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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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DCC Enter The Dagon Review

September 27, 2017 Comments off

I’m running out of superlatives when it comes to DCC modules, but Harley keeps out-doing himself. This module weighs in at a monster 36 pages, and includes color photos from the tournaments at Gen Con in 2015 and 2016 that bore the same name. Enter the Dagon is much more than a typical DCC Tournament, it is an incredibly detailed 5th level adventure that centers around a spell duel tournament. Included are a page of streamlined spell duel rules that exclude some of the more fiddly bits from the DCC book like the momentum die, while maintaining cool elements like counter spells. It even provides some suggestions for Counterspell Families for what spells can counter others.

The adventure also details a timeline of events and duels, as well as a separate appendix of awesome Kovacs art of the other wizard contenders and their retainers. This adventure combines some of my favorite of Harley’s adventure mechanics: somewhat of a sandbox non-linear feel like Fate’s Fell Hand, and some time restrictions/pressure like Bride of the Black Manse. The time restrictions aren’t as literal as in Bride, but it does give the Judge a solid timeline of events to keep the adventure moving if their is a lull in the action.

Like most 5th level DCC adventures, this one would require significant preparation on the part of the Judge, and would not likely work well for a typical convention slot. This easily has at least two sessions if not three of material. One of the best features of the adventure is the centerfold map of the island. It shows the different towers of the wizard combatants and other areas of interest, but doesn’t provide any spoilers so should definitely be shared with the players to give them a sense of the environs. The wizard combats have awesome portraits that you will likely want to copy and print out like I did for Intrigue at the Court of Chaos. Having these awesome visuals really brings this adventure to life!

For fans of “The Band” in its many forms, this adventure shows the all-lady band meeting Hugh’s band on the island, reuniting them! The last two pages shows both bands, with the ladies getting a colorful cosmic background, while the actual band members remain in black and white (besides color kitten knees, and everyone loves color kitten knees).

Even if you’re not a DCC superfan or an adventure collector like myself, this is one to own. Highly recommended!

The centerfold map in progress, along with the meeting of the bands underneath!

Categories: Adventure, DCCRPG, Reviews, RPGs

Scarefest 2017 Preview – One month away!

September 21, 2017 Comments off

It is that time of year again: The air starts to get a bit cooler, the trees on the mountaintops begin to turn crimson, gold, and umber. Scarefest is upon us! This year looks bigger and more awesome than ever with an appropriately excellent theme of a Spooky Carnival. I’m sure given the box office success of IT there won’t be any creepy clowns there, right? Right?! The line up of RPGs and sponsors is better than ever too!

It is great to see the incredible Pathfinder Society schedule of games still going strong as well as more deep and diverse selection of other RPGs: D&D, Dread, Dungeon Crawl Classics, WEG Ghostbusters, Savage Worlds, Star Wars, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Savage Kingdoms, Call of Cthulhu and more! Most of the game sessions feature spooky/scary scenarios that are on theme for the event.

Just announced today: Well Played Board Game Café is hosting the board game area! It will be great to have the newcomer to the Asheville gaming scene providing their expertise for all things board games!

This year there are custom dice celebrating not only this year, but years one and two as well. We all know you can never have enough dice. Tickets are still available, but lodging might be hard to come by on the Montreat conference center campus itself. If you are planning on attending, but haven’t secured your accommodations, be sure and reach out to the event staff.

I’ve got adventures to write and pre-gens to … generate. See you in mountains!

Scarefest 2015 – no filter

Categories: Board, Cons, Dice, News, Roleplaying, RPGs

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.

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

Moon-Slaves of the Cannibal Kingdom review

May 15, 2017 Comments off

The latest Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure from Goodman Games packs an incredible amount of memorable adventure in its 24 pages. It is pretty much impossible to provide a substantive review without providing some serious spoilers, so if you plan on playing in this adventure do not read on.

Just us Judges? Good. #93 Moon-Slaves of the Cannibal Kingdom is similar in scope and structure to Harley Stroh’s #78 Fate’s Fell Hand. Rather than a battle between three wizards on a demi-plane of phlogiston, the PCs will discover three sisters on the Tolomak islands, each with their own motivations, minions, and powerful allies. This works very much like a jungle-island sandbox/hex-crawl that allows the PCs to discover various locations and factions and react to them however they would like. The beginning of the adventure suggests you could run this in a 4-hour convention slot, but I don’t see how you would do more than scratch the surface of the materials provided in that time frame. This could easily be a mini-campaign in its own right, stretching several gaming sessions. If you’re looking for bang for your adventuring buck, look no further.

However, I would not recommend this for novice Judges, or those with only a bit of time to prepare. This is one for experienced Judges who can manage a lot of variables at the same time, and roll with whatever the players are going to throw at them. For instance, there are three moons that shine down on the islands – blue, green and red. Depending on what day it is, key NPCs will be in different locations, the moon-bird will have different powers, the contents of the fountain of liquid moonlight will have different effects and a portal will appear in one of 7 locations. Each sister has motivation, quirks, initial and later attitudes, minions and allies. One of those allies is the 20′ tall ape on the cover of the adventure (one of my favorite single-panel Kovacs covers in awhile!) who has his own motivations. Luckily these details are organized at the beginning of the adventure in brief rundowns of the key NPCs and a chart for the cycles of the moon. By the way, the ship that brought the PCs here is about to mutiny, so they may be stranded on these volcanic jungle islands if they don’t get back soon. Also, if the PCs manage to destroy the apparatus keeping the entire volcano in check, it could be a very dramatic TPK. All of this is awesome, but a lot to keep in mind.

I generally buy DCC adventures for the maps (its one of the things that drew me to the beta in 2011) and this one is no exception. Their are four pages of Kovacs maps in the back, including a players map of the islands inside the front cover. There is also a section between the two main islands in which the author encourages Judges to adapt adventures from both Goodman Games or third party publishers and makes suggestions as to what may work and how to adapt them to the environment. This may be made easier for those folks who were in on the 4th printing kickstarter and got a pile of adventures along with the core rule book.

Overall, it is great to see the DCC line still coming out with excellent adventures while expanding offerings into upcoming Mutant Crawl Classics and Lankhmar lines. If you are up to the challenge, set sail for the Tolomak islands! Watch out for cannibals.

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!