Sunday, July 23, 2017

Heart, Minds, and Polyhedral Amunition

 I saw an article posted recently about the "Satanic Panic" and the "War Against D&D." It wasn't a new article, but I've seen it and several like it floating around in the last few years. Many of these articles are written from the perspective of people that had their hobby curtailed in that time period, and the villain of the piece often tends to be fundamentalist Christians. Every time I see this characterization, I have a lot of thoughts, and instead of posting them in lots of places, here or there, I decided just to summarize them here.

The Real War

The borders of this "war" and its "sides" have always been poorly understood--the war never ended, its shifted fronts from heavy metal to D&D to video games, to hip hop, and back again.

It always seems to be forgotten in these discussions that it wasn't just televangelists like Pat Robertson decrying D&D. There were psychologists and law enforcement officials that also saw D&D as a growing menace, and there were television talk shows and news programs that gave all those groups threatened by D&D an almost unopposed voice.

People might question one source of authority when that authority demonizes something new and unknown, but when you have religious, medical, and legal institutions getting in on the act, suddenly it seems like a real threat.

However, just as important as realizing who had the microphone is realizing who the "troops" were in this fight. I'm in my 40s and a parent myself now. I hope I have not blindly jumped on any trends in a fit of over-protectiveness, but I think people are too hard on the parents that were acting in good faith.

Almost every parent I know lives in mortal fear that their child will suffer pain or may make terrible, life-altering decisions that we didn't see in time. Even if you are close with your children, the teenage years are those years where we naturally begin to pull away, to become our own person. Because of that, it's very easy for a parent to lose track of some aspect of their child's life.

So when a child does something like taking their own life, its is a natural reaction to be horrified and to feel guilty. And to continue to go forward, a parent that suffers those loses needs to have a purpose, and they may feel the need to exonerated of their complicity in the death of their child.

If you offer that person a external force to blame, that gives them something to work against, and something to take their guilt away from them.

Not every parent has the time and resources to research everything that interests their child, so if news programs are serving up "facts" for them in easily digestible segments, how much can you blame them for accepting that information? Let those of us without jumped upon conclusions cast the first stone.

If there is anyone close to an actual villain in this situation, it's the people that see something new and strange (to them) that they have no desire to find more information about, and yet are fully willing to state, as a fact, that new and different thing is, indeed, dangerous.

None of this is meant to imply that you shouldn't correct incorrect information. It does mean that the goal should probably be understanding, rather than "winning." Its also worth noting that that portraying this as a war that has been won is, in it self, a matter of skewed perspective. 

Ceasefire versus Armistice 

Because shows like Game of Thrones and movies like the Lord of the Rings have become popular, we equate that popularity with "winning" this war. For many, many people that were concerned about D&D, it wasn't just the subject matter that wrong, bad, and evil. It was actively participating in an activity with those topics that would "warp" the player. Remember that some of the people that hold this opinion can firmly hang onto their cognitive dissonance that they can watch porn, and that's perfectly normal, but someone that does those things in that video, in real life--those people have a moral issue.

I can personally attest to having run into people that think D&D died back in the 80s, and their "side" clearly "won." What does a fantasy movie have to do with that very specific, evil, Steam Tunnels and Suicide game? I mean, in that game, people actively participate in spellcasting, while dressed in costume, and rolling funny dice. What does that have to do with the pretty little blonde girl and her dragons?

Watch enough episodes of Forensic Files. Eventually you will find a story, produced in the last few years, where a police official equates participation in Dungeons and Dragons as an indication of potential dangerous mental instability. Bonus points if the person is shown to be interested in an RPG that isn't actually D&D, but they still bring up D&D.

The war never ended. There was no winner. The war is a battle of fear of the unknown versus information. The front shifts all the time.

War Stories

It's been a long time since my only real, notable contribution to this battle, and it goes back to my 7th grade Sunday School class. We were about to participate in a unit on the evils of roleplaying games. Several of the kids in class dabbled in D&D, but I was the one that actually volunteered to the teachers that I played.

I offered to run a game of D&D in front of the class to show just how harmless the hobby was. The teachers, to their credit, said they wanted to look at the books and materials involved in the game before they said it was alright. After I spoke up, one of the other kids in the class volunteered their brother's DMG, and I gave up my Expert set book for a week.

The next week, we were told that the teachers were a little concerned about some of the material, but none of it was much worse than what you might see in a horror movie at the time. I will admit, I'm glad we didn't volunteer the Monster Manual. 

In front of the class, I ran a game where we had a cleric, wizard, fighter, and thief. They ran into a giant crocodile and some lizard folk. No one carved eldritch symbols into their flesh, and I'm almost 100% certain no demons possessed anyone during the session.

While those teachers were doing Sunday school classes, they never had a unit on the evils of Dungeons and Dragons again. That said, when we had the unit on heavy metal music, I decided Vince Neil and company could defend themselves. I knew the wisdom of picking my battles.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting (5th Edition OGL)

I have so many RPG products to review in my backlog. So why not review something that just came out? That’s a good strategy, right?

In this case, after listening to the first 20 episodes of the Critical Role podcast, I was a little curious to see how the setting would look in a game product. Not only did I want to see how a media property like this would translate, I was curious about the fact that the setting has migrated across multiple game systems.

So, the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting jumps the list and gets reviewed next.

What This Product Isn’t
Because I’ve seen some discussion of this product online, and speculation on what is and isn’t included, I thought it might be worthwhile to set some expectations up front. The following things are worth noting about the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting:

  • None of the custom classes or class archetypes that Matthew Mercer has released on the Dungeon Master’s Guild are found in this guide
  • There are no player character stats for the members of Vox Machina—in fact, most members of the team are only mentioned when they have a specific role in a government or organization detailed in the book
  • While the exploits of the adventuring party are mentioned in various places in the book, there is no specific timeline of Vox Machina’s adventures in this book

Artistic Enterprises
So, what does this book look like? Well, up front, I’ll mention that this is all based on the PDF copy, which is the only thing available at the time I’m writing this review. If you have seen the Dragon Age RPG hardcover, you have a general idea of what the inside of this book looks like. Lots of splashes of red on parchment colored pages, with some nice formatting and fonts.

There are many full and half page pieces of art, including images from the setting’s history, moments from the adventures of Vox Machina, and large pieces of cartography. There are also some very nice looking holy symbols and sigils for various gods and factions in the setting, as well as a few NPCs and monsters.

As part of the formatting, there are various quotes and sidebars that appear as part of the book as well. The book looks really good, and comes in at 144 pages. Those pages include an OGL page and an index.

Chapter 1: Campaigns in Tal’Dorei
This section contains information on the history of the setting, the pantheon of gods in the setting, the races of Tal’Dorei, and the factions and societies of Tal’Dorei.

The history of the setting is workable, but it’s very easy to see a lot of the “points of light” default assumptions of 4th edition D&D on display. Additionally, the history feels a bit sparse, except for where it directly contributes to the backstory of the adventures of Vox Machina.

Anyone that has been around d20 fantasy gaming in the last decade is likely to pick out the pantheon of gods, which is a collection of 4th edition D&D divinities mixed with select members of the Golarion pantheon from the Pathfinder setting. In this case, however, those divinities have their proper names filed off, so that the gods are named for their titles and traits. I do think it’s worth noting that the idea that aberrations are the dreams of the god known as the Chained Oblivion is a pretty cool idea.

The races of the setting are fairly standard, and other than the Dragonborn, there isn’t any mechanical notes on Tal’Dorei specific sub-races. While there aren’t a lot of surprises in this section, there are a few nice touches. Elves and dwarves have some of their more negative aspects played up, so while they are certainly recognizable, they don’t come across as paragons of whatever you might call the “goodly” races. Both elves and dwarves have aspects of ugly racism on display. Possibly my favorite twist in this section, however, is the subtle tweak to the drow.

The drow are, indeed, evil elves that live underground. They lost a war, and were exiled—but instead of being the “owners” of the underdark, sneering at everyone while enjoying their depravity, the drow of Tal’Dorei became harder and more twisted because the underdark is filled with crazy aberrations. The drow are dying out, and they die horribly. They either become harsh tyrants to survive, or they start to succumb to the insanity around them. Driders are drow that aren’t just big fans of their Spider Queen (yeah, she shows up without her full name in the pantheon), they are drow that decided “if you can’t beat them, join them,” and go full on monster to help deal with the horrors of the underdark.

My absolute favorite part of this chapter, however, are the factions. The organizations are listed with goals, relationships, and NPCs of note. There are a variety of organizations, including competing wide-scale criminal organizations, wizard schools, organized professional fighters, regional councils, monster hunters, entertainers, and cultists. These are large organizations with goals and people to interact with. Out of this whole chapter, this is the part of the setting that really caught my interest. There is a lot of millage you can get from these organizations and their machinations.

Chapter 2: Gazetteer of Tal’Dorei
This chapter takes the reader on a tour of the various regions and nations of the setting. The best part of this chapter is the end of each entry. The final thing each region has is one or more suggested adventures that would trigger from that location. That is exactly the kind of thing I wish more campaign setting books would do. Show me the setting, but give me some hints on how I’m to use this at the table.

Tal’Dorei is only one continent in this world, so the final section of the gazetteer is a quick view of the surrounding lands. Oddly, most of the lands in Tal’Dorei are described almost entirely “in setting,” the Distant Regions all have real world references to give the reader an idea of what a setting or culture might look like.

Chapter 3: Character Options
This section has information on class options, backgrounds, new feats, magic items, and optional campaign rules. Much of the information in this chapter is easily portable to any 5th edition campaign, although I’ve got some thoughts on that coming up.

There is a cleric domain and archetypes for sorcerers, barbarians, and monks. Blood, runes, and charging through you enemies is standard fare for a fantasy setting, but they are also solid additions to the game rules. The monk archetype, which has powers that let the monk learn information about an opponent and potentially debuff them, is an interesting twist.

The backgrounds deal with thieves’ guilds, wizard’s schools, druidic circles, and former cultists. Most of the setting specific information is found in these backgrounds, and I really like that. Backgrounds are definitely a way to bring across the unique aspects of your setting. But while it may be nice to tie yourself to a specific criminal organization or wizard school of importance, I’m not as sold on the Fated background, which is actually a meta-background that you can give to someone that already has a background, and maybe you don’t tell them about it.

The next part of this chapter includes new feats. Most of these are utilitarian, and will do a good job of reinforcing a theme with a character, but some are worth noting. Spelldriver and Dual Focused break the spellcasting rules of 5th edition, by allowing a caster to cast more than one spell a round or concentrate on more than one spell. Now, you might say “well, spending one feat to break the rules shouldn’t cause any problems, right?” You are wrong and you should feel bad. No, you shouldn’t, I take that back. However, consider this—what if you have a druid, a cleric, and a wizard in the group, and they all decide that it would be fun to concentrate on extra spells. That’s not one extra buff spell, that’s multiple potential extra buffs floating around your game. I like the Thrown Arms Master feat, but it seems odd that it mentions the weapon “boomeranging” back to the thrower. I can buy the way over the top ricochet (I’ve read enough Captain America comics), but boomeranging hand axes seem a little over the top, especially from a non-magical feat. That's just a matter of description, however. 

The Vestiges of Divergence are an interesting set of magic items. Billed as weapons bestowed by the gods and/or used by heroes of legend, these are meant to be powerful magic items that level up over time. While a DM can decide to unlock them earlier, there are suggested levels at which the two extra stages of power become available to the PCs, after they take special actions related to the nature or mission of the item. For such legendary items, there isn’t a lot of history associated with these items, which doesn’t do much to build the setting’s story, but does make them fairly portable to other settings.

The final section details some optional rules that a DM might introduce into the game. My particular favorites are the quick short rest that adds a level of exhaustion, and the roleplaying assisted resurrection checks.

Chapter 4: Allies and Adversaries
This chapter starts with some backstory of where some of the monsters of the setting come from, and how they interact with the setting. After that, we get a section on NPCs and monsters native to the setting.

There are some nice tweaks to monster origins. Centaur origins are tied to both elves and orcs. The goblin races were tactically mutated by a god to serve specific purposes in his army. Cloud giants are ruled by married kings. My favorite monster tweak is to the fey, giving them an especially mutable nature.

In the stat blocks, we get some elemental druids, slag elementals, thieves’ guild members, cyclops spellcasters, goliath NPCs, dwarf paladins, alchemically assisted abnormally large orcs, and cultists.
The monster tweaks are interesting, and the stat blocks are all easily portable to be used in other games.

Critical Roll
There are some nice subverted tropes in the setting, such as undead creatures that steal unmarried males. Some of the monster backgrounds have some nice twists to them, while still being recognizable. The mechanical options are easily portable and fills some interesting thematic niches. The organizations allow for lots of political maneuvering. The regional suggested adventures reinforce the theme of the region and make them directly usable at the table.

Cocked Die
The history and pantheon sections have some obvious seams when it comes to the Pathfinder and 4th edition D&D inspirations. The tone of the material can sometimes vacillate a bit between over the top or slightly stilted. Areas of the setting that don’t play into Vox Machina’s backstory don’t seem quite as vibrant as those areas that have played into the main plot of the campaign.

How Do You Want To Do This?
The book is gorgeous, and there is a lot of portable material in the book, even if you aren’t interested in using the setting for your games. If you are coming into this setting “cold,” with no preferences, I’m not sure there is enough to give this setting the nod over more established settings like the Forgotten Realms or Kobold Press’ Midgard setting, and for long time gamers, seeing the obvious inclusion of “not quite” Golarion and “Points of Light” campaign aspects might lower overall enjoyment.

That said, who’s buying this thing cold? The book gives you a lot of context for the people and places featured in the campaign being played on the show. The show has brought a lot of new players to the game, so a gamer that is new to D&D and looking for a place to set their adventures is going to have a solid campaign setting that manages to avoid some of the more cringe-worthy tropes that are hard wired into a decades old game.

With all of that in mind, I don’t think a D&D 5th edition player is going to be upset with this purchase. Fans of the setting, especially ones with less exposure to other campaign settings, are likely to enjoy it a bit more, but either way, it’s a worthwhile buy with a few quirks.

*** (out of Five)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Getting on Board for Critical Role

For quite a while, I saw people discussing Critical Role, some D&D show on YouTube or Twitch, or some other place on the internet. I had been watching Wil Wheaton's Tabletop from time to time, so I knew it had something to do with this Geek and Sundry thing.

I had watched actual play videos, and listened to actual play podcasts in the past. Heck, eventually, I ran an actual play for Marvel Heroic through hangouts on YouTube. I understood the concept, and, especially when it came to games I hadn't seen played before, I liked to see what people were doing with the game system.

I had even watched a few of the "celebrity D&D" episodes with Vin Diesel and later Joe Manganeillo. They were amusing, but the impression I got was that the show was super overproduced, mainly to showcase Matthew Mercer's voice acting as he ran a game. Also, I have a really bad habit of growing more skeptical of content when the "awesome" to "constructive criticism" ratio gets too high. I mean, it helped me avoid Avatar for years, what could be wrong with listening to my skeptical guts? I'm also going to admit that the Force Grey episodes that Mercer ran at the launch of Storm King's Thunder didn't win me over, in large part because several cast members were very invested in over the top mugging for the camera, and it didn't feel like a game was being played, it felt like an improv act with dice. In retrospect, none of that really seemed to be Mercer's fault. 

Upon listening to other actual plays, I learned what I liked and what I didn't like. I like comedic one shot games, or story arcs, especially if that's the theme of the game being played. I don't tend to like more "serious" games being played for all out comedy, or relatively structured games that are played in an actual play with almost no reference to the rules. It's not that there is anything wrong with actual plays of that nature, it's just that my brain has developed a preference for "hearing the game" when a game is being played. No matter how good or entertaining, when I can't make out mechanics or a recognizable flow of a game, I start to get frustrated. That's totally a preference thing on my part.

I'll also admit that when I watch an actual play on YouTube, "watch" is a very loose term for what I do. I often have YouTube minimized while I'm doing other things, like prepping for a game or taking notes for a review. The exception to this is usually when I'm watching Tabletop (or Titansgrave) when they feature a roleplaying game, because the graphical presentation is set up to actually highlight the rules being used.

I was pleasantly surprised by some of the bits of the Stream of Annihilation that I watched. It seemed like there was less over the top comedic mugging, and more people playing different styles of D&D. Some may have been more comedic than others, but they seemed like they were gaming, and enjoying the game. In addition, this brought my attention to the anniversary of Critical Role.

In conjunction with the anniversary of Critical Role, the earlier episodes started to get converted to audio podcasts. I decided to check them out.

My earlier impressions had been way off. This wasn't an overproduced group of people that were just there so Matthew Mercer could do voice work. This was a group of friends that was having fun playing D&D. There was comedy, but not really all that much more than most games I have been involved with. They were using the rules to guide them to tell a collective story. That's actually what I'm looking for in an actual play, boiled down to base elements.

Now, I do think that some people may end up over-hyping the show. Matthew Mercer is an excellent voice actor, and it shows, and he is a good DM, but I don't think he's the platonic ideal of all game mastering.


  • Friends playing a recognizable game enthusiastically
  • Awesome vocal range from a crew of people that are trained for that kind of thing
  • A dedicated and talented GM

  • Wow, these are long episodes
  • With minimal editing comes stuff that almost of gamers do that isn't all that entertaining to others
  • From time to time, Mercer takes a bit more narrative control of the players when resolving things than I like 
All of that aside, I can see why the show has attracted a following. It's on my podcatcher list now, and every few weeks, when multiple episodes hit, I tend to move those long, long, episodes to the back end of my listening (where they tend to cut more into my audiobook time than my podcast time).

In fact, I was interested enough in the show that I ended up getting the PDF of the Tal'dorei Campaign Setting from Green Ronin. I'll get around to reviewing it eventually, but I was curious to see what they included, and how they framed some elements of the setting, given that it's cobbled together from bits of Pathfinder and previous editions of D&D.

As a gaming artifact to see how a home game transfers over to a professionally produced campaign setting, I'm interested to see how this product turned out.

If by some insane bit of random luck Matthew Mercer ever sees this--I am really sorry. You and your friends have a really good thing going on.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

D&D Beyond, Pricing, and a Glimpse at the Future

It looks like we now know what the pricing structure is going to look like for D&D Beyond. It's still relatively new information, and I can't claim to know all of the ins and outs. I'll be honest--the website, when I was using it, didn't seem bad, but it also didn't seem like it was providing anything I couldn't find elsewhere (such as the rules included with Roll 20). When I played with the character creator, it may have been a massive fail on my part, but I wasn't quite getting the hang of creating characters.

You might chalk that character creator thing up to me being an old man, but I spent years making characters on Hero Lab for Mutants and Masterminds and Pathfinder, so I'm used to a fairly complex set of features for a character creation program.

Still, it didn't look bad. It just looked a little limited while still in the test phase. Now, we have a roll out date, and some prices.

  • Digital Sourcebooks (such as Volo's Guide to Monsters or Xanathar's Guide to Everything): $29.99
  • Hardcover Adventure Content: $24.99
  • Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual (for a limited time): $19.99
  • Monthly Hero Tier Subscription: $2.99 (No ads, unlimited characters, can share custom content)
  • Monthly Master Tier Subscription: $5.99 (as above, but can share locked content with players in a campaign)
Several things spring to mind. These are just gut level reactions, not well reasoned or thought out analysis.

  • I really wish for an ongoing monthly subscription, that the "big three" rulebooks would have been included
  • The prices seem a little steeper than what some companies might charge for the PDFs, and this content is locked into a proprietary website/app setup
  • It didn't even occur to me that they were going to supplement free use of the site/tools with ads--this has me a little concerned at how invasive the ads will be
  • While this is a little steep compared to some company's PDF pricing, you could argue that the content being available in digital tools makes up for that, especially if you factor in paying for unlocking content, say, in Hero Lab for Pathfinder, as an example
  • That is a big, up front investment, however, even if you are just going Player's Handbook, DMG, Monster Manual, Sourcebooks, and one adventure--may not be as painful once established, but it's painful up front
  • The pricing model makes me worry about introducing new players into the hobby and keeping them in D&D, by itself (I know, it's not WOTC or Curse's job to introduce players to the wider world of RPGs)
  • It seems kind of strange that this seems to be directly competing, at least on some level, with both Fantasy Grounds and Roll 20 and their paid digital content--not having an integrated digital plan may be messy for D&D for a while 
Again, no deep analysis, just some initial, knee-jerk reactions to reading the most concrete details we have gotten on the pricing plan so far.

What Do I Know About Reviews? Kobold Guide Mega-Review (World Building, Magic, Combat, Plots and Campaigns)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering. In enjoyed it quite a bit, and didn’t regret the purchase, but gave it three stars. My logic was that while the book provided valuable, entertaining content, other GM advice books have come out that have a more unified approach with more actionable practices.

While I’ll definitely stand by that assessment, I enjoyed the book enough that I ended up, over the course of a few weeks (and a few strategically placed sales) to pick up several more of the Kobold Guides. Since I have digested these in a relatively short period of time, I’m going to do an experiement here on the blog. I’m going to do a mass review of several other books in the Kobold Guide line.

Kobold Family Traits

This review is covering the Kobold Guide to World Building, the Kobold Guide to Magic, the Kobold Guide to Combat, and the Kobold Guide to Plots and Campaigns. There are other books in the line, but some of the older books in the line have a different look to them.

These books all have attractive full color art on the cover, minimal black and white interior art, and clear internal formatting for each section and chapter. The books are digest sized soft cover offerings. They look nice and clean, and sit on a shelf well with some of the later Engine Publishing books, for example.

All of these books are available as PDFs or from various epublication sites. Unfortunately there aren’t any bundles that include both the PDF and the ebook version of the guide. Physical copies are also available (as of the time of writing this, I’ve only got the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering in physical form).

In addition to PDF, ebook, and physical, the Kobold Guide to World Building is available as an audiobook. This was a nice surprise, and I hope that the foray into audiobooks does well enough for Kobold Press that they release more of their books in this manner.

The Kobold Guide to World Building

This is a really big picture book. It addresses how to build a world from scratch, what your philosophy on building that world should be, and why you might not want to details some elements of the world. Some essays also touch on the needs of a fictional world versus the needs of a game world. There are also a few that address pantheons and religion.

Authors include Ken Scholes, Wolfgang Baur, Monte Cook, Chris Pramas, Keith Baker, Jeff Grubb, Jonathan Roberts, Michael A. Stackpole, Steve Winter, Dave “Zeb” Cook, Scott Hungerford, and Janna Silverstein.

While some game systems might have discussions on world building, there are a few essays that go in directions that I haven’t seen discussed in depth. Additionally, while the focus is on rolelaying games, there is some discussion on background settings for other product lines, such as minis games, video games, and novels as well. Its a broad treatment, and very entertaining.

There is less overlap on the topics covered than in some of the essays in the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering, and where there are similar topics (such as religion) the authors go in very different directions in what they cover. Don’t expect detailed recaps or summaries, or even rigorous procedures for creating a world, but there is a lot to like on a wide variety of topics.

**** (out of five)

The Kobold Guide to Magic

The Kobold Guide to Magic is a discussion on magic in roleplaying settings. It isn’t about any one setting or game system, so it’s a zoomed out discourse on how you might want magic to feel in a setting, what kind of impact it should have, and how much you want to quantify the rules of magic in your game. While I have seen discussions of magic in game settings in the past, I haven’t seen many books fully dedicated to the topic, and not married to one particular magical tone or theme. For example, the book, as a whole, doesn’t advocate for magic as technology, low magic, or high magic, but discusses all of those approaches.

Authors include Monte Cook, Jeff Grubb, Clinton J. Boomer, Amber E. Scott, Wolfgang Baur, Ken Scholes, Ed Greenwood, Willie Walsh, David Chart, James Jacobs, Colin McComb, Kenneth Hite, Aaron Rosenberg, John D. Rateliff, Thomas M. Reid, James Enge, F. Wesley Schneider, Martha Wells, Richard Pett, David “Zeb” Cook, Steve Winter, and Tim Pratt.

There are essays on gender based magic, culturally influenced magic, secret societies, and how magic use might be punished or constrained in a setting. Like all of the Kobold Guides, these are a series of essays, and while they all touch on the same topic, they aren’t coordinated, and generally don’t have a specific plan for implementation. That said, magic is a broad and interesting topic, and the authors assembled do a good job discussing it in a way that makes for lively reading. The advice is broad enough to be useful in many different game systems.

**** (out of five)

The Kobold Guide to Combat

Like the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering, this book is divided up into smaller topics, under the main topic of combat in roleplaying games. Those sub-categories are The Big Picture, Environments, Arm Yourself!, The Right Character for the Job, and One More Thing. Under those categories, we get essays on why combat is prevalent in storytelling, how to make combat more interesting by describing elements like weather and terrain, discussions on weapons and equipment in combat, and the roles that specialized characters play in a combat situation.

Authors include Janna Silverstein, Jeff Grubb, Chris Pramas, Steve Winter, Diana Pharoah Francis, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Wolfgang Baur, Rory Miller, Ed Greenwood, Colin McComb, Steven Robert, Richard Pett, Aaron Rosenberg, Miranda Horner, Mario Podeschi, John A. Pitts, Ken Scholes, Carlos Ovalle, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Rob Heinsoo, and Clinton J. Boomer.

I definitely enjoyed this volume. None of the essays were fell flat, but combat, tactics, and battlefield details are definitely topics that have been touched on in other sources in the past. A few of the essays veer a bit more into discussing mechanics of specific games than in the other Kobold Guides, specifically some digressions into Pathfinder and 13th Age mechanics. It’s probably unavoidable when essays go into tactics, but there is a bit more discussion of mechanizing more aspects of the game to reflect certain kinds of combat situations.

One essays that especially stood out to me was Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s discussion of healers in combat and the mindset of people that have to heal in the face of warfare.

*** (out of five)

The Kobold Guide to Plots and Campaigns

This book is about designing campaigns, story arcs, and ongoing game elements. Much like the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering, this one has a bit more of an uphill battle, since this topic has been touched upon by a lot of books, articles, and podcasts over the years. Topics in this book include creating unified themes in a campaign, using published adventures, running evil campaigns, giving weight to action scenes, designing NPCs and villains, complex plots, story hooks, letting go of expectations as a GM, creating generational stories, and using cliffhangers.

Authors include James Jacobs, Jeff Grubb, Wolfgang Baur, Robert J. Schwalb, Steve Winter, Clinton J. Boomer, Kevin Kulp, Margaret Weis, Ree Soebee, Richard Pett, Ben McFarland, Steve Winter, Zeb Cook, and Amber E. Scott.

This is an enjoyable book to read. All of the essays are engaging, and none of them are boring. As mentioned at the top of this mini-review, however, very little of this is brand new material that hasn’t been discussed a lot in the past. Reading all of these in a relatively short period of time shows some overlap of ideas and suggestions between this book and the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering and even the Kobold Guide to Combat. Reading good advice that is well written is never a bad thing, but if it’s similar to what you have read before, it does make it less of a “must have” on the list of gaming products to buy and consume.

One particular stand out in all of this was Zeb Cook’s article, and follow up adventure. The article discusses creating a very loose structure for an adventure, and filling in details based on some questions asked of the players. The final essay took what Cook detailed in the previous essay and showed what that adventure would look like. I loved this, and I wish a few more of the articles had a more methodical follow up showing the practices outlined in the previous article. A few more of these “example” essays to build on the previous advice, and I would have easily bumped this up in my ratings.

*** (out of five)

The Big Kobold in the Room

I am old. I had a subscription to Dragon Magazine from almost the time I started playing my first session of D&D. My favorite articles were often the “philosophical” discussions of running a game, rather than specific mechanical articles.

This has a number of effects on me. I remember a lot of content similar to what is in the Kobold Guides, and that may jade my opinion on what is “new” or not. On the other hand, it certainly draws me to buy and read more content that is in line with that material from the past.

The Dragon Magazine articles of this nature were not nearly as consistent in quality or engagement as the Kobold Guides. I may flounder a bit on whether I think an individual volume is “good” or “very good,” but the line, as a whole, is the kind of thing I want to see continue for a long time into the future. Ironically, the longer the line continues, the more it will probably cover ground I’ve seen covered in the past.

I’m saying most of this as a general warning about my bias. I can’t read any GMing advice as someone new to the hobby. My perspective is hard-wired into me, no matter how much I try to remove myself from my limited perspective.

The overall quality of this line can’t really be questioned. My opinions just show what order I would prioritize picking them up and consuming them, when measured against one another, and other game philosophy/advice material out there.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Down with D&D 107--Some Thoughts on Adventure Design and Presentation From a Total Consumer

Down With D&D Last Week

The Down with D&D Podcast had a really interesting discussion on how adventures should be written and presented on their 7-15-2017 episode. I had enough thoughts on the topic that I wanted to share them here, on the blog, to keep people from getting too lost in my ramblings, and to quarantine my thoughts from the rest of the internet, here on my nice, safe, easy to avoid blog.

First off, I have never sold an adventure to anyone in my entire life. I won an RPGA contest back in 1994 for a $50 gift certificate. So that is the grand total of my professional experience when it comes to writing adventures. I have, however, had many thoughts on the topic, after running a lot of Pathfinder Society, Pathfinder Adventure Path adventures, multiple instances of Lost Mines of Phandelver, Storm King’s Thunder, and a whole bunch of adventure reviews on the blog.

Text Book Format

There is a certain irony in Christopher Sniezak mentioning the textbook format for adventures. I just recently use that term in a derogatory manner to describe trying to learn Hero System. I think the term has defaulted to a derogatory term in the RPG industry, but I think the point is that people are assuming that “text book” means, “big book that has lots of facts that may not be relevant to what you want to learn,” rather than “book that has, as its primary design goal, imparting specific information.”

Having fairly recently finished another return to school, modern text books actually do have a lot of worthwhile features to them. There are often sidebars on specific topics, call-outs to pages where information has been previously covered, and summaries at the end of various sections that bullet point the main takeaways from a larger topic.

Bullet pointing, summarizing, and cross-referencing are all things that modern adventures could do a much better job utilizing. 

I recently did a review of a Star Wars adventure. Overall, I thought it was good. However, I missed that if you literally use one of the NPCs responses to a question, the dates he gives make no sense for the setting (having his father killed by the Empire before the Clone Wars!). I didn’t catch this, but if I read it straight from the book, and a player caught that, it would have caused latency at the table, as people attempted to figure out if this was suppose to be a clue that the NPC was lying, or was just a mistake in the adventure text.

I really think that any information that an NPC is giving out should be distilled to the lowest common denominator and bullet-pointed. If the GM wants to use more detail, they can. If they want to paraphrase, they can. But the information in the bullet points is what that NPC needs to convey, at the very least, to make their part of the adventure work.

Adventures really need to cross-reference more, as well. There are many, many times when an NPC is referenced in a discussion of another, more immediately important NPC, and without any kind of indexing or call-outs, its very easy to assume that the other NPC referenced isn’t a major NPC of any consequence, unless that is clearly stated in the current NPC's description.

The only company that I can think of currently that utilizes contextual page references on a regular basis is Monte Cook Games, which has the “third column” layout for page references and additional information as a standard in all of their products.

Real Railroads

I know this discussion has happened many times in the past, but I’m hearing it come up again in various places, regarding “railroads” and what constitutes one. Rather than get into any deep discussion of this, I’ll just put this out there--I don’t know that some players have every had the “fun” of having a GM literally tell them that your character would not do something, and that they instead do this thing described in the adventure, taking your character's actions out of your hands.

That’s not just a linear adventure, that’s literally playing someone else’s character for them. That is really annoying. “You spend some time looking around and don’t find any leads” is way less of a railroad than “you feel that you must do this thing that hasn’t occurred to you (the player), and you must do that thing now or else lose track of the current adventure forever--and now you do it. Check back in when it's time to run your own character again soon!"

What Will The Adventurers Do 

Shawn Merwin mentioned asking “what will the Adventurers do” as a way of designing an encounter, and the discussion moved into how difficult it might be to design around that mindset, as players can have infinite ideas on how to resolve even a relatively simple seeming problem.

That said, I do think there is some value to asking that question, but I think it’s more valuable to ask it more as “what is the craziest, most plot destructive thing the PCs could do.” In that case, you aren’t planning for an infinite number of things the PCs could come up with, just looking for the things that would cause the adventure to come to an abrupt end by resolving the encounter in an unexpected way, and planning for how to either shortcut to the end or keep that premature ending from happening without taking away player agency.

Fantasy Home Base

The discussion about “what will the PCs do” also touched on where to the players come from, from a fantasy media standpoint.I was at the ground floor of this shift in D&D, and yet was a bit too young to notice it. 1st edition AD&D and much of what came before it assumed a much more “gritty” basis for most adventurers. You want to get rich and famous. Your archetypes are Fafhrd, Mouser, and Conan.
That doesn’t mean you won’t want to save the world, but your primary motivation will be that you are saving the world because you live there and that’s where your stuff is at. Also, it may be fun, because as an adventurer you tend to be a thrill seeker.

The baseline assumption seemed to be that the adventurers were probably neutral, but may be good, and the adventure hooks flowed from that logic. In 2nd edition, that assumption largely shifted to “the PCs are probably good, but may be neutral,” so a lot more hooks shifted to “someone needs help, and it may also be profitable, maybe.” I think by the middle of an adventure, that doesn’t change a whole lot, but I do think the initial hook to get an existing party to care is going to change a bit between a primarily good versus a primarily neutral party. 

Its also going to flavor some encounters. If you want difficulty to arise from the party not wanting to kill city watchmen, if that is something that might get in the way of, say, saving the world, neutral characters might be willing to off them for “the greater good,” and if you were just expecting tension from “its harder to do the right thing,” you may need to either realize it isn’t going to be a tense scene for everyone, or build in some consequences on the back end if they take the quick and easy path.

And I realize, I probably need to update my fantasy touchstones. People getting into fantasy and seeing heroically motivated individuals may be seeing people like Bilbo or Aragorn, but they may also be seeing Harry Potter or even Doctor Strange. They may know Conan, but their "morally grey" archetypes could be coming from media like Game of Thrones (where, by the way, the ongoing delima is "yeah, we may need to save the world, but we should probably make sure everyone on the continent acknowledges our right to rule first, even if it costs tons of lives and might cause the world to end while we're busy fighting each other").

Faction Utilization

I’m thrilled that Adventurer’s League has utilized factions for organize play, and that, because of that fact, the factions get mentioned in just about every published adventure. I also find it kind of ironic that I’ve heard grousing that AL was stealing this concept from Pathfinder Society, when Ed Greenwood’s take on the Realms always included these factions poking their noses into otherwise straightforward situations and complicating them with political maneuvering.

That said, sometimes I really wish there was a little more emphasis on what the factions are doing in a given adventure. In some ways, they default to “each faction wants the exact same thing, just slightly flavored for each faction." I liked the Zhentarim bits in the opening adventure of Storm King’s Thunder, because it didn’t feel like the default “each faction has a representative here to tell you in a slightly different way to do the same thing.”

I know that some of the AL adventures have secret missions in them, but I wish the main hardcover adventures would utilize missions and complications from the factions a bit more.

Factions and Storm King’s Thunder

I really liked Storm King’s Thunder, but it wasn’t perfect. I really wish that the factions seemed a little more concerned with the giants in the adventure. As written, it felt like you would get a random quest from an NPC to do something largely unrelated to the giant troubles, and when you did the thing, you might trip over an NPC affiliated with a faction, and then because they were tangentially associated with the NPC that wanted a thing done, you get access to some faction resource that makes the adventure easier. 

I guess that’s fine if you don’t want to portray the giants as an immediate threat, but it seems like the adventure should have more tools to keep that threat looming in the forefront.

  • Why isn’t the Lord’s Alliance hiring adventurers to patrol a given road that’s been harassed by giants?
  • Why isn’t the Order of the Gauntlet sending PCs to free up a besieged abbey taking in refugees in the wilderness?
  • Why aren’t the Harpers trying to make contact with potentially neutral or friendly Stone, Cloud, or Storm giants to gather information?
  • Why isn’t the Emerald Enclave worried about adventurers desecrating mounds to nature spirits, and possibly offering help on how to recover artifacts with as little damage as possible?
  • Why isn’t the Zhentarim trying to get their agents to negotiate mercenary reinforcements in the wake of giant attacks?

The adventure is good, overall, but it feels like the main body of the adventure was written first, and then the factions were added in as garnish on top later.

The Big Takeaway

I’m really interested to hear what Shawn and Chris have to say about this in the future. For now, I do really like that they are discussing ways to use formatting to make an adventure clearer, and that they both seem to be on the same page with communicating intent to GMs when they read an adventure.

To some extent, figuring out the “purpose” of some encounters, and how the adventure is connected still feels like a “side game” that designers assume the GM is playing before they get the adventure to the table. I’d much rather just spell it out and be obvious, and let the GM use some clearly presented tools.

Its fine to say “this encounter is just here for comic relief” or “this encounter is here to make the PCs feel like bad-asses.” Not everything needs to tie firmly into resolving the main plot, and it shouldn’t. The more functional and obvious the adventure is for the GM to run, however, the more GMs you will get to run those adventures, even if they now know they can swap out 50% of the adventure and not affect the main plot.