Wednesday, December 12, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews? Baby Bestiary Companion Rules for 5e (OGL 5e)

I love the idea of the faithful animal companion in fantasy stories. While the current edition of Dungeons and Dragons has some element of this for rangers and wizards, the support for this trope is not nearly as robust as it has been in previous editions.

As much as I love the trope, however, I can understand why that support has been limited. In the 3rd edition era, there was a whole lot of effort centered around pushing the boundaries around animal companions, making a class feature of a given class shine more than entire other character classes.

Pathfinder also had some interesting forays into companion rules, with the original point-based system for Summoner Eidolons, which could produce some interesting results if left unchecked.

But who doesn’t want to find a baby griffon and raise it to be a trusted mount? Who doesn’t want to find a dragon egg and become the Mother of Dragons?

I can still remember the references to finding various young monsters or eggs in AD&D first edition, with vague notes about how to raise such creatures. For all of the above reasons, I was definitely interested in checking out the Baby Bestiary Companion Rules.

Training Manual

This review is based on the PDF of the Baby Bestiary Companion Rules for 5e. The PDF is 26 pages, with a one page ad at the back of the PDF for other Baby Bestiary projects. There are bolded, color headers, a parchment treatment to the pages, sidebars, and various tables. Artwork from the various Baby Bestiary projects appear throughout the product.

Structure

The book is split into two sections—Baby Bestiary Critter Training, and Class Archetypes. The first section details options for creating a customized NPC animal or creature companion, with levels and variable features. The second section includes subclasses to existing D&D classes that emphasize animal companions or familiars.

Baby Bestiary Critter Training

The emphasis in this section is to present animal/monster companions as unique NPCs, with a specific level and features that change over time. There are archetypes and origins that you select to “build” a type of creature, and wild features that give creature specific abilities.

This section doesn’t tell you, for example, how to create a hellhound companion, but it does allow you to make a brute (archetype) fiend (origin) companion that you envision as a hellhound, with various wild features that may emulate creature abilities. Because of this flexibility, you might build three different hellhounds in three different ways, one as a brute (a front line fighter that can take a lot of damage), one as a skirmisher (a highly mobile creature that specializes in hit and run tactics), or as artillery (a creature that will play up using its breath weapon from a distance to attack).

There is nothing to keep you from adding in wild features that make the creature ultra-suited to a particular combat role, but the GM is given final approval over what wild features a companion can take, based on the kind of creature it is emulating. While the creature may not have the exact statistics of a creature of its type from the Monster Manual, it should still have thematically appropriate abilities, but outside of final approval, nothing limits any set of wild talents to any type of creature.

Wild features are organized by tier, so there are Low (level 1-5), Medium (level 6-13), and High (level 14-20) abilities. Your companion may be more powerful than any other example of its kind, but it’s not going to reach that legendary status until you do as well.
Companions are not a class feature in this section. They are a separate NPC. They can level up, and they may bond with a particular PC, but they are still treated as a separate entity. Each companion has a temperament, determined by the GM when the companion is first acquired. That temperament may make them easier or harder to train, and may affect their ability scores.

Companions have a disposition that affect how they work in play. They can be hostile, distrustful, indifferent, friendly, or loyal. A PC must make a set number of successful checks to move the creatures disposition. A loyal companion is run by the PC. A friendly one generally does what it is told, but is still run by the GM. A hostile companion actively tries to escape confinement.

Training can use multiple skills, and using the same skill twice in a row imposes a penalty on the trainer. Failing a training check too many times will move the companion down the disposition track, and in the short term, may trigger a mishap from a table provided (for example, the companion wails all night, keeping the PCs from getting a long rest for the day).

If something drastic happens, a companion may move down the track automatically, such as feeling like it’s master left it in a dangerous situation, or didn’t properly care for it.
In addition to the broad rules for archetypes, origins, and wild features, some example monsters are showcased as beginning companions, including two versions of bulettes, a blue dragon, a hydra, an owlbear, a feytouched phase cat, a phoenix, and a rust monster.

My initial take on these rules is that I really like them, but there is a lot of variability. Without playing with them for a while, I can say how they might be abused, but given that these are abilities given to an NPC, and that there are rules for when and where PCs can absolutely count on them, I am a little less concerned than adding more robust animal companion rules into the games as a class feature.

Class Archetypes

The subclasses added include the Circle of Summons druid, the Houndmaster fighter, and the Familiar Spellmaster wizard.

The druid subclass feels a little bit scattered in its theme. They can cast beast friend every long rest, their summoned creatures have attacks that count as magical, they gain immunity or advantage on fear saves depending on creature type, and at 14th level they can cast a summoning spell once per long rest that doesn’t require concentration.

The fear ability feels like an odd addition, and while it’s useful for a summoner, I’m not sure the magical attacks play into the feeling of the class being closer to summoned creatures than other druids.

The fighter subclass gains a spectral hound that has the stats of a wolf, modified similarly to a ranger animal companion. Unlike the ranger, there is no action penalty mentioned for commanding the animal. If your animal is killed, you can summon it again after an hour and 50 gp spent in a ritual.

Later abilities give you bonus damage on prone opponents, give your dog the Protection fighting style, increase your critical threat range when fighting together, and give you advantage on opponents for the remaining member of the duo if the other one is dropped to 0 hit points, as well as bonus damage resistance and damage against that foe.

There is a sidebar on using the class with a living dog instead of a mysteriously summoned ghost dog, changing the summoning requirement to a time and training component for replacing the previous hound.

I love the concept of a warrior that trains a dog to fight with them. I love my Mabari in Dragon Age. But, balanced or not, it feels weird to have an easier to command companion for the fighter than the ranger. The optional rules for replacing a living dog feel a little punitive, since they require multiple wisdom checks to replace a class feature, and I’m not sure how I feel about a capstone class feature that functions best if one or the other of the pair hits zero hit points. It’s like only operating at full capacity of one of the worst potential things happens to you.

The wizard subclass allows the wizard to cast find familiar as a bonus action without expending spell slots, and extends the range of its link to 300 feet. It also gives the familiar an attack with damage that varies by level. When the familiar is reduced to 0 hit points or the wizard dismisses them, they can go boom for variable amounts of damage. The familiar can steal spells from enemy spellcasters when they hit them later on, and eventually, the wizard can shunt damage to their familiar when they are hurt.

Wizard familiars are weird things, so maybe it’s not as strange to let them work without penalizing the wizard’s actions, but it still feels a little fuzzy compared to the ranger’s animal companion. I really like the exploding familiar and damage soak abilities, however.

Who’s A Good Yeth Hound?

There are a lot of solid rules in this supplement that address not only a well-represented element of the fantasy genre, but also an area of the rules that had more support in previous editions. I really enjoy the flexibility of the system, and the fact that the creature is treated as an NPC. I like the rules for training, and how they utilize multiple skills.

Bad Displacer Kitty!

Even though I like the training rules, they do feel like they drift a little bit from similar rules in the 5e core books. There is a lot dependent on the GM and the players being on the same page, and even if a companion is a separate NPC that the GM controls under many circumstances, each table will need to figure out how much of a problem it will be if one PC has a companion, and others don’t. Additionally, if multiple companions are in play, the detailed rules could become a detriment, given the added complexity.

Two of the three subclasses feel like they take a concept similar to the ranger’s animal companion, but don’t execute that concept in a similar manner. The other archetype feels like it doesn’t quite bring everything back together to create a coherent theme.

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

There is definitely enough going on in this supplement to recommend it for anyone even a little interested in having the theme of beast companions in a campaign. With some work, it can even be used to create some custom versions of existing monsters.

The biggest downside is that some of the systems feel a little more fiddly than core 5e rules, and that introducing these rules involves everyone being on the same page with them, and checking in to make sure that no one’s companion is taking up too much spotlight time.


Monday, December 10, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews? The Blasphemies of Bor Bwalsch (OGL 5e)



Wow, it’s been a while since I did a D&D review here on my home blog. I should rectify that. I should dig into some ancient tome of knowledge and extract some information that no one should ever delve into. I know just the product!

Today I’m looking at The Blasphemies of Bor Bwalsch, a third party product from Schwalb entertainment’s new Max Press line, a line that will be creating 5th edition OGL supplements compatible with Dungeons and Dragons.

One particular reason that I wanted to take a look at this product is that Rob Schwalb has been deeply involved in numerous D&D projects over the years, including extensive and ongoing work on D&D 5th edition itself.

The Shape of Blasphemies

The Blasphemies of Bor Bwalsch is a nine-page supplement, only available as a PDF. One page is dedicated to the obligatory OGL statement, and another is an ad for Shadow of the Demon Lord. There are four prominent pieces of art in the product, as well as parchment page formatting and borders. If you have seen any of the Shadow of the Demon Lord products, this has a very similar feel.

One thing that didn’t quite sink in when initially looking at these pages—because I’m acclimated to the Shadow of the Demon Lord artwork, it didn’t quite sink in that while this line isn’t meant to be quite as dark as those products, anyone not familiar with Shadow of the Demon Lord might not be prepared for the art. It’s gorgeous, but it if you find details like highly rendered scars, severed body parts worn as adornment, or malignant growths a little bit too much, you may want to be careful with this release.

I think the overall product looks great, but I do wonder if the trade dress is a little too similar to the Shadow of the Demon Lord products. When I first saw this one go up for sale, I mistook it for another release for that line. Schwalb Entertainment has distinctive trade dress at this point, but this is a new product line, and I don’t know how well the 5e support has penetrated the overall fandom yet.

Between the “Covers”

There is some brief fiction that explains who Bor Bwalsch is, the history of the book that contains the spells in this supplement, and some sly references to wizards from other worlds that bear striking resemblances to certain wizards from Faerun, Krynn, and Oerth, without coming right out and mentioning those famous personages.

The framing device of Bor Bwalsch’s story intimates that the wizard came from a world that resembles something closer to the default of Shadow of the Demon Lord, with spells from that reality, translated into spells functioning in other realms of the multiverse. The spells detailed in the supplement include the following (spell level listed in parentheses):

  • Boiling Blood (2nd)
  • Compelled Truth (2nd)
  • Corpse Face (2nd)
  • Drown in Maggots (2nd)
  • Final Breath (2nd)
  • Screams of the Dying (2nd)
  • Unhealthy Obsession (2nd)
  • Corpse Bomb (3rd)
  • Spectacular Expulsion (3rd)
  • Steal Bone (3rd)
  • Wandering Eye (3rd)
  • Blood to Vermin (4th)
  • Horrid Fusion (4th)
  • Maddening Drone (4th)
  • Part Flesh (4th)
  • Betrayal in Bone (5th)
  • Desecration (5th)
  • Open the Gate (5th)
  • Stone to Flesh (5th)
  • Night Terrors (6th)
  • Sever Soul (7th)
  • Inversion (8th)
  • Cranial Burst (9th)
  • Verminous Tide (9th)


By default, these spells are all available only to wizards. While it’s entirely possible for non-evil wizards to employ some of these spells, even some of the tamest of the spell effects are at least a little disturbing.
Some of these spells are conversions of popular effects from Shadow of the Demon Lord. If you have ever heard of the infamous Hateful Defecation, and wanted something like that for your Dungeons and Dragons game, look no further than Spectacular Expulsion. Similarly, Horrid Fusion is an adaption of a spell that teleports your opponents into solid objects that I remember very fondly . . . er . . . I mean well, from my Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign.

Two things jump out at me about these spells. The first is that the product does a great job of coming up with disturbing effects for spells beyond necromancy spells. I particularly like Compelled Truth, which manages to make a divination spell into an intimidating tool of interrogation (your target doesn’t need to tell the truth, they just take psychic damage if they don’t).

The other thing that strikes me, especially after seeing more 3rd party supplements coming out for 5th edition, is that all of these spells feel very “tight” in their use of terminology and how they are worded. I’ve come across spells in other 3rd party books that, while not broken, don’t quite feel like they were written by someone with Rob Schwalb’s level of comfort with the rules. The spells may be more disturbing than most standard 5th edition spells, but they have a certain resonance with how those core spells work (likely because Rob wrote a lot of the official spells as well).

If there is any downside to this product (other than possibly being a bit dark in theme, which may not align with everyone’s tastes), it’s that many of these spells make extensive use of the concept of killing a character outright if they are brought to 0 hit points. While spells with that effect exist in 5th edition D&D, this product has several more. If you are a GM whose players haven’t run into that concept often in their 5th edition play, giving too many of these spells to one particular spellcaster might feel a little overwhelming.

There are also a few spell effects that reference optional rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, such as lingering injuries or short-term madness. This isn’t much different than some of the published adventures utilizing this material, but it’s worth noting since some GMs may not want to reference these optional rules even for limited spell effects.

Those caveats aside, these spells would be thematically right at home on Acererak’s spell list in a Tomb of Annihilation campaign, should you get the urge to swap out some of his “official” spells for something more evocative.



Crossing the Boundaries

This product is filled with evocative, well-written spells that are perfect for adding to an evil wizard’s spell list, and one or two might even fit just right for some less scrupulous PC spellcasters to use. There is a nice variety of effects, and the spells don’t favor one school of magic too heavily. While the spells all have a disturbing ring to them, they also all “feel” very comfortable compared to the official spells in the game.

Falling Into the Void

This product is very intentionally written to evoke a darker tone than some of the 5e material that a GM or players may be familiar with, so if that darker tone doesn’t work for anyone at the table, it may limit the usefulness of this product. A few of the spells may have greater or lesser utility depending on how you feel about minor references to optional rules. While the spells are noted as being for wizards, and it also says that the GM can allow other classes to take them if they feel it is appropriate, some guidelines for other casters might have been nice.

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

This product will be a good purchase for anyone that want’s some nasty spells for their villains, or who might be okay with some edgier spells for their PCs. Even without directly using the spells, it can be an interesting product to look at to see how conversions from one game system to another might work, and to look at the patterns of how 5e spells generally work. Just remember that I warned you if you aren’t normally into darker content, both in text and artwork.



Sunday, December 9, 2018

Infinite Complications Moving Into the Endgame



I still have weird unresolved feelings about Infnity War. At the time I saw it, I wanted to do a deep dive into how I felt, but it was hard. I didn't hate it. I really loved parts of it. But I can't shake that maybe we've fully emulated comics in movies now, including halting forward momentum for individual stories for the sake of a summer crossover. Now that the trailer for Avengers Endgame is out, I’m hammering some thoughts and feelings into shape.

The Good

I was pleasantly surprised that the Russos did such a good job capturing the Guardians of the Galaxy in the film, because I wasn't sure if they could manage the same tone set in their movies.

I loved some of the interactions between characters, like Tony and Doctor Strange and the Guardians and Thor. I liked that Thanos was oddly compelling, but there is a downside to that as well.

The . . . Not Perfectly Balanced

I'm still not thrilled that there were some things that felt like they should have had way more impact than they did. Steve, Black Panther, and Wakanda in general all felt like they were underutilized in the movie. Steve's best part was introducing himself to Groot.

The fight on Titan, at least at the most furious point, almost reached Transformers 2 levels of "what's even going on here?" Everything can shift, everything was shifting, and there were no rules to anything, so colors, explosions and stuff happened.

I hated Tony and Pete's armor. I usually don't complain about CGI, but both sets of armor really jumped out as "not real," and their morphic qualities didn't seem to have any rules. Where does stuff get stored, what’s the limit to what Tony can fabricate?

Tony Stark—Father Figure

The movie continues the side issue I have with Pete and Tony partially as a remnant of Spider-Man Homecoming. When you don't mention Uncle Ben as Pete's motivation his motivation becomes proving himself to Tony as a father figure and that's not any version of Spider-Man I'm familiar with.

He's a fun character in the MCU, but he could have been some kid that cobbled together some armor tech that caught Tony's attention, for all that the actual Spider-Man elements matter at this point. In fact, the more I think of it, this Peter Parker is almost as much Riri Williams as Spider-Man, and that’s bad just because it makes it harder to introduce Ironheart later on, borrowing some of her story beats.


The End of the End of an Age

Thor Ragnarok is a movie I dearly love, and it was greatly undermined by this movie. The last we see of the Asgardians, they are fleeing a ravaged world, and the first we see of them here, they get wiped out. Way to say nothing in Ragnarok mattered. To some extent, the character development we got with Hulk from Ragnarok also got erased, because instead of seeing anything of his greater depth, he gets his ass handed to him and he refuses to come out again the whole movie.

The revelation of Thor’s powers and the implication of that story beat from Ragnarok was seriously muddied. If we had an indication that Stormbreaker was made to make Thor more powerful than ever, that would be cool, but it feels like we just lost the thread of "Thor never needed the hammer" from Ragnarok.

In fact, Thor getting a new hammer to be even more powerful would have been a better beat for part 2, after he shows up mastering his new powers that he figured out in Ragnarok, but wasn't strong enough to make a difference. But we needed Thor/Groot/Rocket time in part 1 I guess.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Mad Titan?

I kind of don't like that Thanos has a (dubiously) reasoned plan. Playing him exactly the same, but being obsessed with making an offering to Death would have avoided a lot of . . . strangeness . . . around his character.

Thanos can be compelling, he can even be likable, but he really shouldn't be relatable or sympathetic. That "sympathetic" vibe touches elements of the movie it really shouldn't touch. I think with all of the other potentially drastic things they wanted to at least imply in the movie, they went the "safe" route by trying to make Thanos more (and I hate this term) grounded. But the Ebon Maw was already fanatic space preacher, so why worry about death worship? It doesn't even lock you in to introducing an anthropomorphic embodiment of Death. It would be totally possible for Thanos to worship death without being in love with the physical embodiment of Death.

Regardless, "Thanos is a relatable dude" unfortunately gets amplified as the Soul Stone requires him to sacrifice something he loves. That could have easily been framed to be "something that means more to him than anything else."

No, Really, Thanos is a Terrible Father

If they had phrased it this way, it would have been way easier to not lose the thread of "Thanos is an abusive father," because of course he values Gamora, takes credit for her being who she is, even if he doesn't have any right to feel proprietary. But instead, it's "love."

I'll admit, when I first watched the movie, I was less upset by the cosmos confirming that Thanos "loved" Gamora (which still has problems), than I was that Good Dad Thanos undermines that he "loved" Gamora and tortured and belittled Nebula.

Because Nebula was introduced as a villain, it almost feels like we're getting a dismissive "of course he treated her that way, she was crazy," instead of the very clear message of Guardians Vol. 2, that Thanos made her the way she was by abusing her and elevating Gamora.

It’s All Connected

I think Avengers 3 and 4 have some tricky things to navigate. They have to be the big epic conclusion of 10 years of shared universe. Some of what bothers me may be addressed, especially considering "3 and 4" are essentially one 5 or 6 hour movie, not really two separate pieces.

I really enjoyed parts of the movie, but the parts that aren't working for me just have me worried that the next movie isn't really going to come together the way I hope it does.

At this point, I'm more excited for Captain Marvel than Endgame. I just want to know where they put everyone at the end of Endgame so I know where and how they are likely to show up in the next wave of movies, if at all.


By no means let me dampen your enthusiasm if you loved Infinity War. As I said, I liked parts of it. I'm just in this odd holding pattern where I can't fully resolve how I feel about the movie, and I've got some nagging problems with it. If you love it, that's awesome.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Comedy (At The Table) Is Hard

Humor in RPGs is hard. I've said before that when I end up running horror for an extended period of time, I start to drift into Evil Dead 2/Army of Darkness territory. That may not always be ideal, but at least there are some "guard rails" for when and how the humor comes out.

For example, in the above example, I often end up playing up the impossible amount of gore, people that should be fazed by it that are humorously not fazed by it because they have hit a breaking point, and villains that are ridiculously cordial as they are doing horrific things.

The risk with the humor, in that point, is that the players don't pick up on the fact that you have buried the needle on how horrible things are and are similarly aligning themselves with all the people that are unfazed or acting "too" normal.

That said, even if that doesn't work, it fails to convey the proper tone, rather than conveying the opposite tone. There are tons of humorous mistakes that can do the exact opposite and start eroding broader points you are trying to make.

You don't want to undermine the competency of your heroes in any game that is going to have even the vestige of a serious tone. Even using the above example, many of the times when we see Ash Williams really screw up, it's not because Ash isn't good at killing deadites.

Ash screws up because he makes a selfish, short-sighted decision, or because he gets arrogant about how difficult a task is and won't admit it is outside of his skillset. Even then, soon after he screws up bad, he usually has an over the top moment of awesome.

That moment of awesome may not solve the problem, but it reminds you that Ash still has an area of competency, it's just not making wise decisions or evaluating his own strengths or weaknesses.
The takeaway here is, if you are going to find humor in a player character's failures, don't do it in a way that minimizes what that character is supposed to be good at. I'm looking at GMs with this one, but also players that undermine their own core competencies.

Laughing with the Player Characters

If your character has a high survival skill for their level, and they fail to track someone, they should fail because something unforeseen, or even how awesome the opposition is. If they have a penalty to deception, and blow a roll, sure, that could be about amusing incompetence.

It's also probably a good practice, if you are the GM, to let the player define how it looks when they fail, assuming you don't just want to frame it as the circumstance being extraordinary, or the NPC being competent opposition.

When it comes to not undermining the villains, don't play anyone for laughs that needs to look competent. Even if every PC drops below zero hit points and they just barely survive the fight, if you portray the villain as silly or incompetent, they will have that impression.

It won't be the impression the numbers gave, it will be the actions and the tone and tenor of how the NPC reacted to what they were doing. Maybe you want your villain to be accidentally competent, but then you need to set up the external source of their competence.

Villain Gravitas

Time Trapper by John Byrne, Action Comics #591
As an example from my DC Adventures game from years back--the penultimate major villain the heroes were dealing with was the Time Trapper. The rolls in that fight weren't that much different than earlier fights with Circe or Mongul.

However, two of my six players were familiar with some incarnation of the villain from the comics. Neither of them took the villain seriously, and both spend the whole fight reframing every missed roll by Time Trapper or solid hit from the characters as Time Trapper's screw-ups.

The final, for real this time, villain of the campaign was Darkseid (like I was going to run DC Adventures for a year and not set that up), and I rolled terribly for him. The PCs tore through the fight relatively quickly, and I was a little disappointed.

That said, more people at the table had an impression of Darkseid, either from comics or the animated series, and none of them had an impression that made him seem incompetent, so even they chalked up their victory to getting very lucky and dodging a bullet. Your main villain needs to be good at what they do. They can have quirks and foibles that are humorous, but those can't be along the same axis of what they are good at doing.

You can give your villains humorous minions, but even then, you must be careful about the message you are sending. If your villain is sitting at the head of a powerful organization, even if they are personally good at fighting and building gadgets, no one is going to take them seriously as a would-be ruler of the world if they can't keep their own organization in order. If your upper tier of Hydra is Baron Strucker and Viper, then it's fine to have Bob the Hydra agent show up.

Jarlaxle can joke and flirt and do things for the fun of it, because he's an excellent duelist, and because he's proven that he can survive drow society and turn a profit in multiple venues. Any humor he provides doesn't detract his core competencies.

Model Malefactors

Like Darkseid in the above example, some villains have some automatic buy-in if anyone knows about them. Even then, you have to keep an eye on how much of that villain’s reputation you are "spending" with your humor.

The Xanathar can be crazy and worried about his goldfish because his competency is established by being a floating aberration with eyes that can kill. But if you portray the organization as not taking him seriously, or the authorities ridiculing him, and you start to see erosion.

In this case, look at Joker. He's often portrayed as amusing and whimsical, even when he's doing horrible things. But good writers often offset this by playing up how scared his henchmen are of his unpredictability. His core competency is being a destructive wildcard, and his minions reinforce this by trying not to upset him or draw his attention.

Walking the Line, Doing it Wrong and Right

Why did I launch into all of this? Partially because I was reading someone shot adventures, where creatures that should be the scary harbingers of greater conspiracy are given two potential scenes in the same scenario that are essentially played for laughs.

Unless you want the overall conspiracy to feel like a joke, and for the adventurers to feel like there are no stakes to this one shot, you can't afford to spend this much time on humor. You can only do that if the whole scenario is going to be played for laughs.

The other reason I mention this is because today is Aaron Allston's birthday, and I'm reminded of the Wraith Squadron books. I loved the books--eventually. But when the Rogue Squadron books first transitioned from Stackpole to Allston, I wasn't sure if I was going to be a fan.

There was more banter and joking between the cast. Their former careers were less "displaced average folk" and "defecting military" compared to the established crew, and some of the careers felt a little over the top. Warlord Zsinj felt much more like a blustery blowhard versus villains like Thrawn and Isard in other Star Wars books. But in the end, I really enjoyed the Wraith Squadron books.

If I hadn't decided that I was in it for the long haul, I wouldn't have seen the stakes get raised in the books, the opposition increase, and the backgrounds that seemed humorous or over the top come into play and develop more nuance.

It was a tricky set-up, because Allston frontloaded a lot of the humor when he took over the series, and "spent" some of the capital that was earned by the Stackpole volumes, and even though it paid off (at least for me), it was a risk.


It was a calculated risk, since Allston wasn't just a novelist, but was also a long-term game designer, and someone that understood the underlying tropes in various media, but not everyone would have been willing or able to spend just enough capital to pay off.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

This Week in RPG Dumpster Fires

Over the past week, we’ve seen a few big controversies evolve in the tabletop RPG space. The newest Vampire 5th edition sourcebooks reframed real-world events as vampire plots instead of human atrocities, James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess fame kind of professed his love of misogynist affirming Jordan Peterson, and Venger Satanis tried desperately to be relevant once again by making light of the realities that trans people have to deal with on a day to day basis.

There is one thing that unifies all these things in my mind, beyond them all broadly being in the tabletop RPG sphere. There are people adjacent to these games that I wish would say more about these situations.

Before I get too deep into this, I want to own up, once again, to my own shortcomings. I’ve seen racism, religious intolerance, and sexism at tables before, and not said anything. I feel like I’ve gotten better at calling these things out and fostering a safe environment in recent years, but I’m not innocent of thinking “that’s bad, but it would be easier and more comfortable to ignore it and hope it goes away.”

OSR

I’ve never called myself anything other than “OSR adjacent.” I appreciate some older game design and aesthetics, but I also like shiny new toys too much to do anything more than dabble in “old school.” Even my most preferred “old school” game, Dungeon Crawl Classics, is not universally regarded as “old school” by many that self-identify with the OSR title. That said, I’ve seen enough of the OSR that I have opinions, which may be way off base or wrong, but that are hard to shake.

There is a lot of creativity in the OSR, but I think two of the biggest issues that surround the community are as follows:

  • Unbridled creativity means you can’t ever question what someone else has said—free speech above all!
  • I don’t feel this way, maybe my friends don’t feel this way, but someone in my circles is adjacent to someone that feels this way, and I don’t want to make waves
I think that sometimes the fear in the OSR is that “I like exactly how my circle of contacts works, and if I do one thing differently, it may change, and I don’t want change.” Those “bad actors” can just keep popping up on the periphery, and we’ll just hope they don’t get any MORE traction than they have.

If the OSR is really a group of people that like the way certain games are played, and aren’t just long term fans that don’t want to move on to new game styles, it’s going to be important to elaborate what you like, cut out people that have odious opinions, and attract new people to the style of gaming that you love, even if they weren’t there “back in the day.”

Doing the Right Thing

I would also like to give massive credit to Stewart Robertson, creator of the most ubiquitous OSR logo out there for this statement:

https://robertsongames.com/osr-logo-moral-rights-and-hate-speech/

I really appreciate what he has said and done in this situation.

Vampire

Not to focus too much on just the OSR, let’s look at Vampire. Vampire had some big warning signs going into the publication of 5th edition. By no means do I believe that everyone associated with the game was equally responsible for questionable content. There was, however, questionable content. For every person that wanted the game to explore mature themes, there was someone that wanted the game to be “mature” because it was “being naughty,” and that meant doing over the top, sensational things.

Before publication, Vampire did two things—they issue a half-hearted apology about potential alt-right content, and at the last minute, they hired Jacqueline Bryk to write a section on safety in the game.

Before I go any further, I know I may have some people take umbrage at my comment that the initial apology about the playtest materials was half-hearted. I say this because it was very much “hey, we hate Nazis as much as the next person,” but not much in the way of a plan for avoiding potential pitfalls in the future.

Still, these actions helped sooth a lot of frazzled nerves. I know a lot of gamers that love the new edition. The FLGS owner almost had me sold on picking up a copy. The book itself didn’t seem quite as controversial as some of the playtest material had seemed. But I still felt a little hesitant.

And then we started seeing how the first round of sourcebooks were going. Hate crimes in Chechnya were portrayed as kind of a smokescreen for vampire atrocities, and people that commit suicide were portrayed as being weak. It was the kind of “edgy and relevant above all” content that people were a little concerned about in the core book.

Paradox Entertainment, the current owners of White Wolf, laid out a rather extensive plan for how they would react to the content that made it into the books. White Wolf was being restructured, and the actual World of Darkness line was going to be managed by RPG third party publishers. It was a more extensive, action-plan reinforced apology.

That said, a lot of big name, big audience RPG folks jumped on the Vampire bandwagon as soon as the core book didn’t seem to be the alt-right mess the playtest materials intimated. While I’ve seen a lot of people that would be the target audience for Vampire decry the situation, I haven’t seen a lot of the high-profile people that jumped on the bandwagon say much about it.

I’m not passing judgment. I’ve failed in the past to do the right thing. I hope I don’t in the future, but it is an easy thing to do. Sometimes it’s just more comfortable to say nothing and wait for everything to blow by. I’m just saying that I hope that someday, when controversies like this hit the gaming community, we’re not as slow to call out bad actors, or show our support for people pointing out uncomfortable truths.

“What about . . . ?”

Yes, there are other parts of the hobby that have been offensive, exclusive, or problematic. Please don’t take my commentary on the last week of RPG history as all-inclusive of the sins of the industry. There are elitist and exclusionary people adjacent to, and even driving, all kinds of movements in the RPG industry.

I don’t want you to enjoy your hobby any less. I want you to be able to share your hobby with more people that don’t feel safe sitting at a game table right now.