Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Wish List for D&D 5e (Let Me Give You Money!)



I thought I would take some time to look at products that I want, regarding Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, but with a little bit of a twist. To the best of my knowledge, these are things that don’t currently exist in exactly the form that I want them. Running 5e for a few years now, I’ve got some specific ideas on what I would love to have as far as toys to play with that might make the experience even better.

Monster Tokens

But Jared, you say, kind and gentle reader, monster tokens already exist, and in great and myriad forms! Ah, indeed, you would be correct, but let me explain what I mean. And serious, if you did specifically talk to me while reading my blog, I apologize for my lack of telepathic response.

What I would like is a set of tokens with the following traits:


  • Tokens with a different symbol on the token by creature type (humanoid, dragon, undead, aberration, etc.)
  • A different color on the flip side so that you could denote special monsters of the same type in a group of those monsters (a leader with different stats, for example)
  • Obviously different sizes for those creatures that exist across the spectrum of sizes


So why would this be a good idea, when we already have so many other options for miniatures and tokens?

First, as much as I love having all of the token I have, it does get to be a pain digging out my hobgoblins from my orcs or my bugbears, and once there is a distinctive picture on the token, I don’t actually want to use the “wrong” token. Some of this is a storage issue, but some of this is just the sheer variety of monsters that exist in the game now.

Additionally, there is always going to be a lag between when a new monster appears, and when a token representing that monster or something similar is likely to be produced.

Another consideration is that sometimes random encounters, reinforcements, or summoning means that producing an accurate representation for that creature is going to take some time, and having broader tokens increases spontaneous use of new creatures in an encounter.

Sure, I realize I could just not be as uptight about using the “wrong” token, but in all seriousness, it does make me less anxious to have a consistent presentation for what I am using, and I’m curious to see if I’m not alone in this desire for a uniform, more generic presentation of tokens.

It also feels like having generic tokens of this nature would be a benefit to someone just getting into the hobby, that wants to use tactical presentation, but doesn’t want to invest in a wider range of tokens.

Guided Pregenerated Characters

If you have seen the starter set for some of Fantasy Flight’s RPGs, you may know what I’m talking about with these. It’s a pregenerated character, but it has a few extra pages showing what that character looks like when it gets a little more experience, so the pregen isn’t just useful for a single adventure without advancement, but can show a player how that character might grow over a short period of time.

A better idea of what I really want can be found in Mike Shea’s Sly Flourish adventures. These characters have a streamlined set of traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws to customize the characters, and also has levels 1st through 5th on the same character sheet, showing how the character gains hit points, the changes in proficiency bonuses, extra spells gained at higher levels, etc.

I would love to see something very similar to the Sly Flourish pregens, but expanded to a full, separate product, that has even more options. For example, the Sly Flourish pregens have the most iconic combination, for example, a half-orc barbarian. While there is some customization allowed with the traits, etc., I would love a little more in the way of generic background benefits that can be mixed and matched for a minor extra boost, etc. I would also love to see a few more combinations (a slightly different barbarian pregen for human barbarians, or dwarf barbarians, etc.)

I’d also like to see a “snap on” gear package to add to the characters, so that not only could these pregens be quickly levels up, but could be more quickly and fully be used to just play a 3rd or 5th level adventure with the pregens. Ideally with multiple packages per class to allow for some more customization.

While it might be cool to expand the level range for the pregens, it might get more complicated to do the quick summary of leveling up that 1st through 5th level allows (although starting each set of pregens with a “base” of the first level of that tier, with advancement options just for that tier, might work).

I think this would be a great tool for DMs that want to run a wider range of one-shots, and a great tool for players that may be fine engaging the rules at the table, but not interested in diving into options to build characters when not playing an adventure. It feels like a strong bridge to casual players.

More of the Same Monsters, but Different!

I love new monster books, but sometimes I have realized as I have been running D&D 5e over time is that sometimes what I really want is the same monster, but different. This is something that 4e did a lot, creating different versions of the same monster, in a similar CR range, but with slightly different roles in combat.

When it comes to using 5e rules tech, what I would love to see is traditional monsters, but given more recharge abilities, so that the DM has a fun button to push, and maybe a few more customized reactions. I would also love a few more monsters with Legendary abilities.

Not only should Legendary options exist for “boss” versions of standard monsters, but Legendary abilities could be used for the trope of the “monarch of a particular kind of animal” trope. Third edition had templates for legendary or singular beasts, like the ancient, legendary bear that lives in the cave at the heart of the forest, but those templates often just added more hit dice, levels, and better armor class. Legendary actions (and recharge and custom reactions, as mentioned above) would be great for expressing this concept.

It feels like 5e did something good with keeping the 4e paradigm of not building monsters by the exact same rules as player characters but stopped short with a lot of monsters. There are a lot of tools that could make monsters run in a manner that is more fun for the DM, and more challenging for the player, but not in a manner that drains the DM’s tactical cognitive abilities by anticipating all the player options and optimizing what the monsters have available (which was a great innovation in 4e monsters--not quite autopilot, but not the tactical arms race that 3rd edition monsters required to keep up with PCs).

Investigation Check

If some of these things exist already, please let me know. I try to keep my eyes open, but I’m sure I have missed some things here and there. The RPG space, especially regarding 5e, is a pretty sprawling place. If not, I would love to throw money at these ideas in the future.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Star Wars: Ouroboros, Some Thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker


As someone that enjoys running and playing roleplaying games, I understand the value of repeated stories. Even more so as someone that enjoys the challenge of running games in established settings and finding the right beats to make the story feel as if it belongs with the source material.

Warning: if you haven't seen the movie yet, we're going to be touching on quite a few spoilers in this piece.

Cyclical Storytelling

I have mentioned before that I like cyclical stories. Evil is never permanently vanquished; every generation is going to face its own challenges. That said, it is often very important to examine the purpose of revisiting a cycle. Given the relatively low states of running a roleplaying game, the purpose can easily be to rekindle the feeling that the original cycle engendered in the participants, with the added benefit of firsthand participation.

When creating media that retells an existing cycle, it is also important to examine the purpose of revisiting a cycle, as well as to examine the way the cycle is revisited. It can be worthy to revisit a cycle by asking “what if this single element were changed.” It can be worthy to revisit a cycle to say, “how would different people in the same setting deal with this challenge.”

The problem is, the more elements you borrow from the previous version of the cycle, the more it can feel as if you need to justify the deviations you propose in other aspects of the cycle. If you return to the cycle, to give the cycle meaning, it may not be satisfying to tell the cycle, but larger, but also to tell the cycle, but deeper. Revealing depth to the story that was always present, but not directly addressed, adds to the overall power of the mythos you are revisiting.

So now we get to what has me ruminating on all of this. Star Wars--The Rise of Skywalker. I saw Star Wars for the first time when I was four years old. Star Wars has been part of my life for a long time. It has helped to shape who I am. I will preface anything I am about to say by saying that nothing in The Rise of Skywalker has changed that. The core themes of the cycle of the Star Wars mythos still resonate with me.

That said, I can’t help but feel as if this was a turn of the cycle that was told bigger, but not deeper. Too many elements that were reused were reused and magnified, but not more deeply explored. When Abrams was criticized for using too many elements from the previous trilogy in The Force Awakens, I was not concerned. This was the opening chapter of a trilogy, and the opening of a three-part story, in many ways, is the best part of the cycle to resemble previous cycles.

The best of what Abrams did in The Force Awakens is still present in The Rise of Skywalker. He has a cast of enthusiastic, charismatic new characters that interact well with one another. The worst of what Abrams did in The Force Awakens is also present, at the end of the cycle. This is the same cycle, but bigger. There is no deeper understanding of the cycle present, just a restatement of the cycle.

I Have A Bad Feeling About This

I shouldn’t be surprised at this. I wanted to tell myself that the mistakes that Abrams made in Star Trek Into Darkness were because he wasn’t as comfortable with the themes and elements present in Star Trek. The biggest mistakes that Abrams made in Into Darkness were to try and introduce elements that had appeared elsewhere in the Star Trek mythos (Khan, for example), and assume that those elements had enough weight that they did not need to be properly reestablished in the new version of the cycle.

Additionally, Kirk revisits the exact same story arc regarding his growth that he had in the first Kelvin timeline movie. He’s reckless and doesn’t play by the rules and needs to learn to balance that recklessness with reason and mature leadership skills. Again. Additionally, Abrams uses a story beat from the previous cycle, a character sacrificing themselves to save the Enterprise, and asks, “what if Kirk instead of Spock.” The problem is it’s an abrupt substitution that he doesn’t spend enough time earning. Too much of what is reused in Into Darkness has no weight to it, because Abrams is expecting the allusions to previous stories to do the work of establishing weight in the current story.

Instant Karma

All these flaws are present in The Rise of Skywalker. Palpatine’s resurrection is abrupt and is expected to have weight simply because it is Palpatine. Palpatine can have a fleet ready in the Unknown Regions because he’s Palpatine, and hey, if you know the Expanded Universe, Palpatine just pulled a giant fleet including multiple super-weapons out of his nether regions in that story as well, so it could happen, right?

Side note--of all the Legends continuity elements I would have wished to have resurfaced in the Disney era, Dark Empire is the one I would have happily left in the Limbo of Stories Past.

Lando can recruit an armada almost instantaneously off-screen, because he’s Lando. Poe has the same kind of rakish charm that Han Solo did, so he can suddenly have a past as a smuggler that is suddenly important. There can be an off-screen stormtrooper uprising, because Finn left the First Order in The Force Awakens. Abrams continually uses the formula of “make a statement,” and then “extrapolate major plot point based on a statement previously made,” and it happens so often that the entire experience feels very thin.

I don’t like to rely on pedantic discourse on “what should happen” in a fantasy setting, but there is something to be said about playing with the spirit of what has been established versus abusing the notion that the world doesn’t expressly tell you what can and can’t happen. I’m not talking about the Force. Honestly, the Force is magic, and the biggest rule we’ve been told is that if you get yourself in the right mindset, you can do pretty much anything. But how the hell does hyperspace work, now?

Han expressly tells us that traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops in the first Star Wars movie ever. It’s not a hard and fast set of physics, but it is a statement that hyperspace isn’t something you can safely do on the fly, which is there to explain to us that you have to spend some time in danger before you can get away. It’s also a plot point in multiple movies that it’s hard to track a ship through hyperspace, which is why the Rebel fleet could even exist in the original trilogy, and why tracking ships through hyperspace was a major plot point of the previous movie. But, not unlike being able to use a transporter to travel between entire quadrants of the galaxy in Star Trek Into Darkness, Poe can use Han’s once in a lifetime hyperspace tricks repeatedly, and not only does he break all kinds of rules for how we thought hyperspace worked, but the First Order ships following him have no problem keeping up.

“They’re Just . . . People”

There are a lot of elements that do work in this film. I wasn’t feeling very engaged with the movie until Kylo Ren has his encounter with the memory of his father and returns to being Ben. That scene nearly had me in tears. Chewbacca’s anguish at Leia’s death was amazing. For a character that doesn’t utter lines in English, the pain of Chewie losing yet another old friend comes through very convincingly. The chemistry between Rey and Ben is amazing. All of that kept me invested, even as the other issues I had with the movie kept springing up.

One of my biggest disappointments was the Emperor. I have always loved Ian McDiarmid’s performances as Palpatine. This performance, however, felt as thin as the worst elements of the movie. I’m not blaming McDiarmid, so much as just realizing the Palpatine was not a character, he was a plot point. I was completely on board with Palpatine being the force behind Snoke and playing the REALLY long game and being the real villain. It made sense for the same personal that started a galactic war and manipulated both sides to be the same villain that was responsible for the First Order.

But, whatever your feelings about the prequels, Palpatine spend three movies “earning” what he got out of that game. He played the Trade Federation, manipulated a fallen Jedi, tricked a Jedi master into building him a clone army, and got himself invested with emergency powers. Even with the clumsy storytelling of the prequel trilogy, there was some weight and effort behind Palpatine’s rise to power. Like so many other elements of this movie, instead of even coming up with a little bit of pretext for how Palpatine could have orchestrated what he did in this movie, Abrams is hoping that past performance is enough weight to allow him to just state that Palpatine can play the mastermind card.

I Am Not A Committee

I would have had all these misgivings about the film if it had been a duology and Abrams was the only filmmaker involved. I felt too many of the same feelings that I felt with Star Trek Into Darkness to not know that I was just unhappy with the weight of facts being injected into the story. But I can’t fully leave this topic behind without being at least a bit concerned that some decisions in the movie may have been made expressly to appease some of the worst elements in Star Wars fandom.

Rose is given almost nothing to do, and I feel like this is a “diplomatic” move so that Lucasfilm can both say that she wasn’t removed from the movie for people that liked her character, and they can say that she wasn’t a major character, to appease the all important element that spent the last two years running Kelly Marie Tran off social media. Lucasfilm has Rey and Ben kiss, so they can keep the fans happy that see the natural chemistry between the characters, but then Ben dies, because there are a lot of bloodthirsty fans that believe redemption must be an act of blood sacrifice. Finn and Poe are both given women to flirt with, but also hang out with each other a lot, so Lucasfilm can say that fans that ship them, or want them to super-straight 100% of the time, can both be happy. And maybe it’s because I’ve read too many books and comics that already dealt with it, but Chewie getting a medal was such a pointless gesture considering everything else going on in the movie.

I’m a little torn of Rey as a Palpatine. I think it greatly undermines the point that Johnson was making in the previous film, but, mystery box aside, I honestly think that this particular choice was less about appeasement than it seems to be what Abrams wanted to do with the character from the start.

In the end though, it all feels really empty.

I’m Not Mad, I’m Just . . .

I’m very disappointed in The Rise of Skywalker, but I was also very entertained my aspects of the movie. It hasn’t ruined Star Wars for me overall. It has made me realize two things:

I am enjoying seeing other characters in the setting dealing with the themes and elements of the setting, without directly interacting with established singular characters, for example in Rogue One or The Mandalorian.

I don’t want to see anyone that directly appeared in the Prequels, Original Trilogy, or the Sequels again for a very long time. If the cycle isn’t going to get deeper, I don’t need to see it again.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

What Do I Know About My Campaign? Star Trek Adventures Session 0.5

My gaming group had a Session .5 this past Sunday, spending about an hour going over character creation information out loud with one another before starting a scenario. Our crew currently includes:

  • Lieutenant Dodrac Ryss, Klingon Science Officer
  • Lieutenant Commander Cassandra Cassidy, Human (Cyborg) Chief of Security
  • Commander Kalos Hagen, Betazoid Executive Officer
  • Lieutenant Junior Grade Roya Dibiri, Human (Transplanted into Android frame) Chief Engineer


I asked some questions about some of the lifepath choices for the characters, and got a few interesting bits. Dodrac’s family was close with Federation members that allied to them during the Romulan conflicts, and while not raised by humans, Dodrac holds dual citizenship, and is from Boreth, the Klingon’s monastery world.

Cassandra Cassidy was on a ship that was raided by the Breen, and in the course of discharging her duty, she was injured, and had her arm and other parts of her body replaced with cybernetics.

Commander Hagen was a former ship’s councilor, who took bridge officer training. He needed to take command in a crisis, and his former captain put in for Hagen to transfer to command track. His former Captain is April Hebert, who is now the Admiral in charge of Narendra Station.

Roya Dibiri was a young engineer that sacrificed herself to save her crew by shutting down a warp core breach. Her captain put her in for a posthumous promotion, but Roya was saved by an experimental technique that uploaded her brain into a positronic matrix.

The crew has a Nova Class starship, which is a size 3 ship. For the sake of comparison, the Enterprise-E is a size 6 ship. But it can land on planets, much like Voyager. Being a size 3 ship, the group can make up to three supporting characters.

The group immediately decided they wanted a person at the helm with dedicated abilities, so we made up a Caitian crewperson name Z’thors.

Episode One

In the grand tradition of Star Trek pilot episodes, tonight's session was one part of a two-parter. Everyone had made their characters before we started, so "session zero" was just spending an hour having everyone share choices and me asking some deeper questions about them.

Almost everything my players thought up played into something I wanted to use in the campaign, and that's pretty awesome. I was riding the line a bit on dragging out the beginning, because I wanted to introduce the themes of the campaign.

I had the PCs meeting for the first time at the dedication of their ship, and I had several NPCs interact with them to express that their mission has some wider meaning. For one, they are trying to prove that Starfleet is still primarily about exploration and science.

Secondly, they are trying to prove that the Nova class starship is a viable spaceframe for Starfleet to use going forward, even if it isn't built like a warship.

I took some inspiration from the group picking the name Odyssey for their ship, which was the name of a Galaxy Class ship destroyed by the Jem'Hadar. By naming a Nova Class science ship in honor of the Odyssey, Starfleet is trying to say it hasn't been tainted by the incident.

The players didn't want to run the captain, so the NPC captain they have is an Andorian who lost her ship at Wolf 359 and wanted to be assigned to an Akira class. Starfleet wants her to ease back into the captain's chair, giving her a science vessel.

The Surprise Mission

Captain Apiri Sh’Qiahrik pulled some back-channel strings and arranged a diplomatic meeting with Orion Syndicate pirates to negotiate a deal for them to avoid the Shackleton Expanse. The ship promptly steered into an ion storm in the expanse and took a Damaged Electronics (3) complication.

When the away team went to the Orion ship to negotiate, I spent some of the Threat that had built up to create a Generally Buzzed (1) complication, from the haze of intoxicants hanging around in the ship.

The captain asked the Lt. Dabiri to create an algorithm that would allow them to charge and shoot their phasers before being detected. Lt. Commander Cassidy and Lt. Ryss detected Theragen on the Orion ship, which may have been smuggled by a Klingon to the Orions. The Klingon also found out from a Klingon general that time crystals from Boreth had been smuggled into the sector.

The Generally Buzzed condition went up to (3), and the science officer and the security chief worked together to create an antidote to the haze of narcotic smoke on the Orion ship.

Lt. Dibiri temporarily fixed the ship, and created a firing algorithm to target the Orion's engines. The security chief took out one Orion guard, and Commander Hagen helped the Vulcan Operations Officer Supporting (Lt. Stolek, our second supporting character) to take out the remainder of the Orions.

Before things went south with the Orion negotiations, Commander Hagen convinced the Orions to let Lt. Ryss return to the Odyssey. The Klingon science officer found out that Narendra Station's chief medical officer has ties to both theragen disposition and Boreth, for access to time crystals, and the three crewmembers still on the Orion ship were beamed back just before the Chief Engineer's program triggers.

Emotional Response

For me, it felt very Star Trek. Everyone seemed to have a good time. I was a little worried about the pacing, especially at the beginning with the "pair off a PC and an NPC to have an establishing conversation" setup I was using.

We also maintained a tradition tonight. Every sci-fi game I've ever run, the first piloting roll goes terribly. Usually, that's a PC roll, but this time it was the Caitian helmsperson, failing to get any successes as they attempted to navigate through ion storms.

Oh, I almost forgot, the group discussion at the end of the night was, "if we survive this mission, do you think we can convince the admiral that was the XO's mentor to court-martial the captain," so I consider that a win.

Takeaways

  • As someone that likes Fate, I really like the idea of being able to quickly model some aspects of the game with advantages and complications
  • With some of the difficulties we ended up with due to our complications, I needed to let the players know they could succeed at a cost more often (accept more complications in order to succeed at a task when the character didn’t get enough successes)
  • Combat was fast enough that we could run a quick skirmish with Orion crewmembers near the end of the night—I could have spent threat to draw out the fight, but it was more of an obstacle than a true set-piece, and I liked having the flexibility to scale things with Threat
  • I really got a lot of information to tie into the plot from the character lifepaths and the follow-up questions
  • I’m really hoping the players didn’t mind the introductory sections, because I wanted to make sure we had a theme going into the campaign—I’m hoping I didn’t overplay it, and going forward, we have more standard missions . . . at least after we deal with the aftermath of this mission