Monday, 20 May 2019

My Views on Dungeons & Dragons Alignment

Alignment is one of those topics I wrestle with every now and then. The number of arguments I've seen over this topic leaves me astounded. It's easy to have slightly different view points on what alignments mean and often little differences make massive differences for people. There are also some weird situations that make these sorts of things hard to think about. I hope to list some of the big ones my groups came across and what I think on the matter.

Unknowingly Evil?

The first thing that comes to mind is whether your alignment is based around what you intent or what you achieve. If you got an evil demon pretending to be good to tag along with the party, they aren't going to get much of a chance to do much evil. However, does this make them good? They are doing good things, right? The general census among my players is no. Alignment pertains to your intent. If due to your 6 intelligence or pure bad luck you end up unintentionally unleashing evil upon the world, that doesn't make you chaotic evil. Willingly doing so because it sounded fun would. Probably.

Grades

Only having 9 different options makes alignments as originally described rather limiting. Typically I haven't seen them used this way. Some level of shading was always acknowledged in the groups I played with. You could be lawful neutral with a good bent. This will be obviously different from a character who is lawful good but hovering close to neutral. In our terminology having a bent was the same as hovering a bit closer to another alignment. Playing with the grades and shading between the hard divisions helps lead to more varied characters. It's also something that naturally happens if you go in the reverse direction and don’t think about alignment when making your character. Deciding what kind of character you want to play and then working backwards for their alignment is perfectly valid. Of course, it kind of makes you wonder why you need to even bother with alignment, but I find that it's a good exercise because it forces you to think deeper about your character. Since I've given some examples, I've found that lawful neutral with an evil bent can also be fun to play and be a part of. The player I know who did this last described it as someone who is lawful neutral but has grown bitter and a tad selfish through circumstance and bad fortune. Typically a good question to ask is “why is my character not this other alignment”?

What's It For?

A good thing to think about with any mechanic is why does it exist. Alignment is similar in this regard. Could we play just fine without worrying about alignment and coming up with characters on our own? Sure. I've seen it work. However, alignment gives us a starting point and helps us examine the motivation of our character. To assign an alignment to your character you need to think about your character. As a result even if I don't agree with your interpretation, it may have helped you think about your character's motivations and how they think. It is also something you can reference later to you help you play your character. It can be surprisingly helpful after a month or so break. 

I find it is a very useful thing for a Dungeon Master. Of course it isn't as specific as we sometimes might like but we Dungeon Masters play many different characters over the course of a session. This little short form is extremely useful to get the gist of who your character is. You probably won't have time to define every henchman in the dungeon. However, you can give them an alignment and work within it as the game goes. Being able to reference something and having a starting point to work from makes it easier for me to improvise on the fly. I find that again, this is one of the hardest parts of improvising for me: trimming all the possible options I have for a character down to something useable quickly. And alignment is one tool in our arsenal for this sort of thing. In this regard it is especially useful for running adventures envisioned by someone else. An alignment, goal, and couple of mannerism and you’re well on your way to having a character in less than 20 words.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Dungeon Master: Chase Scenes


If you have a campaign involving any kind of hunt, chase scenes are almost sure to follow. It could be investigating vampire attacks, trying to track down a werewolf in the forest, or chasing after a thief that broke into a noble's house. Regardless, chase scenes can be one of the harder situations to handle in a satisfying way. And for this reason, I hope to provide some of my input on how to run it well.

Rolls

It'll be a series of athletics checks most likely. The Dungeon Master's Guide also has rules for handling a chase. However, in general I recommend looking at the situation high level and letting reason prevail. If you start a parkour chase across the roof tops of building in a city, acrobatics starts to make a lot of sense instead of athletics. If the scene takes place at night, the person running doesn't need to outrun their pursuers, they just need to be able to break line of sight and slink away. Maybe in this case they can try to use a stealth roll to see if they can escape if they are far enough away, or use the broken sight to expand their lead.

Tiredness

Constitution generally should play a role in a chase scene. Also, if the creature is undead, they won't tire. A common rule I've seen employed is that after a total number of checks equal to their con modifier, subsequent rolls have disadvantage. Alternatively, it can be used as a time limit. Whoever gets tired drops out of the chase.

Time Limit

You do not want your chase scene to drag. Rolling over and over and not getting anywhere doesn't help anyone, and generally isn't fun. I find that a chase shouldn't last longer than roughly 5 rolls. The good thing is that if we use the con modifier to tell us how many rolls people can make before getting tired, we have a natural ending point if one group has more endurance. The trouble comes from ties, and generally, I elect to end things in favour of the person running if a tie is reached. You can also make the two sides who tied to a roll for sudden death. Winner takes all. Whether you want to use a stat for this or just luck (since the chase until now used stats) is up to you.

Other Factors

Embrace other factors. Maybe one group tries to jump across a wide creek to escape their pursuers. Maybe the pursuers try to shoot arrows at the legs of the people who are escaping, while they shoot back to slow down their pursuers if on horseback. Maybe the people running away knock over objects as they go, forcing their pursuers to acrobatically jump over it. Embrace the chaos and spontaneous ideas. And of course, things won't always be the same. If they are running indoors through a kitchen, it'll be easier to knock stuff on the ground than if they are running through a crowded street. A pursuer on a horse may need to make animal handling checks while going through the forest.

Different Speeds

Even with different speeds, rolls should be made. One common thing I've seen is to give advantage to the characters who have a higher speed than who they are chasing/who they are running away from. To apply, it should be a reasonably large difference. I normally wouldn't apply if it was only a 5ft difference in these sequences. I mean, they catch them in that case unless they were able to create another obstacle or distraction. However, if the pursuers are on a horse, things become different.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica Dice Review


Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • They’re a complete set of dice.
  • The smokey aesthetic looks nice.

Could Go Either Way:
  • D&D 5th edition has the great new mechanic of advantage (where you roll 2d20 and take the highest) and disadvantage (where you roll 2d20 and take the lowest). Why not include 2d20 in a set aimed at the new edition?
  • The guild dice will probably not see much use.
Cons:
  • The set can be a bit pricey out of the box, especially compared to other dice manufacturers. Now, the Wizards of the Coast sets often go on sale making them more affordable, but the MSRP is rather high when you can buy sets for 5 bucks at your local game store.


* Denotes nitpicking.

Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica Dice Set Tin
Very nice looking tin, ain't it? 

Introduction

Another set of new books, another set of dice. This time the dice set is released to go with the release of the Ravnica settings. The set features 4 d6s, 1 d20, 1d12, 1d10, 1d8, 1d6, 1d4, and one guild dice in a decorated box. But how is it? Let’s jump into the specifics.

The Specifics

The dice set looks nice. The best way I can describe the appearance is like strands of smoke trapped inside the translucent dice. See the images below, though they don’t quite do them justice. If you prefer solid colours though, or just don’t like the aesthetic, you’ll think differently.

It comes in a rather nice tin with foam that holds the dice. For the tin see above and for the inside see below. 

Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica Dice Set Dice
The dice in all their glory in the tin. 


I think a big missed opportunity is to include a second d20. Advantage and disadvantage are quite frequently used in D&D 5th edition, and it would be extremely convenient and speed things up to be able to roll both dice at once. Things such as damage rolls can already be handled by rolling the d20 with the damage dice to save time. Since prices have been going up in general, the addition would go over well I think.

The main issue I can see is that the dice are rather pricey. You can get the starter set for around the same, and get an adventure along with your dice. Now, it’s been my experience that these sorts of products often go on sale both online and in store, so it’s possible to find at a reduced price. However at MSRP I think it can be a hard sell, especially when you can buy dice for $5 bucks at local game stores. If you are a collector, or just like the aesthetics and the box, that’s a different story. But in that case you aren’t buying it as just another set of dice, but are after that particular set.

Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica Dice Set Dice Close
A bit of a closer view on the dice themselves.

Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • This one has more art than the last adventure.
  • New class options.
  • New monsters.
  • Art is back in this one. Colours, and tons of it. The maps that are here, such as the Tenth District maps in particular look great. I’m happy to see the edition continuing like this especially since I found Dungeon of the Mad Mage lacking in this regard.

Could Go Either Way:
  • New races.
  • If you are a stickler for balance, you may not like some of the races here. They generally follow the pattern of a +1 bonus, a +2 bonus, and a race specific ability or two that act like a feat. The Vedalken in particular gets advantage on saving throws for 3 different ability scores, which seems exceptionally powerful.
  • This is a Magic the Gathering setting book for D&D. When I discussing this with my group, the first question out of their mouths was: “What? Where’s Planescape, Eberron or Darksun?” Okay, technically there was a digital book released on DMs Guild for Eberron, but they were not officially done yet. However, as a D&D player it might be hard for you to get excited about this particular setting when you have so many other more storied settings (at least in D&D) competing for your time.
  • This is one of those ~250 page books. I think in general they could push the page count closer to 300, more like the core books. Settings in particular should be easy to expand so far, especially if more adventure ideas are provided.
Cons:
  • Doesn’t cover every district of Ravnica and instead just the Tenth District.
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.

Cover of Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica.


Introduction

It should come as no surprise that I like setting books. I don’t run many, and the ones I do tend to be my own creation, but they are an interesting source of ideas, and are weirdly fulfilling in a way. Interesting concepts are given, and even if you do the opposite of the settings you just read, such an exercise still comes as inspiration from the original source. When I heard about Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica, I had mixed feelings. Part of me was excited to see a new setting for D&D 5th edition. The other part of me went: “Huh? A Magic the Gathering Setting before Planescape?” Perhaps I’m the wrong target audience, but though I think the book is interesting as settings ought to be, it was a constant throughout my read.

New Races

Well, they have 6 new stated out races. Humans and elves return with some new setting specific fluff, but there’s nothing mechanical here for them. Your opinion will come down to if you think the classes are stronger than what we’ve seen before. The number of elements is in line with what we’ve seen before. The Vedalken in particular seem to be very powerful with their advantage to saving throws for 3 different stats. And since it’s advantage, it’ll interact with class specific saving throws or feats which add the expertise modifier.

New Monsters and NPCs

I’m always happy to see some setting specific monsters and NPCs. Of course they are always a few changes away from being used in other settings, but hey, that’s why I like them. You get some more melee hitting guys, as you’d expect, however there are some standouts. I really like how the horrors have customization options built right into their section. In fact, I’d love to see more of those in future books. It’s a page efficient way to give many more options and ideas to Dungeon Masters straight out of the box. Of course we can, and will, make our changes but seeing changes other Dungeon Masters have tried and enjoyed is extremely valuable. The flavour in creatures such as a lich made from fungus really help make me want to use some of them, even if I won’t use the setting.

The monsters and NPCs are also easy to transfer to different settings. New angels, undead, demons, and cultists are a few examples. It isn’t as incredibly long as the Monster Manual, but at ~70 pages long (including fluff and lore), it’s a nice addition.

This sort of art is what I most enjoy in all these books. My picture doesn't do it justice.

The Setting

Imagine a city with newspapers and plumbing, but in a state of conflict between a bunch of different faction. However, thanks to an ancient contract, they can’t completely wipe out another. Instead small events spiral due to feedback and manoeuvring from all of the factions. That’s the main sales pitch for the setting. And it’s a solid idea, full of opportunity for interesting campaigns. It’s also the main idea, so if you wanted something else (plane hopping, massive undead blight, going into the dangerous lands to recover forgotten artifacts, travelling through space on a spelljammer), you’re largely out of luck.

The factions get a lot of the page count as you’d expect. And as you’d expect, the differences also extend into the realm of philosophy. Their goals and their ideals differ, but still it’s very possible to have a ragtag mix of different factions. It’s a great source of ideas for factions in your games, and the section on building villains for each faction are particularly interesting and transferable. There’s also some setting specific currencies. My players love that sort of thing.

The maps and description of each of the precincts in the Tenth District are really well done. Especially the maps. I really like the maps. The influence of the guilds, and the feeling of each area gets a heavy emphasis. They also go over crime, guard response, goods, and other aspects of the area that together help flesh out the city. There are even some tables for random people and rumours. You may want to adjust the probabilities so some are more common than others, but I think it’s a really good idea. I hope to see Sigil get this treatment in a new book one day.

The descriptions also don’t overstay their welcome, but I think more explanation and exploration would of been helpful. The book makes it seems like we only got a small part of Ravnica. With a book so named I’d expect all of Ravnica. The other districts didn’t need as much depth, but I think covering them would’ve been beneficial.

A more typical example of the art found in the book. It tends to be stylized like this, but it looks good.

Mini Adventurer

Oh yeah, there’s one in here. Well, if you call 12 pages long an adventure. It’s rather light and involves tracking down an escaped goblin gang mastermind. Investigations, and conflict await you in your search. I’m glad to see an adventure here, even a small one like this. However, I would’ve liked a bigger emphasis on the guilds and guild interactions, since the rest of the book spends so much time building them up. It can grow into that, and as a new Dungeon Master you’ll appreciate it, but I would’ve liked more. Bumping the page content to ~300 pages would’ve really added value.

Art and Maps

Generally, the artwork is back to what we'd expect. There's lot's of it, it's colourful, and it's purposely done to look like a painting. You can see the water colours run at the edges. Just look at any of the images I have included here. For this sort of thing seeing it is a lot better than having it described. They have a fair amount of environment and cityscape images, which tend to be my favourites. I'd also like more, but this book is more generous with artwork than Dungeons of the Mad Mage.

The maps in particular I need to call out. They look really good and I'd love to see more of this style in future books. Keep it coming. It's great. See below to see what I mean. 

See what I mean? Absolutely love it.

But What About the Other D&D Settings?

I briefly mentioned it in my introduction, but we haven’t seen too much straying from the forgotten realms in this edition. We got a little bit with Curse of Strahd, since Barovia is in a pocket plane and corresponds to the old Ravenloft setting, but not much outside of that.

Talking with some of the other Dungeon Masters and players I know, the response was generally similar. They were surprised that there would be such a setting book come out before the other classic D&D settings. And it is those other D&D settings that they were interested in. If you like Magic the Gathering and wanted to play in that setting your opinion might vary. However, I think that there are plenty of other settings that people were wanting before this one.

I had the foresight to record the setting mentioned during our conversations. They include Planescape, Greyhawk, Darksun, and Sprelljammer.

Price

It’s a typical core rulebook. MSRP is 49.94, and for more information see their page here. As always I’d also suggest looking around, since you can often find books for less online or on sale.

What I felt was Missing

A setting should have unique elements that give it a special feel. And there’s usually no better way than presenting an adventure that highlights the special elements that make the setting shine. We have an adventure here, and I’m happy to see it. If anything I want a couple others. I also think that giving some short adventure outlines for inspiration would go a long way. I’d like to see the books edge closer to 300 pages on average, which is more inline with the core books.

They sort of do that with the section giving some ideas and suggestions for villains in the setting, but I’d like a little bit more. Don’t just say “a Dimir wants to erase the memories of a humiliating event”, give a few beats that could happen for inspiration. I guess the best way I can say it succinctly is that I’d like some adventure ideas and outlines, not just plot hooks.

Free Stuff

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Summary

In general I think it’s a solid enough book, but it very much will go over best with people who enjoy both D&D, Magic the Gathering, and wanted to play in the setting. If you aren’t it’s unlikely you’ll be interested outside of stealing ideas and monsters from the book. My players and acquaintances all expressed confusion, since they would have expected and preferred some classic D&D settings. The concept of a massive conflict between multiple factions, all with their own specific methods, and goals is an interesting one. It can easily be run with in your own home brew settings. However, unless you are in that very specific overlap of D&D and Magic the Gathering fan, I can’t see you getting excited about the book. In that case you’ll be better serviced by an adventure that also functions as a setting companion like Out of the Abyss or Curse of Strahd.

Other

Monday, 4 March 2019

Cities of the Black Scroll Tiles Review

Review copy courtesy of Black Scroll Games.

Pros:
  • There are three sets, giving a wide variety of tiles. From fortresses, to the internals of a castle, to city streets, everything is here.
  • Day and night tiles provided. This was one of my few complaints with their inn set, so seeing night tiles provided is absolutely great to see. It’s even more useful in this case because night time changes the appearance of a city more than the inside of an inn.
  • Want to add some additional features to your map like stalls and doors? Well, they have cut outs for those.
  • Want to use 3D printed items for some custom rooms? Well, they also provides empty versions for you too.
  • Their are tiles provided for the roofs of buildings as well. This lets you take them off as your players entered, and recover when they leave. It’s about as close to a Divinity: Original Sin (that’s a video game) map as you can get in the real world.
  • Planning tiles are provided too. So you can go ahead and plot your maps ahead of time. Rooms change? Quickly re-arrange your tiles based on your layout page. I personally use them as a planning tool when designing maps. I don’t usually re-arrange a map since I try to have them all laid out and taped to a backing page.
  • Oh? What’s this? You usually play online? Well, Black Scroll Games saw you coming and already has everything prepared for a Virtual Table Top application.
  • Don’t like lines on your map? No problem! They provide multiple layers on the PDF document for you to toggle.
  • There’s even transition tiles to allow you to combine your tile sets. And the transition tiles are available for free.
  • There are PDF instructions for every set.

Could Go Either Way:
  • The beautiful 3D style Black Scroll Games is known for. Since this depends heavily on taste I recommend looking at the samples provided. However, I absolutely adore them.
Cons:
  • Uhhh. Sorry, I’m really trying here. I think that if you like the art style and like to use tiles, the only thing that might dissuade you is the price or if you already got a set you like to use, and aren’t in the market for another one. Otherwise, there might be some tiles felt were missed? I think he has provided almost everything you could want, and you can read the full tile listing on their page. The only thing I feel is really missing, is that if you want to build a large undercroft dungeon, you’ll need a different dungeon set. The undercroft tile provided, while nice, isn’t very flexible.


* Denotes nitpicking.

Fortress Cities of the Black Scroll
Fortress set without the grid lines. Image courtesy of BSG.

Introduction

This review will be a little different than usually. I typically look at one product at a time. However, today I’ll look at the 3 sets (plus transition set) that were part of Black Scroll Games’ Kickstarter campaign. This included a city set, a fortress set, a castle set, a transition set, and there was an arena thrown in for good measure. If the pros and cons above weren’t a clear indication, I love these sets. It feels like just about every complaint I ever had with previous sets has been addressed, and they were rather minor to begin with. However, let’s jump into the specifics.

The Art

I think you should just take a look at it to truly understand, and get a feel for it. Honestly, it’s the sort of thing I like. It’s done in a 3D perspective with fine details and lighting coming from torches and windows. I was impressed with the art style when I first reviewed their inn set (link to my review), but they continue to impress. This use of lighting is even more impressive in the night versions of the tiles. Yes, there are night versions of the outdoor tiles. Indoor tiles have one version. It’s hard to describe aesthetics and art styles, but I think one look will tell you all you need to know. For me, this hits the notes I like to see. If you prefer tiles that look more like paintings or sketches, it may not hit every note for you. However, I think most people would agree that they look great, even if it doesn’t perfectly match their preferred style.


The Tile Sets

There are 4 sets here. They are a castle set, a fortress set, a city set, and a free transition set. I’ll layout what’s present before going further. They all share an art style and can be nicely blended using the transition tiles. However, some have more night tiles than others, as well as bonus items.

Transition Set

The transition set is free, and is meant to allow you to combine the other 3 sets. This means that the tiles really amount to corridor pieces that when used make things blend together seamlessly. Honestly, I’d recommend taking a look at them to get a feel for the style of tiles.

Streets Set

The city tiles allow you to create city layouts, and even provide roofs for the buildings. This means you can reveal the interiors in a fashion similar to a video game such as Divinity: Origin Sin. I unfortunately find myself having to run more games online recently, but even in a Virtual Table Top the tiles work amazingly well.

The great thing about this set is that the interiors have a night version, as well as the roof tiles. These night versions are far darker in appearance, but have light sources such as candles and torches. They really look good.

They’ve also included cutouts. Want a gallows in your city? Or to add more cargo boxes? Or maybe a bush or two? They’ve got them. Outside of what I just listed, there are also additional cutouts for tables and stalls. There’s even burning roofs for the tavern and a random house.

Oh, and this one has tiles for making custom combat arenas. Think gladiators and coliseum style stuff. I wasn’t expecting this to be here, so it’s a very nice surprise.

There is one empty house, but otherwise the interiors are populated. If you had gotten used to basically all of the tiles having an empty version, be aware that this set doesn’t have that.

Castle Cities of the Black Scroll
Castle set example of a door cutout. Image courtesy of BSG.

Castle Set

This set is all about creating the interiors of a castle. Bedrooms, undercrofts, theatres, throne rooms and more are here. They are made in the same style as the rest of the sets. There are no outdoor related tiles in this set. However, for what it does it does a really good job.

Again, night versions are provided. This time they are only for the balconies. The interior tiles are lit by fire. Again, we have draft tiles and everything is ready out-of-the-box for use with Virtual Table Tops. I wish they had a night version with no lights for use with abandoned castles, but it’s a minor complaint.

This set also has empty versions of the rooms provided. I have always loved this option, since it lets you use your 3D/3D printed props on the map as well. It also lets you have empty rooms in your castle for story reasons.

They seem to hit all of the tiles I’d think of when talking about a castle. From bedroom, to bathroom, to prison, they are included. I suggest giving the Castle set page a read over just in case it’s missing something you expect, but it seems to be complete.

Fortress Set

Remember how I said the castle set didn’t have external views? Well, this set is where the walls and towers are. And I find this one impressive. It has walls, it has ruined and caved in sections, it has siege machines such as ballista and catapult, and it has multiple level tower tiles (both square and round).

Oh yeah, it also has many other extras. Besides the ballista, and catapult tiles I mentioned it also has barrels, targets, stair cases, doors, and gates. The defenses you can make with these with low effort on your part are amazing.

And as expected, there are night versions of the tiles too. In this case this is really saying something, since unlike the castle set, there are a lot of outdoor tiles and as such a lot of night tiles. And we also have draft tiles. And everything is again broken up for use with Virtual Table Top programs. Need to build a fortress for your players to assault with their army? I can’t even thing of a set in this niche to rival it.

Price

Each set is priced for $10 USD on www.drivethrurpg.com for the digital versions. Getting pre-printed tiles varies from set to set. Find the City Modular Map-Tilesset here, the Castle Modular Map-Tiles here, and the Fortress Modular Map-Tileshere. I’ve honestly never bought one of the printed sets since I like to be able to print as many as I need, and tape them together into throwaway maps for one-shots.

Cities of the Black Scroll
City set tile examples. Image courtesy of BSG.

What I felt was Missing

These sets are as complete as I can recall seeing. They have draft tiles, they’ve broken the tiles up into files for use with Virtual Table Top applications, they provide night versions, they provide extras such as doors and street stalls for the city maps. They provide just about everything I can reasonably expect from them.

What’s left in the realm of unreasonable? Well, the buildings in the city set are stone and as such give an impression of a more affluent city. Someone who is setting their game in a poorer village may want something that looks more like wattle and daub. Well, that’s what I would’ve said, but Black Scroll Games have made a new set for such a situation. It’s like they saw my complaint coming. Just be aware you’ll need to pay for that separately.

When I used these tiles, my players were exploring an abandoned and weathered castle, with the spirits of the slain still haunting the grounds, and events of the past being replayed like echoes. In such a situation, I would’ve liked there to be a night version of the tiles without the light sources like torches. These would probably make the most sense in the digital version only.

Tiles such as the throne room can’t be extended or expanded to be even more grand. Instead, you get the standard but impressive 2 tile layouts.

Free Stuff

As mentioned above, the transition set is free. You probably won’t get much use for it without the other sets, but I’ve always felt that it is far easier to make the right choice when you have a sample. If you’re interested but still find yourself on the fence, look at that set to see if you like the tiles.

Summary

Black Scroll Games have really made a great series of sets here. If you like their 3D style, I think you’ll like them. They provide daytime and night time tiles, draft tiles, 3D rendered visual aids, cut outs for stalls and similar details, and instructions. In terms of what’s provided, I find Black Scroll Games gives the most complete sets. There aren’t many artists that provide night versions of their maps as well. Having everything ready to go for Virtual Table Tops is greatly convenient. I’d imagine if you see these tiles and thought they looked good, you’d be happy with them.

If you don’t like the art style, aren’t in the market for tiles because you have your a favourite set already, or prefer to use 3D tiles, the tiles won’t be nearly as tempting. However, even if any of those are true I think there cases where you’ll find these sets tempting. If you find yourself running a game using a Virtual Table Top, these sorts of tiles are a great convenience and help bring the action to life. Even if you use 3D tiles, such sets can be very convenient. Instead of needing to carry a city worth of miniature buildings, all you need are the tiles. I also don’t know about you, but I lack 3D tiles for arenas. If it isn’t clear by now, I think these are a great series of tiles.

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.