Friday, June 15, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews—Monsters of the Guild (Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition)

I always have a difficult time trying to formulate reviews for monster books. I love them, and so much of my opinion is based on “gut reactions” to the monsters. In general, monster books just get shifted back in my review queue indefinitely, while I analyze other books.

The problem is, there are so many strong, evocative monster books coming out now. Additionally, books like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes are challenging what monster books look like, with information on lairs, personalities, and playable races.

Monsters of the Guild, specifically, is a product that really caught my eye. It is a product sold on the Dungeon Master’s Guild, which has a host of different contributors, including some of the most prolific DM’s Guild authors.

The preview version of the product, Monsters Without Borders,  was a charity product that benefited Doctors Without Borders. The final version is available in both PDF and print on demand, and I’ve got both the PDF and the hardcover version of the product.

How Is the Guildhall Constructed?

Monsters of the Guild is 158 pages long, with a glossy cover and matte pages in the physical edition. The print on demand version of the book feels solidly made. Colors are black, white, and various parchment and sepia tones, with a color cover.

The cover is a striking stylistic image of a beholder. Interior art varies a lot in style. Page 5 is a great, full page set of sketches of the contributors. For the rest of the book, the best way I could compare the art would be to say it hearkens back to something like the 1st edition AD&D Monster Manual. There isn’t a unified style, and art varies from more detailed line drawings to more impressionistic images. I personally wish that some of the art had been a little more polished. It isn’t bad, but a little tweaking might have made a stronger overall impression--your millage may vary.

The formatting in the book made a very strong impression on me. Titles, fonts, boxes, and side bars all look very professional, and  make the book a joy to read through and reference.

The Body of the Beast

There is a forward by Chris Lindsey from Wizards of the Coast, and the final five pages summarize monsters by challenge rating, environment, and type. In between, the book is wall to wall monsters, with references to where the monster may have appeared previously, a note on who created the monster, and some notes on the motivations of a creature and how they might be used in an adventure.

Here are some overall stats for what appears in the book:

CR 0
CR ¼
CR ½
CR 1
CR 2
CR 3
CR 4
CR 5
CR 6
CR 7
CR 8
CR 9
CR 10
CR 11
CR 12
CR 13
CR 14
CR 15
CR 16
CR 17
CR 20
CR 21
CR 16


Monsters that appeared in recent Wizards of the Coast products since this book was published:
  •         Demon, Bulezau (appears in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes at CR 3, CR 5 in this book)
  •          Demon, Maurezhi (appears in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes at CR 7, CR 11 in this book)

The Good  That Monsters Do

I love how clear and easy this book is to look through. The formatting is great, and the summary tables at the end of the book are very useful. While there are many evocative monsters in the book, in particular I would be very interested in getting the Cairnlord (a fey powerhouse creature), the Grave Weird (an elemental corrupted by corpses), the Infernal Obelisk (a fiend that looks like a walking monument to evil), the Mindflayer Tadpole (I really loved Lords of Madness back in 3.5), and the Necrosphinx (a huge undead guardian sphinx) to the table.

Wandering off the Trail

Some monsters are strong entries, but the nature of the entry feels a little incomplete, so the monsters feels less usable and more like an ad for other products. An example of this might be the crystal and amethyst dragons, which each only appear at one age category, but have all the standard dragon age categories available in the Gem Dragons of Faerun product where they originally appear.

There are also a few monsters that feel as if they are probably great in the adventures where they originally appear, but they feel a bit more difficult to employ without that framework.

Another thing that I noticed in some of the monster stat blocks is that some attacks have evocative names, but the name seems to contraindicate what the actual damage type is (for example, an attack with necrotic in the title that does psychic damage). In a few places, there are attacks with evocative names, but without any real explanation of what the attack looks like. There are hit bonuses or save DCs, but not a clear description of what is happening to cause the damage. It’s still functional, but might have been better detailed.

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.

While there are a few quirks, this given what this project is, it came together amazingly well. There are some useful monsters in the book, and it may be worth it to look at exactly how this product came together if you have any interest in the DM’s Guild and how products on the site are evolving.

That said, if you already have the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (and possibly third-party books like the Tome of Beasts), it may be a while before you are driven to pick up another monster book.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Gopher Con Experiences, Part the First--Olorondin's Big Day (D&D Adventurers League and Me)

I have played D&D Adventurers League games on an off since the Elemental Evil season. Because of my schedule, and changes in job, schooling, and other life events, I tend to play on a more sporadic basis, only playing on the regular Wednesday night games for a few months at a time, and sometimes playing a game or two at a convention or during a game day.

This weekend our FLGS, Gopher Mafia Games in Urbana, Illinois, hosted a mini-convention which featured a lot of Adventurers League content, as well as a D&D AL Epic.

I’ll probably talk about the Epic somewhere, because it was a lot of fun, but for now, I’m going to focus on Olorondin Ked, my longest running AL character.

Let Me Tell You About My Character (I'm Sorry)

Olorondin is a Cleric/Bard who is chaotic neutral and worships Cyric. This could be a recipe for a really disruptive character, so I tried to add some personality elements that would make him more sympathetic and amenable to group play.

Olorondin has the charlatan background, and every session where there are characters that he has not adventured with in the past, he pretends to be a cleric of a different deity. He started off with Ilmater, then went to Tymora, Savras, and Eldath. If anyone calls out his behavior as not matching his purported god, plan B is to whip out a holy symbol of Mask or Leira and apologize for hiding his true affiliation.

The ways I have tried to make this character better for group play has to do with an element I picked up from reading about Leira’s followers—when Olorondin likes his companions and is trying to work with them, he doesn’t stop lying, he just lies in a manner that is so obvious that people can start to pick up on it.

Additionally, Olorondin working for the Harpers isn’t a “double agent” situation. As a devotion to Cyric, he’s providing information to the Harpers using resources that the Harpers would likely not appreciate, so as long as those resources aren’t used against Cyric’s church, that’s fine. Olorondin is also hoping to get enough influence in the Harpers to ask for a pardon for his former mentor in a manner that doesn’t arouse suspicion, because he’s proven himself consistently.

But possibly the biggest thing that I attempt to do when it comes to making Olorondin playable at the table is to tell everyone at the table what I’m doing with the character. I don’t hide that Olorondin is a cleric of Cyric from the players, just their characters. I let them know I’m not working to backstab them or anything else. Olorondin is just a pathological liar that feels comfortable with Cyric, and this is what he does.

Olorondin's Highlight Reel

Over the weekend, I got to play through some great character moments for Olorondin. One of the regular AL DMs was playing is several sessions with us, and he’s been in multiple games that I have run, so we’re pretty comfortable playing in games with one another. He’s got a Banite priest, and every time his priest would go on about the glory of Bane and the glories of a structured society, Olorondin would casually mention various failings that have beset the church of Bane and the god himself in the past.

Even better, once Seiger (the cleric of Bane) found out that Olorondin was a cleric of Cyric, Olorondin managed to leverage a mace consecrated to Bane that he had found, prying a magic item from Seiger so that he could have the mace. The discomfort was amazing.

That was fun, but my favorite character moment was running into the same street urchin in two concurrent adventures. The group didn’t think much about him, but when we ran into him in the second adventure, I asked him to meet me later, because I wanted to talk to him.

Olorondin forged a set of travel papers for the kid and gave him 50 gold pieces to start a new life away from his current city. When the rest of the group asked about why Olorondin cared about the kid, Olorondin (in an uncharacteristically honest moment) mentioned, “he reminds me of who I was at his age.”

Right Place at the Right Time

I know that there is a lot of talk about AL and it not providing the depth of roleplay that home sessions can provide. I know that the episodic nature and the uniform campaign rules can lead to this. That said, when you have the right mix of players and DMs, I think you can still have a very memorable, very satisfying experience, and this is coming from someone that, a few years ago, was very burned out on the concept of organized play.

Friday, May 25, 2018

35 Years of Return of the Jedi

I have seen all the Star Wars movies when they were in release at theaters (except for Solo, as of this writing, which will be rectified tonight). I was only 4 years old when Star Wars was in the theater, and when I saw it at the drive-in with my family, I got “impressions” of it, rather than absorbing the whole plot. 

I think I remember more of Star Wars from storybooks and other products than from the movie itself, which I didn’t see again, in total, until it was on HBO, after I had seen The Empire Strikes Back multiple times in theaters.

If I remember correctly, I saw Empire about 11 times in theaters when it was out. Thankfully, I had two older siblings that would often take me to movies, so between family and friends, it was easy to rack up extra viewings.

I loved Empire, and I absorbed a lot more of the plot when I saw it, but Return of the Jedi was the Star Wars movie that I felt I was most fully invested in at the time of release. By the time that movie came out, I had the action figures. I was part of the fan club. I had the posters up all around my room. I had read the Marvel comics on a regular basis. I was actively participating in my fandom, instead of enjoying what my family and friends also enjoyed.

I still remember the complex thoughts that struck me in that movie. Yoda may have talked about the Dark Side and the Light Side and how they operated in Empire, but Return of the Jedi was the first time I started to internalize more complex moral issues. Sometimes, you need to stop the bad guys, but it may not be healthy to HATE the bad guys. Sometimes doing the right thing for the wrong reasons makes the right thing into the wrong thing.

I remember part of my brain screaming out that Luke should be able to be angry at the bad guys, because they were evil. It should be okay to be happy about taking them out, because they needed to be taken out. Why is this Light Side thing so complicated?

Then, that moment hit me.

“I’ve got to save you.”

“You already have.”

Seriously, I’m having a hard time not tearing up as I type those words. My young brain latched onto the redemption arc hard in those moments. I love that moment so much.

Considering that moment, a lot of Return of the Jedi turns into “Redemption Arc, The Movie.” Han isn’t a reluctant member of the Rebellion anymore. Lando risks his life to save a friend that he had previously betrayed. Hell, even the ewoks go from people eating furballs to heroic allies in the same movie.

The point of Jedi, it seemed to me, was that some evil needed to be stopped, and can’t be redeemed (Palpatine, the Death Star), but sometimes you needed to risk yourself to bring someone back to the light. If you don’t, what you fight for doesn’t mean as much as you think it does.

Return of the Jedi isn’t a perfect movie. In a few places, it swings way to the up side of things to counter the down beats from Empire. That said, I still get a little disheartened when people pile on ROTJ as one of “the bad ones” when it comes to Star Wars. It isn’t a perfect movie, but I think in many ways, it’s the perfect resolution to what the original three movies were trying to do. I will always love it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why Play Monstrous Races (He Asks, Stealing a Topic from Down With D&D)

One of the questions that came up on this week’s Down with D&D podcast, while Shawn and Chris were reviewing the Unearthed Arcana playtest for Centaurs and Minotaurs, was, “why play monstrous races?”

Like most things, I don’t think you can answer that question easily without some context. 

The assumption here is that “monstrous” means something that isn’t even close to human. Something that is alien in thought and at least significantly different in form. Races that must deal with worrying about hot and cold, eating and drinking, having emotions, and all of that, are more relatable.

Monstrous also carries the connotation that the creature’s perspective may not only be alien to humans, but may be inimical to human society. Maybe they naturally despoil the natural resources of a region, or maybe humans are potential menu items for the creature. Maybe the creature doesn’t intend any malfeasance, but they just injure beings that get too close to them. “Monstrous” implies one step beyond “alien.”

So for our purposes, we're going to look more at "non-traditional" than full-on "monstrous." While there are ways to make a game work when you are playing dragons or aberrant creatures that shouldn't exist, it pulls D&D further from it's established baseline for most groups.

The Trouble with Taurs

A lot of monsters have a deep, specialized history in D&D. D&D elves aren’t Tolkien elves (no, really, they aren’t), they aren’t Melinboneans, they aren’t Poul Anderson elves, and they aren’t the elves from Celtic or Norse stories either. That said, they have a little bit of all those things, to varying degrees, with the dials turned up or down depending on the setting, while still retaining a few commonalities.

D&D is a melting pot of a lot of different folklore and pop culture, and the more important something is to the overall story of D&D, the more it starts to take on a unique D&D flavor.

However, creatures that have only ever been used “on the periphery,” as random encounters or as opponents, don’t always develop those quirks. Even halflings and gnomes, who don’t have the same level of story applied to them as dwarves or elves, still have pantheons with multiple gods, which flesh out aspects of their society.

Halflings may want to be homebodies (Yondalla), but they are fiercely protective of what they love (Arvoreen), and they still value their rogues (Brandobaris), and they don’t see death as an evil thing (Urogalan). Gnomes appreciate practical jokes (Garl Glittergold), love innovation and invention (Nebelun), and are still afraid of the darkest recesses of the places they live (Urdlen).

On the other hand, for minotaurs and centaurs, we get generally implied minotaur and centaur things that you might guess from Greek mythology. Centaurs like nature, and the only D&D deity we have for them (Skerrit) also likes nature. Minotaurs worship Baphomet, the demon lord of being a big evil monster with horns.

Centaurs and minotaurs have been in D&D going back almost to the beginning, but they haven’t really had any D&D-specific hooks, nor have they had many pop-cultural “add-ons” given to them. The most significant recent pop culture reference I can think of for centaurs and minotaurs have been in the Narnia movies, where they . . . hung out in the background and looked cool.

Setting and Context

I love minotaurs. Part of the problem is that I love minotaurs because of the Dragonlance setting. Minotaurs there are noble descendants of ogres that are less brutish than their forebears. They love the sea. They broke away from being enslaved by the dwarves, which means even as an “evil” race, they have a sympathetic history. Because they worship Sargas, even when they are evil, they are honorable.

Not only has the setting had a whole empire ruled by minotaurs in Taladas, but there have been multiple novels detailing the minotaur culture of Ansalon, written by Richard A. Knaack, and if I’m not off base, Knaack was one of the most popular authors beyond Hickman and Weis.

Second edition AD&D tells us that minotaurs come from humans that have been cursed for doing vile things that offend the gods, but they can have children, so not all minotaurs are directly cursed in this manner. But that doesn’t give us much of a culture. Any given minotaur with that backstory could be a newly cursed person, who just recently committed their crime, or a third of fourth generation creature. There isn’t really any context for how existing societies of minotaurs function, or what they do, other than that they tend to worship a demon lord of brutality.

While centaurs have appeared as a PC race in the past, I have a hard time thinking of much D&D specific context given to them. I know Wendle Centaurs in Dragonlance were smaller than other centaurs, but other than having the broad stroke origin of “they got mutated when the Greygem floated by” like a lot of other creatures, I don’t know that centaurs in Krynn have much more grounding in the setting than they do on Oerth or Toril.

Whither Comes Context?

The large tauric creature in the room may be the Midgard Campaign setting. Both Minotaurs and Centaurs have recently been detailed for D&D 5th edition use in the Midgard Heroes Handbook, and have had stats in previous game products for other games supported by Kobold Press.

Centaurs are raiders from the Rothenian Plains, who are often bandits, but sometimes fall into mercenary work. They are survivors, but maybe not any more “in love” with nature than any band of nomadic raiders. Minotaurs have their island nation, and can also be found in the Seven Cities region. They are warriors, military strategists, and sailors. This interpretation files off some of the religious aspects of Krynn minotaurs, dials down the “extreme honor” a little, but keeps the sailing and military strategy.

Because both races are a known “thing” in the setting, beyond a monster that shows up on a random encounter chart, or the boss at the end of a dungeon, it’s easier to conceive of what a PC version of that species might be doing in the campaign. Especially since both have some reason for being mercenaries.

But Think of the Playtest

If the centaur and minotaur races come out as PCs, I trust that WOTC will end up putting in some setting context for them and making them more interesting. The fact that they have done a deep dive into motivations and drives even for monsters that aren’t intended for PC use reassures me of that. The problem is getting people excited for these races for a playtest of mechanics before they have a reason to latch on to them because of the roleplaying hooks involved.

I’m sure there are a few people that will have some mechanical tricks they want to try out just based on stats and traits, but I think the buy in would be stronger with more lore invested in the races--which is a double-edged sword, because why spend time adding more roleplaying hooks when people may not care about them?

The Lure of Monsters--Broadly

We touched on why people might have a hard time playing monsters, but if that’s the end of the story, why does nearly every version of D&D end up with playable “monster” races, to some degree or another?

Some people just like doing something different. Even if the mechanics are different, there are gamers that have played humans, elves, half-orcs, half-elves, elves, gnomes, and halflings so many times that they just want something different.

I think there is some draw to this beyond novelty, however.

I know I have been increasingly drawn to a least a little more complexity in my D&D setting. I’m not going to rehash it, but if you get the time, definitely watch Lindsey Ellis’ video discussing the movie Bright, especially when she gets into Tolkien and allegory.

Sure, undead, fiends, and constructs are all things that can be 100% bad, because they are either unthinking machines of death, or literally supernaturally evil things. But it becomes increasingly hard to think of anything outside of that type of creature as being “born evil” without introducing some uncomfortable ramifications, especially considering some of the ugliest aspects of modern society.

We really should be examining our assumptions, even in a game that is “just” for fun.

Are those orc tribes that much worse than the human barbarians that have been preying on anyone near their territory? If they aren’t worse, isn’t it possible that they are more easily dealt with, and maybe the only reason nobody has is that they just assume that orcs are “savages” that are beyond reason? The orcs may have blood on their hands, but maybe they are trapped in a cycle of violence because the humans, elves, and dwarves around them would never think to trade with them, buy their goods, or treat them as a sovereign people? Isn’t that a more interesting angle to take with an orc that might show up in an adventure?

I think some people resist this idea, because they assume that the entire paradigm of the game would shift. I would posit that if a gang of human berserkers attacks the PCs, everybody rolls initiative, and nobody worries about defending themselves--if the purpose of a monster is to attack the party, they still do that. But isn’t it more interesting if that wasn’t the only purpose orcs, goblins, and other humanoids have?

I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed that the Kingdom of Many Arrows got destroyed in the Drizzt novels, since that was one of the developments in the 4th edition Realms I kind of liked.

If we can get away from assumptions of automatically being good and evil, doesn’t that let us start stepping away from uncomfortable parallels to attitudes in the real world?

A Long History of Being Weird

I don’t know how typical I am. In the very first long-term D&D campaign I ran, I introduced a dark elf fighter/mage who was more of a chaotic neutral “Loki” type character that the PCs had to decide if they could trust. He ended up helping them stop a plague that would have wiped out most of the population of the world so that only the elite that set off the contagion would rule over his select few (I would like to get my credit for using a no-evil drow before The Crystal Shard came out, before anyone points out that I totally stole a Ra’s al Ghul villain plot for the campaign).

The party also adopted a lizardfolk warrior into the group after an adventure, and when he sold his soul to save the group, they raided the Nine Hells to get him back.

So, since about 1986, I’ve been using “monsters” and “bad guys” as potential party members and allies.

While I’ll admit Savage Species went to the extremes with playable races, when I introduced my step-children to Dungeons and Dragons, they played a half-ogre monk and a Lythari (elf werewolf) sorcerer.

I think one of the reasons that Eberron had some of the following that it did was that you couldn’t assume that any humanoid was “born evil,” and the setting introduced some interesting new races with things like Changelings, Warforged, and Shifters. On the other hand, I’ve always been hesitant to introduce those specific races to other settings because they feel like they are part of what makes that setting unique.

A Long Way to Go To Circle Around

I think it’s a lot harder to introduce elements to a setting that is established that haven’t already had a niche created for them. The Realms already had some notable goblins and orcs show up over the years, so playable members of those races weren’t particularly strange. WOTC did a lot of work to introduce Dragonborn, and their nation was one of the 4th edition elements that wasn’t reversed.

On the other hand, I can’t recall Timoth Eyesbright ever mentioning anything of note about centaur culture, even though he was a fixture of the AD&D DC Comic.

Time will tell if connections can be made to D&D lore, but until those connections are made, I think it’s harder to get excited about the concept of a “background character” getting a chance to take center stage.