Thursday, June 11, 2020

New Home for the Blog

I'm not closing up shop on this blog yet, but all of the new posts are going to:

whatdoIknowjr.com

I have migrated the posts from here to that blog. The 2020 posts have been checked for formatting errors, but 2011-2019 will have to wait a little bit longer.

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

What Do I Know About Reviews? Xanathar's Enemies and Allies (Dungeon Masters Guild Product)


I am a big fan of having lots of NPC stat blocks, especially in Dungeons and Dragons. While I don’t think they were executed as well as they could have been, I liked the concept that D&D 3.5 attempted with adding in different “monsters” with class levels in the Monster Manual 3 and 4, and I think one of the things Pathfinder did right in this regard was to market a product as only stat blocks for various levels, so purchasers didn’t go in wanting brand new monsters and getting a more utilitarian product.

Because of that thought process, I wanted to pick up Xanathar’s Enemies and Allies, a Dungeon Masters Guild product that came out close to when Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was released. Because there has been much real-world chaos, this one fell off my radar for a bit, but I wanted to revisit it.

Structure

Xanathar’s Enemies and Allies is a 44 page PDF. The formatting looks spot-on for the D&D 5th edition standards, and it uses existing artwork to illustrate the various NPCs. There is a title page that includes credits and legal information, and inside cover illustration, and a table of contents. There is also a one page summary of stat blocks by CR. The rest of the product is filled with stat blocks, one or two to a page.

Faces in the Crowd

The product is grouped by themes, often tied together by introducing power groups and organizations from the past of the Forgotten Realms, or by introducing newer groups tied to the lore of the setting. The individual NPCs all use character options introduced in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.

I am very interested in seeing NPC stat blocks based on subclasses, especially since many of the 5e stat blocks that emulate a subclass don’t literally port a player character sheet into NPC format, but rather pick out a few signature abilities that would show up in NPC interactions.

I also like to have a wider range of NPC stat blocks at multiple challenge ratings. I am a fan of having evil warriors, spellcasters, priests, and assassins at all levels of a campaign, in addition to ever larger and weirder monsters. In the context of the Forgotten Realms, I also like having the building blocks for potential rival adventuring parties. All of that having been said, let’s look at how well this product pulls this off.

Challenges

The challenge rating for these NPCs stretch from CR1 to CR 13, so while you don’t have NPCs in this product for the loftiest challenge ratings, it definitely provides more options moving into tier three play. There is a lot of concentration around CR3 and CR9, and there are 50+ NPC stat blocks total.

The NPCs are “general” NPCs, meaning that they represent an archetype of characters, not a singular “named” character.

Organizations Referenced:

  • Aglarondan Foresters
  • The Summer Court
  • Corvus Nightfeather’s Circus of Wonders
  • Blingdenstone Badgers
  • Children of Stronmaus
  • Church of Bane
  • Clan Melairkyn
  • Cormanthyr Guard
  • Council of Dreams
  • Creel Demonbloods
  • Eldreth Veluuthra
  • Hammers of Moradin (Citadel Adbar)
  • Kozakuran Shogunate
  • Ledgerkeepers of Jergal
  • Order of Saint Dionysus
  • Purple Dragons (Cormyr)
  • Revenant Blades of Kiaransalee
  • Saviors of Peace (Eldath)
  • Servants of Discord (Malkizid)
  • Shadow Resistance (Netherese)
  • Shadow Thieves
  • The Shadows of Bregan D’aethe
  • Sparks of Mystery (Sorcerers from Silverymoon)
  • Sun Souls
  • Ships of Luskan
  • Spirit Protectors of Ubtao
  • Stormborn of Ruathym
  • Tel’Teukiira Horizon Walkers
  • War Wizards of Cormyr



While many of the religions that get NPC representatives have been touched on by 5e material, many of the nations have not been visited, and a few organizations have been referenced that aren’t regular staples of 5e adventures. I appreciate this in that 5e D&D both is and isn’t the Forgotten Realms. What do I mean by that? In a lot of cases, Forgotten Realms lore is pertinent, and added to the adventure, but in other cases, many Forgotten Realms specific elements are ignored in favor of bringing in more broadly “D&D” threats. This is a long topic for another day, and I’m pretty sure I’ve touched on it elsewhere.

Essentially, we’re getting a few deeper cuts, and a wider view of the Realms beyond the Sword Coast. The biggest downside to this approach is that since these stat blocks are meant to showcase the options in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, there isn’t a separate call out to detail the faction that the character is affiliated with. I realize this would have potentially caused some concept drift for the product, but I would have liked a simple paragraph about the organization and some bullet points on what it means to work for the organization and what their goals are. In many cases, this information is present, but it has to be reverse-engineered from the details about the NPCs.

Format

For most of the entries, there are a few paragraphs generally describing the group of NPCs to be detailed, and then a few more paragraphs that give specific details on how these NPCs serve their organization. For example, the Blingdenstone Badgers have an entry that gives a paragraph on Blingdenstone, and then three paragraphs talking about how these specific NPCs defend and inspire their community, and operate in combat.

Like NPCs in other products, these aren’t just PCs in NPC stat block format. Most abilities are expressed as “X/day” abilities or as recharge abilities. While many of the NPCs are given the spellcasting ability appropriate for their subclass, and have some of the signature abilities of their subclass, they often have other thematically appropriate abilities that aren’t present in their subclasses. For example, the Scythe of Jergal gains an ability to attack bloodied opponents with advantage. This stat block is based on the Grave Domain cleric, and gets the signature Sentinel at Death’s Door ability, but the advantage versus bloodied opponents isn’t something the subclass normally receives.

Choices

There are some interesting story element choices made by combining some bits of lore with some of the classes included. In some cases, this is taking existing political entities and detailing new agents or military units from the region. Other choices aren’t decisions I wouldn’t have made, but I like the concept, and can follow the logic. For example, Malkizid is a fallen celestial, not unlike Zariel. The warlocks affiliated with him have the Pact of the Celestial, and honestly, I don’t think I would disagree that it works, since it was an aspect of who Malkzid was, and how he presents himself to potential followers.

There is a split in philosophy based on some of the naming conventions used, which causes me to weigh in on a few things. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything introduced the Kensai and the Samurai subclasses. A lot of long time players want East Asian subclasses in the game, even if those subclasses represent archetypes that are similar across different cultures, for the level with which Dungeons and Dragons relates to those archetypes. For some players, these subclasses are meant to represent characters from East Asian analogous cultures.

So, in this particular product, we have kensai, who are represented as dwarven warrior monks from Citadel Adbar, and samurai, who are Kozakuran adventurers. I want there to be more diverse representation in D&D, even though I’m not fond of overly Earth analogous countries in the Forgotten Realms. I would have rather had Kara-Tur representative characters that didn’t have East Asian named subclasses in this supplement, so we can see what about a Samurai, in D&D, makes it an adventurer archetype, other than “East Asian Knight.”

The choice I’m having the hardest time with, however, is with the Eldreth Veluuthra. The Eldreth Veluuthra were elf supremacists in previous editions of the setting. They first came about from families that disapproved of humans allying with elves to form Myth Drannor, and they decided that humans were vermin that needed to be exterminated, and that they needed to put elves in power that agreed with them, for the good of all elves.

In this product, the Eldreth Veluuthra are presented as having been “more extreme” in the past, but their main goal is “defending nature,” and they were overzealous about that in the past. On one hand, I understand the difficulty of presenting a full-on racial supremacist organization, but on the other hand, “reforming” a racist organization in this era by saying they had some good ideas and just went astray, really does not sit well with me. It reminds me way too much of how many modern hate groups have survived to the modern-day. I am certain this isn’t what the designers intended, but it echoes too much given my previous knowledge of the organization.

In fact, one of the reasons I liked having the Eldreth Veluuthra as villains in the past is that they represented the idea that elves are often considered “good,” and these are clearly surface elves that are reprehensible and evil. It was an example of breaking biological alignment determinism, and it was an example of doing it by showing that racism is evil. I can understand trying to decouple any fantasy racism from the main narrative of the game, but I don’t think the best way to do it is to reform an existing group that was specifically noted for their supremacist ways.

Champions of Valor

There are a wide range of stat blocks for anyone that wants more NPCs to use in their games, and with a wider variety of concepts based on the newer subclasses in D&D. In addition to more NPCs with a wider range of challenge ratings, some NPCs utilize other elements of the game that don’t get used as often, such as goliath NPCs. Even if a game focuses on the Sword Coast, it’s nice to have backgrounds based in the wider Realms to at least hint at the broader aspects of the setting, to make the world feel bigger and more diverse.

Champions of Ruin

I really wish the individual organizations had gotten a little more utilitarian write up, so that they could be used as factions for player characters, or better integrated into wider plots for the GMs. It's nice to see some information in 5e on these older regions and power groups, but it’s great when that information doesn’t have to be reverse-engineered from context. The issue with the Eldreth Veluuthra is probably going to vary a lot based on your previous knowledge of the group, but for me, it resonates too much with current real-world revisionism to not feel like a sour note.

Tenuous Recommendation--The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.

I wanted just a bit more broad utility from this product, and I’ll admit, I really have to think about how much unintentional parallels to the real-world subtract from the usefulness of a product, but at the moment, it definitely is something that weighs on me. Mechanically, these are great, but from a setting perspective, and with story context, I’m having a harder time giving it a broader recommendation.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

What Do I Know About First Impressions? Mythic Odysseys of Theros (D&D 5e)

I had a chance to look through Mythic Odesseys of Theros the last couple of days. This isn't a full review (and I've got away from doing a lot of official WOTC reviews, because they are ubiquitous, and from more talented people), but there is a lot I wanted to mention.

This first impression is based on the material released in the D&D Beyond version of the product, and doesn't represent a full-read through of the book, cover to cover. The following will highlight the sections where I spent the most time.

Character Creation

I really like the idea of the Supernatural Gift as part of character creation. It synergizes nicely with getting a new one in the Wildemount book, and it adds something to distinguish heroes that are going on "big time" adventures.

I kind of like the implementation of an Epic Background from Heroes of Baldur's Gate a wee bit more, for making Backgrounds more widely useful, but I still really like this idea. I also like the concept that it's intended to be roughly equal to a feat as well.

Being roughly equal to a feat informs design space. I also like that between the Iconoclast feature and the ability to ditch the supernatural gift for something that resembles a feat, you can play with the dials without going fully into "chosen one" territory.

Also, I risk drawing some fire here, but if I had to pick one cat humanoid, and just one, I'm pretty sure I like the Leonin more than the Tabaxi. I blame the subliminal conditioning from Ajani and my white decks.

I really like the College of Eloquence, and I specifically like the Living Legend feature of the Oath of Glory paladin, if only for the bit about how your legend empowers you even if the deeds are exaggerated. It reminded me of Dwayne Johnson's Hercules movie.

Gods of Theros

I really like the concept of Piety, and the consistent threshold points. I like anything that moves away from "I'm LG, and so is my god, so I must be making them happy," because that cuts out a lot of interesting story.

It would be easy to adapt piety for other deities by looking at the examples given, and port this over to other settings. It even works for other aspirational concepts as well, like if an organization has set goals.
In fact, if you look at alignment as aspirational for player characters (as I have been recently) instead of proscriptive or descriptive, you could even make a piety scale based on how well someone does certain things, rather than as a hammer to punish them for "infractions."

For anyone interested in more mechanical weight to a divine character changing gods, the Piety system addresses this more directly than anything else has in 5e to this point, as well.

Friends and Foes

The thing I am most excited about, however, are the mythic monsters. This is a great evolution from the rules surrounding Legendary creatures, and also taps into the "boss monster" zeitgeist that has evolved in the time since D&D's birth.

If you don't have the book, Mythic monsters have an ability that they get once per rest, to trigger their mythic trait. This usually means when they hit 0 hit points, they get back a bunch of hit points, and they get new actions they can use as Legendary actions.

The bits that change vary depending on the monster. For example, some of them get X number of hit points, others have a thematically explained number of hit points that are temporary (for example, temp hit points = swarms acting as ablative armor).

This is great D&D game tech, and it may be incorporated into the end of my current Midgard campaign in a few weeks. I would love to see this used beyond Theros.

Magic the Roleplaying

I'm a lot more excited about this book than I was with Ravnica. I still feel like I'm not really sure what to do with Ravnica, as a campaign, and the extra tools it provides for other games don't feel especially keyed to Ravnica's theme, other than the guild backgrounds.

The guild backgrounds are so tied to Ravnica, it's harder for me to think about "drifting" the tech. Do I want to use this as a template for a Zhentarim "guild" background? I don't know, should I give out extra spells for the Zhents? Do they have a tenuous peace with anyone?

On the other hand, it's hard not to see how to use this book. A lot of modern fantasy adventuring tropes are influenced by Greek myth, so it's not hard to envision adventures.

The concepts of superheroic player characters, piety, and really special boss monsters crosses into being useful for multiple campaigns, but also tie very closely to the themes of Theros.

For a gamebook that felt like a reflexive purchase when I first put in my order, I'm really invested in seeing what I can do with the tools within.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

What Do I Know About Reviews? Return to the Glory (Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition)


I like orcs. I also like to challenge narratives. Not by completely denying previously established tropes, but by adding nuance and context to those tropes, and adding new aspects to what we have known before. In 5th edition I’ve played an orc wizard looking for ancient orc historical sites, an orc paladin of Baghtru, who was focused on protecting orcs rather than conquering, and an orc bard in an Eberron game.

In previous editions, I’ve been fascinated by the Forgotten Realms lore about the Orc Gate Wars, where the orcs were brought to Faerun by a portal created by the Imaskari in ancient times, and the implied orc world where the armies originated.

The narrative of orcs in Dungeons and Dragons really flared up on social media recently, with much of the discussion revolving around the intentional or unintentional messages sent by the implications of biological determinism, such as negative intelligence modifiers, and inborn alignment.

And that brings me to Return to the Glory, a recent adventure released digitally by Wizards of the Coast, with the proceeds going towards the Red Nose Day charity. This is an adventure that is specifically written with orc PCs in mind, assuming that orc player characters will be entering a dungeon complex that was once an orc city, reclaiming that city from the monsters that have come to inhabit the caverns.

Digital Format

Return to the Glory is a 38 page adventure, which, being a WOTC release, follows the same formatting of the standard Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition products. Maps are by Dyson Logos, and are clear black and white in format. Images used throughout are existing art pieces from various products, including orc images from the Monster Manual and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, and other monster images gleaned from other WOTC official sources.

There is a single page primer, with the next 20+ pages detailing the dungeon complex, five pages of monster stats (usually monsters unique to the adventure, like NPCs, or monsters from sources outside of the Monster Manual), two full-page overview maps of the dungeon, and a final page of credits.

Dungeon Layout

The adventure doesn’t spend much space before it dives into detailing the dungeon. The dungeon itself has various locations that tell the story of the old orc compound. The settlement was comprised of multiple tribes that worked together, ruled by a leader called the Overlox.

The compound isn’t just a huge war camp or an undeveloped set of caves. There are graveyards, parade grounds, aqueducts, divination chambers, a sacred lake, overgrown gardens, shrines, infirmaries, wolf pens, and a library. Several tribes are associated with specialized tasks keyed to various locations. For example, one tribe was responsible for the engineering, while another was responsible for training the settlement’s wolves.

The settlement is located in Turmish, but other than being located in the Orsraun Mountains, the adventure doesn’t interact with Turmish to any significant degree. The stronghold isn’t given a name, and the cataclysm that befell the stronghold isn’t detailed. This makes it easy to port all of this to another setting, but it also doesn’t use some of the pre-existing orc lore in the Forgotten Realms, which would have worked well with this scenario.

The player characters can learn about how the stronghold functioned, and some general details about events, somewhat detached from a larger timeline. In several places, the DM is encouraged to improvise individual events in which some of the ancient orc heroes participated. The only real clues about the fall of the stronghold come from some hints that the orcs of the stronghold pursued unwise ongoing wars with elves, and suffered due to their greed.

Several of the orc tribes are given specific omens and superstitions. Orc PCs are encouraged to be from the tribes that founded the stronghold, so that they know these omens and superstitions. In several places the observance of these traditions provide clues for some of the puzzles present in the dungeon.

The complex is large, and is expected to take player characters from an average party level of 6 to an average party level of 9 by the end of the adventure. While I’m not a big fan of sprawling dungeons, the fact that the various sections of the stronghold tell different stories about what that section of the stronghold did, and who dwelled there, means it’s not just dry dungeon crawling, but also an emerging narrative told by the environment, which I appreciate.

While some of the current inhabitants of the dungeon complex are going to be hostile, there are several encounters where player characters are not assumed to directly come in conflict with the other beings encountered. In several places, undead exist to instruct and guide, groups of settlers are willing to share their space, and the player characters aren’t assumed to be carving a bloody red swath through their ancestral home.

The player characters will encounter an undead champion that needs a task done, or will reawaken the magic present that helps with the infrastructure of the stronghold. What is likely the final encounter, knowledge of the player character’s goals will be important to adjudicate what they see.

As a final note, I love the detail about how orc skulls are prepared for the afterlife. It was a very nice touch that I had never thought about before.

Player Facing Material

There are several important points about running this adventure mentioned in the product. Player characters are instructed to pick one of the tribes that once inhabited the complex, so they know what omens and superstitions are known to them. The DM is also instructed to have the player characters determine what their hopes and goals are, related to reclaiming the stronghold, so that the final encounter can be customized. Finally, the importance of lines and veils is mentioned regarding using the hopes and dreams of the PCs for the final encounter.

First off, I’m thrilled to see lines and veils mentioned in an official Dungeons and Dragons product. I really want to see more formal discussion of safety and content warnings in Dungeons and Dragons products, since it is the most widely played and visible roleplaying game. I just wish the discussion of lines and veils had come at the beginning of the product, and spend a little more time elaborating on what those terms mean for someone that has not encountered safety discussions in RPGs previously.

The individual tribes have some nicely diverse interests, like rebirth, infrastructure and engineering, guardianship, song, purification of nature, healing, kinship with wolves, and recording history. Some pursuits are often downplayed when orcs are depicted. For example, the orcs of the stronghold taught their young to be literate, and kept libraries of books on the lower planes that were shielded from the youth.

I like the way the omens and superstitions are worked into puzzles in the city, but I wish there were more context to some of them. The stereotypical view of superstitions is that they are irrational observances made by cultures that don’t know any better, but that’s common to almost any culture, and with context, the observances usually made sense at some point in time, or are actually understood to be rituals without direct supernatural power. I would love to see a little more orc folklore to provide context for some of these observances.

There have been some great tools provided recently when it comes to story-based prompts with several of the subclasses in Unearthed Arcana, or with the Debts and Regrets or the Prophesies in Eberron Rising from the Last War and Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount respectively. I would have liked a few aspirations/goals/wishes for the refounded stronghold, either for players that don’t have a strong idea in mind, or for players to work from when coming up with their own examples.

I know it's beyond the scope of a relatively short adventure for charity, but I would have loved to have had specific orc backgrounds, possibly with some of the individual tribe flavors baked in, not unlike the guild backgrounds in Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. My biggest wish is way beyond the scope of this, or even more extensive products, but it’s always going to be hard to add nuance to orcs when their entire pantheon is evil.

By D&D alignment standards, they are all “villains.” Some of the orc gods need to be reframed beyond being evil, and new gods need to be added to the pantheon (of course, that’s also a pitfall of providing racial pantheons instead of setting based deities, but that’s a whole other discussion).

Victory Shout

The dungeon does a good job of telling a story with the various elements, from NPCs to puzzles and other details within the complex. Not only does the adventure assume that orcs will be the protagonists, but the action assumed by the dungeon isn’t limited to hack and slash adventuring, but also involves puzzles, traps, and negotiating with potentially friendly NPCs. The tribal specialties introduced add nuance and depth to the orc culture being presented, and move things beyond the “warrior culture” stereotypes.

Howl of Agony

I don’t generally complain about the lack of deep lore connections in modern D&D products, but in this instance, tying orc culture to the Orc Gate Wars and the undetailed “orc world” could have added some gravitas to people that think this level of culture for orcs is a new development. I wish the omens and superstitions had just been called “observances,” and given a bit more historical context. There are some good ideas for orc PCs in keeping with the adventure, but a lot of the player-facing material has to be mined from the text on the dungeon complex. This was probably done for the sake of efficiency, but it’s not the most table friendly setup.

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

I was initially going to be a little less enthusiastic with a broad recommendation, but given the scope of the project, and the fact that this is for charity, I think this is a good pickup for just about anyone interested in Dungeons and Dragons, and for people that are interested to see potential emerging orc narratives.

I would love to see a little more connection to existing lore, not unlike the way the Ordening was used to reinforce the giant’s storyline in Storm King’s Thunder, and I would love to see a little bit more orc player character support (including better stats, but again, that’s for another day). I’m hoping with enough attention, we’ll get more content along these lines, pushing the boundaries of what we expect from player character narratives in Dungeons and Dragons.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

What Do I Know About Reviews? Fey Gifts and Bargains (Dungeon Masters Guild Product)


For whatever reason, Dungeons and Dragons hasn’t quite spent as much time developing the hierarchy and politics of the fey courts as it has spent exploring the politics of the Nine Hells, the interaction between the layers of the Abyss, or even the mercenary tendencies of Gehenna. There have been products here and there, but not with the level of detail that the lower planes receive.

This might be because demons and devils, despite the amount of time that spent on their politics in the game, can still be counted on to be villains consistently. The fey, on the other hand, can be . . . complex. The fey can literally turn into antagonists without directly trying, just by being true to their nature.

Why do I immediately think to compare fiends and the fey? Because they share some common tropes, like convoluted political maneuvers and bargaining with mortals. As a slight digression, Shadow of the Demon Lord makes this superficial resemblance a more explicit connection, but that’s not what we’re here to look at today.

Before I dive into today’s review, a slight disclaimer. I’m a patron of Brandes’ Patreon, so I get to see a lot of his work as it comes together. He’s got a lot of great ideas, and it’s well worth following his account. Today, we’re looking at the Dungeon Masters Guild product Fey Gifts and Bargains.

The Form of the Pact

The product is a ten-page PDF, with a full-color cover, and a single page index with the standard legal information for a DMs Guild product. There is colorful half and quarter page artwork in the product, and the formatting looks very similar to standard 5e formatting, with red headers, separate sidebars for call-out information, and the standard light parchment background.

Structure

The product gives a brief introduction to fey bargains, and then explains the overall hierarchy of the fey courts, with example creatures at each level. It then moves into a section looking at what the fey ask for in their bargains, and what they offer in exchange. There are example fey charms, example fey NPCs to show what different fey may ask and offer. The product concludes with several fey themed magic items.

Fey Hierarchies

The fey hierarchies are divided into the following levels:


  • Commoners and Exiles
  • Pages
  • Knights
  • Lords
  • Archfey

One of the things I appreciate about 5e is that the game has become less focused on creature type as the final determining factor on where creatures may be allied, and a sidebar explains how firbolgs and fomorians can be included in the typical fey power structures.

The levels are important for the next section, which details what fey ask for, and what they provide in exchange for what the mortal is willing to give. It makes sense that a fey commoner might abide by their deals, but can’t promise the magical wonders available to a Knight, or especially an Archfey.

Fey Economies

While not explicit in the text, the feeling is that making bargains is natural to the fey because giving and receiving based on agreement is the trade by which fey society works. For magical creatures with a very different view on the universe, secrets and service is often going to be much more desirable than gold or gems.

Bullet points under each “rank” of fey give examples of how much value an item offered by the fey might have, what rarity of magic items might be offered, or how much service the fey is willing to agree upon. More powerful fey often offer the service of their vassals, and the Lords and Archfey may offer secrets, tasks only they can do, or fey charms (supernatural gifts signified with a physical manifestation).

The fey don’t trade this for just anything a mortal can offer, so they are examples of what memories or services a mortal might offer to obtain the items that the fey bargain with. Unlike fiends, the fey aren’t usually too interested in souls, although they may take one in a pinch.

Contracts and Supernatural Gifts

There are example physical objects that serve as the manifestation of a contract, as well as examples of what happens when mortals or the fey break their end of a contract. Also included are supernatural gifts, not unlike the Charms detailed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide’s chapter on treasure.

There are fourteen new fey charms in this product, taking out almost a whole page. They have varying effects, and the number of uses, or the amount of time that the charm functions are flavored to fit in with the fey mindset. For example, they may work a set number of times, total. They may operate until the death of the giver, or they may last until the change of the season.

These range from charms that push back aging, allow you to avoid attacks, summon items, or gain resistance to elemental damage, among other effects.

The Bargainers

In addition to giving examples of what the trade between fey and mortals may look like, and what the mechanical effects of those bargains may be in the game, the product also provides four example fey that can be bargained with. These are from various ranks within the fey courts, and each of them has traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, as well as sections listing what they want, and what they are likely to offer.

I’ve said this in at least one other review, but as much as I wish they worked better as triggers for PCs, I love getting traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws for NPCs, because they give a lot more benchmarks for roleplaying the NPC. It’s even more important for NPCs that are negotiating for something they want.

Fey Magic Items

There are 10 new fey magic items included in this product as well, including spears, axes, invitations, teeth, swords, falconry tools, necklaces, arrows, and bows. The themes of these magic items include dreams, cannibalism, heat and cold, strengthened life force, and stealth.

I love the little details of these items (like the implied use for recycled teeth, or the alignment of items to a fey court). I’m never going to complain about getting more magical spears in the game.

Sealed Bargain

This delivers on what I wanted from it. There are some clear examples of what the fey want, and it reinforces a dreamy, ephemeral understanding of what can be traded. The gifts feel appropriate for the themes of the fey, and I appreciate that the fey charms call back to the existing examples in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and that we also get some magic items that the fey may offer for trade within the parameters of the example lists. I especially love getting some example NPCs to show what an individual fey may be looking for, and how they might go about bargaining.

Broken Pact

There isn’t much that I can complain about this product. It is very specifically focused on fey bargains, and it delivers on this theme. That may be too narrow a theme for some, although it’s a pretty focused delivery. The only other thing I may have wanted was just a few more examples of fey bargainers, especially since we get a commoner and an exile as examples, who have the same relative bargaining power, but we don’t see a knight or an archfey (the latter just being me wanting more archfey, which is probably way beyond the scope of this product on its face).

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

I’m really happy with this product. I wish I had access to it before I started running my Tales of the Old Margreve campaign, since I used charms to signify pacts between various fey lords and the PCs. Since I’ve got another player joining near the end of the campaign, at least I’ve got some new options to look at when Reynard The Fox Lord enters the picture.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Dungeons and Dragons, Fractured Communities, and Sacrificial Marketing


Before we begin, I would like to offer up a disclaimer. I’m going to mention various generations in broad terms. No broad definition fits everyone. Additionally, when discussing generational labels in American society, the closer you are to privilege, the more those generational definitions apply to you, because that’s the social group that gets the most scrutiny. So if you are a poor white man, you may deviate a little, and if you are an LGBTQ+ POC, you will probably deviate a lot. Trends are not destiny.

And the whole reason I wanted to even introduce generational aspects to this discussion is that Generation X (my generation) has a problem with irony and nihilism. We were told, when we were young, that we didn’t know what was really important or what we needed to do to be successful. This line of criticism was born from the discussion that it was harder for Generation X to be as prosperous as previous generations, so the easy answer was to find fault with the Generation itself.

Since we cared about the wrong things, we learned that caring about things was an avenue of attack. Caring about things was as a weakness. It was especially easy to take this lesson to heart, because many of us spent some formative time in the 80s, where media was very specifically marketed and packaged, and often the fact that we “fell for it” and cared about that media was proof that we weren’t adult enough.

Thus, ours was a generation that only liked things ironically. We learned to tell you upfront this thing we love is stupid and has no value, so you can’t use it against us. Because we were told that we are childish and don’t understand the way the world really works, whenever we made political commentary, we had to couch it, not with a belief that the world would change, but with the tainted knowledge that everything would always be terrible. The only point in noticing that something was bad was for entertainment value, because we couldn’t be trusted to effect true change.

We internalized too much. We didn’t fight back enough. When we needed to scream about how bad the world was or how frustrating our situation was, we had to do it by disclaiming that it was all pointless solipsism. No matter how old we got, there were older, wiser adults in charge, and we needed to let them take the lead. As a generation, we settled into middle management at best, and as producers of art, we settled for pointlessly edgy as the pinnacle of our achievement.

Not Really Passing the Torch

Hey, Jared, I thought this was about what happened with the consultants for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. Also, millennials have had to deal with a lot more of this crap.

Right you are, Phantom Reader. Because the “older and wiser” people ahead of us needed middle managers, but now that they are still in place, and we’re in the middle management positions, there is even more emphasis placed on why millennials must be worse than Generation X because there are only entry-level positions left, since nobody is giving up their reigns of power. Also, Generation X had to shield its love of Dungeons and Dragons, because it’s a game.

Third and fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons had a problem, in that a lot of its marketing plan was to resell material to the same group of gamers that were already fans of the game. People leave, not as many people come to the hobby, and this becomes an untenable sales model. Even when a game sells well, it’s not going to keep scaling if you are reselling to an ever-aging audience.

The trailing edge of Generation X, and the leading edge of Millennials were used to loving things ironically. The most disdain for something you could express before you said you loved it, the better. There are going to be a lot of people that will argue that this isn’t what made Zak S. popular, and that he just appreciated old school games and showed people the strength of those games through online gaming. I’m going to call bullshit. I think an ancillary effect was to help bolster an already growing movement towards returning to older roleplaying games, but I think Zak S. primary attraction, for most people, is that he was playing a game he thought was trash, because it was fun trash.

Harmful Brands

Zak S. was the avatar of loving things ironically. Zak’s espousal of older games was a statement of ironic disdain. RPGs are fun, but stupid. Newer editions are pointless, because the game itself is stupid, and you can’t refine stupid. The “cool” thing to do with RPGs was to tell twisted, weird stories that the original creators were afraid to tell, because you can. Zak wanted to present himself as cool, so what he did was cool. If he had picked any other hobby, that would have been cool, because he was presenting himself as the trendsetter.  RPGs just allowed him the added context of being able to show that he was a leader, by gathering a group of people that deferred to him.

Zak expressed, in the halcyon days of gaming Goolge+, that the best thing about modern RPGs and online culture was that you could exclude people that weren’t cool. And he would arbitrate what was cool.

Zak’s thesis statement was “I’m a porn star, and an artist, and I’m cool. People outside of art and porn have done stories about me, and that confirms I’m important. You can love D&D, as long as you know it’s pointless and editions don’t matter, and you do something weird and artistic with the game, and don’t forget to exclude people, because then you can be elite.”

A lot of people look to wider media for validation. Zak was generating buzz. The fact that he was a child of privilege that chose to take up the road less traveled gave him both reach and an air of rebellion that wider media loved. The fact that D&D was associated with anything in the mainstream press was something that a lot of long term fans couldn’t pass up, so Zak’s influence grew.

So, with this wider press coverage, older fans jumping on board because he was validating the versions of the games they loved, and newer, younger fans being reassured they could love this thing ironically as long as they both hated it and did something weird with it, WOTC had a marketing plan.

Sacrificial Marketing Strategies

To be fair, I don’t know all the details of WOTC’s marketing plan, and compared to 4e’s marketing plan of “you didn’t like what you liked,” 5e’s seemed to be “someone, from some group you trust, is endorsing this game.” The plan didn’t seem to focus only on Zak S. telling younger Generation X and older Millennials that it was okay to love this thing ironically, but also on getting luminaries from editions past, and vocal up and coming online voices that spoke for the purity of older editions on board.

The problem is, Zak has always been terrible. This isn’t just a matter of recent allegations. He was terrible from the jump. He openly admitted that his brand was about being cool, and excluding the “uncool,” and that meant that he had to have enemies to point at to be declared “uncool.” I don’t even think Zak hated everyone he declared uncool, at least not until they pissed him off by not just going away. Once they refused to go away, or, even worse, had a following of their own, then they had to be destroyed.

My point here isn’t to go into specifics. You can find a lot of other people that have done a much more in-depth discussion of Zak’s harassment campaigns online. I just want to chart the interaction between Zak’s involvement with D&D, and his perceived “worth” to the brand.

Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition is a very solid game that did a very good job of determining the elements that resonated with the largest cross-section of people that were still fans of the game. The game was going to focus on the brand first, and setting second, and present a shared experience of various iconic adventures to build a community. But it needed to get that message out to as many people as possible.

Multiplied Mistakes

When people started to push back against Zak’s involvement in Dungeons and Dragons 5e, as a consultant, Mike Mearls pushed back. In what was likely one of the biggest mistakes in RPG history, Mearls handed over information about Zak’s accusers to Zak, so that Zak could vet his accusers, rather than WOTC vetting Zak. Somehow, mysteriously, this information that Zak was given just happened to disseminate to his followers, and harassment campaigns started that drove many people to leave the RPG industry. There were attacks on multiple, personal fronts, horrible threats, and demeaning comments.

Mearls response was to publicly call out multiple accusers by name, accuse them of using politically correct issues to attack Zak, and ascribed to them the the motivation of jealousy. Mike Mearls, not Zak, had publicly entered the record as saying these charges were boundless, and that the people making them were using serious issues to achieve a petty goal born out of jealousy. That’s not the edgy pseudo-celebrity that the mainstream already forgot saying those things, that’s someone entrenched in the power structure of the biggest RPG in the gaming industry.

But what was Zak’s worth? He was going to bring in all of those young and semi-young people that were going to see that it was okay to have utter disdain for something you loved. He was going to tell people that it was cool to play D&D, as long as you could identify uncool people that also played so you could prove how elite you were. He was going to appeal to the worse, base attributes of a culture poisoned by irony and nihilism.

The problem is, a lot of what made Dungeons and Dragons 5e popular wasn’t that it appealed to people that needed to ironically disclaim what they loved. It started to appeal to people that honestly loved what they loved. When people streamed the game, because online entertainment had broadened and made live broadcasting of games an entertainment form in itself, they may be silly, and they may have their own quirks and digressions . . . but nobody that gained an audience needed to disclaim what they hated about the game before they showed what they loved about it.

Hopepunk

A lot of the younger audience coming into D&D didn’t need the irony poisoned spin to allow them to enjoy something they loved. They loved what they loved. Zak’s value to mainstream D&D became almost nil, and so he lived in online RPG cultures that were still hoping to capitalize on edginess. The real irony being that Zak’s endorsement was really just “your IP has no value, except that it allows me to make my art.”

When Zak was outed as an abusive partner and alleged rapist, WOTC did the bare minimum and removed ALL of the consultants from the Player’s Handbook credits. Mike Mearls eventually issues a very lukewarm statement that Zak S. was specifically unwelcome to contribute anything to D&D going forward. This framed the problem with Zak as a “present” issue, as if he wasn’t welcome “going forward” because he may be a rapist and abusive.

Mike Mearls never addressed the harm that he caused, or Zak’s history of abuse and harassment towards the community. It was something, but it fell very short of actually addressing the ongoing issues with Zak’s inclusion in any community that was trying to be inclusive.

Zak’s brand was “exclude others to make yourself look cool,” from the start. This should always have been a red flag.

Mearls has never acknowledged that he, personally, made mistakes, passing on information that allowed others to be harassed, and personally, on his own, impugning the reputation of people to absolve Zak of guilt. That’s not on Zak, that’s on Mearls.

Unabsolved Sins

Recently, we learned that Mearls hasn’t been on the D&D team over the last year, and he’s been avoiding Twitter and other social media for quite a while. After the information about Mearls’ absence from D&D had disseminated, almost immediately Ray Winninger, the current head Dungeon Master (not the actual title) of D&D mentioned that he would be returning from other WOTC divisions soon.

People immediately started to call Jeremy Crawford, who initially divulged that Mearls had not been on the team over the last year, a liar by omission, claiming that he needed to tell people that Mearls was coming back. Calls for just about everyone working on Dungeons and Dragons that was known to RPG twitter to help oust Mike Mearls from WOTC started. People began to say that anyone working on D&D was complicit, and then others started to say that anyone that enjoys the current edition of D&D is also complicit.

I deeply believe that Mearls needs to make a statement, acknowledging what he has done, and issuing a specific apology to the people he called out by name. I am also fairly certain that one complicating factor for this would be corporate lawyers from either WOTC or parent company Hasbro, afraid that Mearls making this kind of apology would potentially open them up to lawsuits, if he was seen as acting in his capacity as an agent of WOTC.

That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen, that’s just my take on why this is a wider issue than it may seem. Calling on people that likely aren’t part of the decision-making process loses focus on the actual problem. If anyone else should be roped into these discussions, it’s Chris Cocks, the current president and CEO of Wizards of the Coast.

Love and Pain

In the end, we don’t need to disclaim all of the flaws in a thing we love to protect ourselves because we love it. Loving something ironically is generally just lying to ourselves, so that the pain the thing we love causes us can be internalized, and nobody can see the wounds it causes. So many of the things we love are built on pain and misery to some degree. Somewhere along the line, someone that controls the thing you love has done something to exploit someone else to produce it. Some aspect of the thing is terrible, and it gets ignored instead of addressed.

It’s hard to find that point at which we cut ties and try to find something less harmful to love. Sometimes it’s worth it to try to rebuild the foundations, and sometimes it’s going to be too much pain and effort to put in the work. That point is going to be different for different people. It’s going to be different depending on the flaws inherent in the work and what pain they cause the consumer.

There are no easy answers, but there is a point where you need to decide what you want from the energy in which you are investing. Do you want to vent, so people know the pain you are feeling? Do you want others to abandon something that you have abandoned, because it has crossed a line for you? Do you want the thing that is flawed to be better, and you want to effect change? Do you want someone that was wronged to get some degree of peace by acknowledging the pain that has been inflicted on them?

Walking Towards the Sun

The irony (I still have some of that poison flowing through me) is that a lot of modern game design starts from the idea of making your intentions clear, and then taking action. We still don’t always follow that advice in areas outside of games.

I love that games give me a creative outlet, that they allow me to interact with other people, and that they allow me to practice empathy. For those reasons, I love roleplaying games dearly, and never want to lose them from my life. Dungeons and Dragons is my entry drug for the hobby, and there is both a lot that I want to see change, and a lot that I will love about the game, and because it is something I love, it is an avenue of attack for my emotions.

I don’t know one best course of action. I do know that the RPG community as a whole, and the specific Dungeons and Dragons community isn’t going to make the progress it needs to make until actions and trends are addressed. Zak S. is a villain, but he was a villain that exploited existing problems. Getting rid of one villain doesn’t get rid of the root cause of the problem. At the very least, we need WOTC and Mike Mearls to address the mistakes that were made, and the fact that some people in the community were deemed as “sacrificial” to garner a wider audience. Recognizing human dignity requires that we don’t assume that it’s okay to build your brand on the backs of the marginalized.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

What Do I Know About Crowdfunding? The Book of Fiends 5e (5e OGL)

I'm pretty excited to see this. I loved the 3rd edition Green Ronin Book of Fiends, and the Fiendish Codex series (Hordes of the Abyss, Tyrants of the Nine Hells) were some of my favorite official 3.5 D&D books to see publication.
When it comes to 5e material from Green Ronin, I enjoyed how the Tal'Dorei book turned out, and while I think the lore could have used some updates for modern sensibilities, the mechanics and the appearance of The Book of the Righteous were really impressive. 


But part of what really excites me about this is that Robert Schwalb is leading the design on this book. Not only was he involved with those Fiendish Codex books, but he's also been the creative force behind one of the most prolific and consistent dark fantasy games you are ever going to find, Shadow of the Demon Lord.

What will be very interesting for me will be to see how this project does on Game On Tabletop. I'm not an expert on the platform, and I know there has been RPG material funded through the platform, but Kickstarter is definitely the preferred home for most RPG crowdfunding.
One thing that makes Game On Tabletop interesting is that they charge up front. There is no pledge, and then wait to see if and when you get charged. You get charged as soon as you make the pledge, and that might be an issue to backers.

Unlike Kickstarter, you actually have to get a refund from the company if the game doesn't fund. I can understand that it might make people a little more cautious. Honestly, I can't help but wonder where this project would be at for its funding goal if it had gone through Kickstarter.
As a comparison, the Book of the Righteous had 788 backers and funded at 160%, and it took about 25 days to fund. By comparison, The Lost Citadel campaign had 674 backers, but funded at 360%, however that also involved funding a campaign setting and additional fiction.

Compared to a very specific apocalyptic undead fantasy setting, and a book that features a very specific pantheon of gods, which also happens to have some player-facing content that can be used for broader games, I have to think a book full of fiends is going to have much broader appeal.
I backed this, and I'll be keeping an eye on this. I really hope it funds, because I am very interested in comparing the story elements and how they may have changed over the years, as well as the mechanical elements of the stat blocks.

I'm very conscious of RPG content, and content that can do harm, and I'm somehow fascinated with Robert Schwalb's ability to wallow in horrible content without weaponizing it. Because of the way it's infused into the content, it feels less like "surprise, look how edgy this is!" and more like "I'm inviting you to go swimming in a swimming pool that is filled with electric eels, but I'm also showing you that I'm enjoying swimming in here--you may not want to, but I'm showing you the eels and the smile on my face, decide accordingly."