Sunday, December 30, 2018

Gaming Wishes 2018--How Did I Do?

Last year I did pretty well following up on the RPG wishes/resolutions I had for RPGs. My wishes for 2018 didn't fare quite as well.

I'm not sure I have the same desire to micromanage exactly what I did and didn't accomplish from last years, other than to do a quick check-in.

Essentially, I'm giving myself partial credit for getting to play games that I wanted to run, and for doing activities related to what I had wanted to accomplish last year.


  • Wrap up ongoing campaigns (3 of them)(1/3)
  • Play RPGs outside (0/1)
  • Play an RPG online again (1/1)
  • Run Call of Cthulhu (.5/1)
  • Play Shadowrun Anarchy (1/1)
  • Play or Run Blades in the Dark (1/1)
  • Run a Game in the Midgard Setting (1/1)
  • Run Dungeon Crawl Classics again (.5/1)
  • Run a PBTA game beyond my usual convention games that I had scheduled (1/1)
  • Play a Western-themed game (0/1)
  • Play a Gumshoe game (0/1)
  • Go to Gary Con and Gamehole Con (1/1)

Life has conspired against having a regular gaming schedule for the last few months. I've been to conventions and played in one-shots every month this year, but I haven't had a regular gaming group for the last couple of months. That changed the dynamic on a few of these goals.


I was probably too lenient, but a few of the games I wanted to run, I gave myself partial credit for if I was able to play in a few games of them. I picked up an additional convention this year, so I managed to play DCC at two conventions and CoC at one.

Figuring in the above, I managed to hit about 61% of my gaming goals this year. Not as good as I would have hoped. Better than I thought I was going to do at one point in the year. Now I have to do the difficult work of trying to figure out what gaming is going to look like next year, and how to "wish" accordingly.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Love and Shipping in RPGs

Often times, I’ll end up being inspired by the podcasts I listen to, and today is no exception. I happened to be listening to one of the Whelmed Reprint episodes:

Whelmed Reprint Volume 5: Emily Buza

If you haven’t listened to Whelmed, and you have any interest in DC Comics characters, you should really take some time to check it out. While it is focused on analysis of the Young Justice animated series, it tackles a lot of DC Comics related subjects, and it’s a joy to listen to.



Today’s topic was shipping, and it actually made me think of a system to add an element of shipping to roleplaying games. By mechanizing how a relationship develops, it might actually even add tension to a player who is actively deciding what path their character’s relationship is taking.

Shipping Rules

If a character wants to see if a ship is realized, they can create between one and three possible ships between their character and another existing character.

For each potential ship, create a single word name for that ship, or a compound word for that ship. Each of these ships has five boxes.

In addition to the one to three ships that you create for the character, create one more track with five boxes, labeled “Relationship Revelations.”



For PCs

You cannot create a ship with another PC unless that PC agrees. If that PC agrees, then this ship takes up one of their possible ships.

For NPCs

The game master must agree to any ships that you create with existing NPCs. If you create an NPC to ship your character with, the GM must be allowed to flesh out the details of the NPC after you create them.

No False Starts

No character can do anything to confirm a ship with a character on their possible shipping list. They can flirt, fall into one another’s arms, reveal deep secrets to one another, but they can’t declare their love or become an official couple before any of the tracks fill up.

This does not mean that the character cannot have a relationship with another character that they do not have on their ship list. The meta-conceit is that anyone that they have a relationship with before their boxes are full, and that isn’t on their ship list, is not going to be a long-term relationship, even if the character thinks it will be a long-term relationship.

Checkboxes

At the end of each session, ask the following questions for each ship that the character has:

  • Did you share a significant scene with your ship, that would bring you closer?
  • What scene was it, and how did it bring you closer?


If the player answers yes and supports that answer, add a check to one of the five checkboxes next to that ship.

At the end of each session, ask the following questions for the Relationship Revelations track:

  • Did you learn something significant about how you view relationships this session?
  • What did you learn?


If the player answers yes and supports that answer, add a check to one of the five checkboxes next to that track.

If All Ship Boxes Are Full

The player (or players, if another PC is involved in the ship) comes up with how their ship became an actual relationship, and they decide if they want to reveal it to the group.

If the Relationship Revelations Track is Full

When this track is full, the character decides something major that governs how they view all of their relationships. They may decide that they can’t get into a relationship with the person they love for some reason. They may decide that they have to prove themselves before they can move forward with their relationships.

At this time, the character sets a Relationship Resolution track. This also has five boxes. At the end of the session, ask the following questions:

  • Did you learn something about myself that changes how you feel about my relationships?
  • What did you learn?


If the answer is yes, and the answer is supported, check off a box. If the boxes are filled up, the character can resume whatever previous relationships they had put on hold.

The character does not mark any further boxes on any of their ships until the Relationship Resolution track is full.

Multiple Ships

If a character is a monogamous character, once their ship boxes are full, erase all marks in other ships. If the character is polyamorous, the relationships can continue to grow as per the above rules. The only exception to this is that if the full ship track is with a PC, that PC can choose to add that track to their own as well.

If one member of the ship has checked off all of their Relationship Revelation boxes, and the other one does not, their other ships still advance. If that character is monogamous and they erased all checks, they start over with new checks to see if they are being drawn away from their original ship while the original ship is working out their relationship concerns.

Why Mechanize Shipping?

Romance is a natural part of many stories, but many players have a hard time directly addressing romantic subplots with their own characters. By mechanizing the “rules” for relationships, a little bit of distance is put into the process, and may make it easier to engage in the narrative.

Despite that, I wanted to avoid any random die rolling. Sometimes characters start to gravitate towards having more meaningful exchanges naturally. A player can direct that purposefully, or it can develop naturally as the game goes on.

I also wanted to add some degree of variability without randomness. Characters may see themselves ending up with multiple characters, but not really sure which one will be the one they gravitate towards, or if they are even destined to be in a one on one relationship. This allows for some growth and change over time, instead of just creating a single linear path to romance.

The Relationship Revelation track is there to create additional tension that is often at play in a story, but is again, something that players may not think to add into their own narrative.

Feedback

These rules are meant to portray more melodramatic relationships that develop alongside other story arcs in whatever game system you might be playing. It may not be the B plot, but it won’t be the only A plot even if it is important.

I would be interested to see this in play, and additionally, I would gladly take any feedback if any of the topics I touched upon is less nuanced that it should be. I tried to keep it zoomed out to account for a wide variety of relationship possibilities.

Additionally, certain game systems will lend themselves to addressing these rules with more layers. For example, in Fate, achieving a ship might create a new shared aspect with a free invoke, and resolving a relationship resolution might change the name of that aspect and add an additional free invoke once attained.


Let me know what you think, and if you end up using these rules for any game system.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews? Original Adventures Reincarnated--The Isle of Dread

If you have been following me for any amount of time, you may have heard my story about how I ran a session of D&D for some of my classmates in Sunday school class, in front of the rest of the class and our instructors, during the Satanic Panic, to show what the game was really like. 

This is when we had just started out generic Sunday school VHS lesson on how D&D leads to the fires of Hell. Several of us in class either played D&D, or had older siblings that had, or both. We brought in several D&D books for our teachers to see, and I volunteered to run a game for a group of people in front of the class.

I created a pre-generated fighter, wizard, cleric, and thief. I didn’t have much time for the session, so they were shipwrecked in a certain bay, fought crocodiles, and ran into a group of lizardfolk that they had to either fight or negotiate with. In the end, my teachers determined that maybe D&D wasn’t so bad, but that we should be “careful” with the content that we used and interacted with.

You may recognize that the progression of encounters from the fourth printing of the Isle of Dread Adventure, included in the D&D Expert Set that came out in 1983 (although I was running it years later). Because of that Sunday morning, I have always had fond memories of the Isle of Dread, although it goes a little deeper than just that one short game session.

A Tale of Two Introductory Adventures

I had never been able to figure out what I was supposed to do with The Keep on the Borderlands. There were a bunch of locations and a bunch of hints, but I wasn’t really sure why the PCs would show up at the Keep, and what would happen if they never latched on to a rumor. Even with the rumors, it felt like a lot of “there may be some kind of payoff if you dive into this area filled with certain death, but no promises.”

On top of all of that, while I learned a lot from reading Gary Gygax, Gygax’s adventures have a certain feel to them. Even outside of the traps and puzzles that feel like they will punish you for not having the same mental processes and influences that Gary had, the way social encounter were explained felt like you had to understand Gygax’s notions of fantasy society. Act tough to these people or they won’t respect you, but don’t show these people proper deference, and they have no use for you. While it didn’t occur to me at the time, some of that came from D&D weird elemental components, where the PCs should be acting like Conan when adventuring, and like proper medieval gentlefolk when in civilization.

When I read the Isle of Dread, I understood it much better. Here is a treasure map—the island is dangerous but has loads of treasure on it, and not that many people know about it. The villagers have some quirks, but for the most part, it’s kind of assumed that if you treat them well, they’ll treat you well. You have encounters as you wander around the island, and more clues drop that drive you towards the “final” encounter area. It felt like there was just enough momentum for me to get what adventurer do in this adventure.

I compare my experiences with both of these because the Keep on the Borderland was the Basic Set introductory adventure in the 80s, and because the Isle of Dread was the Expert Set introductory adventure. I also compare them because Goodman Games Original Adventures Reincarnated line started with Into the Borderlands, a compilation that includes the Keep on the Borderlands, and just recently The Isle of Dread was released for this line as well. I will admit, I own both, but I had a harder time getting through Into the Borderlands for a review, but I recently finished up my read through of this version of the Isle of Dread.

The Reincarnated Tome

This review is based on the hardcover version of Original Adventures Reincarnated—The Isle of Dread. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there will not be a PDF version of any of the adventures in this line.
The book is 328 pages long, with a color cover and endpapers, and black and white interior. The endpapers depict the original front and back cover of the adventure, as well as the 4th printing cover, and the player map of the island with the interior blank hexes. There are four pages of ads for other Goodman Games products towards the back of the book.

The interior has different styles based on the section of the book. The sections that reprint the first printing mimic the formatting, fonts, and artwork from that version of the adventure, and the section that reprints the fourth printing likewise follows the formatting, fonts, and artworks from that timeframe. The updated version of the adventure for 5th edition has fairly large font and headers as well as specific tables for the expanded sections of the adventure, and new artwork.

Problematic Content

Normally, when problematic content comes up in a product that I’m reviewing, I’ll address it as it appears in the text, and summarize the content near the end of the adventure. I had a lot of notes on this one, and I wanted to address that content up front this time.

First, I’ll mention that this is a content warning for racially insensitive portrayals, cannibalism, and slavery.

Second, I just want to own the fact that this review is being written by a cis white male, so there are times when my perspective is skewed and not as helpful or nuanced as the perspective of people affected by the issues that I bring up in this section. Let me know if I mess up, because I always want to learn and do better.

Original Sin

The original adventure included some quickly drawn stereotypes that drew on Pacific island cultures as viewed through the lens of pulp adventure stories. Words like headhunters and taboo were thrown around in a few places, and there was even a side of Caribbean Island stereotypes thrown in with the tribal zombie masters. While all of that is insensitive, it is also somewhat brief. Because there isn’t much nuance added to the outer villages, the villages don’t come across inferior to whatever place the PCs come from. Even when trading with the villages, the only real limits are to two-handed weapons and heavy armor, which has much to do with terrain and climate as anything else.

There is an awkward mention later in the adventure of a vein of gold that could be mined, but that the natives won’t do it unless enslaved, and that the DM “might” want to discourage this. That an ugly contingency to plan for, and even adding it to the list of things adventurers might do says some ugly things about some of the source material.

Overall, however, for an adventure that was originally written in 1980, the natives are people the PCs are expected to get help from, to interact with positively, and receive missions from, with the exception of the islanders that have been corrupted by the Lovecraftian horrors. I could have been handled better, but 1980 offered worse as well.

What was a little troubling to me was that the updated 5th edition version of the Isle of Dread not only failed to add some more enlightened nuance, it actually introduced more problematic tropes, in 2018, than the original adventure had in 1980.

Increased Threat Range

A lot of what feels problematic in the expanded material falls under the category of people not taking the time to think about what kind of message was being conveyed by what was being said in the text.

Early on in the adventure text for the 5e conversion, a dryad encounter mentions that dryads defending the island from “pale-skinned” invaders. The problem is, that implies that visitors to the island, including the PCs, are pale skinned by default. Additionally, not much further into the adventure, the effects of an encounter mention that if an adventurer has to make a save “he” can attempt it again at a later interval to see if it still affects “him.” Later in the adventure, they use “she” as the pronoun for a potential DM for the adventure, but that doesn’t mitigate that within the first few pages of the adventure that the player characters are assumed, by default, to be white and male. Also, just use they. It’s really for the best.

The original adventure doesn’t really address what language is spoken on the island. The “fix” for this is to introduce the incredibly reductive “Tribal” as a language that people on the island speak. Given that the 5e material mentions that the DMG calls out the Isle of Dread as existing on the Elemental Plane of Water at various times, and shifting between prime material planes, the best solution for what the islander speak would probably have been Primordial.

There is also a section in the adventure that involves Neanderthals that live on the island. This is a trope that D&D has largely moved beyond, with “cavemen” showing up on various encounter tables. The biggest, and likely completely accidental association that comes up here is that this separate species of hominid is mentioned as using the same “Tribal” statblocks used for the islanders. So the “Tribal” statblocks are used for “unadvanced” humanoids that may not actually be fully human? I don’t think it was intentional, but the connection can clearly be made.

The terminology of “headhunters” is still used for the corrupted tribe serving the Kopru in the ancient ruins on the island, and it would have been very easy to emphasize that the creepy aberrations that control minds had used their powers to intimidate the islanders into serving them. Instead, we keep the implied Lovecraftian trope of “corrupted islanders” that just naturally start worshipping the aberrations.
On top of all of that, no matter how old school your adventure is, please don’t leave in those “gotcha” moments with children added into encounters to see of the PCs will slaughter them. Just don’t do it.

Speaking of things that got left in the adventure—remember that passage in the 1980 text about using slave labor to mine the vein of gold? It is still in the adventure, word for word. It is 2018. We should not be assuming that slavery is an acceptable means of resolving an encounter in D&D. That’s an embarrassment.

There is also an encounter added to the expanded dungeon section of the final temple that includes “degenerate humans.” Given that these are islanders that have been enslaved and tortured, and then escaped into lightless tunnels, this is horrible terminology to be using, especially when we aren’t talking about shipwrecked humans or pirates, but very specifically about the islanders in this instance. Given that the PCs aren’t meant to be automatically antagonistic to them, and there is an encounter where they can rescue a princess of these humans (yeah, I know), I’m not sure what’s gained by calling them degenerate or harping on how “primitive” they are.

In several places, they call out that the islanders should be similar to Pacific islanders, and even give out a chart of pacific islander names to use for NPCs. Then, in the material added, they add totem poles and totem golems. Because our level of Pacific island cultural awareness is set somewhere around a Gilligan’s Island episode.

There was an offhand reference in the 1983 reprint about additional adventures involving someone from the mainland hiring the PCs to bring back a live specimen of a dinosaur or even a giant ape. The Isle of Dread obviously is at least partially inspired by media like King Kong. In the 2018 revised adventure, there is literally an island of natives that worship a colossal ape, and the side mission would involve fighting the natives and stealing their god.

I think the additional item that made my jaw drop the most when reading through the text, however, was the added encounter with a rakasta outcast—who was outcast because he was born with black fur. I understand that the logic was probably “cat people + black cats being bad luck = cat people culture regarding black fur as unlucky,” but that’s ignoring the literal story being told, that a sentient species considers one of their own that is black to be evil because of their color. I’m really kind of shocked that nobody even looked at that one twice.

I understand that some of this is unfortunate, but still potentially harmful, association, such as what statblock to use to represent someone present in an encounter. But not taking out references to potential slavery by the PCs, the inclusion of “degenerate” and “primitive” humans, and adding a cultural bias against black members of that culture are things that we really should be more sensitive about in the modern era.

Better Examples?

WOTC isn’t perfect, and they still have some elements of D&D that could be addressed.

This article details some of the missed opportunities with Chult as presented in Tomb of Annihilation:

That said, when reprinting older adventures in Tales from the Yawning Portal, there were a few culturally insensitive or sexist encounters in classic adventures that were removed or reworked for the 5e re-release.

I will say, however, that since this is an official re-release of the adventure, approved by WOTC, it’s not just Goodman Games that let some of these modern issues reach publication. WOTC put their stamp of approval on this as well.

Introduction

The introduction includes some one or two-page pieces written by people involved in the production of the original Isle of Dread, as well as some of the regulars of Goodman Games, and culminates with an interview with Dave Cook, one of the original designers of the adventure.

There is some interesting insight into TSR at the time the adventure was published, the process of having two designers working on different sections of the island at the same time, as well as the inspirations for the adventure itself, ranging from pulp adventure, lost world stories, King Kong, and Lovecraft.

Because the adventure briefly introduces the setting eventually known as either the Known World or Mystara, there is also some insight into how that setting first came into existence.

Chapter Two—X1: The Isle of Dread Original Publication

The next section of the book includes a reprint of the original version of the Isle of Dread adventure, as well as the 1983 version included in the BECMI Expert Set. There is a discussion on the differences between publications, which are minor between the first, second, and third printing, but involve swapping out a few monsters and updated art and layout in the fourth printing.

Chapter Three—Overview of the Isle

This begins the conversion material for the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons version of the adventure. This section includes a section detailing native treasures and trinkets, a brief overview of the nations of the Known World reprinted almost exactly from the older editions of the adventure, alternate suggested starting points for the adventure, a discussion of language on the island, random weather charts, a reminder about 5e foraging rules, some stats for hazards on the island, rare plants and their worth and properties, and rumor tables.

The original adventures don’t really address what the islanders use for currency, just that they can buy and sell most of what’s available in the core rules, and have a hard limit to how much they can pay for trade goods brought to them (which is a not inconsiderable 5000 gp). This section adds the “logic” that the islanders have to have various art pieces and unworked bits of precious stones compiled on a table to use for their economy.

I like the special features of the island and having some general stats for overall common hazards, and I like that special properties and prices for island plants. I’m not as fond of the rumor tables, which weren’t an aspect of the original adventure. Essentially PCs have to invest time, skill checks, and gold to get rumors that may be true or false, which they can’t really verify until they check them out themselves. I really don’t like forcing PCs to spend resources on red herrings.

Additionally, the rumor table with rumors given out on the island, instead of the mainland, have some odd information that doesn’t feel like it is the kind of rumor a native of the island would give out. For example, why would a native give out false rumors about elves and orcs on the island if those species aren’t actually present?

Chapter Four—Wandering Dread

This section expands the encounter tables in the original adventure, including monsters from both the original adventure and the 1983 reprint. In addition to expanding the encounter chart, a paragraph of description is added for each of the monsters that can be encountered.

Creatures like dragons are given names and brief backstories. Some wandering NPCs are added into the chart, as are “Interesting Features,” which might be entrances to other encounters, rare plants, or even hidden treasure. One of my favorites is just the peaceful stone giant wandering the island that the PCs can encounter.

I like the brief descriptions for the random encounters, and several of the encounters have some nice potential for non-violent resolution. I enjoyed the interesting features on the chart as well. I’m not sure that reprinting the encounter building charts from 5e was strictly needed in this chapter, and it’s a minor annoyance to me that the encounter frequency is given on d6s, not because I hate old school encounter probability, but because most 5e encounter probability that I’ve seen expresses the range on a d20, and I like shared conventions, especially in an “official” conversion.

Chapter Five—The Isle of Dread

This is largely similar to the section detailing the outer island present in the original adventures. Right at the beginning, however, there is a section on hiring guides, but not much detail on the benefits of those guides, and lots of limitations on what those guides are willing to do. It almost feels like adding in the hirelings that appeared in The Keep on the Borderlands to this adventure, where they weren’t present.

While many of the encounters are similar to the original publication, in a few places, like the Phanaton settlement, there are some notes on how the inhabitants will react to PCs, and under what circumstances they might ask for help, thus generating a new quest for the PCs. I do like those sidebars and the addition of those explicitly stated quests, although I wish more of the communities on the island had them. In fact, if some of the lairs, such as the lizardfolk or the ogres, had conditions for becoming friendly and quests, it might have made for some more thought-provoking adventuring.

Chapter Six—More Dread

This section includes encounters completely new to this version of the adventure. Some of NPCs that are introduced, others are new villages, and some include some context for the other creatures on the island, or create some additional underwater encounters.

At least one of the NPCs exists to drop hints at the expanded follow up adventures detailed later, and I like the idea of Mika a minor magical merchant and sage, but as written, I’m not sure why she is portrayed as being as difficult as she is.

There is a new dungeon complex that explains what the rakasta are looking for on the island, which is a relatively short set of encounters. The inclusion of the ixitxachitl city made me a little sad that some of the Demogorgon lore introduced in the Savage Tide adventure path in the 3rd edition era wasn’t included.

Chapter Seven—The Central Plateau

This area represents the PCs getting closer to the somewhat assumed “end” of the island's story, and there are a few added encounter zones not present in the original adventures. Most of this plays out similarly, but there is an added mysterious obelisk, a mastodon graveyard, and the aforementioned out of place totem golems.

I liked the mysterious wreck of a ship far from the sea, as well as the mastodon graveyard. I really wish they had cut the text about slave labor in this section. There is an added geoglyph that hints at the upcoming “lurking evil” in the final part of the adventure, but I think I would have rather just had the villagers of Mantru better able to drop hints about the looming threat, instead of using the trope of “we can’t tell you, it’s taboo.”

The game mechanics for getting into the central plateau are given a 5e difficulty class, but it feels like using something more efficient, like a group climbing check, would have been better in line with something like spending considerable time climbing up a rock face. The check, as written, mentions critical failure, which isn’t a thing for skill checks in 5th edition D&D.

Chapter Eight—Taboo Island

Either out of boredom or being asked by the Mantru to help out, the PCs end up in the temple complex on this island, and face off against the antagonistic islanders. If they travel deep enough into the temple complex, they find out ancient aberrations known as the kopru have awakened, and the PCs can fight them, or maybe get absorbed into their net of operatives, since the kopru have mind control abilities.

I really wish they had rewritten some of this to highlight that some of the “evil” islanders might be dominated by the kopru, both to avoid some negative tropes and to foreshadow the upcoming villains of this section of the adventure. I also really wish they had written out the children in any of the encounters where they come up.

Chapter Nine—Below Taboo Island

This chapter adds more optional dungeon chambers to the original temple complex. An additional aberration villain, an Eye of the Deep, is added, as well as the narrative of the escaped “degenerate” humans. There is a familiar sequence with a missing crystal skull, and the potential to unleash a particularly powerful demon that the PCs may not be able to handle.

There is also an additional dragon’s lair (with a dragon) and a corrupted temple complex that houses potentially more dangerous kopru that could awaken.

While I like a few of the additional encounters, overall, it feels like a lot of dungeon complex was added to a fairly succinct climax to the adventure. It almost feels like the assumption is that a longer dungeon complex with a few rooms that don’t contribute to the narrative is better than something shorter that completes the unfolding story.

Appendix A—Further Adventures on the Isle of Dread

Many of the proposed expanded adventures are similar to the suggested adventures given in the older versions of the adventures. A few reference the added encounters in the 5e conversions, such as bringing information back about the mysterious landlocked ship or finding out information about the rakasta shrine.

The most in-depth (so to speak) expanded adventure involves closing the elemental gates that allow the Isle of Dread to shift from the material plane to the elemental planes, thus locking it to one specific world (at least for now).

There are locations given for the gates, and magic items that can be found throughout the adventure that can be used to destroy the gates. Each gate is given a location and guardians are described for each.

I’ll be honest, rather than all of the extra rooms added to the “Below Taboo Island” section, I would have rather had shorter, more detailed dungeons for each of the elemental gates described in this section.

Appendix B—New Monsters

Like the original adventure, there are a lot of new monsters in here. A few have seen stats in official 5e products, but the majority are old D&D monsters that have yet to see 5e stats, or brand new creatures. There are over 80 new monsters, although in a few cases, there are multiple stat blocks for the same monster with different roles (like the general phanaton, phanaton chief, and phanaton bodyguards).

Appendix C—New Items & Magic

This includes new armor and weapons, like wicker armor or the cutlass or war claws. It also contains a few 5e versions of classic magic items, a few new items, and the magic items that were detailed specifically to interact with the elemental gates.

There are also a few new spells, some of which are old spells seeing 5e for the first time, and a few new, quirky items. These include Logs to Lizards, Serpent Missile, Snake Charm, Sticks to Snakes, and Wall of Water.

Appendix D—Characters

There are six pre-generated characters in this section, including a barbarian, ranger/rogue, wizard, bard, cleric, and fighter. They are presented in a column format rather than one character to a page, so they need to be recopied to use them, especially since they are spread out across multiple pages.

In previous versions of the adventure, a few of the tribal chiefs and war leaders were given names and brief descriptions. Here they are given full stat blocks, along with the stats for the newly introduced shadow dragon, and the new NPCs that can be found in the expanded encounters on the island.

There is also some information on guides. While the initial information at the beginning of the adventure only mentioned guides from the starting village and how far they would go, these guides are presented as characters more willing to travel around the Isle of Dread as the PCs adventure, and include one of the islanders, some phanatons, and a shipwreck survivor.

Appendix E—Player Handouts

This section includes the initial letter from Rory Barbarosa promising treasure on the island, the blank Isle of Dread Map for the PCs to fill in while hexcrawling, various handouts about the dinosaur natives of the island, and a picture of the massive kopru geoglyph.

Appendix F—Maps

This includes the updated continental maps, the DM’s map of the Isle of Dread, village and lair maps, including the expanded encounter areas added to the 5e conversion and some of the optional new encounter areas.

X Marks the Spot

Some of the expanded encounter areas do a lot for making the Isle of Dread an interesting ongoing adventure area in a campaign. The added sections on befriending some of the communities and the conditions under which they ask for help are great additions. There are a ton of new monsters in this book that can be broadly useful to a D&D 5e game. It is interesting getting some insight into how the adventure was made and the changes between printings.

Shipwreck

There was a lot of content that was insensitive and tone deaf. It is also amazing how much of this material wasn’t present in the original but was actually added to this version of the adventure. Intentional or not, that is the kind of material that keeps the hobby from growing and being as inclusive as it should be. There was an opportunity to take the core pulp tropes already present, cut out what doesn’t work, and retain the core of what was classic, but that opportunity was missed.

There are several sections where the 5th edition rules are referenced, but there is a clunky expression in a few places, like having someone make a perception check and then an opposed wisdom check for surprise, or referencing critical failure in skill checks.

Some of the added content feels like it assumes that there are things that are good for “old school in general” rather than taking into context the original Isle of Dread adventure. Longer, more detailed dungeon complexes aren’t really what that adventure is about. It’s the exemplar of wilderness adventures, so it’s about crossing the wilderness and many smaller dungeons, rather than finding one bigger one.

Not Recommended--There isn’t much in this product that convinces me to tell others to pick it up.

This was a really hard one for me. I almost never bother to write a full review for a product if I’m going to give it a “Not Recommended,” but this product calls for it, because of the context for why I’m giving it that rating.

A lot of work went into this product. A lot of good, solid work went into parts of this adventure conversion. I don’t want to ignore that work, or to make it seem as if that work isn’t evident. But it is also evident that sensitivity wasn’t a priority on the product.

Even without the problematic content that I mentioned, there were some issues with how well the 5e rules were utilized, and with how well some of the content meshed with the strengths of the original adventure. But the overall product would have been a much stronger one.

As it stands, if you are feeling nostalgic, there is always the PDF of the original printing of the Isle of Dread:

X1--The Isle of Dread

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews? Forbidden Knowledge (5e OGL)

Hot on the heels of the review that I posted for Schwalb Entertainment’s first Max Press release, The Blasphemies of Bor Bwalsch, their second release has already come out. In contrast to the first release, which was a collection of darker themed spells, some of which translated aspects of the magic system from Shadow of the Demon Lord, Forbidden Knowledge introduces new wizard subclasses to Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition (or the 5th edition of the world’s most popular RPG, if you will).

Remaining on brand, the subclasses in this supplement are darker and play with some creepier and more overly sinister themes. While some of the spells in the previous supplement had some disturbing aspects to them, for whatever reason I feel like it’s almost more important to provide a content warning for this product:

Forbidden Knowledge contains elements of body horror, loss of free will, mental illness, slavery, self-harm, and suicide. If any of those topics go beyond what you want to see in the game, you may want to skip this product, and if even a passing discussion of those topics related to game elements and mechanics would bother you, you may want to skip this review.

The Container of Forbidden Knowledge

Forbidden Knowledge is a 14-page PDF supplement, with one page dedicated to a Shadow of the Demon Lord ad, and another to the OGL statement for the product. The remaining twelve pages have parchment backgrounds, illustrated borders, tables, headers, and ornamented side bars.

The artwork is high quality, and compared to the last Max Press release, fewer mutilated and scarred characters depicted, just some ominous symbols, lighting, imps, and quasits, and some gorgeous colors.

Arcane Traditions

The product spends a little bit of time explaining that the subclasses contained in this product are sometimes collectively called the Dark Arts, and that they are branches of wizard tradition that are often suppressed in polite society. In some cases, they take more widely available traditions, such as conjuration or enchantment, and push them towards more specialized and sinister directions.

The traditions included in this product include the following:

  • Alienism
  • Demonology
  • Mind Bondage
  • Occultism
  • Shadowmancy
  • Summoning
  • Witchcraft

Alienism

Alienism is all about studying what lies beyond the traditional structure of the world’s cosmology, and, as you might expect, delves into cosmic horror themes. You pick up an indefinite madness from the DMG early on, and by 6th level, you can start giving yourself bonuses to attack rolls, ability checks, and saves by taking on a short-term madness. You automatically gain one of the new spells from this supplement at 10th level, and at 14th level, you can add 1d12/level of spell slot used in psychic damage to any spell of 1-5th level that you cast. 

If you do this more than once before a long rest, you must make a Wisdom save or pick up a long-term madness. I saved my favorite part of the class for last—right off the bat when you take this subclass, you grow a sentient tumor with a face, and instead of a spellbook, you feed it pages to teach it spells that you can prepare.

I love the flavor of this class, and I’m not sure what is says about me that a lot of that is due to the sentient tumor spellbook. Trading class abilities for picking up insanity effects is an interesting alternate mechanic, but at lower level, the picking up lots of short-term madnesses seem like they can cause a lot of trouble, and there is a limit to the amount of time you can do it. While I tend to look at 14th level plus abilities as things that can get crazy, 5d12 psychic damage in exchange for a save that you might get lucky and make multiple times feels a little overly powerful.

Demonology

Demonology essentially gives you the ability to summon a quasit familiar without jumping through any special hoops, and for each demon’s name you learn, you can summon it once every 1d10 days to make a bargain with it to get it to do you a favor. Wrack the spirit lets you lock down a celestial, elemental, fey, fiend, or undead with pain for a while. Master of Demons gives you more demonic names and some better leverage for negotiating with more powerful demons.

Overall, demonology doesn’t send up any red flags (that sentence just sent waves of concern rippling backward towards the 1980s). I really like the idea that your truename summoned demon still requires negotiation, instead of just acting as an automatic feature.

Mind Bondage

Mind Bondage is one of the traditions where I started feeling a little uncomfortable. There aren’t a lot of uncomfortable details about the application of the powers extended by the tradition, but the last paragraph that describes the degree of control the wizard has over victims had a lot of uncomfortable implications, without going into detail.

The powers granted by the tradition include inflicting psychic damage on a victim that makes its save to break a charmed effect, extended effects of charmed effects on the wizard’s victims, the ability to establish a psychic link to a charmed creature over a distance as well as upgrading that charm to a compulsion, and the ability to burn out the memories of being charmed from a target at the end of a spell, as well as dealing psychic damage.

The mechanical effects of all the above work great for a nastier sort of enchanter, I just could really have done without that last paragraph of description of how thoroughly an abusive wizard can control their victim.

Occultism

Wizards that pick up occultism as their tradition gain the ability to add 1d8 necrotic damage to their spells for a set number of times per long rest. You get a reserve of points you can spend to add a d4 to various rolls based on recalling obscure information you researched. At 6th level, you learn an occult secret that can grant you proficiency in an ability save that you don’t already have, and grants you extra languages, hit points, better senses, etc., based on the secret that you pick. At 10th level your occult recall die gets bumped up and you can contact other plane with some benefits. At 14th level, you can pick a celestial, fiend, or undead and spend your occult recall die to make that creature friendly if they fail their save.

I’m a little concerned to see the extra necrotic damage in play, although the rest of the abilities seem interesting. I think the biggest problem I have with this class is that it doesn’t seem all that sinister, other than flavoring the bonus damage as necrotic. The theme is “this wizard learns the secrets of the universe so that can bend the rules!” But that’s kind of what wizards do. This subclass just leans into it a little more explicitly.

Shadowmancy

Shadowmancy is all about studying the Plane of Shadow and infusing its magic into spells. At low levels, wizards that have shadowmancy as their discipline can gather shadows to give themselves heavy obscurement, and they can see in the dark. At 6th level, they can use shadows to teleport short distances, and at 10th level, they can summon up to three shadow monster pets before a long rest. The 14th level ability of the subclass allows you to expend a spellslot to cast any wizard spell up to half the level of the spell slot expended.

First, let me take a deep breath and remember that I should not let my reflexive dislike of anything shadow magic related after dealing with 3rd edition Forgotten Realms lore color my analysis of this subclass. Okay, that aside—I really like this one. I can understand how it would have a negative reputation but is still usable by “uncorrupted” spellcasters. The class features all play into the theme well. The only issue I think it may have is the ability to cast “any” wizard spell, as the DM and player may really want to work out what sources the player is going to be rummaging through on the fly to come up with these spells.

Summoning

Summoners pick up the ability to choose three creatures that they can summon on a regular basis, and can summon them each, once per long rest. Summoned creatures get a bonus to initiative, and your summoned creatures, if they are within 30 feet of you, can aid in your defense if you are 6th level or higher. At 10th level, if you lose concentration on your summoned creature, it goes hostile, but doesn’t go away, and you can attempt to reestablish control later. At 14th level, you add a bonus to your summoned creature’s damage rolls and grant them temporary hit points.

None of these abilities get as crazy as, say, allowing a class to have a ton of summoned creatures active at once, or to have a point-based companion with its own set of crazy abilities. I really like the flavor of losing control and being able to reassert it later. I’m not sure I quite get why your summons can help you from 30 feet away with your defenses, but It’s not a deal breaker.

The weirdest thing about this whole class, and the thing that flavors it as sinister, is that they spend a lot of time in the description talking about how difficult life is for the bonded, summoned creature, and how they may be driven to take their own lives rather than being constantly summoned and controlled by the summoner. If you wonder at how this description of being a bonded, summoned servant interacts with the list of creatures available, commoner is one of the listed options.

Witchcraft

Witchcraft is like two traditions in one. Wizards that follow the tradition of witchcraft practice an ancient arcane tradition that leans heavily on nature and a few set ways of performing magic. A character that picks this tradition chooses to go with either Black Magic or White Magic, and either way, they construct a special spellbook called a Book of Shadows.

Black magic practitioners add bane and inflict wounds to their spellbook, and gain the ability to hex opponents as a bonus action. This hex ability gets upgraded at 6th level, granting the witch a “kicker” ability they can inflict when they first hex a target. At 14th level, practitioners of black magic can turn into smoke as a reaction once per short or long rest.

White magic practitioners add bless and cure wounds to their spellbooks, can use the help action at a range of 10 feet as a reaction, and at 6th level, they can countercharm to end the charmed or frightened condition. At 14th level, they can make a Sign Against Evil, and either use this ability to dispel magic, or to turn an aberration, fiend, undead, or possessed creature, once per short or long rest.

Both branches of the tradition learn how to take an animal shape at 10th level.

I think this may be my favorite tradition out of this entire product. I really want to play a witch in a game at some point. I enjoy the D&D spin of witches being a more nature based arcane tradition, and while I like the idea that, in general, arcane spellcasters don’t heal, I like that you can use this subclass to expand the exception to that rule past bards and into a logical additional wizard subclass. Also, it’s worth noting that black and white magic may have certain connotations, there are no alignment restrictions on the black or white choice for the tradition.

New Wizard Spells

There are two new spells added to the wizard spell list in this product, summon monster (1st), and summon alien (5th). Summon monster has a set list of what shows up when the spell is cast, and clearly states that it is up to the GM, based on the spell slot used. Summon alien summons a creature whose stat-block is detailed after the spell description.

The most number of creatures you can summon with Summon Alien is three, while some options for Summon Monster allow for up to eight creatures (but with options at that same level of spell slot used for one, two, or four creatures). Given that the GM gets final say on this one, you have only yourself to blame if you suddenly have eight giant centipedes running around performing multiple tasks.

Like the shadow monsters detailed in the Shadowmancy section, aliens are more of a “general” monster. They don’t have a set appearance, other than stating that it’s appearance can cause fear, and they have an ability to shriek and cause psychic damage.

Overall, these spells retain the more controlled concept of summoning that 5th edition D&D has espoused, even if they do widen the available summoning options in the game.

Ancient Lore Reclaimed

Several of these traditions do a wonderful job of introducing mechanics that reinforce the theme of the subclass. The classes dealing with summoning still do so within the bounds of how summoning has been established in the game. Shadowmancy plays with the concept of drawing in power from the shadows to shift location, obscure, and create more flexibility. The flavor of the witch and the alienist make me want to beg someone to let me in their game and to use this supplement for the campaign. None of the traditions feel like the “break” how arcane magic works in 5th edition D&D lore, from a logic standpoint.

Ancient Lore Amuck

I’m a little concerned about the damage kicker abilities that some of the classes have, especially with how they scale with the level of the spell slot used. Even with the limit per day imposed on them, potentially doubling (or more) the potency of a spell could radically shift how an encounter plays out. I’m not entirely sure I have a good feel for the occultist tradition.

I also have a very strange reaction to tone in the tradition descriptions. I’d be more inclined to allow player characters to run with alienists or demonologists rather than mind bondage practitioners or summoners, just based on how the subclass is described. No, I wouldn’t game with someone I didn’t trust at the table, but I’m not sure I can fully divorce those subclasses from the creepier implications set forth in their descriptions.

Qualified Recommendation--A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

There is some great, evocative design work at play in this product, and it’s worth looking at just to see how some of the traditions are formulated. Some of the traditions represent some classic fantasy tropes, realized in a mechanically sound and satisfying way for 5th edition D&D.

That said, depending on how you feel about class features that add a lot of damage variability into combat, and depending on how comfortable you are with some of the implications of the class descriptions, you may want to consider if you are willing to pick and choose content before picking this product up and adding it to your game.

It's also not so much a shortcoming of this product, but I would really love NPC stat blocks that created simplified NPC versions of spellcasters of each of these traditions as a future product, so I don't need to fully stat out my potential future villains with PC level details.