Sunday, 28 December 2014

Dungeon Master: In-Game Legal Systems

Up until now I have been covering a bunch of small, isolated topics that relate to running a game and creating a world. Naturally, part of building a world is creating cities or making them come alive. One element that I constantly end up referring back to when I build a world is the legal system regions may possess. Though it may sound boring, I think it is extremely important when designing regions and cities. I will be exploring exactly why I feel this is the case as well as present the way I usually use it.

Why Bother?

Part of living in a society is being subjected to rules. By creating legal systems, there is an instant contrast from the natural wild your players may spend a lot of time in (especially when dungeon trekking is a core part of the story) and the cities they visit. Simply killing someone on the streets of a city will feel much riskier if they are aware of the legal system and guards present. It also serves as a contrast to mostly unguarded trails, where bandits are common and folks go missing. It can also serve as a way to really contrast cultures or regions.

Scale

The laws can be put in place based on region, ruler at the time (if area changes hands as part of a war, laws can change) or other factors (there may be laws of war). To make matters easier and to not have to make laws for every city you ever want to make, laws can be defined by the entire world (make the entire world have one set of laws, and then some rare exceptions) or by region. This will allow for uniqueness between cities while also making it easier for the Dungeon Master by not forcing them to explicitly define laws for everything (players can be told that unless otherwise specified, they follow the general laws).

What Should the Laws Cover?

History has shown that laws can be very different from region to region. However, since we are talking about role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, there are going to be certain activities that we have to explicitly consider. These are:
  • Killing people (Is killing someone legal if it is in the form of a duel, in self-defence, defending your honour, just because you felt like it and you are higher standing or any combination of the above?)
  • Assaulting people (Same reasons as above, but instead of killing them just hurting them)
  • Stealing (Does the amount stolen factor into the punishment, and are there different types of stealing like stealing from a temple, that are considered worse?)
  • Carrying weapons (what, where and who)
  • Trespassing (Yeah, this is mainly for the sneakers)
  • Using magic (Where and under what conditions is magic legal?)
  • Worship (Is it illegal to worship certain gods like the god of murder?)
The reason for those in particular is because those elements directly influence the options players have to pursue their goals and touch upon every class (combat, stealing/trespassing and magic use). You also have to consider:
  • What are the consequences for committing a crime?
  • How are criminals prosecuted? If framed for a crime, is there even a chance to defend yourself?
  • How are the laws enforced? Do guards show up for everything and take you to jail, or can you get a bill in the mail for petty theft? How many guards will there be if the players try to attack someone?
The above three considerations need to be considered for every law the world may have. There are some, such as weapon carrying, that will also need to have accommodation systems in place (if I arrive there, do I give my weapons right at the gate or is the place I am staying at responsible after the gate keepers give me a 1 day pass).

You can also add more laws on top of the sections I listed to give each region or system their own identities. They can also be more specified. For example:
  • One city allows weapons to be carried but swords are reserved for the nobles. Anyone in violation faces fines but travellers can keep their weapons in the place they are staying without repercussion. Players can move weapons from one place to another (if they decide to switch inns for some reason, etc.) but need to carry a paper given when they entered the city.
  • There is a very strict class structure that involves certain colours being worn by certain classes in society. Breaking this results in fines and/or jail time. Travellers, not being part of any classes, can largely ignore them unless they own property in the area (owning property will make you part of society). Regardless, noble colours cannot be worn by travellers unless they are foreign nobles.

Conclusion

I believe the use of the above system to create legal systems has helped me create better worlds and has benefited my games. This is because it allows different areas to feel inherently different and puts explicit consequences on crimes that characters living in that world would know about, creating a sense of risk. The checks themselves to be discovered would need to be made on a per-crime basis, but this method has helped me and I hope it helps you as well. As always I'd love to hear if you agree or disagree. Happy holidays.  

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Dungeon Master: Creating Antagonists

When playing an adventure, there is some kind of adversary you are usually trying to overcome. Often times it is a big, ultra-powerful baddie that takes an entire campaign to kill. However, there are other ways to create antagonists for your players. I purposely avoid using villain here because, really, they may be perfectly respectable people and had the tables been turned, the hero of the story. As I am always interested in having antagonists ready to go (you never know when a game of D&D will break out), I will be talking about some major things I consider when creating antagonists as well as how the choices and planning can have wider reaching effects. The overall scope of this piece goes can be used in any kind of role-playing game and will focus on the character side of antagonists, instead of mechanics. I hope it helps.

Tone

The way the conflict is set up for the players will set the tone for the campaign being run, though this could be done intentionally as well. Very few would suspect the big bad lich hatching a plan for world domination using an army of unicorns. However, the choices made reach beyond that. When having players that like to experiment and think outside the box, I don't want to rail road them. However, general outlines still help in making the entire plot seem planned (though adhering to them strictly is usually a bad idea) and one element that stays relevant regardless is the personality of characters.

I will be going over a few specific elements I use to make an antagonist. When thinking about them, it is best to see them interacting together in forming the character of the antagonist.

Preliminary Considerations

When designing the personality of the antagonist, their strength can play a role in how things will run. Naturally, with an extremely powerful lich players will need to avoid direct contact. However, if the main baddie is actually a low level noble (as in level 5 when the party is level 9) who instead uses bodyguards and plotting as their strength, the dynamics change. Even though the personality of the antagonist in this case is separate from the outline of the adventure, their motivations and methods they use to achieve them have a significant effect. You can also try building them using the “Traits, Flaws and Bonds” stuff from this edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but I generally prefer to approach that kind of thing more generally (particularly for antagonists, that generally benefit from being more complex and deep. For less important characters, I've found “Traits, Flaws and Bonds” to allow for quick creation of characters). You could use that system on top of something like this (usually it isn't hard to pull them out of the below, but sometimes using a different system as a base and adding what is missing helps save time).

Motivations and Goals

The motivations and goals of the antagonist could be one of the most important parts of creating an antagonist. Simply, your players may not actually be 100% against a character in your world but only disagree on one specific issue (if your world is more politically based, this may happen more often). Once the current issue is resolved and a new one arises, it may make sense for the old antagonist and the players to be allies. Even if the motivations of your antagonist are completely against the characters (see lich trying to kill everything living), the antagonist's attention may not be on the players because the players have been careful not to be discovered or because the players have not actually acted against the antagonists motivations. This will naturally interact with the personality of the villain, as it will determine what they do if there is no hope of success in their goals anymore (do they fight the party to the death or surrender?).

Personality

The obvious part of creating the personality of an antagonist is thinking about their mannerisms as well as values. However, a character may have multiple motivations and goals that sometimes conflict. In such a case, deciding which goal is most important may fit into their personality (why is one goal more important?). It also helps me to break this into two different parts. Thinking about the mannerisms and outward actions of a character separate from their internal thoughts and decision making process can make sense for characters that lie a lot, for example. Even if they don't, making the decision that the character you created is perfectly honest is still an active decision between these two parts (even the almighty undead lich may have some secrets that are used internally for decisions but never mentioned externally). In one sentence, what does this character know, how do they make their decisions and how do they try to seem?

The methods the antagonist uses to advance towards their motivations are also extremely important. Your antagonist could be an honourable and good person, but their motivation puts them in direct conflict with the players. When I say methods, I also don't mean specifically how they wish to achieve their goal as this may change over time. What methods are off the table? What is this antagonist not willing to do in pursuit of their goals? If your antagonist starts noble and then gets progressively more evil as they become obsessed, this can change. Remembering this helps me take the correct actions in a scenario as well as help define boundaries for antagonists.

Other Things to Considerations

Since each antagonist is different, there may need to be special considerations. Examples include fears and special weaknesses. In both these cases, they will also feed back into the sections mentioned above but would be specific things under the “Preliminary Considerations” and “Personality” (they affect the strength of the character as well as their personality).

In a general sense, any character can be created using this kind of system but often times I find it too involves for character you may only see once (“Traits, Flaws and Bonds” work great for these in D&D 5th edition). If your game is taking place over the course of one battle where your characters are trying to survive and get their pay, the entire opposing army may be considered an “antagonist” and as such have their own goals (what they want to take) and personality (how is there morale and do they expect an easy fight).

Conclusion

I believe considering the strength, the motivations and goals as well as personality (mannerisms, outward actions and inner thoughts/decision systems) when creating antagonists is important. It helps ensure sure they are well defined and consistent. It can be used regardless of system and though is planned, can be done without railroading players. I hope this helped and if there is anything you wish to add, feel free to say so in the comments.

Examples

Evil Undead Lich

Preliminary Considerations: Very strong.

Motivations and Goals: Kill everything living. Avoid discovery. Stay alive (by which I mean undead).

Personality: Arrogant. Knowledgeable in arcane matters. Lacks business sense. Doesn't trust minions and prefers to do things itself if risk is small enough. Tries to allocate resources as optimally as possible (won't go after players until they actively oppose the lich). Nothing is off the table in terms of pursuit of goals. Will outright lie, including assuming identities. If goal cannot be accomplished, will leave while trying to cause as much damage to opposition (those that wrong it) as safely as possible. If choices needs to be made between its goals and its undead life, it chooses its undead life.

Noble

Preliminary Considerations: Weak. Strength comes from army of bodyguards. Always has at least two ranks of bodyguards in all directions when moving from place to place (assuming square grids, 24 guards). Probably built as low level rogue with emphasis on “noble” skills (if goal is to have players take them out, should be able to be reduced to 0 HP in less than a round).

Motivations and Goals: Get fame and fortune. Help those they deem as “worthy” get more prosperous. Stay alive as long as possible. Optional: Prevent enemy from damaging their kingdom/state.

Personality: Cowardly. Actively will delegate tasks they see as “below them” to other people. They will not actively try to kill or assassinate anyone, except in self-defence through their guards. Their preferred method always involves their goals being put forward and accomplished through the legal system. If confronted in combat, they will try to run away. Talks down to those not of royal blood or not within a profession they deem as acceptable (mainly successful merchants). Slightly paranoid about people trying to kill them (wears heavy armour, despite not having the strength for it), but trusts their guards and staff.



Sunday, 14 December 2014

Dungeon Master: Morale Rules for Games Without Them

If you are anything like me, you don't want every fight to be a fight to the death. If a group of kobolds had half of their ranks killed in a single round, maybe they won't stand to the last. A unit of guards, ambushed at night and unable to see their attackers, may have some of their numbers route while part still chooses to hold their ground. The way to manage these situations used to be a morale system, where every monster had a morale rating that described their relative bravery. What I particularly liked about this implementation was that it removed bravery and morale from the ability scores and allowed modifiers to be applied. Since 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons lacks this, I will look over several systems that can be used and how they could be implemented in 5th edition. As discussed, they can be used in any tabletop role-playing game that lacks such a system.

Current and Older Rules

So far, 5th edition D&D does not have such a system in place. There is a morale rule presented in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but since it is an optional rule it is not very detailed. It also linked morale to an ability score. That being said, those of us who have old Monster Manuals (I personally liked 2nd editions method with ratings and rolls against those ratings) and other books can use the older morale systems. In the case of systems like 2nd edition (where there are morale ratings), a Dungeon Master may need to make up a rating themselves. Naturally, creatures with very low morale will be easier for players to beat and as a result the experience players gain could be considered “overly generous” (something to keep in mind).

Considerations

A few details need to be worked out when trying to design a system like this. First, does a lower morale rating mean they are bravery or more cowardly? Historically, higher rating means braver. If you roll above the morale rating, the creature is frightened (so for a D20, a morale rating of 20 can never be frightened. This is what I will use later in this piece). Of course, you could say you are frightened if you meet or exceed the rating (meaning that a morale rating of 21 is never frightened). You can also treat it as a save, so a 1 (or 0, if 1 is always considered a fail. In this case, you would never roll for a 0 DC) would be the bravest morale rating since any roll on a D20 would meet that DC.

Touched on the above is if you meet the morale level, do is the creature frightened or not? For the remaining of this piece, I will assume that if your roll equals the morale rating of a creature, it is not frightened. You could just add a rating of one higher than the highest roll.

Purposed General Rule

  • Select the kind of distribution you want as well as how many points you want. If you want it flat, do a single dice such as a D20. If you want something more bell shaped, use multiple dice (2D10, 2D6, 3D6, etc.).
  • Choose a max morale rating. Skeletons won't run away since, you know, they are dead and don't fear for their lives. In this case, take the maximum of all of the dice you chose and make that the highest morale rating (remember, if you roll higher than this number, the creature is frightened).
  • Assign a rating to every creature based on how brave you feel it should be on average (this can be a range based on rolling morale. See below for this).
  • At proper times (as chosen by the Dungeon Master), roll morale. If you roll higher than the rating, creature tries to run etc.

Morale Based on Context

One side effect of having no morale system at all or having a morale system as an optional component (see most versions of D&D, as they suggest that situations and context should play the major role) is that it means you can improvise when needed. A very common situation I find myself in is adjusting morale based on context (there is no way I want to make a full table of bonuses and penalties to morale. They won't be accurate for any situation anyway). This means that instead of thinking of morale as a system of the game, you can think of it on an adventure to adventure basis. Examples include:
  • When leader is killed, everyone surrenders.
  • When leader is killed, roll a D6 for each conscious creature. If they roll lower than 3, they surrender. If they roll a 3, they try to run away. If they roll higher than 3, they fight to the last.
  • If enemies makes it to within 20 feet of big bad leader, he tries to run. If half or more of his bodyguards are killed, he tries to run.
In such cases, the morale considerations would need to be imbedded in the adventure a long with the description of the room/location. The adventure would also need to be generally planned in advance or the Dungeon Master would need to make up such situations on the spot (“Purposed General Rule” above may be easier to apply for consistency, though the general morale ratings would need to be planned in advance or made up on the spot).

A side note is that with this kind of system, every confrontation would need to be considered. You can reuse elements you used in the past, but it would be less centralized than having a general system.

Hybrid Solution by Combining the Above

You can of course combine the two solutions together. This usually means that you have a general system in place (like “Purposed General Rule”), but the actual morale rating and times when rolls occur is based on the context.

Another alternative is that there is a general list of times the Dungeon Master always rolls for morale and the situation may add more to the list, as well as screw the morale up or down.

Finally, you can choose to apply a general system in situations morale isn't specified and apply situational rules (ignoring the general rules) when an adventure mentions them (this is usually used when running a published adventure).

Rolling Morale

Instead of choosing an exact morale for a creature, you can choose to create typical ranges (certain specimens may be braver or much more cowardly still). To do so:
  • Select the lowest rating on average you will have (e.g. 8)
  • Select the highest rating on average you will have (e.g. 13)
  • Take the difference of the highest and lower (e.g. 13 – 8 = 5)
  • Create some kind of dice method to get those numbers (1D6 – 1 for an even distribution, 2D6/2 – 1 for a less even distribution, etc.).

Conclusion


Morale systems and ways to determine when monsters run isn't an easy topic and can be done in many different ways. Depending what makes the most sense or is easiest to work with, choices can be made. Though there is only basic rules given in 5th edition, more complex systems can still be used quite easily (as well as other role-playing games that lack a morale system). I hope the above helps. If there is anything I missed or you wish to mention, please feel free to comment.  

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Retrospective

Now that all of the core books have been released for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I thought it was a great time to look back and reflect on the new edition. I've also had more time to play and find issues in this edition, which I will talk about below as well as some house rules I considered.

How It's Awesome

In general, I found low-level play a blast with very few complains (up to level 10 or so). I thought that in general the classes are fairly well balanced while still being mechanically different. I particularly liked the extremely deadly first level, as it meant that tactics played an incredibly important part. The reduction in the number of magic items players received (or even need) allowed me to run several long spanning games with no magic items at all and still have them be effective at their level. The idea of bounded accuracy is in my opinion a good one. Its use throughout the system allows you to challenge and injure even high level players using lower level enemies. It also allows mobs to be effective while at the same time go down easily as well as the party to be starved of resources. The game itself is quite easy to house rule, modify and improvise on using simple ability scores. The books are generally high quality as well, with tons of nice art and they even provide the basic rules for free.

High-level Play Issues

In general, the majority of problems I saw ended up happening at higher levels. An example is cantrip spell damage scaling with level (I personally hate this as it means a first level spell does less than a cantrip). I like having a general sense of balance between classes, even if the balance is asymmetrical. In general, I found the rules did a decent job of this. Naturally, though, for classes like the Wizards, any kind of unbalances come from not the class itself but the spells they have access to. There are a few spells that scale with level but not with spell slot (hold person is the biggest problem), meaning that for a rather low level slot they can cause great effects to even high level characters. The DC's of Wizard spells also scales regardless of the ability score it targets, while the other classes do not get their proficiency bonus added unless they are proficient in those saves (as determined by their class, plus one feat). The Wizard, however, has spells to give themselves higher Armour Class (AC). The rogue (who need stealth or a party member to be effective), with their proficiency, expertise and inability to roll under 10 when taking checks seem to always surprise enemies unless the opponents use magic or have rogue like proficiency and expertise in perception (combined with the Assassin archetype, on average does incredible damage against non-constitution based characters). They also, because of the inability to roll lower than 10 and massive bonuses either can't fail to disarm a trap or pick a lock, or the Dungeon Master has to place very high DC's (whether this is a problem or what makes sense is up to you, but I felt it noteworthy. It is definitely not as significant as always surprising enemies).

Humans

I don't like the default +1 to all attributes for humans, when it looks like most others get a feat or two worth of bonuses. Luckily, there is the optional rule that uses a feat instead. This kind of customization in general is really nice to see.

Subclasses

My biggest problem with the system, however, comes from the subclasses. I don't even know how many characters I've had at my table so far but I don't remember seeing one Champion fighter. Similarly, every ranger I have seen so far was a Hunter. Maybe it is just me but some choices seem to be significantly worse than others when it comes to subclasses or class features, meaning that they don't get picked. The obvious answer to this is to either remove classes the Dungeon Master doesn't like or to give the classes that the Dungeon Master feels are lacking something extra to make them more even.

Nitpicks

I have one or two really small nitpicking things, such monster attacks that age characters (since this is another incentive not to play an older character and effects humans harder than dwarves), which I am tempted to just ignore. The other main nitpick I had was with no fleeing choice given to players in the default rules. I can add my own, take it from a different edition or take it from the Dungeon Master's Guide. However, having the players not know how running away works by default seems strange to me, in a system that seems to be closer to the older editions, where you could run into a fight you couldn't win. I also still miss the morale system of older editions and how each creature had a morale rating to tell how brave it was (those of you with older books can use it just fine, though cross referencing is a little bit annoying), but I'm convinced most people don't care about it.

The traits, flaws and bonds system adds a more structured way to create characters to role-play but more veteran groups may find themselves ignoring it, particularly because some things don't fit neatly into those categories, forcing you to repeat things in different wording in each section (which, admittedly, can be a good way to explore your character). I tried to use it at first but ended up throwing it out, as I found it too mechanical for what my group tended to do already. The ease of throwing it out, however, is more a testament to the system and how easy it is to modify.

House Ruling

However, I noticed that in general it is quite easy to house rule the problems I had with the system. The monsters also generally follow the same rules (except a couple that get multiple attacks before the players do), meaning house rules carry through the entire system.

House Rules

  • Cantrips don't scale.
  • You can't take expertise in stealth or perception as a rogue.
  • Starting at level 5, monsters and players get half their proficiency bonus to saves they are not proficiency in, rounding down (to make this fair, this includes monsters). To make the increases more even, you can just always give half proficiency, but this will make Wizards worse pre-5th level.

Bolded points are proposed house rules that I'm not too sure about, as they cause large changes to certain classes.

The above half proficiency rule means assuming even levels and a score of 10 in the attribute targeted, target has 25% change to resist, while targets proficiency in the save still keep their old rating. The odds of resisting an effect decrease with level, but more slowly than currently.

Conclusion

In general, I enjoyed playing this new version of D&D, particularly at low level. There are some issues in my view but they are workable and the overall system has so far been easy for me to house rule. Overall, the flexibility and ease of play is something I have enjoyed greatly. There is still room for customization through feats, but at low levels the class choice, ability scores, skills, backgrounds and role-playing (traits, flaws and bonds) provide most of the distinctions between characters.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Dungeons & Dragons: Dungeon Master's Guide Early Review

Pros:

  • At 320 pages, it is a big book.
  • There is a lot of art including fully illustrated maps.
  • Lots of magic items
  • Lots of optional rules
  • Lots of tables to generate loot and evil things by rolling

Cons:

  • Some purposed rules have strange side effects or require interpretation.
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking

Cover of the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide
Front cover of the Dungeon Master's Guide.

Introduction

Scheduled for a December 9th, 2014 release date, the Dungeon Master's Guide is meant to help a Dungeon Master create and run games of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Overall I think it is a well put together book with great production values and generally well written rules, but it is held back from being perfect thanks to a few optional rules that I find kind of strange. For more detail, read the long version below and for a list of things that keep in from being perfect in my eyes, skip down to the “Other Notes” section (where I also throw up some quick solutions). In general though, since the “Other Notes” section basically lists all my problems with the book (localized to a few pages out of the 320 page monster), I have to say it was a great Dungeon Master's Guide, even when compared to previous editions. For those on the fence, take a look at the table of contents and other preview material

The Content

The content of the book covers a lot of material. There is material on how to handle interactions with factions and gaining reputation with them. There is a section talking about currencies and how it can be more complicated than the copper, silver, etc. system presented in the basic rules. Different aspects of campaign creation are covered (along with how to create villains) as well as rules for creating new monsters and magic items. In general there is a lot of material here and to see just how much there is, you can just take a look at the table of contents.

In terms of layout and the content provided, this Dungeon Master's Guide is a return to the older model. In this book there is no adventure and there are no grid pages at the end (like in 4th edition) but there are fully coloured maps to get the creative juices flowing. The overall focus is on providing the Dungeon Master tables, ideas (there is significant effort put into fluff and world building), optional rules and magical items to use in adventures. It also tries to define the rules clearly and concisely while still having its fair share of nicely written fluff (entire chapter dedicated to creating a multiverse).

A large number of optional rules are provided. Some are the kind of thing I thought of while reading the basic rules, but newer players might appreciate them being written down. For example, there are multiple different systems of healing purposed as well as changes to the duration of short and long rests (they even have a rule for those 4th edition players who liked second wind). There were also some optional rules I never thought of, and I have to say are very good.

There are a lot of tables. There are tables for treasure generation. There are tables for giving weapons characteristics and personalities as well as selecting particular types of gems (instead of a gem of value 10 gold pieces). For those Dungeon Masters who love tables, they have you covered.

However, the Dungeon Master's Guide is not perfect. There are a few optional rules that seem to interact weirdly with each other and need to be ruled by the Dungeon Master (see my list of “Other Notes” at the bottom) in my opinion. Keep in mind the list contains all of my gripes big and small in the rules so viewed in context, I have to say the book did a very good job and is well written. If you are a more veteran D&D player with older Dungeon Master's Guide(s) and weren't interested before, it may be hard to come up with reasons for getting this one besides the production values and optional rules. Luckily, Wizards of the Coast released a significant amount of preview material that should help these veteran players make the right choice for them.
Dungeon Master's Guide Image
One of the pages that is located before the start of a chapter. This one in particular is one of my favourite pieces of art in the entire book and helps highlight how good some of the art really is. 

The Art and Book Build Quality

The quality of the book is in line with the rest of the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons and is laid out similarly. The fake torn corners of the Monster Manual are gone but fake paint running effects are still present on the pictures and add to the overall aesthetic of the book. For a Dungeon Master's Guide, there are a lot of pictures. Out of the 64 pages of magic items (not including sentient items or artifacts), only 6 pages didn't have an illustrated item while most pages had multiple items illustrated per page. Just about every chapter has a full page picture (my favourite is above). The art style is also very similar to the other books with the same painting like quality, further emphasized by the fake paint run effects. However, the fantasy style used for some of the weapons wasn't my favourite as I tend to prefer simpler, more historically accurate depictions. I would not call them badly done at all, and if you like this kind of fantasy style, you will probably be very happy. There is also some very nice artwork in here that appeals more to my tastes (look at that beauty above). The pages are decent thickness and the book itself feels high quality. If you liked the other books in this edition, you will probably like this one too. 

The font is the same as the other books. I don't really have much more to say on this point, though if you still aren't sure, you can look at a preview page from the Wizards of the Coast website.

The copy of the book I reviewed had a case of “ripple pages” (when looking from the side, even with the book closed, the pages seemed to be wavy). If this is something that really bothers you, do make sure to check the book by looking at the pages. Over the few days I had the book the rippling seemed to get better and now is barely noticeable. The other slight variation I noticed was slight rise of some of the paper on the inside hard cover (I have seen this in other hard cover books before). I've checked and heard that this has been present on some earlier D&D 5th edition books but haven't seen it or noticed it until now. It could be just the luck of the draw on my end or the process of shipping and it doesn't seem to affect the sturdiness of the book.

There is no PDF copy. They never said there would be, none of the other books so far had PDF copies but I still feel this is important to note.

Price

The book isn't out yet but the suggested price from Wizards of the Coast is $49.95 in the United States or $57.00 in Canada. When I looked for prices from the stores themselves I was able to find the book for about $30 in the United States and about $37 in Canada (Amazon and Chapters were the best places I could find, though some local stores might be even better).

What I felt was Missing


In general, I don't really feel anything was missing in terms of important sections of a Dungeon Master's Guide. However, there were those few rules listed that still seem somewhat odd to me (see “Other Notes” section).

For those players who are used to 4th edition D&D, there is no adventure included in this Dungeon Master's Guide and there are no grid pages either. The players who have this book can just use those grids for the new system. However, having a PDF grid sheet on the website would help newer players who wanted to use a grid.

Summary

In general, I liked this book quite a bit (though the Monster Manual is probably my favourite of the 5th edition releases). If you are a veteran player, it may be harder to think of reasons to buy this book but newer players should expect to learn a lot from it. If you are still unsure, look at the preview material like the table of contents or some of the item descriptions. The basic rules are still enough to play the game but at 320 pages long with a lot of art, the Dungeon Master's Guide adds a lot of content (and tables, can't forget tables). Out of all the Dungeon Master's Guides released so far, this has to be my favourite. Feel free to comment and I look forward to everyone else's opinion when the Dungeon Master's Guide is released.

Other Notes

  1. The mechanics of selling a magic item by the purposed rules have a few strange implications as written. They state that the highest bidder is “shady”. This seems strange to me. Why can't it just be a collector who really values the item and wants it now? What if the buyer really needs that item and time is of the essence (a healing potion for a family member). These aren't shady but would also account for the price difference. The shady word can easily be ignored but still, this seems odd to me.
  2. Reading the rules for crafting magic items exactly as written created some strange results in my opinion. A wizard without proficiency in smith's tools can still make a magical sword (fine, maybe the cost of hiring a skilled laborer is included) but a wizard with a proficiency in smith's tools doesn't get a discount or advantage for making a magical sword (this counters the previous point). This is easy enough to fix (wizard's proficient in a tool needed to make an item or those that have a proficient party member helping get a 2 gold discount).
  3. Running a business is presented in “Down Time Activities” but is quite simple. Running a farm? Running a smithy? Running a high end perfume shop? An Inn? The rules presented don't care and don't even mention adding in a multiplier from the Dungeon Master based on the profitability of the business. The way it is written, the business needs you to maintain it to make money. This means that while you are away, you lose money and while you are attending your business, your odds are better at making money (even if you are the worst business owner ever. In fact, ability scores don't affect it at all). I don't consider the part where you always have an advantage if you are attending your business a problem (though those who prefer a simulation style of play won't. For these guys, adding some kind of bonus for the skills deemed important should be enough). Your business loosing money when you aren't around is strange but easy to fix. Just roll like normal in that rule but without your bonus for being there.
  4. Building a stronghold is quite a nice idea and in general is defined quite nicely and compactly (click here for preview). However, the last sentence as written seems to say that if construction continues when your character is a way, it will make things worse. It seems to me that it should be interpreted as each day of construction costs 3 days when your character isn't present instead.
  5. The rules for creating magic items don't take into account some of the rules given for magic items in another section. Specifically, it says that consumable items are worth half price of their rarity but the rules for creating magic items don't adjust for this. As written, the rules for crafting magic items also don't scale with changes to the value of magic items, though the chapter on magic items give suggested ranges for the price. Just apply modifiers as you deem appropriate for your game or run as intended. This one really isn't a big deal. 
  6. Repairing some ships will cost more than buying a new one. Using the full value of the ship in calculations avoids this issue.

Early review copy was provided by Wizards of the Coast. Images and preview pages are also courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.


Sunday, 23 November 2014

Dungeon Master: Using External Games

Previously, I mentioned a list of different methods that can be employed to help immerse players (I will focus primarily on D&D 5th edition, though the same logic applies to any system). One of the examples was the use of small games to help set the mood. For example, in the event of getting information from a gambler, the players may try to talk to the gambler while gambling. The process of playing the game can be simulated by ability checks with the D20 can or we can drop the D20 and instead opt to play a modified version of the game. I also sometimes use this to give the players some time to talk about plans while in the inn and keep people who don't care entertained (as they might win gold). As with most things, the validity of this tactic depends on your group, but I will outline one such way I have used before.

Basic Ship, Captain, and Crew Rules

To begin, I think it is best to start by a specific example of a game. I often end up using Ship, Captain, and Crew for such interactions. In general, when picking a game, I find it best if it is simple enough that the focus can be kept on role-playing but complex enough that they can feel drawn into the situation. It is also important that a character may have proficiency with a game set, and to account for such a situation in the game itself (typically players don't like not getting a bonus they invested). The basic rules I use are as follows:
  • The goal is to get a 6 (ship), a 5 (captain), a 4 (crew) and the highest number with the remaining dice
  • Your score is the total of the two remaining dice (for 6-5-4-1-1, my score is 2). If you do not have a 6, 5 and 4, you have no score
  • The person with the highest current score is called the point (though I sometimes use leader)
  • When rolling, the number 6 must be achieved before a 5 can be taken (e.g if I roll and get 5-4-4-3-2, I have nothing since I don't have a 6 and have to re-roll all the dice). A 5 must be rolled before a 4 can be taken (if on my first roll I got 6-4-4-4-4, I roll the 4 dice that isn't 6. If I get 4-4-4-4, I can't take the 4 since I need a 5 first)
  • There is a maximum of 3 rolls, though you can choose to take fewer (If I roll a 6-5-4-6-6, why would I roll again?)
  • If there is a tie for the leading roll, the player who just rolled becomes the current point/leader
  • Once everyone playing has their turn, leader wins
  • If fewer than three rolls are taken to become the point/leader, everyone else who hasn't had their turn is restricted to the number used (so if you roll a 6-5-4-1-1 on your first roll, you may choose to keep it in hopes that no-one else will get a 6-5-4 in one roll)
However, once the basic rules are out of the way there is still the problem that every person has the same chance to win (despite my Cleric of Chance having proficiency with dice). In order to fix this issue, I add the following rule to the basic game:
  • A player with proficiency in with dice can choose to have an extra roll (this even applies if fewer than three rolls were used by the leader. If one roll was used, I have two)

Handling Proficiency

In general, since Ship, Captain, and Crew follows different rules than D&D, the bonus that is given to the player needs to be significant enough that they feel the proficiency was a good choice, while still not making it impossible for those without it. It is also important to note that my above system means that as a character levels, they don't get better at Ship, Captain, and Crew, despite the proficiency (and in D&D 5th edition, proficiency scales with level). I haven't really considered this as a problem (especially since ability bonuses are strange to apply anyway), but I have also occasionally used the following rule instead.
  • A player with proficiency in with dice can choose to re-roll a total number of dice equal to their proficiency bonus – 1 in a turn
The above role does allow scaling and still provides a benefit in the first place (though significantly less powerful compared to the previous rule). However, at higher levels this rule provides more benefit.

When to Use Ability Checks

Regardless of which of the two ways proficiency is handled (or a method of your own devising), the proficiency and ability scores can still be applied outside of the game to influence the NPC player. For example, if it was a card game, maybe I could bluff my opponent to folding or throw a few games to make them warm up to me (and use my proficiency to make it look like I lost fairly). When playing the above game, maybe I can use my proficiency to tempt the gambler to playing with my group for high stakes (and in a party of 4 people, the chances of a party member winning are much greater). The above rules govern playing the game itself, and the normal role-playing system can be used to handle the external factors like influencing the opponent.

Other Considerations

The separation between the game and the game system itself also means that if I roll my Ship, Captain, and Crew dice, it is easy to see I am playing the game, where if I roll my D20 I am trying to influence or detect something (as a result, there is no confusion). However, the time needed to explain the game will be greater than simply using ability checks. In order to avoid this some creativity can be used, such as having the players watch the gambler play a round while the DM also explains the rules (that the dice proficient character obviously knows) or to give out the rules as homework.

Conclusion

If there is anything wrong with the outline of the game or something I missed, please comment. When done properly and for the right group, these kinds of games can be a lot of fun.

Example Rounds

First Roll: 6-4-3-2-1
Second Roll: 5-4-5-3 (Have kept 6 from first roll, giving me a score of 8)
(Stop to force everyone else to beat me in two rolls)



Sunday, 16 November 2014

Dungeon Master: Player Notes and Handouts

There are a wide range of techniques a Dungeon Master can employ in a tabletop RPG like D&D. Other than the usual elements of a session, props and other enhancements can be added to sessions to try to make it more immersive for players. I will talk about ways I've seen these kinds of enhancements used with an emphasis on the technique of giving small notes to players during the course of a game.

When going beyond drawings of areas or copies of documents, it can be difficult to balance the time spent on enhancements with the other elements of the game. As such, I want to start by saying that knowing your group's tastes is incredibly important. They may actually prefer to spend more time reading documents and receiving notes as it allows them to have more control and react independently. Sometimes putting in the extra effort can really help the imagination run wild, especially for newer players. It is also important to try to minimize downtime as much as possible, meaning preparation should be made before hand to make the enhancements as seamless as possible.

The most common types of handouts from my experience are:
  • Drawings of an area (often included in pre-made adventures, especially older ones)
  • Documents (for example, a letter from the Arch Mage)
  • Isolated information
In general, drawings of an area and documents are straight forward to use though they can be supplemented by grid maps (if you use them). Sometime though, there will be information that only a subset of party members will know. The typical way to handle this is to just say it to the people who need to know the information in front of everyone and to make the other players pretend they didn't hear it. You could of course also just grab the members aside and tell them separately, but from my experience this usually takes too long. Instead, a quick note given to the affected party members typically works smoother for me. Used sparingly it gives the players a chance to role-play knowing obscure lore, for example (doing it too often can make the game grind to a halt. Also, if the players would prefer you to tell the group I generally found it better not to force it). It also helps if the information the players are given gives them a choice of how to act (even the possibility of backstabbing, perhaps) instead of just forcing them to repeat it back to the party and the information given has significance (notice something important in a room while sneaking, but can't speak or will alert people in the room), even if it is wrong.

Troubleshooting the Technique

When using these kinds of notes, eventually it becomes a signal of something bad. As a result I've seen the Dungeon Master that liked this technique add a rule that a player cannot show their note to anyone not approved by Dungeon Master. The Dungeon Master also started to have a bunch of random notes (stomach rumbles, etc.) to make it less obvious. The places chosen for the notes as well were usually planned out in advance and important to the adventure (party member secretly charmed) but the notes themselves were written before hand to prevent the awkward pause of writing a note (though I'm pretty sure some were written during the pause of a player thinking).

There a bunch more techniques I didn't cover, but I'll list a few just for the sake of it.
  • Small items
  • Actual small games with special perks for those with proficiency
  • Mood music (for example, folk music when in an inn)
  • Sound effects for an area
  • Prerecorded and processed lines for big villains (takes a lot of work, but when done well can really set the scene, even if it is only one line and your imagination applies the voice for the rest of the Dungeon Master's lines)

I'll probably talk about some of the other techniques later. If I missed something about the use of small notes or I didn't mention a favourite technique, feel free to comment.  

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Dungeon Master: Crafting Magic Items

Giving out better items is part of the D&D experience. As players risk their lives they expect some kind of return on their investment. However, there is more than one way to reward a player and likewise many different ways to include magic items. I list some of the most common and some of my favourite methods to design magic items below.

Types of Magic Items

  • The most common type of magic item is the one that simply gives a flat bonus (+1 sword, anyone?). These kinds of items don't really have any drawbacks and in their simplest form also don't help outside of combat. However, when weapons have a special characteristic or reputation, these kinds of weapons start being useful even in non-combat encounters as NPC's recognize the weapons.
  • The cursed magic item goes hand in hand with the simple magic item. Of course, players can trigger some curses simply by equipping the item and are forced to try to find someone to remove the curse or go on a quest to do so. I was never really happy with these kinds of cursed items. As a result I ended up having the cursed item give an actual bonus and tempt them with some kind of process (ritual or attunement) to increase its power when really, the curse gets triggered instead. I also generally prefer that cursed items give some kind of benefit to the player but at a large enough cost that they start to question its worth. This kind of cursed item starts to get into the territory of the next type.
  • We have cursed items. We have regular magic items. Then there is what I call the “hybrid” magic item. These kinds of items have some kind of nice flat bonus that tempts players but at the same time some kind of drawback or unreliability. Maybe the sword plays with the wielders sanity, giving hints that seem to be correct sometimes and other times have them walking off cliffs. You could consider the kind of cursed item I talked about before being here as well, as you could have an item that is more cost than benefit, or greatly more benefit than cost. An example is an item called The Gauntlet of Chance. I ran across this item during my 2e days. When you try to put it on it causes a lot of damage, tries to kill you and causes you to lose use of your right hand for a day (due to burning. Even with healing, the burning sensation remains for a day, preventing use of the hand. Without healing, it seems to unnaturally quickly heal away), but in return it grants whatever you wished for before you donned it.
  • Then there is the “fake” magic item. These kinds of items aren't really magic and don't have any bonus in combat bonus (outside of morale effects), but their social or sentimental effects are real (for example, everyone thinks the sword is magic because it belonged to some famous warrior, but really he was just that good). One of my favourites types, it is sometimes nice to see a player carry two sword, a simple sword that they use for combat and their ceremonial sword that is really three older swords put together and that they don't dare risk in combat (and since it has no combat bonus, they have no need to unless their main sword is lost somehow).
  • All of the above are constant. You can also have limited use items. The obvious ones are things like potions or exploding arrows or something. However, you can be more creative if you try. The current staffs and wands in 5th edition D&D have a certain number of uses that can replenish after some time, with the possibility of the item itself being destroyed if it runs out. One of my favourite items I ever had as a player was a sword that seemed perfectly normal. It had a bonus to damage and attack, but every hit with it would cause it to get damaged (notches on the blade, etc.). It could, however, regenerate itself to pristine quality in a short time when not in use.

The above types can also be combined together. I'm on the lookout for other ways to make interesting magic items, both from a story and mechanics perspective. If there are any I missed, feel free to comment.  

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Dungeons & Dragons: The Rise of Tiamat Review

Pros:

  • Production values are top notch.
  • Lots of room for the DM to add their touch.
  • Continues Hoard of the Dragon Queen (for those of you who liked it. If you didn't...this will probably be a con).
  • Some really awesome and epic set pieces and other parts of the adventure.
  • Multiple ways to handle situations and tons of room for house ruling.

Cons:

  • If you expect to run the adventure after a quick read through, you will be disappointed. This one requires planning.
  • No grid maps for those of us who love miniatures, meaning you will need to make them yourself.
  • No PDF of adventure (most monsters are in the supplement).*


* Denotes nitpicking.

Dungeons and Dragons The Rise of Tiamat front cover.
The front cover of The Rise of Tiamat.

Introduction

Scheduled for November 4th, 2014, The Rise of Tiamat continues the story started by Hoard of the Dragon Queen for the new version of Dungeons & Dragons. In general, I liked the adventure but can't deny it does require some work to get up and running. It is also quite a long adventure, despite the page count, covering 9 episodes. Those of you who liked the first part of the story will most likely like this one as well. For the rest, read below. I will keep this review spoiler free for those of you who may want to run through part of it in organized play. At the time of writing this, I have read over the adventure and run two of the episodes.

The Adventure

As mentioned above, the adventure is substantial in terms of length and takes an episodic approach. The stakes are high, with the threat of Tiamat herself hovering over the players heads as they play through it (with a name like “The Rise of Tiamat”, that isn't a spoiler). Starting at level 8 and ending at roughly level 15 (unless you go off track or add stuff of course), it is a higher level of play with all the implications that come with it. It also spans a large level range, meaning that The Rise of Tiamat and Hoard of the Dragon Queen really are a full campaign when put together.

I don't think you can really call the adventure easy to complete (again, Tiamat), and many parts of the story have multiple ways of playing out. However, due to the nature of the adventure, there is more restriction than some other adventures (what's that? You want to spend a week playing dice in the inns instead of focusing on the quest. Okay...here comes Tiamat) since the players aren't dealing with an abandoned dungeon that waits for them. However, it is written to allow for extra additions by the Dungeon Master. In general, when combined with the way the adventure was written, it gave me a sense of urgency (the implication being that the adventure should be run in such a way as to make the players feel that sense of urgency and risk).

Due to the number of chapters and scope, combined with the 96 page count (less after taking out the introduction stuff), there is still more preparation than some will like from their published adventures (some combat encounters have to be literally put together by the Dungeon Master). You can easily break it up by chapter and plan week by week (though reading the whole thing first is definitely a big help, even if you don't flush out everything) instead of front loading the preparation if you play it as a massive gaming session. Some parts of the adventure give you options (I like options) but doing so means you need to take some time to make the decision and adapt to the unexpected. The specifics of how to account for a larger party are also not detailed, meaning the Dungeon Master will need to spend some time to do so. Prepare to be forced to prepare to run this adventure.

There are some parts of the adventures that look to me to be very easy to drop into other games. The adventure is also self-contained, so the Monster Manual is not required to run the adventure as the stats are present in the supplement posted on the Wizards of the Coast website.

The actual adventure itself has quite a varied feel to it. There is tons of opportunity for role-playing. There are tons of nice combat encounters. There is exploration. My players seemed to enjoy the flow of the narrative so far and the feeling of control and danger present. It really has the potential to be a memorable experience.

There are some problems however. I had a fun time understanding the bullet list of page 88 (read in the other section below for the interpretation) as well as a few other minor things. Otherwise, I generally found the book well written. Some sections, however, will require either some note taking or page flipping (small piece of paper as bookmarks to the rescue!) due to the scattered nature of the sections.
The Rise of Tiamat chapter title and illustration.
An example of the artwork given at the start of the episodes.

The Art and Book Build Quality

The quality of the book is in line with the rest of the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Just looking at the cover, you can tell there is a unified look to the books so far (also, I generally liked the cover image for this book the moment I saw it). The binding is solid and there is artwork throughout the adventure. I found the artwork to be decent, though I am not sure I liked it as much as the Monster Manual's art and there is definitely less of it. The focus here is really on the adventure itself.

The font itself is the same as the rest of the released material as is the contrast so reading these books is a breeze. There are fewer of the little details like fake water damage than the Monster Manual.

However, all of that said, there are not many handouts at all in this adventure, forcing you to use Theatre of Mind to convey the situation (depending who you are, this is a plus or a minus). It also contains no battle maps. In general, I think it would be hard to provide adequate battle maps for this adventure given its scope (I just counted the number of maps given. There are 6), but for those used to having them, this had to be said.

Price

The book isn't out yet but the suggested price from Wizards of the Coast is $29.95 or $35.00 for Canadians. Still, looking around I can already see it in places like Amazon and Chapters for under $25.

What I felt was Missing

It is also important to note that the way the adventure is written, it assumes Theatre of Mind play. There are no battle maps or grids provided and as a result you will need to play Theatre of Mind or, as a Dungeon Master, spend more time preparing tiles for the combat encounters. I hope we will see more support for miniatures use with the Dungeon Master's Guide coming out in December, though I do like having the option of Theatre of Mind. It is also not too much of a concern for more seasoned Dungeon Masters (though it will increase the preparation time), but in my opinion it is easier for newer Dungeon Masters to simply run in Theatre of Mind. 

This adventure, like the rest of the releases so far, does not come with a PDF version. Yeah, it is to be expected, but I still feel it necessary to mention.

Summary

As far as adventures go, The Rise of Tiamat is a solid adventure that requires some effort from the Dungeon Master. It has a serious amount of content and provides nice set pieces, interesting settings and a real feeling of risk and danger. However, some assembly is required and if you love miniature and grid based combat, prepare to spend even more time preparing. If you liked the previous one or Kobold Press's work in general, you will probably like this. Those who like having more control over their adventures will like the style where as people who like their published adventures “ready to play” probably will not. In general, I think it is an enjoyable adventure. If you still want to see more, check out the supplement material.

Other Stuff

  • A significant part of helpful and necessary resources for the adventure are provided in the Rise of Tiamat Supplement on Wizards of the Coast website (for those of you curious about it, you can check the supplement out for a general idea of what you will face).
  • The way the adventure works, players gain levels after completing significant events (which translates to episodes). Enjoy not tracking XP.
  • On page 88, the correct interpretation is that if 3 things from bullet list one happen, the first three things from bullet list 2 happen.
  • Yes, Tiamat can make an appearance (Torm help you if she does).



Big thank you to Wizards of the Coast for the cover image and an early review copy. 

Post Finishing Notes: This adventure can really take a long time with the right group. The problems I mentioned with preparation time are still present and there are a few minor things I noticed in some of the descriptions that caused me to pause, but in general I had a lot of fun with this one. The big message is that like any adventure, this will be as fun as you make it.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Dungeon Master: Linking Players to the World

I think most Dungeon Masters like their players to feel like they are part of the world (sometimes a simple dungeon delve can be nice, though). It can apply to any RPG system, but having players create a connection to the world makes the stakes seem more real. Over my time trying to create this connection I have seen a few ways to achieve this effect, which I list below.

Ways to Make Players Feel Like They Are Part of the World

  1. Remember their connections. If the players actively try to link themselves to the world and just love role-playing, the Dungeon Master's job becomes much easier. There will be some players that will try to interact or even join groups within the world. To keep this as a valid option (it is very common for clerics to wish to be part of a temple or the backgrounds and bonds chosen during character creation in 5th), it becomes important to remember the connections players have made. Otherwise, they begin to feel that the connections they made don't matter.

  2. Players need to have choice. They need to feel that what they decide to do matters. The scale of their decisions can vary, but still there needs to be choices. Otherwise, they aren't really playing their characters but are just being carried by the plot.

  3. Decisions made need to have consequences when it makes sense to. This means that as a Dungeon Master, I need to take note of important decisions that occur and make sure that consequences follow. Sometimes, the consequences should be quick. Sometimes, they should be far reaching that never really leave the party. At the same time, the success of the campaign shouldn't rest on the breakfast they ate 3 months ago (unless it was poisoned or something). The consequences should be present when they make sense, and when present should make sense.

  4. Players are actors, but they shouldn't be the only ones. Actions should happen even without their presence. Otherwise, the world is static and merely their sandbox. Instead, the NPCs need to make their own choices and have their own character and motives. Especially when trying this for the first time, it can feel awkward and weird to play an NPC, but they are a necessary part of a good story line. This may seem like it clashes with #2, but I would argue it doesn't. Sometimes the choice itself is important (why did I come? For money? For glory? Because it was the right thing to do? The result is the same, but the choice still matters). It also means that even though players make a choice, the world and those who live in it should react and sometimes even surprise the players. Their goals shouldn't be the only ones that exist.

  5. The internal logic needs to remain consistent. Breaking the internal logic of the world when it doesn't make sense creates a massive break of immersion. This is an easy one to say, but the actual execution demands finesse.

If there is I missed or someone disagrees with anything I said, feel free to comment. Despite my list, creating that connection is an art and sometimes a little bit of luck. The above also work better as combinations as one method by itself really isn't enough. At the same time, some methods can conflict with each other and maintaining the right balance is difficult. What works for one group may horribly fail for another.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual Review: A Fun Collection of Deadly Monsters

A Look at the New Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual

Pros:

  • Art style is nice and full colour.
  • Lots of nice fluff/flavour text with the creatures that help bring them to life.
  • It is quite big (just over 350 pages long).
  • Wide range of badies.
  • Generally very clearly written.
  • Easy to house rule.

Cons:

  • Small number of descriptions I had to read twice to understand.
  • Where is my morale rating?*
  • No PDF*
* Denotes nitpicking.
D&D Monster Manual Front Cover
The front cover of the Monster Manual.

Introduction

As of September 30th, the Monster Manual for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been out. Since I have been having a blast with the rules so far, I was looking forward to seeing what the Monster Manual would look like (in past editions, the Monster Manual was my favourite book). Based on the above pros and cons, I think it is fair to say I liked it a lot. If you need more detail, I'll go over it all below. Notes I made while reading are listed at the bottom under "Other Stuff" and "House Rule Notes". Don't forget to check out the basic edition if you are interested and haven't already, as the monsters there are similar to the book, excluding the art and flavour texts.


The Monsters

In general, the creatures themselves are organized nicely. Creature stat blocks don't seem too big and I found them easy to reference (will require you to look elsewhere for some of the spells). The art was nicely laid out and I found it very easy and enjoyable to just read through the book. When I used them in my games (I couldn't resist but run some high level games using the book) the mechanics worked well and were varied. There are some old style creatures with their list of attacks and spells. There are some that have some abilities tied to “recharge dice” (like 4th Edition). Some monsters have liars, making them even deadlier when you fight them on their home turf as they use it against you. The monsters themselves are quite nicely varied as well. There are undead. There are a lot of dragons. There is an entire section for NPC's and animals (really like this part). All in all, I think there is a very nice variety (in terms of creatures and mechanics) of creatures presented in the Manual.

The descriptions of the monsters are quite detailed and thought provoking. Of the 4 pages for devoted to Drow, 2 of them are descriptions and art. As can be seen below with the troll and their mutations, the descriptions are meant to be interesting and try to inspire you to use the creature. In my case, it worked beautifully.

The monster design was also hit by the bounded accuracy of this edition, something I find to be a good thing. The threat of lower level creatures never fully goes away meaning you can challenge your players by throwing a big enough group of level ones (or at the very least weaken them for the big important confrontation later). I was able to see my players slowly realize that even though they were having no problems turning skeletons to dust, they were being slowly whittled away (note to self: make adventure with lots of zombies) and had to adapt. As a result, there needs to be less variants of the same monsters (not a new type for every 5 levels or so). Monsters, while changing in terms of the level of challenge they present one on one with player characters, remain useful for arguably the whole 1-20 level span of a player character. It is also nice to be able to run a game for a smaller group (I tried it for 2 players at level 5) and still make them feel like they were fighting a significant force by including some mobs of weaker creatures and some higher level ones.

The monsters generally follow the same rules as the player, with attack bonuses and saving throws in the same range as players of that level. The armour, weapons and spells they use also are the same as player characters, making the creatures feel internally consistent (though some have more attacks than a player character at that level, but also fewer hit points, etc.).

Having said that there were some descriptions (mechanically speaking) that took me a second read through to understand, but they were the exception, not the rule and generally focused around effects like curses or reduced health.
D&D Monster Manual Entry for the Troll.
The entry for Troll from the monster manual. Variant section and small details (such as the fake water damage and fake torn corner) are present.

There are also some glimpses of the proposed modularity through Variant sections in some monster entries (just look at the troll page above). As someone who fully supports this kind of modularity (and options in general), it was great to see. 


The Art and Book Build Quality

I generally liked the art and the art style. To me, it looks like the kind of thing a Wizard with decent painting skills might put together through his studies. The little details like the small notes that look like they are written on small pieces of parchment, the fake water damage spots and the fake torn corners help make the book feel like it is actually part of the world. The implication is that maybe some of the notes are wrong, leaving the door wide open for and possibility even encouraging house rules. It also makes it a more pleasant experience to read the book as you read about these monsters and get backgrounds of some of the more iconic examples. However, look at the images and judge for yourself. Most of the book is monsters arranged like that, though many have a long description section describing culture, ecology etc. The overall layout isn't cluttered and I found the book easy to read.

The book itself is nicely bounded and pages are reasonable quality. I don't know what else to say. It is good, as you would expect from people with this much experience. However, there are no tokens like in the 4th Edition Monster Vault so if you were expecting tokens, you will be disappointed.


Price

For the suggested retail price of this product, you can check here. Other future D&D products as well as their prices are listed on the website as well. However, since I've noticed that many places have the Monster Manual for 40 bucks or less, it may be best to shop around.


What I Felt was Missing

I would have liked some kind of extra sorting based on environment to make building adventures easier. However, it is perfectly possible that such a list will be released on the website later like the one by challenge rating.

I also would have liked the return of Morale Ratings for creatures, as it was one of the things I miss most from the old version I cut my teeth on. Being able to see how relatively brave a creature is and when it might run, rather than fight, is something I think would have been done well through a morale system. It is also a difficult thing to come up with by yourself, as two monsters of the same level might have completely different levels of morale (one might be much braver than another). Hopefully this kind of feature will come in some form later.

It would have been nice if a PDF was included too (to make searching easier), but there isn't one. Still, it isn't very hard to use the table of contents or glossary to find stuff, so I consider this minor (but a nice to have).


Summary

This is a very good Monster Manual. In general, the book is full of useful and well thought out monsters, good art work and formatted beautifully. I found it a joy to thumb through. There is also a lot of content here, with just over 350 pages, a good amount of illustrations and flavor text. Overall, I think this is a very good product and I can't wait to getting back to gaming with it. If you liked the new edition so far, the troll page posted above and the basic version of the game that Wizards of the Coast put up for free (link in "Other Stuff"), you will most likely like this. 


Other Stuff

  • There is a list of creatures by challenge rating on the Wizards of the Coast website here.
  • There is the basic rules for the new version of Dungeons & Dragons here. This includes a Dungeon Master document with some monsters, though it lacks the flavour text and art of the Monster Manual and has far fewer monsters. 
  • Armor Class listed for Drow under Variant seems to be off.


House Rule Notes

  • Monsters largely follow the same logic and math player characters do. As such, many house rules you put in place will also directly affect monsters. I consider this a plus, since anything seen as a possible problem on the player side will be fixed on the monster side as well, thanks to how general the rules are.



The pictures are courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Dungeons and Dragons Basic (Fifth Edition)

Dungeons and Dragons 0.1 Basic

Summary:

Pros:
Rules are simple and quick for combat.
FREE!!! (Well, for Basic anyway)
It's D&D.

Cons:
Some spells seem to be weirdly powerful for their slot at higher levels.
Small issues with items and class features (this one is heavily my opinion. Read below for details.)

Conclusion: If you're unsure and reading this review to see if it is worth reading 110 pages, I suggest you do (even if all you do is a quick skim). Hey, it's free for basic.

Wall of Text in Depth Review

Introduction

Finally, the new rules of Dungeons & Dragons have been completed. Though the full release of the basic set is not til the 15th, the Basic Rules pdf is already out on the Wizards of the Coast site for free and is ready for table consumption and my first impressions.

I have to say that releasing the reals free like they did is a very nice move. Being able to see the product before putting dollars behind it definitely helps with my confidence. Just like the playtest as well, there is a very nice chunk of material here. The full document currently (though it will most likely grow as time goes on) is 100 pages long and outlines four classes (fighter, rogue, wizard and cleric) as well as other necessities such as basic item lists.

The Rules

Now, having that out of the way, lets jump into the document itself. I found the formatting of the document is quite easy to read and the rules seemed to be organized quite well, with some minor exceptions. An example of such is the thieves' tools. In most places actually talking about unlocking something it talks about how proficiency is required in order to unlock. However, under thieves' tools themselves, the rules only mention how proficiency with them allows you to add your proficiency bonus to checks with them. Though it is minor, it makes it weird for me to use it as a reference.

The rules themselves are interesting. To me it feels quite a bit like 2E, which I consider a good thing. The rules seem to play faster (yes, I took them for a test run already) and focus on the theatre of mind paradigm for resolving combat (a good and a bad in my opinion). I was rather disappointed when I heard the starter set would not include a map when the 4E even included tokens to use, though I can understand that since the line of miniatures haven't launched yet. In general, though feel free to disagree, I like it when a system of rules doesn't force grid combat on me as it allows for certain combat situations (running from a collapsing mine for example, where the entire scenario assumes everyone is running out as quickly as possible) that are outside the norm to still be run easily within the rules. I don't have to rewrite the rules myself or flip through grid page after grid page or spend most of my DMing time laying down dungeon tiles. I can just use them in their simpler form. Still, I hope grids will be included in future products as it makes sure all of the players have the same idea as to where everything is located (hint hint, Wizards of the Coast).

Now, since they ditched the powers of 4E, balance becomes a big question for some. I like it when all of my players feel important in a game, or when my fellow party members feel as part of a team. In general I think the classes are fairly well balanced (though I have some concerns in regards to the rogue in terms of damage etc in combat being reliant heavily on advantage, though looking at his noncombat options, this was probably intentional. I'm not sure I like that). They all seem to support a different play style and have their own pros and cons. Admittedly, some of the spells I read left me scratching my head (Hold Person...wow. A level two spell who's DC grows like that without a spell slot? In one on one combat, never need a higher spellslot for this spell again!). That, however, is nothing new. In general, having distinct classes will be much more advantageous than perfect balance for some people, me among them.

One thing I have to say I liked in spirit from 4E was that it gave XP for non combat encounters (whether the method they used was good is another thing completely). Nothing in that vein is giving here...maybe it will be in the Dungeon Master's Guide? Anyway, you can work out XP values in a very similar way based on the tables they posted in an article, but it isn't actually mentioned in the rules. This suggests to me that it is meant to be more player focused (nothing wrong with that, I guess).

In general, the rules seem to allow you to try things without proficiency which is nice as well. The thieves' tools thing I mentioned above is the one violation of this that really sticks out for me and I'd probably house rule anyway (rogue with Expertise has no reason to fear another party member will take his job from that little house rule). The size of the list of items is quite nice as well. However, some items seem to almost be trap options (Basic Poison, I'm looking at you). In general, I'd prefer if items you can use in combat took a single attack instead of a full action, otherwise they become useless. Some of the pricing seems weird to me as well (if Battle Axes and Long Swords are priced like that... why would anyone want a Long Sword except because of coolness?). Some of the layout of the weapon list seems weird to me as well.

Final small thing I want to comment on include the combat actions and modularity. The ability to substitute an attack for an effect such as pushing a target is a cool feature and gives non magic characters more to think about and strategist, though I'm not sure if it will be enough for the 4E fans. I'm also looking forward to seeing the modularity stuff that was mentioned before in action.

Non-Rules Considerations

One thing that will be interesting to see is how this version of D&D does overall. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking, but I think it is about time to stop with the editions of D&D. If they are aiming for modularity, maybe they will just release new options instead of brand new rule sets and stop with the edition treadmill. Every time a new version is released, just like with software, D&D has to compete with its older versions. If they can unite everyone under this edition thanks to modularity, it will be great. However, right now, they have to compete with cheap older edition books, the old free stuff from 3E and a slew of free adventures Wizards themselves made for 4E for those who bought into that edition (oh, so many adventures so little time).

Conclusion

This seems to be an excellent way to get started with D&D, especially if they add a list of monsters around the time of the Monster Manual. However, as time goes on I hope that some free adventures will be provided and clarifications made to make it even better. For free, it is definitely worth the price of admission. If I seem a little harsh it is only because it is D&D and I want the best for this game. Also, it is easier to see things that make us nervous. In general, I look forward to confirming or proving myself horribly wrong through more play. May your dice be truly random and any feedback is appreciated.

Wishlist


  • For creatures, bring back morale rating. Even if you never used the morale rules, the idea that not every fight ends in complete slaughter of the enemy is a noble one. On top of that, it gave me a better sense for the creature I was running.
  • Maybe make getting started with D&D next etc page with their Web Dice roller and local download would be nice. You know, a nice big package for the new ones.
  • Videos will make the rules of play more clear, but may be less fun than a single player adventure. Why not do both (quick single player adventure that they then also have videos of). Oh right, that may be too expensive. Hey, tis a wishlist.
  • Rules for running away from combat.


Notes:

  • So, a rogue who can't find something to hide behind or some dark spot to hide in gets one attack and some dodging? Epic fighting ensues. The party fights bravely but succumb to their wounds and make death saves on the ground. A rogue and an enemy wizard is left standing...in a lit room...with no furniture. The rogue has to run and let his party die?
  • Why would anyone want a pony over a mule except for rich people. Hmm, pony as a status symbol. Interesting.
  • Wait, we can make one interaction with the environment per turn as part of action or move. Drawing sword is one such "partial action". Is drawing a javelin one? Can I make my Javelin chucking fighter of death? Wait...why is a dart the only ranged thrown weapon? What does that mean? I can't stab with it?
  • Humans having alternate options instead of +1 to everything is nice (especially if you consider humans as the standard 10 across).
  • Wow that is some serious scaling for cantrips. Wouldn't this make damage cantrips more effective than damage 1st level spells at high levels?
  • Hmm, not sure that two weapon fighting systems scales.


I have my theories to the above things that struck me as strange, but as written it would confuse me as a newbie.