Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Gaming and BS 197, Convention Engagement, and Sustainability

So, this was originally going to just be a reply in the awesome Gaming and BS community on Google Plus, but I word too much for that. So, for context, Brett posited a question in Gaming and BS episode 197:  "why don't we play every game like we play a convention game?"

Gaming and BS Episode 197

The discussion is great, it is entertaining. and Sean and Brett are always fun to listen too. Both Sean and Brett makes some great points, but in the end, I'm not sure I agree with how Brett framed the original premise, and thus I have recruited this army of words to march towards my point.

The Needs of The Many (Or The One)

Different storytelling mediums use different conventions, symbolism, and pacing. Movies are different that television series. Ongoing television series are different than mini-series. Half-hour shows are different than hour long shows.

One-shots, where convention games usually fall, are different than contained story arcs, and both of those are different than long term campaigns. A convention game is trying to tell a big, satisfying story that more or less resolves by the end of the session. There may be loose ends, but none of those loose ends have as much weight as what was presented in the session.

When I was regularly reading Batman comics in the mid 80s to early 90s, there were plenty of stories where Batman would track down a serial killer, or get the last bit of evidence he needed to put away a mob boss, or just be clever solving a simple crime. Movie versions of Batman don't do those things, at least not by themselves. Ra's al Ghul tries to destroy Gotham City as a whole. Batman gets evidence on ALL of the mob bosses at once, but then Joker blows up a hospital and tries to take over ALL of the crime in one fell swoop. Bane holds the entire city hostage with an oddly short range, limited radiation nuke after blowing up all of the bridges into the city.

One of my favorite Batman the Animated Series episodes of all time was "It's Never Too Late." Batman essentially gets a mob boss to retire so that gang wars in the city deescalate, and he does so by showing that mob boss the effects of his actions, and reintroducing him to family members. It's a powerful episode, but it's also not the kind of over the top story you would tell in a two hour movie. It was super effective as a 30 minute show.

Emotional Investment and Slow Burn

When you know you are playing a campaign, short or long, you don't want to put everything into every episode at 100%. You can't maintain that intensity. But what you lose in concentrated intensity, you gain in long term world building and nuance. People that have more subtle personality traits, like being a gentle giant that's artistic as well as an accomplished warrior, or characters that have estranged family members that they can reconnect with, have a harder time showing those traits in a "full speed ahead, let's do something big" convention game. It's going to mean more if you have a session where everyone thinks the big bruiser is only good for breaking things and people, or that the quite badass is a loner with no ties to everyone, before your add the extra depth to them.

I don't want to put words into Brett's mouth, but maybe where the disconnect is isn't in convention version campaign, but in communicating the need for forward momentum, for proactivity and plot engagement versus stagnation.

You can compare a campaign to a television series when you compare a convention game to a movie (hey, I just did that above), but you can have television series where they are so episodic that almost nothing of consequence happens in any given episode, and the status quo is reset at the end of each one. You can have 10 episode BBC or streaming service shows that have a focused, energetic progression towards a season finale, but you can also have a 26 episode season where at least half the episodes feel like they were just there to make sure there was an episode that week, and you slog through it to get to the next "plot relevant" episode (see also, at least half the episodes of the Marvel Netflix series as well--I love some of them, but we don't always need 13 episodes, really).

Playing the Long Game

I'd also say that the MM motto of "play better games" is always relevant, but it's more relevant for repeated game play than single session games at conventions. If you are playing a Powered by the Apocalypse game, you probably don't engage the mechanics for fronts in a convention game. If you are playing Edge of the Empire at a convention, Obligation is less of an active mechanic than it is backstory. There are tons of long term mechanics that become much more important as you play a campaign.

I'm not nearly as enamored of Pathfinder as I was when I was running it on a regular basis. Part of that is because I don't like strictly balancing encounters or the fact that level appropriate gear is an assumption of the game. But if I sit down for a one shot of Pathfinder, I'm less worried if I'm going to get killed because something was a little too powerful for my level, and I've got the gear that I've got, and I'm not worried about getting the right gear when I level up.

It is a less satisfying answer to the overall problem, but I think the real issue is less a matter of "why don't we play like we play in a convention game," and more "how do we get everyone on the same page to be invested in this game, and how do we all agree on what feels like the right pace for the game."

What Do I Know About Reviews?--Creature Components Volume 1 and Creature Components Tome of Beasts (5th Edition OGL)

Spell components have a long history in Dungeons and Dragons. Spell components can add texture to the world and deepen the story of the world—but, eventually, they can lose their charm. I loved reading about what Raistlin was pulling out of his belt pouches to cast his spells, but when I would play a wizard, I hated keeping track of how many rose petals, feathers, or grains of sand I had on me.
Tangentially related—I think almost everyone eventually runs into those circumstances where they wonder how much the body parts of a monster might be worth, and if those body parts might not help with potions, magic items, or material components on their own. Folklore is filled with heroes gathering up monster bits to do important things.

The 3.5 version of Unearthed Arcana had optional rules for metamagic components—expensive material components that boosted the effectiveness of spells, but at the cost of lots of gold pieces. Given that gold pieces could be spent directly on level appropriate gear in 3.5, and given that a character had a hard time functioning without their full loadout, that one time burst of power may not have felt like it was worth laying out 3000 gold pieces for a one-time boost.

That brings me to Playground Adventures’ Creature Components line, specifically Creature Components Volume 1 and Creature Components Tome of Beasts. These are 3rd party supplements for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons that provide rules for harvesting bits of monsters, and using those bits to boost spells and magic items.

Tomes Of Monstrous Lore

Creature Components Volume 1 is a 52-page book, and the Tome of Beasts edition of the series is 46 pages long. Both have a full-page ad for other products at the end, as well as a full page OGL statement. Creature Components Volume 1 is in various sepia tones, with purple sidebars, and detailed sepia colored monster sketches. The Tome of Beasts version uses artwork from Kobold Press’ Tome of Beasts, and the headers, sidebars, and formatting uses consistent colors and patterns from that product.

Both volumes are attractive books—the Tome of Beasts version of the book has similar formatting to Volume 1, while retaining the colors and trade dress of the Tome of Beasts where applicable. They maintain an appearance where they kind of match without actually matching.

Creature Components Volume 1

Creature Components Volume 1 has sections that detail a variety of topics.

  • harvesting Creature Components
  • guidelines for Creature Components that the GM may wish to introduce into their own game
  • parameters for lesser, moderate, and greater components
  • rules for modifying magic items with monster components
  • reducing magic item creation costs
  • standard monster Creature Components from the 5e OGL
  • new feats
  • new magic items

The power level of Creature Components is determined by the CR level of the creature being harvested. There are guidelines for creating effects based on the power level of the creature, if GMs don’t want to use the monster components in the book, or if they wish to make Creature Components from monsters not detailed. There are difficulty numbers provided for harvesting various monster bits, and how much those body parts are worth on the open market. It is even possible to harvest some components from willing monsters without killing them, although there are also rules to represent how this might be dangerous for the living monster.

There are suggestions for additional powers that magic items might have if they are constructed with monster components, as well as guidelines for lowering the cost of creating magic items based on the rarity of monster bits used in their creation.

The majority of the book has suggested effects that various monster components might have on spellcasting. Some monster components affect broad categories of spells, while other components are useful for one specific spell. Some monsters have multiple body parts that can be harvested for different effects.

There are some feats towards the back of the book that allow a character to harvest their own blood for various effects if they are of certain character races. There are magic items specifically created for harvesting monster essence, as well as items that reproduce monster effects. Additionally, there are variant magic items that have been modified with monster bits of different types that might be made available in various campaigns.

Throughout the book there are in character sidebars written from the point of view of a wizard that has done extensive research on harvesting and using monster body parts. There are also sidebars that provide complications for certain monster parts, such as having addictive properties when utilized regularly. There is also a half-page set of rules for researching new formula for modifying existing items to incorporate monster body parts.

Creature Components Tome of Beasts

The bulk of the Tome of Beasts edition of Creature Components contains examples of monster parts that can be used for various spells, but these monsters have been pulled from the Tome of Beasts. Additionally, some of the spells that the Tome of Beasts monster parts modify are Midgard setting specific spells.

Creature Components Tome of Beasts does not reprint the harvesting rules from the original volume, but it does introduce new rules for harvesting tools, hazards, and new magic items that are inspired by the magical properties of Midgard specific monsters.
Hazards are similar to traps, in that some monster parts are more dangerous to harvest than others. There are rules for characters to identify when a hazard may be present, and how to mitigate that hazard, before harvesting the monster’s parts. As an example, when harvesting magical body parts from an ice-based monster, a character may run into a hazard that does cold damage and may freeze them solid.

There are additional sidebars in this book as well. This time the metanarrative follows a wizard that has traveled to Midgard expressly to study the monsters from that setting, but the narrative is tied to the original wizard from Volume 1 of the series.

Top Shelf Items

Going back to my earliest game sessions, I have had players that wanted to harvest monster body parts, and different editions have had varying answers for how to model this activity. I love that this provides a quick, logical answer to the question of monster parts. Even without introducing the special effects of monster components on spells and items, these rules are already useful. In the Tome of Beasts volume, I love the additional rules for hazards and tools, to provide more elements for the GM and players to interact with.

Do We Have More in The Back?

These books are focused on a very specific thing—if you aren’t interested in player characters harvesting monster body parts, these products probably won’t be of much interest. There are a few places where some of the sidebars dive into topics, and I got a little lost on what the rules were trying to model, but eventually the context becomes apparent. I also wasn’t especially excited about the feats, in that I’m not sure if PCs will find that harvesting their own blood will be worth a feat, and as a GM, I would be a little disappointed that someone took a feat to take advantage of these rules instead of hunting down monsters themselves or even going to a crazy magic shop to get them.

Creature Components Tome of Beasts has a little more of a caveat to it, in that if you don’t have the Tome of Beasts, it may be a little less useful, and the fact that some of the components modify Midgard spells further makes this more of a niche product, because for 100% full functionality, you might want both the Tome of Beasts and the Midgard Heroes Handbook or various Deep Magic supplements.

(Creature Components Tome of Beasts) 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.

(Creature Components Volume 1) Recommended--If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

While I think that harvesting monster parts is a very specific aspect of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I don’t think it is too far removed from the standard concept of fighting monsters and looting treasure hordes that it is difficult to recommend, if someone is already interested in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons to begin with.

I’m a little more hesitant to broadly recommend Creature Components Tome of Beasts, just because it is tied to one or more additional products if you want to get maximum effect, but personally, I would have picked this book up even if I wasn’t heavily invested in Midgard, just for the hazard rules, which I think adds a lot to the process of harvesting monster bits. I still think it is worth looking at even if you don’t have the Tome of Beasts, if only for the hazard rules. Additionally, you can easily repurpose the monster effects onto other similar monsters from other sources.

I liked the hazards so much that I’d pick up a volume of this series that was just hazards that were specialized examples for specific monsters. Regardless of what’s next in the series, I’m looking forward to future entries into this line of supplements.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Random and Less Than Random Chance (Further Thoughts on the Luck Deck from Nord Games)

I’m still really fascinated with how to utilize the Luck Deck that I picked up from Nord Games, but my sticking point is that “I” don’t want to be the one forcing the bad luck on the characters. I think everyone tends to have a lot more fun when you “own” your own misfortune.

Opinions are going to vary. I tend to be more of a “let’s build a collective narrative” GM, even in a game like Dungeons and Dragons. I know a lot of GMs that are much more comfortable with “as long as everyone knows the rules going in, let chance decide.” But even with my natural tendencies, I want to come up with a fun way to use this deck.

Alternate Luck Deck Rules

Here is my idea for alternate Luck Deck rules. As they currently stand, when a character rolls a 20, they get a good card, and when they roll a 1, they get a bad card, and they can only ever have one of each. The player gets to decide when to use the good luck cards, and the GM gets to determine when to trigger the bad luck card.

My alternate takes would be these:

Option 1--Substitution Rolls

You can only ever have 1 card
If the GM agrees that a roll is important enough for it, you may choose to automatically fail a roll you are about to make to get a good Luck card; you may only do this if you do not have a Luck card of any kind
If you do not currently have any Luck cards, you may accept a bad luck card to treat a potential roll as a natural 20
The player may trigger their own Luck cards whenever they desire, but they cannot receive another Luck card until they have used the current card that they have

Option 2—Critical Buffers (Can Also Be Used With Critical Decks)

You Can only ever have 1 card
Whenever an attack scores a critical hit on your character, you may accept a bad luck card to turn that hit into a regular hit, if you do not have a Luck card
Whenever you roll a critical hit, you may accept a good luck card instead of triggering the usual effects of a critical hit, if you do not have a Luck card
If you are using critical fails, you may accept a bad luck card to ignore the effects of the critical fail, if you do not have a Luck card
The player may trigger their own Luck cards whenever they desire, but they cannot receive another Luck card until they have used the current card that they have

Option 3—Fate, Prophesy, and Fortune Telling

You Can only ever have 1 card
At character creation, the character can choose to have prophesy related to their character, at which time, they can draw a card
Whenever a player goes to an oracle, visits a seer, or has their fortune read by an NPC with actual abilities, shuffled the Luck deck, good and bad, together; they can only receive this reading if they do not already have a Luck card
The player may trigger their own Luck cards whenever they desire, but they cannot receive another Luck card until they have used the current card that they have

I may think of some other uses eventually. I just really like having tools around like the Luck Deck, but I also like to tinker with them so that they fit the way I run my own game. I wish I had this for fortune telling at the beginning of my Midgard Campaign, so I could have used it for the Doomcroaker’s runic readings on the party.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews?--Nord Games Critical Hit Decks, Fail Deck, and Luck Deck (5th Edition OGL)

I’m a sucker for cards and special accessories for a game, especially in Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve got a Tarokka deck, a Deck of Illusions, a Deck of Many things, some magic item cards, some NPC and monster card references. I like cards, and I probably like convincing myself that those cards aren’t just pretty toys and have a practical effect on running the game.

This time around, I picked up four of the decks offered by Nord Games. The decks in question are the Critical Hit Deck for Players, the Critical Hit Deck for GMs, the Critical Fail Deck, and the Luck Deck.

Nord Games--Cards

The Luck of the Draw
Each of these decks is 52 cards, including an OGL card and an instruction card. The artwork and formatting on the cards is very attractive and professional (although if you don’t want to see a partially dismembered orc, you may have a hard time with the card backs for the Critical Hit Deck for Players).

The Luck Deck has two different card backs, with red cards with a d20 showing a 1 on them, and a blue card with a d20 with a 20 on it, to differentiate between the good and bad luck cards. The other cards all have the same card backs for all cards in the 52-card deck, but the borders have signifiers that indicate when the cards should be introduced (level 1, 5, 9, and 13 are suggested).

Luck Deck
The Luck Deck is split between good luck and back luck cards. Whenever a player rolls a 1, they draw a bad luck card. Whenever they roll a 20, they draw a good luck card. The player can only ever have one of each. The GM can trigger the bad luck card whenever they want, and the player can turn in their good luck card to trigger its effects.

Some of these effects I would be very hesitant to trigger as a GM. There are cards that can cause the player to roll a die and subtract that number from their saves, to trigger attacks of opportunity, or automatically fail rolls. I don’t mind bad luck when it’s random, but I dislike being the person strategically choosing when to trigger that bad luck.

There are other options I really like. For example, an NPC taking a dislike to a PC, going last in the initiative, losing items, or having gear temporarily malfunction are all things that feel less like a serious detriment and feel more like a minor setback.

The good luck cards are largely the positive mirror of the bad luck cards, although there are cards that suggest things like treasure being doubled when it is found, as being able to decide the character’s spot in the initiative, adding an extra die to rolls, and having advantage in certain situations.

My suggestion on this one to make the bad luck cards feel a little less aggressive in implementation would be to say that they trigger the next time they apply. Even if you don’t adopt that practice, any of the cards that negate or apply penalties to rolls should really be triggered before the player rolls anything, so that it feels less like the GM is robbing them of a success.

Critical Fail Deck
Like the critical hit decks detailed later, this deck uses the suggestion mentioned above, where some cards are not introduced to the deck until characters are higher level. Any time a player rolls a natural 1 on an attack roll, they draw a card and apply the card’s effect.

Even though there are levels of severity for the critical fail effects, the effects feel much more random than the critical hit effects. Characters often get a saving throw against the effects of a fumble, although the DCs get much more difficult with the higher tier cards. Effects can range from losing ammo, damaging a weapon, breaking a bowstring, or taking a penalty to attacks for multiple rounds, to triggering attacks of opportunity from everyone in the character’s vicinity.

There are 24 of the lowest tier cards, 16 of the next tier, 8 of the next highest tier, and 4 of the most devastating of the fumble cards. This is the same distribution that the critical hit decks utilize as well. There are four different effects on each card, divided by melee, ranged, natural, or spell attacks. The critical hit decks (below) have these same categories.

Critical Hit Deck for Players and Critical Hit Deck for GMs
While there are some effects that do not deal specific damage, the difference in tier for many of the cards in these decks goes from x2 to x3 to x4 at the higher end. The lowest tier might have either a very minor secondary effect, or an effect without any damage. Some of the higher tier x4 cards include secondary effects that are almost certainly fatal if the damage exceeds ½ the total hit points of the target, or create a serious setback if they exceed ¼ of the total hit points.

The GM deck has fewer of the dismemberment or fatal secondary effects, but it includes crits that allow for follow up attacks, damaged gear, and fear saves. In addition to having more cards that maim and dismember, the player deck has a few cards that include “full damage, plus roll damage again,” ensuring more consistently high damage instead of just increasing the potential for extra damage.

While the Critical Fail deck divides the deck into tiers and advises users not to add all the cards into the deck at 1st level without assuming some devastating results, that is even more true of the critical decks. It’s also worth noting that automatically dying if you take your full hit points in addition to being brought to zero hit points with an attack is probably going to see a lot more play at the table if you are using these decks.

Decks of Future Past
As a quick aside, towards the end of my time running Pathfinder on a regular basis, I was using the crit deck and the fumble deck regularly. Games based on d20 rules can be very swingy, and adding in the randomness of critical hits and fails just makes that more evident. One thing that became apparent is that, given that players often outnumber the big boss monster, no matter how well the actual deck is constructed, it’s more likely your singular boss is going to suffer from the wilder effects than the players, although 5th edition’s legendary actions make up for this with some creatures.

A Good Reading
The cards feel solid, and are attractive. I really like the idea of having something to hand out for natural 1s and 20s outside of combat, because those natural rolls may not equate to automatic failures or successes, but they have meaning with the Luck Deck in play. I really like the concept of the tiered critical categories, and it helps to reduce some of the potential swing inherit in the system.

The Trap Card!
There is the potential for a random draw to end an encounter with much less drama than you may want. The Luck Deck seems like it could be a lot of fun, but could easily feel adversarial depending on the draw and when the cards are triggered. Many of the results in the Critical Fail and Critical Hit decks involve taking a random penalty for a random period of time, which is the kind of fiddly bookkeeping that 5th edition tends to avoid.

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.
I think these cards are well made, and a lot of fun. However, good or bad rolls are part of the design of the games, but adding good or bad rolls with good or bad draws can make for sessions that feel like they were much more dependent on randomness rather than tactics or character capabilities.

For games where players and GMs may enjoy emergent, significant challenges rooted in the game rules, these are going to generate a lot of positive results. For people that want a little more player agency and choice in how heroic or chaotic a game becomes, the critical hit decks may be less desirable, but the Luck Deck may still be fun to introduce.

Given that I’m reviewing multiple products, I think all of these are well made, but I think introducing all of them in the same campaign may be a bit overwhelming. In fact, my recommendation would be to use the Luck Deck in a game utilizing standard critical hit rules, and possibly even carefully consider having the critical fail deck in the same campaign with the critical hit decks.

That’s a broad recommendation. Some people may want maximum random elements, and that could be a lot of fun, so long as everyone is on board with the massive swings in fortune that could be introduced.

I also think these cards could be a lot of fun to play with in a one-shot, or in an adventure to achieve something like the “Meat Grinder Mode” introduced in the Tomb of Annihilation.

Fun, well-made product, just be aware that the “story” of the game could easily shift to the crazy results of the dice and the cards.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Cycles of Progression in Roleplaying Games

Watching Dungeon Musings run his Band of Blades game over the weekend set my mind to thinking about the “cycles” that we see in RPGs. This is just some random, possibly poorly formed thoughts on my part, and if you want to listen to way better discussion of similar topics, go check out Misdirected Mark when they discuss the Core Loop in RPGs. I’ll wait.

Okay, now that you’ve heard much better RPG discussion, let’s get back to my half-assed thoughts.

Before I dive into the cycles that I’ve seen in RPGs, I want to define the terms I’m going to use for these cycle discussions.

Frame--explaining what the scene looks like, what a character is doing, in other words, the fictional description either from the moderator’s or player’s point of view.

Define--explaining what game rules will govern a situation once the world and the characters in the world have framed their position in the fiction.

Resolve--Engaging the game mechanic to determine how the game develops, including spending points, rolling dice, drawing or playing cards, etc.

Negotiate--A portion of the game where characters do not commit to a course of action, but players and moderators formally ask how different actions might affect how engagement with the rules.

Using these terms, a more traditional game, like Dungeons and Dragons, might have the following cycle:

Frame, Define, Resolve

While there may be some negotiation in the form the of the moderator of the game answering questions, it isn’t explicitly defined as part of the cycle of the game, and it definitely isn’t something assumed to be part of the formal cycle.

Fate, despite having more narrative rules, has a similar cycle to a traditional game, but there are formal rules for negotiation when it comes to things like compelling aspects or conceding in a contest. While there are formal rules for this, it isn’t coded into on specific part of the cycle. So that might look like this:

[(Frame, Define, Resolve)Negotiation]

In other words, negotiation can be applied across the entire spectrum of the cycle, but exists outside of the cycle.

Bear with me, because this one might look a little stranger. Something like Powered by the Apocalypse might look a little more crazy, because it is actually still using the same building blocks, but the cycle is less of a circle and more of a rotary that goes around in circles, but can offramp into different areas.

(Frame[(Frame, Define, Resolve)Negotiate])

The reason the cycle looks like this is that while the standard “frame, define, resolve” cycle exists in the game, but at each stage, more than other games, the cycles widens back out to the larger frame cycle. You frame, define, and resolve--sometimes the move calls for a kind of negotiation, but then when the negotiation is chosen, it also feeds back out to the “outer” frame cycle to make sure the fiction is still true to itself.

Now, you can kick back to a “meta” frame in more traditional games, but it’s not a part of the assumed game cycle. For example, if a character hits a character attacks someone with a longsword, the longsword is both frame (it is a thing in the world) and definition (the sword has specific stats in the game). By traditional cycle, hitting someone with the longsword and rolling damage satisfies the implicit loop, but you can, optionally, move back to a wider frame to explain what it looks like to use that sword to do some kind of injury to an opponent.

The reason I started thinking about all of these frames is that I can’t think of another game that has “negotiate” as part of the “tight” cycle of game progression. This doesn’t mean there aren’t other games that do--I’ve got a limited perspective, and I’d love to hear about other games where this is true, or even to have other cycles in games I do know that I haven’t managed to see pointed out to me. That said, the cycle implicit in a Forged in the Dark game is more like the following:

Frame, Define, Negotiate, Resolve

It is actually a simpler cycle than a Powered by the Apocalypse game, but it is almost deceptively simple. Negotiate is part of almost any standard action, because once the situation is presented, the player can decide on almost any skill, but if they decide on a specific skill, it may be really effective, or not particularly effective--however, no matter how it is framed, you will almost never see a situation that is “this will always be a controlled situation that only one skill applies in, and it will always have standard effect,” because the “negotiation” of “how effective will this thing be” is built into almost any resolution.

I’m not sure what the point of me identifying all of this is. Humans look for patterns. This is one of the patterns in my head. Maybe I’m way off base, and I’m missing steps to these cycles. Maybe I’m trying to make my equivalent of bodily humors sound like biochemistry. Either way, I had a few thoughts on this I wanted to get written out, so I could at least map those thoughts bouncing around in my head.

If you have any thoughts on this, even if you are going to point out that I’m so off base on everything, I’d love to hear it. Maybe seeing someone else pull this part might help me see if this has any particular value to me going forward.

Friday, June 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

How Is the Guildhall Constructed?

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

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

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

The Body of the Beast

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

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

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


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

The Good  That Monsters Do

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

Wandering off the Trail

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

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

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

Qualified Recommendation--A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

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

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