Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Maps in RPGs, As Inspired by Sean and Brett (Gaming and BS 212)

Sean and Brett are at it again. Once again there was a topic that came up on Gaming and BS that caused me to go on an even longer tangent than I normally do. Check out episode 212 of Gaming and BS for the full discussion. This time Sean and Brett talk about maps, and that got me wanting to talk about maps as well. Thanks again for a great show!

Gaming and BS Episode 212 Maps in RPGs

And now for my rambling.

Old School Mapping

I think one thing that always gets tricky is that while it feels like a fun, old-school thing to see how the player’s maps differ from the GMs based on how they interpreted their descriptions, in some cases that literally saying that the PCs, the characters in the world, misunderstood what they were personally perceiving. While that works for intricate designs or camouflaged ninja deer, something like assuming there are only two passages out of a room where there are clearly three isn’t something the PCs are likely to do, but I’ve seen GMs that will run with that because “the players weren’t paying attention.”

I honestly think that unless something is meant to be hidden or to be presented as a puzzle, it’s the GMs job to make sure the players understand their environment at least as well as their PCs would. If you are getting upset that your players didn’t pick out simple details in your description of a normal cavern, maybe your description of a normal cavern was too simple for them to latch on to. A simply 40 by 40 room with three 10 x 5 archways cut out of stone with no adornment isn’t really that memorable, so of course your PCs aren’t going to latch on to that like they would if one wall was made from corpses mortared together with some kind of congealed, slimy black substance.

Or, to put it differently, if something is suppose to be a simple decision (do you go to archway 1, 2, or 3), don’t try to “gamify” the PCs remembering what you said.

New School Mapping

When I was reviewing Esper Genesis, the 5e SRD d20 sci-fi game, I ran across a passage talking about roles that people in a group could assume when travelling, and how assuming those roles meant they couldn’t use passive perception. I looked up in the Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition Player’s Handbook and realized that I had missed those roles in D&D the entire time I had been playing 5th edition.

Activities are navigate, draw a map, track, and forage. Not all of these always apply, but the way these roles are referenced does imply how those roles should be adjudicated in 5th edition D&D. Navigating is about making checks to see of the party gets lost when they go somewhere they haven’t been before. Drawing a map is about to record the group’s progress which “helps the characters get back on course if they get lost . . . no ability check is required.” In other words, the implication is if someone is fulfilling the mapping role, in character, if the PCs get back to where they were previously, they can backtrack to places they have already been.

What’s interesting to me about this is that for the cost of someone not being able to use their passive perception score, PCs should probably be able to backtrack their way out of a dungeon unless there is some kind of mitigating circumstance or supernatural alteration to the terrain after they left. I’ll be honest, I know anyone can run their games the way they want to run them, but there have been so many times I kind of wanted “permission” to handwave PCs backtracking out of the dungeon (of course, if it’s taking them hours to get out, I’m still all for rolling for random encounters for things potentially jumping them while the backtrack--I just don’t want to ask them about every intersection and multiple set of doorways on the way out to make sure they don’t wander around in the dungeon forever . . . in real time).

Setting Maps and the Stories They Tell

When it comes to maps that I personally really love--part of my image of the Forgotten Realms is the map of northern Faerun that came with the Old Grey Boxed set. I loved that map, both the smaller scale heartlands version and the zoomed out larger scale map. I also loved the functionality of the map just being a map, but with a plastic overlay to make it easier to apply game rules for travel based on the distances.

When it comes to maps and the Forgotten Realms--something major happened to the Realms in 3rd edition that was never explained in setting, but I think it had a more dramatic effect on the setting than people realize. The designers condensed the map of Faerun by about a third. This was done because they felt that it was a waste to develop parts of the setting that the PCs might never travel to in a campaign, so everything should be within reasonable travel distance to the heartlands.

I disagree with this logic, but beyond assuming that every adventurer should go to every place in the Realms to make developing different areas worthwhile, it also had the effect of making it feel like there was less unexplored in the setting. Traveling from Cormyr to Waterdeep was by no means rare, but it took time and effort on the old map. The entire reason the Zhentarim establish their trade route through the very dangerous Anauroch desert was because the straight line shaved weeks off of the long trip down and around the middle of the Heartlands and over and back up to the Sword Coast North. Less detailed nations were completely removed from the new map because of where “constrictions” happened. It was faster to get from one side of Faerun to another, and all of those spaces that might have uncharted settlements, inns, and ruins were cut down.

While Faerun is still much larger than I think most people visualize, and still has a lot of room for uncharted areas, the effect of making all of the major settlements closer to one another made stopping in those “unnamed” places less important, and reinforced the perception that every road was well traveled and well documented.

One of my favorite approaches to maps in fantasy products lately has been the maps in the Shadow of the Demon Lord products. Not only are many of these maps less about detail and more about the impression and relative locations of locations on a map, but many of them do not have a scale. While some fans are bothered by this and have been spending a lot of time trying to create a scale for some of the maps, I loved looking at the maps of the Borderlands of Tear and thinking, “I want it to take about a week to reach that side of the map, about two weeks to reach the middle, and maybe a month to traverse the all the way to that side of it.”

Maps with a Really Big Scale

It has actually helped my enjoyment of some science fiction properties to get an idea what the region of space looks like, where the media takes place. As an example, the only thing I was really worried about when the Expanded Universe became Legends for Star Wars was that the galactic geography remained intact. I was less worried about the lineage of Mandalorian Houses than I was just knowing that there were Core systems, the Inner Rim where the Core worlds expanded first, a Mid Rim that is kind of the “working class” section of the galaxy, a lawless Outer Rim that has to make do without much help from the rest of the galaxy, and the Unknown Regions were all kinds of mysterious weird undocumented stuff can come from. To me, seeing that map of the galaxy helps me to understand what kind of stories to tell in the setting, more than knowing exactly how many Jedi Knights were alive during The Phantom Menace.

Even though I know the series writers didn’t have it as well developed as we do now, I understand the politics of Star Trek better now that I know what species lives in what quadrant of the galaxy, and it becomes more obvious who the neighbors are and where the buffer regions are, including who lives there. Maps can communicate and reinforce elements of a story in a powerful manner.

Except for Firefly. The map of a trinary star system designed to handwave not utilizing FTL in the setting makes my head hurt.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Kobold Press, Experimentation, and the Future of Electronic Game Formats

In case you missed it, Kobold Press decided to try something new with their current Kickstarter. The product, Tales of the Old Margreve,  is a level 1-10 set of adventures set around an ancient forest in the Midgard setting, with an accompanying Player’s Guide that has new player options centered around the people living in the region, subclasses and spells that are focused on the theme, etc.

The experimental part is that the Kickstarter doesn’t offer PDF support for the product. The only electronic reference material will be through data sets on either Roll 20 or Fantasy Grounds.

The cited reasons for this are as follows:

  • Nobody really loves PDFs as a format for electronic books
  • Lots of people really like D&D Beyond

The Kickstarter funded quickly, but there have been a significant number of people on social media platforms or in the comments of the Kickstarter voicing their concern over the lack of PDFs. Kobold Press has said that there may be PDFs in the future, but they aren’t part of this offering.

I will admit, I’m one of the people that posted to say that I wish there had been PDF support, and I also wanted to make sure that I was very clear to point out that my opinion is just a single data point. Kobold Press doesn’t need to do what I want them to do, but as a previous customer, I was volunteering my preference.

All of that said, there is a lot going on with this decision. I’ve never been an expert on anything, but I’ve also continually suffered from impulse control when it comes to expressing my thoughts, so here we go.

Nobody Likes PDFs

PDFs are not the best electronic media for expressing game books. We already know they aren’t the best way of presenting a book, in general, because so many people would much rather have their books in a format for some kind of epublishing format. Being able to change font, size, background colors, and the like make a document infinitely more readable for a wide number of people.

The problem is, RPGs often have some challenges when it comes to being expressed in an epublishing format. Images, charts, and examples often don’t scale well. While it’s less about expressing the core information in the text, many companies spend a lot of time developing distinctive trade dress, which also doesn’t translate well into epublishing formats (and may actually be subverted by allowing readers to change things like fonts).

The RPG industry hasn’t developed a good “offline” solution for reading game books, and the current solutions were designed for sending smaller files of text documents (PDFs), or for expressing traditional books to be read (epublishing). Creating a solution that works offline, works on portable devices, and preserves the formatting of pictures, tables, examples, and trade dress is something that may require more specialized work.

Lots of People Like D&D Beyond

I have a full set of D&D products on D&D Beyond. It can be a steep introductory price, but the ability to search for content across everything you own, customize monsters, and create and store characters is extremely powerful.

Even taking the above into account, I still wish two things were true:

  • I wish I had PDFs of all of my D&D books that worked offline
  • Even with all of the functionality that it has, I wouldn’t go all in for any other game that I can think of for a D&D Beyond-like site
Aside: I’ve got the Beta app for D&D Beyond that lets you download local copies of the rulebooks to read on a device without an internet connection, but unfortunately, as far as I’ve been able to tell, you can’t save your data to an SD card, meaning that if I have to deal with the internal memory of my tablet or my phone, I’m running out of space really quickly at this point.

D&D tugs at my heartstrings because of nostalgia, but it also has a strong lock on being the entry point into RPGs for a ton of people. That’s more true now than ever. But imagine for a moment that Pathfinder, Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPGs, Onyx Path, or White Wolf had a similar service, with similar prices. Are all of those likely to survive?

Curse does an amazing job with D&D Beyond, and I actually think their prices are reasonable for what they provide, but unless you had some consolidated service that charged a base price and then lesser licensing fees for individual games to provide similar functionality to all of them, this becomes a really hard sell the deeper into the RPG well you go. Even at that, what might be profitable for the company providing the service may still not recoup what the individual companies want if the electronic purchase of the material ends up outstripping physical sales.

One of the things that hurt 4th edition D&D is that D&D Insider was actually too good a deal. While it was a low enough price point that I stayed subscribed even when I wasn’t playing 4th edition anymore, the price point was good enough that many people didn’t bother to pick up physical books, especially when the online content was updated with errata—and there was a lot of that to go around.

What I’m really getting at isn’t that someday we won’t have a D&D Beyond like site for multiple RPG companies, it is that D&D Beyond is really the first to successfully do what WOTC has been trying to do since the 4th edition era—create an online content platform that performs well and provides proper value for the service generated.

We have had character builders that have worked across multiple game systems. We’ve had VTT data sets that could be used to streamline rules usage. But those are specialized applications, not solutions that were created, first and foremost, to provide access to the information in a book and to serve as a reference to what is contained in that book. It may do things like this ancillary to its primary purpose, but that’s not what they were designed to do.


I’m not going to rail against VTTs just because I’m really bad at using them. There are thousands of gamers using them right now, and they work well for them. They have allowed a ton of people without games to have access to game groups and to continue to experience an awesome hobby.

That said, a VTT, even when it has rules references built in, has some limitations.

  • The VTT will always need to serve as a VTT first—that means that rules references will trump learning the game or the material to begin with
  • VTTs are designed to be online—if you have a tablet and no internet access, you can read a PDF

Now, if your answer to this is “if you want to read the book for the first time, get the physical copy,” then we have the problem of portability. Let’s say I’m reading an adventure set in a particular world. There is a good sized world book for that setting. There is a player’s guide for the adventures, and one for the setting.

If I’m going on a trip, or if I’m reading these over lunch while I’m at work, I am unlikely to carry four good sized books with me. I can, however, carry a tablet with all four of those PDFs loaded onto it, and see how the adventure material fits into the setting, and how the new player options work with previously introduced options, fairly easily.

Marketing Plans

The other problem with the D&D Beyond analogy, and attempting to use VTTs as a D&D Beyond substitute is that WOTC started their 5th edition business plan without issuing PDFs for 5th edition material. Whether you think they are right or wrong, there is no option to get any of the main D&D 5th edition releases on PDF.

At this point, Kobold Press has multiple major releases for 5th edition D&D on PDF. They have an ongoing monthly pamphlet funded by Patreon that has PDF-only supplements every month. Right next to me on the desk, I have five good sized hardcover products, for which I also have the PDFs.

Because so much of Kobold Press’ library is available on PDF at this point, picking a 1-10th level hardcover adventure release with player’s guide support as the test bed for VTT substituting as electronic book support feels very odd. If this had been done with the Midgard Worldbook, for example, that would have felt like an organic cutoff point to try a new strategy. At this point, it’s just strange, because it’s not just a change in business strategy, it’s a request that consumers change their buying patterns.

I’m not saying that rolling this out with the Midgard Worldbook Kickstarter would have made it a more popular option, but it would have been a clearer dividing line between the previous products in the line, and moving forward.

PDFs aren’t the best option for electronic reference of game material. VTTs are useful to people that primarily play and prep their games online, but even then, physical books seem like they are needed to supplement that option at times. We are entering a new era of how technology interacts with our hobbies, but entering that era is the same has already having the best solution to the challenges posed by consumers that want better options. Putting a square peg in a round hole is just swapping one imperfect reference solution for another, and it’s swapping it for what may be a more limited subset of consumers.

What Do I Know?

All of the above is my gut reaction on a lot of things and how they interact in the RPG industry. I've got no special knowledge of anything, other than just being a consumer that spends way too much time thinking about things. Kobold Press makes good products, and in addition, they were way ahead of the curve when it comes to crowdfunding back in the day. They had patron projects to fund their earliest products back before crowdfunding was even a thing that most people thought about.

I wish them the best. I hope they continue to make good quality products, and that people continue to buy them. It will be interesting to watch this experiment as it unfolds, and it will be interesting to see if the vocal customers (myself included) are representative or outliers. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

What Do I Know About Houserules? Age of Rebellion, Duty, and Contribution Ranks

I’ve been thinking about tailoring Age of Rebellion a bit more to cultivate the kind of experiences that I like to see, both in Star Wars and based on the other FFG Star Wars games. I’ve got a few thoughts on that which I’m still hammering out.

Modifications—Determine Duty (Age of Rebellion page 46)

Characters still pick their Duty as determined in this section of the book. Default starting Duty now becomes individual contributions to group Distinction. Characters can still lower their contributed Distinction to gain XP or Credits.

There are more details below, but Duty now figures into the amount of Distinction gained for successful missions and triggering Duty grants a boon to a current mission that matches the description of the Duty being triggered.

Contribution ranks still work as detailed in the core rulebook. The “Duty as a Threshold” section on page 49 works the same if utilized.

Duty and Distinction

Rebel operatives each pick a Duty at character creation. Whenever a mission is completed that advances that Duty, the party earns extra distinction.

Distinction is the level of success that the local Rebel operatives have had in their fight against the Empire. Whenever the threshold of 100 Distinction is reached, characters might receive more gear and advance in rank.

However, at each threshold of 100 Distinction, the local Rebel cell also generates an Imperial Entanglement. The Rebels have been so successful that the Empire has noticed their plans and how they operate, and the cell must now take drastic action if they want to survive.

This usually takes the form of fleeing from one base of operations to find another, losing a commanding officer, or losing a flight of fighters or a valuable capital ship.

Once the Imperial Entanglement triggers, PCs cannot earn more Distinction until they have survived the Imperial assault, have a secure base of operations, and can reestablish communication with Alliance High Command (or potentially just with local allies, especially in games that take place before the formal creation of the Alliance).

After all of this has happened, Distinction resets to 0, the PCs may select their reward, and a brief period passes as the Rebels rebuild and learn how to best capitalize on the successes that they have earned that brought the wrath of the Empire down on them.

Distinction Rewards

  • 5 points per PC Rebel operative that completes a mission
  • 5 additional points per PC whose Duty was utilized during the mission
  • 5 additional points if the mission was dramatically more successful than anticipated

Triggering Duty

Once per session, if a character’s duty comes into play, they may attempt to trigger their duty. Doing this is accepting a risk. If they roll above the party’s Distinction, they gain local aid for the mission.

If they roll below their Distinction, there is an immediate Imperial Entanglement, but this Entanglement is less dramatic than when the Distinction Threshold is reached. A stormtrooper patrol may recognize them, their informant may be an undercover ISB agent, or the spaceport may put a gravity lock on their starship that must be disabled before they can leave.

In either case, the party distinction is lowered by 5 points. The Rebel cell may be making fewer bold moves without local help, but they are also venting the pressure valve of Imperial attention before it can build up to an even greater explosion.

What is a Mission

Not every action that Rebel operatives take are considered a mission. If you go to the market to buy some fruit, and end up stealing a TIE Fighter, that’s not a formal mission. On the other hand, determining that a politician must escape a certain planet, stealing an experimental fighter, or destroying a communication depot, after the group has decided that this is a worthwhile objective, would all count as missions.

To count as a mission, the following must happen:

  • The GM presents the group with a mission from Alliance personnel, or the group and the GM determines that they want to complete a specific objective that would hinder the Empire or further the goals of the Alliance.
  • A clear objective must be set for the mission to determine if the mission is successful (i.e. is the mission a success if the experimental fighter is stolen and delivered or is it a success if the prototype is only destroyed).
  • The GM may set certain conditions that remove points of distinction. There should not be more than three of these conditions set per mission. If characters do not address those conditions, they still gain Distinction from completing the mission, if they complete the objective, but you subtract five points for each condition that wasn’t addressed.

An example of this in play might look like this—

The Rebel PCs have determined that destroying an Imperial garrison in the city would be a major blow to the presence of the Empire. The objective is set that once the structure of the garrison has been destroyed, the objective has been completed.

The GM then determines that there are two conditions to this mission:

  • The garrison commander should be captured
  • The local homes and businesses should not be permanently harmed

During the mission, the GM determines that the explosion that destroyed the garrison’s generator has damaged the foundations of a local apartment building, and lets the PCs know about this complication.

Additionally, blast doors start closing and the PCs see the garrison commander running down a hallway towards a hanger full of TIE Strikers.

If the PC engineer determines that there are automatic emergency structural supports that didn’t trigger, and that they can fix them, should they do so, they have addressed the complication. If the PCs allow the garrison commander and his pilot to take off in his TIE Striker, they have not addressed this complication, and the overall amount of Distinction awarded for the mission is reduced by 5.

Failed Missions

If PCs decide to abandon a mission, or the GM determines that the objective cannot be completed, the mission is considered to have failed. On a failed mission, if the PCs have any complications they have not addressed, they still take penalties, so it is possible to end a mission by losing Distinction, up to -15 points.

If the current Distinction is less than the amount that was lost (for example, if distinction is 10, and abandoning the mission incurs a -15 penalty), the group receives a Reprimand. For every three Reprimands on record, the group loses one contribution rank. If the group loses a contribution rank when their contribution rank is already a 0, the group is considered too much of a liability to continue as part of the Rebel Alliance.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews? The Feybane Gauntlet (Dungeon Masters Guild Adventure)

The Moonshae Isles have long been a special place in the Forgotten Realms. Originally created by Douglas Niles before the Realms became TSR’s new D&D playground, it is a setting heavily influenced by Celtic folklore. Over the years, it has often felt both an integral part, and forever separate, from the rest of the Forgotten Realms. While Baldman Games recently announced their agreement with Wizards of the Coast to produce exclusive Adventurers League content in the setting, that’s not the only product you can find on the Dungeon Masters Guild that utilizes this corner of the Realms.

The Feybane Gauntlet is a Dungeon Masters Guild adventure set in the Moonshae Isles, by Simon Collins. Full disclaimer, I was given a review copy to look at before writing this review.

What’s the Craic of It?

The Feybane Gauntlet is a 17-page adventure, with a handout page, a map page, and 3 pages of NPCs and monsters. The adventure uses primarily line art, and is set on a faded Celtic knot background, with green sidebars.


The introduction includes a section detailing the assumed levels of the PCs and how long the adventure should take, then moves into a paragraph long adventure summary, and another paragraph on the isle of Llewellyn in the Moonshaes.

The adventure assumes that the adventurers need to enter a portal to another plane of existence that has been warded against the fey, who have a strong presence in the Moonshaes. There are three potential adventure hooks for why the PCs would need to brave this warded portal to another world, but none of them are expressly written into the adventure as core assumptions.

The Adventure

This adventure doesn’t waste much time. Once you have selected a reason that the PCs need to travel through the portal, you are given the name of the lord who controls the dungeon complex guarding the portal from the fey, an NPC for the PCs to interact with, and a mission to do to gain permission to enter the Feybane Gauntlet.

The side quest to earn access to the gauntlet is quickly resolved, but it doesn’t feel perfunctory and it also plays up one of the themes of the Moonshaes, the tension between the isles and the outside nations of Faerun. In this instance, the PCs will be tracking down evidence of an Amnian spy, but the flavor of the encounter is very much in keeping with previous Moonshaes material.

The bulk of what comes next is navigating the corridors of the Feybane Gauntlet until the PCs find the portal that the dungeon was built to guard. The adventure introduces lodestone as something particularly anathema to the fey, and while I like that touch, introducing it will mean that you have established a wide-ranging fact about fey creatures. There are also a few other materials introduced that specifically target fey creatures, but these take the form of local wards or special poisons. Player character elves are specifically noted as being susceptible to a reduced form of harm from some of these items, but a group without elves is going to miss out on some of the thematic danger. As an aside, I would almost be inclined to throw gnomes to the proverbial wolves as well.

The Gauntlet, itself, is a relatively short dungeon that has a few nice twists and turns in it. There is some combat, but much of the Gauntlet relies on traps, puzzles, and the Guards and Wards spell to make things interesting.

There is one trap that feels a bit rough, especially since the adventure only specifies “Tier 1 Characters,” and it requires a DC15 save with 55 damage on the line, and that trap is sandwiched (or at least it’s origin point is) between two other traps that become a lot more dangerous once this trap is in play. Given that falls into the “deadly” range for traps for characters 5-10, I would probably at least look at bumping it down to 4d10 (22 damage). While that’s still a lot, it’s way less likely to not only take a PC to zero, but to also do enough damage to kill them outright in one shot.

There is another trap predicated on the fey and being fascinated with human concepts of morality, and while I like the concept of the trap, given the very traditional and sexist behavior of one of the characters outlined in the scenario (even if they aren’t being portrayed in a positive light), I may have subverted tropes a bit to present the moral dilemma, both to make it more fun, and to avoid some awkward stereotypical situations. Without giving too much away, it’s a hypothetical situation presented as part of a trap, and the characters and their behaviors are presented in story form, with the PCs determining who is in the right and who is in the wrong in a given situation.

Unlike the traps presented in the adventure, the final fight is presented with suggestions on how to scale the encounter for PCs of different levels.


Where the portal leads is variable, depending on which option the DM decides to go with. There are alternate endings leading to the Feywild, the Shadowfell, or even a pocket dimension with portals to various outer planes. Depending on which one the DM chooses, the PCs may have one last fight on their hands, or at least a tense situation. Each of the locations has a new monster created for that location.

While the Feywild or Shadowfell ending works fine, I really like the conclusion that brings the PCs to the Ley Hound, a new creature that specifically guards portals to other worlds. This encounter essentially has the Ley Hound trying to talk the PCs out of using any of the portals, because mortals aren’t meant to casually stroll through the multiverse, and could provide some fun tension and roleplaying if the hook the group came up with at the beginning of the adventure is strong enough to really push them to enter the unknown to resolve something compelling.

The Path to Glory

This adventure does a very good job of providing a tightly focused dungeon, with a quick but effective opening scene, and an evocative resolution that could lead to long term campaign fodder. I’ve seen much longer adventures fail to encapsulate a few simple elements that are hallmarks of a setting the way this adventure does right at the start.

A Giant, Crushing Weight

The Lodestone vulnerability of the fey could be a fun addition to a campaign, but it may also be an element you don’t want to introduce, in which case, you lose a good amount of flavor in the adventure. The fable introduced in the fey morality trap plays with some unfortunate “inconstant woman” tropes, and at least one of the traps seems way dangerous for the level range of this adventure.

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.
If you aren’t looking for an adventure with Celtic or Fey themes, some of the nuance may be lost on you, but this adventure does provide a focused experience that cuts right to the chase, although you may want to tinker with damage ranges or a few minor story details before you use it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews? Zobeck Gazetteer (5th Edition)(5th Edition OGL Compatible)

When the 3.5 edition of Dungeons and Dragons ended, one of the things that went along with it was a print version of Dragon Magazine. I had been reading Dragon Magazine almost from the time I first got into Dungeons and Dragons and loved the random articles that sparked my imagination on topics I would not otherwise have pondered.

One of the things that I took solace in, when the print version of Dragon went away, was Kobold Quarterly. It was a quarterly (well, yeah) magazine highlighting all kinds of fantasy articles. While those articles often had statistics from a variety of fantasy RPG game systems, the setting that started to emerge in many articles is the setting now published by Kobold Press as Midgard, and the city of Zobeck was referenced several times.

Even though I just recently started running my 5e D&D games in Midgard, I’ve been a fan for years. I’ve got supplements for Fantasy AGE, 13th Age, Pathfinder, Swords and Wizardry, and 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve always loved fantasy cities. I had the old AD&D Lankhmar supplements, thousands of pages of information on Waterdeep, and while it wasn’t my usual setting to use, I even loved the City of Greyhawk boxed set from 2nd edition AD&D. It is probably not much of a surprise that I jumped on the Zobeck Gazetteer for 5th Edition when it was announced (plus, you know, my current campaign is set in Zobeck).

Geography of the City (Book)

This review is based both on the physical book and the PDF. The book is about 148 pages in length, with required OGL page and a two-page index at the end. The book is full color, with full-color art throughout. Some art has been reused from previous Midgard books, but much of it (to the best of my knowledge) is brand new to this book.

The art is all attractive and top tier for the RPG industry. The formatting retains the distinctive borders that Kobold Press products have had for some time now, and there are numerous sidebars and tables summarizing things like adventure hooks, available gear, and the laws of the city and the punishments for breaking them. The physical product also has a glossy pull out map of the city.

What is Zobeck and A History

This section of the book introduces the city and touches on a few points that make the city unique, and then dives into the history of the city in the setting of Midgard. There is also a brief sidebar on adapting Zobeck to other campaign settings, but it amounts to just dropping it in where a trade hub would make sense.

The biggest concepts native to Zobeck are the fall of the nobility, the kobold underclass, and the continued neutrality of the city despite pressures from various forces around it. For anyone unfamiliar with the setting, this section summarizes the former Stross family’s ties with devils and the shadow fey, the revolt of the commoners, and the pivotal role that the kobold slaves played in that revolt.

For anyone familiar with previous material on Zobeck, the timeline advances about 10 years, with the formation of the Agentine Alliance with Magdar and Grisel against the Mharoti Empire to the south and Morgau to the north (nations backed by dragons and vampires, respectively).

The Free City of Zobeck
This section of the book details districts, cultures, lifestyles, festivals, religion, the military, government, crime and punishment, gangs, and the city’s neighbors. Humans, dwarves, kobolds, and gearforged make up most of the people in Zobeck, although as a crossroads city, just about any of the ancestries found in the setting can be found here, somewhere.

There are lots of NPCs mentioned in this section in conjunction with various factions or aspects of the government, usually given “short form” stat blocks (alignment, species, class). The Lord Mayor and the Consuls are mentioned, and many of them have their own side plots or alliances that affect the city.

Some of the elements of this section that are highlights for me are:

  • Local holidays (especially the Kobold Holiday of “We No Work Day”)
  • Adventures hooks (at the end of several of the subsections of this chapter)
  • Doing Time in the Clockwork City (various crimes and their punishments, always good to have on hand for city-based campaigns)
  • Trade with the Shadow Fey is mentioned, as is the unease that many in the city, including the Lord Mayor, have with reopening diplomatic channels with a supernatural element that once supported the Stross family before the revolt.

The Kobold Ghetto

In previous products, it has been introduced that the kobolds have short-lived kings all over the Kobold Ghetto, all answering to the King of Kings. Instead of assuming there is an ever-shifting crew of these kings that aren’t worth mentioning, this section gives a list of the current lesser kings, and it paints a nice cross-section of what kobolds are in this setting.

The lesser kings range from criminals, to religious idealists trying to make kobold and other beings lives better, to kobolds just trying to do right by their neighborhood, to undead abominations that at least help keep the kobold safe.

The section on the undercity and trade ways with a kobold city outside of Zobeck make it clear that the kobolds, while badly treated and underappreciated, aren’t quite as hapless as they may seem on the surface.

While the Cartways extend under the rest of Zobeck as well, they are mentioned here as the kobolds have access to the undercity more freely than citizens of the rest of the neighborhoods. The Cartways are partially used as a sewer, but also contain many underground passages leading to the various districts, used by the nobles in ages past. It currently has a very specific Black Market, as well as potential sub-dungeons and secret shrines all over the place.

This section of the book contains a few adventure hook sidebars, as well, mainly focused on things like smuggling, entrances to the Cartways, and political maneuvering between the kobold kings. There are also some humorously detailed traps that the kobolds use to protect their secret entrances detailed as well.

Districts and Locations

This section goes into a more detailed listing of various locations on the map, detailing things like important family homes, government buildings, temples, and taverns. There is also a chart detailing the cost of owning or renting property in the various districts of the city.

As in the previous sections, the various districts have their own adventure hooks listed at the end of their sections, and some locations that lie a day or so outside of the city and are important to the history or current functioning of the city are detailed as well, although only so far as to explain what they are and why they are important. For example, the former Stross stronghold and current mega-dungeon Castle Shadowcrag is given a single paragraph to put its location and status in context.

Guilds, Gangs, & Guardians

The next chapter in the book details the various power groups active in the city. If you are like me, this is the kind of thing that gets you excited about city campaigns. Geography is all well and good, but if there are a few forces to drop missions for the PCs, and a few others to complicate or oppose those missions, then you might as well just be passing through the city rather than adventure there.

The literal guilds are detailed, with locations given for their headquarters. In addition to these more legitimate organizations, various criminal groups are detailed as well, with a format that details the following:

  • Leader
  • Lieutenant
  • Members
  • Suspected Headquarters
  • Activities
  • Symbol
  • Alignment

There are also sections detailing lesser gangs (groups that don’t get the full write-up detailed above), Courtesans, Courtiers, and The Winter Court’s Ambassadors. These don’t detail specific NPCs, but rather detail how these organizations affect Zobeck overall.

This section of the book probably has some of the trickiest content for me. The Kariv are presented as a people, but also a “gang,” and that Kariv-as-Gang leans heavily on real-world Romani stereotypes.

The Courtesans and Courtiers section introduces some gender-specific implications that may not be comfortable for players at your table, as well. Essentially, courtesans are attractive young women that attempt to find male “patrons,” and the salons that encourage art and theater in the city are patronized and directed, traditionally, by the women of wealth families. It may be easy enough to drift this concept into something less dependent on rigid gender roles, but as presented, it leans heavily on outdated assumptions of society.

Gods, Cults, & Relics of Zobeck

This section of the book details the gods that have the most influence over the city of Zobeck, as well as introducing various religious relic magic items, and introducing the concept of crab divining. While many of the entries detail gods already touched upon in the larger Midgard Worldbook, the details given in this book are specific to how the god is perceived in Zobeck, and how they are worshiped in the city.
Like the Worldbook entries, the gods aren’t assigned specific alignments, although the “What X Demands” sections may make the god palatable to greater society. Additionally, some gods are specifically called out as having faiths that are illegal to practice in Zobeck.

Rava’s entry provides some fun details for GMs running a game in Zobeck, because her temple houses the Clockwork Oracle, a machine that can provide answers to questions every 60 days or so. In addition to important people petitioning to get the honor of asking questions of the Oracle, it can spit out prophesies that call for specific people to do specific things for the good of the city—a strong hook to use to get PCs involved in a larger plot.

In addition to the major gods that are already touched upon in the Midgard Worldbook, there are a few saints and lesser, regional gods introduced in this section as well. This includes a few shrines where these local gods are revered.

Crab divining as a very flavorful subsection in this chapter, explaining how the diviner communicates with the crab, sacrifices it, and how its remains can be read. There are some fun substitutions for what can be used instead of the crab, and what ramifications those substitutions have. The biggest issue is that this section also dovetails a bit with the Kariv/Romani stereotype problem mentioned in the previous section with the Kariv gangs.

There are various magical relics detailed in this section, all belonging to gods that have local significance. Given the overall “steampunk, but Eastern European” vibe of Zobeck, one of my favorites was the Clockwork Mummy of St. Heviticus, the body of a dwarf follower of Rava that left instructions on how to mummify his remains, which included adding in a bunch of gears and pistons. He can now help develop technical plans or produce spell scrolls from the Clockwork school of magic.

Denizens of Zobeck

This section provides a deeper dive into several NPCs that might directly encounter adventurers in the city, and instead of just giving a short form version of these NPCs, they have full stat blocks.
The NPCs detailed include:

  • The Dragged Woman (a ghost that leads adventurers to lost places)
  • Dame Teragram (a gearfored military woman with a team kobolds and dwarves)
  • Goldscale (a kobold paladin adventurer)
  • Jayzel (cultist and assistant to Nariss Larigorn)
  • Mother Rye (Kariv crab diviner)
  • Nariss Larigorn (cult leader and business owner)
  • Orlando (guildmaster, wizard, and city councilman)
  • Peppercorn (bodyguard to the Mouse King)
  • Radu Underhill (Cartways Black Market contact)
  • Sergeant Hendryk (corrupt watchman)
  • Scaler (luking surprise in the Kobold Ghetto)
  • Slinger (friend of Scaler)
  • Syssysalai (hidden threat to the Kobold Ghetto)
  • The Mouse King (King of all mice and rats, and also into the politics of Zobeck)
  • Tymon, the King’s Bard (agent of the Mouse King, kind of)
  • Tyron, King of Fixers (business owner and criminal contact)

I can definitely see why these specific NPCs are more likely to have contact with PCs, although I’m still not sure they all need full stat blocks. I particularly love the Dragged Woman, as kind of a force of nature that can just reveal hidden locations to adventurers.

There is a bit of repeated text in a few of the NPC entries. Some of them were introduced adjunct to organizations or locations elsewhere in the book, and some of the text from their entries previously are ported into their personal entries. I don’t mind the redundancy, but I know some notice when the same entries are reused within the same product, even when it makes sense for it to be repeated.

There is a product called Streets of Zobeck that also utilizes some of these NPCs in various short adventures tied to locations in the city. If those NPCs are featured in that product, it is noted in their entries.

Magic of Zobeck

This chapter details the arcane school of Clockwork magic for wizards, lists a whole lot of clockwork spells, details a magic shop in the Kobold Ghetto, and introduces some magic items native to, or associated with, the city.

The Clockwork School for wizards introduces abilities like being able to shape metal, turn into a golem, and having a clockwork familiar. The spells introduced deal with using metal, steam, or gears as weapons, shape-changing into constructs, manipulating time, and even using infernal fiends as the motivating forces for constructs instead of things like elementals.

The magic shop introduced is meant to be a quirky place that sells mundane items of limited power, and this section also establishes that the Arcane Collegium, the local wizard’s school, frowns on establish magic shops, but may allow its members to take on custom commissions for creating magic items.

Many of the new items introduced have a theme of alchemy or clockwork, although there are a few items of local significance that don’t carry this theme, such as the magical signet ring of a kobold king, or the magical staffs that some watch officers carry that do extra damage to a target when the staff has an official warrant affixed to it.

Heroes of Zobeck

This section of the book includes backgrounds that are tied to Zobeck and its lore, special mounts found in and around the city, and feats for gearforged and human characters.

Backgrounds include:

  • Blessed of Ninkash
  • Courtesan
  • Collegian
  • Kobold King
  • Politician

I love how all of these are tied to themes from the city. None of them have groundbreaking mechanics, but the specific collection of traits and features reinforce themes in a Zobeck campaign, and I really wish that we had seen more of that “backgrounds as communicating setting elements” come up in WOTC D&D products. Even the backgrounds in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide felt less specific and useful for communicating setting elements than they could have been.

I particularly like that the politician gets an income that pays for a nice house, but doesn’t get any extra funds, per se, so they still have a reason to adventure. The courtesan has a few “on the nose” overly stereotypical traits given the profession, but I like the idea of an adventurer that is also trying to balance a career as a courtesan.

Mounts detailed in this section include:

  • Clockwork Warhorse
  • Giant Fey Owl
  • War Wyvern

There is also a sidebar on the famous griffons used by the Order of Griffon Knights. I like all of the mounts introduced, but oddly, a broad price is given for “flying mounts,” but not for the specific mounts included in this section, and the clockwork warhorse doesn’t fall under that category regardless. If these are only awarded but never purchased, that’s cool, I just wish that was explicitly spelled out in the entries.

Of the new racial feats, the gearforged feats play with a new concept for that race. Previously, all gearforged were humanoid creatures who transferred their minds into a new body. This book introduces the idea that there are a growing number of gearforged that are animated by elemental spirits. For gearforged that are animated by elemental spirits, the new racial feats allow them to start tapping into those elemental powers over time.

The human options all deal with specific groups of humans and must be taken at 1st level. They give extra flavor to Kariv nomads, Septime city natives, northlanders, wanderers from the Wasted West, people that have been to the fey crossroads, and humans native to Zobeck.

Leveraged Deal

I’m already running a game in Zobeck, and this one wants me to run another one. The locations, personalities, and factions in the city make the city feel vital and unique, and the plot hooks sprinkled throughout guide you on your way to knowing how to use the book at the table. The book itself is gorgeous and cleans up some setting lore that I had either misunderstood or that was contradictory across all of the various products for various games that have covered the setting over the years.
Just from the standpoint of creating clear locations, NPCs, factions, and plot hooks, Zobeck is a city book to use as a blueprint for other city-based RPG projects.

Fey Bargain

The information on the Kariv, as well as some of the material dealing with gender roles, are going to be elements that someone has to think about when they present this material at their tables. There are a few places where I wish the rules were just a bit clearer, like the cost of the new mounts, as an example, or providing more guidance on what commissioning a magic item from the Collegium looks like.

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

If you like the Midgard setting, or just want to see how a fantasy city supplement can be structured, this will likely be a good purchase for you. If you like Midgard and 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, this is even harder to resist.

Despite all the strong elements going for this, I do think it is always important to think carefully about potentially troubling elements introduced into a setting, and to be very careful to not brush aside concerns about them or to treat them in a less than serious manner.