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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!

Forbidden Caverns of Archaia Review

September 11, 2017 2 comments

The latest megadungeon from Dr. Greg Gillespie has been released in PDF: The Forbidden Caverns of Archaia. Greg is known for previous indiegogo campaigns for the megadungeon Barrowmaze, which eventually resulted in a 260-page tome called Barrowmaze Complete. This latest kickstarter featured a lot of similar elements from Barrowmaze and for that matter, classic adventures like Keep on the Borderlands and Temple of Elemental Evil.

This review is not going to be entirely spoiler-free, but I’ll try and keep them to a minimum. This latest megadungeon certainly has enough material for years of play and weighs in at 293 pages. Similar to the aforementioned adventures, your PCs start in a well-detailed fair sized village, and are in a sandbox hex-map region called the Prelacy of Middenmark. Like the Duchy of Aerik from Barrowmaze or Verbobonc in Temple of Elemental Evil, there are several features and settlements to explore in the nearby area other than the megadungeon focus of the adventure itself.

While Barrowmaze was focused on a series of underground crypts linked in one massive dungeon, the Forbidden Caverns of the Archaia is mostly a series of caves and tombs in canyon walls that get increasingly difficult the deeper you go in to the canyon. “Oh, so like and the Caves of Chaos?” Yes, but way more than could fit on a two-page map. Also, malevolent forces are uniting disparate tribes of humanoids in a bid to summon a terrible evil and conquer the world. “So, pretty much Temple of Elemental Evil?” Well, yes, but this outlines the hierarchy and provides heraldry for all the groups as well as attitudes between different sects allowing crafty players to turn evil on itself. Furthermore there are keystaffs that need to be assembled from several parts to utilize hengegates to allow the party to quickly get to different areas. “Now you’re just talking about the Rod of Seven Parts.” Keystaffs are actually way cooler, and have different powers based on the different parts used to assemble them, and parts can be interchanged. There are runes, rings, headpieces and a worksheet for players to keep track of their experimentation. It is an awesome part of navigating the adventure. Finally, at the end of the canyon there is a hellmouth that leads into the base of a volcano! This leads to another huge section of delving that can provide a ton of information on the fate of the Archaians. This leads to the actual end game of the adventure, which I won’t go into the details of here, but it is appropriately epic. With a very prepared and motivated GM, this would be a fantastically satisfying ride.

You can see the fingerprints of some of the greatest adventures of all time in this work, but Greg expands and expounds on them in way that keeps them fresh, yet familiar. Recently there was a discussion on the DCC RPG Rocks! facebook group about the opening language for Dungeon Crawl Classics modules that may need an update. DCC modules have evolved beyond what many would consider “classic” and have started delving into the more weird and less traveled paths of Appendix N inspiration. The Forbidden Caverns of Archaia stays more within what many consider classic tropes of dungeons and dragons. Yet compared side by side, this work really represents an excellent evolution of the old school for those looking to remember and honor the classics, without just replaying them.

The art features several of the same artists from DCC book like Stefan Poag, Russ Nicholson and Jim Holloway, as well as several that have a similar style like Cory Hamel, Peter Pagano, Carl McIntyre and more. Some of these same artists have work in Barrowmaze which is what originally drew me to the book at the Goodman Games booth at North Texas RPG Con in 2016.

Overall, I would highly recommend this megadungeon if you are looking for a big campaign with a lot of old school feel, but something that will keep even the hardiest grognard guessing.

Disciples of Harmony review

June 7, 2017 Comments off

The fine folks at Fantasy Flight Games are at it again, this time with the Star Wars Force and Destiny sourcebook for the Consular: Disciples of Harmony. This book follows the now tried-and-true format of three sections: new species/specializations, new gear/vehicles, and a GM section about consular-focused encounters. Out of Edge of the Empire, and Age Rebellion, Force & Destiny is the line I have actually played and run the least, but every line in FFG Star Wars has such great stuff it is worth picking up. This book is no exception.

The first section has some interesting and to me, surprising choices for new species. This book adds the Arkanian, Cosian, and the Pau’an.

Arkanians are usually white-haired, white-eyed, 4-fingered near-humans that are known for superior genetic engineering and generally superior attitudes to other beings. Space Aryan would not be my first choice for a Jedi, but the book goes on to explain force-sensitive Arkanians seek a perfect understanding of the force through analytical research, allowing them to transcend they typical scientific perfection their people are known for and attain a more complete perfection though the force. They start with a 3 in Intellect and 1 in Presence. Beyond that, they have Dark Vision which removes two setback, and start with a rank in Medicine. I suppose this could work well for a conceited Healer, and could be a good choice if you are looking to role-play someone with a superiority complex. Alternatively you could go against type, and be the black sheep Arkanian who is actually nice.

Cosians are a reptilian species that have kind of a beak, a tail that ends in a hairy tuft and blink up instead of down. Some may recognize this race from Jedi Master Tera Sinube from Clone Wars. Out of the three, this choice seems to be the most natural for what I think of as the consular role. Hailing from a planet in the deep core, Cosia is a verdant planet and their villages are interconnected in massive trees on the surface. They start with a 3 in Intellect and a 1 in Brawn, as well as a free rank of Knowledge (Lore) and the racial trait Strong Backed, which gives them an Encumbrance of 10 + Brawn.

Pau’ans are the creepy race of (most notably) the Grand Inquisitor from Star Wars rebels. I had no idea what race he was, nor that all of them are that ghoulish in appearance. This makes them somewhat of an odd choice for one of the more diplomatic and “face” careers for Force and Destiny. They originally hail from the planet Utapau, but the various clans have been driven from their home world by the Empire. They start with a 1 in Brawn and a 3 in Willpower, but interestingly start with +12 wound threshold and +8 strain, which makes them a bit more balanced than at first glance. They start with a rank in Negotiation or Coercion, and have sensitive hearing which gives them a boost die on Perception and Vigilance checks as long as they have their protective earpieces. With those removed, they suffer an automatic threat as their ears are overwhelmed. This would certainly make an intimidating character or NPC, but seeing them in a diplomatic role is still a hard sell for me. Still, I’m glad to have the option for other careers/specs.

The new specializations compliment the core consular specs of Healer, Niman Disciple, and Sage quite nicely. The new specs are Arbiter, Ascetic, and Teacher. The challenge with the core consular specs is the career seems to focus on 3 characteristics: Intellect, Willpower, and Presence. While choosing one of the specs will allow you to narrow down to two main characteristics, if you are cross-specing within consular, you’ll want at least a 3 in each.

Arbiter is the classic role of Jedi as mediator or judge to resolve disputes. To the base consular skills of Cool, Discipline, Knowledge (Education), Knowledge (Lore), Leadership, and Negotiation, Arbiter adds Knowledge (Xenology), Lightsaber, another Negotiation, and Perception. The skill tree is a nice balance of defensive combat talents like parry and reflect, as well as “face” talents like nobody’s fool and a new one called savvy negotiator. My favorite new power on the bottom row of the tree is Aggressive Negotiations. Once per session you can perform a hard lightsaber check to reduce the difficulty of all Negotiation checks for the encounter by 2. Not downgrades… difficulty. That is one impressive lightsaber show!

Ascetics are essentially monks that eschew possessions and have studied the force in hermit-like isolation. To the core skills they add Athletics, Discipline, Resilience and Vigilance. Clearly this build relies more on Brawn than the others. Surprisingly, the only talent with an inherent conflict cost is in this tree: Mind Bleed. This allows a character to reflect physical damage on an attacker by suffering an equal amount of strain. It also requires the PC to have 2 or less encumbrance. The character suffers a number of strain equal to the wounds suffered from the attack. The attacker then suffers wounds equal to the strain suffered. Pretty dark stuff. The tree is also loaded with grit, so between being a brawny and gritty tree, its kind of dark being an Ascetic too.

The Teacher adds another rank of Knowledge (Education), Knowledge (Lore), Leadership and Perception. This would be an interesting choice to take as a first spec, as an inexperienced PC will have much to learn. Mechanically it is pretty nice since Well Rounded is a 5xp buy on the tree which allows you to choose two additional skills of your choice to make career skills. It also allows you to lend your expertise through talents like Skilled Teacher which allows you to suffer strain equal to ranks in Skilled Teacher and provide an equal number of successes to the ally’s next check. This has some very cool role-play opportunities. Teacher is probably my favorite out of the new three. Lots of interesting talents deep in the tree as well.

The weapons/gear/vehicles sections of Force and Destiny books are rarely the highlight, but this has a few really cool additions, including a lot of non-lethal options which can be fun for bounty hunters or those trying to not gain the conflict associated with murdering people. The concussive rifle is like a noise blunderbuss, and there are a few nice new grenades in the Spore Stun grenade, and the Spray Foam grenade. But the really cool addition is the melee Z6 Riot Control Baton, famously from the scene in Force Awakens with Finn and the lightning-baton wielding First Order trooper. This will be fun to arm potential foes of the PCs as it has the Cortosis quality, Disorient 2 and of course, Stun Damage. Armor includes a diving suit for aquatic diplomatic missions, as well as in interesting Reflect Body Glove that provides very low-profile armor, but degrades with each hit. It may be repaired with an average Mechanics check. The book adds some interesting lightsaber crystals in the Cracked Crystal which according to the text is from the debris of the first Death Star’s destruction in Yavin and a Corrupted Crystal, which is essentially a dark side crystal you can “reclaim” once your PC’s morality rises above 70. Seems like some cool role-playing options there. The vehicles are predominantly very low crew/passenger capacity. This would be cool for games with one or two PCs, but would seem to have limited usefulness in larger groups. The capital ship section is pretty cool, with stats for the iconic Consular-class cruiser first seen in the Phantom Menace. Its got a cool sealed conference room pod that servers as an escape pod in a pinch. This book also details stats for the Jedi training cruiser Crucible – which would be an awesome adventure in itself!

The GM section discusses incorporating three types of mentor NPCs to the campaign, each with different styles and examples from the movies and shows. There are some helpful tables that suggest styles and complications to bring your NPCs to life. They also include example stat blocks of each type: Trainer, Consultant, and Challenger. Most interesting to me was some details on alternative force traditons: Baran Do Sages, Dagoyan Masters, Gand Findsmen, and Sith Lords. Provided are benefits and drawbacks to studying with each group, as well as an XP cost to eventually overcome the drawback. The benefits include reduced XP costs to learn certain powers that correspond with the different groups. I hope they have similar stats for the Nightsisters adventure that is coming out soon! One really nice section discusses knowledge checks. It provides two possible approaches to encourage knowledge checks and make them more dynamic, and is illustrated by my favorite illustration in the book: a human consulting a datapad while his Nautolan friend holds off a Stalking Acklay. The final section talks about making diplomatic encounters exciting and provides a table of possible success/failure/advantage/threat/triumph/despair results. I’m still not convinced any amount of political maneuvering will be more fun than a firefight, but at least it gives you more tools to help spice them up a bit.

Overall, this book surprised me with how much great stuff they packed into 96-pages. I would highly recommend this book for those looking to diversify their encounters and include some really intriguing options beyond force-sensitive PCs. Despite the entire shelf I now have dedicated to this system, quality has not gone down. Time to clear another shelf!

Categories: Books, News, Reviews, Star Wars

Tales from the Loop Review

May 7, 2017 Comments off

Tales from the Loop is a fantastic combination of nostalgia, now, and near-future inspired by the evocative art of Simon Stålenhag. The kickstarter benefited from serendipitous timing of the first season of Stranger Things becoming a sensation that taps into these same themes. The RPG book itself provides two full settings (one in the islands outside Stockholm, Sweden, the other a small desert town called Boulder City outside Las Vegas) and adaptations to allow the four included adventures or mysteries to be set in either location. Much like The End of the World series from Fantasy Flight games, the book encourages you to adapt the adventures to your home town.

Players create characters from ages 10-15 that fit classic 80s movie archetypes: Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Weirdo, Popular Kid, Rocker, and Troublemaker. Each have a few skills that they specialize in, and character creation looks pretty quick. The system uses attributes in combination with skills and items that provide a number of d6s. Success on a check is determined by rolling a 6 on a d6. Additional successes can be used to help out other party members or other beneficial effects.

The system seems to strike a nice balance that caters to the themes of the book, while not being too abstract or too gritty. For instance, when you choose the age of your PC, that is the amount of points you can assign to your attribute scores. for every year younger than 15, add one luck point. This luck point can be spent to re-roll a skill check. While older kids are more experienced and skilled at things, younger kids tend to find a way to weasel out of a tough spot. Elegant.

The included scenarios (or mysteries) deal with a variety of subjects: animal-cybernetics, dream manipulation, time-travel and accidentally letting dinosaurs back through a portal. All of them are structured as investigations with suggestions for how different events and NPCs can connect to each other, ultimately leading up to a showdown with the central conflict, and a brief denouement. In the examples of play, the game master is encouraged to let PCs set the scenes and describe a bit about their daily life. The character creation process helps inform these scenes as players choose their character’s problem, drive, iconic item, and relationships to other kids. These kind of adventures work really well for convention slots, but there are several suggestions on how to weave them together into a “mystery landscape” that could form a satisfying campaign.

The layout and aesthetics of the book are some of the most attractive I’ve seen for an RPG, and the included map of both settings is outstanding. Character sheets and maps are available in the support section of the Free League site. Avoid the bottom section if you are not running the game, as it includes spoiler-laden maps and illustrations that will be great for the GM. I highly recommend this book if you are looking for some weird and fantastic 80s adventures, in the theme of some of the most fun movies and TV shows of all time!

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

Star Wars Edge of the Empire – No Disintegrations Review

February 11, 2017 2 comments

swe16_book_leftThe day has finally arrived, and FFG has saved the best for last. No Disintegrations, the last career sourcebook for Edge of the Empire has finally hit the shelves, and it was worth the wait. This book follows the now very familiar three-section format. The first details new race and specialization options, the second focuses on gear and vehicles, and the third provides GMs with adventure ideas focused on the particular career. As someone who has been running plenty of bounty hunter games, I was eagerly awaiting this release over any other in the FFG RPG line, and it does not disappoint.

First up: new species. The Devaronians debuted in the Force and Destiny book, Nexus of Power, and are the devilish looking aliens first seen in the Mos Eisley cantina scene. Most notably, the species possess two livers, and add an automatic success to Resilience checks they make. Don’t get in a drinking contest with the devil. They also start with a 3 in cunning which will serve them well in a bounty hunting role. The other two races are new additions to the FFG Star Wars system: Clawdites and Kallerans. Clawdites are known for their shape-shifting doppelganger abilities, as showcased in episode II of the movies by Zam Wesell, the Clawdite hired to assassinate Padme. Mechanically, to change their appearance from their natural somewhat reptilian look, they suffer 3 strain and make an average Resilience check. Starting out with a rank in Resilience as their other species feature helps. These guys start with a 3 in cunning as well, and with their Changeling ability, offer a very compelling option for a bounty hunter. Kallerans were introduced in the Kanan: The Last Padawan comic. They can breathe through their skin which presents quite the paradox: they are strong but fragile, starting with a 3 in Brawn but only adding 8 for their initial wound threshold. Compare this with a Wookie adding 14 to their initial wound threshold and it is tough to make the case for a Kalleran PC. They have hypersensitive antennae which provides them with a rank in the Heightened Awareness talent, so could make an interesting force-sensitive PC, but seems like an odd choice as a bounty hunter.

zamNew specializations in this book include the Martial Artist, Operator, and Skip Tracer. Martial artist has a lot of interesting talents focusing on unarmed strikes and parrying in melee and brawling combat. Clients often pay more for live acquisitions, though this particular specialization may appeal to more than just bounty hunters. This may be a compelling choice for smaller parties that require more well-rounded PCs instead of specialists. To the core bounty hunter skills of Athletics, Brawl, Perception, Piloting (Planetary), Piloting (Space), Ranged (Heavy), Streetwise and Vigiliance, Martial Artist adds another Athletics, Brawl, as well as Coordination and Discipline. Your key attributes would certainly be Brawn followed by Agility, but this would make you a good pilot and a good shot in addition to being the muscle. If you are looking to create an all bounty hunter group with highly specialized PCs, hand the piloting keys over to the Operator. They add Astrogation, Gunnery, as well as additional ranks of Piloting (Planetary) and Piloting (Space). With a nice mix of talents from Ace:Driver and Explorer: Navigator, your key characteristics would be Agility followed by Intellect. Talents like Debilitating Shot allow the operator to disable vehicles with gunnery checks, as well as Shortcut and Improved Shortcut making them superior racers and ideal during vehicular pursuit of an acquisition. The Skip Tracer may be the most versatile of all three, but it is also the least focused. They add Cool, Knowledge (Underworld), Negotiation and Skulduggery, all new skills to the bounty hunter tree with two out of the three relying on Presence. With talents like Bypass Security, Good Cop, and Hard-boiled this would make a solid choice as a leader for a bounty hunter group, and certainly who you would want in the room while negotiating the contract, but suffers from being a Jack of All Trades, Master of None. This would be a fun choice for a small group focusing on investigations/noir kind of adventures, but it will take a lot of experience before they are as good as a larger group with more specialists. Ideally, you would want a 3 in Presence, Agility, and Cunning, which will give you a good pool for most of your career skills.

The two signature abilities are Always Get My Mark and Unmatched Devastation. Always Get My Mark is a narrative ability that basically fast forwards the plot until you start an encounter at your mark’s location. The book mentions the inherent issues with this as it has the ability to essentially skip the majority of an investigation/pursuit adventure and suggests this will always be a negotiation between the GM and the PC. I guess it could be cool, and I’ve never had a single character long enough to buy into one of the narrative signature abilities, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for me as a GM. It seems the cons far outweigh the pros. Unmatched Devastation is the more combat-oriented power, allowing a PC to make an additional combat check against the same target with increased difficulty and must be made with a non-ship/vehicle weapon not already used this turn. The “there was a firefight!” (NSFW language) scene from Boondock Saints immediately jumps to mind. With upgrades you can choose more targets and draw more weapons as well as move as an incidental for two strain. This ability would certainly allow a notorious bounty hunter to carve through crowds of mooks and create some truly memorable battles – especially for well-armed, outnumbered hunters.

swe16_weponsNow to the gear! The second section of the book is definitely the highlight for me, as we now have official stats for Mandolorian armor and attachments, a few nice rifles, and five flavors of mini-rockets for either under-rifle launchers, pistol or wrist mounts: Anti-Armor, Explosive, Flechette, Incendiary, and Ion. There are also rocket attachments to increase range and improve accuracy as well as adding the Guided quality. They are awesome! There are a couple of melee weapons, including an ion pike that only does ion damage, but does 10 pierce 4! That would be a must have for a droid bounty. There are a few new interesting armor types, but of course the most intriguing is Mandalorian Armor with its five hard points. Armor attachments include micro-rocket launcher, integrated holsters, and repulsor-assisted lifting which reduces encumbrance so you can add more stuff! There is so much great gear in this book: holonet homing beacons, rocket boots, a holographic disguise matrix… the gear section is amazing.

But that is only half of it! In a brilliant stroke of brand synergy, the ships and vehicles section gives you EotE stats for almost every Scum ship in the X-wing miniatures game, since that faction is made up of all the famous bounty hunters from Star Wars. It stats out IG-88’s Aggressor Assault Fighter and provides a mechanic that makes it more maneuverable with safety limiters turned off, which causes 3 strain to organics, but only 1 to droids. The signature craft of 4-LOM and Zuckuss G1-A is provided as is the Kihraxz star fighter, YV-666 Hound’s Tooth and the soon-to-be-released C-ROC scum capitol ship.  It also stats out a few ships from recent Rebels episodes like the Mandolrian Protectorate starfighter and the Shadowcaster. The vehicle attachments include a minelayer and six types of mines! Unlike typical weapons, mines require a hard Piloting (Space) check and their damage equals the base for the mine plus uncancelled failures. Uncancelled threats can be used to trigger various qualities for the different types of mines.

swe16_shadowcasterThe third section of the book is focused on the GM, and includes a lot of information for running investigations (which a lot of bounty hunts could certainly be) this is almost word-for-word identical to the section in Force and Destiny Endless Vigil, which is a bit disappointing. They do go into a bit more depth towards the end about creating obstacles and transistions between scenes, as well as creating an investigative campaign. If you were interesting in building these types of adventures and could only own one, I would certainly recommend this over Endless Vigil. Beyond that, there is some specific information for what benefits and risks go with being a guild bounty hunter as opposed to freelance, and outlines a few example investigative campaigns. The book ends with a section on rewards for different types of bounties and provides a table of sample bounties and modifiers in addition to exploits. Exploits provide a mechanical benefit to the bounty hunter based on performance after bringing back a Major or Legendary target. Some of these include: Humane: boost die to negotiation checks for bounties, but setback die for coercion checks about physical violence. Professional: may ask for a 10% advance on the next bounty after delivering a target within three days. Oppressor: hunter was a part of the rebel alliance or affiliate organization – adds 10% to bounties posted by the empire and increases the difficulty of social checks with rebels once.

Bottom line: This book is epic and amazing. If you only own one sourcebook for Edge of the Empire, this should be it.