Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Really Late Look at the Tomb of Annihilation

I recently read a comment on one of my blog posts where the commenter complained that I had to disclaim who I was at the beginning, because why does everything have to be about social justice all the time. So I guess I shouldn’t start this by saying that I’m a white male that has always lived with a certain amount of privilege, which means that I may not see every side of an issue from critical points of view that people in marginalized communities may, and that I hope people in those communities will feel free to point out where I have blind spots. Oops.

It’s been a while, and there have been two more adventures, as well as several official products, since the release of Tomb of Annihilation, but I’ve still got some thoughts on Chult, and how the setting was utilized. There are way better takes on this, so just as an example, you should read these articles:

POC Gamer (Chult Tags)

I’m going to go into a little about my perspective back in the AD&D days, now, and what I really wished we would have seen.

The Olden Days

The Ring of Winter was not a perfect novel, and I’m sure there are way more problems that I’m going to remember with the book. First and foremost, having a northern Faerun hero show up and help plays into the White Savior trope, and having the adventurer’s society in Cormyr look so much like old English explorer’s clubs where rich white men traveled to exotic and uncivilized lands doesn’t help much.

What I liked about the book, however, was that Mezro was a powerful nation with plenty of magic. It was a city enchanted in a way not unlike the elven cities in the setting, with wards to protect it that defied normal magical practice, and had a council of Chosen as it’s protectors.

I didn’t get the feeling that this nation was less advanced than Cormyr or Waterdeep when I read the book. I didn’t get the feeling that they needed the white savior to show up because they were too unsophisticated to understand the dangers they were facing.

I even liked the subtle danger of Ras Nsi taking using necromancy to adopt some of the practices of the northern nations to potentially make Chult more prosperous, at the cost of surrendering the morals instilled in the people.

What I’m saying is, I think there were flaws in the narrative, that mistakes were made, and unfortunate clich├ęs reinforced, but there was also the basis of a much stronger story to be told without making it the story of a point of view outsiders saving this new and “strange” land.

Comfortable Mistakes

People that tried to do the “right” thing in the 80s and 90s often screwed up badly by not fully thinking about the consequences of the story they were telling. Phase one of most white creators trying to “understand” the perspective of people of color is usually realizing that colonization actually is bad!

The problem is, to show that colonization is bad, people of color in a setting are colonized, and in the 80s and 90s, that often meant that “heroes” not from that region had to come in and save these poor people that had no agency in their own survival. Colonization is bad, but then the narrative becomes, “only a white person can defeat a white person.”

I was a stupid high schooler in this time period, and I admit, I had my players fighting off slavers to defend Chult. I was very proud of myself, and didn’t once think, “why do the PCs have to be the heroes here? What is this narrative saying, overall?” Even when I thought Mezro was a cool setting element after having read The Ring of Winter, I didn’t have the PCs interact with NPCs that were their equals (or betters) when it came to advancements and magic.

The setting itself moved in this direction as well. Later 2nd edition AD&D products set Amn up as the primary evil colonizing force. While it’s not a perfect analogy, this was also somewhat akin to saying that all colonization and slavery was distinctly Spanish in character, because while that parallel was driven home, analogies for French or English colonizers never materialized (for example).

This meant that Amn, which was already portrayed as a greedy, overreaching nation, was the only real bad actor in modern-day colonization in the Realms. Sadly, Cormyr’s “benevolent annexations” were a much more nuanced and interesting exploration of colonization that got downplayed, sacrificed on the twin altars of “make the Realms generic D&D land,” and “turn this region of the Realms into an exact replica of a historical culture.”

Oh, Fourth Edition Realms

If you read the articles I linked, you have a much better summary of where the wheels REALLY come off regarding Chult. Third edition largely ignored Chult, despite all the protests about how “every part of the Realms is super detailed and you can’t write anything about it that hasn’t already been done in great detail.” Fourth edition destroyed Mezro, and made Chult into savage jungle explore land.

Blundering the Sundering

I’m still kind of torn on the Sundering, because I think a lot of damage was done to the Realms in trying to make it conform to the “Points of Light” assumptions of 4th edition, but just saying that the conjunction of planets ending just “fixed” everything, up to and including restoring some NPCs that weren’t all that magical and shouldn’t still be alive, was unsatisfying. Heck, there was a ton of stuff implied in the Sundering novels that never went anywhere, because the default explanation was “it’s like 4th edition never happened, but it’s a century later--but we may still throw in some old NPCs too.”

Among nations that were definitely destroyed, but yet, apparently weren’t definitely destroyed, we had nations like Lantan and Halruaa, which just blinked back into being fine and functional in the setting.

The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide doesn’t revive Mezro. It’s still referred to as a ruin in that book. Chris Perkins, on the official D&D podcast, hinted that Mezro may not have been destroyed, and when Tomb of Annihilation came out, I was excited, because I was sure Mezro would figure into this prominently.

Nope. Mezro isn’t destroyed, but it may never, ever, ever come back, and your primary source for learning about it is by talking to the white savior that showed up over a century ago to save the place back then. So the narrative is that Artus Cimber, a white man from northern Faerun, is the gatekeeper of information about the most advanced Chultan civilization, and it’s beyond the scope of the adventure to talk to anyone from Mezro directly about the city.

Ras Nsi, the villain from the old days, who was a powerful necromancer trying to convince Chult that they needed to adopt the ways of outsiders and viciously exploit their own resources in order to make them a world power, lost all his powers and became a Yuan-Ti. Almost as if the point of this character was completely lost, and his name was assigned to a random Yuan-Ti leader as an Easter egg instead of for any meaningful reason.

So, what is the “safe haven” in Chult for PC outsiders coming into the nation? Port Nyanzaru, which was colonized, kicked out the colonizers, and is now prosperous because they adopted the mercantile ways of the colonizers. If Ras Nsi wasn’t a snake person that had lost all of his powers and existed mainly as a proper noun, he would be proud.

Where the Effort Went

It’s pretty clear that the “point” of Tomb of Annihilation was to do a slightly less “gotcha” version of the Tomb of Horrors, build a campaign around it, and add in jungle exploration and lost world elements. Chult has jungles and dinosaurs are really lost world feeling, so Chult “won.”

Ras Nsi can’t be a powerful necromancer, because the adventure is importing Acererak as the main villain. Mezro can’t return, because it might distract from all of the ruins that are seeded into the exploration portion of the adventure, which tie into the actual main ruin location where the climax of the adventure takes place.

Chult was just one more Forgotten Realms element that was the right size and shape to connect to a generic D&D adventure concept. The difference is, I can get upset all day long about losing the nuance of a country regarded as lawful good relying on a secret police force to keep it safe and secure, but at the end of the day, Cormyr isn’t going to be the only shot at representation I have being pissed away by the overriding concerns of a generic adventure being placed in a setting that has a lot more potential.

What Would I Have Wanted (Which Isn’t the Most Pressing Question)

First and foremost, what I wanted out of this adventure is nowhere near as important as what people who have missed out on representation would have wanted. And I would have to say that the thing I would have wanted most was for WOTC to have had any people of color working on this adventure. It did come out after the adventure was released that, no, there were not any people of color working on this, even as freelancers.

This is a huge problem for the company that is publishing the most widely known RPG in the industry. In a time of unparalleled growth and visibility, a product that is set in a region of the setting with people of color, had no people of color working on the product.

The other glaring issue from the start is that the adventure assumes that you aren’t “from” Chult. People are getting tired of the Sword Coast? Hey, let’s have them make people from the Sword Coast that go visit an “exotic” land.

The real problem, in retrospect, is that this adventure was probably always going to disappoint me. The design priorities were “Tomb of Horrors-esque” first, setting way down the line. I really wanted something that was built from the ground up as showcasing Chult.

I would have loved something that played with the old lore in more consistent ways. Maybe Ras Nsi drove out the Amnians, and has done some good by doing a lot of bad behind the scenes. Opposing Ras Nsi then becomes a little bit of a moral quandary, because it might hurt Chult in the short term.

Let the PCs find out that Ras Nsi has been keeping Mezro from materializing on the prime material plane to keep them from interfering with his plans, and also reveal that some other force has been playing to Ras Nsi’s biases, and may be an even greater evil. Give Ras Nsi a chance to redeem himself and rejoin the Barae of Mezro to fight this greater evil, as Mezro is brought back to Chult.

In this case, you could still have your reframed Tomb of Horrors with Acererak as an outsider tricking Ras Nsi as the end point of the campaign, but with fewer mini-dungeons, ruins, and random wandering.

And the most important part of all of this--make it really clear that the default PCs are assumed to be from Chult. This isn’t outsiders coming in and saving the place, this is about local adventurers doing what they need to do.

I’m not even sure you need the Death Curse to hang over all the Realms. Beyond the fact that you have a lich from outside the setting using an artifact and a godling to trump how the entire cosmology and afterlife works in the setting, using the Death Curse as the reason things need to be fixed in Chult sends a different message than the other adventures. If the Sword Coast is in danger, it’s worth doing the work to save it. If Chult is in danger, the rest of the Realms have to also be in danger to make it worth showing up.

Additionally, having native characters changes one element that I saw repeated over and over again at various Adventurers League tables. Because PCs are outsiders, and because the adventures called out the adverse conditions in the jungle, people constantly referred to Chult as this terrible hell hole where no one should live. That is not the narrative you want to reinforce in the only setting that is primarily populated by people of color in the official products you have published so far.

Credit Where Credit is Due

I am not saying that people should not enjoy Tomb of Annihilation. I do hope that people will examine and take care when they present the people of Chult when they run the adventure. I am sure that many people were attracted to the adventure as a full campaign based around the Tomb of Horrors, and others wanted a jungle hexcrawl, and like the designers, they are thinking of those elements primarily.

The adventure, as written, has some great moments. I would list them, but I’m also biased and many of them would include the word dinosaur. The death curse is even an interesting plot element, though it’s applied a little too broadly, quickly, and punishingly to allow some of the elements of the adventure as written to flourish.

I also don’t want to make it appear that I think WOTC has done a terrible job with inclusivity. WOTC has had some missteps and some garbled ways of expressing it from time to time, but I’m not going to claim that hasn’t happened to me either. I’m glad that they are trying, and I hope that they listen when people point out where they could do better.

We aren’t getting the sheer volume of sexist images, and we have a lot more people of color represented in the artwork of the books as well. WOTC as an organization has make several gestures towards marginalized communities that just a few years ago, very few in the RPG industry had done, and not with as much weight as the industry leader brings with it. Tomb of Annihilation presented a same-sex married couple, and Waterdeep, in the most recent products, is depicted as a progressive society in regard to many social issues.

I also want to make it clear that this didn’t seem, to me, to be the tone-deaf series of issues that plagued Goodman Game’s modern rework of the Isle of Dread. Unlike that product, which seemed oblivious that problematic content could even exist in RPG material, Tomb of Annihilation tries in some places, and fails in others, but at least seems aware that it’s not okay to write adventures like it’s still the 1980s and every gamer looks exactly like you. Of course, WOTC still approved that product, so there is plenty of blame to share in that case.

When mistakes are made, and when marginalized voices speak, it is still very important to listen to them, and to do better. And one of the best ways to do better is to actually hire them to work on your product.

I’m Probably Wrong

When I laid out what I would have liked to have seen, I’m sure some of the expectations I laid out are still filtered through the lens of someone that had privilege in the gaming space for decades. I have blind spots. Please feel free to point them out to me. I want to learn.

I haven’t written a standard review of Tomb of Annihilation, because I know that I had a lot of expectations that drowned out a more detached analysis of the content of the book. Having played through sections of it in Adventurers League play, I’ve got opinions, but I also know that a lot of people enjoy it on its face as an adventure, setting concerns aside.

So, let me know what I got wrong, and if you are someone who has always had representation in the RPG industry, maybe spend a few moments thinking about why the depiction of marginalized cultures may not the last thing you think about when evaluating a product. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews?--Strongholds and Followers (5e OGL)

Sometimes, I just like to do a review because I’m interested in diving into a product. My take on Princes of the Apocalypse or Storm King’s Thunder probably aren’t going to make a dent in how anyone views these products, or move them up or down on anyone’s priority list of RPG purchases. Despite that, occasionally, I like to dive into those better know, higher profile products.

Note: I don’t really have a lot of evidence that my take on anything has ever affected anyone’s purchasing patterns, so there is that.

This time around I’m looking at something that is part of a Kickstarter that made $2,121,465 dollars and is one of the top 100 Kickstarters of all time. I’m going to dive into Strongholds and Followers, the “product” side of Matt Colville’s Strongholds and Streaming Kickstarter from last year.

The crux of this product is to provide rules for fortresses, followers, and mass combat rules, creating for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons what various earlier editions of the game had available, but in a manner consistent with the current edition of the rules, and with mechanics that are friendly and intuitive to use at the table.


This review is based on the most recent PDF of the product. The PDF is 269 pages, including the OGL page, and a few pages of example units for the mass combat rules. Each chapter has a full page, full color introductory page, and the book mimics an illuminated medieval script, with flourishing borders throughout.

While some RPG books will have side margins or boxed text to call out extra information or explanations, this is one of the few that I can think of that include footnotes. In addition to the footnotes, it does have the traditional sidebars for various displays of ancillary information.

Many of the big players in the RPG industry make attractive books. It becomes difficult to call out how attractive a book is, because it has almost become assumed that professional releases with have a certain look. Given that this is the first MCDM book, or even comparing it to larger company releases, this book looks amazing, and it does so in a way that is in keeping with the topic of the book. It also does this while maintain the kind of formatting that makes it easier to follow the material presented in the book.

Now We See the Violence Inherent in the System

Before we dive into the meat of the book, I wanted to address an overall issue that weaves in and out of the rules. With the shifting of most Dungeons and Dragons products to using the Forgotten Realms as a baseline, and with the Sword Coast being the main stomping grounds, it feels like a lot of D&D “flavor” has moved more towards late Medieval/Early Renaissance in tone, with less of an emphasis on a hierarchy of nobility, land grants, rights tied to titles, or the divine right of rulers. Its not that those things are entirely absent, but when you play up city states and magical cultures, these elements are less dominant.

Reintroducing an emphasis on establishing a fortress and attracting followers brings some of these elements back into the game. Adding an element of “the ruler is the land” to the game also emphasizes older fantasy traditions of who “deserves” to oversee a tract of land. Reintroducing these elements to the game in a mechanized and important fashion can underline some issues that D&D has had for a while. Namely that some species are okay to wipe out, especially if they don’t willingly allow themselves to be subjugated. There can be an element of “the goodly people” are the only thinking folk that matter, and other thinking, communicating, sapient folk still don’t count as real people, especially if they keep you from land and treasure.

While the topic of being granted land by “rightful” rulers, attracting followers, gaining power from being the true master of the land, and defending a stronghold can bring up all the above, the book doesn’t wallow in these topics. The sample adventure and some of the attracted followers leans into a least a little more nuanced approach to someone holding a fortress and their relationship with their neighbors, and this is a good thing. It’s just worth keeping in mind some of the baggage that this topic brings with it.


The introduction is a brief affair that touches on some of the terms that will be used a lot in the text, and broadly outlines the concept of why characters would want a stronghold and how it works. It then dives into the idea that the GM has a lot to do in the game, so anything in the book should be considered optional, and then briefly touches on the idea that the book defaults to a more traditional “alignment is important and may have mechanical effects” approach, compared to a lot of elements in 5e.


The strongholds section introduces several concepts, from how characters establish a stronghold, what the benefits for a type of stronghold are, and then moves on into some of the class specific benefits that certain fortresses might provide. In addition, there is discussion on elements that aren’t heavily mechanized, but should be introduced into a campaign where strongholds are important (such as introducing rivals, allies, and neutral powers with their own bases of operation).

Each type of stronghold is given a cost and amount of time to build. There are also charts for upgrading strongholds, and each stronghold will have a level between 1 to 5. There are some notes on morale for troops, size, and toughness for the stronghold, which tie into the mass combat rules presented in the book, although it is also noted that the mass combat rules in this book are a stripped-down version of what will appear in a later supplement.
Level also affects some of the more “encounter level” powers provided by each stronghold.

The types of strongholds outlined are:
  • Keep
  • Tower
  • Temple
  • Establishment
There are also some simple rules on how to consolidate multiple strongholds into a single castle, in case all your adventures want to have a keep the incorporates a wizard’s tower, a fortified abbey, and an inn for travelers all into the same structure.

Strongholds provide the character that built them with more abilities than they normally have, usually based on spending an extended rest at the stronghold (1 week). This means that even if you don’t do a lot with the mechanics of the stronghold itself, there are still everyday adventuring benefits to owning the stronghold.

The keep makes it cheaper to pay for military units and can provide its master with specific combat training by drilling with the troops. Towers allow spellcasters access to battle magic (which is barely touched on in this volume) and allows the spellcaster to do spell research, which allows the spellcaster to roll on a chart to see what kind of special “kicker” ability they can add to a specific spell when they use it. The temple tracks concordance, which allows the character that founded the temple to potentially petition divine intervention in the form of a servitor. The establishment allows the owner to generate a profit, hear rumors and gather intelligence, and ask for favors (borrowing the ability of another form of stronghold from an ally).

The keep also has a barbarian camp and pirate ship variant, explaining how these versions of the keep function differently. The tower has a few notes on specializing a tower to a specific school of magic, such as necromancy, and the temple has alternate rules for groves, which provide special seasonal castings of spells.

While the base version of the stronghold has set abilities, the other “half” of the benefits gained by a stronghold are based on the character’s class. For example, a druid can build a barbarian camp instead of a grove, but the followers they attract and the special actions they get will be based on their druid class.

Most of the classes grant a demesne effect, a stronghold action, and a class feature improvement, in addition to having a unique chart for attracted followers. Demesne effects are “true” of the area where the stronghold is if it is maintained. Stronghold actions are like lair actions that take effect whenever the person in charge of the stronghold is within the demesne and is in combat, although some of the effects can only be used once per short or long rest before accessed again. The class feature improvement is often something that the character can do which can be used, and then is replenished once the character has spent an extended rest at their stronghold.

It’s worth noting that a PC with a stronghold, fighting within their fortress, is going to have a heavy boost to their abilities. For example, the cleric can call down light from the sky as a stronghold action that causes undead, demons, or devils to make a wisdom save or be annihilated. This is intentional, as the text notes that fights on the PCs home territory should be less common and epic when they happen.

In addition to the stronghold abilities that PCs gain, there is also a section on villain strongholds, where different types of villains grant their minions special traits if the fight happens in an establish fortress with a specific master. This section is interesting, but its not definitive, with just a few sample abilities for necromancer, shaman, and warlord masters and mindless, savage, or tactical minions.

A Note on Followers: One thing that jumped out at me is that several charts have options on them for the PCs to attract ambassadors from various local creatures, including goblins, orcs, or gnolls, for example. This isn’t based on alignment and sets up the idea that these species aren’t always something you need to kill or drive off, and I really like that idea.

I really wish the villain stronghold section was a little more exhaustive, instead of just giving some examples to build from, and I’m always a little dubious of spending time introducing mechanics that won’t fully be addressed until a later product is available. Even with that in mind, I really like the idea that all the strongholds have mechanical “weight” even if you never get into any kind of mass combat with them. If they only ever exist as something the player characters visit during downtime, they still have a reason for existing.

If the PCs are relaxing at home and an assassin attacks them, the stronghold actions can still come up without an extended siege. That’s the kind of utility that a lot of older stronghold rules seem to lack, as the stats provided for the domain and the fortress only come up if you start playing a whole other kind of game that involves politics and mass combat.
I also like the type of stronghold + class formula for defining what the characters get from establishing a stronghold.


The next section of the book defines different kinds of followers, which can include units, retainers, artisans, ambassadors, and allies.

Units are what they sound like, military units that mainly get used when engaging with the mass combat rules detailed later in the book (and in the upcoming expanded companion volume). Retainers are special NPCs that are like PCs, but with simplified abilities to use in encounters. Artisans are characters that can make buying certain things cheaper for the stronghold, and in some cases, allow for specialized magic item construction. Ambassadors are a touchstone with a neighboring group which also allows you to purchase military units to aid you. Allies are people friendly to you, but not under your command (like a friendly dragon that will likely help you, but only in their own way, not according to your orders).

Retainers introduce a whole other way of having “tagalong” NPCs. They are broadly arranged along what kind of followers a given class would attract, and they often represent a very narrow aspect of what one class might do. For example, rogue retainers include executioners (sneaky killers), guild adepts (sneaks that are good at avoiding attention and misdirecting attacks), and cutpurses (a sneak that can impose different conditions on their opponents).

Retainers don’t have full stats, they just have a primary ability, saves, and skills, which grant them a set bonus when rolling those checks. They have a signature attack or ability, and depending on level, at 3rd, 5th, or 7th level they get abilities that they can use anywhere from 1 to 3 times per day. Retainers start out two levels lower than the PCs that they work for and gain a level for every two levels the PCs gain. They don’t track hit points, but they make a save versus the damage they take, with a failure indicating that they lose 1 health level per hit dice of the attack that hit them.

Given that I’ve looked at a few “companion” options recently, I must admit, I’m the most intrigued by this option. Saving versus the damage taken adds an extra step to the character getting hit, but it also reduces the book keeping for specific hit points, and I love the idea of having one signature ability to summarize what they can do, coupled with per day limited abilities that tie into the theme.

The nifty psychological trick that retainer design uses is that, the retainer goes on the turn that the player acts on. If the PC hits with their attack or successfully uses an ability, the retainers signature ability happens automatically, which makes it feel like the PC is at least indirectly responsible for their retainer’s success, making them less of a spotlight hog. If there is anything I’m concerned about, it’s that in some cases the retainer may still have a good enough bonus in a skill that it becomes better to have the “help” do it instead of the PCs.

The Siege of Castle Rend

The Siege of Castle Rend is an adventure to introduce elements of rules introduced in this supplement, and it takes up 48 pages, so it is a good sized, solid adventure. I’m not going to delve too deeply into all the details, but there are a few elements worth noting. When I started reading it, my assumption was that it was going to be a very standard D&D style adventure that happened to end up with an encounter defending a fortress, but there were some nice, surprising swerves in the adventure.

Essentially, the PCs end up tracking down a kidnapped NPC, recovering them from orcs that have taken over an old fortress, which they can then claim, and then they must defend the reclaimed fortress from outside attackers. The twist is that the attackers are duplicitous local authorities that have been backstabbing local leaders to advance themselves, the orc’s leader is looking to negotiate, and one of the hostages has established a bond with the orc leader.

It’s entirely possible to play this very “traditionally,” and wipe out the orcs, then get surprised by the fact that the local human authorities aren’t the best people. However, there are so many more interesting options if the PCs do spend the time to discuss the situation, negotiations, and double crosses with the orc leader and end up getting the orc’s help in the final stretch, as they attempt to rally troops to defend the stronghold.


The appendices hit a lot of different topics, including new monsters, warfare, simple warfare, and new items.

New monsters introduced play into the kind of creatures that can be summoned in conjunction with the concordance rules for temples in the first chapter. If alignment becomes important, it is also important to have planar allies that are tied to alignment available for summoning.

There are lesser versions of some iconic demons and devils in this section, so if you want to summon a balor or a marilith that isn’t quite as nasty as the standard version, there are some options available. The Celestial Court provides some very lawful good, angelic creatures. The Court of All Flesh are weird, backstabbing, strange creatures that exemplify chaotic neutral (and aren’t all impregnating frog things). The Court of Arcadia are like the older version of eladrin, chaotic good planar creatures with a definite tie to fey creatures, although there is a variety of fey style creature, not just “super elf.” The Court of Elements is tied to the alternate cosmology of Colville’s world, where the City of Brass is the confluence of all the elemental realms, with various elemental creatures tied to functions in the city. There are also the inexorables—conceptual beings that enforce cosmic rules in broad terms and serving as the example of lawful neutral summons.

Also introduced in this section are the gemstone dragons. Unlike versions of gemstone dragons from previous D&D editions, these gemstone dragons lack breath weapons, but have specific psionic abilities. They also have very specific philosophies that each type of dragon follows (for example, sapphire dragons are interested in time). The broad psionic abilities tie into some of the magic items introduced later, but unlike the planar creatures in this chapter, the dragons don’t tie as much into the overall rules from the rest of the book.
Warfare details how to create units, how the unit costs translate into upkeep for hired units, and how mass combat works under these rules. Exact positions aren’t tracked, but different types of units are only allowed to attack certain other types of units. For example, levies are useless against flying units or cavalry, and they can only attack infantry if there aren’t levies on the other side of the fight.

Unit size is tracked with a die, and whenever is either harmed or suffers a loss to moral, the face of the die drops by one. If the die is already at 1, that unit is out of the fight. Because of how this is represented in the game, that means that failing a morale check is just as bad as taking damage, but it also means that morale failure doesn’t mean a unit falls back or fails to function in the fight.

One important aspect of this system is that player characters can’t really affect unit level combat. In other words, your fighter isn’t going to do anything to a unit, not even a unit of levies. The assumption is that the PCs are doing something else, light fighting the evil general and their bodyguards. If you are wondering what happens if the PCs fail to kill the villain’s pet dragon, well, part of what you do in this system is to define the win and loss conditions of the fight—you can establish if the dragon isn’t stopped, the fight is over and the troops scatter.

Simple warfare is a quick list of advantages and disadvantages that can be used to create a percentile-based chance to determine if one force or another wins a wider battle.
The new items include several magic items that can summon units or that play with some of the psionics rules introduced with the gemstone dragons. My favorites are the codices, super powerful magical books that require attunement, and introduce some crazy levels of power into the campaign. Designed to be “events” in the campaign rather than something the PCs carry with them for the rest of their careers, they also give some hints at the lore of Colville’s campaign world.

Calling the Banners

First off, Colville’s writing style is very conversational and entertaining. Even if you don’t use any of the rules presented, it’s enjoyable to just read his take on how a campaign using these rules should play out. The stronghold rules work on multiple levels, allowing a GM to engage with them in steps that may not require a major shift in how the campaign works. The implications on using simplified NPCs in the retainer’s section is great, and the various monsters and magic items are useful even outside the framework of the new rules. I’m very interested to see how the mass combat rules play out, and to play with creating individual units from existing monsters.


If you are like me, the same conversational tone that makes the book fun to read also means that you sometimes lose the thread of how a rule works, start to finish, or makes it harder to reference a rule later, as opposed to initially reading how it works. I feel like a few of the procedures for new rules could have used a summary page of some sort, for example, summarizing the bonuses of retainers or summarizing what units can attack other units in mass combat.

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

Even though the rules primarily lean towards, well, strongholds and followers, the new monsters and magic items may be worth a look even for GMs not looking to get into the domain game. Additionally, the book is an immensely enjoyable read when addressing why a domain style game might be fun, even if you ultimately don’t think it is for your and your campaign. The only thing that keeps me from recommending it more broadly is that it is very grounded in a style of fantasy that not everyone may be interested in.

Monday, February 18, 2019

A Note on Reviews

Most of my reviews are products that I have purchased. When this is not the case, I will note that in the review. This has still only happened a few times since I've been doing these reviews, but I will definitely disclose that fact whenever it comes up.

I would love to receive more review copies. That said, I feel like I need to make something very clear about review copies.

  • If you send me a review copy, you haven't sent me a gift
  • If you send me a review copy, that isn't payment for writing a review
  • When I write a review, I'm not doing marketing for your company or product, I'm writing a review
It is true that sometimes I will pick one product over another to review because I want that product to get more exposure. But I'm still writing a review first and foremost, and I'm still doing so because I'm assuming better-known products will get discussion and analysis in other venues.

Small Neighborhoods

I think there are times that because the RPG industry is a smaller hobby in a lot of ways, there is a lot of informality to it. This is cool. People talk online, they meet at conventions, and they actually play games together. Regardless of familiarity, it cheapens the concept of a review to expect a review to serve primarily as a marketing tool. It certainly can, but that's not its primary purpose.

I want to tell you what is in a product, how it expresses the material within it, and how the product has made me feel as I read it, and why. I don't want you to just take my opinion and make it your own. I want you to see what my priorities are, and to measure those against your own, so you can decide if the things that are important to me are also the things that are important to you.

I try to do reviews on games that are relatively current, but again, I can't always hit whatever target dates you may want me to hit. This isn't my full-time job. This is something I do because I love the hobby, and I love to discuss and analyze products. I have more flexibility to schedule on my own blog, but even then, I have a finite amount of time to do what I do.


There are better gaming journalists in the world. There are better reviewers in the world. But this is what I do, and why I do it. If you view this process as you giving me a gift, so I will say nice things about that gift, not only are you disrespecting what I do, you are disrespecting the concept of reviews. 

Please understand the above if you want to send me something to review. Please understand the way I write my reviews and what I look at. I say this because you may not care for how I review things. You may not care for how I write my articles. This is all fine, but if you don't care for how I do things, please don't expect that I'll change the way I do what I do to fit what you want to be done.

You may think the RPG hobby isn't supposed to be that formal. You may think that reviews aren't something important to the hobby. That's fine. If you do hold those views, however, please don't send me any gifts in an attempt to hire me for temporary marketing. That's not what I'm doing.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dual Gnome Action This Week

This week has be super busy at work, and I'm neck deep in fairly involved reviews for both the Stew and for this blog in the coming weeks.

If you happen to be in the mood, and oddly follow me here but not on the Stew, I've got two separate things going on at Gnome Stew this week.

First, I've got a review up for Shadow of the Century, a Fate Core setting for over the top, gonzo 80s action movies (think of a setting where Buckeroo Banzai and Big Trouble in Little China could both happen, and you're off to a good start).

Shadow of the Century Review at Gnome Stew

In addition to my review this week, I'm also on this week's Gnomecast, talking with Ang and Camdon about initiative and managing turns in games.

Gnomecast #59--Roll of Initiative

Hopefully I'll have more content up here on the blog soon, once everything levels out, and nothing is frozen solid, and . . .

You get the idea. Oh, one more bit of gnome gnews:

I won't be on the stream this time around, but I'm pretty excited about this.