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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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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.

ScareFest preview 2016

September 20, 2016 Comments off
Scarefest 2015 - no filter

Scarefest 2015 – no filter

Fall is here! That means that AVLscarefest is only about a month away. Last year was a really fantastic time, and the organizers are going out of their way to apply feedback and make this year truly fantastic! From October 21-23 add set in the picturesque mountains of Montreat, NC, the old stone buildings of the campus and convention center set the mood for some spooky games of all types. Beyond the truly staggering amount of Pathfinder Society games, you’ll find thematically appropriate games of Call of Cthulhu, Dread, Ghostbusters, D&D adventurer’s league,  Dungeon Crawl Classics, Lankhmar, Cryptworld, Savage Kingdoms, Bolt Action, and many more! Get your ticket and sign up for games at the warhorn.

Last year I had an absolute blast trying games I had never tried before like Deadlands Noir, Bolt Action, and Shadowrun. I also ran a pretty creepy table of Star Wars which became the impetus to get the Star Wars bounty hunter game going. This year I’ll be running Masks of Lankhmar and two sessions of Star Wars bounty hunters. Mike will be running the Shambling Un-dead and the Arwich Grinder!

sf-dccNew this year is a token system, in which players and GMs are all provided tokens that can be used to reward awesome role-playing, helping out around the con, and can be used at the end of the con to win some awesome prizes from local vendors. This encourages both excellent games and excellent community spirit. I can’t wait to see the results!

Don’t miss out on this fantastic con in the mountains. Try a game you have never played, or bring your favorite game to run. I’ll see you there!

Campaign Websites – Are they right for you?

November 2, 2015 Comments off

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.

COMMON FEATURES:

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

SUMMARY

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.

Scarefest Preview

October 20, 2015 Comments off

scarefest3-logo2-horizontal1This weekend in Black Mountain, Scarefest 2015 brings an awesome weekend of gaming to the campus of Montreat! Tons of RPG sessions and board-gaming from the 23rd to the 25th, and a $10 pass gets you a seat at the table for all three days. The outstandingly active Asheville Pathfinder Lodge would hold a Halloween-themed costume game event that started as one day at our Friendly Local Gaming Store the Wyvern’s Tale, in subsequent years grew in to a weekend of gaming, and this year has expanded to it’s own location.

Like previous years there will be lots of Pathfinder Society sessions, including the “specials” that are typically only run at big conventions and include coordination of several concurrent tables of players working together towards a common goal. This year, the scope of Scarefest has expanded to include other RPGs like D&D Adventurer’s League organized play, as well as Dungeon Crawl Classics and Star Wars (both run by yours truly), and World of Darkness (can’t get more on-theme than that!), Shadowrun, several flavors of Savage Worlds, Bolt Action, Dread, Numenera, and a truly impressive collection of board games. Once you’ve purchased your ticket, sign up for games on the event’s warhorn.

Scarefest-MainPromo-webI’ll be representing DCC with two adventures: The 13th Skull and Bride of the Black Manse.

13th Skull synopsis: Thirteen generations ago, the ambitious first Duke of Magnussen made a fell pact with an unknown power, who asked for but one thing in return: the thirteenth daughter born to a Magnussen duke. Now, generations hence, the daughter of Duke Magnussen XIII is stolen away by a hooded executioner riding a leathery beast. As it wings back across the city walls to drop behind the Duke’s mountain-top keep, all who watch know it alights in the Magnussen family crypts, where the devilish secrets of thirteen generations have been buried and forgotten – until now…

Bride of the Black Manse synopsis: Centuries past, Lady Ilse ascended to scion of House Liis by trading the archdevil Mammon what he wanted most: her immortal soul – and a diabolical betrothal. The triumph proved hollow, for every year on the eve of her fell covenant, she was beset by visions of Mammon and her foul promise. Seeking to save herself, she was buried alive, swaddled in the holy symbols of a dozen divergent faiths. This desperate ploy held Mammon at bay for centuries…but a devil can afford to wait a very long time.

After hundreds of years, the last of the holy wards has fallen. The devil has come to collect his due. Tonight a storm crashes against the ancient manor house and forgotten spirits rise from the muck and mire. The fallen belfry tolls once more, announcing the hellish fete. As the adventurers arrive to explore the Black Manse, Mammon calls for his winsome bride. He will leave with a soul at the end of the night. The only question is: Whose?

The Star Wars adventure I’m running caught my ear on the Order 66 podcast from d20 radio. They created a horror-themed Star Wars adventure that features the “fear check” mechanic, and should be really fun to run! Not many people would associate Star Wars with a creepy Halloween gaming event, but Ice Station Zulu does well to bring some darkness and fear to a galaxy far, far away.

It looks like quite the impressive line-up, and is a pretty awesome value. Come out this weekend and roll some dice! Costumes are highly encouraged, but not required. See you there!