same power level of Goliaths, which seems to be a good judge of how powerful the race should be. They swap out negating damage for a chance to reroll poor saves, and they exchange the goliath’s athletic abilities for the ability to be more intimidating.

There is also an interesting sidebar that notes that the Jotun Paragon class is only available to “giant related races.” That means that if you happen to use races like Goliaths or Firbolgs, they should totally be able to take this class as well. It is also mentioned that the restriction is only for flavor purposes, so a human that is blessed by the giant gods might be able to take the class as well, for example.

The point of all of this is that the Jotun Paragon class for 5th edition D&D isn’t designed to be an “all or nothing” class, and is designed to be balanced more against standard D&D classes, instead of bundling a special set of rules together to form an alternate progression.

A Touch of Class

The class itself almost feels like a monk without Ki, maybe? It grants an alternate bonus to armor class, gives limited ability to do extra crushing damage a few times per short rest, and creates a slam progression for the character. The class also allows the character to eventually grow to Large size, and then to Huge size, but they retain the ability to return to Medium size when it is beneficial.

At 2nd level, the player must make a choice, not unlike other D&D classes in 5th edition. In this case, the choice is what Jotun lineage to follow. In this case, the choice is a more deliberate choice to follow the progression of a specific giant race. Unlike the Pathfinder version, that required the player to choose an element, and then bundled giant traits under those elements, these paths are more tailored to the specific giant race chosen.

My personal preference is for this version of the progression. Instead of picking specific abilities (that might be further modified by feats in the Pathfinder version), each path feels very thematic to the giant race chosen. The Jotun Paragon gains abilities that don’t just feel like a fire giant or a frost giant, for example. They feel like a paragon of fire giants or frost giants. For example, Fire Giant Lineage Jotun Paragons can enhance weapons in a forge, while frost giant paragons eventually gain freeze breath!


While the Jotun Paragon is getting more abilities, eventually, than the base giant lineage might have, all the powers they gain are very thematic for the fifth edition expression of those giants. In addition to the abilities mentioned above, stone giants on the surface can sometimes ignore damage, because the surface world is just a dream. Hill giants gain benefits from eating their fallen foes. Cloud giants and storm giants get magical abilities like creating illusory duplicates or (big shock) throwing lighting.

Giant sized weapons are handled in a special manner, just adding a level based extra die of damage instead of scaling for large or huge weapons. 

Given that 5th edition places less of an emphasis on the same rules governing PCs and monsters, this seems to be a workable solution for limited some of the potential issues with triple damage weapons in the hands of the party.

Notable Omissions

Compared to the Pathfinder version, the 5th edition version of this product does not have the multiple pages of feats that modify the Jotun Paragon’s abilities. Personally, I’m not especially turned off by this streamlining.

More Maat

Looking over the Pathfinder version of the product and seeing this conversion, this supplement captures what the concept was for the original product, and presents it in a way that feels very consistent with previous D&D 5th edition classes. That’s impressive, given that this is such a different concept than most classes in the game. Not only do the class features feel like 5th edition classes, they feel very much like the giant types that are being emulated.

Maug?

It says so right in the title, but if you aren’t interested in giants, the product doesn’t stray from its topic. Unless you are building an NPC using PC rules, this is a very player focused product. While I think it adheres to theme better with the class features, compared to the Pathfinder version, the Jotun Paragon class is a bit less customizable, between the elemental options and the extra feats that aren't converted.

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


This product is a solid, thematic supplement that allows for a very specific thing. It creates a player option for running giant characters, and if the campaign allows for that theme to be explored, this looks to do it very well. That’s a specific niche, but at the same time, the product is worth looking at just to see how such a specific concept can still follow the 5th edition style so well.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

New Reveiw Up At Gnome Stew--Star Trek Adventures

Just a head's up to let people know my latest review is up at Gnome Stew, this time covering Star Trek Adventures.



Gnome Stew--Star Trek Adventures Review

Swing by and let me know what you think!

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Problem with Drow



There was a post, recently, in the Misdirected Mark community about “Are Dark Elves Awesome or Lame?” I didn’t want to choke that post with a ton of my opinions built up over the years, but I had a few, brought to the fore by this question.


 For years, the idea was that the dark elves were the bad ones, driven underground by the surface elves, then cursed by Corellon because they were evil. None of this really applies to Eberron, and I can’t really speak to their history in that setting. Depending on the particular Greyhawk source, Corellon may not be mentioned as specifically cursing the elves driven into the Underdark. Much of what follows comes from Forgotten Realms lore, which is where most of the words published on dark elves currently originate.

Problem #1--Cursing with dark skin

I mean, that's just bad on its surface. I get the feeling that this wasn't done with bad intentions, but you know, road to Hell and all. Dark elves + literal interpretations = black skin. Backstory flavored to support.

The contributing factor ends up being that in the Realms, they tried to "fix" this by saying that the Illythiiri, the elves that became the dark elves, were already dark skinned to begin with. so Corellon didn't so much make them dark skinned, as make them even more dark skinned.

Which means Corellon didn't make them dark skinned, but the bad guys were already dark skinned, and Corellon made them more so as a punishment. Oh, wow, that went off the tracks.

Possibly to mitigate this, wild elves, which were distinct, at the time, from wood elves, were positioned as also being dark skinned elves, so that the Illythiiri weren't the only dark-skinned elves, and not all of the dark-skinned elves became evil. But then the only dark-skinned elves represented are either the least technologically advanced, most tribal of all of them, or the ones that became evil.

Final spin on skin color and elves--in the Realms, moon elves have super pale skin with blue highlights, gold elves have golden skin, and wood elves, or copper elves, have essentially darker skin with copper highlights. However you may interpret this, the feeling was that elves were intended to have more fantastical appearances than any art ever depicted them as having, at least in the Realms.

It wasn't really until the 5th edition Player's Handbook that we got to see moon elves that looked how they were described. The old Forgotten Realms DC comics portrayed Vartan with gold skin, but our first look at Drizzt on a book cover made him appear to have dark brown skin, instead of literal black skin, which made him appear to be black, in terms of human ethnicity. 

Problem #2--There are "some" good ones

People pointed towards Drizzt as being the saving grace of drow and how they are portrayed in D&D. The problem is, the narrative is that "most" of them are bad, but there is at least one "good one," who happens to act like the surface cultures that banished them in the first place.

That doesn't really make the narrative any better.

While it was still a problem of numbers, when Eilistraee was introduced into the Realms, there were then multiple small groups of dark elves that were not evil in the Realms. They had communities dotted here and there, in Undermountain and the High Forest, for example.

Unfortunately, a lot of gamers didn't like the idea of a significant portion of the drow population being potentially good, because it “ruined” them as villains. If they might turn good, after all, my character might feel bad about killing them. Guilt free adventuring is best!

By the end of 3rd edition, Eilistraee was killed off. Oddly, when 4th edition appeared, drow were a playable race right out of the gate, and not assumed to be evil. That's a mixed signal to be sending.

Problem #3--The Matriarchy


It might not be a bad thing to have drow society being both evil and a matriarchy, if most D&D settings had strongly showcased any kind of matriarchy that wasn't evil. There are a few societies scattered around where there are female leaders, but very few established D&D matriarchies, outside of the drow.

While elves in the Realms, for example, have a queen as their primary monarch, they still aren't portrayed as being a matriarchy. In fact, the current queen followed the reign of a well-regarded king of elves. A matriarchy, in dark elves, looks like another "negative image" of elves, which makes it look like a matriarchy is a perversion of what "should" be in elf society.

The Eilistraee situation compounds this problem. While Eilistraee's followers might have shown that matriarchal dark elves didn't need to be a perverse, evil development for a society, the problem is that once we see a "working" model of their society in the novels, beginning in the War of the Spider-Queen novels, these "good" dark elves still tend to use males as pawns to be sacrificed. In other words, you can't have a matriarchy where the females make good decisions and care about everyone in the society. They still must have a streak of misandry in their actions.

Problem #4--Born evil

In Elaine Cunningham's Evermeet: Island of Elves novel, the idea is subtly introduced that drow are partially demonic, because the leader of the Illythiiri and Lolth herself, who became a demon lord when cast out of the elven pantheon, may have had children. The line wasn't drawn that demonic blood damned, them, but it was used to explain drow special magical abilities and their affinity for being able to summon and control fiends.

Years later, we got the Lady Penitent series. And things got more complicated, by trying to make them less complicated. Turns out, Lolth's blood isn't what gave most dark elves their demonic traits, it was a balor friend of hers that she used to help her corrupted all the banished dark elves.

Not only does this introduce some uncomfortable rape themes into the narrative, but it also means that the matriarchy of the drow is partially reinforced by a male father figure that helped found the race, which subtly reinforces the idea that the matriarchy is a perversion of the natural order.

Eilistraee is also killed in the series, so we can wipe the good drow matriarchies off the books. 

Finally, the story explains that some drow in the modern era are born without demonic taint, so they can be "saved," but the ones with demonic taint still on their souls are totally born evil and unredeemable, so have fun killing them and collecting your XP. Guess which camp everyone’s favorite lavender-eyed protagonist was born into? I guess his moral struggles aren’t really a sign of good character, just a random accident of birth.

I feel as if this was being set up, as the books appeared at the end of the 3.5 era of the Realms, to explain that PC dark elves were the ones "not born evil," and NPC drow could remain 100% "always evil." Thankfully, this was never explicitly stated in any of the 4th edition material, and very little mention is made of the Lady Penitent series in current Realms material.

Perception Problems

Some of the issues in all of this come from the conflicting desire of gamers. TSR wanted to create a narrative so that there could be good dark elves, and not just the "one in a million" narrative of Drizzt. They had Ed Greenwood create Eilistraee (see Drow of the Underdark, a 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook), a goddess whose followers could help account for a population of good drow in the setting.

R.A. Salvatore, having not created Eilistraee and strangely writing a much more agnostic version of the setting than anyone else working in the shared world, ignores this development. The "one good one" narrative continued to be the primary narrative.

I’m not sure I can handle the cognitive load of parsing all the ramifications of this, but in Salvatore’s more agnostic Realms, this means that drow evil isn’t really influenced by an outside entity, so much as the drow are so uniformly and collectively evil that they have created a mass delusion that reinforces their notion of the universe and has a degree of supernatural power because of that notion.

Gamers that don't particularly like Drizzt start to see any good drow as an extension of that character's popularity, and you have a massive divide between D&D fans that like drow as adversaries, and R.A. Salvatore fans that like the "one good one" narrative, but when playing D&D, want to be "the other good one."

So WOTC inherits the conflicting fan drives of "Drizzt is great" and "Drow should always be villains." The middle ground, that there may be some drow societies that aren't evil, but that some, like Menzoberranzan, certainly are, is largely unexplored, and eventually scrapped.

Mix in the ancillary problems, like D&D art not portraying even human ethnic groups the way they
are described in the books, and the image that casual or new fans have in their heads begins to conflict with the image that some of the creators may have intended. This is perhaps best underscored by Ed Greenwood's accounts of meeting with Hollywood executives about live action Realms prospects, and being met with the executives understanding that drow culture is "about hot black women who are all dominatrixes." (Dig through the “So Sayeth Ed” archive at Candlekeep for the account)

The fifth edition D&D Player's Handbook does a lot of good, inclusive things. I loved that the human ethnic groups came across as varied, instead of the previous perception of "white people, Chultans, and people from Kara-Tur." I was excited to see a gold dwarf female in Xanathar's guide with brown skin, as they have always been described.

But drow--drow seem to still be caught in a complicated web of problematic tropes and historical long shadows.



Sunday, November 5, 2017

Thor--Ragnarok (Why The End of the World Can Be Fun)

Got to see Thor--Ragnarok last night.

Doctor Strange and Spider-Man Homecoming were enjoyable to me, but both felt like they could have pushed things a bit further and had a bit more substance.

I loved the actors in Doctor Strange, but the plot felt safe. I loved the actors, especially Michael Keaton, in Spider-Man Homecoming, but felt like the reliance on tech and the painfully obvious avoidance of anything that even hinted at his origin story ended up hurting the film for me.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume Two had some tremendous emotional impact, but I felt like the comedic beats were all too close together. I don't know that it was more comedic than the first movie, but it felt like the first movie did a better job of weaving drama and action in between those comedic bits.



So, knowing my heretical views on the last few Marvel movies, I dearly, dearly loved Thor--Ragnarok.

I won't give anything away, but the comedic pacing felt much more like the first Guardians of the Galaxy to me--it was present, and important to the film, but it never felt like it was overwhelming the film at any point. A lot of the comedy came from "real" moments of interactions between characters.

When it comes to Thor movies, I enjoyed the first movie. It was a "safe" introduction to Thor and his world. Because this was still early in the Marvel Cinematic universe timeline, they walked the line between not scaling down Thor's power from the comics, but still making it more of a "human level" story. They introduced Asgard and Thor's supporting cast, but in a way that let them take a backseat to Thor talking to "real" people on Earth, because the studio wasn't sure how much "out there" Marvel cosmic weirdness an audience would bear.

Thor--The Dark World was a disappointment to me. It felt like they tried to do the first movie's formula again--having the focus of the movie be Thor interacting with mortals, on earth. But it also seemed like there was a conscious decision to not cast Asgard as the weird melting pot of magic and technology that they hint at in the first movie, and recast most of the mythology of Thor's world as being absolutely 100% space alien stuff.

Granted, the seeds of this were planted in Avengers, where we saw less of Loki having blurry "sorcerous" powers, and more of him using alien artifacts. But the biggest disappointment with this "aliens and tech" realignment were the Dark Elves. There is nothing magical about them. Aside from the pointy ears, they could be any nihilistic aliens. And Kurse, who had a really interesting character arc in the Thor comics, is completely wasted in that movie.

Its telling that one of my favorite characters from the first two Thor movies was Cat Dennings' Darcy, who was created specifically for the movies.

Guardians of the Galaxy set the tone that the "cosmic" side of Marvel is a weird, wild place. It pushed boundaries, and took risks. Without the first Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor--Ragnarok wouldn't have happened.

To get maximum usage out of Thor and the Thor comics contribution to the Marvel Universe, you
should have a universe where blaster rifles, starships, undead armies, giant wolves, and giants made of fire can all exist in the same story, without anyone blinking. The Thor franchise has struggled with the question of "should we be about mythology," "should we be science fiction," "should we be epic"," "should we tell personal stories," and the answer wasn't "pick which ones" but "yes" to all of the above.

Thor--Ragnarok also manages to weave in a few iconic scenes and themes from Thor storylines spanning the years, without getting too lost in any of them.

When I heard that Taika Waititi disliked the previous Thor movies and wanted a clean break and a radical new direction, I was worried that would mean Thor would be moving further away from its source material. Instead of running away, it feels like he loaded the movie up with some of the most over the top moments and ran headlong into the heart of the craziest aspects of Thor's storylines.

This is a clean break that doesn't ignore the past, but ties up a lot of loose ends from the surface level treatment that came before, and ropes in a wider array of Thor stories from decades of the character's history.


That's about as much as I can say, without getting into spoiler territory, but Thor--Ragnarok is my favorite Marvel movie in a while.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Narrative Advice from Professional Wrestling--To Sell or Not to Sell?

A lot of effort in RPG circles goes into giving advice to GMs. How do you present an engaging adventure? How do you run a certain style of adventure? How do you take what the PCs give you and integrate it into the campaign?

I have a bit of advice that I want to aim squarely at players. This advice comes from the realm of professional wrestling. If you are in an RPG that has a lot of physical altercations, learning how to “sell” your opponent’s threat level is going to make the campaign much more satisfying.

I’ll also throw this out there at the start—I default to a lot of examples that clearly lean on d20 games for a reference. It is entirely possible to have issues with selling your opponent’s threat level in other games, but I’ve seen it very often in d20 level based games, so it tends to be top of mind.

Professional Wrestling 101

If you aren’t familiar with professional wrestling terminology, if you see someone get hit by a move, and the person getting hit by that move looks like they really got hurt, staggered, or caught off guard by the move, that’s “selling” the move. Professional wrestling may be theater, but there is a logic to the way it works.

If one wrestler does a move to the other wrestler, and that wrestler just stands back up, and then does their move, you don’t get any feel for the stakes of the match, or the ability of either wrestler. Sure, occasionally, someone is going to pull off an impressive dive from the top rope, or they’ll lift someone that you couldn’t lift if you had ten of your best friends helping. But if the other participant just stands there at the end, it loses its effect.

When someone gets “hit” with a move and that wrestler just stands there as if they were not affected, that’s called a “no-sell.” Now, there are appropriate times for a “no-sell,” but you can’t go through your whole career without selling any move, or else your career is going to start looking a little boring. Sure, you are a force of nature. But if you never sell anything, you are always a force of nature that wins everything, and that’s the sum total of the combat narrative you are telling.

Selling in the Face of Stats

Selling your opponent’s threat level is going to mean something different in an RPG. There are stats that show if you hit, or if a spell goes off, and how much damage it does, or what kind of condition might be inflicted. There are often measurable effects in RPGs when an opponent does something to your character.

No-selling an opponent in an RPG can come in many forms, but it happens most often when players are never “in character” in the fight. I’m not a person that demands no metagaming at the table, but if everything your character says is purely analytical and referencing game mechanics, it deadens the effect of what is going on in the narrative of the story.

“That’s less than 10% of my hit points, don’t worry about healing me.”

“I can hit it with a 10 on the dice, so we should be able to keep pace with hitting hit for at least 15 points a round.”

Saying things like the above, and never being in character, takes a lot out of the fight. Many people tend to think that roleplaying ends when a fight begins, but there are plenty of opportunities to keep the story of what is going on moving, informed by the mechanics.

“The hobgoblin hits you for 12 points of damage.”

“Out of character—I should be fine, I’ve still got plenty of hit points left. In character—After the last time we ran into hobgoblins, I wasn’t expecting ones with that much skill with a blade. I need to keep an eye on her.”

Randomly Encountered No-Sells


Some “no-sells” are emergent. When the PCs see a couple of giants walk out onto the battlefield, they assume the big humanoids are going to be a threat. A few unfortunate dice rolls later, and the players might fall into a bad habit.

“These things suck. They’re just slow sacks of hit points. I can’t wait to get to town and talk about how easy it was for us to off these things. I don’t know why anyone is afraid of them.”

The narrative just shifted from “giants are scary,” to “giants are slow and overrated.” If you never run into giants again in the campaign, that’s the impression they have left, and it may have been because the dice were hotter on one side of the screen than the other.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for referring to the reality of the situation.
“The giant rolls yet another 3 on the die, and misses you, again.”

“My character looks at the huge divot in the ground where I was standing a minute ago, and tells the giant that I’m glad his sword arm is stronger than his eyesight.”

In the second instance, referencing the potential for danger, even when the reality of the game isn’t providing that danger, preserves some of the mystique of the giants. The impression isn’t that the giants are universally terrible at combat, but that these giants aren’t doing so well, which preserves their obvious potential threat.

When your character does take a significant hit, make sure to take the time to call that out. Your party cleric may fix it on their turn, but if it was noteworthy, well, note it.

“That’s 54 points of damage.”

“I’ve still got 60, so I can take another hit, but wow, that was a lot. My character’s head spins and they stagger back for a second, and catch themselves before they fall. Then I tell the party cleric I may need just a little bit of divine favor thrown my way before I collapse.”

It becomes very easy to minimize what is narratively happening in stories in games where characters are powerful enough to mitigate consequences. Eventually, characters start to joke about clerics bringing them back from zero hit points, removing curses, or raising the dead. The problem is, a character that has been knocked out from loss of hit points just got battered very hard. They could have died, even if they didn’t. A character that is cursed, diseased, or poisoned could very well be miserable, even if they are still effective until that effect has been lifted. 

A character that has died and is brought back has actually seen what happens to souls after people die! Even if that is “common” for high level adventurers, that’s not common to over 99.9% of the population—and before it happens to them, the adventurers are part of the 99.9% of the population.

The Good Kind of No-Sells

Is there a good time to “no-sell” opponents? Sure. There is a term in professional wrestling—the squash match. The point of this match is to make one side look extremely awesome by throwing someone at them that they can take out without any effort at all. Some encounters exist to underscore that adventurers are people that are, themselves, dangerous.

Sometimes it is obvious from how the GM is running opponents that they are just there as a nuisance to the PCs, either to waste their resources or stall them until reinforcements arrive. The clearer the clues the GM drops that these opponents aren’t impressive, the more it’s probably okay to make it clear how much more awesome you are than these characters, and how little threat they represent.

Then, there is the most notorious of professional wrestling no-sells. One wrestler has been dominating the match from the beginning. They have pulled off several impressive moves that look like they have devastated their opponent. And then, the momentum shifts. The person that was down on their luck suddenly gets up, gets a second wind, and nothing can hurt them again for the rest of the match. The danger of their opponent was evident early on, but now it’s time to wrap of the story.


In game terms, you make it to the boss fight. Everyone knows the boss is a big threat. You’ve spent months of campaign time establishing this. It might even be that early in the fight, the boss tossed around a party member or two rather effortlessly. At this point, the no-sell can be used to good effect, but the tone of the no-sell is important. It’s not that the threat of the opponent isn’t great. It’s that you are so awesome, so focused, and so determined, through sheer force of will and awesomeness you will persevere no matter what this boss does to you. 

At that point, the no-sell becomes the story of how the boss is dangerous, but because it’s so important that you win, you are more dangerous, and you don’t care what they can unleash.