Tuesday, January 28, 2020

What Do I Know About Reviews? Blood Hunter (D&D 5e)


For someone who would reflexively say that Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition doesn’t really need more character classes, new character classes seem to catch my attention from time to time. The one I’m referring to at the moment was especially hard to miss, since it was a revision of Matt Mercer’s Blood Hunter class. While it started life as a translation of Vin Diesel’s character from The Last Witch Hunter, it’s clearly got some Witcher DNA in the mix.

Detailing the Rite

The Blood Hunter is a twelve-page with multiple pieces of art featuring various kick-ass monster hunters of different types. Between the formatting, tables, and page layout, these pages look like they came straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition rulebook.

Because this is a Dungeon Master’s Guild product, there is only a half-page of disclaimer text, and this particular product doesn’t have a separate cover. It literally looks like it was taken straight out of the character class section of the Player’s Handbook.

Accessibility Note

Because I often like to listen to a PDF being read while I’m reading it, in part because I’m often taking notes, I use PDF read-aloud features often. Unfortunately, the current version of this product is not naturally natively set up for OCR functions, so PDF readers won’t work on the PDF. This wasn’t a problem for me, but for people that rely on PDF readers for more than convenience, this may be something to take into account.

Introduction

There is about a page and a half of text that explains what a blood hunter is, and while it hasn’t changed drastically from the description of the original version of the class (which is still up on D&D Beyond as of this writing), there is some subtle nuance added that jumped out at me.

Blood Hunters are an order of monster hunters that use blood magic to augment themselves, give them access to magical abilities, and curse their enemies. They undergo an arduous rite, and if they survive, they come out the other side as a member of the order. Not only does that hearken back to The Witcher, but also the Grey Wardens of Dragon Age.

The new version of the class specifically uses the term “hemocraft” for blood magic, and that shift from a more generic terminology to something more evocative makes me wonder if Matt doesn’t have some plans for implementing hemocraft as a setting element in Exandria on a wider scale.

Whatever his plans may be, as a fan of Kobold Press’ Midgard setting, it wasn’t too hard for me to pick up on the “reforming blood magic to do good” aspect of the class, and its general “Witcher”-ness to think the class would be a good fit in that setting. Sorry Sanguine Path adherents, there might be some more heroic types stealing your secrets to use against you.

General Class Features


The Blood Hunter is built to be a front line fighter, and they start off with a d10 hit die, medium armor and shield proficiency, and martial weapon proficiency. They are going to suffer a bit from multiple attribute dependency, since they are medium armor fighters that probably would like some Dexterity, but they need Intelligence for their hemocraft ability DCs to ramp up.

Blood Hunters get advantage to track certain supernatural creatures, and once per rest, they can also cast a specialized curse on an enemy. The curses can be picked from a specific list, with a few restricted by level and subclass. One neat trick associated with this blood curse is that the curses have a greater effect that kicks in if you take your Hemocraft Die as damage when you enact the curse. Essentially, you can bleed yourself to give your curses more oomph.

At 2nd level, you can bleed out your Hemocraft Die on your weapon to cause it to do extra energy damage. The extra energy damage is equal to that same Hemocraft Die, so it’s a bit of design that does extra duty for this class. There are two confusing bits about this ability. One is that it is noted that this damage is magical, but all of the rites do some kind of “energy” damage. I don’t know if that class feature means that the weapon damage is considered magical when the rite is in place, and I’m not sure under what circumstances energy damage being “magical” is an important distinction.

The other confusing bit is with its interaction with a later class feature in one of the subclasses, but I’ll mention it here. That class feature makes it sounds as if you can have multiple rites active at one time, which would mean that the only limit would be how many rites you know, and how much damage you want to do to yourself, but this causes potential issues with critical hits and later subclass abilities that multiply your Hemocraft Die under certain circumstances.

As it turns out, Matt has answered this online, and the intention is that you can have more than one rite active, but not on the same weapon.

At 3rd level, you pick or Order, and at 5th level, you get an extra attack. At 6th level, you can place a blood brand on an enemy, which does psychic damage to them when they damage you—at 13th level that brand does even more psychic damage if your enemy tries to teleport away, and probably ruins the attempt as well.

Grim Psychometry is probably my favorite extremely simple class feature, just in how it is flavored. You get advantage on Intelligence (History) rolls in areas where spooky stuff has happened, but it’s because you have visions of the creepy stuff that happened in the past. I’m not sure this needs to wait until 9th level, but I love how it’s flavored.

Other high-level abilities involve bonuses or advantage to certain saves, and the capstone ability, which lets you reroll your hemocraft dice, and regain them when you score a crit.

That’s a lot going on and we haven’t even hit the subclasses yet.

Orders

The following subclasses exist for the Blood Hunter:

  • Order of the Ghost Slayer (Specialized in Undead Hunting)
  • Order of the Profane Soul (Partial Warlock Abilities)
  • Order of the Mutant (Shifting Bonus Abilities Based on Mutagens Ingested)
  • Order of the Lycan (Focused Lycanthropic Abilities)


The Order of the Ghost slayer gets a shiny weapon that lets them resist necrotic damage, and extra hemocraft die against undead, and resistance to necrotic damage. They get to cast an extra curse per rest, and at 7th level pick up the ability to Ethereally shift through people and things once per rest. At 11th level, a branded opponent takes an extra hemocraft die of damage (that’s starting to stack up if you brand an undead opponent). You can also pull your life force back in from a rite you have active on a weapon to keep you from dying at 18th level.

The Order of the Profane Soul is really a partial warlock. You pick a patron, which alters some of the later abilities of the subclass. You get the minimal spell slots of a warlock, as well as access to cantrips. In this case, you are an Intelligence-based warlock. There are a bunch of different kickers based on your chosen patron when you have a rite active on your weapon. At 7th level, you get to stab someone as a bonus action when you use a cantrip. At 7th level, you get another special ability based on patron, and that happens again at 15th level. At 11th level, your branded foes have disadvantage on saves against your magic.

The Order of the Mutant can use a mutagen that they learn once per rest, and those mutagens only work for them, and can’t be shared. Mutagens all have different side effects, but at 7th level, you get immunity to poison, and you can spend a bonus action to ignore a mutagen side effect. At 11th level, if you brand a foe, illusions and disguises don’t work for them, and at 18th level, you can shift the effects of one active mutagen for another.

The Order of the Lycan gets heightened senses (advantage on perception) and hybrid transformation (bonus to damage, AC, claws, and maybe go berserk when you are bloodied). At 7th level, you get faster and better at using your natural weapons. At 11th level, you can transform more often between rests and start regenerating. At 15th level, you have advantage on your branded enemies for purposes of attacks, and you are less likely to go berserk when bloodied. At 18th level, not unlike a barbarian with their rage around this level, you can transform whenever you want.

These feel like some really varied play experiences, and I’m not even going to pretend that I can just read through these and pick out what would happen in play. All of them are pretty evocative, and the only one that sets off my radar a bit is the Order of the Ghost Slayer and its bonus hemocraft dice in multiple features, especially if you have a Ghost Slayer dual wielder that has rites going on both weapons.

I’ll be honest, if I had the inclination to multi-class as a warlock, and it was into anything martial (except paladin), I’d probably just go Blood Hunter--Order of the Profane Soul and see how it worked out.

One bit of flavor text that I might alter is the Onus of Lycanthropy sidebar, which states that Order of the Lycan Blood Hunters can infect others with lycanthropy, but can also suppress their ability to pass on the curse, and are barred from passing on the curse by their order. I think I would rather lockdown that ability to pass on the curse a little more solidly than to just trust fear of repercussion.

Blood Curses

I won’t go into these too deeply, except to point out that each of the subclasses gets their own flavor of curse that only works for them. As an example of what some of the curses look like, and how they are boosted, let’s look at Blood Curse of the Marked.

When you mark your opponent, you get an additional hemocraft die when damaging them, until the end of your next turn. If you bleed yourself to get the amplified version, you also get advantage on the attack.

While these come back with a short or long rest, there are some high risk, reward maneuvers when considering the boosted ability. There are some, for example, that restrict actions or do damage, or cause a caster to have a harder time concentrating, and I feel like harrying or restricting is a better use than potentially burning your curse and maybe your hit points and then failing an attack roll (which reminds me of the old days of 3rd edition paladin smites).

Broken Curses

There is a ton of flavorful gameplay in this class. It shouldn’t be too hard to fit “blood magic, but for good!” into a lot of campaign settings, even if you aren’t using Exandria as your base of operations. There is a lot of varied gameplay in the four subclasses right from the start, and while it should be no surprise, I really like not just the class abilities, but the descriptions of those abilities.

Counter Spells

This class has a lot going on, even for the non-caster variants, and some of it can get a little tangled. It might be easy to sort out at the table, but at first glance, you realize you will probably need a second glance. Some clarifications, such as the multiple active rites, don’t feel intuitive and I needed to look up responses online to see what was going on with that ability.

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

Unless you are vehemently against looking at new classes, this one is a fun read, and even if you decide not to allow it in your game, seeing the interaction of class features feels like it may be worth it for the mechanically minded. On the other hand, if you don’t mind new classes, and especially if you happen to like a certain Butcher of Blaviken, I doubt you will be disappointed with the purchase.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Conventional Wisdom: My Weekend of Call of Cthulhu at the Local Convention


Over the weekend I signed up for multiple Call of Cthulhu games at the local gaming convention, because I don’t get the play the game very often, and most of the time when I play the game at conventions, it is a pretty satisfying experience. What follows are some observations based on my games this weekend, and if you follow me on social media, you may have seen some of these bits here and there already.

The Grim Visage

Before I get into my observations about the game itself, I just wanted to point out a really annoying thing about Cthulhu inspired material. People plaster Lovecraft’s face all over the place in the RPG industry. I don’t get it.

I’ve played Star Wars, Star Trek, and D&D tabletop games before, and yet those games don’t seem to plaster George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, or Gary Gygax’s picture in every single book that comes out. But for some reason, people really need to reprint the image of their patron saint of cosmic horror.

In addition to seeing Lovecraft’s mug in the Call of Cthulhu books over the weekend, we had a nice, atmospheric map of Arkham on the table . . . and in the margins, right there, Lovecraft’s face. I think I’m finally at the point where I cannot in good conscience buy anything about cosmic horror that includes Lovecraft’s face anymore.

What Makes a Cosmic Horror Game?

I've learned a few things about my interactions with Call of Cthulhu this weekend, beyond getting increasingly pissed about seeing Lovecraft’s face on everything. I mentioned having generally positive convention experiences with Call of Cthulhu in the past. I think that most of the Keepers I’ve had over the years at conventions were really interested in portraying the feel of the genre.

I think some CoC GMs mistake the futility of PC survival with the futility of action. I'm fine with "succeed at a cost to oblivion" but not thrilled with "keep failing until you die." Anything about cosmic horror should be a strong example of succeeding at a cost. People who want to emulate the genre are probably ready for bad things to happen to PCs, as long as the story advances.

Overall the convention CoC I've played over the years, the most enjoyable have been sessions where GMs see the expansive skill list as a way to flavor what needs to be done, rather than a narrowly defined set of logic gates forcing you to use this 5-20% skills.

It probably goes without saying that random mental illness is very bad, and any stressful break down that's tied to character traits is way more fun to roleplay, because you are more fully exploring the character, not given a disassociated improv prompt that is also reductive.

I also think there is a point of no return for plot resolution. If you find out, say, less than 50% of the weird steps towards what happened, it's cool to end the session thinking "what was all that about." If you uncover 75% or more of what's going on, but that last 25% makes everything else even more random and nonsensical, you really need some way to get an overview to the players.

The Cycle of Failure

Most Call of Cthulhu scenarios I have played in at conventions have underscored the idea that you will resolve the situation, you just won’t likely be doing much else with your life after you got the answers you were looking for. I don’t think anyone going to a convention game of Call of Cthulhu is looking to walk away unscathed. But there is a difference between unscathed and unresolved.

Some examples of frustrations I had over the weekend:

  • We needed to make candles that could see another dimension when lit (cool idea!)—we found a chemical formula for them, but because we didn’t have craft (candle making), we couldn’t make them.
  • We needed to complete a ritual, but the person that researched the ritual had to perform it. They had the highest academic stats, but the lowest power score, so they continually failed and had to start over.
  • Someone in a small town performed a ritual that cursed the whole town, but was also the person that warned everyone that doom was coming, and we never had the opportunity to figure out why he enacted the ritual or where he found the book he used.


Tools and Implementation

I think 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu has much better tools for handling forward momentum than past versions of the game. I think being able to burn luck and push rolls are great additions. They weren’t additions that were handled well in my games over the weekend.

I’ve had convention games where I’ve been convinced I was King Arthur and was picked up by the police while dueling a hapless fellow investigator that I mistook for Lancelot. I’ve sacrificed myself to stop a ritual that would have drained the life force from captive children. I’ve bled out on the way to a car after setting a local corrupted church on fire. But all of those situations were satisfying because the session itself rarely stalled out. It had forward momentum.

I will say this much about playing Call of Cthulhu multiple times this weekend. I really want to dig back into my copy of Tremulus now.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

What Do I Know About Reviews? Tactical Tokens (1", 2", 3", and 4" blanks)


A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about items I wish existed for D&D 5e, and Joe Cwik, on the Gaming and BS Forums pointed out that, while the tokens I was outlining may not exist, there was a range of variable-sized dry-erase tokens available from Tactical Tokens. While it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, it was a pretty close fit, so I put in an order for a few of them in varying sizes.

The total order was this:

  • 25-1” tokens
  • 10-2” tokens
  • 5-3” tokens
  • 5-4" tokens


Tokens, Miniatures, and Me

Back when I made my exit from running Pathfinder 1e games, I decided I was going to leave tactical gaming behind. I didn’t get rid of my D&D miniatures, but I did get rid of my flat cardboard tokens, giving them away to a friend that was still running Pathfinder.

This is just my personal issue, but I would much rather use a “generic” token than use the “wrong” token for something I am representing in a game. I don’t mean that I won’t use someone with an axe when I only have a similar character with a sword, but I hate using a blue dragonspawn when I wanted to represent an owlbear.

As it turns out, I couldn’t entirely remove myself from tactical representation. I picked up some Pathfinder pawns when I was playing 13th Age, not because I needed to strictly represent distances, but because it was nice to be able to track relative positioning. I also ran a lot of Savage Worlds one-shots for a while, so I picked up multi-colored glass beads for all of my representational needs.

None of that quite provided exactly what I wanted in my GM toolkit.

Back to the Present

Flashing forward again, I’m 100% back into running tactical games, now that I’m regularly playing D&D 5e. I have several sets of Pathfinder pawns, as well as some Kobold Press pawns from their Tome of Beasts and Creature Codex Kickstarters. While I love having some of the great monsters with the art from the books, there are definitely times when I just want to have some tokens to throw on the table.

How Did You Determine How Many to Order

This is easy. Whenever I think of miniatures, I think, “how many frost giants would I like to throw at my players,” and then plan from there.

Preliminary Testing

The 1” and 2” tokens have an interesting kind of static connectivity where large stacks will stay connected with one another. The 3” and 4” miniatures are more of a thicker coated plastic and don’t have the same kind of attraction to each other.

Because of this clinginess, I was wondering what would happen if I placed them on my tactical board, but they don’t stick to that, making them easier to slide around (although, this also means they don’t stay in place if you bump your table, but that’s no different than standard plastic miniatures or cardboard miniatures).

I wrote some names on the various sized tokens to see how well they could be erased. For my dry erase cards at the table, I have been carrying a Staedtler correctable dry erase pen, because most other fine tip dry erase pens I have used are . . . not good for what I need them to do.

In this case, I could use the erasable back of the pen to remove the name I wrote very easily. Using a microfiber cloth to erase the names took a little more effort than the built-in eraser on the Staedtler, but it still worked. I’m actually not upset that it took some effort to remove the name, because it came off clean, and didn’t smudge without effort.

In addition to the Staedtler pen, I also tried an Expo wet-erase marker on one of the tokens. The red on the marker dried quickly, and didn’t smudge with my finger. I couldn’t get it to come off with the eraser or the microfiber cloth, but the second I held the token underwater, the wet erase marker came off.

On their website, Tactical Tokens also offers some pre-printed tokens, with an essential bundle, goblin tokens, and hero tokens.

Flanking with Friends

This is a simple concept, but these work as well as I could hope for my gaming needs. They provide a no-smudge surface in multiple key sizes for the games that I run which require tactical representation, and they work with the dry and wet erase tools I’m already using.

Opportunity Attack

While there appears to be a Kickstarter coming soon for the larger sizes, there isn’t a nice variety pack for all of the different sized blanks for a single order. While there were bundles for the smaller tokens, the larger ones had to be added to the order individually.

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

I’m looking forward to giving these a spin in my next session. As much as I like having the lovely art from the Tome of Beasts and Creature Codex available for my Margreve games, I also like knowing that sometimes I can just throw a package of blank tokens into the kit for the evening and not worry too much about picking out just the right monsters.

If you are playing any kind of game that would benefit from tactical representation, and you don’t want to worry about having the exact miniature for the game you are playing, you could probably do much worse than to give these a look for your gaming needs.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

What Do I Know About First Impressions? Unearthed Arcana (Subclasses, 1/14/2020)(D&D 5e)


Remember back in 2019, when Wizards was releasing all of those Unearthed Arcana articles, non-stop, and it seemed like they were never going to end. Everyone was really wondering what they were all leading up to. It’s like it was yesterday. Oh, hey, what’s this? Another Unearthed Arcana article with three more playtest subclasses? Okay, twist my arm, I’ll take a look.

Unearthed Arcana 2020 Subclass Part 1

Barbarian (Path of the Beast)

The flavor for the Path of the Beast barbarian is that somewhere in the barbarian’s past, they have an association with an animal spirit or a shape changer. If you don’t have an idea what that connection is, there is even a handy chart with four broad options on it.

  • At third level, when you rage, you get a bite attack, a claw attack, or a tail attack. Biting lets you regain hit points, claws allow for an extra attack, and the tail is one beefy hit with reach.
  • At sixth level, you have magical appendages for combat purposes, and you can decide on a boost to some form of movement (swim, climb, jump). You can swap that out at short rests.
  • At 10th level, you get the ability to force another creature that you hit with your attacks to either attack another creature, or take psychic damage.
  • At 14th level, you can grant friends of yours within 30 feet some temporary hit points, reckless attack, and advantage against fear effects.

I really like this theme, and I think the abilities stay on point for the whole progression. I’m not used to contemplating what it would look like for a barbarian to mainly rely on natural attacks for most of their career, but I kind of like the notion of it. There is a part of me that almost wishes you could “benevolently infect” a friendly creature at 10th, and then scale up the ability at 14th, but that might be a bit too much versatility.

Monk (Way of Mercy)

The Way of Mercy Monk is a traveling monk that is also a wandering physician. This is actually a pretty well worn martial arts trope, and there are enough D&D religions that support both healing and monastic traditions that this feels like a pretty natural fit.

Like the barbarian, there is a chart of what kind of mask your monk might wear as a mark of their order. I liked of like these potentially randomized bits of character details, although the meta-conceit of the sub-class flavor might clash with established setting based orders. Still, I’d rather have more flavor and not use it than have a drier presentation.

  • At 3rd level, you can spend Ki to heal hit point damage, and you can split off one of your flurry of blows attacks as a healing touch without spending a separate Ki point for it. This is a good time to remember that in 5e you can move between your attacks. You can also spend Ki to cause extra necrotic damage with an attack.
  • At 6th level, the monk gets a noxious aura that gives the monk cover and poisons anyone that fails a save when they are right next to you. I get that on one hand, this is kind of the “monk is spiritually manipulating the essence of life” power put to potentially harmful use, but I would almost rather this ability had been flavored so that the monk just exudes an aura that makes it hard for others to harm them, and that inflicts some other condition on those dazed by their aura of life. Maybe this was a bit more sinister in nature to provide a “balance” for evil healers? I get the broad strokes, but it feels like a bit of a stretch.
  • Healing Technique at 11th level lets the monk heal conditions as well as hit points. This feels like a very late game implementation of healing conditions, for a subclass that is intended to potentially represent a wandering physician. A 1st level paladin is potentially a better physician than a 10th level Way of Mercy monk. Since this feature adds the removal of conditions as a kicker to regular healing, I think it might be worth it to let the monk also remove the same conditions a paladin can with Lay on Hands with a Ki point instead of healing at lower levels as well.
  • Hand of Mercy at 17th level lets you put someone into suspended animation, where they are immune to anything going on around them. I love the feel of this, but it also feels like at 17th level, you are way less likely to be worried about time-critical conditions affecting a party member. 

I like the flavor of this one, and I only kind of had to squint at that 6th level ability to bridge the gap, I just wish they were better healers for things other than hit point damage earlier in progression.

Paladin (Oath of the Watchers)

Oath of the Watcher paladins are guardians against supernatural incursions from other planes of existence, with a side order of keeping an eye on cultists that might traffic with those extra planar influences. I’m a little sad that the subclass didn’t get a short form variable bit of story fluff that the other two subclasses got, but we do get their tenets.

  • At third level, Oath of Watcher paladins get an expanded spell list with lots of watching and warding spells, and also they get access to D&D’s particle beam cannon, Moonbeam, as well as the “on point, but I hope not too many other people in the party have it as well” addition of Counterspell. Channel divinity options include boosting your allies Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma saves, and the ability to turn elementals, fey, fiends, or aberrations.
  • At 7th and 18th level, there is a range around the Oath of the Watcher paladin that boosts initiative bonuses (with the range increasing at 18th level).
  • At 15th level, you get the ability to use a reaction to damage a creature within 30 feet of you whenever they make a save. I can just imagine the DM frustration when their enemy spellcaster dodges a magical bullet, and then blows their Constitution save as soon as the paladin pops the follow up damage.
  • At 20th level, the paladin gets the ability to get a minute of truesight, advantage against elementals, fey, fiends, and aberrations, and ability to banish one of those creatures when you hit it with your attack.

I can’t say that I have an issue with any of this, and it all ties pretty nicely back to the idea of a paladin on the watch for extraplanar forces. The only bit of flavor that isn’t quite as fully realized is that there is much more “anti-extraplanar” abilities going on, and not a lot of “anti-cultist” abilities, but I’m good with that.

Warlock (The Noble Genie)

I just watched the live action Aladdin the other night, so I’m in the right mood to read this one. At any rate, you are a warlock that makes a deal with a powerful genie, which makes perfect sense given all of the other powerful entities to which a warlock can hitch their eldritch blast.

  • There are expanded spells that deal quite a bit with elements and illusions. There is another randomized bit of story in this section as well (I like it) that involves the vessel that your patron has given you (including rings, lanterns, and of course, lamps). The vessel allows you to tether yourself to another creature and use them to boost your perception checks and as a spellcasting node.
  • At 6th level you get a choice of some form of resistance to a range of damage types, and your tethered creature gets that resistance as well.
  • At 10th level you can wish to switch places with your tethered creature when either you or the creature is hit by an attack. Hopefully if you switch places when you are taking the damage, you are willing to buy them a nice gift later on.
  • Another 10th level feature allows you to teleport someone to your patron’s court in the elemental planes for up to a minute, although they get round by round saves to return earlier.
  • At 14th level, you can use some of your patron’s power to heal someone and remove a condition from them, inflict disadvantage on an opponent until your next turn, or use legend lore. I really like that this class feature is recharged on a short rest, OR if you bribe your patron with something worth 500 gold pieces.

One of the things I appreciate about this subclass is that not only do the abilities stay on point for the story of a warlock getting power from a genie, but there is a bit more psychology as to what the patron is getting out of the arrangement. It weaves a bit of lore about how much genie nobles like to be able to “tag” things on other planes of existence as being theirs, and how having a warlock running around on other planes facilitates this.

Arcana Wrap Up

So many of these recent Unearthed Arcana articles have had subclasses with really clear stories that are reinforced by the abilities that they grant the classes, and this one is no exception. There have been a lot in the past that were intriguing, but kind of go off the rails somewhere. These don’t feel like they wander off too much at all, but maybe just need some tightening up.

I like all of these, but I haven’t played a barbarian yet in 5e, and this article really makes me want to rectify that situation.



Monday, January 13, 2020

The Rise of Selective Shared Continuity



I don’t know if the phenomenon I’m about to talk about has a name or not, but I’m giving it one, and that term is Selective Shared Continuity. What is Selective Shared Continuity? It’s when a body of works assume a certain subset of external media as canon to that work, but only a subset of what might be part of a greater external media source.

Worlds of Examples

What the multiverse does that mean? Well, this is the kind of thing that the Star Wars Expanded Universe made pretty standard, but it has probably existed for as long as someone thought it was fun to share elements of a story, but still wished to retain control over a character in the long run.

Let’s say you have a crossover between Spider-Man and Superman. Their regular comics will never reference what happened in the crossover comic, but the cross-over assumes that the version of Spider-Man and Superman you are seeing have experienced everything from their regular comic book series. After the cross-over, nobody in the individual comics ever references this, but if there is a sequel, it does reference the previous comic storyline, as well as whatever happened to the characters in their individual books.

When I say that this happened in the Expanded Universe for Star Wars, I think it’s important to note that while this was eventually clarified by Lucasfilm, a lot of fans, especially of EU material, never quite understood the Selective Shared Continuity of the EU. There were multiple levels of primacy in Star Wars canon that had to be followed by the items further down the list. For example, everything that happened in the movies, had to happen in comics, novels, and video games. But novels and comics were a lower level of canon than the movies, so that treatment of canon didn’t flow “upstream.” Something that happened in a novel or a comic didn’t have to be reflected or acknowledged in a movie.

Some of the most ambitious Selective Shared Continuity may have come from the Avengers/JLA crossover. While the individual DC or Marvel comics didn’t reference characters from the other company, some of the cosmic events that happened were referenced as established history at the individual companies. Before the Avengers/JLA crossover, the 90s DC Versus Marvel crossover also created several unique characters jointly owned by both companies that were only used when both companies were publishing a shared crossover story.

It’s also probably worth noting that this also happened a lot as gimmicks for television series. Many network television series would crossover various series, but without ongoing elements from the individual series making a long-term impact. I’m not going to go into the full ramifications of this, but without applying the logic of Selective Shared Continuity, you end up with the Tommy Westphall shared universe.

One of the more recent examples of this, without being literally stated, were the Marvel televisions projects both on Netflix and the ABC series Agents of SHIELD. “The Event,” and some of the Avengers were mentioned in the Netflix series, but beyond the Invasion of New York, other Marvel Cinematic Universe historical elements never had an impact on these series. The Sokovia Accords, for example, never impact our super powered street level heroes.

Agents of SHIELD seemed to operate in an even more Star Wars EU like model, especially for its earlier seasons. References were made to the Avengers or Thor: The Dark World, and a backstory for Nick Fury’s contribution to Age of Ultron were all referenced, but not only was Coulson not referenced in Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon went on record as saying that, for the purposes of the movies, Coulson was dead.

Attempted Definition

So, what are the standards of Selective Shared Continuity? This can vary, but essentially it means that there is an alternate universe that exists where the Venn diagram of the crossover media can exist, but that the crossover only assumes that the elements in evidence exist in the alternate universe that allows for the crossover. For Star Wars, it means there was essentially a parallel universe where only the events of the movies happened, and another universe where the events of the movies AND the events of the novels and comics happened, but events that happen in that shared “novels, comics, and movies” universe don’t have any impact on the alternate universe where only the movies exist.

Essentially Selective Shared Continuity might be set up to that there is a floodgate that flows one direction, or it may be set up so that two sources empty into the same reservoir, but the assumption is not that because the two bodies of water touch, that they are now one body of water.

Why is all this interesting to me today? Because the Sony Extended Spider-verse is potentially confusing to a lot of fans. Sony is about to start using Spider-Man characters for their own movies, who can reference the events of the shared Marvel/Sony Spider-Man movies but are not a part of the MCU. That means the events referenced in the Spider-Man movies, only to the extent that details exist in the Spider-Man movies, can be referenced in the expanded Spidey-verse movies.

As an example, in the MCU, the events of End Game make it clear that Earth was almost in a post-apocalyptic state, with the Avengers helping to rebuild, and the Earth slowly recovering after five years. This is covered . . . differently in Spider-Man Far From Home, where it’s referred to as “the blip,” where some people disappeared for five years and then came back to a world that looked pretty much like it looked when they disappeared, without a lot of details.  Nobody is going to mention Thanos’ assault fleet or the trauma and horror of those five years in a Spider-Man extended universe film, but someone may make a joke about Peter looking five years younger than he should.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Morbius?

What are the potential issues with Selective Shared Continuity? First and foremost, it’s a bit confusing for fans. Part of why it is confusing for fans is that it is a purposeful internal construct to make both worlds feel as if they are connected, but only for the amount of time that the media is “connected.” Spending too much time explaining to the audience that the Spider-Man being referenced in a movie is actually a different Spider-Man than the one in the MCU, that is played by the same actor and has had very similar things happen to him, defeats the feeling that is desired, that this is, indeed, the same Spider-Man that was smitten with Captain Marvel while fighting Thanos.

If this is so confusing, and it’s something that is “sort of” acknowledged, but otherwise intentionally ignored, why use it? Essentially it allows for greater flexibility with a property, without ceding control of the material in question. Disney doesn’t want to have to acknowledge that Venom or Morbius exist, but it’s okay for “A” Tom Holland Spider-Man to interact with those characters on some level. George Lucas wanted people continuing to tell Star Wars stories when he was between projects, but he didn’t want anyone to have the expectation that he was going to alter his ideas to fit a series of novels or comics whenever he decided to return to the franchise.

It is essentially a super-position for a creative work, where it is having material produced for that work, while reserving the right for some aspect of that work to not “count” towards the official canon of that body of work.

Crossovers of Future Past

It is also a storytelling constraint that is uniquely born of intellectual property laws. When Robin Hood appears in The Once and Future King, or in Ivanhoe, there isn’t a feeling that there needs to be a disclaimer saying that this is or isn’t part of the “canon” of Robin Hood’s solo adventures. He’s a story element that gets co-opted for those stories, where he is important only so far as he participates in those stories. In addition to intellectual property laws, Selective Shared Continuity assumes an ongoing narrative. There isn’t much purpose in being concerned about how much of an external character’s world is true in the world that they are now appearing in, if where they are appearing is a singular work. For the purposes of Ivanhoe, it doesn’t really matter if the archery contest that the Sheriff staged to flush out Robin Hood did or did not happen, because it is a singular book that uses the character for one section and is then over.

There are tons of myths and legends that have adapted over time as one group of people encountered another and started sharing gods and heroes in their storytelling. To some extent, this has even happened in the early life cycle of what would be Selective Shared Continuity, but it is usually accompanied by legal ownership changing hands. For example, DC Comics acquisition of characters like Captain Marvel, Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, and the Question.

Selective Shared Continuity is, in a way, a form of special effect. When we watch dragons, aliens, and flashy magical spells, we know that what we are seeing isn’t real, but in the context of what we are watching, under the right circumstances, we will away our mundane perceptions to live in that moment. The difference is that Selective Shared Continuity isn’t asking our minds to forget the laws of the reality we live in, but instead, the reality of the laws that govern ideas and imagination.

Friday, January 10, 2020

What Do I Know About Reviews? Into the Dark (Forged in the Dark)


After the publication of Blades in the Dark, a number of games have been released under the banner of “Forged in the Dark,” the banner that denotes the use of the core game engine of Forged in the Dark. In addition to Blades in the Dark, I personally have read and reviewed Scum and Villainy, a space opera implementation of the formula, and Band of Blades, a dark, gritty fantasy mercenary variation. While both games remain mission-based, Scum and Villain and Band of Blades introduce the concept of an endgame to the campaign, but both remain as procedural in format as Blades in the Dark.

Today I’m looking at Into the Dark, a decidedly slimmer implementation of the Forged in the Dark concept. While still mission-based, at only 50 pages, this game definitely takes the concepts introduced in Blades in the Dark in a different direction than some of the earlier iterations of Forged in the Dark games.

What Kind of Load is This?

This review is based on the PDF of Into the Dark. As mentioned above, this comes in at fifty pages. The book does not contain an index, but given its size, that probably isn’t the impediment it might be to a larger game.

The book, from cover to cover and the pages in between, maintains a red and black color scheme. Bold red headers introduce sections of the book, and various black and white illustrations are highlighted with elements of the image called out in red. There also several well-formatted tables throughout the book.

The Basics

The setting of Into the Dark is a fantasy post-apocalyptic setting. The Murk, a general darkness, has fallen over the world. While the pre-Murk world was more advanced, the level of advanced, the pre-Murk world is largely undefined outside of the ability to add various modern or futuristic elements to ruins. The current world is largely medieval in technology and outlook.

Nightwells open up in the world, and spew out Murk and vile creatures associated with it, and in various temples on the surface, the Silver Flame is maintained to keep the Murk at bay. Murkdelvers, the adventurers of the setting, are tasked with taking a silver flame into a Murk invested region and dropping it into the Nightwells to shut them down. Along the way, they can scavenge for items that they can resell so that they can better outfit themselves for their tasks.

This section doesn’t waste much time before jumping right into an explanation of the setting and what player characters are expected to do in the setting, which I can appreciate. In addition to introducing the world, we’re introduced to the modified means of rolling to resolve challenges, which consists of rolling a number of dice equal to a relevant trait, and comparing the highest d6 to a failure/partial success/success paradigm.

Gear has a rental price and a purchasing price. Unlike other Forged in the Dark games, the assumption is that players will outfit themselves intentionally before they head into the Murk, and until they can scavenge some items, they will likely be doing it with equipment they have to return.

It is possible to have a 0 in a relevant stat, meaning you have no dice to attempt the task. Unlike other Forged in the Dark games, granting bonus or penalty dice for advantages or disadvantages is much more common, so it usually only takes a little narrative work to explain how something impossible can have at least a minimal chance at success.

Most of the equipment also exists primarily as narrative permission, rather than have proscriptive statistics. A compass that functions in the murk just helps you navigate, but if you have to make a check where knowing what direction you are going is important, it’s a built-in bonus die as long as you describe what you are doing with it.

For anyone familiar with other Forged in the Dark games, there is no position and effect component to the game.

The Archetypes

The game has four different archetypes for player characters:

  • Murkhunters
  • Lightbearers
  • Shadowbinders
  • Explorers


Murkhunters can carry more load, are better with armor, and do more damage with heavy weapons. Lightbearers have seals they can sacrifice to ward off malevolent magical effects, gain bonuses to using healing kits, and can do special tricks when attuning to the silver flame that the party caries. Shadowbinders can touch and manipulate the Murk without (for the most part) becoming corrupted, they can conjure creatures from the Murk to help them with tasks, and they know where to sell sketchy material found in the Murk while on a mission. Explorers do extra damage when they ambush, they get some tricks to make alchemical items more effective, and they are better able to manipulate traps and fix gadgets.

The mechanics for many of these effects are extra dice when attempting certain tasks, or extra dice when rolling for damage or to heal others. Each of the archetypes also has a unique set of gear tied to their profession that they can choose from in addition to the general list in the previous chapter. Each of the archetypes also has six or so unique XP triggers that reward players for performing the role that the archetype usually fills in a group of Murkdelvers.

Playing the Game

The gameplay is very similar to other Forged in the Dark games, but is much more focused on the actual mission elements, and is much less procedure-oriented. Instead of harm, characters have a number of health points, as well as a stress track. When characters suffer negative effects, they can attempt to resist the effect by marking off stress, often ignoring or halving the numerical value of the effect on themselves.

Characters that reach 0 health are dead, meaning it’s always good to have some stress to spend for resisting damage. Characters to go past a certain corruption threshold become NPC monsters, mutated by the Murk.

During a mission, the characters must carry the Silver Flame to the Nightwell and cast it in, and the Silver Flame is given a clock to keep track of how strongly it is burning. Sometimes monsters might try to snuff it out, or the characters might rest to recover from injuries, and at these times, the clock ticks down. If the Silver Flame goes out, the Nightwell can’t be closed, and settlements nearby are likely to be lost to the Murk.

Load is an interesting game mechanic in the game. In other Forged in the Dark games, having a heavy load makes you more noticeable, which can cause complications, but Into the Dark mentions that Murkdelvers with a heavy load will always go last in combat situations. This is an interesting means of adjudicating a rule in a game without a rigid initiative system.

The rules are only lightly explained when they are introduced, with most of the explanation being delivered in the various examples given in the examples of play section. This section specifically introduces all of the characters in the scene, and carefully lays out what is happening, but it doesn’t the same “what would you do” questions at the end of each scenario, like some of the Forged in the Dark games that have come before.

Sample Adventures

There are several sample adventures in the book, but adventures in this instance include the primary opposition, locations, and obstacles between the Murkdelvers and their goal, as well as what kind of items they might be able to scavenge from the location.

There isn’t a dedicated bestiary in the book, but there are a wide variety of creatures provided across the different adventures, allowing for a good range of tools to either mix and match, or to tweak for slightly more customized creatures.

I’ve said before that I like an RPG to have sample adventures to see how the designers expect the game to be run. In this case, I appreciate that the expected “prep” is essentially to have an outline of a few items that might get in the character’s way, with all of the details being filled in by complications on various rolls and the decisions made by the players.

Tables

The final section of the book contains some extra tables for generating details for the moving pieces of an adventure. Previous tables introduced in the book aren’t reprinted, which keeps the overall product a bit more streamlined, but like many Forged in the Dark games, these tables can go a long way to generating a mission with a very short amount of prep time.

Channeling the Flame

I like how quickly the game jumps into its narrative, and how easily it flows from the overview of the setting and the expected modes of play into the general mechanics of the game. One thing I was struck with when reading the original Blades in the Dark is that I wish there was a “basic game,” something that layered on the new concepts one at a time, without immediately introducing all of the interlocking procedural elements, and that is very much what this game is providing. The setting is a strong concept that is presented concisely, which is good, because a setting this evocative could easily get bogged down in details that don’t contribute to the core experience.

The adventure outlines have a summary at the beginning that I appreciate and wish more games/adventures would formalize in a similar format.

Shaping the Murk

This happens a lot, but one of the things I like the most about the game is also potentially one of its issues. While I like how quickly it jumps from setup to story to rules, it may do that a little too quickly, and a few more pages of summaries at a slower pace might have been nice. As much as I like the slimmed-down mechanics, especially as a means to introduce the concepts of Blades in the Dark to new players, some of my favorite aspects, such as flashbacks and flexible gear, get excised from this implementation. Because of the pace at which elements are introduced, I wonder how well someone that has never encountered either a Powered by the Apocalypse or a Forged in the Dark game would pick up on the flow of the game just from reading this book.

While I appreciate the summaries of the adventures, which include what is effectively a content warning system, there isn’t much room in these 50 pages for safety discussions, and some of the horror elements of the setting might warrant some careful consideration.

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

I really enjoy how fast-paced and concise this game is, and it feels very evocative without being too dense. This feels like the kind of game you could pitch and have at the table, ready to go, very quickly. Any confusion that I’m concerned about doesn’t come from poor descriptions or stilted language, so much as the pace at which concepts are introduced.

If you want a more narrative leaning game about post-apocalyptic dungeon delving, and some weird fantasy adventuring with light gear management appeals to you, this should be a satisfying purchase. Alternatively, if you just want to see what a “basic game” version of Blades in the Dark might be, especially considering how much design space Forged in the Dark games have grown to encompass, this will be a good primer for your curiosity.


Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Fantasy Flight Games RPG Products Still in the Pipeline

If you haven't heard yet, apparently Fantasy Flight Games has laid off most if not all of their roleplaying game employees, as well as their digital applications team. There has not been an official statement about any of this, or any words to the effect that FFG is getting out of the RPG business, but it doesn't look especially hopeful at this point in time.

FFG is owned by Asmodee, and Asmodee was looking to sell. Asmodee was purchased by the private equity firm PAI Partners. I can't find any public statement on this entire situation, but private equity firms generally buy businesses to restructure them and sell them again.

Given that sequence of events, it's probably not a shock that anything that doesn't turn maximum profits is going to be shut down, because to make a company attractive to potential buyers, buyers usually want the company to be very lean with high margins of profit on everything they do.

One interesting thing of note when I checked on Fantasy Flight's "Upcoming" page is that there are now three categories of upcoming products, "In Stores Now," "Shipping," and "In Production." In the past, there was also a category for "In Development." I'm not especially shocked that longer-term projects are no longer being advertised well before there is a target date for them.

FFG had a history of keeping even some "complete" lines in print. Often product lines that didn't have new products coming out, but sold through distribution, might be put back into the queue way at the bottom of the list, and it wasn't took hard to find it on the "Upcoming" page. Years after there was an original release, and while FFG was producing Dark Heresy 2nd Edition, they still had a reprint of the Deathwatch core book put into queue, for example, before the Games Workshop deal ended.

The following products are still on the "Upcoming" schedule on the web page:

Genesys

Secrets of the Crucible (Keyforge Setting Book)  (April 2020)

Legend of the Five Rings

Path of Waves (Sourcebook) (January 2020)

Sins of Regret (Adventure) (January 2020)

Legend of the Five Rings RPG Gamemat (Accessory) (January 2020)

Star Wars

Starships and Speeders (Accessory) (February 2020)

My hope is that most if not all of these products make it to market. While I'm not particularly interested in the Keyforge campaign sourcebook, I know Genesys has been popular, and there is a demand for more products.

I will fully admit, I was almost certain that the "cross-line" Star Wars RPG products seemed as if they were capstone products, but I thought that meant that a new 2nd edition would be coming soon, especially with the end of the sequel trilogy, and an opportunity to publish new RPG material that did straddle the line between Legends and current continuity (this wasn't a big sticking point for me, but I thought it may have been a directive coming from Lucasfilm, especially as the Legends material in more recent FFG Star Wars material has been significantly reduced.

I've got no idea what the future holds for FFG. I know that American private equity firms generally cannibalize the companies that they buy for maximum profits, but I don't know if that means that Asmodee and FFG are destined to go the way of Toys R' Us. Most private equity firms aren't in the business of picking up new businesses to diversify their holdings.

All of the above products are listed as accepting pre-orders, but since we've seen the rug get pulled out from under other companies not long before something was due to come out, and well after pre-orders were taken (I'm still kind of mourning The One Ring 2nd Edition), the pre-order status may not mean a lot as far as predicting the likelihood of these products making it to market. 


Monday, January 6, 2020

What Do I Know About My Campaign? Tales from the Old Margreve Campaign Journal #11


With the holidays and juggling schedules, it has been a little bit since we updated the campaign journal, so let’s look in on what our adventurers have been doing for our last session of our Tales of the Old Margreve game. This time around, there wasn’t much prep to do, because we finished up halfway through our adventure.

If you want to get caught up on the campaign journal, you can check it out here:

Where We Left Off

Our heroes were hired by a cat that used to be the griffon queen of the Margreve, to save her eggs from bandits by sneaking into an abandoned tower. Also, she really doesn’t want her babies imprinting on anyone else. Our heroes just infiltrated the tower through an underground stream, up through a well in the basement of the tower.

We’re still short a player, so we have the following PCs active for this session:

  • Gurralt, Bearfolk Warden
  • Isobel, Bearfolk Barbarian
  • Hrothgardt, Bearfolk Cleric
  • Scarlett, Halfling Warlock/Sorcerer


Through the Tower

The group started to navigate the tower and found a secret passage. In the passage, they found a library with a collapse wall at the back, and two statues. Nothing to see here. When Hrothgardt wandered into the library, the statues animated (what?!?), and they looked Hrothgardt up and down, looking for . . . something.

Hrothgardt back out of the room, and the statues didn’t follow. Hrothgardt related to the group that they may want to look for some kind of badge of symbol, since the statues appeared to be looking for something.

Slightly Modified Procedure

The adventure itself gives you the check numbers for all the bugbears outside of the tower, so that you can make a check as the PCs travel through the tower to see if any of the bugbear bandits enter the tower.

Instead of rolling for the bugbears, I used their check number to create a static DC, and instead of having the bugbears burst in if any of the PCs failed the check, I made the stealth check into a group check.

This may have made it less likely that the bugbears break in, but I also don’t like adventures that are set up at least partially assuming stealth, knowing that most parties have at least one character that isn’t going to be particularly good at stealth.

Going Up

The party traveled upwards, eventually learning that this tower was likely used for divination, and that it sets on the crossroads of various ley lines. The group also found a tabard with the symbol of the griffon patrol that once inhabited the tower. Gurralt peek into the next level, climbing up a ladder, and saw three ogres, who didn’t notice him.

Isobel decided that they may want to climb up the side of the tower, but when she looked outside, she noticed that “some” bandits was an army of about thirty hundred bugbears camped outside. Well, she would have noticed that, except your humble DM accidentally said “300” instead of “30.”

Because the ogres were bad at noticing anything, they started playing “throw something sharp” with one another as the PCs crept into the room behind them (this is even with imposing disadvantage on the check, with multiple characters with heavy armor).

Giant Mishaps

Not only did the ogres not notice the adventurers creeping up on them, but the ogres (i.e. me) were rolling terribly through the whole fight. One of the ogres managed to get a critical hit . . . oh no, what will happen to our adventurers?

Not much, it turns out. I rolled 2s on every die when the crit happened, and the ogre did less damage with their crit than with their average damage.

The corrupted ogre chief heard the ruckus and came down to help her guards. This could have been very bad for the group, except that they had largely killed or incapacitated the ogres by the time she climbed down the ladder.

The corrupted ogre chief was dangerous, but since the group hadn’t been heavily damaged by the other ogres, she did go down quickly. Because she was corrupted, I wanted to play up the overall theme of the adventure anthology, with the creeping cosmic horror elements. Since Isobel decapitated the ogre, I took the opportunity to explain the internal organs of the ogre and how mutated and alien the organs were.

Babysitting

The group found the griffon eggs and covered up the box with a sack to help keep the griffon chicks from imprinting, as the eggs began to hatch.

The group decided that they needed to find a new way out, because they couldn’t use the underground stream to escape. The went back to the library room with the tabard, and one by one, they gained access to the room.

This is where I had modified the adventure a bit. The library was mainly there to hand out some arcane treasure, but the way the crumbled wall was described at the back of the room, it felt less like a bookshelf that was collapse and more that something should exist in that space.

Because the group was really invested in saving children (it’s been a party theme for the whole campaign), I wanted to let them check for a secret door, which they managed to find. Essentially, I didn’t want them to try and sneak past the bugbears, because it’s likely being that close to the bugbears, they would have drawn attention.

For each griffon that hatched, I rolled a check to see if the chick managed to sneak out from under the blanket, and Isobel would notice and reach her hand under the blanket and shove the chick back into the box. She was also chewing up rations and feeding them to the chicks so they could eat.

The group crept out to a cave, waiting out the night, and making checks to notice chicks sneaking out of the sack. I also rolled for encounters through the night, but the only encounter that happened was a non-combat encounter, and the chicks were safe through the night.

Finishing Up The Job

The griffon queen shows up, saved from her curse, and collects her chick. Because none of the chicks died or were imprinted, the group got a massive bonus to their check, so the griffon queen is going to grant them favors for the next year.

Some Critiques

I liked this adventure. I had fun roleplaying the griffon queen. That said, I feel like I made the adventure a little too easy, but I also feel like if I ran it straight, it would have been too hard. There isn’t much in the adventure that gives you a middle ground between “all of the bugbears are altered,” and “some bugbears complicate things.”

There is a sidebar that says that there are static DCs for the bugbears, but then the adventure frames all the checks as a static check. Additionally, the sidebar says that the descriptions of the rooms would tell you the DCs and what bandits are making the check. There were several places where the difficulty of the checks is mentioned, but not a specific subgroup of bugbears.

If I were to run this again, I think I would have a patrol wandering the tower, and I would also have a set number of bugbears that show up for each failed stealth check, as well as a set a number of failed stealth checks that would rouse the entire camp (probably three).

The other thing that was odd to me is that the adventure assumes that the griffon halflings are assumed to be in danger. First off, I’m not overly comfortable with this, especially after talking with their mother. Even beyond this, unless the PC carrying them gets hurt or killed, I’m not sure how the hatchlings were intended to come to immediate harm.

There is a lot of fun atmosphere in the adventure, and I like the initial phases, I just wish there was a little more structure to the ongoing threats in the tower, and maybe a different structure for determining the threat to the griffon chicks that had less to do with tracking if they died or not, and more about random shenanigans that they might get up to while the PCs are doing their job.

Takeaways


  • Sometimes your best ideas for how to modify an adventure come to you after you have run it
  • Respect the things your players have communicated that their players care about
  • More 5e adventures sure really use group checks as an assumed part of the game
  • No one is ever fooled by giant statues