Thursday, July 27, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Blades in the Dark

After hearing about Blades in the Dark for a long, long time, and have many, many people tell me that this would be my kind of game, I finally picked up the PDF a few weeks back. I read through it, took a ton of notes, and this review is the result of all of that.

It’s been a while since I threw this disclaimer up on the site, but I want to mention how hard it is to review a game versus a game supplement, to reiterate my review rating system, and what I think is important about reviews.

  • Games really are art—I’m not doing a review of the game as art
  •  My ratings are essentially the degree to which I’m comfortable recommending a product to be purchased by the types of gamers I know for use at the table
  • Regardless of any score given to a product, I think the most important thing in any review is to discuss enough about your thought process so that people think about their own preferences and desires when it comes to the kind of products being reviewed

Blades in the Dark has also been discussed and dissected by some of the most well-known and well regarded designers in the RPG industry. I’m a guy that lacks the discipline to do anything gaming related professionally and just wants to talk about games. Just off hand, if you want a much more relevant look at Blades in the Dark from people that know a lot more than me, I’d recommend Rob Donohue’s always excellent commentary on game design and some of the discussion done by the Misdirected Mark podcast, for starters.

The Shadowy Form
I’ve seen some lovely pictures of this book online, but for the purposes of this review, I only have the PDF to use for a reference. The book is 328 pages, with an Index, about 10 pages of Kickstarter backers, various maps, random charts, and chapter summaries.

The artwork is in bold black and white colors throughout. The artwork is very appropriate to the setting, and the formatting is attractive and easy to read. The game is about darkness and shades of grey, and that is totally what you are going to get in presentation as well as tone.

Chapter One: The Basics
The chapter starts with a quick overview of the kind of setting this is, i.e. a dark industrial fantasy setting where you are playing criminals trying to make a big score for your crew. It discusses the types of characters and crews, briefly, then goes into some inspirational media.

All of that like the ride up the incline at the beginning of a roller coaster. Then you hit the top, and all the core concepts of the game rush up at you as you plunge full speed into this chapter.

Every rule, on its own, is simple and easy to comprehend. The more concepts that are introduced, the more connections are mentioned between these individual rules. You very quickly get the feeling that while these rules are simple, none of them are really manipulated without touching multiple other systems in the game. The way some of the connections are mentioned are a bit daunting, because you aren’t sure if these are all things that the GM needs remember to track and assign as consequences, or if there is another structure to help keep them straight (spoilers—you can use some of those interactions as consequences, but there is a structure to reinforce them even if you aren’t doing that on your own, but you’ll see that in later chapters).

There are a lot of moving parts, but the very easy to understand basics that most of the other rules are predicated upon are the concept of rating (how many dice you roll for a thing), resolution (failure, partial success, success, critical success), stress (a resource you can burn to get more dice or mitigate short term harm, but with the risk of leaving a scene or taking long term trauma), clocks (creating an object with at least four pieces, which you fill in when events happen to simulate any number of things coming closer to completion in the game), position (how hard the roll is) and effect (how much work the action accomplishes if successful). In addition, you can accept a Devil’s Bargain, which is the ability to roll an extra dice for accepting that some additional complication that will happen once you take the action.

These are all simple ideas on their own, but there are times when the chapter starts to mention GMs setting position and determining effect and coming up with Devil’s Bargains and adding complications and clocks for a single given action. It makes sense if you slow down and break it into component parts, but the first few times you read a chain of multiple rules interacting with one another, it can feel a bit daunting. It’s like diagraming a sentence or writing a formula in Excel.

All the above can feel a little intimidating, but broken down, it’s not only manageable, but sounds like a lot of fun. Then, when you start to come up for air, the “crew game” rules start to get defined. The “crew game” (more on that later) refers to downtime, advancing the larger agenda of the gang, deciding if other factions like you or want to squash you, and figuring out if anybody you know or any of the PCs end up getting visited by the authorities.

This first chapter has a lot of information, and it’s not quite set up like a glossary. For all the information contained, it also doesn’t quite draw clearer connections between how some of these rules interact. I was mentally exhausted after reading this first chapter. I didn’t dislike it. There are a lot of exciting concepts and a lot of elegant solutions for resolving actions and representing the setting. The emphasis, however, is on “a lot.”

Chapter Two: Characters
Much like a Powered by the Apocalypse game (which may be related to this game, but which this game is not), the game has playbooks. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, essentially you have a sheet options, not unlike having a unique character sheet for each “character class” in another game, but with some focused decisions to make.

There are some example nationalities, names, and looks. Then there is a discussion on actions. In this game, you aren’t so much using skills, as applying a way to use your skills. The actions are attune, command, consort, finesse, hunt, prowl, skirmish, study, survey, sway, tinker, and wreck. The action you are attempting helps the GM determine your position and effect when making a roll. It might be hard to be successful with some actions, but impossible with others. For example, you might attack someone with hunt, skirmish, or even wreck, but it’s going to be hard to sway someone unconscious with your fist.

Character types are cutter, hound, leech, lurk, slide, spider, and whisper. These have some special abilities that make them better at some aspect of criminal work. Of special note—leeches can be doctors, but are also your “science” characters, while whispers are people that dabble with the supernatural.

Chapter Three: The Crew
The next section details the type of crew you have. You pick a playbook to describe the group’s usual work just like individual characters pick playbooks. The crew sheets provided are assassins, bravos, cults, hawkers, shadows, and smugglers. If you regularly move illegal material from one place to another for your scores, you are probably smugglers, but if you take jobs to sneak into guarded places to kill a target, you are probably assassins.

Each crew playbook can be advanced, just like characters, and they give bonuses and special abilities related to the theme. There is also a neighborhood diagram on the sheet, representing your claims. When you pick up more territory that you can call yours, you often pick up special perks, like lowering your heat after you pull a score when you claim a police station that is in your pocket, or getting extra coin during downtime when you claim a front business.

One thing that jumped out at me, and may just be a pet peeve of mine, is a hidden “negative rule” that comes up in reading through crew options. What I mean by a negative rule is a rule that you don’t know exists until you read an ability that negates that rule. In this case, it is mentioned that without quarters in your HQ, your characters stay away from their base of operations, and that leaves them exposed. Until you read what the quarters upgrade does, you have no idea that the PCs should be experiencing complications from sleeping away from HQ.

The crew playbooks also give you examples of how characters with that type of crew can earn XP, as well as how to advance the crew itself. Overall, I really like how the crew sheets focus play on a style of criminal activity, but it does start to introduce more complexity to the game than the initial chapters even hinted at.

Chapter Four: The Score
This chapter is all about how you do the criminal things you do, and how the rules interact with one another to see if you are successful in making money at your chosen profession. When you are about to start a score, the players pick from one of the approaches for how a job starts (assault, deception, stealth, occult, social, transport), and the GM asks a question based on the type of plan. Then the characters roll an engagement roll to see how tough the first opposition to the plan is, which can be modified by advantages and drawbacks, such as having knowledge of the place where the crime is taking place or the neighborhood having an aggressive patrol schedule from the authorities.

The structure of the score is there to minimize planning at the table. Your characters planned, but the players jump into the action. To help facilitate that the characters have been planning this score, however, they can call for flashbacks, where they can establish facts that were taken care of before the score started. The GM will then establishes a cost for that flashback.

If the PCs purchased something or called for a favor, the GM may just charge them coin or lower their cred to represent them calling in a marker. If they dropped something at the scene or scouted ahead of time, it may cost them stress, and they may have to resolve an action they did in the past. The key is that nothing that has already been established can be contradicted. If the GM has already mentioned a guard, that guard is there—but the PC may have met them in a bar the night before and paid them off, costing the PC some stress to track down the guard’s favorite pub and coin to make it worth the guard’s time to look the other way.

There are also different ways to utilize teamwork. You can just take stress to boost another character, roll to take harm for an ally, or perform an action that establishes that anyone else working on the action benefits from the groundwork you just laid. My favorite of these is the Lead a Group option, where one player coordinates all the others. Everyone rolls their dice pools, and the group takes the highest result, meaning you have a high likelihood of succeeding—however, the character coordinating the action takes stress for each failure that the group rolls.

There is an interesting example of play at the end that not only shows what a score looks like, but also analyses where judgement calls could be made by the GM and asks some questions that pertain to GM style.

Chapter Five:  Downtime
Going in to this chapter, I assumed that I was to be assigning consequences and tracking things like heat using complications and clocks on my own, without much guidance other than knowing these things existed in the game. I also thought downtime was a much more open ended aspect of play. As it turns out, all that stuff in chapter one that I knew was related, but I wasn’t quite sure how, has a regimented structure to resolve. However, it has a very regimented structure to resolve.

At this phase the PCs are determining payoff for their score, heat, potential entanglements from that heat and other repercussions, and downtime activities. PCs can only pick two downtime activities, but they can work on downtime projects like building things, recovering stress, healing from injuries, training, or reducing heat.

One thing that I noticed is that some entanglements let you “spend” contacts by letting them get pinched by the law or rival factions, but you lose whatever benefit they provide (including a bonus die on downtime actions involving their area of expertise). This section also introduces prison sentences, prison claims, incarceration rolls, and more complexity you didn’t see coming even back in chapter one. Again, all neat ideas, and individually simple to resolve, but interconnected and requiring even more resource management.

I will admit, this section relieved some of the mental tension I had from reading chapter one. I started seeing the shape of interactions better as I saw more structures for more aspects of play. I just wasn’t expecting some of the extra rules that appeared when drilling down into another aspect of the game--It looks like there is a score game, a crew game, and kind of a prison game too, depending on how things work out for the PCs.

Chapter Six: Playing the Game
This section gives a primer on playing more narrative based games, as well as going into more detail on the different action types. There are examples of challenges and how they might be resolved with more than one action, and what actions might be completely inappropriate for an attempt. There is also some player advice, which largely boils down to being a proactive character that takes risks to fit into the setting (although that advice feels like it’s partially true, but some degree of care is also called for in this style of criminal environment).

The chapter ends with a discussion of how the game naturally splits into the “score game” and the “crew game,” with the score game being about action in the moment, and the crew game being about managing assets, climbing the ladder, and dealing with consequences. This gave me some ideas on how I wish the game were divided and presented, but I’ll go into that later in the review.

Chapter Seven: Running the Game
If you have seen Powered by the Apocalypse games (which, again, this may have evolved from, but which this game is not), you have seen some of what this chapter contains. GM advice is framed in terms of goals, actions, principles, and best practices.

One of my favorite bits of advice in this section is to not make the PCs look incompetent if they fail. I’ve always been a big fan of this advice. I’ve seen too many GMs that harp on someone that, by all rights, is an expert at something, but who has had bad die rolls. The GM explains away their failure as flat out incompetence. If that’s how the player wants to frame it, that’s up to them, but the GM needs to keep in mind that even if bad things happen, these are skilled people taking risks, not talentless hacks hoping that luck will save them.

It feels a little weird that an essay bisects this chapter, talking about gothic storytelling and presenting science versus magic in a dark fantasy industrial setting. I don’t have a problem with it being in the chapter, just not sure why it’s in the middle of the chapter.

This section suggests a few extra questions when playing the game for the first time, but those questions only appear here. It might be nice to see those summarized on a “first session” sheet along with some of the other play aids. There is also a discussion of splitting the game into seasons, and changing focus on what factions are in play and creating a time gap between seasons. I really like these ideas, but for everything else that is formalized in this book, I wish this concept had been given a bit more formal space.

Chapter Eight: Strange Forces
Well, I’m glad we already saw most of the rules now that we’re done with scores and downtime. What’s in this chapter? Some neat stuff with its own set of rules. Oh.

Don’t let my intro fool you—I really like this chapter. If your character dies, there are a few supernatural playbooks that you can use to keep playing that character. You can become a ghost, and eventually if someone gets you a dead body to inhabit or builds you a mechanical body, you can become a vampire or a hull as well. These have some rules tweaks compared to living characters, but help to emphasize the supernatural side of the setting.

This section also talks about rituals, which are a special downtime action that is measured by area/scale, duration/range, and quality/force, and cost an amount of stress determined by adding all those things up (plus, anything special you may need to gather, based on what you want do to and what the GM determines the ritual needs as components).

The rules for building weird devices is also part of this chapter, and some examples are given. On the simple end of things, you can start a clock and add successes to that clock to make a weapon that can harm demons or ghosts. Or you could make a flamethrower. The GM determines how tricky the item will be, and what drawbacks it will have, and then the PCs can work to complete the item.

Chapter Nine: Changing the Game
This section broadly discusses hacking and modifying the game, and then gives some specific examples, some of which are taken from hacks already in existence in some form or another.
There are rules for making the setting even more gritty and punitive by making equipment and harm rules more difficult. There are rules for rolling for travel through hostile territory, such as one might do when your “score” is a dungeon delve in a traditional fantasy RPG setting, and rules for gambits, derived from a special pool that accrues extra bonus dice when the PCs score criticals, beyond just the normal effects of the critical result.

There are also “advanced moves” that are somewhat like the compendium class abilities of Dungeon World, that are highly thematic and deal with increasingly important underworld figures that have been doing what they do for long enough to be movers and shakers.

It’s an interesting chapter, and may even have some rules to borrow for moving difficulty sliders up or down or keeping things interesting for long term play, but if I were to save page count for some of what I wish were in the game, I may have pulled that space from this chapter.

Oh my goodness, do I love this section. I’m going to try not to go into too much detail, but I love how they describe the setting, and the tools they give you for using it in play. Lots of random charts for jobs the characters can get, people they might meet, or events going on in the city. Sample people, places and things. Specific Devil’s Bargains that are like default options based on various neighborhoods. Modifiers to things like heat or fortune rolls when they come up in certain circumstances in different places in the city.

This is a very good amalgam of setting information and rules to support that setting—once you get your brain wrapped around how those rules work to begin with.

Do not expect a happy place. The dead are locked out of the afterlife, the sun is dying, tentacled demon whales fuel industry, and radiation infused bugs and birds are needed to grow plants. Just don’t eat the radiation infused animals directly. Honestly, even if you aren’t using the game system, the setting is strong, and the random tables would be completely functional for other games.

Wherein I Give My Unsolicited Opinion on What I Would Have Done (Which Is Probably Not Practical)
It takes a very long time to see the shape of this game when reading through this book. The individual rules references are easy to understand. Any one rules interaction between multiple moving parts is easy to understand. The structure that a chain of events might take once multiple aspects are in play is not as obvious.

The book mentions the natural evolution of the “score game” and the “crew game,” as well as arranging the game into seasons with changing focus. I honestly wish there was more of a split between a “basic game,” that focuses more on the “score game” with less of the wider crew concepts, and an “advanced game,” which layers in the more complex interactions between things like crew advancement and tier.

While the text mentions that its fine to miss some of the rules and that no one is expected to master the rules the first time playing the game, it’s hard to see what rules have more “weight” in the game. In other words, when you are playing D&D, encumbrance may be important long term, but playing a story arc without it isn’t going to change much about the core experience. It’s harder to identify what you can deemphasize in this game, which is where a “Season One Basic Game” approach might have been nice.

The Big Score
The setting, and the tools to use that setting in play, are great. The dice pool evolution of apocalypse world style resolution, melded with a dash of Fate Accelerated, is a very fresh feeling way to utilize familiar elements. The playbooks and the crew books are very evocative and a great tool for determining what kind of game you are going to be playing. Rules like the engagement roll or leading an action are a great new way to approach story elements that other games resolve in less satisfying or elegant ways. Devil’s Bargains just feel like they would be a lot of fun to present.

Even with the many summaries and play aids that accompany the game, sometimes it feels difficult to follow a rules procedure from beginning to end. I can’t think of any individual ideas that are bad or that I don’t like, but it feels like somewhere in the game, one or two steps could have been lopped off to streamline a process or two. Sometimes it’s easier to picture the relationship between an outcome, position, and effect, then it is at other times, and more examples might have been helpful. Creating an expectation in one secluded part of the rules by creating a rule that eliminates a problem you didn’t know the PCs should be dealing with just makes the “upgrade” feel like it’s going to get ignored.

The Payout
I ended my read through excited about this game. I want to get it to the table. There are lots of good, exciting ideas that make me want to see how a game session would develop from these tools. That said, I know there are going to be people that like narrative games, even complex narrative games, that may not like the rigorous web of resolutions that trigger from some actions. I know some people that like to master rules that may still not like the open-ended interpretation of things like position, effect, and resolving a 4-5 result.

It feels as if, were this game to be a “near miss” for you, it’s going to be very frustrating. And by that, I mean that you may love the setting, but not all the rules. You may love the score, but not the crew game. And if one of those things is just a little bit off for you, how much you like the things you like might magnify the things you don’t like, because you want, desperately, this whole game to work for you.

I can’t say that everyone will love this game. Even for the innovative design, I can’t say that it will have the wide appeal that I would give something at the top end of my scale. Some people aren’t going to want 300+ pages of great ideas that don’t work for them. But for people that are really interested in innovative mechanics, evocative dark fantasy industrial settings, and get a rush from trying to wrap their brain around some new rules applications, the money is going to feel well spent.

**** (out of five)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Heart, Minds, and Polyhedral Amunition

 I saw an article posted recently about the "Satanic Panic" and the "War Against D&D." It wasn't a new article, but I've seen it and several like it floating around in the last few years. Many of these articles are written from the perspective of people that had their hobby curtailed in that time period, and the villain of the piece often tends to be fundamentalist Christians. Every time I see this characterization, I have a lot of thoughts, and instead of posting them in lots of places, here or there, I decided just to summarize them here.

The Real War

The borders of this "war" and its "sides" have always been poorly understood--the war never ended, its shifted fronts from heavy metal to D&D to video games, to hip hop, and back again.

It always seems to be forgotten in these discussions that it wasn't just televangelists like Pat Robertson decrying D&D. There were psychologists and law enforcement officials that also saw D&D as a growing menace, and there were television talk shows and news programs that gave all those groups threatened by D&D an almost unopposed voice.

People might question one source of authority when that authority demonizes something new and unknown, but when you have religious, medical, and legal institutions getting in on the act, suddenly it seems like a real threat.

However, just as important as realizing who had the microphone is realizing who the "troops" were in this fight. I'm in my 40s and a parent myself now. I hope I have not blindly jumped on any trends in a fit of over-protectiveness, but I think people are too hard on the parents that were acting in good faith.

Almost every parent I know lives in mortal fear that their child will suffer pain or may make terrible, life-altering decisions that we didn't see in time. Even if you are close with your children, the teenage years are those years where we naturally begin to pull away, to become our own person. Because of that, it's very easy for a parent to lose track of some aspect of their child's life.

So when a child does something like taking their own life, its is a natural reaction to be horrified and to feel guilty. And to continue to go forward, a parent that suffers those loses needs to have a purpose, and they may feel the need to exonerated of their complicity in the death of their child.

If you offer that person a external force to blame, that gives them something to work against, and something to take their guilt away from them.

Not every parent has the time and resources to research everything that interests their child, so if news programs are serving up "facts" for them in easily digestible segments, how much can you blame them for accepting that information? Let those of us without jumped upon conclusions cast the first stone.

If there is anyone close to an actual villain in this situation, it's the people that see something new and strange (to them) that they have no desire to find more information about, and yet are fully willing to state, as a fact, that new and different thing is, indeed, dangerous.

None of this is meant to imply that you shouldn't correct incorrect information. It does mean that the goal should probably be understanding, rather than "winning." Its also worth noting that that portraying this as a war that has been won is, in it self, a matter of skewed perspective. 

Ceasefire versus Armistice 

Because shows like Game of Thrones and movies like the Lord of the Rings have become popular, we equate that popularity with "winning" this war. For many, many people that were concerned about D&D, it wasn't just the subject matter that wrong, bad, and evil. It was actively participating in an activity with those topics that would "warp" the player. Remember that some of the people that hold this opinion can firmly hang onto their cognitive dissonance that they can watch porn, and that's perfectly normal, but someone that does those things in that video, in real life--those people have a moral issue.

I can personally attest to having run into people that think D&D died back in the 80s, and their "side" clearly "won." What does a fantasy movie have to do with that very specific, evil, Steam Tunnels and Suicide game? I mean, in that game, people actively participate in spellcasting, while dressed in costume, and rolling funny dice. What does that have to do with the pretty little blonde girl and her dragons?

Watch enough episodes of Forensic Files. Eventually you will find a story, produced in the last few years, where a police official equates participation in Dungeons and Dragons as an indication of potential dangerous mental instability. Bonus points if the person is shown to be interested in an RPG that isn't actually D&D, but they still bring up D&D.

The war never ended. There was no winner. The war is a battle of fear of the unknown versus information. The front shifts all the time.

War Stories

It's been a long time since my only real, notable contribution to this battle, and it goes back to my 7th grade Sunday School class. We were about to participate in a unit on the evils of roleplaying games. Several of the kids in class dabbled in D&D, but I was the one that actually volunteered to the teachers that I played.

I offered to run a game of D&D in front of the class to show just how harmless the hobby was. The teachers, to their credit, said they wanted to look at the books and materials involved in the game before they said it was alright. After I spoke up, one of the other kids in the class volunteered their brother's DMG, and I gave up my Expert set book for a week.

The next week, we were told that the teachers were a little concerned about some of the material, but none of it was much worse than what you might see in a horror movie at the time. I will admit, I'm glad we didn't volunteer the Monster Manual. 

In front of the class, I ran a game where we had a cleric, wizard, fighter, and thief. They ran into a giant crocodile and some lizard folk. No one carved eldritch symbols into their flesh, and I'm almost 100% certain no demons possessed anyone during the session.

While those teachers were doing Sunday school classes, they never had a unit on the evils of Dungeons and Dragons again. That said, when we had the unit on heavy metal music, I decided Vince Neil and company could defend themselves. I knew the wisdom of picking my battles.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting (5th Edition OGL)

I have so many RPG products to review in my backlog. So why not review something that just came out? That’s a good strategy, right?

In this case, after listening to the first 20 episodes of the Critical Role podcast, I was a little curious to see how the setting would look in a game product. Not only did I want to see how a media property like this would translate, I was curious about the fact that the setting has migrated across multiple game systems.

So, the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting jumps the list and gets reviewed next.

What This Product Isn’t
Because I’ve seen some discussion of this product online, and speculation on what is and isn’t included, I thought it might be worthwhile to set some expectations upfront. The following things are worth noting about the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting:

  • None of the custom classes or class archetypes that Matthew Mercer has released on the Dungeon Master’s Guild are found in this guide
  • There are no player character stats for the members of Vox Machina—in fact, most members of the team are only mentioned when they have a specific role in a government or organization detailed in the book
  • While the exploits of the adventuring party are mentioned in various places in the book, there is no specific timeline of Vox Machina’s adventures in this book

Artistic Enterprises
So, what does this book look like? Well, upfront, I’ll mention that this is all based on the PDF copy, which is the only thing available at the time I’m writing this review. If you have seen the Dragon Age RPG hardcover, you have a general idea of what the inside of this book looks like. Lots of splashes of red on parchment colored pages, with some nice formatting and fonts.

There are many full and half page pieces of art, including images from the setting’s history, moments from the adventures of Vox Machina, and large pieces of cartography. There are also some very nice looking holy symbols and sigils for various gods and factions in the setting, as well as a few NPCs and monsters.

As part of the formatting, there are various quotes and sidebars that appear as part of the book as well. The book looks really good, and comes in at 144 pages. Those pages include an OGL page and an index.

Chapter 1: Campaigns in Tal’Dorei
This section contains information on the history of the setting, the pantheon of gods in the setting, the races of Tal’Dorei, and the factions and societies of Tal’Dorei.

The history of the setting is workable, but it’s very easy to see a lot of the “points of light” default assumptions of 4th edition D&D on display. Additionally, the history feels a bit sparse, except for where it directly contributes to the backstory of the adventures of Vox Machina.

Anyone that has been around d20 fantasy gaming in the last decade is likely to pick out the pantheon of gods, which is a collection of 4th edition D&D divinities mixed with select members of the Golarion pantheon from the Pathfinder setting. In this case, those divinities have their proper names filed off, so that the gods are named for their titles and traits. I do think it’s worth noting the idea that aberrations are the dreams of the god known as the Chained Oblivion is pretty cool.

The races of the setting are fairly standard, and other than the Dragonborn, there aren't any mechanical notes on Tal’Dorei specific sub-races. While there aren’t a lot of surprises in this section, there are a few nice touches. Elves and dwarves have some of their more negative aspects played up, so while they are certainly recognizable, they don’t come across as paragons of what you might call the “goodly” races. Both elves and dwarves have aspects of ugly racism on display. Possibly my favorite twist in this section, however, is the subtle tweak to the drow.

The drow are, indeed, evil elves that live underground. They lost a war, and were exiled—but instead of being the “owners” of the Underdark, sneering at everyone while enjoying their depravity, the drow of Tal’Dorei became harder and more twisted because the Underdark is filled with crazy aberrations. The drow are dying out, and they die horribly. They either become harsh tyrants to survive, or they start to succumb to the insanity around them. Driders are drow that aren’t just big fans of their Spider Queen (yeah, she shows up without her full name in the pantheon), they are drow that decided “if you can’t beat them, join them,” and go full-on monster to help deal with the horrors of the Underdark.

My absolute favorite part of this chapter, however, are the factions. The organizations are listed with goals, relationships, and NPCs of note. There are a variety of organizations, including competing wide-scale criminal organizations, wizard schools, organized professional fighters, regional councils, monster hunters, entertainers, and cultists. These are large organizations with goals and people to interact with. Out of this whole chapter, this is the part of the setting that really caught my interest. There is a lot of mileage you can get from these organizations and their machinations.

Chapter 2: Gazetteer of Tal’Dorei
This chapter takes the reader on a tour of the various regions and nations of the setting. The best part of this chapter is the end of each entry. The final thing each region has is one or more suggested adventures that would trigger from that location. That is exactly the kind of thing I wish more campaign setting books would do. Show me the setting, but give me some hints on how I’m to use this at the table.

Tal’Dorei is only one continent in this world, so the final section of the gazetteer is a quick view of the surrounding lands. Oddly, most of the lands in Tal’Dorei are described almost entirely “in setting,”  but the Distant Regions all have real-world references to give the reader an idea of what a setting or culture might look like.

Chapter 3: Character Options
This section has information on class options, backgrounds, new feats, magic items, and optional campaign rules. Much of the information in this chapter is easily portable to any 5th edition campaign, although I’ve got some thoughts on that coming up.

There is a cleric domain and archetypes for sorcerers, barbarians, and monks. Blood, runes, and charging through your enemies is standard fare for a fantasy setting, but they are also solid additions to the game rules. The monk archetype, which has powers that let the monk learn information about an opponent and potentially debuff them, is an interesting twist.

The backgrounds deal with thieves’ guilds, wizard’s schools, druidic circles, and former cultists. Most of the setting-specific information is found in these backgrounds, and I really like that. Backgrounds are definitely a way to bring across the unique aspects of your setting. But while it may be nice to tie yourself to a specific criminal organization or wizard school of importance, I’m not as sold on the Fated background, which is actually a meta-background that you can give to someone that already has a background, and maybe you don’t tell them about it.

The next part of this chapter includes new feats. Most of these are utilitarian, and will do a good job of reinforcing a theme, but some are worth noting. Spelldriver and Dual Focused break the spellcasting rules of 5th edition, by allowing a caster to cast more than one spell a round or concentrate on more than one spell. Now, you might say “well, spending one feat to break the rules shouldn’t cause any problems, right?” You are wrong and you should feel bad. No, you shouldn’t, I take that back. However, consider this—what if you have a druid, a cleric, and a wizard in the group, and they all decide that it would be fun to concentrate on extra spells. That’s not one extra buff spell, that’s multiple potential extra buffs floating around your game. I like the Thrown Arms Master feat, but it seems odd that it mentions the weapon “boomeranging” back to the thrower. I can buy the over the top ricochet (I’ve read enough Captain America comics), but boomeranging hand axes seem a little over the top, especially from a non-magical feat. That's just a matter of description, however. 

The Vestiges of Divergence are an interesting set of magic items. Billed as weapons bestowed by the gods and/or used by heroes of legend, these are meant to be powerful magic items that level up over time. While a DM can decide to unlock them earlier, there are suggested levels at which the two extra stages of power become available to the PCs, after they take special actions related to the nature or mission of the item. For such legendary items, there isn’t a lot of history associated with these items, which doesn’t do much to build the setting’s story, but does make them fairly portable to other settings.

The final section details some optional rules that a DM might introduce into the game. My particular favorites are the quick short rest that adds a level of exhaustion, and the roleplaying assisted resurrection checks.

Chapter 4: Allies and Adversaries
This chapter starts with some backstory of where some of the monsters of the setting come from, and how they interact with the setting. After that, we get a section on NPCs and monsters native to the setting.

There are some nice tweaks to monster origins. Centaur origins are tied to both elves and orcs. The goblin races were tactically mutated by a god to serve specific purposes in his army. Cloud giants are ruled by married kings. My favorite monster tweak is to the fey, giving them an especially mutable nature.

In the stat blocks, we get some elemental druids, slag elementals, thieves’ guild members, cyclops spellcasters, goliath NPCs, dwarf paladins, alchemically assisted abnormally large orcs, and cultists.
The monster tweaks are interesting, and the stat blocks are all easily portable to be used in other games.

Critical Roll
There are some nice subverted tropes in the setting, such as undead creatures that steal unmarried males. Some of the monster backgrounds have some nice twists to them, while still being recognizable. The mechanical options are easily portable and fills some interesting thematic niches. The organizations allow for lots of political maneuvering. The regional suggested adventures reinforce the theme of the region and make them directly usable at the table.

Cocked Die
The history and pantheon sections have some obvious seams when it comes to the Pathfinder and 4th edition D&D inspirations. The tone of the material can sometimes vacillate a bit between over the top or slightly stilted. Areas of the setting that don’t play into Vox Machina’s backstory don’t seem quite as vibrant as those areas that have played into the main plot of the campaign.

How Do You Want To Do This?
The book is gorgeous, and there is a lot of portable material in the book, even if you aren’t interested in using the setting for your games. If you are coming into this setting “cold,” with no preferences, I’m not sure there is enough to give this setting the nod over more established settings like the Forgotten Realms or Kobold Press’ Midgard setting, and for long time gamers, seeing the obvious inclusion of “not quite” Golarion and “Points of Light” campaign aspects might lower overall enjoyment.

That said, who’s buying this thing cold? The book gives you a lot of context for the people and places featured in the campaign being played on the show. The show has brought a lot of new players to the game, so a gamer that is new to D&D and looking for a place to set their adventures is going to have a solid campaign setting that manages to avoid some of the more cringe-worthy tropes that are hard-wired into a decades-old game.

With all of that in mind, I don’t think a D&D 5th edition player is going to be upset with this purchase. Fans of the setting, especially ones with less exposure to other campaign settings, are likely to enjoy it a bit more, but either way, it’s a worthwhile buy with a few quirks.

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.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Getting on Board for Critical Role

For quite a while, I saw people discussing Critical Role, some D&D show on YouTube or Twitch, or some other place on the internet. I had been watching Wil Wheaton's Tabletop from time to time, so I knew it had something to do with this Geek and Sundry thing.

I had watched actual play videos, and listened to actual play podcasts in the past. Heck, eventually, I ran an actual play for Marvel Heroic through hangouts on YouTube. I understood the concept, and, especially when it came to games I hadn't seen played before, I liked to see what people were doing with the game system.

I had even watched a few of the "celebrity D&D" episodes with Vin Diesel and later Joe Manganeillo. They were amusing, but the impression I got was that the show was super overproduced, mainly to showcase Matthew Mercer's voice acting as he ran a game. Also, I have a really bad habit of growing more skeptical of content when the "awesome" to "constructive criticism" ratio gets too high. I mean, it helped me avoid Avatar for years, what could be wrong with listening to my skeptical guts? I'm also going to admit that the Force Grey episodes that Mercer ran at the launch of Storm King's Thunder didn't win me over, in large part because several cast members were very invested in over the top mugging for the camera, and it didn't feel like a game was being played, it felt like an improv act with dice. In retrospect, none of that really seemed to be Mercer's fault. 

Upon listening to other actual plays, I learned what I liked and what I didn't like. I like comedic one shot games, or story arcs, especially if that's the theme of the game being played. I don't tend to like more "serious" games being played for all out comedy, or relatively structured games that are played in an actual play with almost no reference to the rules. It's not that there is anything wrong with actual plays of that nature, it's just that my brain has developed a preference for "hearing the game" when a game is being played. No matter how good or entertaining, when I can't make out mechanics or a recognizable flow of a game, I start to get frustrated. That's totally a preference thing on my part.

I'll also admit that when I watch an actual play on YouTube, "watch" is a very loose term for what I do. I often have YouTube minimized while I'm doing other things, like prepping for a game or taking notes for a review. The exception to this is usually when I'm watching Tabletop (or Titansgrave) when they feature a roleplaying game, because the graphical presentation is set up to actually highlight the rules being used.

I was pleasantly surprised by some of the bits of the Stream of Annihilation that I watched. It seemed like there was less over the top comedic mugging, and more people playing different styles of D&D. Some may have been more comedic than others, but they seemed like they were gaming, and enjoying the game. In addition, this brought my attention to the anniversary of Critical Role.

In conjunction with the anniversary of Critical Role, the earlier episodes started to get converted to audio podcasts. I decided to check them out.

My earlier impressions had been way off. This wasn't an overproduced group of people that were just there so Matthew Mercer could do voice work. This was a group of friends that was having fun playing D&D. There was comedy, but not really all that much more than most games I have been involved with. They were using the rules to guide them to tell a collective story. That's actually what I'm looking for in an actual play, boiled down to base elements.

Now, I do think that some people may end up over-hyping the show. Matthew Mercer is an excellent voice actor, and it shows, and he is a good DM, but I don't think he's the platonic ideal of all game mastering.


  • Friends playing a recognizable game enthusiastically
  • Awesome vocal range from a crew of people that are trained for that kind of thing
  • A dedicated and talented GM

  • Wow, these are long episodes
  • With minimal editing comes stuff that almost of gamers do that isn't all that entertaining to others
  • From time to time, Mercer takes a bit more narrative control of the players when resolving things than I like 
All of that aside, I can see why the show has attracted a following. It's on my podcatcher list now, and every few weeks, when multiple episodes hit, I tend to move those long, long, episodes to the back end of my listening (where they tend to cut more into my audiobook time than my podcast time).

In fact, I was interested enough in the show that I ended up getting the PDF of the Tal'dorei Campaign Setting from Green Ronin. I'll get around to reviewing it eventually, but I was curious to see what they included, and how they framed some elements of the setting, given that it's cobbled together from bits of Pathfinder and previous editions of D&D.

As a gaming artifact to see how a home game transfers over to a professionally produced campaign setting, I'm interested to see how this product turned out.

If by some insane bit of random luck Matthew Mercer ever sees this--I am really sorry. You and your friends have a really good thing going on.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

D&D Beyond, Pricing, and a Glimpse at the Future

It looks like we now know what the pricing structure is going to look like for D&D Beyond. It's still relatively new information, and I can't claim to know all of the ins and outs. I'll be honest--the website, when I was using it, didn't seem bad, but it also didn't seem like it was providing anything I couldn't find elsewhere (such as the rules included with Roll 20). When I played with the character creator, it may have been a massive fail on my part, but I wasn't quite getting the hang of creating characters.

You might chalk that character creator thing up to me being an old man, but I spent years making characters on Hero Lab for Mutants and Masterminds and Pathfinder, so I'm used to a fairly complex set of features for a character creation program.

Still, it didn't look bad. It just looked a little limited while still in the test phase. Now, we have a roll out date, and some prices.

  • Digital Sourcebooks (such as Volo's Guide to Monsters or Xanathar's Guide to Everything): $29.99
  • Hardcover Adventure Content: $24.99
  • Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual (for a limited time): $19.99
  • Monthly Hero Tier Subscription: $2.99 (No ads, unlimited characters, can share custom content)
  • Monthly Master Tier Subscription: $5.99 (as above, but can share locked content with players in a campaign)
Several things spring to mind. These are just gut level reactions, not well reasoned or thought out analysis.

  • I really wish for an ongoing monthly subscription, that the "big three" rulebooks would have been included
  • The prices seem a little steeper than what some companies might charge for the PDFs, and this content is locked into a proprietary website/app setup
  • It didn't even occur to me that they were going to supplement free use of the site/tools with ads--this has me a little concerned at how invasive the ads will be
  • While this is a little steep compared to some company's PDF pricing, you could argue that the content being available in digital tools makes up for that, especially if you factor in paying for unlocking content, say, in Hero Lab for Pathfinder, as an example
  • That is a big, up front investment, however, even if you are just going Player's Handbook, DMG, Monster Manual, Sourcebooks, and one adventure--may not be as painful once established, but it's painful up front
  • The pricing model makes me worry about introducing new players into the hobby and keeping them in D&D, by itself (I know, it's not WOTC or Curse's job to introduce players to the wider world of RPGs)
  • It seems kind of strange that this seems to be directly competing, at least on some level, with both Fantasy Grounds and Roll 20 and their paid digital content--not having an integrated digital plan may be messy for D&D for a while 
Again, no deep analysis, just some initial, knee-jerk reactions to reading the most concrete details we have gotten on the pricing plan so far.

What Do I Know About Reviews? Kobold Guide Mega-Review (World Building, Magic, Combat, Plots and Campaigns)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering. In enjoyed it quite a bit, and didn’t regret the purchase, but gave it three stars. My logic was that while the book provided valuable, entertaining content, other GM advice books have come out that have a more unified approach with more actionable practices.

While I’ll definitely stand by that assessment, I enjoyed the book enough that I ended up, over the course of a few weeks (and a few strategically placed sales) to pick up several more of the Kobold Guides. Since I have digested these in a relatively short period of time, I’m going to do an experiement here on the blog. I’m going to do a mass review of several other books in the Kobold Guide line.

Kobold Family Traits

This review is covering the Kobold Guide to World Building, the Kobold Guide to Magic, the Kobold Guide to Combat, and the Kobold Guide to Plots and Campaigns. There are other books in the line, but some of the older books in the line have a different look to them.

These books all have attractive full color art on the cover, minimal black and white interior art, and clear internal formatting for each section and chapter. The books are digest sized soft cover offerings. They look nice and clean, and sit on a shelf well with some of the later Engine Publishing books, for example.

All of these books are available as PDFs or from various epublication sites. Unfortunately there aren’t any bundles that include both the PDF and the ebook version of the guide. Physical copies are also available (as of the time of writing this, I’ve only got the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering in physical form).

In addition to PDF, ebook, and physical, the Kobold Guide to World Building is available as an audiobook. This was a nice surprise, and I hope that the foray into audiobooks does well enough for Kobold Press that they release more of their books in this manner.

The Kobold Guide to World Building

This is a really big picture book. It addresses how to build a world from scratch, what your philosophy on building that world should be, and why you might not want to details some elements of the world. Some essays also touch on the needs of a fictional world versus the needs of a game world. There are also a few that address pantheons and religion.

Authors include Ken Scholes, Wolfgang Baur, Monte Cook, Chris Pramas, Keith Baker, Jeff Grubb, Jonathan Roberts, Michael A. Stackpole, Steve Winter, Dave “Zeb” Cook, Scott Hungerford, and Janna Silverstein.

While some game systems might have discussions on world building, there are a few essays that go in directions that I haven’t seen discussed in depth. Additionally, while the focus is on rolelaying games, there is some discussion on background settings for other product lines, such as minis games, video games, and novels as well. Its a broad treatment, and very entertaining.

There is less overlap on the topics covered than in some of the essays in the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering, and where there are similar topics (such as religion) the authors go in very different directions in what they cover. Don’t expect detailed recaps or summaries, or even rigorous procedures for creating a world, but there is a lot to like on a wide variety of topics.

**** (out of five)

The Kobold Guide to Magic

The Kobold Guide to Magic is a discussion on magic in roleplaying settings. It isn’t about any one setting or game system, so it’s a zoomed out discourse on how you might want magic to feel in a setting, what kind of impact it should have, and how much you want to quantify the rules of magic in your game. While I have seen discussions of magic in game settings in the past, I haven’t seen many books fully dedicated to the topic, and not married to one particular magical tone or theme. For example, the book, as a whole, doesn’t advocate for magic as technology, low magic, or high magic, but discusses all of those approaches.

Authors include Monte Cook, Jeff Grubb, Clinton J. Boomer, Amber E. Scott, Wolfgang Baur, Ken Scholes, Ed Greenwood, Willie Walsh, David Chart, James Jacobs, Colin McComb, Kenneth Hite, Aaron Rosenberg, John D. Rateliff, Thomas M. Reid, James Enge, F. Wesley Schneider, Martha Wells, Richard Pett, David “Zeb” Cook, Steve Winter, and Tim Pratt.

There are essays on gender based magic, culturally influenced magic, secret societies, and how magic use might be punished or constrained in a setting. Like all of the Kobold Guides, these are a series of essays, and while they all touch on the same topic, they aren’t coordinated, and generally don’t have a specific plan for implementation. That said, magic is a broad and interesting topic, and the authors assembled do a good job discussing it in a way that makes for lively reading. The advice is broad enough to be useful in many different game systems.

**** (out of five)

The Kobold Guide to Combat

Like the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering, this book is divided up into smaller topics, under the main topic of combat in roleplaying games. Those sub-categories are The Big Picture, Environments, Arm Yourself!, The Right Character for the Job, and One More Thing. Under those categories, we get essays on why combat is prevalent in storytelling, how to make combat more interesting by describing elements like weather and terrain, discussions on weapons and equipment in combat, and the roles that specialized characters play in a combat situation.

Authors include Janna Silverstein, Jeff Grubb, Chris Pramas, Steve Winter, Diana Pharoah Francis, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Wolfgang Baur, Rory Miller, Ed Greenwood, Colin McComb, Steven Robert, Richard Pett, Aaron Rosenberg, Miranda Horner, Mario Podeschi, John A. Pitts, Ken Scholes, Carlos Ovalle, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Rob Heinsoo, and Clinton J. Boomer.

I definitely enjoyed this volume. None of the essays were fell flat, but combat, tactics, and battlefield details are definitely topics that have been touched on in other sources in the past. A few of the essays veer a bit more into discussing mechanics of specific games than in the other Kobold Guides, specifically some digressions into Pathfinder and 13th Age mechanics. It’s probably unavoidable when essays go into tactics, but there is a bit more discussion of mechanizing more aspects of the game to reflect certain kinds of combat situations.

One essays that especially stood out to me was Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s discussion of healers in combat and the mindset of people that have to heal in the face of warfare.

*** (out of five)

The Kobold Guide to Plots and Campaigns

This book is about designing campaigns, story arcs, and ongoing game elements. Much like the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering, this one has a bit more of an uphill battle, since this topic has been touched upon by a lot of books, articles, and podcasts over the years. Topics in this book include creating unified themes in a campaign, using published adventures, running evil campaigns, giving weight to action scenes, designing NPCs and villains, complex plots, story hooks, letting go of expectations as a GM, creating generational stories, and using cliffhangers.

Authors include James Jacobs, Jeff Grubb, Wolfgang Baur, Robert J. Schwalb, Steve Winter, Clinton J. Boomer, Kevin Kulp, Margaret Weis, Ree Soebee, Richard Pett, Ben McFarland, Steve Winter, Zeb Cook, and Amber E. Scott.

This is an enjoyable book to read. All of the essays are engaging, and none of them are boring. As mentioned at the top of this mini-review, however, very little of this is brand new material that hasn’t been discussed a lot in the past. Reading all of these in a relatively short period of time shows some overlap of ideas and suggestions between this book and the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering and even the Kobold Guide to Combat. Reading good advice that is well written is never a bad thing, but if it’s similar to what you have read before, it does make it less of a “must have” on the list of gaming products to buy and consume.

One particular stand out in all of this was Zeb Cook’s article, and follow up adventure. The article discusses creating a very loose structure for an adventure, and filling in details based on some questions asked of the players. The final essay took what Cook detailed in the previous essay and showed what that adventure would look like. I loved this, and I wish a few more of the articles had a more methodical follow up showing the practices outlined in the previous article. A few more of these “example” essays to build on the previous advice, and I would have easily bumped this up in my ratings.

*** (out of five)

The Big Kobold in the Room

I am old. I had a subscription to Dragon Magazine from almost the time I started playing my first session of D&D. My favorite articles were often the “philosophical” discussions of running a game, rather than specific mechanical articles.

This has a number of effects on me. I remember a lot of content similar to what is in the Kobold Guides, and that may jade my opinion on what is “new” or not. On the other hand, it certainly draws me to buy and read more content that is in line with that material from the past.

The Dragon Magazine articles of this nature were not nearly as consistent in quality or engagement as the Kobold Guides. I may flounder a bit on whether I think an individual volume is “good” or “very good,” but the line, as a whole, is the kind of thing I want to see continue for a long time into the future. Ironically, the longer the line continues, the more it will probably cover ground I’ve seen covered in the past.

I’m saying most of this as a general warning about my bias. I can’t read any GMing advice as someone new to the hobby. My perspective is hard-wired into me, no matter how much I try to remove myself from my limited perspective.

The overall quality of this line can’t really be questioned. My opinions just show what order I would prioritize picking them up and consuming them, when measured against one another, and other game philosophy/advice material out there.