Monday, February 18, 2019

A Note on Reviews

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

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

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

Small Neighborhoods

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

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

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


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

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

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

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dual Gnome Action This Week

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

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

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

Shadow of the Century Review at Gnome Stew

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

Gnomecast #59--Roll of Initiative

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Touched--A Darkening Alley (The Sprawl)

Time for another review. This time around, we’re not looking at fantasy, per se, but we’re diving into a supernatural horror supplement for one of my favorite cyberpunk game, the Powered by the Apocalypse game The Sprawl.

Touched—A Darkening Alley is a low magic horror supplement to add a little cosmic horror to the street jobs that your runners will be undertaking.


The PDF for Touched is 47 pages. Like other products for The Sprawl, the purchase includes both a Midnight and a Noon version of the book, with the Midnight book having black backgrounds for a more dramatic contrast to the color headers and formatting, and the Noon version having more traditional white pages.

In addition to the two versions of the book, there is also a PDF that contains the new playbook introduced in the product. There are various headers throughout the book, and several negative image photographs used to illustrate the book. There are seven sections to the book, each one with a multi-page break and title pages for each section. Like the other books in The Sprawl line, the formatting and colors have sharp contrasts and are very striking.

The Setting

The conceit of this supplement is that the setting presenting in this book is an alternate history that started with the privatization of the Vietnam War, jumpstarting the evolution of multi-national corporations whose powers extend beyond any governmental boundaries.

Some of those corporations managed to find things that should not have been found, and those artifacts allowed them to do things with “science” that humanity could have never imagined. That means that players may be trying to steal ancient artifacts and tomes of knowledge in addition to the more traditional hi-tech heists.

Three example corporations that specialize in delving into forbidden knowledge for profit are given, including Miskatonic Amalgamated, DMG Inc., and IMHP Aquatic. Reading about those corporations may clue you in to what kind of forbidden knowledge is floating around this setting.

Moves and Clocks

If you are familiar with The Sprawl, you will know about Corporate Clocks, the way you track how long the characters have until major corporate interference catches up with the crew. This supplement adds a Horror Clock, a countdown to when Eldritch unpleasantness catches up with everyone.

Characters exposed to horrors from beyond roll to make an Eldritch Trauma move, which determines how well they hold up. A character that gets a 7-9 or a 6- ends up picking up a Behavior from the player’s chosen Coping Mechanism.

One of the things I really like about how this is structured is that it’s a roleplaying guide. Characters are under stress, and their coping mechanism will be a narrative distraction from efficiently running a job, but its not portrayed as “insanity.” All the coping mechanism deal with stress, but the broad categories are:

  • Avoidance
  • Control
  • Unreality
  • Internal Focus
  • External Focus

While some of the behaviors under some of these coping mechanisms may deal with a character detaching from reality, some of the Behaviors are classic horror movie tropes that indicate that a character will dive into their work, snap at their coworkers, or recklessly pursue their goals. Whenever a Behavior hinders the mission, it serves as an XP trigger.

There are also moves that characters can purchase with advances that allow them access to supernatural power: Spell-Craft and Ritual. Characters can also purchase the Touch stat, which interacts with supernatural moves, and the supplement introduces Artifacts as a means of measuring supernatural resources, in much the same way that the base game uses Intel and Gear.

New Versions of Familiar Elements

In addition to the new game elements introduced, gear can now have the artifact tag, meaning that it’s a useful tool that can be used to power supernatural powers on the fly. In addition to this new tag, there is also a new playbook, the Antiquarian.

If you want a quick idea of what the Antiquarian is, think Lara Croft in a cyberpunk setting. The Antiquarian is the only playbook that starts with the Touch stat, from their years of researching ancient knowledge. One of the Antiquarian moves creates a History Clock, which starts a countdown to their discovery of an ancient, pervasive secret or conspiracy that spans the ages. My favorite part of that clock is that the Antiquarian gets to explain that deep, dark, ancient web of secrets to the group.

Momentous Find

What I really like about this supplement is that it introduces supernatural horror to the game, but in a manner that still plays like The Sprawl. Just like the Corporate clocks in the core game, filling up the Horror Clock doesn’t mean “let’s throw down,” it means “things have gone horribly wrong on this job and we have to run.” I love that Artifacts work in the same flexible way that Intel and Gear works. My favorite part of the supplement, however, is that the Coping Mechanisms and Behaviors allow a player to have agency in how their stress manifests, and is neither random, nor attempting to summarize real mental health issues with game mechanics.

Open Rift

The supplement, overall, comes together nicely, but I was a little worried that Miskatonic being invoked for one of the corporate names was a little on the nose, as well as multi-term Richard Nixon as the divergent point for alternate history. Your millage may vary, and once you get a chance to take in the whole picture, I think everything works well together.

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

The setting comes out of the gate hot with the setting information, but the mechanics included are both subtle and consistent with the previously established elements of the game. The Antiquarian adds a new option to the game that works with the new setting as established, and the general setting conceits allow for a broader range of jobs as PCs might have to raid a dig sight or a library as often as a laboratory or a corporate tower.

The product description for A Darkening Alley is going to be followed by Touched Prime, another product expanding The Sprawl into supernatural territory. This introduction into how the game will handle supernatural elements has me very interested to see how Touched Prime develops.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Triggering Optional Rules Using Inspiration--Using More of the Dungeon Master's Guide

I’ve kludged together a lot of thoughts about inspiration in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition in this post. I’m almost certain I’ve mentioned some of these in various places around the internet, so forgive me if a few of them are familiar. Hopefully, some of the new ideas are worth it if you’ve seen them before.

In addition to making the rules around inspiration a little more robust, I also wanted to rope in a few optional rules from the Dungeon Master’s Guide that I liked, but never seemed popular on their own. Most of these rules are just using optional DMG rules only when a player spends inspiration to make the optional rule “active.”

If you use this system for spending inspiration to power access to these optional rules, you may wish to limit the times when you award Inspiration to the triggers provided in the article, so spending Inspiration in this way is a meaningful choice, and to limit the amount of time player spend trying to gain Inspiration.

Inside My Head: Part of the idea of using the "missing by 1-2" range to trigger the awarding or use of Inspiration is to have an excuse to give context to the player character's actions, and to make them feel more competent while adding in their traits. For example, a character that fails by two, but explains how their flaw made them overconfident, for example, makes that die roll feel less random and more like the players's choices about their characters matter more.

Additionally, some players do not want to include random elements that might have negative effects towards their characters, but if you give them the option to include those elements at various points in the game, they may be more likely to enjoy those options in context. Awarding Inspiration for introducing these elements into the narrative is an attempt to bridge the gap between more randomness and a more controlled environment in the game.

Living Dangerously: Mixing Potions

If a character does not currently have Inspiration, if they drink a second potion while under the effects of a previous potion, and they accept a roll on the Potion Miscibility table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, they may gain a point of Inspiration.

Living Dangerously: Scroll Mishaps

If a character does not currently have inspiration, and they fail to cast a spell successfully from a scroll, they may accept a roll on the Scroll Mishap table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to gain Inspiration.

Marginal Success

Some of these rules are predicated on a margin of failure triggering an option. In this case, we are looking at rolls that fail by 1 or 2. Failing by 1-2 allows the following rules to trigger:
  • Explain your failure
  • Reverse your failure
If a character does not have Inspiration, they can explain why they failed the role by explaining how one of the character traits played into their failure. If this explanation is acceptable to everyone, the DM rewards them with Inspiration.

If the character does have inspiration, they may spend Inspiration to succeed on the roll instead of failing, if they can explain why one of their traits would drive them towards success, and the explanation is acceptable to everyone.

Critical Action

If a character is incapacitated, paralyzed, or stunned, and that character can make a save on their turn, if they fail that save, and they have Inspiration, they may spend Inspiration to end the condition. This means that when rolling saves against these effects, it's more effective to spend Inspiration after the failed save than to spend it when rolling the saving throw.

In addition, when rolling a death save, a character may spend Inspiration after a failed save to automatically succeed instead.

Inspired  Resting

If a character has five uninterrupted minutes and inspiration, they may spend their inspiration to take a short rest in that time.

Inspired Healing

Once per short or long rest, a character may spend their inspiration as an action on their turn to spend up to half of their hit dice to heal themselves. They may do this during a normal combat round.

Inspirational Injuries

Under certain circumstances, characters may choose to roll on the Lingering Injuries table to receive inspiration. The circumstances under which they may choose to receive a lingering injury is as follows:
  • When taking a critical hit
  • Dropping to 0 hit points without dying outright
  • When failing a death save

This puts the risk versus reward decision in the hands of the player. In some instances, having Inspiration available (such as for a final death save) will be worth the trade off for the potential severity of the injury.

Massive Damage

Whenever a character does 50% of a creature’s hit points with a single attack, from a single source (not just aggregate on their turn), the character may spend Inspiration to cause the creature to make a System Shock constitution save, as noted in the DMG. If the creature fails the save, they roll on the system shock table to see what happens.

Friday, January 25, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Call To Arms: The Warlord (OGL 5th edition)

The classes of Dungeons and Dragons work best when they emulate a strong archetype from fantasy. Even when someone doesn’t literally want to play Aragorn or Conan, knowing what characters helped to spawn aspects of the class features helps a player to visualize what kind of person they are playing, and how that character reacts to their world.

Every edition of D&D seems to pick up on archetypes that previous versions didn’t, and some of those new archetypes begin to feel like they have always belonged in the game. First edition introduced the barbarian. Second edition took the odd mixture of rules that was the bard and redefined it as the “little bit of everything” class it is today. Third edition introduced the warlock, which picked up a lot of traction in fourth edition and felt right at home with the other classes in fifth edition.

There was another class that (kind of) showed up in third edition, that gained some momentum in fourth edition, but failed to fully make the transition into fifth edition. The marshal class was introduced in the Miniatures Handbook and was based on granting other players greater combat ability while being a competent combatant on their own. This transitioned to the warlord in fourth edition, a martial leader that was all about boosting and reinvigorating their allies.

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this review—the ever talented Brandes Stoddard started writing a history of the class on Tribality. If you have never checked out any of Brandes’ histories of various classes, you really should give them a read.

Fifth edition gave a few minor “warlord-ish” abilities to the battle master fighter, but the battle master is a warlord in the same way the eldritch knight is a wizard. It has a few nods in that direction, but its main focus is being a fighter.

That’s a lot of preamble for this review, but today on the blog, we’re looking at the latest Max Press release from Robert Schwalb, Call To Arms: The Warlord.

Order of Battle

Call to Arms is a 10-page supplement, which includes a full-page ad and a full page OGL notice at the end of the supplement. It shares similar trade dress and formatting with other Max Press and Shadow of the Demon Lord products, with an artistic border, parchment backgrounds, and dark red headers and tables to call out and display the appropriate information.

It might be saying something that the bloodied elf warrior holding a decapitated head is kind of tame compared to some of the other artwork that has appeared in the Max Press supplements. If the aftermath of a decapitation isn’t your thing, the artwork may not work for you.

General Details

The entire supplement is the Max Press version of the warlord class for fifth edition. The class itself is a d10 hit dice class that grants proficiency in the whole gamut of armor, arms, and shields. The opening abilities of the class include Battlefield Commands and Commanding Presence. Battlefield Commands are similar to bardic inspiration, except the warlord can issue a die to one ally within a specific range for each point of their charisma bonus, and the die goes up as they level. Commanding Presence allows the warlord to give up their attack to grant an ally with a reaction an attack instead.

Right off the bat, I’m happy with the idea that you can affect multiple allies with the Battle Command die, and that commanding presence is limited by range but not a set number of uses. Even though Battlefield Commands is limited by short rests, all of this goes a long way at the start to establish that boosting allies isn’t a side gig, and the multiple allies affected helps bridge the gap between this and the full casting bard.

Later abilities gained include Inspiring Speech, which allows you to give allies bonus hit points during a short rest, Military Stratagems (your subclasses), extra attacks (so you are still a proper full combatant as you progress, and Battle Leader, which allows you to grant allies bonus damage based on your charisma bonus. 

You also eventually gain Call to Arms, which boosts initiative rolls, Rouse the Troops, which allows you to let your allies spend hit dice to recover without taking a short rest, and also allows the removal of fatigue, and Advantageous Action, which allows you to use the Help action as a bonus action, as well as adding a kicker to that help in the form of removing conditions, granting temporary hit points, or stabilizing a downed ally. Finally, your 20th level capstone ability allows characters within range of your Commanding Presence can roll two dice and take the best result and add your charisma modifier to saves.

That’s a lot going on before we even get to the Stratagems, but as a d10 combat class that gets an extra attack, we’re looking at a class that needs to be the equivalent of a fighter, ranger, or paladin in its abilities, and a lot of the class features that go into ranger and paladin rely on spell slots. Rouse the troops doesn’t come in until 10th level, but it could be situationally a big deal to allow for a 60-second “sort of” short rest that can also get rid of fatigue.

It’s interesting that the warlord allows for some minor initiative shenanigans, as there isn’t too much of that in fifth edition. Since the class has multiple ways of granting temporary hit points, it’s worth stating that temporary hit points don’t stack, so if you had the chance to get an Inspiring Speech boost, that 14th level kicker for Advantageous Action isn’t going to do you much good until you’ve gotten smacked around, unless you rolled really poorly for your temp hit points during your rest.

Major Details

The next section goes into the Military Stratagems, the subclasses for the warlord class. The Stratagems listed include the following:
  • Stratagem of the Daring Gambler
  • Stratagem of the Golden General
  • Stratagem of the Hordemaster
  • Stratagem of the Resourceful Leader
  • Stratagem of the Shrewd Commander

Five options is a pretty good set of subclasses, but let’s look at the differences. The abilities for the Daring Gambler grant allies the ability to take penalties or disadvantage for extra damage on attacks, no damage on half damage saves and allows them to risk themselves by granting an opportunity attack in exchange for the attacker granting your allies advantage on attacks against it.

The Golden General is about leading by example, so you grant allies advantage by attacking enemies yourself, you can take disadvantage on your saves to grant your allies advantage to the effect, and you can grant bonus hit points when you make saving throws at 15th level (see above for all of your temp hit point disclaimer needs). At 18th level, the Golden General allows characters to use their Battle Command die to heal.

The Hordemaster grants allies a bonus to their speed, and gains a bonus to their own speed when wearing light armor and not carrying a shield. You grant allies in range of Commanding Presence your charisma bonus to athletics and acrobatics checks. When opponents miss your allies, eventually you start enabling your allies to gain advantage on the would-be assailant. Eventually, it gets hard to make opportunity attacks on your allies, and you can grant your allies a 10-foot movement that spends their reaction.

Resourceful Leaders can spend Battlefield Command dice for their allies to reverse failed attack rolls, shift around command dice from one ally to another, gain a bonus equal to your proficiency bonus once per short rest on an attack, check, or save, and you can eventually roll a bonus die once per minute when failing a check. Resourceful leaders can, at 15th level, grant the ability to have an ally with a Battlefield Command die roll the die and subtract it from an attack roll against them. At 18th level, you gain the ability to restore the race or class features of an ally that renew with a short rest twice per long rest.

Shrewd Commanders can mark enemies and grant a bonus of half their charisma modifier against the marked target. They get several uses of advantage to use on ability checks per long rest. They also gain the ability to allow an ally to spend their Battlefield Command die to cause an opponent to roll with disadvantage. At 15th level your marking ability grants bonus damage as well, and at 18th level, Shrewd Commanders also allow allies to regain hit points with their Battlefield Command die, but only when dropping to 0 hit points.

Supreme Tacticians gain an additional die when they roll initiative. An ally can use the die on attack rolls, but if they leave it alone until your next turn, it moves up a die step, until it eventually becomes a d12. Supreme Tacticians gain proficiency in history and double their bonus when using the skill. At 11th level, when an ally rolls a granted Battlefield Command die, half the number rolled is added to their AC until the start of your next turn. At 15th level, you gain a second tactics die, and at 18th level, allies can reroll a 1 or 2 on their Battlefield Command die rolls.

Private Thoughts

I loved the marshal in 3rd edition, even though it was not a good class. The concept captured my imagination. Non-magical tactical support just felt like a great addition to the game. Many of the features of this class capture isolated elements of what made the class attractive in fourth edition gameplay. Additional movement, temporary hit points, faster than short rest recovery, extra attacks, and “thank goodness its not also called inspiration” Battlefield Command dice are all solid additions to the game.

Corporal Punishments

In general, Robert Schwalb has his fingerprints all over fifth edition, so the things he writes tend to “feel” right. There are still a few elements that don’t quite feel like they match established 5e norms in a few places. Having a class feature that renews every minute instead of a short rest feels a little off and granting half of an ability bonus to a roll feels like it’s really cutting the benefit thin, even with the “minimum +1” in place.

Daring Gamblers, Golden Generals, and Shrewd Commanders feel generally useful and varied, and the Hordemaster feels like it would be solid in a game where multiple party members benefit from mobility, but the Supreme Tactician feels a little thing outside of a campaign where Intelligence (History) checks are make or break gameplay.

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

Unless you are vehemently opposed to new classes in your D&D game, or really have no interest in martial characters, you aren’t likely to be unhappy with this purchase. Despite a few minor bits that I haven’t seen utilized in 5e before, much of the class feels right at home next to existing official classes, and if you ever liked the concept of the warlord, or really miss the class from fourth edition, this is what you’ve been waiting for.