Monday, June 3, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? The Streets of Avalon (5e OGL)


Anyone that picked up Deities and Demigods for 1st edition AD&D was exposed to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, even if they had never read any of the stories about those characters. Because I was exposed to those characters, I was immediately drawn to the Lankhmar City of Adventure book when it first came out. It was about a year before I fell head over heels for the Forgotten Realms and developed a love for Waterdeep when FR1 Waterdeep and the North arrived.

My friend had already picked up the World of Greyhawk boxed set, but at the time, Greyhawk still just felt like the most important dot where you could sell your stuff and buy supplies (please forgive me this heresy, years later I would come to really enjoy the City of Greyhawk boxed).

I was too young at the time to understand why Lankhmar and Waterdeep affected me, but it started to make more sense when the 2nd edition Forgotten Realms Adventures hardcover and the Volo’s Guides came out. What I was starting to understand was that cities weren’t dots that you stopped at between adventures.

Knowing the guilds, temples, rulers, important figures, districts, and economy of a city gave that city character. Once you know that one neighborhood is controlled by thieves, and another is haunted, and that you go to a particular tavern in a particular quarter to rest and relax, it becomes easier to picture adventures that take place almost entirely in that city.

Eventually, you don’t just know the personality of the city, you know the quirks of the different wards, and what kind of businesses you can expect on certain streets. And that’s when you can start to picture yourself walking down those streets.

Those are the thoughts that are in my head when I think of a good city supplement for a fantasy roleplaying game, and that’s what I have in mind as I look at The Streets of Avalon, a new 5e supplement release by Encoded Designs.

Disclaimer

If this review were going up at Gnome Stew, I would have pointed out that there is a lot of overlap between some of the gnomes and Encoded Design, and that’s part of why I put this particular review on my personal blog. Beyond that, I feel that I should point out that not only do I listen to Gaming and BS, but I have met Brett Bloczynski, the originator of the city of Avalon, at multiple conventions. Take that as you will.

City Limits

This review is based on the PDF version of The Streets of Avalon. The PDF is 121 pages long, with an index and four pages of thanks listing the backer names from the Kickstarter, and of course, two pages dedicated to the OGL statement.

The cover is black and white, but the glow of yellow from the city lights permeates the image, giving it more of an impression of a city at twilight. Interior art is black and white, including a city map and multiple full-page scenes.

In addition to the bold and clear headers, there are numerous bullet points as well as specially formatted pages to indicate the ongoing narrative of a visitor to the city and their impressions (which ties directly into the actual play of the game that can be found here).

The Overview of Avalon

The first section of the book is a broad overview of the setting presented in the book. This begins with a description to the reader as if they are a person in the city itself. This transitions to a discussion of various elements of the city and its people.

City Details

The next section discusses architecture and the various regions of the city. There is also a map that shows the overall appearance of the city. We get information on the coins used in the city, the calendar, as well as festivals. There is an interesting naming convention for years and months that involves animals for months and mythical creatures for years.

Wealth in the city favors silver pieces of D&D’s standard gold, and there is also a non-standard rate of exchange for copper/silver/gold pieces. I love this for the sake of being evocative, but this is one of those times where I wish D&D abstracted wealth a bit more so that the actual value of coins was more background detail than something to keep track of on a granular level (I’d be tempted just to shift everything “down,” and make silver the standard instead of gold for ease of use).

All of the festivals have some nice background explaining why they exist, and what they mean to the inhabitants. I especially liked the Festival of the Golden Lanterns, with its evocative origin as a ritual hunt for Odin’s missing eye. There is just enough detail for most of these festivals that they would make a nice backdrop to add context to an adventure.

Religion

Religion in Avalon is the next topic. There are ten faiths detailed, as well as a militant splinter group of one of the religions. There is a mix of historical deities like Odin and Hermes, with fictional deities. The level of detail of the gods feels very much in keeping with stories by Howard or Leiber, where a familiar name might give you some clues about the god, but they won’t be 100% what you expect them to be from their mythology.

My favorite aspect of this section is that it is less “here are facts about this god that is worshipped in the city,” and more “this is what the faith looks like and here is what they believe, which includes some details about what they think is true about their god.” It grounds the religion section in a more functional, narrative-driven view.

One thing that did jump out at me is the Mob of Kali—Kali is a divinity that has been patronizingly oversimplified in western media for a long time, mainly used as a patron of assassins and portrayed as a goddess of murder. In this book, the Mob of Kali are essentially anarchists. While I appreciate the fresh take, the other, more Euro-centric gods tend to be at least partially recognizable, while Kali just gets her name borrowed for this section.

Organizations and Institutions

What comes next are details on government organizations, the different families, the watch (with variations by ward), and guilds. I particularly like the way guilds are described. Everything worth doing has a guild associated with it, and it’s not legal to do that job without being a guild member. I would love to play around with the political wrangling involved in new guilds redefining old jobs in order to subsume aspects of established guilds, and how that plays out. Beyond the more mundane guilds, the thieves and assassins guilds in the city also get some detail here as well.

Universities and schools in the city come next. I enjoy when these are included in fantasy cities. Established schools have existed for a long time in the real world, and add a lot of character to various cities and neighborhoods, but many fantasy settings fail to add educational institutions as one of the fine details.

The Supernatural

This section details monsters and supernatural entities that have a particular place in the city, or at least whose existence causes continued issues for the city. Aboleths, brain gorgers, doppelgangers, dragons, the fae, undead, lycanthropes, and sea monsters have entries in this section, although only the brain gorgers (they fill a niche very similar to certain tentacled humanoids that may flay minds in other settings) and lamplighters have new stats.

The aberrations in the setting slipped in during the Soul War, and I’m happy to see aboleths get some attention as one of the persistent threats to the city. I also enjoy the relationship established between the brain gorgers and the doppelgangers, which lends itself to adventure plots.

Fae creatures aren’t just traditional fae—monsters that, in D&D terms, aren’t fae are listed as being Seelie or Unseelie in origin, and depending on their temperament and how they interact with the world and other beings, a fae creature can change into another type of fae. I like the folklore elements that are reintroduced to several of these creatures, but the goblin lore is inspired. Rumor has it they steal children, but the actual way it works is more nuanced and makes goblins a lot more interesting than they may seem at first pass.

Less troublesome and more integral to the city are otyughs, which are trained and used by the guilds to keep the sewers in good repair, and the lamplighters. The lamplighters do exactly what it says, but they are also creepy, powerful supernatural entities that just know things, and can be bargained with to share their knowledge, for the right, usually creepy, weird, and inscrutable, price.

The Feel of Avalon

The next section is a direct discussion with the reader about using the setting in games. It talks about the feel of the city and how to properly convey this to players. There is a checklist of various elements that can help a GM turn the dials up or down on aspects like intrigue, location, and power groups. There are also some outlines on the types of adventures that are common for the setting.

This section also discusses motivating players to stay in the city, and the advantages of having a base of operation. This is mechanized by giving the PCs advantage for a certain number of rolls they make when they are at their base of operations, as well as rules for maintaining the base and a chart of issues that the PCs will periodically have to engage.

There are guidelines and checklists for running various types of adventures, such as political intrigue or heists. The section on heists contains a Heat mechanic that gives the GM a resource to spend to complicate an ongoing criminal adventure, which is somewhat similar to how Heat works in Dusk City Outlaws. I’m not complaining, because I like Dusk City Outlaws, and I like narrative currency that has well-defined uses.

The section on investigations has additional guidelines as well. In this case, instructing GMs to give the PCs important clues and only use things like investigation checks to get additional helpful information. This reminds me of various Gumshoe games, and again, that’s a good place to find inspiration.

Another interesting modification to the rules comes in the Monster Hunting section. Because truly monstrous creatures are somewhat rarer in the city, the monster hunting section suggests that creatures that really are supernatural threats can be driven off by reducing them to zero hit points, but like more modern monster hunting stories, permanently killing the monster usually involves finding a specific weakness and using it to make sure the monster is permanently dispatched.

There are a number of suggested mechanical changes to align with the setting. There are no actual gods, so clerics use spellbooks in the same manner as wizards, although they believe their power is divine in nature. There is also a modification to the Divine Intervention ability to reflect this aspect of the setting.

Paladins, Monks, and Sorcerers don’t exist in the setting. Various spells like teleport or raise dead don’t function (although thankfully, revivify still squeaks by the harsher restrictions). Guns and gunpowder exist as well.

Player character species are limited to human, half-elf, half-orc, and halfling. Dwarves and elves exist in the setting, but are remote beings from a long-lost age, and rarely seen. The nobles of the city have elf blood in them, and some outlanders may have something in their lineage that hearkens back to an era when humans were less dominant in the world.

The optional Slow Natural Healing and Gritty Realism rules from the DMG are suggested for the campaign, as are the Fear and Horror and Madness rules from the DMG. I have wanted to use the Slow Natural Healing and Gritty Realism rules in the past, to see how this affects the pacing of the game, but I’m not a huge fan of the Madness rules—they feel both reductive and a little bit too vague at the same time.

Restricting species to less fantastic humanoids is one choice that feels in keeping with inspirations like Lankhmar, where there were other intelligent species in the world (ghouls, aquatic people, ice gnomes), but they were the people you met on adventures, not the characters you followed as protagonists.

Overall, what I like about this chapter is that it overtly and clearly speaks to the purpose and intent of the material in the book. There are times when I feel like the RPG setting books are continually locked in the past, where the designers are trying to prove how clever they are by not explicitly explaining why they added various items to the book, often to the detriment of ease of use. This book doesn’t have that problem.

The Avalon Neighborhood

This isn’t a chapter exhaustively detailing all of the neighborhoods in the city, or even the important neighborhoods. It details several sample neighborhoods, explaining who is in charge, the businesses and people located there, and details a sample adventure arc that might be associated with the location.

In a few places, there are statistics for elements that might come up, like a less powerful version of a monster that might be lurking in a region, or the game effects of intoxicants.

This chapter is a strong tool for multiple reasons. Not only does it give a clear overview of what a neighborhood should look and feel like, it also gives several adventure arcs that can be easily used at the table. I’ve always been a big fan of sample adventures in a setting or core rulebook to see what use the designers intended for the product, but I have also become a big fan of books that provide sample adventures that are more detailed outlines rather than formal adventures with exact stats for things like traps or detailed floorplans. This covers both of those.

Random Encounters for Avalon

This section provides multiple charts for various areas of the city, from the docks, to houses in different wards of the city, to basements and sewers. The charts aren’t just a list of monsters or NPCs, however. They are short descriptions of actual encounters.

In other words, they are framed more as “You see [X] and they do [action], then [effect] happens,” rather than “city guards,” or “rats.” The additional level of detail helps maintain the feel of the setting, and just a few more words and framing these as events rather than out of context lists of characters helps to make these better jumping off points for scenes.

Living in the North District

There is a ton that this book does exactly right. This book directly explains how it is meant to be used. It conveys a sense of history without diving into a complicated timeline. It made lots of smart choices about what not to include as well as what to include (no need to complicate things with the outside world, for example, or exact population figures). So many of the details had me thinking of how I would use that at the table in play, and where the setting deviates from standard D&D assumptions, it deviates towards the direct inspirations of D&D, so that even those deviations don’t feel so staggering. The artwork and the intentional use of black and white does a lot to convey the feel of the book as well.

Under the Docks

I’m not certain how I feel about the Mob of Kali, though it’s definitely not the worst use of Kali in an RPG product. While I understand the intent behind the changes to the cleric, I think bolting the wizard’s spellbook onto them is a little too complicated. I think just requiring a prayer book to swap out spells after a long rest might be enough to get across the feel. I’m also not sure the DMG’s madness rules are the best way to represent extreme stress on characters, but I haven’t seen a D&D expression that has been more satisfying.

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

If you have any interest in sword and sorcery fantasy cities, and you want something that has a clearly identifiable personality of its own, you are going to want to pick up this book. While there are a few stats for creatures or difficulty classes listed, the vast majority of the book is just details on the city and how to use it, and you could easily use this product for Savage Worlds, Genesys, Fate, or whatever other system you have that can handle the sword and sorcery genre.

As a setting, it is evocative. As a game product, it is obviously designed to be a user-friendly tool, and not just a setting book. It is a great melding of both of those key elements.

1 comment:

  1. I backed this on KS but haven't read mine yet, I'm looking forward to it more after reading your review.

    ReplyDelete