Saturday, September 15, 2018

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

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

Modifications—Determine Duty (Age of Rebellion page 46)


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

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

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

Duty and Distinction


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

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

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

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

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

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

Distinction Rewards


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


Triggering Duty


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

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

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

What is a Mission


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

To count as a mission, the following must happen:

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

An example of this in play might look like this—

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

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

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

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

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

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


Failed Missions


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

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





Wednesday, September 12, 2018

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

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

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

What’s the Craic of It?

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

Introduction

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

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

The Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

The Path to Glory

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

A Giant, Crushing Weight

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

Qualified Recommendation--A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
If you aren’t looking for an adventure with Celtic or Fey themes, some of the nuance may be lost on you, but this adventure does provide a focused experience that cuts right to the chase, although you may want to tinker with damage ranges or a few minor story details before you use it.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

Geography of the City (Book)

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

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

What is Zobeck and A History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Kobold Ghetto

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

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

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

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

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

Districts and Locations

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

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

Guilds, Gangs, & Guardians

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

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

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


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

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

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

Gods, Cults, & Relics of Zobeck

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

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

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

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

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

Denizens of Zobeck

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

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


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

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

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

Magic of Zobeck

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

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

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

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

Heroes of Zobeck

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

Backgrounds include:

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


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

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

Mounts detailed in this section include:

  • Clockwork Warhorse
  • Giant Fey Owl
  • War Wyvern


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

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

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

Leveraged Deal

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

Fey Bargain

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

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

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

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



Monday, August 20, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews? Sharn, the Missing Schema (Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, Dungeon Masters Guild Adventure)

Eberron is busting out all over on the D&D landscape. Back when the setting first came out, I loved the look of it, but couldn’t keep up with the releases, as I was trying to support both my Forgotten Realms habit and my Star Wars d20 habit at the same time. I was always interested, but never quite started to explore.

I watched a few sessions of my friend running a 4th edition Eberron campaign, but at the time I couldn’t commit to playing. Watching that game did help me to reevaluate that my initial impression that Eberron was “Steampunk D&D” may have been off.

Eberron is more complicated than that. It’s got layers. Like an onion. Made from mechanical bits, with some elemental shards and runes on them. In the rain. On dark city streets. While that onion is being stolen by a rival archaeologist that may be attempting to use it to open an ancient tomb on a lost continent.

Today on the blog, we’re going to look at a Dungeon Masters Guild offering from Elven Tower. Full disclosure, I was sent a review copy of this adventure. With that disclaimer in place, let’s look at Sharn, The Missing Schema.

What’s In the Package?

The purchase consists of a black and white printer friendly version of the adventure, a full color version of the PDF, and a separate file of maps and props. The maps and props consist of DM and player versions of some maps, a few encounter locations set up for online play, and various written handouts that can be used in play.

In the standard version of the adventure, the Eberron art assets are used throughout, and they look nice. There is very clear and attractive formatting in the adventure, and the pages have the same style of faded background images that appeared in the original Eberron books. In addition to the art assets and the formatting, there are various original maps of various encounter locations.

If you haven’t seen the Elven Tower website, you can see examples of the style of cartography used in the book. It is colorful, clear, and on par with any offerings you might see from larger RPG companies.

Introduction

This section explains what kind of party is expected for this adventure, gives some suggestions about adjusting the adventure for groups that deviate from this expectation, and talks about how to build a new party with connections to one another and the adventure from the start. It also mentions optional rules from the DMG that might be appropriate and presents the adventure format.

I am happy to see a discussion of building a party that fits the opening adventure of the campaign. At the beginning of the campaign, you have the best opportunity to make sure everyone has the same expectations, and I really like that there is some discussion, up front, about what kind of connections and backgrounds will make this adventure a more natural fit for the players.

The discussion of warforged and gender feels a little awkward. Specifically pointing out that the pronoun “they” is something specific to warforged, and that “they” is often used in a derogatory manner feels a little off in modern parlance.

Adventure Primer

The next section of the adventure presents the overview of the adventure, some hooks for the PCs to engage with to start the adventure, and a list of important NPCs. I’m always a fan of summaries like this, because it can help a DM to go back and make sure they understand the reasons for why an adventure is progressing in a certain way, and to summarize what NPCs are going to be important touchstones. I also like that, in addition to coming up with party backgrounds in the previous section, that will fit this adventure’s assumptions, the hooks further develop these connections to the overall plot.

Part 1. The Bounty

The opening of this adventure is all about getting the PCs hired by a professor to do some digging in Sharn’s Cogs districts for a lost laboratory. Depending on the hook utilized from the previous section, the PCs will be starting in different parts of the city.

There are different example knowledge checks to hand out information on Sharn’s history and their employer’s reputation. These are divided up between things that everyone should know, and then additional bits of information depending on the actual score of the knowledge check.

I like how these are laid out. I also like that the information between tiers and distinct. I’ve seen some adventures that feel like they are saying almost the same thing in some of the intermediate levels, as if they want there to be more granularity on checks but are still being evasive on what information to give away. The information presented here is very clear and distinct between the DCs and what information they provide.

The boxed text is good for an introductory adventure. It doesn’t get too flowery, but it does establish a lot of setting information and background information for this adventure. That said, it does run a bit long in a few places, and it’s a prime example of why I wish that any kind of boxed text like this also had a summary set of bullet points of what needs to be communicated to the PCs. This allows the DM to paraphrase what they want, and makes it a little easier for the PCs to interject between bullet points.

There are also some sidebars about Sharn in general and roleplaying the NPC employer and his associate. The information on playing the NPCs is broad enough to be quickly summarized but gives some useful information on portraying them by revealing some motivations and drives that may not come up in casual conversation but might color some interactions.

Part 2. Sharn’s Foundations

Once the adventurers take the job, the story cuts quickly to the actual adventure location, and does so deliberately, as an example of how pulp adventures are paced. In the undercity, the PCs run into a duplicitous guide luring them into a trap, find another adventurer sent to do the same they that they, themselves were hired to do, and they get to fight some constructs of various types left in the lost lab containing the schema they have been sent to retrieve.

There are some interesting roleplaying bits in here as well, dealing with the duplicitous guide and the other adventurer. I also like that the schema’s potential importance, both practically and for what it means to the setting, is obvious even to someone new to the setting.

There are several sidebars on history and adjusting the encounter for more powerful adventurers that might be playing through the adventure.

Part 3. Flying Chase

The party delivers their package to their employer, villains show up and steal it, and if they want to keep the package out of the hands of the bad guys, they end up chasing them through the Sharn skyscape, until they catch up with them at a warehouse to start the next section of the adventure.

The rest of the adventure is set up to specifically introduce aspects of Eberron, Sharn, and neo-noir pulp fantasy genre tropes to a new group. A chase through Sharn is along these lines, but unlike most of the rest of the adventure, there isn’t as much guidance given on exactly how to run the chase.

It is stated that the PCs won’t catch the Emerald Claw agents. If they lose them, they have ways of finding out where they went. There are a few suggested occurrences, but statistically, you know how many bad guys there are and how much damage they can dish out, and that you can’t catch them before the warehouse.

I think this section might have been stronger with a round by round series of events happening, with at least one PC needed to address the consequences of various “busy” elements of Sharn’s skies, to avoid consequence. Doing that and having a set number of rounds to play out (perhaps 3 to 5) would have provided just a little more guidance on how to make this encounter pop a bit more, without the frustration of the PCs just not be allowed to catch the bad guys based on plot.

I am also a little surprised that there isn’t a similar set of knowledge checks about the Emerald Claw in this section. Given the pulp-noir sensibilities of the setting, “villain” can be a relative term, it can be really easy for the PCs to think, “well, they may not be any worse than our boss, and we got paid.”

That brings me to one more thing about this section of the adventure—I see a lot of adventures do this at some point, and it always perplexes me. The adventure specifically states that the professor won’t offer anything else to the PCs, so they must go after the villains because this is the moment where they decide they are heroes.

I completely understand that players should be looking to engage with the plot and they should also want to be action heroes in a setting like Eberron. That said, nothing about Eberron says they should be altruistic. There are a lot of players I have had at my tables in the past that want payment in a situation like this, not because they want X more to buy Y, but because even a token amount will let them satisfy their “mercenary but prone to make bad decisions” aspect of their character.

Part 4. The Warehouse

The PCs arrive at the warehouse to confront the agents that stole the schema. There are some guards, a few places filled with random treasures, and the leader of the Emerald Claw agents. The PCs can either let him go, join up with the Emerald Claw, or throw down to get the schema back for the professor.

I like that there isn’t a set amount of treasure in very specific places in the warehouse, but rather, the PCs can make a few checks, and after a certain number of checks, they just aren’t going to find anything else that is immediately valuable. I’ve handled treasure this way myself a few times, and I like the flexibility of the approach.

I also like that the Emerald Claw boss is a true pulp villain. He’s not going to attack the PCs based on ideology. He’s going to try and reason his way out, make them an offer, and only then resort to violence. I even like the “end game” that is detailed for him if he is defeated, which evokes a pulp crime vibe.

Like the other sections of the adventure, there are a few sidebars on how to scale the adventure for more powerful adventurers, as well as one on how to use the schema to get the PCs out of a jam if things go south for them.

Adventure Conclusion

This section details what happens if the assumed course of events from the adventure play out. I like the potential progression for the Emerald Claw villain. There is a little bit of a hint about what the next part of the adventure series will be, provided by the professor.

There is a resource that the PCs may pick up from the warehouse that marks them as enemies of the Emerald Claw, which could be a fun long-term development.

Appendix I NPC’s and Creatures

All the stat blocks for the various creatures and NPCs are provided in this section. Most of them are broad enough that they could be useful for future use and use outside of this adventure, since the stat blocks detail shifter gang members, Emerald Claw agents, ancient constructs, sewer beasts, and a warforged mercenary.

Appendix II Maps and Appendix III Props

This section summarizes the maps and handouts that also appear in a separate file when you purchase this adventure from the Dungeon Masters Guild. The maps are great, and even outside of this adventure, it may be nice to have the overhead and sideview maps of Sharn available for players who are adventuring in that location.

Appendix IV Magic Items

This is a collection of magic items introduced in this adventure. Two in particular strike me as conveying the tone of the setting, as they are magic items employed for mundane but useful effect, in the pervasive manner that is a hallmark of Eberron.

Raiders of the Lost Campaign Setting

This is a very solid introduction to Eberron. Sharn won’t be confused for any other fantasy city, and the process of getting the job and doing the thing might be familiar, but the trappings that are carefully added on to the adventure reinforce the special genre tropes that are native to Eberron. In addition to the introductory elements being strong, the maps clearly and attractively lay out what the city looks like to new players.

Adventures of the Crystal Skull

The details of the Emerald Claw could be better integrated, the chase sequence could have a little more structure, and bullet points make any long stretch of boxed text better. While I don’t think the intent was to be harmful, the discussion of the pronoun they and warforged might not come across well.

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.

This will be a solid adventure to pick up if you have a group of players new to Eberron. It does a great job introducing concepts from the setting and reinforcing genre tropes at play. You may want to spice up a few places and summarize your own bullet points from the text boxes, especially if you aren’t running this for newcomers, and it may be worth your time to do some homework on the Emerald Claw and determine how much information you want to feed your players about them.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews? Game Master's Toolbox Treasure Decks (5e OGL)

My most recent D&D related acquisition was purchased because I’m kind of lazy, and because I like gadgets. Nord Games (the same team that produced the Critical Hit, Failure, and Luck cards I previously reviewed) also have Game Master's Tool Box Treasure Decks. These decks are divided by CR, with a separate deck for CR 1-4, CR 5-8, CR 9-12, CR 13-16, and CR 17-20.

Yes, you can roll on the treasure charts in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and that’s fun. But sometimes you don’t want to reference separate charts when it comes to your coins, valuable items, and magic--but you don’t want to just reduce all of your treasure to a flat gold piece amount.

The Treasure Decks address this issue, by having several pre-generated treasures on each card, but with each treasure fully fleshed out. Rolling a d12, you get a result on the card that indicates a treasure that might have various coins, valuable items, and magic described on the cards.

Treasure Type D


The decks are attractive and the cards feel solid, just like the other Nord Games products Iooked at in the past. The face of the cards is a simple parchment color, with a chart that has various entries corresponding to a d12 roll. The back of the card has nice, professional art depicting some kind of treasure hoard, and each tier of treasure has a different card back.

Items of Note


I didn’t read through each card in every deck. I did take multiple samples from each tier of treasure presented and read through the available treasures. Some are more straightforward than others (X number of gold pieces, X number of silver), but there is some nice evocative text for some of the more exotic treasure. (Add in data about how many cards/how many treasures per card/total number of treasures per deck)

When magic weapons or armor appear, there is a description of what the item looks like. Some magic items are listed with minor quirks. My favorite is the magic scroll that will naturally crawl away from people of a certain alignment as if it were alive and slinking away from that character.

The quirks that I saw were interesting enough to be evocative, without drastically altering the usefulness of the item. For someone that just wanted a quick way to generate treasure, the descriptions are a definite bonus.

The decks also contain a card that explains how to utilize the decks. The suggested method of utilization says that the players can draw a card and then roll, or the GM can draw the card and determine the treasure on their own. Additionally, the suggested means of generating a hoard is for the player or the GM to draw and roll on an additional card until they finally roll a 12.

I was curious to double check the guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for treasure after reading this. According to the DMG, creatures known for hoarding treasure should get “at least” two rolls on the standard treasure by CR table. While “rolling until you get a 12” may produce a sizable hoard, there isn’t really a hard and fast rule being strained by this method, and it would be easy enough to set your own comfort level for how many cards to utilize.

Side Note: How Well Do We Know our DMG?

It seems like every day, there is something that comes up that is covered in the DMG that I didn’t know as covered. In this case, in looking up expected treasure, I noticed that the Dungeon Master’s Guide actually gives a recommendation on how much adventurers should get paid when they get hired for a job--a randomly treasure equal to the CR of the average party level.


Blue Loot Drop

The cards look great, and they have huge number of potential treasure on them, so it’s unlikely that the cards will lose their utility unless you hand out a phenomenal amount of treasure. The details make the treasure evocative without adding too much detail. The formal preserves random generation but cuts out referencing multiple tables.

Grey Loot Drop


My biggest complaint with these cards is that the only way you can tell what tier of card is indicated is by looking at the back of the cards. The other cards, such as the critical hit and failure cards, have an indicator in the upper corner referencing any level based recommendations, but the cards only have the random treasures listed on them.

In order to keep in mind what tier of treasure the deck generates, you either have to memorize the what image goes to what deck, or you need to keep your cards in their original boxes when not in use, which eliminates the ability to sleeve them. To their credit, the different card backs have some clues that the treasure in the deck is a little bit more epic with what is depicted in the pictures, but it’s still not the fastest way to process something that is designed for ease of use.

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.

Overall, if you are running a game of Dungeons and Dragons and are likely to use randomized treasure at any point in time, these cards are going to be useful. Additionally, because they are divided by tier, you can always pick up the ones relevant to your game and get the rest later on.

As long as you don’t mind memorizing the images, keeping them in their original boxes, or coming up with your own system for keeping them organized, these cards should be a good addition to your collection.

BSing About Campaign Settings


As often happens, my favorite podcasts cause me to think of a lot of words, and it makes more sense for me to post here, on the blog, than it does for me to clog the arteries of their communities with my commentary. In this case, were going to be looking at Gaming and BS’s show on campaign settings, which you can find here:

Gaming and BS #203: Campaign Settings



Dragonlance Adventures, Brett, and Dragonlance Inspirations

Brett mentioned that one of the campaign setting books that disappointed him when he purchased it in his youth was the Dragonlance Adventures hardcover for AD&D 1st edition. He further mentioned that he was a fan of the setting from the novels, but the hardcover didn’t do much for him.

I remember having a lot of fun running Dragonlance when I was younger, but I also remember picking up a lot more relevant setting information from both Leaves from the Inn of Last Home and the Dragonlance Atlas. The Dragonlance Adventures book had stats for what some of the races and classes looked like, but not nearly as much information on running campaigns outside of the War of the Lance, or details on locations or events that weren’t already touched on in the novels themselves. It was very much a book that defined what you saw in the novels in game terms, rather than opening the world beyond the initial information that a reader would already have.

I latch on to this both because of the supplementary material I picked up, and because Margaret Weis Productions did an amazing job making up for this lack of detail. Both the War of the Lance supplement and the Time of the Twins sourcebooks at a great deal of information that fleshed out regions and even time periods only mentioned briefly in the novels. The Time of the Twins supplement was a favorite of mine, for detailing several alternate history campaigns that could be utilized.

I’d also be remiss if I failed to mention the Time of the Dragon boxed set and Taladas. TSR didn’t seem to know what they wanted to do with Dragonlance for a while, but Taladas was a setting that could have been an amazing product line with more support. Detailing the continent on the other side of the world from Ansalon, Taladas was 100% designed to be adventured in, and could give the feeling of “familiar, but different” that a lot of people who were fans of the setting might have wanted in a campaign supplement. “Roman” minotaurs, a nation that supplemented their military with zombies, dragons of both families that ignored the call to war, gnomes that sail on lava, and desert nomads that sailed on sand all provided plenty of interesting space to adventure, but TSR quickly pivoted back to Ansalon and a narrow focus.

Me, Loving the Realms

Speaking of campaign settings I loved in my youth--I never fell for Greyhawk or Mystara (when it was still the Known World). I though both were great when you needed proper names for cities or didn’t want to think about geography, and I ripped Karameikos out of the Known World to plop into my own world when I started running games. But I fell for the Realms when I first started reading about it.

The key point here, though, is that it’s not the raw elements of the Realms that made me love it. The Old Grey Boxed Set has entries in it which are capped off with Elminster’s comments on those entries. Sometimes he mentions that the entry may be wrong, or there may be more to the entry than anyone realizes. There were details like adventuring company charters and the census of Shadowdale at the time of the last Zhent invasion.

Waterdeep and the North continued to throw tidbits of information that may or may not be true but was certainly information that someone in the setting would know, and think was true. More of Elminster’s wit followed. Then, the Savage Frontier came out. I loved that book, not just because I have an unreasonable attraction to settings that have a frozen north. The Savage Frontier had its own unreliable narrator providing commentary on the information presented in the book. It wasn’t just Elminster that could be a sarcastic commentator on the setting, but the setting was filled with unique individuals with their own spin on what was and wasn’t important. I loved it.

I’ll also say that, when it comes to supplementary material, Jeff Grubb’s Forgotten Realms novels, as well as the DC comic that he wrote, are some of my favorite fiction to ever come out of the setting. Both the novels and the comic seem to convey the same spirit that was in evidence in the boxed set and the early supplements.

There was also something at play in the setting that I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on until much later. Superficially, Conan and Fafhrd and Mouser seem like they cover very similar ground, but Fafhrd and Mouser have a certain sense of humor about them. They don’t have the seriousness around them that Conan often has. Conan was often driven, but Fafhrd and Mouser are often motivated as much by whimsy as by determination. It would take me years to really put my finger on it, but the Realms reminded me much more of Fafhrd and Mouser than Conan, and I’ve always felt more at home with them than with the Cimmerian (I’ve still got a soft spot for Conan stories, don’t get me wrong).

I was disappointed in a lot of Realms material over the years. The Horde boxed set felt too much like “we cut and pasted this history book about Mongolia into this product, and change some proper names, and there are a few magic things and monsters at the edges of the map.” A lot of good authors still seemed to make the mistake of seeing what was magical about the Realms and missing it just by a little. For example, the Realms has a lot of quaint, non-rules oriented details floating around, but some authors mistook the presentation of those details through NPCs with lots of personality, with the details themselves being the important part.

In 2nd edition AD&D, my favorite products were always the Volo’s Guides, both because they often provided more “mundane” details, and because Volo was very clearly a personality with his own quirks and oddities, and, even better, his notes got edited and commented on by Elminster.

Because I had taken a multi-year break from D&D before I jumped back on close to the dawn of 3.5, I didn’t quite realize that the 3rd edition Realms wasn’t working that well for me. The continual presentation of Realms Shaking Events were driving a lot of the whimsical side of the Realms to the edges, and there were too damn many stats. It could be entirely anecdotal, but I don’t remember nearly as many people complaining that Elminster should solve their problems when his stat block was, in total: Elminster, human male wizard 26, CG. Once he had hit points, level appropriate magic items, and a set loadout of spells, suddenly that became a measure of what Elminster should be doing in the world on a day to day basis, instead of being a crotchety, half-crazy old man who had long ago retired from adventuring.

I don’t think the modern D&D products set in the Realms do the best job of utilizing what is unique to the setting, but in a lot of ways, I do think they at least understand and respect some of the quirks the setting has more than 3rd edition products did.

On Star Wars, Canon, and the Size of a Galaxy

First and foremost, I think it goes unsaid way too often in RPG circles how amazing West End Games work on the Star Wars setting was. George was one guy doing a set of three movies. He didn’t need setting bibles or details on anything that he didn’t want to detail in the movies. He could come up with all kinds of evocative phrases that didn’t need to mean anything, because they were only there to provide the illusion of depth.


West End Games took notes from Lucasfilm, and a billion random references, and stitched together a coherent wider galaxy from those threads. Not only did they do all of that, but their work fed back into work being done at Lucasfilm, so that the connective tissue that an RPG company did to make a setting playable helped shaped the direction of a multi-billion-dollar property.

Other properties have had a leg up on providing RPG settings. Tolkien’s way of writing meant he just couldn’t tell stories in the present of his setting without him creating copious notes on past eras and distant lands. Properties like Star Trek had multiple screenwriters present from the beginning, necessitating series bibles so that the various writers could get on the same page with their stories from the start. Star Wars lived in George’s head. Reading about the development of ESB in Star Wars The Annotated Scripts, it becomes apparent that George didn’t really share out a ton of setting information--he often let writers go down a certain path, only to say that he didn’t think what they were writing fit what was in his head.

That firmly established, I’ve always kind of marveled when people wonder how to play a Star Wars game that doesn’t step on canon. It’s . . . a . . . galaxy! That’s a pretty damn huge place. There are all kinds of Imperial governors, crime lords, and bounty hunters for the PCs to run into without ever running into Vader, Luke, or Mon Mothma. There are tons of capital ships and superweapons for potential Rebels to blow up to secure the safety of a local sector of space. There are more fortunes in the Corporate Sector or Hutt Space that a scoundrel could ever imagine--of course, it also helps that the Brian Daley Han Solo novels established early on that you could have some fun, pulpy adventures away from the main saga.

Campaign Setting Personal Ads

What I want in a campaign setting is something that knows what it is and can communicate that. I don’t dislike details, but details along don’t give a setting personality. If you have a personality up front, however, the details can do a lot to reinforce that personality.

I don’t want a campaign setting to be clever. I don’t want it to hide the kind of stories that it wants to tell by making me read through the whole thing and guess. I don’t care if a setting is using old tropes I’ve seen a hundred times, if it knows that it is using those tropes and is milking everything it wants to use from those tropes.

I want a setting that is designed for a tabletop RPG to be table ready. What that means to me is that I want adventure hooks and meta-discussion about why this region of the campaign setting is better for these kinds of stories than this other area. I want examples of how to use the game rules to reinforce the tropes and themes of the setting.

You can give me a timeline, but I’d rather have a short set of bullet points summarizing what’s important to know.

And since we were talking about Star Wars above--avoid absolutes. If you have an awesome order of people called the Azure Knights or whatever, I’d rather you say, “they are rare, and seldom seen,” instead of saying “there are exactly three of them,” especially if you later go ahead and name who all three of them are and what they are doing.

Although I’ve seen some complaints about it, one of the things I’ve liked about the 2nd edition 7th Sea material is that there isn’t a lot in the way of absolute details. There aren’t a lot of “exactly 256 years ago, this happened,” or “there are 275 ships in Queen Elaine’s fleet.” It enough for me for the books to mention that this nation is known for being a naval power, while this other nation lost most of its ships during the War of the Cross.

Sean Was Right

I wholeheartedly agree with Sean when he mentioned that the importance of a campaign setting is often in giving everyone the same starting point. Everyone has this common ground they understand about what is true about the setting. That shouldn’t lock the campaign into a certain direction or be leveraged for advantage when accessing trivia about the setting, but it is a great tool for quickly getting everyone in the same headspace when the game first begins.