Sunday, 1 March 2020

Dungeon Master: Riddles

Riddles are a classic element of adventures and fantasy works. From cryptic clues left by an old wizard in one of their books for no-one other than themselves, to elaborate death traps created by malicious gods, it comes up sooner or later. However, tabletop gaming is different than a fantasy movie or book. The game needs to keep moving. Your players can’t spend a week straight on a riddle like a character can. So to prevent a game from stalling, there are a few techniques I’ve seen used, and I hope to share them today.

Roll For Success

Sometimes you can just let a character roll for a solution. They meet the DC, they get the result. I’m generally not a fan of this solution because it makes the riddle just another roll. That said, it’s a trick to keep in your back pocket if everything else fails.

Research Mechanics

Often time is important for a quest. One thing you can do is allow players to trade in-game time for hints. If you present it to the party, and they can’t figure it out, they can spend time researching the book, or looking over the area, and as a result they get a hint that makes the answer easier to figure out.

Find An Alternate Solution

There are often alternate solutions to a problem. Can’t figure out the puzzle on a tomb door? A scroll of fireball could do the trick. One moment that stands out from my games is where the party, including myself since I was a player, decided the best course of action was to buy 500 gold worth of alchemists fire, and burn their way through. It worked though we had to wait an extra couple hours for the smoke to clear.

These solutions are often non-ideal and come with a cost. The alchemist's fire cost money. It also cost us time since we had to go back to the city, and back to the tomb. They might petition their deity for help, or talk to a nearby corpse using good old necromancy (speak with dead is a good way to get another riddle). These are slightly different since they will end up using the ideal solution in the end. However, they are taking some extra steps because they couldn’t figure it out themselves. Hiring a local wizard for consultation is another variant of this.

Failure Is Not The End

They got the combination on the chest wrong? It explodes, sending pieces of wood throughout the room. I lost 12 hit points, and the potion inside was destroyed, but now it’s open! A failure to a riddle doesn’t need to block the progress of the party. That said, there should be a cost. In this style, failure will open a new path for the players, but it’s less than ideal.

One particularly interesting example I saw was that another group of adventurers got into the tomb and solved the riddle. They are still there, and they’re not friendly. And one of them fell to their death with some of the loot, making it unreachable.

Layered Solutions

Any of the above can be combined. You can allow a roll (DC 16 arcana check to realize it’s an arcane lock spell, but they need to realize its magical), alternate solutions (using detect magic would reveal magic is a foot, dispel magic would remove the obstacle, they could still break down the door even with the DC 10 addition from arcane lock), or they can do it as expected and solve the riddle in the wizard’s book they found on his body. Now, I wouldn’t use this as a puzzle outside of low level without some changes, but it’s already sounding better than having them stuck.

Be Flexible

I’ve played and ran many a session where the players come up with a more interesting solution to a riddle than the Dungeon Master (or author of the published adventure). And you know what I did? I made it the solution. It worked based on everything that was provided, and it was even better. Why not reward cleverness? That said, you have to be a little careful not to have every riddle end up this way. Some of your riddles should be solvable.

Be Careful

Sometimes even seemingly easy riddles can be hard for people that aren’t in your frame of mind. There’s nothing wrong with having a few easy ones too. Makes players feel smart, and the game go at a good pace. Besides, didn’t they earn it by retrieving that wizard’s journal from those bandits? Generally, the more leaps of logic that need to be done, the less likely that it’ll be solved. That said, it’s very hard writing good riddles and puzzles. It also depends on your group.

Don’t Be Afraid To Reuse

We’ve had years of tabletop RPGs and video games, and more books than can be read in a life time. Don’t be afraid to reuse a cool riddle you find, especially from more obscure sources. Also, remember what’s considered obscure depends on your players. Also, don’t be afraid of putting a slight twist on the puzzle. Instead of answering the riddle of the sphinx, maybe they need to arrange 3 idols in three areas. One has a sunrise design, one has a sunset design, and one has a high noon design. Same problem, slightly different delivery.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Dungeons & Dragons vs Rick and Morty Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros
  • Includes a comedy adventure that can be a lot of fun. It’s a dungeon delve style where each encounter has some comedy element to it.
  • Whoo, more dice!
  • Quite a lot of Rick & Morty style art. If that’s your thing. I always like new art. It even extends to the Dungeon Master’s screen (contains all the same rules that previous screen included).

Could Go Either Way
  • It’s the basic D&D rules as you’ve seen before. You can even find them for free on the website. What you’ll be missing is the comedy included along side them. This is again a double edged sword, because you need to be aware that the blurbs are entertainment, and not necessarily good advice. Can be very dangerous for the wrong new Dungeon Master.
  • There’s not really any extra reusable.
Cons
  • This is a comedy adventure. Comedy is fun the first time, but if you’re the kind to get bored when hearing the same joke a second time, running the same joke is probably even worse. That's assuming you found it funny the first time, as comedy is subjective.
  • No PDF*
* Denotes nitpicking.

Dungeons & Dragons vs Rick and Morty set
The set in all of its glory.


Introduction

Like D&D? How about Rick & Morty? Well, good news for you! There was a newish D&D starter set released that is heavily influenced by Rick & Morty. In practice that means that the adventure is written like it’s actually made by Rick, and the rules themselves have blurbs of “advice”. Much of this I wouldn’t actually follow but it’s there for the entertainment value. That’s the high level overview. Look below for a closer look.

The Adventure

New Player Options

I mean, it’s a starter box. So no. Closest we have to new player options is 5 new pre-made character sheets.

New Monsters

Once again the answer is nope. The descriptions for many have been Rick & Morty-ified, but that’s about it. And when I say that, I mean there’s more humour in them. It’s not that they’ve been massively changed in terms of gameplay. Because they haven’t.

What You Need to Play

You know how I always complain that you need to refer to the Monster Manual for adventures? Well, all of the creatures are included! The basic rules? Are included! Dice? Included. It is a starter set, so this is what I’d expect.

Dungeons & Dragons vs Rick and Morty art 2
Nice looking critter, eh?

The Adventure Itself

The adventure itself takes the form of a dungeon delve. You enter and go from room to room, experiencing encounters that all have some comedic twist. Some involve combat, some less, but there is generally some joke or punchline to every room. I ran through it with some friends and we had quite a few laughs. That said, in the nature of D&D, quite a bit of that laughing wasn’t written in the adventure’s script. It was spontaneous because a bunch of friends were playing D&D.

Now, this being a humour adventure, I think it’s very hard to describe and talk about. Humour is very subjective. However, because of how it’s structured, I don’t think it’s very repayable. If you do, it’s more like going through the same stand up comedy set. This is in opposition to adventures such as the classic Ravenloft, where elements would be randomized, and as a result allowing you to replay it every year at Halloween if you so wanted, with differences every time.

Alright. Fine. You won’t run it more than once for the same group probably. Well, I think most Dungeon Masters wouldn’t run it more than once for that same reason. They don’t want the same jokes again, and it doesn’t have a creepy atmosphere you could use for Halloween, or to see how someone new would go through Mines of Phandelver. If they do, it’s to be a joke teller like I described before. That makes it more niche than many other adventures. That said, there’s not many adventures in this niche, and basically no official ones. At best you’ll find traces of it in the full blown adventures.

Dungeons & Dragons vs Rick and Morty art
Example of the what the new art looks like.

The Art and Book Build Quality

The pages themselves are the thinner type we’ve come to expect from starter sets. If you saw the original starter set, you know what to expect. It’s glossy and thin, unlike the full hardcover books. This also extends to the screen. It’s not thick card like the one from the Christmas set a little while back, which felt like it was made from book covers. It’s thinner card.

The art itself is a mixture of art from previous work, and new art in the style of Rick & Morty. The old art still looks good, but anyone who has been around this edition for a while wouldn’t get exited from seeing it again. It’s limited to only the rules section of the book. The new art is quite common, both throughout the

Price

It’s the standard start set price of $29.99 USD. No surprises here.

What I felt was Missing

As far as low priced starter sets go, it has just about what I’d expect. What I would really like to see, however, is something reusable in general campaigns like dungeon tiles. Here, you can reuse the screen, and dice obviously, but some more would go a long way. Here’s an idea: let’s have a big zip of random stuff to help Dungeon Masters prepare. One example would be pages you can just add text to for handouts. Just print it out, and write on it with black pen. It’d go a long way if a starter set also helped players with the building blocks of their campaign for elements such as battle maps and handouts.

I’d also like to have seen some handouts we could show our players so they could see what the room looks like. Some old TSR era adventures did this, and given that it’s in the style of Rick & Morty, it’d be great to be able to show scenes to players in that style. Instead, a lot of it is in the rules and adventure itself, which will probably end up only seen by the eyes of the Dungeon Master.

Free Stuff

Nope.

Summary

There we have it. It’s a self contained box that has everything you need to run the adventure. The adventure itself is a dungeon delve where each encounter has a comedic twist or punchline to it. This makes it unique and fit a different niche, but I’m afraid that the replay value isn’t as high as other published adventures for this edition. As a general recommendation, I’d still suggest the original starter set to new players. That said, there’s enjoyment to be had here if you’d prefer a more comedic game. The other thing is that comedy being subjective, it's hard to say if a particular person or group will find it funny. I just wish it had more replay value, and more tools were provided for the Dungeon Masters of the future who pick it up.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Dungeons & Dragons: Tyranny of Dragons

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Dungeons & Dragons Tyranny of Dragons Cover
New cover for the book.


There was a compilation of the two parts of the Tyranny of Dragons story line into one book. This makes it a bit different than my usual reviews, because the adventure itself hasn’t changed. Instead they’ve been compiled together and have a fancy new cover. To see my review of Rise of Tiamat, click here. I missed Hoard of the Dragon Queen. I thought it was an alright adventure. Certainty easier to run than Rise of Tiamat. And fairly well suited for new Dungeon Masters compared to some later ones. It's much closer to a traditional dungeon delve in structure. The art is the same, as the previous releases. So really, it’s not so much of a review as an informational post about it. I’m happy to see it in one book, and would’ve preferred if it released that way, but it’s not as exciting as a brand new book.

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.