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.

Monday, April 15, 2019

What Do I Know About Books? The Ruin of Kings


For anyone that followed my Google+ account, I would, infrequently, post about books that I had finished, usually those that fell into the sci-fi or fantasy genres. I’m thinking of adding this to the blog now that Google+ is gone, and having just finished a book that fits those parameters, I thought it might be time to try this out.

With all of that out of the way, today, we’ll be looking at The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons.

Book Data

The Ruin of Kings was published on February 5th, 2019. The physical copy of the book is 548 pages long, and for the purposes of this review, I listened to the audiobook format, which is 27 hours and 15 minutes long. While the initial version that I downloaded did not have this subtitle attached, the book is now listed as Book One of the Chorus of Dragons series.

Content Warning

This book contains the following content of which readers may want to be aware. There are references to sexual assault and non-consensual sexual content, but no active scenes portraying this activity. There are several graphically violent scenes, and the book also contains scenes depicting slavery and the loss of free will and agency by the perspective characters.

Voice

The story is told as two intertwining narratives, two by two separate characters, with a third character adding points of clarification throughout the text as he reviews the other accounts. All three characters are narrating the events in the life of the protagonist, who is also one of the three voices telling the story. The two primary narrators split the difference between the protagonist’s life from several years ago, and a perspective that is closer to the “modern” time of the setting.

While this was initially a little jarring and made it harder to for me to get engaged with the story, after a few chapters I was invested, and looking forward to the interjections from the third party reviewing the accounts.

Setting

Much of the story revolves around locations in a fantasy world that appear to be in a more southern climate. The environments tend to revolve around a city, lost ruins, islands, and the sea. There are some standard fantasy staples in the setting, such as dragons and demons, as well as some elements that fill similar but slightly different niches, such as a race of spined and tentacled creatures that almost fills the orc or goblin niche, and a race of very long lived humanoids that fill the elf niche, although they are more “long lived and in the know” than “eternal and wise.”

Tropes

The book touches various fantasy tropes, from local thieves’ guilds and gangs, to organizations of assassins, secret societies, and prophesy. Much of the book plays with the concept of prophesy by introducing it as a plot element while also emphasizing how much almost every character referring to prophesy hates the concept.

The concept of geas is very important to the overall story, although it has its own nuance in this setting that grows the longer the narrative continues.

Destiny Fulfilled

The language of the book is very fluid--it conveys a fantasy setting while using a lot of modern terminology, but that terminology never quite feels out of place, especially as some of the more underlying details about the setting are revealed.

Khirin could have been a very tiresome “chosen one” template, but his sarcasm helps smooth this over, as does the changing context of what a chosen one even is in this narrative.

While it was a difficult start for me, I eventually loved that entangled past and present storytelling construction and was actively looking forward to the interjections by the third party reviewing the account (and was happy when that character’s role in the story changes and expands).

Geas Feedback

Khirin is a white male protagonist. A lot of the important people seem to fall into the Caucasian range of appearance, and it feels a bit like the people of color in the book fall into “exotic” territory. While there is some subversion, especially with the most powerful goddesses in the setting, a lot of the women in the book fall into the roles of spellcasters or social manipulators, and those that are skilled assassins or thieves tend to do their work “offscreen.”

I’ll also admit, part of that feeling about Caucasian seeming characters versus characters that are people of color may be a little off on my part, because there are so many nationalities and descriptions thrown around, without being tied too closely to individual characters, that I may have lost track of who had what traits. It gets to be a little too much to follow at times.

I’m not sure if it’s a plus or a minus that the royal bloodlines are noted as magically changing their appearance to have similar features, because it moves away from “bloodline superiority,” but still establishes a social class with those features.

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.

The narrative does a great job of creating unique origins for dragons and gods, and putting a new spin on how magic works and the importance of geas, and with all of that new or traditional with a new spin on it, I would have loved to have seen that with less slavery, sexism, and sexual violence. I think having a young male protagonist helps insofar as part of the story is subverting expectations for a “chosen one” narrative and leaning into it before leaning away from it is a nice touch.

While the narrative structure is a little different, and it is not directly following the same template, something about the story feels a little reminiscent of the Kingkiller Chronicles. Maybe it’s the naturally talented young boy with musical ability, or the switch between modern day and the character’s past. Depending on how you feel about the Kingkiller Chronicles, this may or may not be a welcome comparison.

Given that my most recent reads were either much grimmer and more cynical, or much more casually misogynistic, I enjoyed this book, despite a few too many “standard” fantasy pitfalls. It may even be possible that as the series unfolds, some of these tropes will be recontextualized, but I can’t review future installments until they happen, so this book is going to have to stand on its own for now.