Sunday, 24 April 2016

Dungeon Master: Guard Formation

It's nice to have some NPC groups that can be dropped in to games for combat purposes or to draw up intrigue in location. For this reason I hope to provide one more that people can use.

16 Guards
1 Wizard (see defense wizard or scroll wizard) or noble**

* Can be modified to be higher level if party is in need of bigger challenge. Guards can be replaced or supplemented with some knights as well.
** All stats available from basic rules or SRD.


If under attack, the guards will form a protective square 5 guards wide on each side. If they are reasonably sure they know where the attack is coming from, they can shrink the square to 4 guards wide and put the remaining 6 guards on the side they think the attack is coming from. If they are almost completely sure they know what direction they are being attacked, they can commit completely to one side and form a 3 guard deep and 4 guard wide formation in front (there may be 5 foot gaps in case of fireballs and similar spells) of their wizard with the 4 remaining blocking line of sight to the flanks of the wizard/noble. The VIP will move as far as possible from the apparent danger while still being inside the formation. Their choice of tactic (counter attack attackers or fall back) will depend on the situation. They may even choose to split the guards in order to stall for the escape of the wizard or noble.

Things Not Going as Planned

If the wizard dies first, the loyal guards will try to drag the body back. This could be for a variety of reasons: loyalty, to ensure body is fine for proper burial, they may be only wounded instead of dead (using optional wounding rules for NPCs just like for players), or they may try to raise them using magic. The idea is that while not as well trained in fighting as a knight, the guards are loyal and will fight to protect their wizard or noble. However, the Dungeon Master could decide they are not as reliable and may flee if things don't go well. Roll a D20 when half or more of the guards are dead or incapacitated. If the roll is 12 or higher, they flee (first half, then the other when they realize they were abandoned). They may also flee if their wizard or noble is killed.  

Monday, 18 April 2016

Dungeons & Dragons: Curse of Strahd Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

  • Lots of full colour art (as we have come to expect of this edition) now with 3D
  • Lots of good descriptions of the dark location of Barovia
  • Strahd is back and he's still deadly
  • It's a dark adventure with great atmosphere

Could Go Either Way:
  • It's a retelling of Ravenloft with a bit more (if you already have your own conversion of I6, it may be hard to persuade you)
  • Not much new stuff in terms of mechanics (though there are some new monsters)
  • Adventure is open ended and requires serious Dungeon Master preparation (for those who like the control, it's a massive pro)
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.
Curse of Strahd cover
The cover of Curse of Strahd.


The Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition adventure Curse of Strahd was released on March 15th, 2016. I'm a bit late with my review, but I figure it's better late than never. Truthfully, I was looking forward to this adventure. I was happy to seeing that Strahd was back in this edition of D&D and wanted to see what the adventure was like, given its 256 page length compared to I6: Ravenloft's 39 pages.

Overall, I liked the adventure, though I didn't get a change to run through it as thoroughly as my previous reviews. I have, however, run a conversion of I6 and a couple of parts of this adventure. Curse of Strahd has great atmosphere and is one of those adventures that gives a lot to work with, inspires, and has those special memorable moments. It is heavily based on I6, particularly castle Ravenloft itself, but it is significantly bigger than I6 and leaves what worked. I feel it's a bit too early to say for sure, but so far it has left a good impression on me and may be my favourite adventure yet (I have a bit of a soft spot for Ravenloft) despite the adventures released so far being solid. 

The Adventure

New Player Options

There is not much here. There is one new background and some new magic items. I personally like this as it prevents bloat. There are also some new trinkets, which are always appreciated. Having tables of random items is a big blessing to a Dungeon Master and I tend to reuse them.

New Monsters

There are a few monsters provided for this adventure, as we've come to expect. They are well fitted to the adventure and there aren't too many. This adventure, even at the level of monsters, tries its best to be creepy just like the module that inspired it. Quite a few of them are specific NPCs and a lot of material is given for playing them.

What You Need to Play

The Monster Manual, Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide are referenced at the start of the adventure. With the SRD, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master's Guide I don't think you'll be missing anything except player options (I find this kind of thing can be easily house ruled). You can also get by mostly with the SRD, basic rules, Princes of the Apocalypse supplement and the adventure but molds (hazards in the Dungeon Master's Guide) will need to be house ruled. There might be a couple of other things that I didn't notice but I think that most of the adventure will run fine.

The Adventure Itself

Curse of Strahd is an adventure that takes players from levels 1 to level 10. The introduction adventure Death House does a good job of quickly leveling players up to 3rd level, which as usual is where the adventure really gets going. Out of all of the officially published adventures so far, Death House is my favourite introduction adventure (I reviewed it here). However, it seems like they can level just fine if they don't do the adventure and instead poke around the country side and town. You may want to try to chase the characters into town by using wolves or something (even if they don't run, it'll be good experience points). If they are smart, they'll be able to find enemies they can handle and run if they bite off too much. There is one other thing involving Death House which I list under “Notes” that gave me a bit of pause.

The adventure is very open ended and free form. The characters are free to wander the area as they see fit in pursuit of their goal (though, due to level, some places may not be feasible). As a result, it provides for many roleplay opportunities and a lot of choice for the players. There is a heavy focus on characters within the world. Strahd, as expected, gets a lot of pages devoted to him. The entire adventure helps to build him up. Other characters also get fleshed out and help make the adventure an entertaining read. There is combat but it doesn't feel as much of a dungeon delve as some of the previous adventures.

The Dungeon Master plays an incredibly large role in this adventure and so do the players. Making the villains menacing and smart is essential to the success of this adventure. There is also a large emphasis on horror and suspense with many suggestions for doing so. There are also many situations and locations that are creepy as written and with a Dungeon Master can become even more so. One of the themes here is Gothic horror and it does a good job of it.

The combat encounters and environments work well together. The locations and environments are well described and help build that Gothic horror element up for this adventure. They are also quite diverse and feel so thanks to all of the emphasis on roleplay and creepiness. The adventure also has the feeling of an uphill battle until the end. In general, it is deadly and all of this fits the theme very well.

There are a few pages of handouts at the end of the book. I like being able to show handouts like this and it really adds something to see letters from the characters with different writing styles. They also provide a black and white PDF of them so that you can cut them out and use them when needed (see "Free Stuff" below). I hope they do similar things for later adventures. 

As usual, I'll try to talk about the plot only in broad strokes. Reading this adventure, it was very nostalgic for me and the plot is major reason for that. It is very character and theme driven, and fits beautifully in the world created. It's very hard to separate the characters and location from the plot. It's also very memorable. It's hard to find someone who has played through Ravenloft and doesn't remember Strahd. This adventure was a great tribute that old adventure.

The adventure leaves many things intact from the modules that inspired it, including room descriptions. The large use of the previous material is something I liked to see instead of change for change's sake, but it also makes it harder to argue to buy this adventure if you already converted the old. It is nicely put together and contains characters that did not feature in the original module but did appear in other Ravenloft material in 2nd and 3rd edition D&D. It also has some thing that I think are new (I don't seem to recall them from earlier Ravenloft material). You can still make an argument for the adventure due to its production values, changes (just to see what was changed if you are an expert on the setting), and bringing in of new material, but it will be a harder argument to make when you can house rule it yourself and may prefer your version anyway. 

If you are a new Dungeon Master, my suggestion for you is a bit mixed. If you are prepared to put the time in, this adventure will run beautifully. You need to have a feel for the location and the characters. You'll need to understand the characters and get into their skin to really give it justice. As a new Dungeon Master, this will take longer and be tougher. However, there is so much to work with that I feel the results will be very memorable and enjoyable. Remember to take the advice present in the boom and try to build up the creepiness as well as the characters. To make the adventure amazing, those need to be well developed. The adventure itself puts a lot of choice in the hands of the player. Dealing with this may have a bit of a learning curve but it can be done by new Dungeon Masters, especially if you have a good feel for the material and have references on hand.

Miniatures from Castle Ravenloft Board Game

If you have or wanted to get the Castle Ravenloft board game, the miniatures would work fairly nicely for this adventure. The zombie miniatures in particular are very versatile since they can be used for zombies, wights, and even vampire spawn in a pinch and still look relatively close. The main problem with using miniatures from the board game is that there aren't enough. Many encounters have more than 3 zombies so substitutions will be needed. If you prefer to use a mixture of tokens and miniatures, there is still a reason to get the board game and use the pieces along with the tokens you have. If you want only want to use miniatures, though you get a lot of miniatures for the price, there won't be enough to run the adventure without a second board game (I'd look at the other adventure system board games and see what can be used) or a Dungeon Command set. Due to this cost, I can't recommend it just for this one adventure. You'd need to either really want to have miniatures for future games (the board games aren't cheap though, when on sale, they are around the cost of a book in this edition) or like the board game itself for me to recommend it to you (I personally like the board game though I've added my own rules over time). I'd say probably about half of the miniatures wouldn't be used over the course of the adventure, but they are all good and can easily find use over a campaign or multiple campaigns (wraiths/ghosts, kobolds, Dracolich, etc.).

The Art and Book Build Quality

The art through the book is what we've come to expect. It's good and there is a lot of it. As usual, I love the environment art. There are also some very nice pictures featuring Strahd, including the cover. I've included one of my favourites from the adventure below. A lot of the other pictures are more stylized but there are a number of realistic style pictures and the stylized pictures aren't too stylized for my taste. To see what I mean, consult the maps in the free package on the Wizards of the Coast website. The 3D maps that Ravenloft was known for are in this book and still look great. There is something special about that 3D style that I really like.
Gates of Barovia
The illustration of the gates of Barovia. It looks even better in the book. 

The condition of the book was much better than my Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. The only slight problem is that the pages are a little wavy but that has always improved with a little time for me so far. The binding is great and none of the pages were stuck together.

This time, there is a tear away poster map of Castle Ravenloft and the villages. I found this to be very helpful, particularly for Castle Ravenloft. I've run the adventure before but I still find difficulty keeping the map straight without it in front of me (the way staircases go, passages connect and magic features are in the castle makes it easy to get disoriented). The maps here are mostly taken from the book itself (except one that you can do without, all noted in the Table of Contents) but having them in one place is very handy and means a lot less page flipping back and forth.


For the suggested retail price of this product, you can check here. The cost is the same we are used to for adventures of this size at $50 in the States and $64 in Canada. However, as usual, most places have the book at a lower price. Doing a quick search, it is possible to find this book at around $32 ($48 at Chapters was the lowest I could find in Canada since it looks like the exchange rate hit hard).

What I felt was Missing

A PDF of the adventure would be nice (like always I mention this). Having the supplement containing all of the creatures to run the adventure would also be nice. It was much nicer from a buyer perspective when all that was needed was the adventure. The rest would be provided by the supplement online and the basic rules (now we have the SRD but it doesn't cover everything).

If you plan to run the combat on a grid, you will have to figure it out yourself. There are no grids provided with the adventure or in the online materials (as of this piece being published). You can find the artist and buy the maps there, but some (Ravenloft) will be missing. You will still need to resize them too. I'd suggest having some kind of printable tiles that you can then lay out and even tape together for some big important rooms.

Free Stuff

Wizards of the Coast were nice enough to provide some material for free through their website as usual. There is the typical supplement for the new player options. I'm particularly happy to see this because there was nothing for Rage of Demons. They also supplied the handouts section in PDF form (I love this since I can print them, cut them out, and hand as needed) but they are in black and white instead of colour. Some maps are also provided in a black and white as well. They do not have any of the letters corresponding to locations so they are meant for players. There are no maps of Ravenloft itself (for player maps, I think this is fine since it leaves it being mysterious). Even this, however, is helpful.

If you want to see what the writing is like without buying the adventure, either taking part in the Adventurers League events or running the Death House free adventure (I reviewed it here) will give you an idea of what to expect. Running Death House is very enjoyable and requires no cost (if you don't have dice, there are dice rollers online).

They have stopped having a supplement containing the creatures features in the adventure since Princes of the Apocalypse (something I really miss since it was super convenient for searching). This does mean that buying the monster manual is recommended in the book. However, the SRD has been released for free and covers most of the creatures in the adventure. The ones that I noticed isn't covered are the blights. You'll need to look in the Princes of the Apocalypse supplement to find Revenants. There is also mention made to traps contained in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but the SRD seems to work fine except for desecrated ground (this would need to be house rules or found in the Dungeon Master's Guide). If you really don't want to buy the core books but want to run this adventure, you can get by with a little house ruling, the SRD and previous supplements. It's easier with the core books and generally, they are solid.


Overall, this may be my favourite adventure yet published in this edition. Ravenloft is back with special care given to show it in its old glory. Though it includes much of what was included in I6 (with some changes), quite a bit was added (comparing the 39 page length of I6 to the 256 length of Curse of Strahd gives you an idea of how much was added). If you are already an expert on Ravenloft thanks to the previous edition material, it will be harder to find a reason for you to try this adventure since you can convert and house rule something similar. You may be curious enough to see what they changed to get it anyway. The adventure is deadly and open ended (it'll require some serious Dungeon Master prep to run smoothly and may require some quick improvisation based on character actions) but addresses its themes very well and provides inspiration for the Dungeon Master. It also has many great opportunities for roleplaying and many beautifully creepy sequences. If you aren't scared away by the price tag or the open endedness and love your undead adventures with a touch of creepy, I think you'll like this. It is, however, heavily dependent on the Dungeon Master due to the emphasis on roleplay and creepiness. All in all, I'd say this is a welcome tribute to Ravenloft.

Other Stuff
  • Reading over this book, I only remember 2 typos and they were very minor
  • This adventure is deadly
  • The adventure, though very open ended, provides a lot of inspiration making it a not bad but difficult choice for new Dungeon Masters
  • Revenants are in the Princes of the Apocalypse supplement that you can get from
  • Death House is described as an optional mini-adventure, but the map still lists it as a location. I assume that what they meant is that the house is still there and can be explored but running it as a quest with milestones, the fog part and the luring part is optional. If done that way, the players choose to do it or not and can escape. Or can the Dungeon Master choose to exclude it if the party is high enough level and treat it the same way as the rest (roll on the table)? I don't like this second option since it takes away one of the most interesting features of the town (also, treasure). 
  • In some cases, those who didn't notice are surprised. In others, if anyone in the party notices, no one is surprised. It seems that the Dungeon Master is free to decide surprise as they want and I'd recommend doing so instead interpreting the stealth rules to the letter. 

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Dungeon Master: Fragmented State

Political intrigue is one of those things that make for a great session or a great campaign. However, there are many different ways to create such a session or campaign and different ways to create the setting. However, I hope to narrow down and focus on games set in places with heavily fragmented states. It could be that a bigger power just hasn't come about yet or that it has fragmented before. Regardless, the result is many small regions interacting with each other.

Reason Why

Having smaller and less powerful kingdoms allows for some spectacular double crosses and also forces dependency. One kingdom by itself can't beat everyone and so, as a result, relations between allies and enemies (potential future allies) are greatly important. It also provides for many different avenues for the players. They could take high ranking roles in a failing kingdom and get absorbed into a bigger one. Doing so loses their original kingdom but could gain them high positions in the bigger kingdom. In this way, even bad situations present opportunities for creative and manipulative players. It also allows for a vastly different set of cultures to be presented in each kingdom as well as changing when large migrations or land gains take place.

Joining Regions Isn't Easy

In these kinds of situation, even in the event of being able to join multiple kingdoms into one, the unity can be shaky at best. As a result, it allows for a wide range of events and activities for the players such as kingdoms growing, fragmenting, alliances changing, takeovers by marriage, and many others. There are also players who like the idea of being able to unite the world or at least playing a part in that goal. For them, this situation is exactly what they'd want. These kinds of situations are not very stable either. Since alliances can shift, uncertainty plays a big role and stability is absent. This is different than if the campaign or session took place in a stable and united land (though it could yield very entertaining and vastly different sessions).


These kinds of situations also allow for many incentives to be given to the players. Since massive events can take place quite easily between kingdoms, gaining land, fame, and resources can act as a large draw to players. A kingdom that is doing badly could decide to give up a good chunk of land to the players if they help solve their problems as opposed to a prosperous one. At the same time, the stability of the prosperous kingdom provides its own incentive.

Real Life Inspiration

In these kinds of cases I like to be inspired by real historical events, time periods or situations. Typically I like to look at Eastern European history. There were many small, almost city state level powers that eventually became far larger countries (Novgorod Republic, Vladimir-Suzdal, Tver, Grand Principality of Moscow, etc.). However, at the time most other areas also had many small competing kingdoms. For that reason around 1000-1300 AD is one of my favourite time periods to draw inspiration from.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Dungeon Master: Strange and Memorable Locations

Sooner or later, I find myself wanting to include something strange to catch my players off guard. Typically, that's what players remember about a session: the new, the strange and the unexpected. There are some areas and strategies I find that make it a bit easier and some ideas that are important in such situations. It is these areas I wish to cover today.

Not Too Much

If something is meant to be strange, I find it works best if it's used 3 times or less in a campaign. The thing that makes the situation novel is that it is that it is new and unexpected. Using something strange and alien throughout a campaign can be a good thing and give the campaign itself a feeling of uniqueness. However, there are many times when I want something for one session and that is it. The lack of use makes that particular moment special instead of the campaign.

Breaking the Rules

The easiest and most straight forward way to create something strange and new is to play around with the rules the players are used to. They are used to walking? Maybe they float when they enter the room. They are used to seeing? Maybe the entire room is magically dark so that no light can be used. As a result, your players are forced to find their enemies through sound alone. Making things worse, there are obstacles that they can't see but you, the Dungeon Master, can.

Imagery and Description

Sometimes the scene and sights can contribute to how memorable something is. If there was only one NPC your players ever met with a broken nose, chances are that they'll remember that guy. For locations it's the same. This is doubly true if the sight is super odd. A strange painting is a good example. If all of the paintings are normal landscapes and there is one in a far corner that is different shades of darkness with mist and glowing eyes, the way it sticks out in the scene will help cement it in their minds. The opposite can be true as well. If something is too perfect or too imperfect, it may also catch the attention of your players and make it more memorable. In this case, it should be an exception in the general campaign. The same idea can extend to other senses, but I found that visual description are best remembers, especially when your players are good at picturing things in their mind.


Of course, locations will also have thing and people in them. If there is a particularly memorable character, it won't matter that the inn looks like almost every other with some slight details changed. I spent time giving ways to make locations no longer mundane but instead out of the ordinary. If every location is like that, the wonder is lost. Sometimes it's the unique inhabitants that make an otherwise mundane place memorable.


Having gone through everything else, sometimes places are strange and memorable because of what happened in them. If they are in a mundane place but are told about how a crazy wizard tried to summon an undead army on that spot but ended up blowing himself to pieces, your players might remember it just because of the story. Even more memorable is if the players take part in the event. When I said strange in the title, it isn't only about otherworldly things. It can also be things they don't often see. Maybe the players spent most of their time in bustling towns and cities and now, they see mostly abandoned and burned houses in a big city. As they visit it again and again, it gets better and closer to its former glory but damage still remains on the walls as reconstruction is prioritized to more important places.