Tuesday, June 27, 2017

World Building Thoughts From A Guy That Works With Spreadsheets All Day

Non-Revolutionary thought in progress--complex game settings aren't the problem (and I'm not going to go into how I think they should be expressed for maximum gameability, because that's a whole separate thought process). You either like them or you don't, but there isn't a right or wrong.

The problem is, where is that complexity housed?

If you have a campaign setting that presents a world, and then products that make individual areas even more detailed, if you are interested in that specific area, that's still only "two layers deep." Main setting book and regional sourcebook.

However, if you have a faction book that also adds significant details to that region, and then maybe an adventure that will be assumed to be canon in its events as well, things have gone four layers deep. All of those books have significant details on a region, but only two of those books have an obvious connection to the region, with two less obvious connections.

I think I understand how this happens. Working with data now for my job, I have to stop and think about how I want to design a report. There are times I think I have accounted for everything I want to display, but I realize I can't show part of my significant data without going back to the beginning and adding something to the overall structure. It's a pain, but once the structure is in place, adding new data is going to be simpler, because I have the structure defined.

However, when people are being creative, they often don't think about end users and structures. Because they aren't thinking in terms of what should or should not be included in specific product, three months after a setting book comes out, an adventure comes along and levels a region, and three months after that, a new sourcebook assassinates a key ruler and invalidates even more of a setting.

For maximum "buy in" to a setting, my structure at the beginning would be that the core setting book is a snapshot of the setting that will be true until a new core setting book comes out. Regional books might add to details, but won't contradict anything presented. Adventures can have huge, huge stakes, but they aren't assumed to have happened in a campaign unless you use them at the table.

If you want to put out a new setting book five years later, cool. That's the new default, and its really easy to point people to the new product and have it be your new standard. It also makes it easier for people to say "no, I don't like that they advanced the timeline and destroyed X." Regardless, it's an easy, clearly defined transition point, instead of an aggregated mess that becomes more difficult for new people to navigate.

If you have novels, set some rules for what they are in your grand plan. If they aren't canon to the setting, make it clear. If they are, set some limits. Have them only happen before the date of the "snap shot" in your core setting book, and make sure they don't create any new major events you didn't already define in the core setting book. If you want the King of Peaceful Land to have been a doppleganger all along, don't do that in a novel, wait until you do your setting update book five years from now. You can explain the aftermath of what happened, or you can throw in some plot hooks for how that will matter for the PCs.

If you have things that happened in the past involving a legendary team of mercenaries or adventurers, that's a great place for a novel that gives details and personalizes that legendary team. Don't move the timeline forward, introduce new heroes, and have them do all the important stuff in the setting that will now "count." Fill in details of the past in a consistent manner with what has been presented and leave the future as an open canvas, at least until you stake your next point on the timeline with a new core setting book.

I've never published a setting, so maybe I'm full of crap. However, it seems like if you keep these ideas in mind, and have some rules in place ahead of time, even a complicated setting gets less daunting to manage.

  • Keep everything that is in your core setting book true until you are ready for a new core setting book
  • Add detail in sourcebooks, but don't contradict what has already been stated
  • Avoid absolutes where possible--knowing there are only X number of temples in a city can trip up a GM that already started using a region in their campaign, but saying the major temples are X, Y, and Z is fine
  • If you have a fiction line, don't let it do what you wouldn't let it a sourcebook do
  • If you have a fiction line, set it before the "snapshot" of the current setting book's timeline
  • Don't assume events in an adventure are canon for your setting--if you want to "canonize" the adventure later, do it when you update your core setting book
  • Don't let a sourcebook add detail to an aspect of the setting that it wouldn't obviously be concerned with--if you detail an organization, don't add significant details to a bunch of cities that organization is active in, especially if those cities have already been detailed

    Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding on Audible

Full disclaimer, I just recently finished listening to the audiobook of the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. I don't think any one essay presented exactly what I elaborated above, but lot of them said large portions of what I mentioned above, my brain just kind of needed to mash together some of the bits that were common to many of the essays together and sprinkle in my own, less brilliant flavor.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Predation (Cypher System)

My siblings greatly enjoyed jumping out and scaring me at various points in time, because apparently I’m at my most hilarious when I’m worked into a panicked frenzy. At no time did they enjoy this more than when they could jump out and scare me when the dinosaur roared at the end of the intro to Land of the Lost. Despite their dedicated work at trying to make me terrified of all things dinosaur, I fell in love with the poor, extinct things, and in 3rd grade I was reprimanded for being able to name various dinosaurs and which ones existed at the same time as the others, but neglecting actual, useful information--thus establishing a pattern in my life of being really dedicated to knowledge that has no immediate practical use to me.

I will freely admit that my dinosaur-lore is nowhere near as developed as it was in those halcyon days of 3rd grade, but I still have a weakness for the formerly existing beasts of yore. So when I see RPG products that have dinosaurs as a theme, it’s hard for me not to take notice.

While Tomb of Annihilation is coming later this year, and seems to be filled with dinosaur goodness, it appears that the Year of the Dinosaur is getting started early with the release of Predation, a setting book for the Cypher System RPG.

How It Looks, Feathers and All
My review is based both on the PDF and the physical version of the book, since both arrived before I finished my read through of the book. The book is 192 pages, including an index, glossary, a standard character sheet, and companion character sheets in the back of the book.

Cypher System books tend to have nice, high-gloss art throughout. This book is no exception, but in this case, the setting has a specific look. That look is a mix of post-apocalyptic remnants, high tech gear, savage trappings, and cybernetic dinosaurs. Because of this distinct look, there is very little artwork in this book that has appeared elsewhere in the Cypher System line, and because it does such a good job capturing this specific look, you will probably want your players to see this as an aid to help visualize the setting.

In addition to the many evocative art pieces in the book, there are a few continental maps and city maps for the major locations. There are the usual sidebars with quick stats and page references both in the book and in the main Cypher System rulebook. While the entire line of Cypher System books has high production values, this has to be one of the nicest looking of the line.

Part One: Getting Started
This section includes two chapters, From the Far Future to the Distant Past, and Predation Basics. The first chapter gives the zoomed out, broad strokes synopsis of the setting, while the second chapter explains what rules from the Cypher System rulebook are utilized and what special rules apply to the setting.

The elevator pitch for the game is that you are living in the era of the dinosaurs, sometime close to the arrival of the big asteroid event that caused them to go extinct. Your character is the second or third generation to live in this time, as the corporation that developed time travel and established a colony is no longer in communication with the settlements. There is high tech stuff around, but it’s not always reliable, and you probably have a genetically modified or cybernetically advanced dinosaur as a buddy.

In the Predation Basics chapter, we find out that the setting uses the flavor rules from the Cypher System rules. What this means is that while the character types from the core rules are (kinda) used (but renamed), some of their abilities at each of the tiers is replaced to give the character type a special feel unique to the setting. Essentially, you have big bruisers (Karn), mad scientists (Tec), explorers (Pteryx), and shamanistic types (Osteon) who have an affinity for the temporal anomalies and storms that pop up.

Companions are mentioned in this section, but they are detailed in another chapter. The teaser you get here is that you make them for your character, and another player runs them. You can chose not to have one, and you get extra abilities if you do not have one, but the assumption is that you will have your own dino (or early mammal) buddy.

Cyphers work as they do in many settings, i.e. they are one use items, and you have a limited number of them that you can carry. The twist for this setting is that cyphers get encoded directly into your DNA, rather than being a separate object. That DNA programming comes from code swirling around in the temporal anomalies you can find, so you have incentive to seek them out (of course, they also spew remnants and artifacts as well).

Part Two: Characters
This section is composed of the following chapters: Character Creation, Character Type, Character Descriptor and Focus, Companions, and Equipment.

These chapters walk you through making a character in the setting. To a point, it’s very similar to making character in other Cypher System games. The Character Types have some abilities swapped out in each tier using the flavor rules, as mentioned above. Thankfully, there are charts that detail exactly what each character type has available at each tier, and which book (Predation or the core rulebook) has the details. In addition, there are Cretaceous Abilities that are new to this rulebook.

There are the usual things you might expect in a Cypher System book like new foci and descriptors, but I have to admit, that section is probably the least exciting aspect of this section. That’s not an entirely fair assessment, since there are some nice twists on the regular Cypher System rules in this section, overall.

Speaking of those twists--companions! While you can play without a companion (and you get extra abilities to compensate if you don’t have one), the assumed style of play is that you create your character, and your companion. The twist is, on your turn, you run your character, and another player at the table runs your companion, so that on each turn, there is usually a pair of players acting. Often companions don’t do what their partner tells them to do, and whether they do or not, it is up to the other player to determine how those orders are ignored or followed. It’s a nice twist on the idea of a player character companion that makes it much more interesting. You build your companion by picking a base type, adding a disposition, and then layering on special abilities that might do things like passively help you or boost their stats or abilities.

The rules governing equipment in the Cypher System are fairly simple, but there are some evocative descriptions that go along with those simple mechanical effects that do a good job of portraying the themes of the setting.

Part Three: The Setting
The chapters in this section include Welcome to Grevakc, Laramidia, Appalachia, and Groups and Organizations.

Welcome to Grevakc goes into more detail on the timeline of the setting. It explains what the first generation was like, and the differences between life before and after time travel failed.

Laramidia details one of the two continental bodies in the setting, and takes up a lot of the pages in this section. Laramidia has the most settlements, locations, and plot hooks detailing the setting wide and local power groups.

Appalachia has fewer settlements--both land masses are largely untamed, but Appalachia is exceptionally wild, compared to the other continental mass.

Groups and Organizations goes into the setting wide power groups that lurk behind the scenes or jump up and scream “here we are!” There are people attempting to keep the old corporate structure going from before time travel broke, an organization looking to prove the literal existence of the Garden of Eden, and a group that wants the humans trapped in the past to die out in order to minimize their potential to destroy the timeline.

In addition to the implied plot hooks that the setting details provide, each region has a sidebar that explicitly spells out some adventure starters. There are simple character stats in various sidebars, and each region usually has an NPC or three for the PCs to interact with, who are given their own personalities and goals in relatively quick summaries.

In particular, there is a town that is revisited in the sample adventure that is a good starting point for new adventurers. It is both a crossroads and a place where the sport of dinosaur wrestling is very popular. The section on genetically modified spiders raised for their silk, and the environment created for them, is also especially memorable.

Part Four: Creatures and NPCs
This section is split into Using Creatures, and Creatures and NPCs.

The Using Creatures chapter details what creatures from the Cypher System rules are appropriate for use in the setting, and how to describe them to tailor them to the setting and its themes. There are some unique creature abilities, which can also be used for companions if the GM is okay with them. There is a two page spread that gives a size comparison of the various dinosaurs and other creatures in comparison to a human.

Creatures and NPCs gives the specific stats for creatures native to this setting, as well as giving some interesting background information on them, such as what place they might have in society or in their ecosystem. There is a note in this section that all of the dinosaur artwork shows modified versions of the creatures, since the “standard” version of various dinosaurs can usually be found fairly easily, but finding a picture of a stegosaurus genetically modified to throw lightning bolts is harder to find. I can’t fault their logic.

Part Five: GM’s Toolbox
This section contains the following chapters: Running Predation, Cyphers, Artifacts, and Remnants, and Promised Land.

Running Predation specifically discusses some of the potential issues with mentioning time travel in an RPG, and then discusses the “grey areas” of the setting. Specifically, while some aspects of the setting are presented as “fact,”, things like exactly why time travel stopped working are a mystery, and there isn’t an actual answer. This section has multiple potential answers for various setting mysteries and how those might influence campaign development.

There are also some adventure hooks not tied to a given region, and some setting specific example intrusions a GM might want to use.

Cyphers, Artifacts, and Remnants details some setting specific versions of those game items. I’m not sure that any of them jump out at me as especially radical departures from what we’ve seen in other Cypher System books, but the random tables are nice for funneling towards items that are appropriate to the setting.

Promised Land is the sample adventure in the book. It is a fairly straightforward introduction to the town mentioned back in the Larimidia section, which leads to a simple investigation, and an interaction with one of the organizations detailed in the Groups and Organizations chapter. It is a solid introduction to the setting that walks the PCs through some elements that they should get familiar with, but the adventure does one thing that really bugs me in starting adventures.

There are two NPCs that hire the starting NPCs to do a specific thing, but one of them “pays” by offering a discount on their goods. It’s an old RPG trope, which essentially reinforces that new characters equal “people that can’t be treated like competent adventurers yet.” Doing work for favors or discounts in a starting adventure is the RPG equivalent of adventurers doing a job “for exposure.”

Part Six: Back Matter
This section is divided up into References and Resources, Questions and Answers with Dino-Scientists, Kickstarter Playtesters and Contributors, Glossary, Character Sheets, Companion Sheets, and Index.

Most of these are useful, but serve a fairly obvious function. The Questions and Answers were especially entertaining to read.

Back to the Future
The setting could have been a by the numbers example of how to use flavor substitutions in a dinosaur setting, but it offers a lot more than that. The unique spin on the companion rules is a wonderful departure from just giving PCs a second set of stats to use in play. There is a great balance of setting facts, and open ended mysteries that the GM can determine on their own. The setting introduces lots of personality with elements like dino wrestling and how genetically engineered spiders are raised.

Temporal Paradox
If you read my Expanded Worlds review, you already read my thoughts on levels as they relate to companion characters or allies. In play, especially as they are described in this setting, they work fine, but assigning them levels, which is usually a GM side mechanic, and then making them player facing, feels like its mixing rules elements in a confusing way. The descriptors, foci, and cyphers introduced are good, but not really exciting enough to port to another setting. Then there is that minor quibble I had with the payment of young, up and coming adventurers.

Downloading some Cyphers to the DNA
This is a great setting book for the Cypher System. The setting is imaginative and evocative, and the artwork reinforces everything that gets described. The way cyphers and companions are handled are wonderful, and make this setting unique compared to the rest of the line. If you love dinosaurs and over the top settings, this setting has so much to offer.

If you aren’t really into dinosaurs, or you want your dinosaur, post-apocalyptic, or time travel settings a bit more grounded, this may not be for you. The book mentions that you can run the setting with a more realistic, hard-science bent, but it still assumes cyborg dinosaurs with lasers on their fricking heads, so that advice only goes so far.

If you like dinosaurs, wild adventure settings, and the Cypher System, you definitely need to pick up this book. If you aren’t really into the Cypher System, you may still find a gonzo time-travel, dinosaur, post-apocalyptic (kind of) setting that you can use elsewhere. I don’t imagine too many people that would be disappointed in this purchase.

**** (out of five)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Scoundrels and Villains

So there was a recent dust up in Star Wars land, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller were removed from the helm of the Han Solo movie. Then Ron Howard was hired on to finish up the project.

What is interesting to me is that people really like to have villains in a story like this. I don’t mean the movie, I mean the narrative of how the movie is getting made. Either Lucasfilm is the big evil corporate bad guy, or Lord and Miller are worthless clowns seeking to destroy whatever cultural dignity Han Solo has in the public eye.

If you subscribe to the “Lucasfilm is Evil” school of thought, then Lucasfilm is a bunch of out of touch corporate managers that hate creativity and exist only to make poor quality products that they will then convince you that you liked. Lord and Miller were going to create art, and damn it, Lucasfilm wants you to eat the McDonald’s of Star Wars movies and like it. Eat the Han Solo McNuggets!

If you subscribe to the “Lord and Miller Are Evil” school of thought, you have two guys that have a golden opportunity to work on the biggest of A-list properties, and they squander that opportunity by not realizing that Star Wars is special, and they shouldn’t resort to their regular bag of tricks. They were going to make a slapstick comedy, and Star Wars is serious business.

It sounds cliche, but honestly, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I also think that for anyone worrying about the movie--don’t blindly assume it will be good, but hey, people thought Edgar Wright leaving Ant Man was a sign of the impending doom of the movie. From my point of view, that turned out rather well.

Some people have said that Lucasfilm should have known that (a) Lord and Miller are comedic directors and (b) Lord and Miller are much more modern “improv” heavy directors, and thus don’t fit with the Lucasfilm vibe. I don’t think knowing what a director has done in the past automatically means they are always going to work in the same style. Lots of directors change and evolve over time. I mean, Lucas’ first attempt at sci fi was a dystopian near future movie, and then he did a movie about street racing and 1960s youth culture. Neither of those would have pointed towards a pulp science-fantasy franchise.

One of the realities of being the gatekeeper of IP that has been around for 40 years is that you have to make decisions based on preserving what has come before. It is easy to play it too safe, and it’s easy to lose sight of what the franchise should be. Let’s look at Marvel for an example.

Captain America is an institution. People know who Cap is and have expectations about Cap. You can play it super safe and have Cap being an awesome guy that is everything good in the world, beating up obvious, super evil guys. This could get stale. On the other hand, you can push boundaries. You can push boundaries well, and you can push boundaries poorly.

Although the story unfolds differently, the Winter Soldier story in both comics and movie form push boundaries. In the comics, Steve is still the guy that does the right thing, but there is a resigned weariness to him. He knows the right thing. He does the right thing. In his heart, he’s not as sure it will make a difference, but he’s not going to tell anyone else that. In the movie, he has to face the fact that the modern era is a lot different than the time he left. Some things are better, other things are worse, and he has to deal with a lot more nuance.

On the other hand, you have Secret Empire. There is a laudable goal of wanting to show that “there but for the grace of God go I,” and that Steve wasn’t born upright and true. People are molded by circumstance and environment. But it goes a bit too far by wanting the impact of having Steve suddenly being a sleeper agent for a Nazi-adjacent organization, but the cover of saying that Hydra isn’t technically Nazis. Also, everything you knew about everything in Marvel history is wrong. Until it wasn’t wrong and it was actually changed. Until it was actually changed again and you were really wrong.

The point being, it’s getting harder to see the core “Steve” that people like in Captain America, for all of the high end message and canon-manipulating craziness. It may have just been better to have old Steve working with new Sam Cap. It might have been safer, but it was still pushing boundaries to have Sam being the ONE Captain America, while letting Steve have his legacy intact, being the guy we still loved.

That’s the challenge the IP holder has. You need to push forward enough not to stagnate, but not so far that you lose the core of what people loved about your IP. Lord and Miller may have a great movie, and in the end, it may even have “felt right” in the context of the rest of the Star Wars films. However, day in, day out, before the movie was completed, seeing the direction they were going could easily have made Lucasfilm nervous that all of the scenes wouldn’t have come together. No real villains, just a difficult balance between pushing out, but keeping an eye on the shore.

If you are expecting an IP that has been around for decades to constantly do new, exciting, challenging things, I’m not sure you are going to be rewarded. I’m not saying you are a terrible fan for wanting something new, but honestly, innovative, new things are usually just that--new things. Once you have an established fan base, they have expectations, and while you can push those expectations, you can’t entirely ignore them and hope to be successful.

The Han Solo movie was probably the new Star Wars project I was the least excited about. My main expectation is that Han is a lovable, but still morally questionable, scoundrel by the end. It cheapens his character development in the classic trilogy if you make him too much of a hero before he enters the story. While I worry about making him too heroic or morally upright, I’ll also give credit to the modern Star Wars creators because when faced with a similar situation with Lando’s appearance in Rebels, instead of making him a potential Rebel sympathizer, he was full on con man, and that’s what I wanted.

Ron Howard doesn’t excite me as a director, but I don’t dislike him as a director, either. I have enjoyed some Ron Howard movies, and not enjoyed others, but I don’t know that I’ve ever watched one and though that he was incompetent as a director. He’s a safe choice, and after a period of upheaval, it makes sense paddle back towards the shore a bit.

There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere. Let’s just hope a good movie is out there, too.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Virtual Tabletops, The Future, and Me

The first time I every played with a virtual table top was years ago, before there was a Google+ or Hangouts. Back in those days, VTTs, connected with real time texting, and a lot of emphasis was on making the interface pretty.

Not only did I feel disconnected, in a way that was just one step removed from a play by post on a forum, but there were too many bells and whistles for me. I also want to emphasize that is--for me. If I know something can do something, I want to be able to do that thing.

Not too far into the future, I started using Google+ as my primary means of communicating about roleplaying games. Not only was it a great place to find people to discuss games in a way that was far less contentious than RPG forums, all of those RPGs that I wanted to play that didn't have local interest, had interested people online.

Eventually I got to run several really great sessions of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying online, which also allowed me to play with some friends that I had a harder time gaming with face to face. Eventually some tools were developed for Hangouts that allowed dice, dice results, numbers, and phrases to be displayed on the screen, which was all perfect for running Marvel Heroic. There were some tools tailored for RPGs, but only needed to add in what you were using, and what was used was very simple to implement.

Then, time moved on. Roll 20 became a huge thing with online gaming. This is a great thing for the gaming community. I'm not saying anything negative about the actual platform. There is a lot going on, but it also facilitates a lot of different RPG experiences.

But I'm right back where I started. I knew in the past that I had problems with VTTs and obsessing over options. I decided that I wanted to sit down and get comfortable with the platform. I did this for multiple reasons:

  • Increasingly it seems harder to find gamers that are interested in just a "plain" teleconference RPG experience
  • I don't like to get too stagnant with anything, weather its learning new game systems or new ways to game
  • I want a wide range of venues available, in case I can't find interest in the games that I want to try in a given venue
  • I like to game with a wide variety of new gamers--I have a stable Thursday night game, that I love, but I also want to push myself outside of my comfort zone
I spent two hours taking five pages of notes on Roll 20. Then I attempted to replicate what I would do to run my current Thursday night game in Roll 20. I had tons of issues that I didn't think would be issues from either watching the tutorials or from my notes.

  • I kept having options selected that I couldn't deselect, which locked out other options
  • I kept getting lost in what layer I was in, moving from GM, to map, to token level, and not being sure about how I got to that place
  • I had problems being able to select my maps once I uploaded them if I wanted to resize them
  • Apparently you can make your freehand drawings into tokens, but I couldn't make it work
When I first ran into these problems, I was sure that I was terrible at using the interface, and that the problem was me. Then I realize, the problem was me, but it wasn't with my proficiency with the interface. The problem is, I'm never fully comfortable running games. I know that sounds weird. I love doing it, I've done it for a long time, but to paraphrase Doctor Banner, my secret is, I'm never comfortable.

I could do most of what I saw in the tutorials, but if I couldn't do all of it, or if I couldn't do something smoothly, it frustrated me. Knowing that I'm always a little on edge when running a game, anything that isn't going as expected in a game causes a huge cognitive drain on me. It reminded me of why I quit playing Pathfinder.

I have no problem with anyone enjoying Pathfinder. I want people playing games that they enjoy, and I would rather we all feel like we're  part of one big hobby than breaking into tribes within the hobby. But the problem I started having is that when something I felt needed to happen in Pathfinder didn't work right for me, the session got more stressful for me than enjoyable. What finally struck me was that the feeling I was getting from playing with Roll 20 was the same feeling I had when, for example, I would forget my miniatures or a battle mat for Pathfinder. Yes, I could borrow a mat from someone, or I could use the little glass beads I kept my my gaming kit to stand in for miniatures--but but it was something unexpected in a complex system, and that stressed me out.

Conceivably, I could get comfortable enough with the interface that it's not pulling on my cognitive load, but I'm not sure how many stressful sessions I'd have to put myself through before I started to relax. I'm not saying my players would cause that stress, I just know what stresses me out and what I expect to be able to do.

I think online gaming may end up being the future of the hobby. I don't know how far into the future that is. I do think that if we go that direction, there will be a lot more tailored means of providing that online experience. I just hope I don't miss out on too much gaming before I can find an online venue that I'm comfortable with.

Also, thanks again, Google, for removing all that troublesome functionality from your Hangouts. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Halaster’s Maze of Madness (D&D 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guild)

Since I was already digging into my Encoded Designs D&D products, I put this one on the review list next. This adventure hasn’t even been for sale for too long, but what care have I for clearing out my backlog of RPG goodness in a chronological manner? No care at all, say I!

Into the Purple
If you like D&D, and you like purple, this adventure is going to be right up your alley. While The Rakshasa’s Roost had a “cleaner and better formatted but still old school looking” style to it, this one is slick—and purple. So purple. Light purple pages, purple glowing runes as borders, and purple effects on the various headings.

This isn’t a bad thing. It reinforces the themes of ambient magic, glowing runes, and madness in the adventure. I just figured that if you happen to be porphyrophobic, you might want to be warned ahead of time. The adventure is 37 pages long, including 6 pages of maps, a page of magic items, five pages of monsters, and a dramatis personae to keep all the NPCs straight. There is a mix of stock art and art made specifically for this adventure, and I have to say, that’s a sweet minotaur.

Introduction and Adventure Synopsis
There is a one page piece of fiction that introduces the villain’s point of view, that is reminiscent of how the Fantasy Flight Star Wars adventures often open. This gives the GM some perspective for the bad guy. The next section is the adventure synopsis, which summarizes some of the history of Halaster Blackcloak and the Twisted Rune going back several editions of D&D, especially noting the events surrounding the Expedition to Undermountain adventure from 3rd edition, where Halaster met his end.

The introduction does a good job of summarizing a lot of previous Realmslore into a digestible package, and, getting a bit ahead of myself, there is thankfully a way for this information to come up in the adventure and be relevant, so that it’s not just extra backstory that doesn’t affect the PCs.

There is a quick summary of the assumed sequence of events, as well as a discussion on XP awards for completing quests related to the story.

The Body of the Adventure
The basic structure of the adventure is that someone possessed by a fragment of Halaster’s soul seeks out the adventurers to warn them something bad is about to happen, but being fragmentary, the child can’t provide much in the way of explanation. The group gets led to more people possessed by Halaster’s soul, and each one has some clues that the PCs will need in order to solve their way through a magical maze. When they make it through the maze, they confront an old enemy of Halaster’s who is, himself, not quite feeling like his old self.

I like that the PCs need to interact with multiple NPCs to get their clues, and the fact that some of those possessed by Halaster have information that has nothing to do with this adventure. It makes even talking to the NPCs an integral part of the adventure, so they don’t just find one character and get an info dump from them.

The opening feels a little rushed. I understand jumping straight into the action, but I think I would have almost preferred that the PCs have a little more time to breathe and discuss the situation. If I were to run this, instead of the random portal to Undermountain, I might have the PCs directed to the Yawning Portal, to an alcove in the entrance level of Undermountain, to at least introduce the connection between the Yawning Portal and Undermountain. That said, I know that Halaster and random portals into Undermountain, far removed from its physical location, are an established trope of the setting.

The pacing feels as if it’s being written to get this adventure done in a standard four-hour slot, if the players stay focused on their goal, but there is enough material to decompress and play, if the GM utilizes some of the hooks built into the adventure.

Clues and Puzzles
I’ll admit it. I’m not always a fan of “real world” puzzles in adventures. Often it feels like something that is obvious to the author isn’t going to be obvious even to the brightest of players if they don’t have the same frame of reference and experiences as the author. The cleverer the puzzle is, the more likely that either the players are right in line with the author and get it immediately, or the players will never, ever, follow that line of thinking. Additionally, some players that might not want to figure out puzzles just tune out during that segment of the game.

Despite all of those above misgivings, solving a puzzle can feel very rewarding, and it is a trope of the genre. It also something that doesn’t feel nearly as rewarding if it’s relegated to a skill or ability check. So, I can see why puzzles still show up in adventures.

In this adventure, there is a puzzle in attempting to figure out the sequence of clues delivered, and then there are a few places where these clues must be implemented. I think these clues walk the line very nicely between pointlessly easy and time-wastingly hard, to the point that I can see that, at a table of 4-6 people, someone is going to come up with the solution quickly. There are also some built-in checks to nudge the PCs in the right direction.

Specifically, these clues and puzzles relate to navigating the magical maze mentioned above. The maze requires the PCs to do something in each area to leave that area in the proper manner to advance towards their ultimate goal.

Most of the encounters involve standard combat with a twist, such as a dangerous environment, potential hostage situation, or a similar complication. Many of the monsters that appear are also standard monsters with a twist, such as gnolls that have thematic, triggered abilities, or magically mutated zombies that complicate the use of magic to defeat them.

Depending on how well versed they are in Realmslore, the final boss fight gives the PCs a chance to take out a long running villain of the setting in a unique manner. It’s kind of nice to have the PCs acting against a home grown Forgotten Realms villain, rather than importing one from another campaign setting. Cough.

Future Developments
While the introduction feels like it rushes into the situation to get to the action, there is a lot of secondary information that doesn’t directly pertain to this adventure. This information is usually summarized quickly, so that it’s not taking up pages of text, but does spell out that there can be more going on if the GM wants to develop those hooks.

A Round at the Yawning Portal
The adventure does a good job of using the setting of the Forgotten Realms for its basis, but in a way, that is broad enough to appeal to people that have never invested heavily in the lore. The puzzles managed to walk the line between providing a feeling of accomplishment without the players feeling like Batman trying to outwit the Riddler. The adventure also manages to make use of the weird properties of Undermountain to deliver some context for the quirky encounters that are presented.

Pouring One Out for Fallen Friends
The adventure is great once it gets going, but the beginning is a bit abrupt, and while it spends some time discussing the resolution of the plight of some of the people in the adventure, it doesn’t dwell on how exactly to deal with the logistics of resolving the situation other than in very broad strokes. This may not be wholly negative, but it does give the impression of an episode of a TV series where you cut to the action and assume that once the bad guy is defeated, all the people potentially imperiled by the situation will be safe “off screen,” because the action is over.

Inspiration from Madness
The adventure is very clear on how to run it, and has many options for expanding its use. It walks a very well-crafted line between being a good adventure on its face and utilizing the tools that the campaign setting itself provides. Back in the 3.5 days of Dungeon Magazine, when people were asking for more Forgotten Realms specific adventures, this is the type of adventure I wanted to see. If you want a self-contained adventure for 5th edition D&D, I don’t think you are going to regret picking this one up.

**** (out of five)