Monday, 2 December 2019

Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros
  • Lots of full colour art as always. This one in particular has some very beautiful maps and location illustrations. There is some that is too cartoony for my taste though.
  • The overarching sequence of events that make up the campaign make sense.
  • The setting on this one is a particular highlight. The large presence of devils, and being in hell make the scenario and situation vastly different than just another kingdom. Lots of lying and manipulation on this.
  • It's a darker adventure with great atmosphere.
  • The idea of having the characters pick a dark secret is a good one. It ties the players and characters together and gives the Dungeon Master some good leverage. But you’ll need to get buy-in from your players as it affects their characters.
  • The section on devil deals is very nice. Making deals and tempting players is one of the best parts of playing devils.

Could Go Either Way
  • Curse of Strahd wasted no time in throwing players into the new setting. Here, there’s a bit of buildup. It starts off in Baldur’s Gate and works up to hell.
  • It can get weird. Giant infernal war machines, experiencing dreams, talking to the damned. If “trying to escape a level of hell” is your cup of tea, you’ll get a lot of fun out of the otherness of the setting.
  • I wouldn’t recommend this for new Dungeon Masters unless the concept really grabs you, and you’re comfortable with playing things by ear.
  • The connective tissue between certain parts, in particularly the intro, can be a bit rough.
  • It’s the standard ~250 page adventure. I think they could push it to 300 but hey, we know what to expect by now from these. This is especially true since only about 150 pages are really detailing the adventure. The rest are creatures (some of which are repeats from other books), detail on Baldur’s Gate,
  • About 50 pages of the 256 pages are just describing Baldur’s Gate as it is today. This can be useful for the Dungeon Master, but the real interesting part is in Avernus. I would’ve liked more detailed for the adventure itself. The Baldur’s Gate stuff, while interesting, I feel should have been available in their online magazine or something to give more pages to the adventure itself.
Cons
  • No PDF*


* Denotes nitpicking.

Descent Into Avernus Cover
Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus Cover


Introduction

We’ve got another D&D adventure on our hands. This new one called “Baldur’s Gate: Descent to Avernus”, as the name suggests, heavily features one of the lawyers of hell. Going from the surface work to being trapped in hell and needing to find a way out, it provides a quite unique experience as players meet, negotiate and fight with devils.

Perhaps it’s the subject matter, in fact I’m sure that’s a big part of it, but I think this is my favourite adventure since Curse of Strahd. At the time of writing I’ve run the first two chapters. It still requires some adaptation, so I wouldn’t recommend it for new Dungeon Masters, but it makes me want to adapt and run it.

Descent Into Avernus Concept Art
Descent Into Avernus concept art example.

The Adventure

New Player Options

Nope. Not much here. There’s a few pages for a new background, and some twists on existing ones. Beyond that though? Nope.

New Monsters

There’s only a handful of new creatures. The rest are existing ones from previously released books. That makes sense to me since we are talking about devils which already got their time in the limelight in this edition. And devils are a lot of fun. Probably my second favourite kind of creature after undead. 

What You Need to Play

The Monster Manual, Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide are referenced at the start of the adventure. You know what that means. If you’re not a D&D expert, I wouldn’t recommend trying to run it without at least the Monster Manual. I really which they weren’t necessary, but here we are. 

Descen Into Avernus Candlekeep
An example of the sort of art you can expect. Pictured here is Candlekeep.
 

The Adventure Itself (Some Spoilers)

The basic idea of this adventure is really solid, and one of my favourites in a long while. Running around a layer of hell is the kind of quality idea that good campaigns are made of. Doing so with the lives of a city on the line, while dealing with devil contracts, and having the possibility to redeem an archdevil just makes things more fun.

One thing to note is that the adventure eases players into being in hell. It doesn’t just throw them in and watches them sink or swim like Curse of Strahd. Instead they start in Baldur’s Gate and see the strife created by one of the symptoms of the devils actions. Then, they get dragged there and exposed to the new set of rules present in Avernus.

A fair number of pages are given to help Dungeon Masters with making contracts as well as the procedure around them. Not all of them are simply written on paper, and many alternative options such as even singing a song are presented. I’m very happy to see that sort of thing as even if not used, it helps to stoke ideas.

A rather large number of important parts of this adventure also take place in memories. This makes the adventure even more surreal and odd. It also allows for the characters to participate in more situation and see exciting information first hand. However, it’s something you should know before running in case it’s the sort of thing you don’t like. I’ve played with quite a few people who wanted everything to happen in the real, waking world.

While not necessary, I think some knowledge about the different devils of the hells as well as some background knowledge of the blood war would be helpful. It is an important part of backdrop and if you don’t have a firm grasp on it, it’s all the harder to communicate it effectively to your players.

I wish there was more devoted to the possible final fight at the end of the adventure with an archdevil. A battle map or sketch of the area with some turn order events would have made it much easier to run, especially for new Dungeon Masters. I also find some basic suggestions like this extremely helpful to get an idea of the intended character of creatures and how they approach a fight.

Descent Into Avernus Baldur's Gate
One of my favourite pictures from this adventure. Baldur's Gate in all of its splendour.

The Art and Book Build Quality

The build quality of the book is what we’ve come to expect. It’s the same style as usual, except for the limited edition cover. I’m also happy to report that my copy was flawless. However, I’ve seen enough issues in this edition to still recommend that if you are picking up the book in person, just flip through it to make sure there aren’t any obvious issues.

The art ranges from so amazing it makes my list of favourite illustrations in this edition, to decent but not my style. I’d hang some of the scenery illustrations on my walls. They’re that good. The maps too are absolutely amazing. The Baldur’s Gate section, while I think unnecessary in an adventure book, has some very nice 3D perspective illustrations. A lot of the art is nicely coloured, unlike some previous books that were mostly black and white. There are some pieces that look like stained glass windows and wow, they are some of my favourite pieces from this book.

Descent Into Avernus Stained Glass
The stained glass style I mentioned in the art style section above. I really like this.

Price

You all know the drill by now. It’s the standard price for a D&D adventure ($50 in the States and $64 in Canada). For the suggested retail price of this product, you can check here. You can find it cheaper if you look online, but I’ll let you all decide who you want to support with your purchases.

What I felt was Missing
This adventure is almost begging to be a series. A Dante’s Inferno style trek through the levels of hell. One level is big enough for a full campaign, sure, but still it makes me yearn for more. I guess that’s a good sign.

The book includes a section which features concept art for the book. Some of it is very nice looking, but I think it could be better organized, I’d love to see more, and I’d want it out of the book if possible. Put it in the magazine to help sell the adventure. Give me more pages for the adventure. Especially when I’d liked to have some professionally thought up contingencies for if players do something slightly different than the adventure. Yes, players will often find out of the box solutions, but at the very least have an obvious alternative if the player characters don’t want to try to kill or kidnap someone.

Free Stuff

Nope. Sorry. Nothing to see here. I know, I’m disappointed too.

Summary

I said it in the intro, but I really do think this may be my second favourite adventure in this edition after Curse of Strahd. The art in places is absolutely stunning, the concept is easy to have fun with, and the maps... oh my the maps look amazing. However, I wish more of the book details the adventure and creatures. What if you want to set it in your own setting instead of Baldur’s Gate? Well, there go 50 pages unused. If I’m making a new setting or using my own existing setting I’ve developed in my time playing the game, I can work from the adventure. However, it’d be nice if it wasn’t so strongly assumed to be set in the forgotten realms.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus Dice & Miscellany Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros
  • Lots more full colour art. The map in particular is a real stand out. I absolutely love the style.
  • The dice themselves are a massive improvement compared to the Essentials set. It’s not a solid colour, but a nice marbled appearance.
  • The box is a standout part of the set. The symbol of Bhaal on one side looks amazing, and the inside of the box is also padded. Looks great on a bookshelf.
  • 2 D20s. Oh yeah, keep this going for as long as advantage is a mechanic.

Could Go Either Way
  • Like all of these Miscellany sets, it’s not mandatory. You can run the adventure just using your book, and if you have enough dice another set won’t be enticing.
Cons
  • Elements, such as the guide to different kinds of devils, aren’t as useful as I’d like. You can use the cards to show the appearance of the devils to your players. In fact, I recommend you do. The other side isn’t as useful though, being just a high level introduction by Volo. That said, this set has fewer of these useless elements than some of the previous ones.
  • There should be a font included on the website ready to download. The alphabet page included is very nice to look at and I’m happy to have it, but it’s power comes from being able to give it to your players and have them translate the abyssal message. I’d like to reuse it in my own campaigns but to do so, I need to be able to write my own message. And to do that, I’d like a font.
  • It’s packaged in a plastic case that’s not the easiest to open. And being plastic, it has a better chance of cutting your fingers or scrapping back the skin on your nails. Beware.
  • No PDF* included

* Denotes nitpicking.

Introduction

Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus is the newest adventure for Dungeons & Dragons, and it came with Miscellany sets. The goal of these sets has been to provide additional bits such as maps for games at the table.

The Package

It comes with a set of dice, cards for each kind of devil, 2 cards for encounters, 2 for trinkets, a map of Avernus with scale representation of devils on the other side, and a very nice box. All of that is wrapped up in a plastic cover which was actually a bit annoying to remove. Thankfully some leverage fixed that problem.

The Components

The appearance of the dice is a big improvement over the Essentials set. It’s got a red and gold colour very fitting for an adventure based around a level of hell, and looks far less boring than a solid colour.

The case is a standout part of the set. The art is absolutely beautiful. That said, I do have a bias towards the symbol of Bhaal. Might be too much time spent playing Baldur’s Gate way back when. The inside is padded and the box itself is made from thick card. It feels and is around the thickness of the rule book covers.

The cards are on the thinner side, but the are all double sided. The ones dealing with types of devils have a fairly well done drawing on one side, and an in world story involving that type of devil by Volo on the other. These sorts of things are great as aids to put on the table as players run across a devil. That said, I wish the art was done in a more photo real style. There is some absolutely stunning work in the adventure itself.

The map is not as large as the ones in the main adventure. It feel felt thinner to me as well, but it does look amazing. In general, this is the best looking set due to the art style and liberal art throughout. The maps in the previous one tended to be very simple in design.

There’s also a card for infernal, but that’s also at the end of the adventure book. It is nice to be able to put the card in the middle of the table, and it’s a very compact design, but it’s still a luxury.

PDF or Digital Version

I do wish a digital code came with the set. They did that with the essentials set, and I hoped it would be the beginning of a trend. It’s really too bad because being able to bring or mark up the map a bit before giving it to players would make it incredibly useful for my own campaigns.

Price

I think my typical opinion comes into play here. If you’ve got your eye on an adventure and can only pick one, get the adventure. That’ll be a better use of your money as you’ll get hours of campaign out of it. That said, especially on sale, the dice and box alone could be worth it. As always look at the picture, look at the price, and decide for yourself if you think it’s worth it.

Summary

As with the previous set, I think it’s a luxury item. The illustrated devil cards are nice to have to show to your players as they run across a devil, but a good description will still work well. That said, it looks amazing. The small case/box that comes with the set looks incredibly from the outside. I think this moved in the right direction since the one for Dungeon of the Mad Mage had maps that were already present in the adventure, and this set is mostly composed of new elements, but it still has some ways to go to be something that I’d say increases the experience of running the adventure so much it’s almost a necessary addition.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Dungeon Master: Voicing Characters

If you sit down to run a session of D&D you’ll have to take the role of different characters. You could have an empty dungeon that players are just thrown into, but even in that sort of situation it’s common they’ll run across a talkative ghost or fellow tomb robber. You might have a temptation to voice act all of the characters the players run across. However, this comes with difficulties and that’s what I hope to go over today.

You’re A Story Teller First

The first responsibility of the Dungeon Master is to be a story teller. The nature of collaborative story telling is that the players also have a story telling role, particularly deciding the actions of their characters, but the Dungeon Master is the head story teller and controls what comes their way. In this role voice acting is not necessary. I’ve played with plenty of Dungeon Masters who did not voice act any of their characters. They did change their manner of speaking, added certain words or constructs to give each character a personality, but they did little in regards to changing the tone of their voice. People were engaged enough with the story that their imagination filled in the blanks.

The Problem Of Long Gaming Sessions

Remember that Voice Actors take breaks and need to be careful not to strain their voices. You often don’t have that luxury when running a gaming session. Lasting 5 hours when voicing many different characters is a trail of endurance. If you’re unsure that you can last that period of time, don’t risk it. It’s better that you keep your voice for the other things you need to do that week, and also are in good shape for the next session.

Too Many Characters

If you have a campaign that lasts years, your players will run across many different characters. Bandits, villagers, mages, a magic talking skull where the soul of a mage who died 600 years ago is trapped, and many more! Most voice actors can’t voice every character in a TV series.

Pick Your Battles/Characters

So what’s the answer? First, I’d say it’s not worth voice acting a random villager in the street. Give them regional slang if you must, but giving them a unique voice isn’t worth it. It’s also unlikely your players will be able to easily tell all of your characters apart by voice alone unless the cast is kept short.

You don’t always know which characters will become long term fixtures in a campaign. A shopkeeper you meant as a one-off may become the player’s favourite place to sell their unneeded loot. This means that sometimes you’ll need to voice act characters after they’ve already spoken and made their introduction.

I’d suggest to pick a small number of characters who are important to your campaign, and voice act those. The main villain is a great choice, but not always doable. It’s rather hard to imitate the voice of a very deep voiced villain if your voice just doesn’t go that low. Keep this number low. For most I’d say don’t go past 3 characters.

Using Technology (Recording Ahead)

I once played in a one-shot where the Dungeon Master was a good voice actor. However, he also couldn’t voice all of the characters. So what did he do? He asked his friends to record lines for some of the other characters. When the character was introduced, he’d play the recording. It was 1-2 lines that established the character of their voice. After that, it was back to him speaking their lines with modified mannerisms.

This techniques works well and can help you if you’re on your own and get a bit of stage fright. However, the overhead of recording lines multiple times to get your ideal take can be too much and not feasible if you run sessions ever week and every two weeks. If you’re planning a one-shot, it’s far more reasonable if you have the prep time. In fact, I’d like to see more published adventures use this approach. I’d love to have a bunch of files I could play to introduce characters to my players.

Mannerisms and Lines Over Voice Acting

The title says it all here, and I’ve been mentioning this repeatedly but let’s get this stated explicitly. It also works as my closing statement. Focus on the story, what’s going to be said, and the mannerisms. If you do that, even without voice acting, people’s imagination will take over and your voice will fall away as they get immersed in the story. I’ve heard quite a few great story tellers in my time. Some did voices. Others didn’t, and I could still get lost in the stories they told.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros
  • HAHA! They finally did it! The set comes with a code that gives you access to the material through D&D Beyond. A digital copy is included! I hope to see this continue with future books and sets.
  • Dice set with 2 D20s (for advantage and disadvantage), 1d12, 1d10, 1d8, 4d6, and 1d4. Comes with a little box you can fold together. Honestly, I don’t see myself using the box. If it had a bag like the D&D 4th edition dice pack it would be a different story.
  • There is a reasonably nice map of the Sword Coast and town that the adventures take place around.
  • Plenty of maps included in the adventure itself. I’m a bit disappointed it’s not dry erasable like the maps included with some of the more recent adventure map packs.
  • There’s a Dungeon Master’s Screen included too. The content could be more dense, just as I said in my review of the gift set but it’s generally fine. Be aware that it’s not hard cover like the one from that set. It’s soft, and laminated.

Could Go Either Way
  • There’s a coupon code for 50% off on the Player’s Handbook! Well, only if you get it through D&D Beyond. So if you wanted a physical copy, you’re getting it for full price of looking at used ones.
  • The pages are a glossy finished paper in soft cover. It’s not nearly as nice as the hard cover books you’re used to. It’s also not bound like the hard cover books.
Cons
  • The “adventure” included is really a skeleton at best of adventure hooks. This isn’t Mines of Phandelver. It’s best described as a bunch of small adventures that take place somewhat around the theme of a white dragon attack. For an essentials kit I’d want something far easier to run out of the box, more engaging, and designed in such a way that something exciting or intriguing happens in every session. What we have here almost feels like side content in an adventure.
  • The marketing around this one seems weird. I’d expect an essentials set to have reusable components you can use in your own games. Dry erase maps, initiative trackers (or just more dice since dice make very good initiative trackers), tokens, tiles, that sort of thing. They have some of that (initiative cards, item cards, dice), but the rules, maps
  • A good portion of this box is the rules printed in a little booklet. Much of this will be repeated should you go download the basic rules, the SRD, or buy the Player’s Handbook. There’s a bit of new art, and the side kicks section of rules is a nice addition, but it’s wasted page count if you already have or plan to have those other more detailed works.
  • There’s nothing really here if you already have everything else currently released in this edition. I knew people who would buy the Dungeon Command and Adventure System packs just for the miniatures, card pieces and maps. This doesn’t have the same value proposition.


* Denotes nitpicking.

Introduction

We’ve got another product for D&D. We’ve had the starter set for a long time, with the well received Mines of Phandelver adventure. We now have the essentials set that’s also aimed at newer players. Being that it’s really a box full of stuff it’s harder to summarize. I will say that I think my review will come off as more negative than I really feel about the box. There are many components here, which gives me a lot of things for me to talk about. I think the idea of including more than just a dice set in a package is a good idea, and makes it a better value proposition that the dice sets and nice tin for a similar price. I’d like to see this more often with shorter adventures and generally useful components. However, I think that the content of this product makes it less of an essentials box and more like a starter kit.

With that let’s just jump into the contents.

D&D Essentials
All the things that come inside the D&D Essentials box.

What’s Included

  • Dice set
  • Fold together box for dice
  • Initiative cards
  • Condition cards (explaining what they are and can be given to a player when they are inflicted)
  • A several pages of magic item cards
  • A booklet that is basically the basic rules as found on the Wizards of the Coast website and Mines of Phandelver with a bit of different art, and selected monster entries from the Monster Manual/Basic Rules Dungeon Master pages
  • The Adventure book, which really details multiple shorter “quests” (they even have their own cards)
  • Player character sheets made from a thicker stock paper
  • Coupon and digital code page

The Adventure

The adventure is really 9 quests, each having a card, that are roughly centred around the town experiencing a white dragon attack. I mentioned it before, I’ll mention it again: this is not Mines of Phandelver. It is far more side quest feeling, not as focused, and still requires work to flesh out. The concepts are solid, but I think that for these kinds of starting adventures it’s best to make it easy to run right out of the box while leaving room for those more experiences or adventurous to put their own spin.

The book itself lays out 14 locations, which are references and used in those 9 quests. This is part of what makes the adventure quite odd for a new Dungeon Master to run. It requires a lot of work to fit together into something coherent, even compared to published adventures. Many characters that act as central players for quests will need to be filled in by the Dungeon Master. Each one of those location descriptions I mentioned has no more than 6 pages or so. Now, the locations include nice maps and the typical room by room details you’d expect for a dungeon crawl, but I would like to see more glue connecting the locations in what is meant as an adventure for new players.

What If I Want Homebrew?

What if you want your own campaign set in your own world? The dice, the rules, the initiative cards and the Dungeon Master’s Screen and the item cards will naturally carry over. However, the maps and adventures probably won’t. You can somewhat get around this by picking your favourite quests from here and using them as side content, but for something that calls itself an “Essentials Set”, I’d want as much as possible to carry over easily and enhance the game.

This is one of the bigger weaknesses that I find in this set. Ideally you’d have a bundle of super useful stuff for enhancing D&D sessions. Monster tokens, mapping tools (software, tiles, or dry erase), dice, tracking aids, that sort of thing. They have some of that, but if you run your own campaign you lose the adventure book. If you already have the Player’s Handbook or used the basic rules, the rule book mostly goes away (except maybe the side kick rules).

The Art and Build Quality

Generally the booklets are not the same quality as the hard cover books. They are thinner and glossy finished soft cover books more similar to a magazine than the hardcover rule books we are used to. Think Starter Set instead of the core rule books.

The dice are decent dice. The colours on them aren’t as eye catching as the start Starter Set (they are a solid translucent red colour), but they work well and we get two D20s. YES! This should be the standard for every D&D 5th edition product that includes dice because of the advantage/disadvantage mechanic. Since it’s rather heavily used in this edition, this should’ve occurred from day one. Keep it up, I’m happy to see this.

Price

The suggested retail price is $25 USD and $33 CAD. I’m sure with time the price will go lower, and if you find it for roughly the same price as a set of dice I think it’s a good value proposition. I know I saw dice sets more expensive than that at hobby stores, but I also saw cheaper ones too.

What I felt was Missing

Though the rules don’t require the use of battle maps, I love using them. They make it easy for players to have an idea of space, and often leads to interesting questions. “Are these crates on the map?” “Could I hide behind them?” “If I squeezed against the wall, would they be able to hit me from the window above?” I would like to see this set include something to make that easier for new players right out of the box. I’m not sure exactly what that would look like. Maybe they’d further develop their online tool that used to help you design maps using tiles from their sets so you could print them. That way there’d be a CD so you could pop it in and use it. I don’t know. But something to make that process easier for new players.

Please Link The Basic Rules

Physical books get damaged. Please provide a link somewhere on the first page or inside the cover with the address to find the basic rules on your website. This would make life far easier for players to find their other digital resource. Nice thing about that PDF is that it doesn’t require accounts of logins either. Even if they prefer to use a laptop with the PDF while playing because it’s easy to ctrl+f through it, you could argue there’s value to having a box you can just pull off the shelf if the power is out and you never downloaded the rules. However, I think having the link to the digital basic rules in the set is useful, and doesn’t cost anything.

Free Stuff

Well, if you paid for the set, would you consider a code for a digital copy free? Still, I am happy to finally see this. Please keep this up going forward. It is incredibly convenient to have both versions at my disposal and decide which is most convenient as I try to play. This way I get the best of both worlds instead of buying things twice.

A Good Idea

I think the idea of lower priced products with essential elements or extremely useful additions for D&D sessions is a good idea. I’d like to see them experiment more with this format. It allows for more innovation and due to a lower price lower risk of buying something you didn’t like. However, I think the adventure component in particular can use more refinement.

Summary

At it’s price, it’s got a decent number of components from dice, to mini-quests/adventures, to magic item cards. However, I think the adventure structure isn’t as focused as I’d like. I want an easy to run focused experience more like Mines of Phandelver. I also think that it’s a hard sell for more experienced players. It’s not like Dungeon Command, where you got a new game, and 12 miniatures for your campaign. Scroll to the top of this review and look at What’s Included. If you like what you see, you’ll probably like it. However, if you’ve never played D&D before and want to run it for your friends, you’re probably better off getting the Starter Set.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Dungeons & Dragons: Ghosts of Saltmarsh Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • Production values we've come to expect for this edition (including art). The art style and quantity remains high in this book.
  • 7 adventures/dungeons going from levels 1 to 11.
  • A good spread of adventures with different elements. Though most involve some sort of dungeon or map, they go over a wide range of environments and situations. From seemingly abandoned ships found floating in the water, to a murder mystery, to trying to haul wreckage from the bottom of the ocean, there’s probably something that’ll catch your interest.

Could Go Either Way:
  • It’s largely re-interpretations of existing adventures. They even have pictures of the original modules at the start. That means if you already have them, or have your own conversion to D&D 5th edition,
  • The adventures tend to have combat/delving components with some role-play portions. Some are heavier on the role-play than others. This means that if you tests gravitate away from that style, it may not work for you.
  • As maps are largely taken from earlier adventures or done in that style, you might be disappointed if you prefer the more detailed style of the newer adventures.

Cons:
  • The adventures are all framed around one location, though can be transferred to different settings. Beyond that, however, about half of them aren’t connected. Want a connected big campaign? Look elsewhere. The three that are connected though make for a good mini-campaign if boats, and lizardfolk are your thing.
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.

Ghosts of Saltmarsh Covers
The covers. I particularly like the one on the left.

Introduction

The number of modules that have been published for D&D is vast. Many different settings, locations, and subject matters have been made the subject of a dungeon delve. Like Tales from the Yawning Portal, this book takes a bunch of old adventures and brings them up-to-date for the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This time the adventures are set around Saltmarsh, and around the presence of water. Much of what I said about that book holds true for this one too.

Ghosts of Saltmarsh Ship
By far my favourite picture from the book. I'd frame it and put it on my wall.


The Adventure

New Monsters

There are about 27 pages of monsters and NPCs at the end of the book. Some, like the bard, have already been features in other books. However, there is distinct increase from some other released adventures. Keep it coming for the next one.

What You Need to Play

You'll need the core books (you could skip the Player’s Handbook, but your players might like you less). They are still making no effort to reference the SRD or the basic rules. Those 2 lines sound familiar? Seems that’s the current normal. You probably already have the core books at this point, but it would’ve been nice if they had allowed it to be played with the SRD and core rules like some of the earlier adventures.

Ghosts of Saltmarsh Monster
Another example of the art you can expect. Enjoy your cruise.

The Adventures Themselves

It’s not just one adventure again. We’ve got 7. That seems to be a magic number in this edition, since that’s the same as Tales from the Yawning Portal. Generally, I feel that it’s better balanced than Tales from the Yawning Portal, with a wider assortment of gimmicks and situations.

Being that they are D&D adventures, it’s hard to escape dungeon delving. It was the bread and butter of adventures for a long time. However, the nice thing about this one is that the way the delving is framed has a good deal of variety. Houses, ships, isles, cities/towns and traditional dungeons are all here.

The adventures are also better related than the previous best of collection, however not as closely related as you may like. The first three adventures form a mini-campaign of sorts. They directly tie together and the results of one lead to the other. It is one of those classic multi-module adventures, so that’s to be expected. The rest of it is still centred around the theme of sailing and generally around the location of Saltmarsh, but doesn’t tie in as neatly. It’s not a campaign. It’s a collection of related adventures going from level 1 to level 11.

Now, that is also the strength of these kinds of books. Your players got a new ship and are going travelling on the ocean? Oh, you want to make a cool side quest? Bam, they find a seemingly abandoned ship floating on the water. Of course some work needs to be done in order to make the adventure still work in context, but it’s less work than making it from scratch. And even if you do mostly do it from scratch, it added elements that made it better and inspired you to do it in the first place.

What is really nice about this book is that we have rules for ships. There are stats for multiple kinds of ships along with maps for them. There are explanations of crews, rules for mutinies, travel pace, repairs, stealth, and ship related hazards/complications. It’s the kind of thing I’d liked to have seen in a separate document or Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. It’s not exactly in the adventure themselves, but it really helps to tie it all together and helps you improvise events before arriving at the adventure themselves. Sailing to one of the adventures could involve possible mutinies, or coming across hazards on their way there. I’m really happy to see these kinds of tools being provided for Dungeon Masters. I wish the maps provided were usable as battle maps right out of the box. Blow them up, have them in high quality and provide them on your website or Dragon+. That would have been great. Otherwise you’ll probably just end up using another map you found on drivethrurpg.com that is ready to go, or spend your precious time adapting it. Blowing it up will reduce the quality so you’ll probably need to redraw it, or use 3D printable tiles to replicate the decks.

A good 22 pages or so of the book is dedicated to fleshing out and describing Saltmarsh. This includes some important figures, the general political climate, the history of the location, as well as a very nice map. This also includes ways to tie the backgrounds from the Player’s Handbook to Saltmarsh. Sure, we could do that ourselves but having other people’s ideas for this sort of thing can be extremely helpful. At the end we also have pages taken for the ship rules, magic items (all 2 pages of them), and monsters. This leaves us with roughly 150 pages for the 7 adventures, which is a fairly decent page length. This is especially true when we see that the book has less republished than some other previously published books.

I like that time is taken to detail ship wrecks. I admittedly “borrowed” that part since my players decided to take a session to go on a ship wreck hunting expedition while waiting for something else. It’s not a large part of the book, but it’s a nice touch that I appreciate.

Don’t read beyond if you don’t want spoilers, however light.

I don’t often go into plot details, but this time I’ll give a sentence or two in no specific order. The three linked adventures involve exploring a supposedly haunted house, which leads to illegal weapon shipments and their cause. We explore a ghost ship. That’s ghost as in abandoned, not a literal ghost. We try to catch a killer. We go through what’s best described as D&D meets Lovecraft. And fight to clear an island to help people build a light house.

The adventures that are adapted are as follows, ranging from the 1980s to the 2000s:
The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh
Danger at Dunwater
Salvage Operation
Isle of the Abbey
The Final Enemy
Tammeraut’s Fate
The Styes

Spoilers are over. Enjoy your freedom!

Ghosts of Saltmarsh Maps
Many maps are done in this style.

The Art and Book Build Quality

The build and art quality continues to be consistent. Art is plentiful and in the same style as we’ve come to expect, and I’d still like more artwork done in a realistic style. Still, it looks good. The map of Saltmarsh is particularly nice. I had no defects on my book either, but if you’re getting the book in person I would recommend taking a flip through to ensure there are no issues. The big issues I’ve run into before is binding issues, and stuck pages.

Price

It's the same list price we've gotten used to at 49.95 USD. If you are Canadian 63.95 CAD again. As always, you can find it for cheaper if you look around or if you wait.

What I felt was Missing

No PDF. You all knew I’d say it.

Anyway, moving along I would have liked to see more attention given to the ship and ships. This is our big reveal for ship based stuff in this edition. Why not expand on it into it’s own mini supplement and put it into Dragon+ magazine? Boarding rules, massive ship combat rules, a vast assortment of different ship sizes with battle map images of the decks and interiors. You know, jump right into the whole ship thing. They get close to it with the images for the different kinds of ships, but they are still not big enough to use for battle maps.

Ghosts of Saltmarsh Trap
A more typical example of the art you can expect inside.


Free Stuff

Unfortunately there’s nothing to see here. I think the ship and sailing rules would be a good thing to add the core rules. It almost feels like something that should be in a Dungeon Master’s Guide 2.

Summary

It’s a nice collection of water and ship related adventure updated for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. However, there is a nice variety of adventures with their own special touches. Want to investigate a recently discovered ship, and then escape while a giant octopus? Want a murder mystery? Want to explore a supposedly haunted house? All that and more awaits. They’ve all been released before, so if you already have them you may find it hard to justify. If you didn’t like Tales from the Yawning Portal, it’s similar to that but water themed.

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.