TLDR: If you’re running 5E, you need to buy this book.
When I heard that the next book in the 5E lineup was Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I was a little disappointed. I’ve never been much of a Forgotten Realms fan, and Volo’s Guide sounded like it was going to be a fluff piece with articles similar to the old Dragon Magazine “Ecology” pieces. While that’s great for magazine content, I didn’t get too excited about the prospect of a $45 book with minimal new information.
Fortunately for me, Wizards really outdid themselves in packaging a variety of things in this book that make it a very valuable addition to my growing 5E collection.
Volo’s Guide starts with the following disclaimer in small, easily missed print, under the cover attribution:
Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast does not vouch for, guarantee, or provide any promise regarding the validity of the information provided in this volume by Volothamp Geddarm. Do not trust Volo. Do not go on quests offered by Volo. Do not listen to Volo. Avoid being seen with him for risk of guilt by association. If Volo appears in your campaign, your DM is undoubtedly trying to kill your character in a manner that can be blamed on your own actions. The DM is probably trying to do that anyway, but with Volo’s appearance, you know for sure. We’re not convinced that Elminster’s commentary is all that trustworthy either, but he turned us into flumphs last time we mentioned him in one of these disclaimers.
I enjoy the fact that wizards is having fun with this volume, and it made me enjoy getting into the book a bit more than if I hadn’t noticed it. I also appreciate Wizards sold a special limited edition FLGS cover for only $5 more (pictured above) to help the local shops get a leg up.
The book is broken into three parts: Monster Lore, Character Races, and a Bestiary.
Monster Lore, the first 100 pages of the book, is what I had expected, but some crunch where I otherwise expected fluff for lifestyles of Beholders, Giants, Gnolls, Goblinoids, Hags, Kobolds, Mindflayers, Orcs and Yuan-Ti.
Examples of neat details that might constitute crunch include beholder charts detailing size, shape, texture, and a great random name generator, with tactics, variant eyestalk abilities, minions, treasure and a lair map. History, mindset, and biological function is laid out in a depth previously unvisited in text as far as I’m aware, allowing the GM a deeper background on this favorite of monsters.
The Chapters going forth are what I’d call asymmetrical, being that they don’t follow a routine pattern. Chapters on Giants have more details about origins, their habitat and personality traits. Gnolls have details on tactics, random traits and features, and tables to help build a gnollish warband. Mind Flayers have some magic items listed that are specific to their culture. Yuan-ti have a variety of charts detailing their variable physiology.
Each race detailed has a map of their typical lair, which gives some great examples where the trappings of the race might be otherwise somewhat mysterious (Mind-Flayers in particular).
Overall, these chapters are well written and flesh out the background of these common and popular monsters. Is it essential? No. Is it helpful? Yes. My fear had been that for $45.00 I was going to get that, and that be it. Fortunately, it goes on.
Now we start to hit things I can work with, and things that people invariably try to do on their own with varying degrees of success. I happen to currently be playing a kobold priest of Kurtulmak in our Out of the Abyss game, and have been playing a kobold trapper race variant my GM got off the internet somewhere. I yearned for canon guidance on what a kobold PC should look like. Fortunately, Volo delivers.
Races detailed are Aasimar, Firbolgs, Goliaths, Kenku, Lizardfolk, Tabaxi, and Tritons with a separate section for “Monstrous Adventurers” giving blocks for the already detailed bugbear, goblin, hobgoblin, kobold, orc and yuan-ti pureblood.
I’ve always been a guy that likes the idea of playing the monster as a PC, and this opens doors for me.
This, by far, seals the deal for this book being a must-have for the dedicated 5E player. 100 pages of new and classic monsters that were conspicuously absent from the Monster Manual. A few personal favorites include:
- Flail Snail!
- Several new Variant classed giants, very cool
- Shadow mastiff
- Spawn of Kyuss (Greyhawk?)
- Xvarts (Eric Mona must have been involved in this)
- Yeth Hound
- Many more!
Also a number of “Beasts” (including a rot grub swarm) and 21 new stock NPCs which are sure to prove super useful on an ongoing basis (in particular, it appears a mage of each spell casting school, archers, archdruid, war priest and so on). Not mentioned in my list are also special “classed” versions of various orcs, yuan-ti, hobgoblins, and so on, as well as some subcategories of other races like beholders that will prove useful in putting on games that utilize those species. This is where the book proves out its crunchiness but give me stat blocks that I can use to have a more interesting game.
Wizards has done a good job of bringing a little more than just the basics to each book it has published. Each adventure module has had a few spells and a few more general stat blocks that make each book tempting to pick up. This book, as a sourcebook, doubles down on that principle making there elements that you just can’t afford to miss. This book has extended value for the GM of your group, but remains optional for the player short of playing a racial variant. That said, I think anyone who picks it up is going to find it’s a great addition to their collection.
All Praise Kurtulmak!
One of the greatest things about role-playing is that the choices are not limited. You can elect to solve a problem different ways, act recklessly or thoughtlessly, and indeed can do something downright evil, and the GM has to adapt to that approach. It’s the one thing that, to my mind, will always keep role-playing slightly ahead of video games, no matter how interactive they tend to get. With the option of unfettered control, players can elect to play evil characters in RPG’s with some degree of success. However, evil campaigns are where the boundless possibilities of table-top gaming can become a two-edged sword.
It has been widely suggested that Gary Gygax original developed alignments with significant inspiration from Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, which contributed the idea of Law versus Chaos and of forces aligning with that principle. Basic Dungeons and Dragons had Law, Chaos and Neutrality depicted handily by this, one of my favorite sketches from those books:
This, theoretically, should just about do it, but not to keep things too simple, our beloved Gary went and made this much more marvelously complex alignment chart, with Good and Evil, Law and Chaos on varying axes:
This added shades of nuance, and later became colored with tendencies. Lawful Neutral with Lawful Good tendencies etc. etc. This allowed for a description of many different layers of alignment, and theoretically should permit a player to describe his character’s beliefs pretty closely.
This level of detail originally existed to force characters to act in accord with their proscribed ethos, maybe as a story telling tool, maybe as a heavy-handed way of teaching players how to role-play. Some of it was simply a game mechanic or limiter on how players interacted with items and spells – numerous items would do damage to or be unusable by members of a certain alignment. I believe it was to limit capricious behavior by players who, having different consequences in-game than in real life, find themselves looting and killing more quickly than they typically would in other situations. It’s a clumsy tool for keeping the game on track.
THE ISSUES WITH EVILNESS
So what happens when you toss the limiting element of that out the window? An Evil Campaign incorporates alignments that don’t tend to go past Chaotic Neutral, and are traditionally very difficult to get off the ground. When alignment fails to work as a tool, all bets are off. Characters can burn buildings and torture the innocent to get their results, and a party full of such characters has no limitation or recourse, making the story telling a very difficult proposition for the GM.
It’s very strange for me to articulate this idea, that alignment is still a tool we need to keep things on track. But most stories that are written or created take the heroic point of view as a given, or at least the mercenary view as the farthest the players are likely to take it. While, Mercenary values should have some appeal to all parties, but there is an added consideration when Evil is at play… betrayal, backstabbing, and advancing the cause of the adversary are all on the table. Accordingly, Evil is very hard to consistently motivate.
It’s more relevant than ever because Paizo has recently released its Hell’s Vengeance adventure path, where, for the first time, the adventure path centers around evil characters. Serving the fiend-aligned throne of Cheliax, the heroes take part in a series of adventures to quell uprisings in the name of Iomade and so on. It promises to be an interesting experiment to see if an adventure series can be constructed in such a way so as to not break down in to absolute chaos.
Paizo is aware of the danger of such an event. In the introduction, they say that the key to not having everyone kill each other is for everyone not to be a jerk, and for the group to advance the mutual cause of fun. This is the best answer one can give, but I can tell you from personal experience that this is very wishful thinking.
BACK IN MY DAY…
Several years ago, I ran an evil campaign, known only as “The Evil Campaign”. People hungered for it, and for a few years, it was a favorite. It coincided roughly with the publication of the Book of Vile Darkness, which gave us some rich material to work with. The characters were nuanced, and the players some of the best I’ve played with. Thinking that these details were enough of a check on their own, I introduced the characters to the world without any safeguards in place.
They literally all killed each other within 30 minutes.
The only survivor was, fortunately, the mild mannered and charismatic necromancer, who had gathered each body as it fell and dragged it back to his laboratory. Struggling to find a way to bring the game back into some sort of order, I extended an invitation to this necromancer from an agent of Iuz the Old, and decided then that some sort of guarantee needed to be made as to compliance, since player restraint did not appear to be trustworthy. Acknowledging its cheesiness, I borrowed from SSI’s Curse of the Azure Bonds game, imprinting them with tattooed sigils that stay their hand’s when moving to kill an ally.
Through his clumsy but necessary mechanic, we were able to play for another year or two, though players worked to undo other characters in the game and constantly sought ways to kill one another, getting around the curse. While much fun was had, and there were moments of peace, it was in the nature of the characters to be at odds. It wasn’t bad role-playing, in fact it was quite good role-playing, but it was somewhat the nature of the beast. In the end, it was exhausting as a game master to keep the story moving in a predictable way allowing me to prepare, and we fell away from it. You could never tell what crazy thing the players were going to do next, but often it was to kill a major NPC because they looked at them funny.
That’s because often, as players, we hold Evil to a much higher standard than we do good. Players act as though evil aggressively seeks out mischief, chaos and death. And while it sometimes does those things, it more often strikes randomly as granted by opportunity. The true face of evil is not the monster that wants to kill, burn and destroy. It’s very seldom Rovagug or Tharizdun. It’s typically more like Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade, or Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s subtle, selfish, and sneaky. In a fantasy game, the evil out there operates in the open by virtue of acknowledging the power of law and working around it, nibbling at its edges, and slipping back away into the night. Evil people work together all the time, and while there are disputes, the first move is not always to kill each other. There are layers of frustration, and means of revenge that aren’t killing.
It’s a tough road to go down, but I look forward to hearing what players in Paizo’s Hell’s Vengeance AP experience. It’s got potential, and if someone could pull it off, it would be them. But I think more likely, we’ll see a pile of bodies by the end of the first book, and maybe another reskinning of the old Azure Bonds mechanic by a few GM’s. Look forward to hearing how good ‘bad’ can really be from our readers who have played it, and what they’d change if they could.
As we approached the first troll of the campaign, I anticipated that were were going to have this discussion.
It’s 5th edition D&D and none of us, to my knowledge, have encountered a troll in the new system. However, we all know by now that the regenerative abilities of the Troll are legendary and horrible and punishing for those who assume that dead is dead. Unsurprisingly, the players imported out of game knowledge to ready against the rise of the troll, lighting torches and oil, and the debate started.
“I spend a ki point to trigger my defensive ability…I’m not trusting that shit,” the Monk said as the troll went down.
“Two things,” I said, “One, you know nothing of trolls, and two, you’re like 30 feet away, and you’re going to waste a ki point… so don’t for either of those two reasons.”
“Certainly,” the Wizard said, “We’ve heard something about trolls. I’m a scholar if nothing else.”
“Maybe,” I allowed, “but there’s lots of horrible creatures out there, trolls included. Make some rolls and I’ll give you some wives tales and things.
Party rolled with less than amazing results, but indeterminate.
“You’ve all heard a story about an old woman who captured a troll and cut off its head, then kept the head in a basket. The troll would then tell her secrets, and she used it to get out of a variety of challenges and marry well and live happily ever after.”
“Good enough for me, light it up” someone said. Burning starts.
Hmph, I thought. “Isn’t anyone going to get the head?”
“I am not taking this things head in a basket.” the paladin said.
And that was that. I was a little disappointed, as an evil GM, that I couldn’t get the players on this old surprise, even if we were all fully aware of the trick. Did it diminish their fun? I don’t think so. Did it diminish mine? Only slightly. But overall, it seemed bad form from what I consider to be a group of truly excellent gamers. That said, I feel confident I would have done the same thing in their shoes. So what do we do, as gamers, with the knowledge of metagaming and the desire to metagame, and perhaps even the need in some cases to metagame?
Wikipedia defines Metagaming as:
Any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself..
Now before you think I’m living comfortably in my glass house, I do this too and am not trying to throw stones. We ALL do this to some greater or lesser degree. Whether it’s using tactics that your 1st level character wouldn’t use, or not running when attacked by goblins for the first time, or picking spells based on your experience as a gamer as to how useful they are. If we didn’t metagame at all, most of our characters might end up returning to their farming and sheepherding responsibilities after the immediate crisis had passed, and tell the same story at the local inn every Godsday about the time they went down to the old Moathouse and tangled with a couple humanoids.
So what do you do about it? First, you have to know what form of metagaming you have, and then identify whether its a problem that you need to remedy, or if you even want to. Metagaming has a certain utility that might just have a place in some games. This is me playing devil’s advocate with myself to some extent, but let’s play this out for a minute.
I’ve identified the most common types of metagaming that I encounter on a day to day basis:
- FLOATING HEADS – This is where you offer friendly advice to another player on how to run their character or communicate your in-game desires to them out of game. Your head floats off its shoulders, whispers in their ear, and floats back, so to speak.
- PRO’s: This keeps the action on point, makes the play most effective, avoids general murder, clarifies miscommunication due to the abstraction of the setting, and occasionally reminds a player to act more in line with the way their character might actually respond, rather than what a less skilled or confused player might do under the circumstances.
- CON’s: Leads to kibitzing and breaks the game. You have to have some faith that a player knows how to run their character, and the imperfection of communication on a battlefield is a core issue in general for those involved in combat. Further, spells like Rary’s Telepathic Bond allow for players to communicate in their heads with little other benefit, and this is a 5th LEVEL SPELL. To do it with impunity without the benefit of the spell essentially negates its usefulness.
- FINAL VERDICT: Should be kept to a minimum, to address player confusion rather than to advise, instruct, or exhort.
REVISIONIST HISTORY – As illustrated above, a plan or course of action is reversed after one or more active steps are taken to complete the initial task, only for the action to be withdrawn or reversed one or more steps to apply the corrective action
- PRO’s – Often in a game, the order of actions is unclear, and polite society frowns on interrupting or shouting over other people talking. Often, the loudest, most quick witted, or most ridiculous player leaps into action while other players who may be playing quicker, smarter, or more clever characters might not articulate their actions first, and the GM rule that they are too late to stop Mr. Dwarf Smash from axing the door. That’s not fair, is it?
- CONS – People do dumb things, and so do their characters. Half the fun is watching players and characters make mistakes with deadly or hilarious consequences. Sometimes its allowable, or initiative needs to be rolled, but players often want to rewind events back too far, and gain out of game knowledge of the consequences by doing so. It slows down the game and confuses everthing.
- FINAL VERDICT: We use a rule at our table that you can back up most actions until a die is rolled. Then, the action locks in. I would say too that if the players discovered something, like a trap, that they would not have known, it’s too late as well. You have to be careful in looking at this, however, as the crazy barbarian shouting “I smash in the door” should be interpreted as saying, “I want to smash in the door” and a few seconds pass before it happens. Louder does not mean faster.
OUT OF GAME KNOWLEDGE – Using personal knowledge of the rules, books, and statistics out of game to affect the actions of a character in game.
- PROS: It’s unavoidable to some extent, but sometimes allows the players to have more fun. It keeps the game master in check when the rules are bent or broken. Can create some appreciation for the nuance of a clever build/trap/spell combination. It’s also very hard to relearn everything in game in every campaign you ever play in.
- CONS: Changes the flow of the storytelling and arguably breaks the game. Creates situations where player characters act in discord with their experience. Especially dangerous, however, for Game Masters who use strengths and weaknesses of characters against them when monsters may have not subjective knowledge of those weaknesses. This would also encapsulate excellent GM tactics where monsters may not be operating at that level.
- FINAL VERDICT – This is the toughest to avoid and also perhaps the most onerous at the same time. It is perhaps the worst, however, on the GM side, where stupid monsters fight with tactics and knowledge that is not properly afforded them. I have felt the urge to avoid targeting a player with a spell that he is warded against, but feel good about myself when I do it anyway. Typically a nod to this sort of learning curve can help bring the game into technical compliance with the spirit of the game itself. (i.e. He takes a swing, and his best blow clatters off your armor. He knows he’ll never penetrate it and moves on to an easier target, etc. etc.)
Does Metagaming have a place at your table? It’s already there, I can almost guarantee it. There are a few pointers I can offer as I’ve seen them used in the past:
- Change Things– Book knowledge is useless when a monster’s appearance changes slightly. A friend terrified us by making kobolds appear to be tiny red-skinned devils. We actually fled. A little twist can keep things interesting, and is used to great effect in Dungeon Crawl Classics. You never know what’s going to happen there.
- 6 Word Maximum – Players get six words each round of combat to communicate, even off their turn. Kind of fun to limit yourself, and keeps it brief. Limitations of sound travelling through stone still applies.
- Attribute Checks – If a player is about to botch it, like not check for traps when a talented theif is in the party, a roll may be suggested or required as long as not too much has happened in reliance on that action. Intelligence or Wisdom Checks, or Charisma checks by other players to get the acting player to stop and listen. Initiative in worst case scenarios. Let the dice then fall where they may, and always freeze the action once a roll has determined success or failure.
- Caller – Grognards will remember that the game originally had a position called the “Caller” who would take the assembled players (usually about 10 in those days) and once the plan was digested, would call out to the GM what they would do. When things get confusing, I still use this, and it is amazingly helpful. Try it when things get crazy. Old Gary knew a thing or two about what he was doing, so lets give him the benefit of the doubt.
As always, we love to hear what your suggestions might be. Look forward to your comments.
Last March, Mike Mearls released a mass combat system for 5th Edition games Dungeons and Dragons, “When Armies Clash”, that has been dubbed “Battle System” due in part to the file name. Grognards will also remember Battlesystem for 2nd edition, a system for mass combat. This was released through Unearthed Arcana, the name for Wizard’s monthly newsletter with new and optional content for 5th edition games.
I’ve always been a fan of at least the idea of mass combat for D&D, as the movement of armies seemed to be the end game for many campaign events, especially for your first edition fighters who commanded large numbers of men as a 9th level ability. A current and former player from my high school days reminded me a of a large scale combat scenario I had put together back in the 90’s that involved mass combat and hand drawn hexes to complete our 4 year campaign. It was, as he recalled, one of the coolest ways to end a campaign he had ever experienced, and hadn’t re-experienced it since.
That’s flattering, but plenty of game designers and players have attempted to incorporate such a system into their current games, and indeed Gary Gygax was playing Chainmail and like games as mass-combat first before Dave Arneson brought the adventure indoors to Castle Blackmoor and later Castle Greyhawk. I regret to say that I haven’t sat down to play the original rules, and maybe should. But I have explored various subsequent iterations, and have even taken a stab at my own through Skyland Games’ Fog of War. While somewhat fun to play, it’s not a masterpiece, but check it out and remember it was written with 4th edition in mind, if that even matters.
Really, no mass battle system game has really hit the nail on the head and also been easily adapted for tabletop play. Mearls attempts to accomplish this with the recent Unearthed Arcana release. It succeeds in some areas and fails in others. We’ll go into that in a second.
The New Battlesystem Mearls presents is a short document, just over 8 pages. In it, groups of 10 combatants form up into a single figure on the battlefield, called a “Stand“. Stands join together to form one of two types of Unit. These units are Skirmish Units, which can Hide, move in a non-adjacent (but close) formation, and take the higher of their component initiative bonuses in rolling initiative. The other primary unit, Regimental Units, must remain adjacent to one another and cannot hide, but may take different configuration that allow advantages (such as advantage on attacks, bonuses to defense, and so on). Lastly, a special unit exists, the Solo Unit, which represents a sine player, capable of joining a unit.
Stands separated from their units and Solo Units take double damage and are attacked with advantage.
What Mearls does is smart, and almost necessary. It incorporates the existing rules, and changes the scale down to 20′ squares. It eliminates diagonal movement to avoid what we call “F#%k You, Pythagoras” rules inequities in diagonal movement under the current rules set, but most other rules continue to exist as written and take place on a representative scale. Ergo a spell that has a range of 20′ strike else square away. Specific rules set out what happens when your ability doesn’t affect an entire square and other gray areas.
Standard movement of a stand is divided by 5 to determine their speed for battlefield movement. Monster abilities that include a distance effect, such as a Minotaur’s knockback ability, are divided by 5. Other ranged attacks are divided by 20. This inconsistency is problematic, as we’ll discuss below.
Units begin Morale checks after losing half the number of their unit (which, coupled with the penalties for becoming detached,create the primary justifications for acting in a unit). Leaderless units that fail run with abandon towards the safety of the table edge, which Solo Units attached to a unit may force rerolls until escape makes the retreat permanent. Units are removed at the END of the round, allowing the simultaneous nature of the combat to occur.
Simple brief rules are a must. Mearls accomplishes this for the most part by keeping them short and incorporating the primary rulebooks by reference, without elaboration. In our playtest, one player threw up her hands at the rules-set, but adopted it easily when play started after a round or two.
Movement is gridded, and uses a representative scale of 10, making it playable with what you’ve been using in regards to miniatures, maps, and so on.
The need for a solo unit is adopted but also penalized for working alone against an army. Allows the players to be somewhat effective on their own, and to take ownership of another unit and command.
Character death is avoidable if the unit is destroyed, but solo units stand to be killed if they get out on their own.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Reading the document itself, it’s brevity is a blessing and a curse. It isn’t comprehensive (it IS FREE, after all) and while it makes it easy to read and digest, it doesn’t address the idiosyncrasies of D&D as it relates to mass combat. Accordingly, a lot is placed on the GM to manage calls. This is a mild complaint, but errata and FAQ’s would be helpful. Overall, however, this has a feel of a pet project or weekend effort, rather than an organized release. In all likelihood, that’s just what it is; a home-game house-ruled experiment. It would benefit for revision, extrapolation, and review.
Strange inconsistencies exist in the document. Monster abilities and movement both are divided by 5, while ranged attacks and spells are divided by 20. There’s no explanation for why the difference in those measurements, but it makes a significant difference in the way the events play out. It diminishes the benefits of range, and gives a vague advantage to monsters that feels like a typo or unedited revision. I recall 1st edition calculated outdoor movement differently than indoor movement. A throwback, perhaps?
The difference between skirmish units and regimental units are somewhat difficult to distinguish. Certainly their regiment benefits and initiative calculations make for some differences, but skirmish units need to remain within 1 inch of each other, making their movement flexibility questionable.
Overall, the system takes more time than you would expect it to. A relatively simple combat ended up taking us about three hours to play, though that would potentially improve with repetition, puzzling over the inconsistencies slowed us down. (“Does this monk ability fall into the divided by 5 or divided by 20 measure?:) Most spells maintained a range that made them useless on the battlefield absent a more generous interpretation of their measurement restrictions.
WHAT IS NEEDED?
A great question, but not one that is easily answered. We can assume that every mass combat system needs a few common components:
- EASY TO LEARN – If you really want to play mass combat with some degree of dedication, a wide variety of games specialize in the mass combat experience as complete systems. We don’t want a completely different system, we want something we can blend in with our Dungeons & Dragons. Getting your 5 players to learn something new for a single game is going to be hard, so the system has to use the existing rules and shake up as little as possible.
- APPROPRIATE SCALES – Mass combat is entirely a matter of scale. Arguably, you could play D&D normally and say everything was representative, but we break into inconsistencies where scale is concerned. Your ‘Burning Hands’ spell barely fills a corridor – why does it now explode across the ball-field sized area?
- MORALE – A key component of most war-games and battles is the importance of Morale. A mechanic must exist that addresses what happens when allies break and run, and also to give a role for the great leaders (the players) that drive the action. Else, you diminish the role of the heroes, which is poor story telling if nothing else.
- PLAYER ROLES – Players have to have a way to be themselves on the battlefield. It is unfair for the wizard’s fireballs to be under wraps when they would be most effectively used in a battlefield scenario, and pairing them with 10 additional wizards to cast one fireball makes little sense as well.
- TACTICAL RELEVANCY – Massive battles should reward tactics, and have, ostensibly, advantages for positioning, flanking, charging and higher ground.
Mearl’s system his a lot of these but needs polish. Primarily, scales seem out of wack. Also, when playing with mixed stands, play becomes confusing and irregular. Largely, for playability, concessions probably need to be made. Items or spells that amplify abilities, powers, and magic that allow a game to be played in a more consistent way. Without these concessions, you have to play everything straight and by the book.
And that’s probably the underlying problem. While D&D was designed originally as a mass war game, D&D as it exists today wasn’t designed with that in mind, and doesn’t translate well on a direct basis.
While I might continue to use the system with slight modifications, Mearls suggests using objectives to accrue victory points, which adds a dimension of various goals other than annihilation that permits even a small force to prevail.
This Victory Point arrangement, sadly, is probably best applied without the ‘board game mini-game’ element. Mass combat is best represented in a game as a backdrop, with characters taking important action to secure victory points which are calculated to analyze respective success or failure. This is well illustrated in the underrated 3.5 Edition supplement “Heroes of Battle” as well as in Paizo’s Reign of Winter Adventure Path module #70 “The Frozen Stars” as well as Pathfinder Society module Quest for Perfection: The Defenders of Nesting Swallow. Heroes of Battle is all about running a game entirely centered around massive battle as a backdrop for the action, while The Frozen Stars portrays key events requiring the party to complete key actions to earn victory points towards partial or total success. Defenders of Nesting Swallow addresses Defense Points, which reward players for strategic planning versus effective combat-action. All have a lot to add to this conversation, and none involve combat grids and tactical movement.
Somewhere on the horizon, I am contemplating what to do with my now complete collection of Bloodstone Pass modules, which use the clunky 2nd Edition Battlesystem rules. Are these modules, which incorporate necessarily the Battlesystem elements as a core component, really playable for a modern gamer not usually disposed to the time-suck of a mass combat system? Are Mearls’ rules usable or adaptable in a helpful way for that series? Can either that system or the traditional Battlesystem adaptable to be fun, quick, and accurate without leading to frustration? I’ll continue to seek the answer, as I have these past decades, until something truly fits the bill.
Surely others have pondered these mysteries before. What systems do you use, or what steps have you taken to bring the power of that final epic battlefield confrontation to your players? Let us know.
While not new to the gaming scene, Campaign Websites, commonly called Campaign Wikis, are electronic resources used to organize and record the details of your tabletop RPG. These aren’t sites you use to play a game, necessarily, but are used to enhance and inform your tabletop game. This is regardless of whether you play that game on a virtual table or a physical one.
Some of these are well known, and have been around for years, while other tools are new to the scene.
Back in 2001, we commonly used Yahoo Groups as a searchable forum for posts, with file storage space and other handy utilities for running a campaign. Since then, more and more specialized tools and sites have emerged to assist the player with their campaign. I recall hearing about Obsidian Portal years ago, and thanks to it’s kickstarter success, has kicked off with a new a professional look and added functionality and features. Also out there are sites like Epic Words, and Google Sites, with templates specific to certain types of campaigns.
Last year I ran a game off of a Google Sites page (Paizo’s Reign of Winter), with positives and negatives. I’ll get into some of those, but also list some functions that you should be aware exist in these sorts of pages and services, as well as a few pitfalls.
GAME JOURNAL – Every Site has a forum or system where posts can be made documenting the history of the game. Not all sites have a system that is easily searchable. Games, especially long running and high level games, tend to have a lot of data. Longer games can have numerous characters and epic stories. Locations, NPC’s, items of note, and other facts can be lost with the passing of time. While summaries are helpful, unless they are easily searchable, they be useless for rebuilding stories or facts related to specific items or individuals. Obsidian Portal allows for these to be listed prominently, with pages capable of being rearranged by the play date. Added functionality includes allowing for only certain players to view certain posts, adding GM notes regarding the session that only the GM can see, and selecting who is notified of updates to the page. Google sites allows for pages and posts to be made freely, but are not as fine tuned as to how these appear, requiring more fiddling to get things to appear as you’d like them to.
Obsidian Portal, and perhaps other sites as well, allow linking from one page to another Wiki that can be repeatedly updated. Accordingly, a diligent GM or poster can continue to update either their character or the NPC entry or item entry for a page, linking that data and consolidating the narrative. Embedding of images and other media files is an added feature.
INVENTORY LOG – Inventory management, shared resource tracking, and other minutia can be important for a story, especially if you like that type of a game where the details matter. Shared ability to access those details and perhaps modify them can be important. Google Sites has a nice feature for tracking items, but it can definitely be tedious to enter it all. Obsidian allows a character sheet to be updated, and of course any page could have any listed data you wanted to, but nothing special seems to exist to allow for detailed tracking.
Anecdotally, I recall the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth requiring a trek through icy mountains. An avalanche forced us to lose several mules, and our detail oriented rogue had our survival gear written on individual notecards for each mule. While this level of detail can be irritating to some, the player loved the nitty-gritty and was delighted to have it pan out as relevant and somewhat helpful (as the DM was ready to totally screw us over).
CALENDAR – This is really a must-have for many groups, especially mine. I’m not sure if your situation is different, but I don’t know anyone who has a 9 to 5 job Monday through Friday anymore. Accordingly, our weekly game alternates between a group of regulars and a steady group of one shot or two shot players that jump in and out as necessary. A well-kept calendar is a treat. Google Calendar is used by many, though I believe it does require a google account, which pretty much includes everyone anywhere. Obsidian Portal has a calendar as well, and sends emails at the direction of the event lister, with confirmation buttons sent for attendees at intervals directed upon creation. Note that this a pay-only feature for Obsidian Portal users.
CHARACTER PAGES – While these are available on all sites, I would say that they are important, but manage to universally be difficult to use. Ideally, a player would track his own character, take a picture of the sheet, and post it to the site, which is theoretically possible with most sites out there. More often, there is an artificial character sheet generator that is not used outside of the page itself, that requires meticulous data entry. Obsidian Portal’s character sheet is fan-created, and is a bit buggy. Save early and save often as you enter data into the odd fields available to you. Google sites uses a spreadsheet, which has its own pros and cons. No less than awkward method of entry really exists. Character pages are important, however. Many times NPC or PC stat’s need to be checked, or a player leaves a sheet behind. It gives the GM a chance to see how players are developing without obviously or surreptitiously looking over character sheets, and gauge challenges accordingly. At its most cynical, it allows transparency that discourages cheating and catches faulty or erroneous builds that might misinterpret or improperly exploit rules.
FORUMS – Good in-character and out of character forums are important. This was perhaps Google Site’s biggest failing and not because they didn’t allow the ability to create as many forums as you wanted. The problem commonly encountered here was the ‘most recent post first’ posting style that was, inexplicably, unchangeable. Accordingly, if you wanted to read the flow of events, you had to read from the bottom to the top. While threaded, it seemed that frustration and cross talk was constant, and I could never really get over it.
Back in the Living Greyhawk days, a player created a fictional Tavern called “The Goose Nest” located in the Gran March, in which we posted our various living campaign PC’s. The characters were able to interact in a way that could never have consistently happened in face-to-face gaming due to the way we interacted with different folks from different locations, as well as characters being separated by level to such a degree they could never adventure together. The original player occasionally would put a plot device in to facilitate conversation.
Of course, out-of-character play is just as important for planning purposes, discussion of facts that might just take too long or be too convoluted to be carried out in character, and also for just sharing information like cat videos and recipes. Logistics, who’s bringing soda, and other critical issues of gaming life need a common forum.
IMAGES & MAPS – All systems appear to have a raw upload capacity for images, though an image bank is not exactly what is contemplated by any system. Having access to town an area maps, however, can cut down on a lot of confusion, and images (especially embedded images within, say, an NPC’s character stat block) can really bring together the way a PC or NPC is perceived.
COSTS – Google Sites – Free; Obsidian Portal – Basic = Free, Premium $39.99/yr. (GM only req’d). Epic Words = $12/yr
Lots of the functions for these three sites are the same. The key difference is one of quality, and as with most discussions of quality, the value is in the eye of the beholder. I will say that Google Sites is free, and so you can’t complain about the amazing value they convey there. They have all the key areas covered, many in a way that you probably already have the systems at work in your day-to-day. The downside there is that the programming, navigation, and functionality can be frustrating and difficult, with weird glitches occurring somewhat regularly. The database is largely very flexible, but all images and information will have to be entered by the user and managed at their peril.
I, admittedly, do not have an Epic Words account. My tinkering with it have shown it to be less finished than Obsidian Portal, but at an understandably lower price. From what I’ve seen, the quality of what’s available wouldn’t create a strong urge to forego the free service of Google.
Obsidian Portal is pricey. I can swing $40/year, and have done so as an experiment, but that price may make many GM’s eyes water a bit for something they can duplicate or just do without. For those willing to send $4/month, it’s by far the most user friendly. WIth an image bank of backgrounds, ability to change names, headings, colors and images, it doesn’t get much easier. People with the time, knowledge and inclination may find other sites bend to their will easier, but for those who want to get it done, OP is pretty hard to beat. I remain unimpressed with the character sheet options, which is a universal failing for these types of sites, but have enjoyed being able to easily surf the site without multiple glitches or misplacements of my data.
THE UNIVERSAL CATCH
As with all things in gaming, it all comes down to time. These sites are handy, but only if you keep them up to date, and only if they are used. In a longer campaign, players and the GM themselves may wish to access the wiki to see what a certain NPC’s name was, or what the story was in regard to a particular event. But someone has to enter that data, and one would hope that at some point the players or others would read it.
Many hands make the work light. In my Reign of Winter campaign, a player took on the inventory management, which was detailed and voluminous. He later undertook a series of published journals, written in character, which was truly magnificent. Eventually, the toll of such work caused him to get behind, then to stop entirely, leaving the final ten entries unfinished.
In my current campaign, playing catch-up has eaten up many hours of my time, but occasionally has been worth it for the sheer volume of information management. Some players have been reluctant to participate, but I think those who have appreciate the information that’s posted there, and certainly enjoy the development of plot and story during longer breaks in the campaign where scheduling becomes a problem.
It’s something that a GM has to own, and to evaluate whether they have the time (and indeed the need) to follow-up with it. Further, the GM and his players should discuss whether it is in fact desirable or necessary to pursue, either in whole or in part. I, however, think that for longer games, the necessity of such a bookkeeping device is increasingly required to maintain the quality of game I like to play, that being one with numerous rich NPC personages, mysterious items, places, maps, handouts, logs, journal entries, and locales that are best understood when capable of being reviewed at the player’s leisure.
All of these are either free, or have a temporary free option. Try one on for size and see if it might not help your next campaign.
My first exposure to horror role-playing was a write-up in Dragon Magazine back in the early 90’s. The review was for Chaosium’s newest edition of Call of Cthulhu. The author described characters “having the life-span of gnats” which I found intriguing, so I learned about Lovecraft in a sort of backwards kind of way. Call of Cthulhu first, then the books.
Running my first game was surprisingly successful, but that had almost nothing to do with me. We were in my friend’s old decrepit house in a bad part of town. It was midnight, his folks nowhere to be seen, and the place was known to have rats that would occasionally make an appearance in the wee hours. It was a good place to try our first horror RPG, though we had more to worry about from real life threats than from Nyarlathotep.
Some players were into the historical element of Cthulhu, set in the 1920’s, and some into the general adventure, but all in a way that was no more engaged than any other RPG, meaning there was chatter, snacking, and thumbing through magazines mixed in with our gaming. As a clawing came from the other side of a boarded up window in our game, I reached down and scratched at the bottom of the table, so that my players couldn’t see what I was doing, but heard the noise. Suddenly, everyone was alert, and nervous! Magazines were set aside, snacks back on the table. One player started sweating. Steve went to check the locks on the door. I was amazed at how that focused the game and brought suspense to the table. The game was a success, and largely because of this small thing that made the game more present.
I cannot claim to be a master of horror role-playing, and would love to see the input of our fans on this particular issue, but I have learned to pick up a few things since those first days
- Know your rules or be prepared to fake it – Nothing will limit the impact of a creepy situation like stopping the momentum and looking up the rules of the game, or fumbling documents and stats. It’s just good storytelling to be able to keep the game flowing. Any time the players can separate themselves from the events or what’s going on with their character, you lose the feel that is so important to the success of this specific genre of game. Better to take your best guess and roll with it.
- Know your adventure – This goes somewhat to fumbling, but players in a horror game will go in directions you probably won’t see coming because in some ways, many horror stories have been considered by players before, and a pragmatic, unheroic response to those scenarios might be the one the player chooses. Characters in these games are often everyday kinds of people, and everyday people aren’t heroic all the time. Knowing your adventure will help you to be able to respond more freely and improvise more quickly when players go in unexpected directions.
- Props – Any Call of Cthulhu fan will know that props are key items that are really emphasized in a number of Chaosium materials, like their award winning Horror on the Orient Express box set.. These are part of breaking the wall and bringing the characters and players into the world of the horrific events. But, moreover, these games are usually not combat games. These are games that reward thinking, deduction, and observation. The combat character, if there even is one, is usually the dead weight. Props allow the player to focus on details, and enjoy the gathering of information beyond the rolling of dice to determine success or failure.
- Access the senses – Many games can rely on the verbal imagery to convey the message and be enjoyed, but in eliciting a more visceral response to a game, deviating from the expected can place that player on the edge of their seat. My simple example of the unexplained scratching noises is one, but using lighting effects (like lighting your room with just a candle for parts of your story where the characters travel in darkness), or apps with sound effects such as Syrinscape might bring a new level of engagement to your game. By way of a great example, our GM played this for us when we tried out Fantasy Flight’s End of the World system. I have never been more haunted and focused than after hearing this message.
- Music – Good music can really shift the feeling in a game, especially if coordinated well. It may be necessary to groom your playlists. I’ve been using a playlist from Spotify, wherein some particularly good Lovecraftian mixes, but a ‘Creepy’ play list might be just what the doctor ordered for your highly creepy campaigns.
- Go with what creeps you out – I know what makes my skin crawl. I try to access that part of my mind when running these games, then leak bits and pieces. Not everything has to make sense or be explained, but avoid contradictions or red herrings. Little things can be the most haunting: Exploring the suspects home to find a personal item from the investigator’s bedroom or a lock of their hair; a glimpse of someone watching the investigator and the discovery of a lengthy surveillance (cigarette butts in the yard, photographs, etc.); dead animals appearing in their yard inexplicably; phone calls with quiet breathing on the other end.
- Less is more: A great GM once said “Things are always scarier when you keep them behind the curtain, just giving a little peek or a hint as to what lies beyond. Show them the monster in the light of day, and it’s just a guy in a rubber suit.” You’re always better to keep things out of the direct line of sight if at all possible. If at the last moment they have to see the guy in the suit to wrap it up, so be it, but if your players are finally relieved to see Cthulhu’s face, then it’s Mission Accomplished as a GM..
Finally, realize that horror role playing is not for every type of group. It may not be the kind of game you can play with your dungeon crawling axe-potato group of murder hobos. But, with the right group, you can access all that is rewarding about the horror genre. While these tips are helpful, there are probably numerous tips our readers could share, or great stories to be told. I invite those of you who do to share them with us, and let us know what keeps you up at night from your favorite horror RPG.