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, 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 the idea that aberrations are the dreams of the god known as the Chained Oblivion is pretty cool.

The races of the setting are fairly standard, and other than the Dragonborn, there aren'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 what 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,”  but 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, 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 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)



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