Monday, 11 February 2019

Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage Maps and Miscellany

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • Nice glossy pages featuring the maps from Waterdeep: Dungeons of the Mad Mage. They are glossy like this because they are intended for use with dry erase markers.
  • Has a nice folder to keep everything.
  • Cards are included.

Could Go Either Way:
  • There are no battle maps here. These are the maps that you find in the adventure book. This is nice since you don’t need to flip back and forth, but you won't be putting minis on these. 
  • These are meant for the Dungeon Master. Know how I know? The secret doors are listed.Want some for your players? Too bad!
Cons:
  • You won’t be giving these to your players short of them getting divine intervention reveal the location. These are meant for the Dungeon Master. Know how I know? The secret doors are listed.
  • No PDF*
* Denotes nitpicking.

Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage Maps and Miscellany
Cover of the package.

Introduction

We’ve had a new adventure released recently, and along with it we got a maps and miscellany pack. I’m always happy to see this sort of thing, since they give us a way to advance our game if we so wish. Want the tarot cards for Ravenloft? Or all of the maps in the adventure? You can get them! Don’t want them? Easy. You already don’t. However, being offered the choice doesn’t hurt, especially when including it in the core book would further drive costs up. So is this pack worth getting? Let’s jump in.

The Package

You get every map in the adventure in a nice folder. Inside the folder there is a summary of each map found within. As a package, it’s rather nice. The art of the folder mirrors the book itself and the pages feel nice due to their glossy finish. As a result, you could use dry erase markers if you wanted. That’s at least the intention, as the back clearly states this intention.

Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage Maps and Miscellany internals
The kind of maps and folder inside the package. The pages are double sided.

The Maps

These are not battle maps. These are the maps found in the Waterdeep: Dungeons of the Mad Mage adventure. If you’ve seen them and liked them you’ll know what to expect. They are rather simplistic in style, but clear. In general they feel rather nice.

If there is any part of this map that I can fault, it’s the fact that they are meant for the Dungeon Master side of the screen. The maps include the secret doors. This means that unless you give your players divine intervention so they know the location of all the secret doors, they won’t see many of these pages. The ones they will are the cards, and the Skullport maps. I think it’s rather common to let players see the maps for city locations so they know where they are, and where they can travel. The floors of the dungeon will remain on the Dungeon Master side of the screen. This makes the pack convenient, but not mandatory. Instead it’s really a luxury quality of life improvement.

Where such a luxury item excels is if you do things the real old school method of dungeon delving. Make them map the dungeon, while you have your perfect reference copy beside you and know exactly where they are.

Price

I don’t normally comment on the price and instead merely state the suggested price. I do this because prices aren’t fixed. Sales often occur and everyone has their own ideas of what’s worth it when it comes to their money. I’ll largely do the same here, but I do need to point out that the price of two maps & miscellany packs is the same as a core rule book or adventure. I think that many people, if forced to choose between two such packs (for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage) and a full adventure (such as Curse of Strahd) will choose the full adventure. This maps it more of a luxury product for those who enjoy the convenience, and/or for those that already have the other books they are interested in.

Summary

This is a luxury item. If you like having your maps outside your book, like using dry erase marker, and liked the maps from the book, you’ll like this. However, outside the Skullport maps and the card pages, the maps will stay on the Dungeon Master side of the screen. This is because the maps include secret doors, but this isn’t a problem for the town of Skullport. I know plenty of Dungeon Masters who would pass on such a product if their players can’t see the maps, and instead just deal with the inconvenience. This is because they rather buy other books and adventures they don’t already own, and for the price of two such packs they could buy another book. If you can only buy one accessory though? It’s a harder choice. However, if you aren’t worried about buying other books, and like these sorts of luxury additions? You’ll be right at home.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • The quality of art remains consistent (excluding dungeon maps, see section below).
  • This is the longest adventure in this edition of D&D by pure page count at 320 pages long. I’ve been complaining that the adventure books were a bit light page count wise, so I’m glad to see this.
  • Each level of the dungeon has it’s own unique scenarios and situations, making it a perfect place to steal things for your own games. Like the idea of a dragon being controlled by the sentient sword stuck in its head? Well, you could steal the whole level and place it into a forest. I’ll be doing a “Top 5 Things to Steal” article later for that reason.
  • The encounters have a good variety of badies and situations, from beholders to lich, to social interactions and insanity.

Could Go Either Way:
  • This is a really dungeon heavy adventure. It’s not just room after room dungeon delving, as each level has their own gimmick and events, but I think it really is meant for the dungeon delver party.
  • The maps might rub you the wrong way. They’re not the super detailed or styled like Curse of Strahd, and instead more like the simple maps from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
  • This another adventure with a Maps and Miscellany pack. If you want a nice collection of maps from the adventure for your use as a Dungeon Master, it exists. If you never liked the concept, well, not much to say. See my review of the pack.
  • It doesn’t have the same hook or urgency as other adventures. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist had players racing to try to get to the treasure first. Out of the Abyss had demons wreaking havoc on the world. Curse of Strahd had Strahd on the heels of players, and their conflict needed to happen to escape the cursed realm they found themselves in. Here? They are exploring for riches, glory, and possibly a side quest that won’t even take them to the lowest level of the dungeon.
  • There is art, but it’s not as loaded with it as books such as the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The majority of the art is maps and the typical half-page chapter starting images.
Cons:
  • Could have really used a map of which levels lead to which levels, and the page of the corresponding gate.
  • I think it would’ve done well with better hooks linking it to Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. It feels disconnected when it could’ve felt like a natural transition.
  • No PDF*


* Denotes nitpicking.

Dungeon of the Mad Mage cover.
The cover of the adventure with our Mad Mage front and centre.

Introduction

Dungeons of the Mad Mage is an adventure released on November 20th, 2018 (yeah, this took some time to finish) taking place in Waterdeep and picking up at the level range right after Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. At the point of writing this, I’ve run through 4 levels of the dungeon and read the book cover to cover. I’d say it’s a well written dungeon delve that feels like the dungeon portion of Princes of the Apocalypse or the dungeon portions of Tomb of Annihilation. However, it doesn’t have the overland exploration portions of those and to enjoy it you need to enjoy dungeon delving. And with that, let’s delve straight into the dungeons.


The Adventure

New Player Options

We got nothing here for players. Don’t expect this to be a source of stuff for your players, outside of magic items that they can accumulate. I prefer this as it prevents bloat and I want my adventures filled with stuff for the Dungeon Master, but your mileage may vary.

New Monsters

This is a hard question to answer succinctly. If you only have the Monster Manual, these additional monsters are a nice addition to your games. The catch is that many of these monsters have already appeared in previously published books such as Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. If you have all of the other books in this edition though, you’ll see that most of them are repeats. I appreciate that someone who purchases this as their first adventure doesn’t need to buy all of the other supplement books in this edition, however they’ll be dead pages for those that already own them. That said, the monsters only take up ~8 pages, so it’s not much of a loss and still a very long adventure by the standard of this edition.

Dungeon of the Mad Mage image 1.
An example of the chapter starting images previously mentioned.

What You Need to Play

The rules now assume that you have the Monster Manual, Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. You might be able to get away with using the SRD, and basic rules along with some personal creations. However the adventure references items, traps and monsters found in those core rules. The result is that unless you are prepared to rewrite parts of the adventure to get around your missing books, you’ll want the core rule books to run it as intended.

The Adventure Itself

The adventure starts off in the Yawning Portal inn and quickly jumps into the different levels of Undermountain. Each level has its own set of challenges, and as you’d expect the challenge rating of monsters increase the deeper you go. The levels are connected through portals that don’t allow creatures to pass unless they are prepared, or the right level mechanically speaking.

The variety between levels is wide and vast. From bandits and goblins, to githyanki on a hollowed out asteroid, to a level touched by the Shadowfell, there are a variety of challenges and situations to come across. These feature combat encounters as you’d expect. There are also puzzles and social interactions with denizens of Undermountain. Often you leave the denizens behind as you advance to the next level. And the adventure isn’t afraid to have the Mad Mage act silly. This gives some personality, since they may be going through a deadly stretch of dungeon and barely survive a trap, just to find themselves being mocked or having a joke made at their expense. As an example, one level has a biased announcer that following the progress of the party.

There is also plenty of room for Dungeon Masters to put their own fingerprints on the adventure. Entire passages are left open for you to expand in a Keep on the Borderlands style. And with the completion of a level of the dungeon, there are side affects. Clear out a level and leave, and the Mad Mage of the cover may have repopulated it with a host of new beasts and monsters. This second part is largely left in the hands of the Dungeon Master so as usual, be prepared to need to spend some time preparing between sessions.

The multiple links between levels through portals makes it hard to keep track of what level links to what level. Just having an illustration or a couple more columns in the chart to show where portals lead and what the key is would be incredibly helpful.

The other thing about this adventure is that it doesn’t have the same focus and pressure as some other adventures in this edition such as Curse of Strahd or Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. There are plot hooks and quests that will take you to different levels of the dungeon, but there isn’t really a central goal to take you all the way to the Mad Mage. Some of the plot hooks can lead to fun adventures as you go to the level you are interested in, but as written some have a minimum level before being offered. This means your players would need to enter first, leave, and then be lured back with the promise of riches from a new quest. And even if they do bite, they might not make it all the way to the end before finishing their campaign. In that way it almost reads more like a book on the layout of Undermountain and the goings on, and the quests are reasons to brave the dungeon’s challenges.

With that said, the adventure is massive. At 320 pages long, it’s closer to the length of a core book than it is to a standard adventure in this edition. And many of the levels are good enough on their own to use for your own adventure or arc. Some of the layouts and traps are also clever. I plan to do a top 5 reuse in the future for this reason. Of particular note is an evil magic school for apprentices and would-be apprentices of the Mad Mage, a level ruled by a twisted fallen angel, and a level run by followers of Shar, goddess of loss, who are trying to bring their level into the Shadowfell. The Shadowfell level is set against the tragic story of a man turned death knight and his dragon friend who followed his fall. Now long after the dragon, twisted into a shadow dragon, is left alone.

Dungeon of the Mad Mage image 2.
You know I like my undead.

The Art

The art style is what you’ve come to expect, and I’d still like to see more realistically styled art such as the cover of Rise of Tiamat. I still like the cover of this one, however. In that respect, it’s generally good. The issue is that there isn’t as much of the rest. I’d loved to have seen more depictions of some of the items, carvings, and scenes the players come across. We have massive caverns, and richly decorated buildings. We could even have a view from space. How cool would it have been to see out from the dock and see the planet below? I generally love the scenery shots, and they are a great source of inspiration for me. Please, next time have more.

The maps are simple, clear, and fine. However, they are by far not my favourite in this edition. I’d greatly prefer maps in the style of Curse of Strahd or Black Scroll Games. I like that extra detail that helps the mental images just roll in. The maps present here do work, and are clear. However, it’s fair to say they aren’t my style. I prefer more detail and more colour.

Price

Another adventure another $50 cost in the States and $64 in Canada. Well, that’s what the MSRP says at least. As usual, most places have the book at a lower price. Look around and you can save a respectable portion.

What I felt was Missing

I really felt that this adventure could’ve done with a map showing the levels of the dungeon and the routes to get from level to level. It’s a rather confusing dungeon with portals skipping over levels, and level restrictions on portals thanks to a friendly ghost trying to save your players.

I also think a tighter hook to Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The level range of the two adventures basically begs them to be played back to back, but the connection between them isn’t really there. It feels more like a sequel taking place in the same place than one that continues the story.

Some more art could have gone a long way. There are long section without any art, and most of the art either comes at the start of the chapter, or from the maps.

Summary

This adventure is the dungeon delve incarnate. It’s the longest adventure book in this edition, and it’s basically dungeon from beginning to end. If you want Waterdeep outside of the Yawning Portal, go get Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. This is you descending from the Yawning Portal through 23 levels of dungeon. It has interesting events and gimmicks on the different levels, and is a good place to steal from for your own games.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that if you don’t like dungeon delves, and the heavy exploration (new locations, creatures, physical hazards, riddles/puzzles, etc.), it could feel like a bit of a slog. It doesn’t have the plot focus and constant pressure like Curse of Strahd or Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The levels on their own, however, can be pulled out and used as their own adventures. A personal favourite of mine is Vanrakdoom, involving a shadow dragon, the shadowfell, the legacy of a death knight, and the cult of Shar. It’s also not and easy one for your new Dungeon Master. This adventure pulls out a lot of tricks such as rules from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, quite a bit of tricky things to balance combat wise, and there is a lot of room for expanding. Tunnels are left for you to expand, and it’s rather reasonable that your players may leave dungeons of Undermountain that the adventure is named after and return later. This means you’ll need to repopulate the levels of the dungeons and handle the aftermath largely on your own. Such a thing can be exactly what experienced Dungeon Master’s desire, but it is something that the Dungeon Master must write themselves. There’s quite a lot to like here, but if it’s not your thing it’s not your thing, especially when we have other great adventures in this edition.

Other Stuff

  • Reading which gates lead where and what the minimum level to advance through the gate makes for a rather confusing experience. I’d recommend looking ahead to what gates lead where, and would’ve liked a map showing these links.
  • It feels very heavy on the dungeon delve.
  • I can see some combat encounters needing care. This definitely seems like one of the adventures where you want many of the creatures to fight well, but not like grand chess masters. Monsters should make mistakes.
  • This is an adventure where you don’t want them to rest after every encounter. Such a thing would bog it down. Instead, they should clear multiple rooms or even floors at a time. And when things start, the creatures should react.
  • The condition of my book was great. No issues at all.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Dungeon Master: Winter Weather

A long time ago I wrote an article about weather and the kinds of effects it can have during a game. I now want to swing around and go over it more specifically. This time I'll be looking particularly at winter weather. If you go to the mountains you'll run into it, and chances are high that your current campaign has a few months of the year with snow.

What The Rules Say

The Dungeon Master's Guide says that in extreme cold you must make a save or gain exhaustion. In practice this is a simple rule that does a good job of penalizing characters for not properly being able to keep warm in reasonable weather, as well as force the players to recuperate to go back to normal. However, what if this cold is different? What if it's an ice plane far colder than what normal weather would provide? For that, you'll need some good old house rules.

So Cold It Hurts

A common approach to cold weather is to inflict damage on characters. A d6 seems to be the most common in these cases, and I find it's the most common dice to go to for minor damage in general. Maybe it's how common d6s are. More interestingly, the last campaign I played in that featured cold damage always had 1d6 of damage done. What changed as things got ever colder was how often the roll was made. Just bitterly cold, but still significantly colder than what the Dungeon Master's Guide says? Well, that'll be 1d6 of cold damage per hour. You got teleported to a plane of ice? Well, that will be 1d6 of cold damage per 5 minutes. You opened a hole to an even colder plane of ice? That might be the same as taking an ice breath to the face. You could of course do flat damage, and I seem to recall one situation from that campaign where we took a flat 1 cold damage.

Nice thing about this approach is that it can add a bit of a survival aspect, and helps to chip away at some of the health points of the characters, as well as their hit dice. Of course, this usually means less combat in favour of fighting the environment. It can also be rather niche, since that world was basically in a magically induced ice age.

Slowing You Down

Massive dumps of snow make it difficult to travel. Seems reasonable, right? However, it's often forgotten in the excitement of a game. I'd say we should pay attention to it though, especially for time critical tasks. Having these kinds of situations can force the party to more carefully consider their options. After all, if they are being chased it adds an extra factor. Perhaps the ranger has an idea to cause an avalanche behind them and slow down their goblin pursers? There are also possible complications from trying to make horses run through deep snow.

Food and Water

There's snow around so access to water is very easy. Unlike a desert or a forest, this makes it far easier to meet this need. However, food can be a different issue. In this way the last campaign I played this is exactly what happened. Water was easy, which was nice since it built levels of fatigue faster. Of course we had to melt it first. However, we often had to bring our food with us due to the higher DC for finding food, and we were without a ranger.

Weather Conditions

The other interesting thing about cold weather is that changes in either directions can cause issues or complications. A warm up while trying to cross a frozen river or lake can result in disaster. Likewise it can result in flooding making things further more difficult, especially if overflowing wizards take out bridges. And then having the weather go colder can cause issues as the above effects take over. Then you have the potential for blizzards causing massive snow build ups that could hide dangerous drops, and massively hurt visibility. This is one aspect you can have a lot of fun with.

Monday, 24 December 2018

D&D Core Rules Gift Set Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • These are the solid core books of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition all in one package
  • The new covers look fantastic in my opinion. I’m a big fan of the in-game book style of 3rd edition, and the styled covers of these make it look like a book without it’s dust cover.
  • It’s the complete core rules and Dungeon Master’s Screen. Roughly 1000 pages of D&D 5e rules goodness.

Could Go Either Way:
  • You don’t really need all 3 books to start playing. You can run and have fun with a set of dice (or an online dice roller), the basic rules, and the SRD. However, the extras, especially traps, bonus rules, and monsters are a welcome addition for Dungeon Masters and players like having more options. This isn't the kind of thing to get when you want to get your feet wet, it's the kind of thing you get when you want to go all in.
Cons:
  • The books have been around for a while now. That means you can pick up used or discounted copies for cheap. That said, if you can find the set for cheap it’s a good combo, but it’ll be easier to find the older books. I was able to find the set for decent prices, but having to do the research and number crunching is not a plus.
The contents of the gift set. Nice looking covers if you ask me. They even showed up well on my camera.


Introduction

It’s the holidays. Time for family, friends, and rolling saving throws. I am lucky enough to play D&D during the holidays at least once, though the big one for my group was always Halloween (rather thematic I think). However, Wizards of the Coast has recently released a core gift set and I'll be looking at it today. It features the core rules, the previously release Dungeon Master Screen, and a box to keep it all together.

The Books Themselves

I’ve reviewed all of the books in this set except the Player’s Handbook. Click on the following links if you want my complete thoughts on the Monster Manual or Dungeon Master’s Guide. The short version is that I really liked the Monster Manual and still do. My second choice was the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and third was the Player’s Handbook. It's not that I didn't like the Player's Handbook, but it isn't essential as the basic rules provided enough to play with their 4 basic classes and one archetype each. That said, the extra choices present in the handbook are extremely useful for players to help distinguish their characters. It's also extremely helpful for new players to read. 

The creature section of the Player’s Handbook is less useful today than when it was released, because you’ll find the same content in the Monster Manual. And the Monster Manual has a lot of content that is now publicly available in the SRD and the basic rules. However the SRD is art free, only contains stat blocks, and doesn't include everything, but it does include a lot of monsters and one subclass of every class. That makes it extremely useful for the experienced Dungeon Master, but those new to the game will benefit from the lore and fluff provided in the full books. They are good books. Again, for more information check out my full reviews.

Dungeon Master’s Screen

I never got the screen on release. I only heard people say it had a lot of wasted space. Well, now I do. This screen is alright, but I think many experienced Dungeon Master’s either make their own, or add their own notes using sticky notes or clips. I think the content of the screen is a good start, but I’d add my own reference sheets to make everything seamless. In particular I would have liked to see the fatigue and weather rules included. The visuals are nice and help make it easier to skim, but I really would’ve liked to have seen more on it. Now is it worth 20 dollars? I mean, that could be spent on miniatures or something. That’s a harder question. I could see it being very helpful for a new player, but an experienced player could make their own quite easily and have it exactly as they like. Now that I think about it, they probably already have. Even worse, if you mostly play online using Roll20 or something, you can just have your reference sheets on your desk with no fear that your players will read it. That said, I think I will end up using it for my in person games now that I have one. I’m also sure you can find it for less. I can see it being an extremely useful boon to a new Dungeon Master. It's worth noting that the limited edition version also has new artwork done in the same style as the book covers.

Covers

The normal covers are exactly what you expect to get. We've seen them before. The special edition covers, which are the ones I received, are new and I personally really like that style. They even changed the cover image for the Dungeon Master's screen. My favourite cover from this edition is still Rise of Tiamat. The art style just works for me on every level, and I’d like to see more. In the normal core books, my favourite is the Monster Manual but I think I might prefer the black background and stylized art of the special edition covers. The problem is that whenever I found the limited edition gift sets online, they cost more. I guess that’s the limited edition part coming through.

Price

The MSRP for the set is the same as the MSRP of the individual components put together or $169.95 USD. However, the books have already been around for a while. The Dungeon Master’s Guide, the last released of the core books, came out 4 years ago. This means you can easily find it online either used, or at a discounted price from the MSRP. The good news is that I was also able to find the gift set at reduced prices as well. This means you’ll either be paying the same or more for the gift set than buying the books separately yourself. Or, worst case, you’ll find it harder to buy the gift set. The end result is that you need to do some math to determine if buying the set is the best deal, instead of a no-brainer. Personally I think this was a missed opportunity.


Conclusion

This is a collection of the prove D&D 5th edition core rule books. The Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide are included along with a screen. There is also a limited hobby store exclusive version featuring new cover art, which I think is fantastic. If you know someone who loves D&D, it would absolutely make a great gift. Where it gets complicated is that it’s a pricey item at a $169.95 USD, which the same price as buying everything individually. To make matters more complicated, the individual parts have been already released so it could be more expensive to buy the set. You’d need to do research to check prices when you buy, as I was able to find deals where the non-limited edition gift set cost the same as the reduced price individual components. Even at reduced prices, the gift set is still expensive making the D&D 5e starter set (MSRP 19.99 USD) the low price alternative that’s a much better fit for people who you aren't sure will enjoy D&D. It even comes with dice, which the gift set doesn't. However, for those who you know have been dying to get the new core rules it can’t be beat when found at the right price.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Black Scroll Games: Minotaur Miniature

I think it’s no surprise at this point that I like 3D printing and I generally like the work Black Scroll Games does. They generally do good sculpts that don’t require supports, and great looking 3D styled maps. Recently they released a Minotaur miniature, and I hope to give my thoughts on it.

Be afraid. Absolutely adore the axe and how it's also used as a support.

Print Settings

I printed the model at 50 microns, 60 degree Celsius print bed and 195 degree Celsius extruder. I’m sure it would look great at 100 as well, but I typically print miniatures at 50. Some printers are different than others but the temperature settings are the standard ones I use for almost everything. You may need to play around with your printer a bit, but it's probably a good starting point.

Sculpt

The sculpt looks great when placed on the table. The weapon details, the horns, the texture on the back, it's a great miniature. Black Scroll Games did a great job with this one. The texture of the base is great too. I mentioned it before, but I’ve always appreciated how they design their sculpts to incorporate supports so they blend into the design. However, it had a few artifacts, which I didn’t see on their werewolf model. These artifacts were on the underside legs of the model and hard to see, especially when placed on the table. It could be my printer and print settings, since it is printed on pretty cheap printer, but be aware regardless. 

Uses

Minotaurs are a classic baddie to throw at low level parties. A group of low level players fighting against a massive beast that leaves characters bleeding out in one hit is a frightening thing to behold. You could also throw parties of Minotaurs at players, but I think such setups are less common. There are exceptions of course. I've played in a campaign where hunting groups of minotaurs were not uncommon as elite units of a marauding army. However, I think this miniatures will most likely be used in a climatic final fight, whether at the end of an arc or a campaign. This makes the miniature not as reusable as a set of skeletons, which are extremely common, but it looks good enough to be worthy of ending a session or campaign. 

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Dungeon Master: Breather Sessions

A session often has life or death decisions, and deadly combat. The dreaded total party kill is a legendary part of tabletop role-playing, and the subject of many a post game story. However, not every session or arc needs to be live-or-die, and not every victory is survival. Often after an intense session the players have expanded resources, and may have lingering fears from certain failures they encountered. One solution to this problem, and often a fun thing in general, is to have breather sessions. And it is this topic that I will be covering today.

What Is a Breather Session?

The idea behind this kind of session is that it diverges from the regular flow and does something different. Instead of fighting the forces of the undead, maybe the party gets to attend a victory party as guests of honour for their efforts in the battle. And as they are there an assassination plot is sprung. The idea is that the normal stakes are gone, and the chances of everyone dying are low. However, consequences are still present. Perhaps one of their supporters gets assassinated, making the next section harder. Perhaps someone gets killed in the crossfire. Or perhaps their success gets them even more support. Real results should still occur, and I personally find it's best if they tie back to the main focus. However the idea is that we are taking a small break or detour.

Why Change?

The sequences and sessions that make up a campaign can be very different. There are many instruments, rules, and creatures that we as Dungeon Masters can use to make interesting session and provide interesting situations for your players to influence. However, after really intense twists and amazing triumphs, it can be a good change of pace to ramp down. Take a small breather, and do something in a smaller scope. For the players, it gives them fun where they don't have to worry about their characters dying as much, while still influencing the campaign and having fun. It’s also a good opportunity to shake things up. A little levity now and then can go a long way in a serious horror inspired campaign.

All Campaigns?

I don't remember a big campaign where such a thing didn't come up in some way. Even if you don't consciously think about it, there will be shifts from intense sessions where massive, earth shattering things happen to calmer build up for the next. What makes breather sessions different is that instead of building to the next thing, we might go somewhere else for the session and do something a bit more relaxing. Instead of investigating part 2, we may go to our victory party where complications occur. Of course, there will be some effect on the main quest. Whether it's through gaining resources, or keeping important characters alive, it still feeds back.

Generally, if the campaign is very long I find such a thing to be incredibly useful. It's not always needed, but it's a very useful tool to keep in your bag of tricks. It's also a useful tool if you have players who want to keep playing when someone can't make it. However, for smaller campaigns such a thing is unneeded and disrupts flow. You want that constant buildup in a three-shot, or possibly even in a 9 session mini-campaign. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • Lots of full colour art as we've come to expect.
  • A different feel from the adventures that came before it.
  • The search for the half million dragon treasure is a very cool setup and is easy to run with.
  • The character of Waterdeep comes up in the adventure, with festivals and locations described. It's really like a mini-guide to Waterdeep, and the Enchiridion section written in world by Volo really helps add to the feel as well as give players a good rundown of what their players might know.
  • An assortment of villains to choose from for your run, and even the season affecting play. Don't like one of the villains? No problem! You got other choices.

Could Go Either Way:
  • Many of the maps are in a black and white style. If you liked the full colour maps in other books, you may be disappointed. If you prefer a more classic style, you'll love this.
  • The adventure takes place in Waterdeep, where the rule of law is strong and things far more powerful than level 5 lurk. This means that players can easily bite off more than they can chew by upsetting the wrong person, or have the full force of the law come down on them. For those players who like intrigue and navigating sticky situations this will probably go over well, but those that like more freedom may find it constricting. If you like adventures set in an urban environment, this is par for the course.
  • The book goes from levels 1-5, and the next book (Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage) covers levels 5-20. If you like low level play like I do, this will be exactly what you wanted. Otherwise, you may prefer an adventure that ends with a more powerful party.
  • For each choice of villain there is a different flow to part of the adventure. This is provided in flow chart form, and each of these events has a different version depending on the choice of villain. This allows for great variation and would help make a second playthrough more interesting. However, most groups don't touch the same adventure twice. The added complexity makes it harder to understand and run. I'd recommend 2 read throughs at least for this section: 1 to figure out which villain you want to run, and one so you don't get confused between the different setups.
  • Like the flow, the lairs of all 4 villains are provided here. Since you'll be picking one of the four, there is a good chance many others won't be used. They may come up if your players decide to steal from one lair to finance their fight against another villain, or have a side conflict with them. Like the other option, this allows greater variation. It also helps to build up Waterdeep and makes it easier to use the other villains in adventures of your own design, or to improvise. What if your players also decide to pick a fight with Xanathar? Well, we got maps for that. However, it does add the potential for more dead pages in your playthrough.
  • The adventure is around 224 pages long, including many 2 page spread illustrations, the Volo's Waterdeep Enchiridion, and the monsters section. This is around what we've become used to for adventures in this edition, but these additions mean that the meat of the adventure is not as much as the page count would suggest. It doesn't feel like a steal, but doesn't feel like getting robbed either, especially since previous adventures are roughly the same length. I would've liked to see more value making it closer to a steal. The value equation changes if you can get the book cheaper than the suggested retail price, which isn't very hard if you look.
Cons:
  • A few of the monsters in the book are from previous books and eat into the page count if you already have them. A necessary evil since needing every book would be unreasonable, but be aware.
  • You'll need the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide to run the adventure (no more supplement PDFs)*
  • No PDF version*
  • No included grids*


* Denotes nitpicking.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Cover
The cover of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.

Introduction

Half a million gold coins are hidden somewhere in Waterdeep. That's the premise for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, a new adventure for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons that takes characters from levels 1 to 5. At the time of writing my players have played through levels 1 and 2, and just leveled up to 3. My opinion is that it's a solid adventure with an interesting touch not present in other adventures in this edition: picking the villain. However, that touch comes with a caveat. I think this is one of those adventures where the “could go either way” will determine if it's an adventure you'll enjoy or not. Without further a due, let's jump into the specifics. I mean, I'm already this late.

The Adventure

New Player Options

There's really nothing here besides loot. Hey, I like loot and don't like broken player options, but be aware going into this one. It's really about the adventure.

New Monsters

There's about 18 pages dedicated to monsters and NPCs. This sounds pretty good on the surface, but it's not quite the whole story. If you have Volo's Guide To Monsters, you'll already have some of the creatures listed here such as the “wizard's apprentice”. Many others are NPCs. Of course they're necessary, but they aren't as reusable as brand new creatures. This is further compounded by the amount of text describing the NPCs in the adventure. This is great for those running the adventure, but again isn't reusable. The nimblewright makes an appearance, and I love these things even though they aren't undead. Otherwise, we have the “Walking Statues of Waterdeep”. It also makes sense that an adventure focused more on intrigue and finding a hidden treasure in an urban area wouldn't have many unique monsters. Just don't expect a mini monster manual out of this one.

What You Need to Play

This is another one of those adventures where you'll need the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Gude. I think you can get by without the Player's Handbook and by using the SRD/basic rules, but the other two would require more creativity. It would also be hard unless you know what the adventure refers to. I think you could cobble together most of the creatures from the SRD, preview pages from when the Monster Manual was released, and the PDFs from adventures when they'd provide the monsters needed on the website. However, I cannot recommend such an exercise and most of the people I've run into playing D&D 5e have the core books at the very least.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Tower Picture
One of my favourite images from this one. I always had a soft spot for the landscape shots.

The Adventure Itself

A half million gold coin stash is a great hook for an adventure. Whether you are the most evil character or most good that kind of money just lying for the taking is a great motivator. And as a great motivator, it's a great way to attract interesting villains. Even if you don't use the book, it's a good enough idea to think about.

One of the interesting aspects of the adventure is that the Dungeon Master can pick their villains. Prefer a villain trying to buy entry into the Lord's Alliance? Great. Evil family trying to get out of an infernal contract? It's an option. I really like adventures that allow for differences and can even be replayed later. Players often don't replay adventures, but it's more likely that a Dungeon Master will run one twice. Having something that can be changed goes a long way in keeping me interested in those cases. However, the flow is quite a bit more complicated than Ravenloft and it's fortune telling. The entire flow of chapter 4 of 5 changes depending on what villain you choose. It's really 4 version of each encounter in a different order, and as such I think it requires at least 2 reads. One to figure out which one you like, and a second to stop you from mixing them up. Oh, and there are also some faction specific mini missions that are included depending on your players too, and they often interact with big NPCs in Waterdeep.

The adventure takes players from levels 1-5, and as such it has a bit of a different feel from those adventures that have a larger level range. It helps make Waterdeep, and the situations feel dangerous. I believe I said it before, but my personal preference is for lower level play. It feels dangerous, and there's plenty of room for players to grow as well as bite off more than they can chew.

However, it brings some deadliness with that level range. For example, your players can run across a intellect devourer and mind flayer at level 1. Now, the mind flayer is trying to run away, but it's still not the easiest of fights for the party to come out unscathed. Anyone who knows of Waterdeep or read Xanathar's Guide to Everything also knows of Xanathar. Having a beholder and its minions running around in a level 1-5 campaign leaves a lot of room for things to go horribly for a party, and saying that the odds of winning against a beholder at level 5 is low is an understatement. New players may not be as cautious with these things and expect things to be better balanced for them.

It's not just creatures that they have to deal with though, it's also Waterdeep. Their is a massive map and a lot of pages devoted to building the city, it's areas, and even giving the players an inn within it. I absolutely love this element of the adventure. Having them own and manage an inn gives them some personal investment and it does feature in some sequences. It's also a godsend for improvisation if your players are into it. I'd love to see more stuff like this in the future, perhaps involving keeps and underground lairs. Waterdeep has laws, and has law enforcement. Interacting and dealing with this complicating factor is part of the adventure and often part of adventuring in cities in general. However, I've seen quite a few players in my time who didn't like this kind of adventure because they found it restrictive. Sure, they could murder someone to try to get what they want, but they also know there will be serious consequences to punish them for it. Your players should understand that getting arrested for breaking the law is a real possibility. There is a nice page detailing some basic legal stuff. I like this for two reasons. It gives players an understanding of the laws they are going to be interacting with, and it also makes it clear from the beginning that this is one of those adventures where law enforcement exists and does their job. This kind of play is handled best when players know what they are getting into.


Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Map
The style of map I mentioned. Not bad, but different and has less colour.


The Art and Book Build Quality

I am happy to say that my copy was flawless build quality wise. There were no quality issues, and the binding was great. It feels good, and looks good. I would still recommend my usual checks when picking out a book though just in case. Flip through the book quickly to look for stuck pages (could be improperly cut or images damaged), and check the binding.
 
The art is what we've come to expect from this edition, keeping a similar style and quantity. The quantity of art has been a consistent high of this edition. That said, the cover isn't my favourite in this edition. Rise of Tiamat still holds that slot for me. I would have liked to see more realistically styled art since it is my preference. Some landscape shots like that would've gone over very well with me. They have some landscape shots that I really liked, but I want more. Especially so when we are talking about a grand city. I do have to note that there are a lot more black and white styled maps in this book. They are good, and if you prefer that style you'll love it. However, if you are used to the coloured style we've seen more commonly it may be a low point for you.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Foldout
One of the two page spreads in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. I hope to see more like this in the future.

Price

It's the usual price we've come to expect. Suggested $49.95 USD or $64.95 CAD, but you can keep your eyes out for a deal.

What I felt was Missing

I think this is one of the adventures that would greatly benefit from a printable version of the Dungeon Master map and player maps of Waterdeep. I want a version I can keep on my side and mark up while my players use the massive foldup map. I also think it wouldn't have hurt to have a code to redeem a digital copy of Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion. Some people prefer to read on a screen and add notes in a pdf and the option would be a good bonus that wouldn't cost Wizards of the Coast much to implement. Then again, they are donating the money to Extra Life.

Free Stuff

Nothing to see here. It's too bad, since I think they could've included a few things free electronically on their website such as the player and Dungeon Master maps I mentioned earlier.

Summary

This is one of those adventures that the “could go either way” elements will be the deciding factor. None of it is outright bad in my opinion, but I can see how the threat of law enforcement can make it more restrictive than a player might want, for example. A small village in the middle of nowhere might be more flexible and even allow the party to convince the circle of elders to get away with something. Like most adventures in this edition, it is one where planning time will be needed for the Dungeon Master to get their hand on the pulse of the adventure. You won't be running this one out of the box. You need to read over it a couple of times at least. Like other adventures like Curse of Strahd, you will greatly benefit by knowing the layout and character of Waterdeep. A good part of the book is exploring and interacting with the city. You could run this with a first time group and Dungeon Master, but it will be harder than Mines of Phandelver. If you love the concept, it could really click and lead to amazing results. My group had a ton of fun running the first 2 levels, and I think many others will too. If you saw my “could go either way” section and thought it sounds awesome, you probably will enjoy it. If you didn't, it'll look less attractive.