Thursday, May 23, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Defenders of the Wild: The Warden (5e OGL)

I never ran a 4th edition D&D game. I honestly was very interested in the system, but was . . . less than enthused about the changes made to the Forgotten Realms going into 4th edition, and I felt the marketing campaign could have been more inclusive. Despite this, I played in a 4e campaign, and I played in several one-shots at the FLGS. While I didn’t pick up every book that came out, I did keep my D&D Insider account active for quite a while, even when I wasn’t actively playing in a campaign.

Because of this, I saw a lot more in 4e that I would have liked to have utilized, without getting the opportunity. While I played an eladrin paladin in my regular campaign, I saw so many classes that I wanted to try out, and made a ton of them. I eventually got to play my minotaur runepriest in a one-shot game, but I was always wondering about other classes like the avenger and the warden.

If you never had the opportunity to look at 4e material, the warden was, in brief, the nature tank. Using the more tradition D&D classes as examples, in 4e druids controlled and modified areas of the battlefield, and rangers were focused on being mobile and doing lots of damage. This roughly corresponds to the way wizards and rogues operate. Wardens soaked up damage and punished opponents for attacking anyone else, much like the 4e fighter, but with more nature flavored abilities.

Just as with the previous release Callto Arms: The Warlord, which recreated the 4e Warlord class with 5e mechanics, Robert Schwalb’s Max Press 5e imprint has release Defenders of theWild: The Warden, which does something similar for the warden class that I mentioned at the top of this post.

All-Natural Container

This review is based on the PDF of product, which currently is the only version to be had. The product itself is 12 pages long, with original artwork of nature-oriented warriors doing their thing. There is a little bit of slightly blurry nudity, and one page of text is comprised of the OGL statement, with another page consisting of an add for Shadow of the Demon Lord. There is a green themed formatting to the document that you might find familiar if you have seen any of the Terrible Beauty related Shadow of the Demon Lord products. Everything is attractively formatted and laid out.

Core Concept

Essentially, the warden is a class that derives power from spirits to defend nature. While you can still argue roles exist in D&D 5e, they are less rigidly defined in most classes, but the warden’s job is still primarily to keep opponents focused on them while the rest of the party does what they do best. As a d10 hit dice “half-caster,” the warden most closely resembles a nature focused paladin on the surface. Unlike paladins, however, you aren’t getting easy access to heavy armor.

The starting signature abilities of the class are Defender’s Ward, which defines a 10-foot radius where the warden can use a reaction to trigger an attack penalty to opponents, and Fount of Life, where the warden can both heal themselves and create an area of rough terrain once per short rest. Right from the start, the class establishes the importance of the warden being in contact with the ground, and I like the thematic feel of that. That said, the penalty assessed by Defender’s Ward is a dice-based variable, which isn’t bad, per se, but always jumps out at me compared to a lot of 5e more fluid use of rules like disadvantage.


The warden gets a fighting style and spellcasting as they advance in levels. They also get essentially a “reverse smite,” where they can sacrifice spell slots to reduce damage taken (I am now dreaming of a goliath warden rolling all kinds of dice to not actually get injured in a fight).

The subclasses for the warden are called Aspects of Nature, and they kick in at 3rd level. They pick up an extra attack, as you would guess for a combat-oriented class. Eventually they pick up the ability to save against ongoing effects early, get advantage on opportunity attacks, to do extra damage when you charge yourself up, make attacks of opportunity against anyone that attacks someone that isn’t you, get bonus hit points on a high death save, and a regenerating effect as their capstone.

While the higher end abilities are useful, getting opportunity attacks when you already have other powers that rely on you to use your reaction doesn’t feel as amazing as it could. Overall, the class feels a little front-loaded to me, although capstone abilities vary wildly even with the core D&D 5e classes.

Aspects of Nature

The three choices presented are the Aspect of the Elemental Storm, Aspect of the Primal Beast, and Aspect of the Sacred Trees. Each one grants a different set of bonus spells themed to the aspect in question. Each aspect also grants the ability to adopt a new form. It not quite shapeshifting (as in, getting new monster stats with a second set of hit points), but your appearance changes and you may get bonuses to armor class, resistances, extra damage on attacks, or gain a damaging aura.

At higher levels, different aspects allow the warden to spend spells slots to zap a foe with lightning by expending spells slots when they hit, give them a pounce attack that allows a bonus action attack, or entangle an opponent. At 15th level, the aspects grand abilities like extra lightning damage when a foe misses, advantage on attacks to a foe that has missed an attack, or an increase in your Defender’s Ward ability.

The high level (18th level) abilities granted include creating an area of difficult terrain that imposes disadvantage on opponents, a kind of mini-barbarian rage, or an even greater AC boost, reach, and more difficult terrain (difficult terrain is really a staple warden trick).

New Spells

There are 10 new spells included in this product, and I appreciate that there is also a list of what other classes beyond the warden would have access to these. While many of the warden’s class features involve making them a more tantalizing target, several of these spells increase the damage done by the warden, or cause an opponent attacking the warden to take damage. Four of the ten new spells are bonus action spells.

My favorite is probably Close the Gap, as it functions as sort of the opposite of Expeditious Retreat, pulling an opponent into close range with you where all of your class features function. Only three of the spells have a higher-level scaling option, and one goes up by a d4 per level, which probably isn’t the best use of your precious higher-level spell slots.

Nature’s Boon

This is definitely a class that establishes its flavor early and lets you play with the idea of standing firm to defend nature from the start. I like the cleverly inverted class features used to reinforce the them, like the Primal Might ability. I like having useful bonus action spells that play into what the class does well, so that burning spell slots on Primal Might is a deliberate decision, and not an easy default. I really like the ”not quite shapeshifting” abilities of the Aspects of Nature, and the kicker abilities that these subclasses get are very much in keeping with their themes.

Punishing Storm

The class feels a little front-loaded, and I’m not sure that when the rest of the party gets better at taking damage at higher levels, taking even more damage than everyone else is going to feel as useful. Part of that issue may just be how D&D scales at higher levels. I’d have to play to be sure, but the more passive, harder to hit nature of the Aspect of the Sacred Trees feels like it would be a little bit less fun than the other aspects, that have some neat “gotcha” effects that allow the warden to switch to a more proactive mode.

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

I can’t speak for everyone playing D&D 5e, but I think this would be a fun class to try out, and definitely worth the purchase. Robert Schwalb has done a ton of work both on 4e and 5e, and even when I see quirks in a class that don’t quite “feel” the way established classes do things, I feel like that’s someone that knows how it’s done pushing boundaries and experimenting, rather than not following the established pattern.

Your millage may vary if you haven’t played 4e and had some curiosity about seeing similar concepts expressed in different game rules. I know I’m not usually one for brand new classes, as I generally think more can be done with design space using subclasses. But I think this one is worth checking out, and I think the mechanics are fun and interesting enough to at least ponder.

Parting Shots

Robert Schwalb recently mentioned that this may be the last Max Press release, at least for a while. I love Shadow of the Demon Lord, and I fully understand him playing with his own well-designed toys, but I really looked forward to these releases, and would love to see more of them in the future.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

What Do I Know About a Leave of Absence--Real Life Updates

You may have noticed I haven't been posting here as much as I have in more recent months, and this month you won't get to see a review from me up on Gnome Stew. For anyone interested, I thought I'd provide a bit of an update.

Ordinary Issues

I'll start with the most mundane thing, and that is, I work at a school district, and we're reaching the end of the school year. Turns out people really like to have data when they wrap up one year and start planning for the next, so a data specialist's work is never done.

That's the normal ebb and flow of work. Now for the less fun bits.

Unexpected Complications

I went to the doctor for one thing, and ended up learning about a whole other set of health problems.

Because I don't think there should be a stigma about this kind of thing, I've had a lot of ups and downs my adult life. There are times when I have a hard time functioning, and sometimes, when everything works out right and I have a nice, steady schedule to follow, my lows aren't as bad, but they still happen.

On top of depression, my anxiety has always made it hard for me to rest. I'm getting to a point where not being able to sleep at night because my brain keeps reminding me of things that need to be done, or things that can go wrong, is much harder for me to deal with. I was starting to average a little over three hours of sleep at night, and I couldn't keep doing that.

I went to my doctor, and she helped me to get on an SSRI as well as something for anxiety, and I'm actually falling asleep without being exhausted, and sleeping through the night for the first time in years. Its a really strange feeling to be able to differentiate between being tired and exhausted again.

I also started seeing my therapist again. I had stopped for a while, in part because scheduling was difficult, and in part because I was afraid that because I kept having days where I was feeling depressed, I was convinced I was doing something wrong. Most of the time between sessions I felt pretty good about myself, but I didn't understand why I kept having those bad days. Now I have the other piece in place, and I'm doing the work again.

The problem is, a few years ago, when I was in a really bad place, I tried really hard to pull myself out of it. I changed my diet, started exercising, and it worked. For a while. Then I got sick and had a few emotional crashes, and I gained back about fifty pounds and went back to some really bad habits with my diet.

Because I wasn't sleeping, I survived on coffee and caffeinated soda in order to keep my eyes open at work. Because I was always pushing myself to get things done until I finally crashed for a few hours, I ate lots of terrible things. It was a cycle of existing, but not really taking care of myself.

Forward Thinking

In summary, living off of fast food, coffee, and soda pretty much wrecked my health. I have ridiculously high cholesterol and I am now diabetic. So in addition to being on medicine for anxiety and depression, I'm also on medicine to manage these new health issues. Thankfully, I'm still at the point where I don't need to take insulin, but I do need to make major adjustments.

The good thing is, it was way easier to juggle the blog, gaming, work, and family when I was taking better care of myself, and now that I have some support in keeping me from having as many issues regarding anxiety and depression, I have better tools to keep taking care of myself.

We make a lot of jokes about gamer culture and the bad habits associated with it, but I'll be honest with you. Take some time and think about how you are doing. If you can, get checked out, physically and mentally. Take care of yourself. You deserve it.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Chromatic Chameleon Twitter Game of Thrones Challenge (Potential Spoilers)

Potential spoilers for this season of Game of Thrones!

Chromatic Chameleon asked a question of the D&D community on Twitter, asking how various people would resolve the final season of Game of Thrones. This sounds like fun, so I'll give it a shot. Disclaimer--I'm probably not going to tie up every plot thread or mention every character still out there, just give the overall impression of how I would do things.

Also, I am not a professional, and by no means am I saying "I could have done it better." I'm just throwing some thoughts out there.

Game of Thrones Challenge

How We Got Here

First off, I think changing the name of the series from A Song of Ice and Fire to Game of Thrones (after the first novel) did change the overall tone of the series. I always felt that politics was important in that the people in the novels were distracted and ignoring the important imminent threats. I always felt that at some point, there needs to be a reconning for the characters ignoring the actual threat for as long as they have.

In the current season, it seems that we're resolving the threat of the white walkers as a stepping stone to the "real" resolution of who ends up on the Iron Throne, but I feel like everyone worrying about the Iron Throne is exactly the problem, and that the wights should be the main narrative beat to resolve.

Rewind--Start Again

I would have everyone gather at Winterfell that gathered there at the beginning of the season. I would take time to reveal that Jon is a Targaeryn and show some tension between Danearys and Jon over this. I would hit a lot of the same beats they have already hit, but take a little longer to do so, so they all felt important and they all felt like they were the main thing to we're waiting to resolve.

Then, the Night King would attack. Shortly after the Night King attacks, a combined force of Ironborn and troops from King's Landing would attack. It would be chaos and bloodshed, and the only real winners would be the wights, that pick up the newly dead and head south. The dragons are flying free without any riders. Brianne, Arya, and a handful of Dothraki and Unsullied are all that we have left.

Kind of shooting for a Red Wedding vibe. How could all of that important stuff we were establishing not matter?

Moving South

At King's Landing, we still get a little bit of a payoff as Tyrion and Jaime's wights corner Cersei, and everything goes to Hell as the throne is completely vacant. No one is holding anything together anymore. Brianne rallies the forces that are left together into a mixed band of defenders, but the wights just keep multiplying.

The Ironborn have found a dragon horn that they use to control the surviving dragons. It feels as if the tide has turned, as the newly controlled dragons burn scores of wights. Then the Night King's dragon arrives and kills one of the controlled dragons, and wounding the other one badly.

Brianne dies fighting the Night King's undead Viserion, but manages to kill him. Arya kills the Night King, but scores of wights press in on all sides. We never actually see what happens to Arya.

The final, wounded dragon breathes on the remaining wights, destroying them. In the course of the last push, the dragon horn is broken, and the dragon is now unbound. It turns on the Ironborn that controlled it, and devastates them, before being killed itself.

Wrapping Up

We get three intertwined epilogues. Bran survived in the north, along with an injured Sansa. Bran says some cryptic stuff about rebuilding, and Sansa is shown to start to organize the survivors in Winterfell.

Back across the sea, we see Melisandre preaching to the masses that the cycle of winter has been broken and that the new era belongs to the Lord of Light.

Sam is recording the state of the Seven Kingdoms, which is no longer actually a kingdom. There is chaos everywhere. Institutions have fallen, organizations are gone. It is a new start, but everywhere there are bandits and warlords, and the works of generations of maesters have been destroyed, setting the world back centuries.

Our final scene is a group of bandits setting on a caravan brutally, but then being beset by a dire wolf and her pack of wolves. The leader of the bandits escapes the chaos and rests for a moment, and then we see a shadowy figure appear and kill him, and then the figure strides towards the pack of wolves.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A Little Help From Your Friends

Supernatural season 14 just hit Netflix, so to commemorate me watching yet another season, I’m posting my rough draft of a Monster of the Week move inspired by this season. Without spoiling too much, there is an added element of managing other teams of hunters that caught my attention.

In addition to the elements of the show for this season, I’m also reminded of one of my favorite moves from The Sprawl, which lets you direct someone to do a job for you while you are busy doing other things. That move is specifically tailored to a cyberpunk “job” structure, so I took it for inspiration, and then kind of built the equivalent for Monster of the Week from the ground up.

Some hunters have friends and family that they can count on, even if they don’t travel with them on a regular basis. When this is true, hunters can call in a favor to have another team run a job for them while they are currently investigating another mystery. Alternatively, sometimes hunters want to stay on scene while another team of hunters accomplishes a task or retrieves and item that is needed, but is removed from the site of the mystery.

Run A Side Job

Whenever a hunter directs another team at a distance, roll +sharp

10+; The team manages to get the job done with no hitch. They stop the monster, rescue the victims, do the thing they needed to do offsite, or retrieve the object. If the action or object is needed in the current mystery, the player hunters have access to the benefit in the next phase of the day after they make this move.

7-9; The team gets the job done, but it’s not pretty. Choose one of the following:

  • They stop the monster, but the victims didn’t make it
  • They rescue the victims, but the monster got away
  • They stop the monster and rescue the victims, but they lost a hunter
  • They get the item, but it’s damaged or cursed
  • They get the task partially done, but the player hunters will still need to do something else to complete the task

6-; The job went sideways. Choose one of the following:

  • The team was wiped out or captured
  • One member of the team was turned
  • The item was destroyed or circumstances have changed that make doing the task impossible
  • The monster has the item
  • The monster knows what task the team wanted done, and has sent a guard to a critical location

Remember, the key to this move is that the hunters have to have established other people that they know in order for this to work. If they are asking characters that have been established in their backstories or that they have met during mysteries to do these things, it makes the consequences of the move much more meaningful.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Fast and the Furious Franchise as Platonic Ideal of Modern RPG Campaigns

My Turbo Charged Thesis Statement

A few days ago, I posted on Twitter that the platonic ideal of a modern action RPG setting, excluding superheroes and urban fantasy, was The Fast and the Furious franchise. This got a lot of likes, reshares, and commentary, to the point I was almost afraid to expound on this for negating the simplicity of it all. But I’m me, so I have to expound.

When I said this, part of my thinking was that even though often set in modern times, urban fantasy and supers often have their own rulesets for their own sub-genres. You can use a broad ruleset that can handle multiple genres to run those games, but they often have many, many options that are tailored specifically for them.

The other thing that was on my mind in this instance was team versus single protagonist. I saw a lot of mentions of John Wick in my comments on this. It is by no means impossible to tweak the tropes you are playing with to move from “one unstoppable protagonist” to “team of unstoppable forces,” but it does require some tweaking.

I also saw mention of the Mission Impossible series as sitting in the same space as an ideal construct for a modern RPG setting, and I’m not going to argue that one too much, because it is a team-based setting where characters take on a variety of challenges and various characters are useful because there are individual character niches. That said, I think I jump to The Fast and the Furious over this one for two reasons:  while not as ubiquitous as urban fantasy games or superhero games, there are a good number of specific espionage RPGs, and The Fast and the Furious eventually does enter this genre as well. The Fast and the Furious contains multitudes.

Time for a Disclaimer

Whenever I talk about media as it ties into game inspiration, I worry a little that it comes across as an endorsement of that media. There is very little media I would endorse without disclaimer, in part because people deserve things like content warnings, and in part because the degree to which problematic elements are an issue can vary from person to person, and someone not affected by various social issues isn’t the best people to determine why something “isn’t that bad.”

So, before I dive into the problematic elements of the series that jump out at me, I’ll give you my perspective. I’m a cis white male in my 40s. I apologize if I miss some really glaring issues that people from various marginalized groups have experienced, and I honestly would like to hear about problematic elements that I have missed, if you want to share that perspective--but I know it’s not your job to do so, either.

LGBTQ+ Issues

Earlier in the series, LGBTQ+ slurs were used as insults by some of the characters. Unless I have missed them, this appears to be an issue that fades away as the series progresses, but it's never addressed head-on. Beyond the slurs, the only evidence we have that LGBTQ+ people exist is that we see several parties where attractive women like to make out with one another. As diverse as the cast eventually becomes, it would be nice to have LGBTQ+ characters appear as part of the “family” as well.

Race and Ethnicity

While the team became more diverse pretty early on in the series, the series leaned heavily on people of color as the villains, and that’s not changing with the upcoming Hobbs and Shaw. The Shaws, as villains, did shift this dynamic, but it's still present in most of the movies. Additionally, while it’s nice that when the middle-east came up, we didn’t get stereotypes about terrorism, we did have a pretty two-dimensional portrayal of a rich middle-eastern prince.

While the team itself has definitely diversified (in some regards, more on that later), it would be great of Rome wasn’t the main comic relief on the team.


From its inception, the Fast and the Furious movies have been invested in having some scene, somewhere, that spends a lot of time showing attractive women in skimpy clothing. Contextually, it doesn’t come out of nowhere, but the fact that many of these scenes are shot in such a way that you can only identify the actress by how distinctive her posterior is makes this pretty glaring.

The team itself is really lopsided when it comes to women. Mia can drive, but the majority of the time her job is to be in danger or to sit at home and worry. Letty has been the most consistent presence any woman has had on the team, and is generally shown to be competent in and out of a car, but she was also used as Dom’s revenge focus as well. Giselle was similarly competent, but also had weaponized flirting as part of her team responsibilities. This would have been less of a problem if there were more women on the team, so that one of the only women wasn’t “the flirty one.” Elena’s role has always been entangled in Dom and Letty’s relationship, and she’s also defined by the husband she lost. Monica was never really part of the team, per se, and after she was undercover for a while, she basically dropped off files on Hobbs’ desk. For all of the other recurring characters that the series cycles back into the narrative, we never see Suki outside of the second movie.

So while there are proactive and capable women in the movies, they are way outnumbered by the men, and almost all have some very stale tropes welded on to them. Which brings us to . . .

Toxic Masculinity

There is so much “I was disrespected, I must prove I am better than him” going on in these movies. There is also a crap ton of motivating men by putting the women they care about in danger, and comedic posturing to establish the social order of the males on the team.

Probably the most glaring toxic masculinity issue at play here is the “women as prizes” trope. Some of the movies subvert this by having the women, who are competing in races, reassert that they are racers, not prizes, and reaffirm their agency as participants. Unfortunately, most of the plot of Tokyo Drift is completely about this trope, and it is jokingly referenced from time to time later in the series.

The hardest thing to address about all of this is that there are some elements of toxic masculinity portrayed in these movies that are so over the top, it’s hard not to take them as parody. I mean, this is a series where Hobbs flexed his cast off, and it wasn’t even the most over the top thing in the movie.

I would also be remiss if I weren’t to point out that the continual theme of family often leads to the male characters showing genuine affection for one another in a way that feels less like the fist bump or one-armed half hug of other buddy action movies. The biggest, most problematic element of this is that while Dom and Brian are allowed to have emotions, Rome’s emotional state is almost always played for laughs, which is even more problematic when you have one of the black male recurring character’s depth being invalidated for comedic purposes.

In Summation . . .

There is a lot of Very Hollywood Action Movie going on in the Fast and the Furious movies, and I’m not going to say that the good outweighs the bad, or that the over the top elements allow some of them to be excused as self-parody. I enjoy the series, and hope it corrects some of these problems, and I definitely think they could do so without changing the overall tone of the films or lose any of the gonzo nature of what gives the films their charm.

Time for the Next Quarter Mile

Now that I’ve laid all of that out, we can start digging into The Fast and the Furious as modern RPG platonic ideal.

So, how, exactly, is The Fast the Furious the platonic ideal for modern action-oriented RPGs?

First, let’s define “modern RPG.” I’m referring to a ruleset that has rules for modern vehicles, weapons, and technology and is defined by taking dangerous action, rather than primarily an RPG about personal interactions and drama. I’m also referring to RPGs that do not have a default setting or genre beyond the rules assigned to them. As an example, you have games like d20 Modern, Savage Worlds, and Modern Age that might fall into this category.

Because these games do not have a defined setting, I started thinking about standard RPG tropes, as opposed to genre tropes. This brought me to the following:

  • PCs can be independent operators or work for a patron, in the same campaign
  • PCs can interact with a number of sub-genres and types of adventures
  • PCs can have specialized roles that facilitate specific niches
  • PCs have a noticeable increase in ability that results in scenarios with higher stakes

To use the Fast and the Furious as an example here, we start with, then progress through, the following escalating scenarios:

  • Racers that fight local gangs and pull off dangerous heists while dodging cops
  • Racers that go undercover to take on organized crime syndicates, with limited law enforcement sanction
  • Racers that go undercover to take on international criminals, with limited government sanction
  • Racers take on global conspiracies while dealing with high tech military weapons and vehicles as opposition, with limited government sanctions
  • Racers take on global conspiracies while dealing with high tech military weapons and vehicles as opposition, with extensive government backing

There are many modern era genres and subgenres where a level-based progression system would seem out of place. It does not feel out of place for The Fast and the Furious movies.

In addition, characters in The Fast and the Furious movies do several things that are very much staples of what RPG characters might do in a game:

  • Racing
  • Chases
  • Fighting hand to hand
  • Fighting with weapons
  • Sneaking around
  • Breaking into places
  • Stealing things
  • Doing research
  • Modifying equipment
  • Computer hacking

All of this is a pretty long-winded justification of what was a fairly simple tweet, but it was the culmination of years of reading through more “generic” rulesets and thinking, “what would I do with this?” This isn’t the only answer, but I think it’s a pretty solid example of what you could do with it that would lead to one of the broadest applications of the tools usually available in the aforementioned toolkits.

As far as RPG campaigns go, there is a lot that The Fast and the Furious movies do right:

  • No wasted NPCs--both supporting characters and villains often recur or have a direct tie to other NPCs that have been previously established
  • Widen the Scope, but Have Recurring Locations--The team starts out in one city, has multiple adventures in several other cities around the world, but return to the same neighborhood in LA, and also have a safe location to visit in the Dominican Republic, which was also a location that they expanded into in previous movies. This provides a widening scope while providing stability and continuity as well.
  • Aspects--While most of what I have been talking about here has been regarding more granular RPG systems and Aspects are usually associated with Fate, having clear aspects for characters, locations, and even campaign arcs can be extremely useful for maintaining tone. The Fast and the Furious movies are filled with comments from characters that can serve as aspects, and intentionally noting these aspects can go a long way towards reinforcing tone and tying game elements together.
  • Internal Framing--Rome very succinctly explains how the stakes of the team’s various missions have escalated in a way that makes it very clear that everyone in the story knows the stakes are getting larger. I’m going to go one step further and explain that this is one thing that The Fast and the Furious does better than the extended Die-Hard series--it acknowledges that the actions have increased in scale. In Live Free or Die Hard, McLean acts as if he has always done things like taking out a helicopter with a car, but we all know this would have seemed wildly out of place for the tone of the original movie. “Players” in the Fast and the Furious “campaign” know the campaign structure and acknowledge it.
  • Everything Seems Intentional--I am under no illusions that the creators of the original Fast and the Furious movie, back in 2001, had a plan for 8+ movies. However, by carefully creating simple, easy to follow connections between previous characters, and having characters provide quick summaries of previous movies and how the new information fits with the previous movie, no matter how wild it seems, the movies feel like they are all an intentional extension of the previous movie (well, it took a little longer to get there with Tokyo Drift).

That’s a lot of words to justify an offhand tweet. Now I need to find another movie series to watch for RPG observations.

Friday, April 19, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews?--Uncaged Volume I (Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition)

Uncaged Volume I Volume I is an anthology of adventures from the Dungeon Masters Guild for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. Anthologies are nothing new, but this particular anthology is dedicated to looking at traditionally feminine monsters from mythology in new ways. This was an exciting prospect for me, so I was very interested to pick this up and look through it.

What About This Volume
This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is a 239-page document. As of the time of this review, there is also a print on demand option for purchase through the Dungeon Masters Guild. There are five pages of biographies and acknowledgments, and about 13 pages of player maps for the various adventures. The producer’s note, forward, and introduction take up two more pages, with a single page table of content.

The rest of the book is filled with adventures. There are full page images between the tiers of play, and then the multi-page adventures with headers, sidebars, and boxed text start. Where original creatures appear in an adventure, the pages with those statistics will usually appear on the last few pages of the adventure.

The formatting and overall appearance of this book is not only one of the best-looking Dungeon Masters Guild products I have seen, but it’s really striking and impressive compared to most modern RPGs. The font, borders, and artwork used works very well to invoke the mythological feel of the anthology.

A Note on Format

While not all of the adventures have identical formats, many follow a few similar trends, and they are worth calling out before we dive into the product as a whole. 

The header for most of the adventures not only calls out the title and the author, but also includes the mythological creature that is being featured, the level range for the adventure, and even content warnings. I would love for this to become more standard for adventures in general.

Often the adventures will have specific sections for conclusions. In cases where pivotal action or inaction from the PCs might have a dramatic effect, this section will often call out specifically what leads to which resolution. There is also a rewards section. In many cases this will call out how many XP various actions are worth, or if the adventure is assuming a different style of advancement. Many of the adventures that do provide XP rewards will call out actions that are not strictly combat, and there are often sections for treasure and story rewards as well.

The adventures then close out with author’s notes and an “about the author” section. I love the author’s notes section, because it removes any mystery the Dungeon Master might have about the theme of the adventure, and what the author hopes to bring across at the table. In fact, I think all of these sections together work so well for expressing clear intent, progression, and intentionality, that other D&D authors would do really well to use these adventures as templates for how to format adventures.

Tier I Adventures

The Tier I adventures (levels 1-4 if you don’t want to reference your D&D core rulebooks for a refresher) include adventures that feature the following creatures:

  • Merfolk
  • Siren
  • Dryad
  • Hags
  • Banshee
  • Lamia
  • Kumiho
  • Furies
  • Hades and Persephone (Represented by mortal NPCs)
  • Succubus
  • Medusa

Some of the creatures have multiple adventures that feature them, notably the banshee and hags. It's worth noting that this section establishes the trend up front that some adventures are not set in an established D&D setting, while others default to the Forgotten Realms. The adventures vary in how they recast the mythological creature in question. It’s not always a simple “flip” of “this monster is usually dangerous, but it's not in this adventure.” In some cases, the monsters aren’t malevolent, but in others, there may be a greater evil, and almost always there is a greater context to find out when it comes to origins and motivations.

I really like how all of these adventures flowed, with the possible exception of one that doesn’t really resolve so much as present two opposing forces and asks the PCs to choose, as the introduction to a larger campaign theme.

Tier 2 Adventures

The next section contains adventures for characters of levels 5-10, and features the following creatures:
  • Harpies
  • Medusa
  • Melusine
  • Drider
  • Hags
  • Ma’at

While all of the adventures, to one degree or another, call back to mythological sources, the adventures here (and some later in the anthology) use the actual names of mythological characters. Since the stories can diverge based on player action, I can see specifically including these names to make sure that players see the story elements at play and where they diverge, but to some degree, knowing the myth involved may also give away some of the elements beforehand. I’m not really picking a side on the conventions used for some of these adventures, it’s just something I think may be worth considering ahead of time.

One of these adventures feels a bit linear, where much of the point is experiencing a journey and then participating in the final scene, and I think that kind of story can work, but I also think it is the kind of story you most need player buy-in to get to work well.

Another element that gets some play in this section is not just the idea that creatures may not be as malevolent or monstrous as they are assumed to be, but that even the worship of some deities may have more nuance that expressed elsewhere in-game material. While I think it is definitely worth expanding the expectation of players, I do think that the same players that are open minded about misjudging individual creatures may default back into terms of black and white where “evil” gods are concerned. This isn’t a problem with the adventures that play with this trope, so much as me thinking out loud about the degrees of assumptions that might build up with players over the years.

Tier 3 Adventures

The adventures in this section are for characters 11-16th level, and involve the following creatures:
  • Pygmalion’s Statue
  • Lady White Snake
  • Valkyrie
  • Dullahan

I absolutely love the variables in play in the Lady White Snake adventure. Characters will always have similar relationships to one another, but who the villain is, and why, can shift between different playthroughs of the adventure, and I love that structure.

There is also another adventure in this section that has less of a beginning, middle, and end, and more of an “end of act one” feeling to it. It would be a good start for a campaign arc, and feels a little more resolved than the similar adventure I mentioned in the tier I adventures, but I think it may benefit from the DM providing some payoff to the situation left at the end.

Tier 4 Adventures

The final section is for adventurers 17-20th level, and features the following creature:

  • Gynosphinx

This adventure has a similar structure to one of the earlier adventures, where characters play through the adventure to gain context for a final scene, but in this case, their actions early on are less linear, and while they will eventually reach the conclusive end of the story, they have enough choices early on to change how everything resolves, and how much trouble the final scene is for them. I really like how the story is played out through the various rooms of the adventure.

An Open Door

The format is just so good for these adventures. The pacing and structure of the material in almost all of them is strong and clear. The way that the adventures introduce depth to traditionally feminine monsters varies and is done so well that it is both thought-provoking and unpredictable. There are so many adventures that deviate from D&D norms in just the right way, while still providing the experience that gamers would expect from playing adventurers in the game.

Looking for the Right Key

Not much in this anthology doesn’t land well, but there are a few adventures that, while thought-provoking, shouldn’t be self-contained for maximum impact, asking more of the DM than to just prepare and run the adventure. A few of the adventures have a narrative theme that has to be carefully maintained to avoid feeling too linear, so that players don’t forget the impact the final scenes should have. DMs may need to consider if using literal mythological names will give away too much of the plot in some instances.

Strongly Recommended--This product is exceptional, and may contain content that would interest you even if the game or genre covered is outside of your normal interests.

Pick this book up. If you aren’t into D&D, but you are into mythology, you want this book. If you want to see the best way to structure adventures to make them clear and easy for a DM to follow, you want this book. If you want to see a super impressive looking product, with all the formatting and artwork in the right places, you want this book. If you want a book with a ton of adventures that will be good to slot into existing campaigns or for one-shots, you want this book. If you want a book that is going to retrain players to think about monsters as beings with histories, motivations, and context, and not just a guilt-free thing to drop to zero hit points, you want this book.

I’m really looking forward to future volumes, and I am sorely tempted to order the print on demand version of the book.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Trouble with Annam

Wherein I talk about Storm King's Thunder . . . again . . .

I sketched out the outlines of the thoughts I’m about to present on Twitter, but I wanted to take some time and let them expand in an environment that isn’t quite so constraining. Lately there has been a lot of talk about how different species and cultures have been presented in D&D, how that has changed over time, and how it has not. This put my mind to pondering the plot of Storm King’s Thunder once again.

I love giants, and I really appreciated that at least some of the giant lore specifically created for the Forgotten Realms was utilized in the plot of this adventure. It also took place in the Sword Coast North, a location I’ve loved since I picked up The Savage Frontier back in the 1st edition AD&D days.

However, the more I think about the adventure, and what it could have said, and what it failed to say, I’m a little less thrilled with it than I was when I first read it. Some of this insight really didn’t hit me until I ran an Adventurers League adventure that alludes, briefly, to cyclops history in relation to other giants. The adventure never expounds on this, but the particular “story” of cyclopes in the Realms is that they believe they are true giants, while other giants often assume they are “giant-kin.”

The Problem with Annam

What’s the difference? True giants are descended from Annam’s sons, so they have a direct bloodline to him. Giant-kin have bloodlines that come from his wife Othea or his daughters in later generations. In the Ordening, giant-kin fall above all the small ones like humans and dwarves, but below all the true giants. Ogres and trolls, for example, don’t really labor under any illusions that they aren’t true giants.

But just looking at how this separation between true giants and giant-kin is established says a lot about giants. Mainly, that their religion is dominated by a huge, arrogant jerk that values sons more than daughters and expects his commands to be followed to the letter. Annam is not a nice deity. He makes declarations, doesn’t value women, and turns his back on his people whenever his demands aren’t met.

Content Warning: Rape and Misogyny

In the old 2nd edition lore around giants, Annam looks even worse than he does at a cursory glance. While some places cite that Annam is hostile to Othea, one of his wives, because she took Ulutia as a lover, it’s also in the lore that Annam was upset when Othea was raped by Vaprak, the progenitor of trolls and ogres. That is 100% messed up and inexcusable, and I’m not advocating a deep dive into this storyline ever be attempted by Wizards of the Coast. But there are still a lot of elements at play in the story of the giant gods that never get addressed.

In addition to his sons, who are the gods of the Storm, Cloud, Fire, Frost, Stone, and Hill giants, Annam also has daughters like Iallanis, Hiatea, and Diancastra. These goddesses are generally given “support” roles in the pantheon or are the patrons of giant-kin species. They aren’t as “important” as Surtur, Thrym, Stronmaus, or the others.

There is also another concept in giant religion, the Stormazin, essentially the highest of high priests among the giants.

What we got in Storm King’s Thunder was Annam having a fit, breaking the Ordening, and telling his children they weren’t worthy because they didn’t stop a dragon cult from summoning their goddess, and he really hates dragons. In other words, to be worthy, giants had to hate and punish what Annam hates and thinks is worthy of punishment. He’s going to let his family tear itself apart because he’s not happy with them.

Another Path

The resolution to Storm King’s Thunder, as presented, is a little soft. Maybe you restore the king, and maybe the Ordening is restored, but pretty much the giants aren’t a problem anymore. But given that we’re unlikely to see these themes revisited, what would have happened if, instead of just not mentioning that all the “true giants” happen to be descended from Annam’s sons, or just not mentioning how Annam treats his wife, we go one step further.

Wizards of the Coast has been working to not include as much problematic content in their rulebooks and adventures. Some of it is so entwined that it still shows up, but for the most part, they avoid adding in new problems, while still letting a little of the old bad stuff just sit there in plain view, like barnacles they fail to scrape off a ship. I don’t want to give them no credit at all, because they have done some work. But what if in some instances, instead of not adding in problematic content, we saw some addressed? This is what we could have had in Storm King’s Thunder.

We get an oracular giant wizard played for laughs early in the adventure that nudges the PCs in a direction, and vaguely tells them something is up with giants that they should solve. What if, instead of a vaguely prophetic giant wizard, we instead had a new Stormazin--a giant kin woman who was given the position by Hiatea, to unite giants to throw off their caste system while reaffirming their familial bonds to one another.

What if the point of the adventure is to find out that Annam allowed King Hekaton to be killed by a dragon to teach the giants a lesson, and the PCs were finding evidence of this to present to the assembled giants, so they could decide to forswear Annam? Let Hekaton’s youngest daughter take the throne, forge a new council of giants to make treaties and draw borders on equal terms, and maybe make the whole adventure about throwing off the trappings of an outdated, toxic patriarchy?

Instead of having the last few chapters kind of meander to a sort of conclusion, this would have potentially been a bold ending with lasting consequences. If the PCs don’t get the council to agree, giants continue to war against each other. They might help form a partial consensus, so that fighting slows and consequences for the small folk eventually lessen.

Given that this adventure already featured a good aligned frost giant as an ally, using diplomacy to highlight that not all giants fall into the overall assumptions of the species would have worked well. It might have even worked to have added in a sequence where the PCs help Harshnag depose Storvald for control of that faction of frost giants.

It’s great to see momentum in the wrong direction stop, but the more I think about it, and the more I read the ideas of others and see the exciting directions they are taking the RPG industry, the more I would love to see the momentum start up again in a new, more positive direction.