Wednesday, January 30, 2019

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

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

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

Parameters

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

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

The Setting

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

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

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

Moves and Clocks

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

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

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

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


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

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

New Versions of Familiar Elements

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

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

Momentous Find

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

Open Rift

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

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

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

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





Monday, January 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Dangerously: Mixing Potions

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

Living Dangerously: Scroll Mishaps

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

Marginal Success

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

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

Critical Action

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

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

Inspired  Resting

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

Inspired Healing

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

Inspirational Injuries

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

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

Massive Damage

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


Friday, January 25, 2019

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Order of Battle

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

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

General Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Details

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Thoughts

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

Corporal Punishments

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Riddles for GMs Who Don't Like Riddles

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. If you love puzzles that the players solve in Dungeons and Dragons, I’m not telling you that you are wrong. All I am going to say here is that I’m not particularly a fan of trying to have players figure out clever puzzles or riddles. If I don’t expect the PCs to provide proper descriptions for combat actions, I guess I’m not big on expecting PCs to explain crazy puzzles or riddles.

But wait, how can I justify this?

In one of the most iconic riddle contest in fantasy, Bilbo wins by coming up with a bullshit answer.

Riddler cheats all of the time--the crux of Batman defeating Riddler isn’t really solving his riddles, it's following the riddles to places Riddler has been, so that he can then find clues Riddler didn’t intend to leave behind.

In other words, the best trick a riddle or puzzle can pull off is to make you think that the riddle or the puzzle is the important thing.

Despite this, answering riddles and solving puzzles is a trope in fantasy and pulp adventure, and it’s not something you want to leave out of your D&D adventures, even if you don’t want to read up on logic puzzles to throw at your players and then pretend that their characters figured it out.

Here is a process I’ve been toying with for adding in some riddles that don’t require the player to know the answer, but aren’t just a matter of a PC making a single ability check, either.

First Things First

Is our riddle or puzzle active or passive?

Active or Passive (i.e. someone asking a riddle versus a riddle presented in a book or on the wall of a tomb).

Active

The character asking the riddle picks a skill. This determines the favored ability score and favored skill. The character then rolls that check to set the difficulty of the riddle.

The player character can make a wisdom (insight) check against the character asking the riddle, who opposes with a charisma (deception) check. If this is successful, the character knows the favored ability score and favored skill used for the riddle.

  • If the person asking the riddle allows the characters to confer, they gain advantage
  • If the player character guesses the right favored ability score and favored skill, they roll with advantage
  • If the character chooses the wrong favored ability score, they roll with disadvantage

Passive

The puzzle or riddle has a set DC, with a favored ability score and a favored skill. Characters cannot roll to “read” the puzzle as a passively presented puzzle will have no particular “tells.”

Most passive puzzles or riddles won’t have a means of preventing characters from conferring, but when magic gets involved, who knows? If the DM deems it makes sense, the PC solving the puzzle or riddle gets advantage from conferring with others

  • If the player character guesses the right favored ability score and favored skill, they roll with advantage
  • If the character chooses the wrong favored ability score, they roll with disadvantage
  • If the passively presented item is a puzzle, it may still require the characters to perform an action, which may still require other checks (for example, a dexterity check to set items in a certain pattern under a certain time limit, or a strength check to move a heavy item from one area of the room to another)

Wisdom Riddles or Puzzles

Wisdom riddles or puzzles are usually questions that have numerous solutions, where a character has to understand the context of what is being said to understand which of the fairly obvious answers applies in the current situation.

Intelligence Riddles or Puzzles

These are usually very precise riddles that lay out a complex series of variables that need to be evaluated to come to a single conclusion.

Resolution

Combat is boring if all you ever mention are the numbers. Puzzles and riddles using this system fall into this same pattern. Based on the favored ability score and skill, make sure to add some details to what the actual riddle was. It doesn’t have to be complete, but it could be something simple like:

  • The favored ability score and skill are intelligence (history)--the puzzle could be a map with several famous names and locations on it, requiring the PC to trace the path of a famous general through their campaigns
  • In another instance, the favored ability score and skill might be wisdom (insight)--the puzzle is a map with three paths traced on it, and to solve it, the PC in question may have to remember a nursery rhyme about how important it is to look for the easiest path to follow, even if it’s longer
  • A riddle might have wisdom (medicine) as its favored ability score and skill, and it might be a play on words describing a disease and what organs are most affected by that malady
  • In some cases, this may even give you the opportunity to convey some information about the campaign world to the PCs that you wish them to know, while providing context that avoids an info-dump. They knew about that general, nursery rhyme, or disease all long, and you can convey the specific to them after they make the check to tell them what their character already knew

Variations


You can always switch things up by giving more player facing clues, like that there are tapestries depicting heroes of old in antiquated armor and clothing to hint at history being important, or explaining that there is soil and gardening implements near a puzzle that requires intelligence (nature) to solve.

As always, if you give this system a whirl, please feel free to let me know how it works out. I’ve used it a few limited times in my games, but I’d love to get a little more data on how it works long term.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Baby Bestiary Caretaker Warlock (5e OGL 3rd Party Product)

I really appreciate it when a supplement can take a concept, do something novel with it, but still manage to make it feel as if it is still hitting the same notes as the material it draws from. The way this is normally done with Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition products is to create a subclass that has a unique set of features running along a theme. The product we’re looking at today changes this formula slightly.

The Baby Bestiary Caretaker Warlock is a product that, instead of creating a new subclass of the warlock, creates an alternative version of the class. If it’s a new class, why is it a warlock? The core of the class still revolves around an agreement between an entity and the PC, but in this case, the agreement is a much more defined arrangement, as the caretaker warlock gains powers in exchange for protecting the egg, or the newborn form, of a powerful creature.

Revealed Form

The PDF of this product is 26 pages, including an ad for Metal Weave Game’s other products. In keeping with this being a Baby Bestiary affiliated product, there are many pictures of cute coatl, dragons, and phoenix, as well as their caretakers. There are various bold headers and tables throughout, as well as various sidebars explaining concepts or putting information in context.

Form and Function

While not split into specific chapters, the PDF is divided, generally, into the overall class abilities, a section on how you acquired your patron, and a separate section for each of the following types of patrons for the caretaker: Phoenix, Couatl, Dragon Turtle, and Dragon.

General Assumptions

The default assumption is that your patron is still in an egg, and that the egg doesn’t suffer damage unless the warlock has already been incapacitated. There is some discussion about how to handle running the companion with separate statistics, but they largely exist to be protected, so there isn’t much benefit to allowing them to have separate stats outside of the default assumption.

There is also some discussion on the differences between how the creature might function once hatched, but largely, this just means that patron is mobile, and the same option to keep them free of separate statistics is still an option, even if they are a hatchling instead of an egg.

Class Structure

The class is introduced with a discussion on the product’s assumption (that the creatures in the product are so cosmologically important as to be able to strike bargains with their caretakers), as well as a discussion on “homebrewed” game content and its inclusion in the game.

Despite being an alternative version of the warlock, the class abilities appear at the same place in the level progression that abilities appear for the standard warlock. Patron Insights replaces Otherworldly Patron, and Imparted Magic replaces Pact Magic--these function very similarly to the replaced options from the standard warlock, with the altered story elements revolving around the patron striking a deal with the essence of the creature they are protecting and receiving insight and abilities from the idealized form of the creature.

Entrusted Boon replaces Pact Boon, and is flavored as a gift that the creature being protected gives to their protector. The entrusted boons include the following options:
  • Entrusted Awareness
  • Entrusted Blade
  • Entrusted Servant
  • Entrusted Shield (this option is noted in the current PDF as still in development)
  • Entrusted Tome


If some of those options sound familiar, yes, most of them function very much like the similar option that standard warlocks receive. 

We don’t get into a lot of departure in the overall structure, but I can understand why the class was presented with the new terminology. While the concept of the bond with the patron is similar, the language of protecting a young creature that will grow into its power flavors how the class feels.

One of the biggest departures is the parting gift, the ability bestowed on the warlock when the creature is old enough to take care of itself and it moves on. The caretaker gains a special ability related to an ability score, and gains the ability to call on their patron, in their adult form, once per week, with the patron not staying more than 48 hours to help their former protector.

It’s potentially powerful, but it’s also the capstone 20th level ability. It feels more powerful than getting back all of your expended spell slots, but it’s also subject to how the DM wants to play the NPC (a patron dragon, for example, will want to help their old friend, but just because the PC wants them to level an army for them, they may not want to do so--they may just make sure the PC is safe from harm and give them some advice).

There are tables with various invocations listed, and the tables subdivide them into patron specific invocations, cantrip focused, and boon focused invocations. While the standard warlock list includes invocations depending on pact boons and cantrips, the patron specific boons presented are a nice thematic way to reinforce the logical abilities granted by the patrons presented in this product.

How Did You Acquire Your Patron and Patron Mishap Tables

While this section is comprised of tables, I wanted to call it out separately, because I really enjoy some of the details added on these lists. I like the idea of the origin story of the link between patron and warlock, and it gives you backstory bits like patron and warlock dying at the same time and returning to life linked, as an example.

The mishap table has lots of great entries about what kind of trouble your newly hatched patron might get into, but unlike the similar product that Metal Weave produced for companions, there isn’t really a trigger for when to use these mishaps. The mishaps also assume that at some point in the story you will opt to have the creature hatch, which isn’t spelled out as happening at any specific time in the campaign.

Guardian of Rebirth, Guardian of Sunset, Guardian of the Deep Scale, Guardian of the Scaled Skies

There are separate sections for phoenix, couatl, dragon turtle, and dragon patrons. The structure of each of these is similar, providing a quirk of the patron, some questions to ask to flesh out the patron, an expanded spell list, and some special abilities gained as the warlock levels up.

The phoenix special abilities revolve around fire and healing, the couatl abilities revolve around divinations and psychic bonds, the dragon turtle grants abilities that armor and protect the warlock, as well as providing a breath weapon, and the dragon grants abilities that revolve around command, bravery, draconic senses, and claws.

The Real Treasure Was The Friends We Made Along The Way

I love this concept. It still feels exactly like the concept of the warlock, but with an interesting twist that potentially uses the same elements to make a class that is less sinister or reckless than it is born of circumstance. The powers and abilities play into the theme of the specific patrons well, and overall, despite being an alternate version of the warlock, it still feels very much like the warlock.

Friendship Isn’t Always The Best Treasure

While I understand representing aspects of the class to flavor them in a more fitting manner, this does mean that there is a lot of material that is reprinted with a different title. Since the shared health feature is written into the class, I’m not sure it’s worth the time to discuss the alternate rules for creating separate stats for the patron. I wish it were a little more spelled out when to transition from egg to hatchling, instead of leaving everything variable, even if it’s just a default from which to deviate.

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 is a great product for doing something different with the warlock, but if you really like a warlock that is either sinister or dabbling with powers they shouldn’t dabble with, this shifts that feel dramatically. If you want something that hews a little closer to standard alternate pact features or patrons, it also pushes the boundaries a bit more. Additionally, there are still a few places in the product that are flagged as being under development, although the page on RPGNow has this boldly called out.

On the other hand, I think there are a lot of roleplaying opportunities created with this product. Having not long ago watched the Dragon Prince, I can’t help but see this as a way of adding some elements of that kind of story to your D&D game. It’s very imaginative, and worth a look if you do like the idea of pushing the boundaries of what a warlock is in your campaign.

Monday, January 14, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? College of the Opera Bard (Dungeon Masters Guild Product)

Despite not being able to sing or play an instrument, I have loved bards in Dungeons and Dragons since 2nd edition. And the only reason it took me that long is that I had no idea what bards even were in 1st edition, other than “complicated.”

Given that I love bards, it didn’t take me long to notice the College of the Opera bard when it started appearing in my social media feeds. Sadly, it did take a while to get back into the flow of writing reviews for the site because, well, holidays and end of semester reports at work tend to get in the way of RPG reviews. But enough of the real world!

The College of the Opera Bard is a product on the Dungeon Masters Guild, presenting a new bard subclass. It follows the same format as the other bard colleges, so the product only comes in at two pages. It was written by Hannah Rose (you can find her on the Worlds Apart actual play), with Kelli Butler (real-life opera singer, and participant in various streamed games).

The Look

The product is in a two-page format, with a title page with credits, and a second page that has similar formatting to the standard sub-class layout in the Player’s Handbook. Instead of artwork, the featured images are photographs of Kelli Butler in two different performance costumes, and that’s a nice, unique touch that sets the look of the product apart from others.

The Content

The product starts with an explanation of how bards of the College of Opera differ from other colleges, and a brief introduction to what the opera world may look like in a fantasy world, and why renowned members of the College of the Opera might have goals that lead them to adventuring.

Early class abilities revolve around gaining multiple new languages. Because the College of the Opera bard is so focused on their voice, even spells that do not require a verbal component require the bard to use their voice as a focus. While this is a nice thematic element, it’s not especially impactful, as there are very few spells on the bard spell list that don’t have a verbal component.

College of the Opera bard gain shatter in addition to their regular spells, and it functions differently for the subclass, operating as a cone that has multiple additional effects, some of which don’t trigger unless the spell is cast at higher levels.

At 6th, 10th, and 15th level, the College of the Opera bard gains an aria, and these interact with other bard abilities, such as the uses of bardic inspiration or the Song of Rest ability. These arias allow the bard to spend their bardic inspiration to give advantage or disadvantage under certain circumstances, as well as granting temporary hit points in addition to the benefits of healing for the Song of Rest.

At 14th level, the bard gains two additional abilities. When seeing someone else using the bardic inspiration you provide, it can grant the bard their own inspiration. In addition to this ability, the bard gains the ability to seize someone’s soul with their performance, which grants special benefits while the soul is possessed.

High Note

Several of the abilities granted to this class nicely reinforce the opera theme. The minor modifications to standard abilities lend themselves to defining this subclass. The abilities of the subclass seem like they would be fun, but not so great that they outshine other bard subclasses. I absolutely love the Capture Soul ability, but . . .

Discordance

Capture Soul feels a little overpowered compared to other capstone abilities for subclasses, but 15th level abilities can get a little crazy. I’m almost hesitant to try and balance being able to make decisions about if a character can be raised or to block their soul being captured against getting an extra attack when casting a spell, or getting a secret juiced up charm spell, because Capture Soul is powerful, but the most powerful aspects of it are very situational (and the advantage on charisma checks is slightly less impressive than the charm the College of Whispers provides).

There also isn’t another bard college that has two 15th level abilities, but I really like the concept of being inspired by seeing someone use the inspiration you gave them.

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

If you are interested in bards at all, and are open to 3rd party material or DMs Guild products, you won’t regret this purchase. In addition to being an interesting additional option for bards, the subclass fits in well with an urban campaign, and the last time I checked, there were at least a few recent D&D products with an urban focus.

As an aside, regardless of the power level comparisons, I would love to see what kind of creative situations could be derived from a high-level bard temporarily holding the soul of another character, and I really like the idea of soul shenanigans that result from more “mythic” abilities, rather than being derived from necromantic or divine origins.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Leveraging Temporary Hit Points for Interesting Combat in D&D


I have an idea percolating that comes from the crossroads of two realizations about Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. The first concept is basic, but it is simply that NPCs don’t have to be built according to the same rules as PCs. The rules work the same way, but an NPC spellcaster, for instance, doesn’t need to be built as a Level X member of Class Y.

The other realization is that temporary hit points are kind of magical. What I mean by that is that the fact that they can’t build on themselves, but can keep renewing whenever a given circumstance is true, means that you can toughen something up considerably if you give it temporary hit points, but you don’t undermine the ability to actually defeat that thing, once you get past those temporary hit points.

Specific Example

The magic of temporary hit points really struck me when reading an adventure for Adventures in Middle-earth. That adventure has a stat block for a guard that gives them temporary hit points every round, until they sound an alarm. In other words, once they fulfill their purpose, they are less potent in the scene.

I thought this was a wonderful use of that set of rules. The guard demands more of the PCs attention because they represent a potential greater threat for what they can do. Once they can’t do that thing anymore, they are much easier to deal with, themselves, even if the evolving scene then becomes more complicated.

Fictional Combat

It’s a common trope in action-oriented fiction that some characters are more dangerous in a fight until the person fighting them “figures them out,” and then everything falls into place. While hit points are an abstraction, and may represent this to some degree, the mechanics of hit points don’t do a good job of telling that story.

That’s not to say it still doesn’t work to say that hit points are an abstraction of health, luck, and vigor in combat. It’s just that lumping all three of those together means it’s harder to figure out when you took the wind out of an opponent’s sails, or when they ran out of luck. When it comes to d20 level-based systems, I’m not a huge fan of trying to carve up hit points into discreet packages, but hit points are just a resource for how long an opponent stays in a fight.

Confidence

What all this led me to is potentially creating a trait for NPCs called confidence. Not every NPC should have this, just important NPCs for which combat should be more of a puzzle than a straight forward game of attrition.

Confidence works like this—so long as something is true in a fight, the character with confidence gains X number of temporary hit points. What that something is may be obvious, or it may take the PCs doing some investigation or using insight to determine.

Lesser confidence. If a given condition remains true, the character with this trait gains temporary hit points on their turn equal to their challenge rating.

Greater confidence. If a given condition remains true, the character with this trait gains temporary hit points equal to 3 x the number of opponents they are facing on their turn.

Examples

Characters with lesser confidence may be zealots who gain that benefit so long as their altar or idol remains intact. They might be troops that are so heartened by their commander that they gain the benefit so long as their commander takes the field with them. They may also be creatures that favor the darkness so heavily that they gain that bonus if there are no bright light sources in the area.

In the cases above, if the PCs destroyed the altar, killed or drove off the commander, or created a bright light source, the Lesser Confidence trait no longer triggers.

As far as Lesser Confidence goes, it’s not likely to be something that makes a creature invincible, but it is something that will make a large group of monsters take longer to whittle down, giving the weight of their numbers more time to wear at the PCs resources.

Characters with Greater Confidence may rely on a specific weapon for their fighting style, or they may be heartened by holding an item that it has taken them years to attain. They may be enamored of a given comrade in arms, or they may be exuberant if a ritual is under way.

In this case, taking away the weapon or item, removing the ally from the fight, or making the ritual impossible to complete will stop Greater Confidence from triggering.

Math

I haven’t had a chance to try out the math on any of this, and I couldn’t comment as to how the above traits would affect a character’s CR. To be honest, these are traits I would be more likely to tack onto an existing stat block to make a fight more dynamic, rather than something I would “build in” to the assumed capabilities of a new character.

The point isn’t so much that the PCs should “power through” the temporary hit points as much as they should figure out what is providing them and could remove they source of the confidence.

As Always

If you happen to use these ideas, and have some thoughts on how they worked, please let me know. If I could work them into something, I’ll be providing an update as well.