Saturday, 22 September 2018

D&D Endless Quest: Into The Jungle Review

Review copy courtesy of Candlewick Press.

Think of Dungeons & Dragons and you think of adventures, and rule books. That never stopped D&D from branching out to other things like colouring books, cartoons, and gamebooks. And speaking of gamebooks, the new Endless Quest series was released on September 8th, 2019. I say new, because it's really an act of book necromancy. Endless Quest existed back in the TSR days, but now it's back. And today I'll be looking at the Into The Jungle book from the revived series.
Endless Quest Into The Jungle
The soft cover version of the book.


The Book Itself

The premise of the book is that you are a cleric sent on a quest to locate Artus Cimber and the Ring of Winter. The book itself is roughly 122 pages long, and has the kinds of choices you'd expect from a gamebook. Which way to go, who to trust, and whether to stay your ground or fight. It's written in a brisk pace, and even manages to fit some characterization.

It's a quick read, and has many references to the D&D we know and love. If you read or played Tomb of Annihilation, you'll recognize some locations, similarities, and monsters as it does take place in Chult. It's a nice touch, especially considering how I don't think many in the target demographic would recognize them unless they play the adventure some time later. Should they get the chance to do so, I think that moment of realization would be magical.

The book isn't afraid to kill you off, and has a bit of a trial and error feel at times. However, it's also not one of those adventure books or adventure games that has one right path and every other path is death. As a result the book also has multiple endings. Some are more pleasant for the main character than others and it's nice to see, especially since I remember some such books from my youth with only one ending. They also give you some guides on your journey, which is a much needed touch for a better D&D feel. The short page length prevents these touches from being extremely detailed. It is my impression that this was done to appeal to the target audience of 8-12 year olds. It also doesn't seem like all the books are linked in an overarching story. For example, they could all be involved in the side effects of the Rage of Demons story.

The page count I mentioned earlier isn't telling the whole story. I'll go into more detail further down, but there is a lot of art here and it's a bit of a double edged sword. I'd say it's a worthwhile trade, but it does mean there is less space for words. I wish the book was longer, as it would allow for a bigger story and more choices.

Endless Jungle Pterafolk
A pterafolk image from the book. A pretty good example of the style and quality to expect from the art, though a lot of it is smaller.

Format

The layout of the page is stretched of text and pictures together. As you'd expect, the picture on the page is directly related to what is being experienced. Being chased by zombies? There's zombies. Hearing about aarakocra? Well, here's a picture. It's available in soft and hard cover version, but I received the soft cover version.

Art

If there is one standout thing about this gamebook, it's the art. There is lots of it, and it is well matched to what is happening on the page. My experience with these sorts of books in my youth were that they were mostly text. Actually, most of the time they were exclusively text outside the covers. Admittedly, some had amazing covers. Dungeons & Dragons on the other hand had tons of illustrations. Adventures, core books, setting books, they all often were loaded with great art and keeping that here is something that helps make it more than just another gamebook. It looks a lot more impressive than the grey paper pictureless books I remember. The one thing that takes away from it is that you'll recognize many of the pictures if you've read through the current books in this edition. I doubt this would be an issue for the 8-12 year olds it targets, but I think it's still worth noting.

Endless Quest Jungle
An example two pages of the book. Looks pretty good, doesn't it?

Price

The suggested price is $8.99 USD or 10.99 CAD. That's around standard for such a book, though if you are outside the demographic putting the coin towards the D&D starter set will be tempting.

Overall

If you are the target audience (8-12 years old and like gamebooks) I think you'll enjoy it. It's a tough recommend outside of that area, but I'm sure I would've enjoyed it when I was that age and I'm hard pressed to remember a better gamebook I read at that age. However, it is a gamebook themed with D&D and while I could see it bringing interest to D&D, it doesn't bring the same experience. Treat it as its own thing. It's also a bit on the short side, but I could see such a thing being really interesting to young people who never heard of D&D or can't find a group but heard of it. Hopefully it brings more interest to the hobby and system.

Other

  • Anyone have a kid that read a book in the series? I'd be very curious to see what they thought. I can also see that some D&D experience would make it all the more exciting, and vice versa. Like a feedback loop.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS ENDLESS QUEST: INTO THE JUNGLE. Copyright © 2018 by Wizards of the Coast LLC. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Dungeon Master: Threat Level

Managing expectations is one of the major responsibilities for a Dungeon Master. An area where this is incredibly important is when dealing with combat. Player need to know what they are getting into. To make things more difficult, things often change. The high risk combat situation from last session's dungeon delve changes into light risk combat and mostly role-play this session. Handling this change is an art, and in hopes of helping others as well as myself, I'll explore my thoughts on this subject.

Setting the Basis

When a game starts, there are some big overarching things that need to be set. A big one is the deadliness to expect. And again, I'm not talking about if the players have a chance for their characters to die. Some groups don't like running. They want the encounters balanced so that they have a good chance of vanquishing their enemies. Others are fine when a victory in an encounter means getting away alive. However, if they know from the get go that they may need to run, that idea sticks. They won't always run, but they'll know it's a valuable tool in their arsenal. If you instead build the idea that they can win any encounter with proper planning, they may stay and fight even when it doesn't make sense. Adult dragon at level 5? Well, our Dungeon Master wouldn't use something we can't kill. The towns folk telling us that we aren't strong enough is just to build tension.

You can also do this with words from the very beginning during your session 0. It's the safest way. More experienced players will know roughly what it means to face a wight or vampire spawn at level 1, however existing players won't necessarily know they should run.

Re-Establishing the Situation

I find it's a good idea to have a couple of hints from the beginning for players to know what to expect. There are many techniques that can be used for this. If we are talking about a dungeon, the general expectation is that it will get harder the deeper they go in. If the first room is a tough encounter, the players will be weary. Bodies are also a good signal of things to come. If there is a fresh body torn in half, bonus points if it's someone they met earlier so they roughly know their strength, it tells players to be on their guards. Footprints, movement reports from scouts in the area, patrols being decimated, and other battle scenes also help set up player expectations of what they are wading into. It's also a great opportunity to help develop the story as well. If the party they previously helped is found in a zombie state, they'll be concerned and also start thinking of the possible reasons. Necromancer? Wight?

Be Weary Of Tweaking Creatures

Some vampires are stronger than others. It makes sense that some individuals will be exceptions to the rule. However, we also need to be careful when making alternate versions of a creature to put against our players. The first encounter with a creature will set their expectations for the ones that follow. Again, this is especially true for new players but also to a degree for ones that are experienced. Even if the Monster Manual gives a general range, that doesn't mean vampires in your world will work the same way. Vampires might be beastly in appearance instead of humanoid. Or this one might have access to items. Or have a permanent injury inflicted by the arch mage the players met. In these cases it's a good idea to mention that the creature is an exception, preferably in world. Have one of their wizard contacts mention how it must have been a weak variant, or they'd have been torn to shreds. Or how they got lucky and managed to find the vampire while it was resting during the day. Some rule systems have multiple variants of the same creature so players know what to expect, or at least should be aware of this practice out of the gate.

Resources

There is a tug and pull between wanting to continue for the day and resting to regain limited resources. If there is no pressure, the answer is simple. However, having some knowledge about what's going on goes a long way in allowing players to make decisions. If things are quiet, you can expect more use of utility spells and being right on the heels of the criminal. If they are fighting a vampire spawn who knows they are present and they are lower level, they'll probably be more cautious. Of course, they can retreat if they run into a vampire spawn while out of resources. If they missed the clues, it may be their only choice. The act of making the decision can often be a source of the fun, as can piecing together the clues.You also want to have some pressure so the players don't rest every 10 minutes of play. Maybe that vampire spawn will get away if they don't chase it now.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Monster Group: Vampire Spawn & Minions

A vampire don't always travels alone. Keeping some help around can prevent easily getting a stake through the heart while they rest. Vampires are versatile monsters, and can be found in many different situations. Here I outline a group that a vampire might use as they travel, or flee for their life after a setback.

Composition
4 Bandits using short swords, and crossbows
1 Carriage with 2 horses
1 Vampire Spawn

* Find stats for the Vampire Spawn (page 354) and Bandits (page 396) here.


Tactics

The vampire will typically either use it's minions that it travels with as a source of blood to stay alive, or use them to aid in staging attacks. The chosen strategy depends on the disposition of the vampire in question, with those with poorer self control and those enjoying the hunt praying on innocence instead of their minions. A vampire that can subsist on its minions will typically develop schemes to hide its tracks and goals that reach beyond their basic needs.

Using the carriage and its minions, the vampire will either set up a base and use the carriage as a quick escape if things get too suspicious, or travel over a large area to spread out the attacks. The minions watch over their master's hide out, spacing out their rest to ensure there is always at least one lookout. The presence of minions means that even during the daytime, the vampire can be moved.

Due to a vampire's forbiddance, and the legends that people at large are often aware of, it's not uncommon for villagers to stay indoors at night once a vampire is suspected. For a vampire who enjoys the hunt, they need some creativeness to overcome the issue. The most common of which is to change hunting grounds, to have spies operating in the area who gain the trust of locals and invite the vampire in, having their minions use force to break into a house containing potential victims and then inviting the vampire in, forcing occupants out of a building and attacking them when they leave, or for the vampire to invite people over to their home for parties in the attempt to elicit an invitation (it's not good form to kill people in your own house unless you can get away without being suspected).

Size

Different vampires will have different numbers of minions. In this group I've set up a small group that transport the vampire. However, it can have more minions planted in the village or city. It can also have the addition of an honour guard if need be. It could also be moving between areas of large influence. Depending on its goal and situation, the behaviour can change greatly.

Relationships

A vampire could spend a great deal of time working its way into the good books of local nobles and influential people. They could even play the part of commoner to ensure no-one with power looks at them twice. This means that finding out who the vampire is could be just the beginning. The players may need to deal with innocent guards doing their job, characters who simply don't believe their wild accusations, and many different forms of backup the vampire can raise.

Things Not Going as Planned

A vampire spawn knows that it can die, and will try to preserve itself if in distress. However, it also knows that it has tremendous regeneration abilities and may come back minutes later, ready for more while its targets are low on resources. Regardless, it will try its best to preserve itself and the location of its resting place, fearing the possibility of being staked.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

200th Post!

As the title subtly hints, this is my 200th post. When I started, I never thought I would have gone on for so long. It's not that I planned to quit before this point. It's just the thought never really struck me. I simply wanted the chance to ramble about whatever I wanted and offer advice no-one asked for. As time went my ambitions expanded to the point where I also wanted to review D&D books as they were released up as well as a wide assortment of 3rd part content. It was and I hope continues to be a tremendous experience.

When I started posting it was meant purely for me. There are many things that you notice in a general sense while playing, but being able to put it into words requires a deeper understanding. Taking my vague feelings on the topic of tabletop games, and trying to express them forced me to think about things in greater detail and better understand my own opinions. I could have just wrote for myself and left what I wrote in notebooks or files on my computer. However, being out there for others to read had the potential to help others and start conversations. On the second point I think I largely failed, but tomorrow is a new day. I also realized that I actually enjoy writing on the topic.

Plans For The Future

200 posts down and who knows how many more to go. I hope to continue to cover new D&D books as they are released as well as 3rd party products. Maps and 3D printable terrain in particular have my notice. I hope that going forward I might get the chance to do some interviews too. My focus will continue to be mainly on tabletop and board game topics, but I'll try to do more video game stuff as well on my other blog. If the time comes and I have to chose, I will do as I've done in the past: pick tabletop gaming. I've had the idea to do video game stuff for a while, but the blog just sat deserted.

Thank You!

First, I'd like to thank my players who let me try to kill – I mean play tabletop games with them. You know who you are.You've bargained with devils, hunted and been hunted by vampires, got lost across the planes, and befriended gods. And all in the last couple of months. You've inspired a lot of this, both directly and indirectly. Again, thanks guys.

Next, a big thank you to Wizards of the Coast, and the legacy of TSR. Besides giving me a game to play and write so much about, it gave me a life long hobby, an uncountable number of stories, and a fair few friendships that wouldn't have existed otherwise. Tabletop games have also led to some of my favourite video games. They'r everywhere.

Also a big thank you to 360PR+. In Particular thanks Mark, Sheila, Mary-Catherine, and Katie. They've always been incredibly helpful, even under a barrages of questions from me. The review copies make it much easier on my part too.

And also to Antal Kéninger and Black Scroll Games. They've released some wonderful sets and 3D printable models. It was a pleasure to be able to review them. I look forward to the new things you have planned.

Lasty to my readers. Some of you have commented, some of you haven't. Thanks for the chance to write for you all and I hope you found at least something of use within the thousands of words.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Dungeon Master: Nudges

Sometimes things get lost in the bustle of a session. The plot went off track. The puzzle you designed isn't going over as well as you intended. Or perhaps a player wants to look around for magic items they can spend their hard earned coin on. Regardless of which of these situations you find yourself in, one of the tools at a Dungeon Master's disposal is giving a slight nudge or hint. However, you also don't want to yank your players back on course. And it's for that reason that I hope to go over the topic today.

When Is It Needed?

Let's start with one of the big questions. And like many topics, I find there are general rules of wisdom but no hard and fast rules. If your players are lost, they'll want some direction and hints. This can happen for a large number of reasons, but challenging puzzles probably are the most common one.

Player Buy In

You don't want to too heavily railroad your players. What might be railroading for one group of players may be a cool twist for another, so the distinction between what isn't railroading and what is isn't clear. However, they typically want some kind of consistent plot and events that unfold so there is some level of buy in required. If your players run somewhere else at the first sign of combat or events unfolding, you can't really have much of a game. You need your players to buy in, and when they do there will be some level of nudging. Some mystery is unfolding in the slums of the city? Well, as we find clues they will lead to conclusions, which will lead the party to the culprit eventually.

Reflecting What They Want

When nudging players, it is far smoother when it is in the direction players want. If a player is looking for a magic item, they'll expect hints and nudges towards that goal. Of course, they are looking for them after all. They will be actively looking, or spending their downtime to locate a magic item. They don't know where it is, so they are begging for a hint and a nudge towards their goal. If you aren't sure, then remember what we are talking about here is a nudge. The players choose whether to follow or to turn elsewhere.

How Is It Done?

The ideal nudge is one that is virtually invisible. We often do this without really noticing it. Clues pointing to other possibilities and outcomes are probably the most common technique. Journals containing cryptic entries, for example. Conversations while players are hidden is another. The more difficult situations to handle in my opinion are when a puzzle doesn't land, or your players get lost. You don't want to solve the riddle for them. Instead, I find that it works best to let players look for ways around it. Perhaps the puzzle isn't necessary and they can just brute force their way through using a pick axe at the cost of time? I've also seen situations where the party goes and hires an expert to come back and solve the riddle for them. In one other case, they hid in the shadows and let the group of baddies after the same artifact solve it for them.

Sometimes though, they will need a hint and often times it makes sense that the character will have more knowledge than the players. If someone is looking for clues in the room to find any other switches, perhaps they notice that dust isn't disturbed in some areas compared to others. The key here is to give something that is minor, fits with what their character would know, and doesn't blow open the puzzle. I'd also be careful about situations where players must solve a puzzle to proceed, and recommend that time be spent on alternate approaches or hints in case it doesn't land as expected. Of course, alternatives work best when they have their own pros and cons.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Outlined

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Adventures Outlined Colouring Book Lich
Lich page from the Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Outlined colouring book.
D&D has seen its properties used in many different forms over the years. There have been movies, novels, video games, and even cartoons. And colouring books. We've had colouring books in previous editions, we've had one released in 2016, and now we have a new colouring book which will be available everywhere on August 21st, 2018 and can already be found at game stores.

I'm also using this as a trial run at a new “look at” format, where I don't go as in depth on a product but take a high level look. I mean, most of my usual sections for reviewing an adventure don't apply at all.

Format

The book usually takes the form of a picture on the right page and a small description of what is being shown on the left. When I say small, I mean it: it's under 2 sentences. As a result, not every page is something that can be coloured. By my count there are 43 pictures to colour, and roughly another 43 pages of descriptions.

Art Style

The art in this book is stylized. It's not the art found in the core books like the previous colouring book for this edition. As usual with art, I'd recommend taking a look to see if you like it. And towards that end, I've included a couple of shots from inside the book.

Adventures Outlined Colouring Book Mimic
An example of the art style found throughout the book.

Price

I find the price to be interesting. At an MSRP of 16.95, that's just a few dollars below (~3 for those of you counting) than the Starter Set. Clearly the Starter Set isn't a colouring book, but getting Lost Mine of Phandelver and a set of dice makes it a tempting alternative.

Free Stuff

Currently there isn't anything on the website. For the previous book there was a sample page and a map page. Perhaps this will be filled in with some time as has happened with some previous adventures. We'll see.

Overall

It's a colouring book. In that regard it meets what you would expect and is rather long as far as colouring books go. Whether you like the stylized appearance of the pictures will depend greatly on your art preferences, and I'd suggest looking above at the examples I provided to get a feel. It's hard to recommend it due to its price and niche compared to the D&D Starter Set. The result is that its a niche product, or a collectors item. 

Adventures Outlined Colouring Book Mind Flayer
Mmm, brains. Can always count on an illithid to want some brains.

Other

  • I laughed hard after seeing the page for the mind flayer with a description explaining how they eat brains. Seeing that in a colouring book made it all the better.
  • Interestingly, the pages aren't numbers. So I had to count them myself.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Dungeon Master: Session Postmortems

There are many issues that can occur during the course of a campaign. Many have simple solutions, many others have complex issues, but regardless you still need to be aware of a problem to address it. A newly formed group will also tend to have more issues than a veteran one, where players haven't had time to work out their issues and get into the flow of things. What I've seen used, and used myself in these cases, is the idea of a postmortem. At the end of some milestone, you have your players look back over what happened and give their opinions.

Being On The Same Page

One of the big things in tabletop gaming is being on the same page. Players need to know what actions they can take and reasonably know what their odds of success is within limits. Dungeon Masters need to know what tools they have at their disposal and what players are willing to tolerate. All of this starts with an understanding between players and Dungeon Master that their concerns will be addressed. Communication break downs and differences of expectation are what postmortems give you the opportunity to address by having a structured system built in where players know they can be heard. You also don't want this kind of stuff to quietly simmer if your players have a problem.

How Often

It depends on your group and their experiences. Doing one per arc is very manageable and makes sure that player concerns are heard. However, earlier in a campaign you might seriously wish to consider doing one per session. This is especially true if you didn't know your players before the campaign started. The more distance there is between you, the more of a necessity there is. Eventually you can get to a point where you don't need them anymore, but I'd still recommend calling for one if concerns are brought up. The big thing to address in this case is if there's a difference of opinion. If fixing the problem for one will cause a problem for another, you'll need a clever compromise or to pick a side and have your players understand.

Taking Too Much Time

The issue that can often happen here is that the postmortems run too long. And especially at the start, this will happen. However, as Dungeon Master you can move on to other topics and then circle back around to the issues that result in a lot of discussions. If necessary, you can have that discussion outside of the session and take it into your favourite chat program or email. Having a structure that people are aware of is also extremely helpful in these cases. Have people mention what they liked (that way you know what is well received and maybe can be used again), what they didn't like (potential problems that need to be solved), and any other comments they might have. I find this setup works well as it touches on the aspects we are really after: what are the likes and dislikes of our players. It may also be an execution thing in some cases, and having that feedback is important.