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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.

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.

D&D Fonts – Old School Look, New Text

November 22, 2011 4 comments

I love writing new adventures using fonts that make them look like the books I grew up reading. After a little research, I found some free fonts that some of you might enjoy if you write you adventures for RPGs in a word processor. You can also make the next handout for your group look hand-written and flavorful, without learning calligraphy.

One of the classic TSR fonts used in countless books from the 80s is Souvenir. Look familiar? Just typing notes in this font has a Pavlovian effect on me; evoking classic images and adventures from books I remember reading growing up. With this font and a two-column format, maybe some art borrowed for home use, and you’ve got an awesome professional looking adventure you can hang on to, and be proud of.

Another technique I’ve used is finding fonts of elven or dwarven runes. I even used dwarven runes in a puzzle involving a dwarven tomb. You can also use the Tolkien elven runes found on the ring of power! One of my favorites is Hobbiton Brushhand. Another great font for “hand-written” notes to hand out to the party is elven common speak.

Many DMs just write notes in a spiral notebook or just open up Word and start typing away, and theres nothing wrong with that. Maybe next time you sit down to dream up an adventure for your group, try using some evocative fonts and see if it inspires you. Any awesome fantasy themed fonts I missed? Other TSR or memorable fonts from other gamebooks? Let us know in the comments below.

Categories: 4e, DnD, Lore, RPGs, Tips Tags: , , , , ,

Epic on the Brain

October 27, 2011 1 comment

A must-have for running epic level games!

Fourth Edition D&D has been out for long enough that many players with a steady game may be hitting 21st level. In one of my gaming groups we started the Scales of War adventure path at 10th level two years ago, and are now 25th level.

Epic games and even late-Paragon games can be a challenge to both play and run. Sly Flourish’s “Running Epic Tier D&D Games” is an excellent purchase full of tips to keep Epic level play from becoming epically long gaming sessions. It is chock-full of great tips about keeping things exciting while navigating thru the myriad of options available at Epic Level. I purchased the PDF version ($3.99) which included a small format (iPhone), large format (iPad or computer) and ePub formats. It was really a classy move to include all those formats to allow for easy reading on any device.

If you are considering DMing an epic campaign I would highly recommend you purchase these tips. Weighing in at 49 pages, it isn’t epically long, but it gets you in the right mindset to take 4th edition to the ultimate level. It includes campaign ideas, encounter tips, and advice about preparing for massive encounters. From our experience with Scales of War it can be very difficult to balance encounters. This book gives the excellent advice of throwing the XP budget concept from the Dungeon Master’s Guide out the window. It just doesn’t apply once the party becomes that powerful.

Epic can be fun, but it certainly isn’t for those who are new to D&D. By the time you get to 21st level, the amount of feats and powers on the character sheet can be intimidating to even seasoned players. One important piece of advice is to try and choose options that are easy to remember. Choosing an option which only comes up once in a great while will be impossible to remember in the midst of an encounter. For my most recent character I actually took a highlighter to my character sheet and wrote in little notes about situational bonuses so I could remember at a glance what will apply. I also highlighted whether the power was an Immediate Interrupt or an Immediate Reaction so I can find those powers when appropriate.

Have fun with Epic Level play, but don’t go in unprepared! Good gaming to you!

Categories: 4e, DnD, Reviews, RPGs Tags: , , , , ,