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Review: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

November 13, 2017 Comments off

TLDR: You’re going to want to buy this.

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There was a lot of buzz for Xanathar’s Guide to Everything before it was even in print, so I anticipated this was going to be worth a look.  It reminds me a lot of what Unearthed Arcana (the book, not the webcolumn) was like for 1st edition.  Was it optional?  Yes.  Would you be missing out on a lot of content that is considered generally mainstream to play without it?  Heck yeah.

General Details

Xanathar, a secretive beholder crime lord, keeps notes on everything (he believes).  Hence the name of the book (his goldfish is his most prized possession, and that’s what’s on the stylized cover you see above).  As with Volo’s Guide to Monsters, there are little notes that run as commentary throughout the book, usually a sort of joke or snipe about the subject matter.  As the material is largely mechanics and game lore, it’s less relevant than with Volo’s but still fun.

The book is 192 pages, full color, lots of art, slick non-glossy pages (which I like).  You’re going to get this and think it feels kind of thin, however.  While the book feels light, it has a lot of content, and they pack quite a bit in those pages.

The book has three major division: Character Options, Dungeon Master Tools, and Spells, but also has two valuable Appendices.  Here’s the breakdown of the sections.

Character Options

Subclasses

By far one of the most valuable sections of Xanathars is the Character Options chapter.  This opens 31 new subclasses for the primary classes listed in the Player’s Handbook.  That’s right: THIRTY ONE.  Note that’s not 31 new classes, but subclasses (like Bardic Colleges, or Barbarian Primal Paths, etc).  I like this because I think that too many primary classes waters down your base classes and leads to unexpected bloat.  Some of these may be familiar as they have rolled out through playtesting in the Unearthed Arcana column.

A few favorites include the Bardic College of Whispers, the Grave Domain Cleric, the Samurai and Cavalier Fighter archetypes, the rogue Swashbuckler, and the War Magic Wizard. Adding rules to differentiate these classes and giving them a new feel works well, without making a GM learn entirely new modes of play functionality.

Flavor – Charts – This is Your Life

In addition to subclass details, they also offer fluff fans fun and interesting (but very brief) charts for fleshing out details about their characters and their backgrounds.  More experienced players may feel these sorts of things are unnecessary, but it definitely gives some players new ways of looking at details about their characters that will flesh them out in interesting ways.

Some sections are meatier than others. The Druid Section of the the Character Option chapter lists charts, for example, of what beasts you encounter in what environments for the purposes of exposure to allow wildshape.  You could make it up, but this is just damn handy.  Other elements, like how you learned to be a druid, are more storytelling.  Each class has this sort background material.

This culminates with a subsection called “This Is Your Life” which allows your background to be determined by charts, at your option.  This goes through siblings, parents, family history, and motivations based optionally on class or background.  I’ve always been a fan of a certain online character background generator myself (NSFW for language).  I seem to recall something like this in an older volume of D&D (maybe player’s handbook 2???) but can’t remember which book.  If you know, post in the comments.  In the end, it can be fun, and they’re clear not to be pushy about using it.  Do it, or don’t if you don’t want to.

Racial Feats

One thing you won’t hear me complaining about is more feats.  I especially like the idea of Racial Feats that continue to expand the characteristics of the races in game.  These add additional ways for characters to stand out and differentiate themselves from one another given the more simplified options of 5th edition over early incarnations like 3.5 and 4th editions.

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Dungeon Master’s Tools

Rules Clarifications

As a gamer who runs a lot of games, this section is precious to me, as it answers some questions that speaks more to design philosophy on dealing with rules questions. This chapter shotguns out some rules issues right off the bat with little ceremony, including:

  • Simultaneous Effects
  • Falling (over time and large distances)
  • Sleep Details – Involuntary Waking, Sleeping in Armor, Going Without Sleep
  • Adamantine Weapons
  • Tying Knots (both tying and slipping out of them)

There are two larger sections that go into greater detail as well:

  • Tool Proficiencies – This large section rethinks Tool Proficiency, going into specific items included in certain kits, and spelling out what a player can do with skills and tool proficiencies.  A valuable section that will assist GM’s and players alike in seeing how these should be played.
  • Spellcasting – Concealing and identifying spellcasting, measuring ways of determining gridded templates (with illustrations)

 

Challenge Ratings

One of the most important changes listed here is the Encounters Section.  This lists a new way of calculating encounter challenge ratings that seems to more accurately address the threat of solo monsters based on group size, as well as other types of encounters.  This section probably is an admission that prior CR calculations were not correct and did not accurately reflect appropriate difficulty.

Paired with this is a comprehensive list of wandering monster encounters by level and geographic environment.  For those that use such charts, it’s a masterpiece.  Very convenient.    While not previously a fan of wandering monsters, I’ve found it a useful tool when players are lollygagging or doing things in a stubborn and ineffective time-consuming way (i.e. camping after every encounter, spending an hour bonding with items in a dungeon, camping in a dangerous place, etc).  The lists are detailed, and the setting dressing it provides also fleshes out your world and the creatures in.

Other Sections

Traps Revisited — A sizable section deals with how traps should be dealt with to make them interesting, including details about constructing elaborate traps and the rules that tied therein.  This is more interesting in that it seems to suggest that the standard application of a rogue disarm role should be avoided in favor of a more descriptive approach.

Downtime Revisions –  This section elaborates on revised downtime rules, including the development of a rivalry, buying magic items, carousing complications, and so on.  Helpful if you find yourself using these rules.  We never seem to get to them in my groups, however.

Magic Items – A section here on magic items deals with suggestions on awarding magic items as a GM, and a type of common magic item that has magical effect and flavor without game-breaking power.  A new relisting of magic items by type and rarity, with notation as to whether those items require attunement, is a handy reference.

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Spells

With over 90 additional spells for all spell-casting classes, this chapter alone makes this book a must-have. I haven’t combed through these to see if they have been duplicated in other volumes, but there certainly enough new ones to make it a reference for any spell-caster when picking their list.  Some of these are old classics that have been revamped for 5th edition, others are brand new.

Appendices:

Appendix B is a voluminous list of names from different cultures to help players with naming a character.  It’s a great list, as it goes, with real world cultural names as well as fantasy names.  This is going to make one of your players very happy.

but more importantly, Appendix A is about Shared Campaigns.  

Shared Campaigns

Skyland Games originally began as a gaming group that decided to split off from Living Forgotten Realms organized play to start our own shared campaign.  Part of this split was because of frustration with the management of LFR and the various bookkeeping requirements thereof (and scenario quality, truth be told). We started our own round-robin style of gaming allowing everyone to get some play time, as well as build a common story together.  We’re big fans of it.

What’s proposed here contemplates a Living campaign like Adventurer’s Guild, but could be used for a round-robin home game as well.  It makes use of a benchmark system for leveling based on the number of hours a scenario is designed for and its relative challenge level rather than on the XP value of monsters.

Common rewards are determined at levels, including a treasure point system for awarding magic items from a pre-determined list of magic items agreed upon by the collective DM’s of the campaign. Gold can be spent on common items and maybe a small list of alchemical items.  Major magic items require treasure points, earned through play.

This appendix, however, poses a question: Is this the future (or maybe the present) of Adventurer’s League?  I haven’t been to a game in ages, so I couldn’t tell you if they had moved to this system.  If so, does the abstraction make the game less enjoyable?  I think each player might have a different answer to this question, but if everyone can pay their dues and get the items they want in a timely enough fashion, the abstraction may be worth it.  These guidelines won’t make you purchase the book, but are worth a read for any player.

Summary

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything seems largely about utility and fleshing out things that originally were left to player and GM to determine.  Some might see that as an imposition, but I find it incredibly useful.

A complaint I’ve heard about 5th edition is that the lack of specialization makes many characters seem the same.  I’d point out that, as a player for three decades now, we started with a lot less and never really thought to complain about it.  5th edition is a great expansion on what we started with, but doesn’t lend itself to the hyper-specialization that you see in 3.5 Edition D&D or Pathfinder.  These new subclasses, feats, and spells in no way serve to make 5th Edition D&D more like 3.5 or Pathfinder, but they do give a greater degree of options to make a character stand out and build on unique themes.  The content provided in this tome is very significant, and is a should-have if not a must-have moving forward with 5th Edition.

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Don’t Look Back returns!

October 27, 2017 Comments off

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Twenty years ago, I read about an amazing new game that was making big waves in the Horror RPG community.  That game was Don’t Look Back: Terror is Never Far Behind (“DLB”).  Enthusiasts of the genre stated that it had clean mechanics, was versatile, and an engaging universe.  I was lucky enough to meet its designer Chuck McGrew, and went on to assist with the Second Edition, and have since spent many great hours with this fun, fast horror RPG.

After two decades lurking in the shadows, using occult Kickstarter magiks, Don’t Look Back is back with a NEW EDITION!   I’m psyched to get back into modern horror with Chuck McGrew again after all these years.

CLICK HERE TO GET IN ON THE KICKSTARTER!

I was not originally the type of guy to seek out a Horror RPG.  DLB had great reviews at the time (this is almost the pre-internet era, so we still looked to publications like Dragon Magazine for what was new and hot at the time, not amazing game blogs like Skyland Games).  The reviews I read were startlingly positive.  While there was Horror role-playing out there at the time, many of them stuck to specific themes that didn’t always appeal to me.

For instance, Call of Cthulhu was great, but I didn’t always want to play a game in the 1920’s, or always inevitably die horribly, or go insane.  Other Horror games existed but the mechanics could be cumbersome, and usually presumed a role that the players would be involved in that was sort of predetermined by the system.

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DLB appealed to me in that it didn’t necessarily tie itself to a specific setting, but was versatile enough to be used in any kind of horror game that the player and game master preferred.  You could play that group of kids that snuck out to see if they could find the missing kid from their school who was last seen entering the abandoned house at the edge of town.  You could also play an FBI agent seeking the truth that was out there.  You could play mobsters that stumbled onto something when the shipment they hijack turned out to be more exotic than anticipated, not to mention alive.  The game had great flex so you could use it how you wanted it.

That said, numerous shadowy organizations, entities and creatures were detailed in its “Keeper” section for the player to incorporate as it suited the group.  Groups such as the Order, the Clean-up Crew, and others created a world that could be played in or tools for a world of the GM’s own design.

We played for hours, usually playing a campier horror-movie style back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, which fits the game perfectly, per their first module “Giant Psychic Insects from Outer Space”.  Games where the possibility of actually fighting the creature and surviving the night wasn’t so far fetched was a little bit different than a lot of the genre at the time.  Best of all, the mechanics were smooth enough to keep the story from getting bogged down.

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Chuck McGrew advises in his Kickstarter video that he plans on utilizing the D6xD6 system in the new edition, which d6xd6.com describes as follows:

In the D6xD6 RPG, players can create literally any type of character, based on a unique dice mechanic and a single attribute—Focus. Character abilities are defined primarily by chosen occupation, which together with a list of secondary skills determine the character’s Focus number. Very focused characters are automatically better at their occupation and the few skills they know; less focused characters are better able to succeed even with skills they’ve never trained in.

I’ve heard great things about the system, but haven’t had a chance to play it yet.  Simple, clear mechanics is always a benefit in Horror RPG’s, as it lets the player focus on actual role-playing and not the technical aspects of how the game itself is played.  It’s difficult to spook a player while looking up rules, and I’m hoping that d6xd6 is able to keep that tradition up in the new version.

While the Kickstarter has already reached the first leg of its goal, stretch goals promise new adventures as well as rules for kids and teens (perfect for that natural hankering you’ll get after watching Stranger Things Season 2).

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The first Stretch goal that has already been unlocked is the details on the Cleanup Crew, permitting one of my favorite versions of the game, where you play the role of expendable operatives, men-in-black, coming to clean up the evidence of the presence of dangerous “Unknowns” that pose a threat to the greater good.  Not exactly good guys, we had some fun running a game where the team tried to solve the mystery, catch the critter and make the world aware that ‘something is out there’.  Then to have a second session where the players play pre-gen Clean-up Crew operatives that take actions showing why, at the last second, the monster disappeared and what became of both it and the Crew itself.

Don’t Look Back has a lot of great elements that helped to open the genre in the 90’s and may serve to do the same today.  This game has a ton of potential and provided me and my gang hours of great gameplay over the years.  Make sure to get in on this kickstarter before it ends on November 12th!

HAPPINESS IS MANDATORY; A review of Mongoose’s new take on the Paranoia RPG

May 29, 2017 1 comment

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Paranoia has been around for decades, and is a game I was in love with 20 years ago.  Recently, I picked up and read (cover to cover) Mongoose’s take on life in our beloved Alpha Complex, and found that not only was happiness mandatory, but it was pretty darn easy to comply.

If you’ve never seen the game before, Paranoia is a darkly humorous RPG where you play a citizen of Alpha Complex, a sealed vast complex of various sectors built to survive some great calamity.  Alpha Complex is controlled by The Computer, a semi-omnipotent semi-insane artificial intelligence that has, over hundreds of cycles of operation, turned Alpha Complex into an Orwellian witch hunt for commies, mutants, and members of secret societies.   Traditionally, you play a faithful troubleshooter just above the minimum security clearance level, who also happens to be a mutant and a member of a secret society.  You have six clones (because a computer knows something about backups), and death comes easily.  Most games typically involve hunting each other, incriminating yourself, hunting threats to the complex, and getting blown up in a variety of dramatic hilarious ways, from simple R&D product testing to actual threats.

Mongoose has done little to change this classic formula thematically, but has done a great job of sprucing up the rules and play of the game to match the character the game has always carried with it.  Here are the primary changes for long time players:

  • Cards have been added to make equipment and duties easier to keep track of, and have created action cards you can use add story elements or interrupt another players action to make things interesting.  Since screwing over the guy sitting next to you is half the fun, it makes for creative fast paced play.
  • Skills are tested by rolling dice and tracking 5’s or 6’s (with all rolls of 1-4 taking away a success if the player has a negative skill number, or being ignored with a positive skill number).  Players are encouraged to make creative combinations of their four Stats (Violence, Brains, Chutzpah and Mechanical) and a large list of skills.
  • Along with your skill dice, you roll a “Computer Dice” (they say Dice because the word ‘die’ is used too much already in the book).  Rolling a Computer on the Computer Dice forces a player to lose “Moxie” (your ability to cope) and represents either equipment malfunction or the Computer’s helpful interference pushing the player closer and closer to the breaking point. Run out of Moxie and you lose it in the way that is funniest at the time.
  • Commies are now termed the more generic “terrorists” (though you still can and do have commie terrorists, so that’s pretty much the same.
  • All characters are implanted at birth with a Cerebral Cortech and cyber-eyes which allow the computer to beam programs straight into the character’s brain, as well as video treason with the characters own eyes as witnesses for (or against) them.
  • Players now perceive in augmented reality, with name tags and “treason stars” floating above other players.  5 stars and you’re laser fodder.
  • Players are awarded “XP Points” by the Computer for positive actions and behavior, and are docked XP Points for negative or treasonous behavior.  XP Points can be used to buy skill and stat upgrades, software packages, and security clearance upgrades, complete with cake to celebrate with.

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I won’t get into some of the rules that the GM uses, as they are above your security clearance, but I’ll summarize by saying that they remain fast and loose, and easy for any GM to apply.  The players often times end up making things more interesting than the GM could ever manage through attempts at creative problem solving.

Overall, Mongoose’s take on the game emphasizes creativity and minimizes mechanics, which really has always matched the particular play style of this game.  You don’ win Paranoia, you survive it.

The main box comes with five dry erase character sheets, a players book, a GM book (which made me laugh out loud reading it several times), and book with three adventures in it that start off with the players at infrared status (minimum security status) and moving their way up, learning alpha complex as you go.  It’s a great series of adventures because it presumes no knowledge of the system and lets players learn.  It also is written in such a way that the GM can read that first and run the game before reading the rules.  It’s pretty amazing and a great way to jump right in.

Pick this game up if your friends can enjoy sabotaging each other with hilarious consequences and you’re a GM capable of thinking on your feet to make things fun. It’s a great change of pace from the same old fantasy game and makes for a great one shot in between campaign sessions.

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Categories: Mechanics, Reviews, RPGs

Review: Tales from the Yawning Portal

April 2, 2017 Comments off

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Alright, let’s jump right in….

What’s in it?

Tales from the Yawning Portal is Wizard’s latest release for 5th Edition, and is the same high production quality as their other releases.  Unlike previous releases, it is a series of unconnected older adventures that have been converted up to 5th edition from previous editions of the game (ranging from several OD&D mods to some early 3rd edition modules, and some playtest content).

The adventures featured are:

  • The Sunless Citadel
  • The Forge of Fury
  • Against the Giants Trilogy
  • The Tomb of Horrors
  • The Hidden Shrine of Tamaochan
  • White Plume Mountain
  • Dead in Thay

There is also a brief chapter for magic items (15 of these) and a chapter for monsters (39 of them).  Also, starting of the book is a brief flavor detail for, you guessed it, the Yawning Portal Tavern.

Those are the facts.  Now, the real question…

Should I Buy it?

This book is for grognards wanting to spare themselves the minimal trouble of converting a few old classic scenarios for their group, many of whom may not have played the mods.  Alternately, it’s for newer players that have heard about classic mods and want to take a crack at them in 5E and see what all the fuss is about.

Tales from the Yawning Portal takes the heavy lifting out of conversion, cleans up some weird oddities from older mods, and generally makes the older content much more approachable for a newer player, primarily because old originals are perhaps hard to find and the trouble of converting some of these classics may be a little daunting.

So, do you need to buy it?  No.  You definitely do not.

Should you?  Only if you want to revisit these classics.  I personally do, but that’s not going to describe everyone.

This is a collection of classic mods first and a general game supplement second, or perhaps even third.  In some ways I appreciate the fact that Wizards isn’t spamming their release schedule with Fiend Folios and Magic Item Compendiums in droves, forcing us to shell out for semi-mandatory releases.  On the other hand, I feel like getting 39 monsters at a time is a somewhat slower financial torture.  That, and now if I want to find a monster, I have to flip through Volo’s Guide to Monsters, or now Yawning Portal to find what I’m looking for in addition to the Monster Manual.  It’s not really convenient or logical.

In a lot of ways, 5th Edition is a response (perhaps a kneejerk response) to the vitriol that arose as a result of the new ideas of 4th Edition.  4th Edition is commonly summarized as “a great game, just not dungeons and dragons”.  As a result, 5th edition has a much more old school feel, without all that horrible THAC0.  This is a slapshot right down the throats of all those geezers like myself that just want to play ancient modules until we die, and make other people play them too.

The great thing about this book is that you get a lot of content, and a lot of short usable play hours with it.  You can play pieces of it without having to feel married to it for a year (a complaint that some of us are feeling in our current Out of the Abyss campaign).  Being able to play a few sessions, then stop, can be very welcome when seeking published content.  Also, they snuck the ENTIRE GIANTS TRILOGY in here!  That is Fricking Awesome!  So there is good to be had.

The monsters, however, as well as the magic items, are there to support the rest of the published works and don’t really stand on their own as a supplement (nor do I believe they were held out to do so).  Overall, it’s great to have on the shelf, but the home campaigner or the long haul campaigner is going to scratch their heads at this release. This is nostalgic potpourri and historical esoterica.

So, proceed with the knowledge of what this book is, and see if it is worthy of your shelf.  It’s on mine, and I’m glad for it and look forward to sharing some old classic content with my group for a couple 3-shots.

A parting note:

One last thing I wanted to mention, and can’t seem to find a place to fit into this review, is the curious disappointment I have that the Yawning Portal, famous for it’s connection to Undermountain, is not at the head of a book for UNDERMOUNTAIN!  It’s a fun way to connect these modules as tales from tavern-goers but something I hope Wizards will attempt in the months and years to come.  That’s a classic that definitely belongs on the shelf.

 

 

Categories: 5e, Adventure, Books, DnD, Reviews, RPGs, WOTC

Review: Volo’s Guide to Monsters (5E)

November 6, 2016 2 comments

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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

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.

Character Races

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.

Bestiary

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:

  • Barghest
  • Bodak
  • Catoblepas
  • Darkling
  • Baubau
  • Devourer
  • Flail Snail!
  • Froghemoth!
  • Several new Variant classed giants, very cool
  • Girallion
  • Flind
  • Leucrotta
  • Quickling
  • Shadow mastiff
  • Spawn of Kyuss (Greyhawk?)
  • Trapper
  • Vargouille
  • Vegepygmy!
  • 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.

Overall

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!

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The Value of Unplugging

October 10, 2016 Comments off

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So after observing that our kids fight constantly when exposed to a lot of TV and Video games, we decided (okay, my wife decided) there’d be no electronics during the week (with a few very specific exceptions) during the regular school year.

Harsh.

I was waiting for the kids to drive her nuts, and for everyone to then drive me nuts, and for that rule to be abolished and things to go back to normal.  To my surprise, after a day or two there were few complaints. The kids starting fighting less, and started actually “doing” more.  They slept better, got more exercise, and generally seemed less cranky. And best of all, we started spending more time together, with them taking an interest in RPG’s and Board games.

If you’re reading this and you’re a millennial tabletop gamer, I salute you.  The discretion to play role-playing games or board games when you’ve grown up with a plethora of media options was an unlikely one; streaming video, various video game platforms with multiplayer functionality, not to mention cell phone games and apps… it took a lot for you to even care enough to try to play a role-playing or board game where humans had to assemble in person around a table after learning rather complex rules.  If you’re older, you may understand that in the 80’s, when G.I. Joe went off the air for the day at 4:30, there was only the news and later Miami Vice or the A-Team to look forward to.  That downtime needed to be filled with something that wasn’t TV, and there was a limit to how much ATARI you could play before ragequitting.

Hence, in my day, tabletop role-playing games, board games , and war games were what we turned to.  And of course, books, sports, etc.  But on your basic rainy day or evening, we poured over the books and made characters or pulled out Talisman or O.G.R.E and had at it. Unwittingly, my wife has re-created that experience for my kids, and now they’re looking with renewed interest at my hobbies as a way to pass some enjoyable time.

I previously blogged about how my son showed some enjoyment from playing Dungeons & Dragons, but since he’s not quite old enough to be literate, he’s not catapulted into it like I had hoped.  My older daughter is a voracious reader, however, and after finishing Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle books, she’s showing a lot more appreciation for the concepts in fantasy RPG gaming than she ever has previously.

Both, as it turns out, love painting miniatures.

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I’ve had to set some restrictions to make sure they don’t paint things I have plans for, and not everything is a gem, but some are actually quite good, from both the younger one and the older.

Moreover, they’ve both become eager players of board games.  We’ve finally been able to start working through my massive collection of board games, half of which have stayed in the shrink-wrap due to the difficulty finding time with other gamers when we’ve got an RPG schedule that doesn’t allow the time.  Exposure to some of the board games like Wizards of the Coast’s Temple of Elemental Evil has got her interested in a more RPG-like experience.  It’s helpful her friends have read the same books and also enjoy painting miniatures as well (enough to shop for their own figures on reapermini.com).  For better or worse, we may just have a tween girls gaming group in the making.  You can bet I’ll blog about that, should it happen.

The time we’ve spent together has been fun for all of us, and we’re talking and sharing and growing closer as a family when this is going on, which is contrary to the quietude of zoning out in a show or game that doesn’t invite the distraction of conversation.  Of course, you don’t have to unplug to share this time, but you may just find that there’s peace that comes with cutting out those unhealthy distractions and getting back to a simpler time before Netflix.

I got on today to write board game reviews from the new games we have been playing, but realized this was maybe the more important part of the story.  Next week and for hopefully weeks to come, I’ll be sharing more of what we’re playing and how it works with younger players as well.

Evaluating Evil – Revisiting Evil Campaigns

March 15, 2016 Comments off

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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.

ALIGNMENT ORIGINS

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:

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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:

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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.

WHY?

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.

REAL EVIL

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.

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