Monday, 24 December 2018

D&D Core Rules Gift Set Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • These are the solid core books of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition all in one package
  • The new covers look fantastic in my opinion. I’m a big fan of the in-game book style of 3rd edition, and the styled covers of these make it look like a book without it’s dust cover.
  • It’s the complete core rules and Dungeon Master’s Screen. Roughly 1000 pages of D&D 5e rules goodness.

Could Go Either Way:
  • You don’t really need all 3 books to start playing. You can run and have fun with a set of dice (or an online dice roller), the basic rules, and the SRD. However, the extras, especially traps, bonus rules, and monsters are a welcome addition for Dungeon Masters and players like having more options. This isn't the kind of thing to get when you want to get your feet wet, it's the kind of thing you get when you want to go all in.
Cons:
  • The books have been around for a while now. That means you can pick up used or discounted copies for cheap. That said, if you can find the set for cheap it’s a good combo, but it’ll be easier to find the older books. I was able to find the set for decent prices, but having to do the research and number crunching is not a plus.
The contents of the gift set. Nice looking covers if you ask me. They even showed up well on my camera.


Introduction

It’s the holidays. Time for family, friends, and rolling saving throws. I am lucky enough to play D&D during the holidays at least once, though the big one for my group was always Halloween (rather thematic I think). However, Wizards of the Coast has recently released a core gift set and I'll be looking at it today. It features the core rules, the previously release Dungeon Master Screen, and a box to keep it all together.

The Books Themselves

I’ve reviewed all of the books in this set except the Player’s Handbook. Click on the following links if you want my complete thoughts on the Monster Manual or Dungeon Master’s Guide. The short version is that I really liked the Monster Manual and still do. My second choice was the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and third was the Player’s Handbook. It's not that I didn't like the Player's Handbook, but it isn't essential as the basic rules provided enough to play with their 4 basic classes and one archetype each. That said, the extra choices present in the handbook are extremely useful for players to help distinguish their characters. It's also extremely helpful for new players to read. 

The creature section of the Player’s Handbook is less useful today than when it was released, because you’ll find the same content in the Monster Manual. And the Monster Manual has a lot of content that is now publicly available in the SRD and the basic rules. However the SRD is art free, only contains stat blocks, and doesn't include everything, but it does include a lot of monsters and one subclass of every class. That makes it extremely useful for the experienced Dungeon Master, but those new to the game will benefit from the lore and fluff provided in the full books. They are good books. Again, for more information check out my full reviews.

Dungeon Master’s Screen

I never got the screen on release. I only heard people say it had a lot of wasted space. Well, now I do. This screen is alright, but I think many experienced Dungeon Master’s either make their own, or add their own notes using sticky notes or clips. I think the content of the screen is a good start, but I’d add my own reference sheets to make everything seamless. In particular I would have liked to see the fatigue and weather rules included. The visuals are nice and help make it easier to skim, but I really would’ve liked to have seen more on it. Now is it worth 20 dollars? I mean, that could be spent on miniatures or something. That’s a harder question. I could see it being very helpful for a new player, but an experienced player could make their own quite easily and have it exactly as they like. Now that I think about it, they probably already have. Even worse, if you mostly play online using Roll20 or something, you can just have your reference sheets on your desk with no fear that your players will read it. That said, I think I will end up using it for my in person games now that I have one. I’m also sure you can find it for less. I can see it being an extremely useful boon to a new Dungeon Master. It's worth noting that the limited edition version also has new artwork done in the same style as the book covers.

Covers

The normal covers are exactly what you expect to get. We've seen them before. The special edition covers, which are the ones I received, are new and I personally really like that style. They even changed the cover image for the Dungeon Master's screen. My favourite cover from this edition is still Rise of Tiamat. The art style just works for me on every level, and I’d like to see more. In the normal core books, my favourite is the Monster Manual but I think I might prefer the black background and stylized art of the special edition covers. The problem is that whenever I found the limited edition gift sets online, they cost more. I guess that’s the limited edition part coming through.

Price

The MSRP for the set is the same as the MSRP of the individual components put together or $169.95 USD. However, the books have already been around for a while. The Dungeon Master’s Guide, the last released of the core books, came out 4 years ago. This means you can easily find it online either used, or at a discounted price from the MSRP. The good news is that I was also able to find the gift set at reduced prices as well. This means you’ll either be paying the same or more for the gift set than buying the books separately yourself. Or, worst case, you’ll find it harder to buy the gift set. The end result is that you need to do some math to determine if buying the set is the best deal, instead of a no-brainer. Personally I think this was a missed opportunity.


Conclusion

This is a collection of the prove D&D 5th edition core rule books. The Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide are included along with a screen. There is also a limited hobby store exclusive version featuring new cover art, which I think is fantastic. If you know someone who loves D&D, it would absolutely make a great gift. Where it gets complicated is that it’s a pricey item at a $169.95 USD, which the same price as buying everything individually. To make matters more complicated, the individual parts have been already released so it could be more expensive to buy the set. You’d need to do research to check prices when you buy, as I was able to find deals where the non-limited edition gift set cost the same as the reduced price individual components. Even at reduced prices, the gift set is still expensive making the D&D 5e starter set (MSRP 19.99 USD) the low price alternative that’s a much better fit for people who you aren't sure will enjoy D&D. It even comes with dice, which the gift set doesn't. However, for those who you know have been dying to get the new core rules it can’t be beat when found at the right price.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Black Scroll Games: Minotaur Miniature

I think it’s no surprise at this point that I like 3D printing and I generally like the work Black Scroll Games does. They generally do good sculpts that don’t require supports, and great looking 3D styled maps. Recently they released a Minotaur miniature, and I hope to give my thoughts on it.

Be afraid. Absolutely adore the axe and how it's also used as a support.

Print Settings

I printed the model at 50 microns, 60 degree Celsius print bed and 195 degree Celsius extruder. I’m sure it would look great at 100 as well, but I typically print miniatures at 50. Some printers are different than others but the temperature settings are the standard ones I use for almost everything. You may need to play around with your printer a bit, but it's probably a good starting point.

Sculpt

The sculpt looks great when placed on the table. The weapon details, the horns, the texture on the back, it's a great miniature. Black Scroll Games did a great job with this one. The texture of the base is great too. I mentioned it before, but I’ve always appreciated how they design their sculpts to incorporate supports so they blend into the design. However, it had a few artifacts, which I didn’t see on their werewolf model. These artifacts were on the underside legs of the model and hard to see, especially when placed on the table. It could be my printer and print settings, since it is printed on pretty cheap printer, but be aware regardless. 

Uses

Minotaurs are a classic baddie to throw at low level parties. A group of low level players fighting against a massive beast that leaves characters bleeding out in one hit is a frightening thing to behold. You could also throw parties of Minotaurs at players, but I think such setups are less common. There are exceptions of course. I've played in a campaign where hunting groups of minotaurs were not uncommon as elite units of a marauding army. However, I think this miniatures will most likely be used in a climatic final fight, whether at the end of an arc or a campaign. This makes the miniature not as reusable as a set of skeletons, which are extremely common, but it looks good enough to be worthy of ending a session or campaign. 

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Dungeon Master: Breather Sessions

A session often has life or death decisions, and deadly combat. The dreaded total party kill is a legendary part of tabletop role-playing, and the subject of many a post game story. However, not every session or arc needs to be live-or-die, and not every victory is survival. Often after an intense session the players have expanded resources, and may have lingering fears from certain failures they encountered. One solution to this problem, and often a fun thing in general, is to have breather sessions. And it is this topic that I will be covering today.

What Is a Breather Session?

The idea behind this kind of session is that it diverges from the regular flow and does something different. Instead of fighting the forces of the undead, maybe the party gets to attend a victory party as guests of honour for their efforts in the battle. And as they are there an assassination plot is sprung. The idea is that the normal stakes are gone, and the chances of everyone dying are low. However, consequences are still present. Perhaps one of their supporters gets assassinated, making the next section harder. Perhaps someone gets killed in the crossfire. Or perhaps their success gets them even more support. Real results should still occur, and I personally find it's best if they tie back to the main focus. However the idea is that we are taking a small break or detour.

Why Change?

The sequences and sessions that make up a campaign can be very different. There are many instruments, rules, and creatures that we as Dungeon Masters can use to make interesting session and provide interesting situations for your players to influence. However, after really intense twists and amazing triumphs, it can be a good change of pace to ramp down. Take a small breather, and do something in a smaller scope. For the players, it gives them fun where they don't have to worry about their characters dying as much, while still influencing the campaign and having fun. It’s also a good opportunity to shake things up. A little levity now and then can go a long way in a serious horror inspired campaign.

All Campaigns?

I don't remember a big campaign where such a thing didn't come up in some way. Even if you don't consciously think about it, there will be shifts from intense sessions where massive, earth shattering things happen to calmer build up for the next. What makes breather sessions different is that instead of building to the next thing, we might go somewhere else for the session and do something a bit more relaxing. Instead of investigating part 2, we may go to our victory party where complications occur. Of course, there will be some effect on the main quest. Whether it's through gaining resources, or keeping important characters alive, it still feeds back.

Generally, if the campaign is very long I find such a thing to be incredibly useful. It's not always needed, but it's a very useful tool to keep in your bag of tricks. It's also a useful tool if you have players who want to keep playing when someone can't make it. However, for smaller campaigns such a thing is unneeded and disrupts flow. You want that constant buildup in a three-shot, or possibly even in a 9 session mini-campaign. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • Lots of full colour art as we've come to expect.
  • A different feel from the adventures that came before it.
  • The search for the half million dragon treasure is a very cool setup and is easy to run with.
  • The character of Waterdeep comes up in the adventure, with festivals and locations described. It's really like a mini-guide to Waterdeep, and the Enchiridion section written in world by Volo really helps add to the feel as well as give players a good rundown of what their players might know.
  • An assortment of villains to choose from for your run, and even the season affecting play. Don't like one of the villains? No problem! You got other choices.

Could Go Either Way:
  • Many of the maps are in a black and white style. If you liked the full colour maps in other books, you may be disappointed. If you prefer a more classic style, you'll love this.
  • The adventure takes place in Waterdeep, where the rule of law is strong and things far more powerful than level 5 lurk. This means that players can easily bite off more than they can chew by upsetting the wrong person, or have the full force of the law come down on them. For those players who like intrigue and navigating sticky situations this will probably go over well, but those that like more freedom may find it constricting. If you like adventures set in an urban environment, this is par for the course.
  • The book goes from levels 1-5, and the next book (Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage) covers levels 5-20. If you like low level play like I do, this will be exactly what you wanted. Otherwise, you may prefer an adventure that ends with a more powerful party.
  • For each choice of villain there is a different flow to part of the adventure. This is provided in flow chart form, and each of these events has a different version depending on the choice of villain. This allows for great variation and would help make a second playthrough more interesting. However, most groups don't touch the same adventure twice. The added complexity makes it harder to understand and run. I'd recommend 2 read throughs at least for this section: 1 to figure out which villain you want to run, and one so you don't get confused between the different setups.
  • Like the flow, the lairs of all 4 villains are provided here. Since you'll be picking one of the four, there is a good chance many others won't be used. They may come up if your players decide to steal from one lair to finance their fight against another villain, or have a side conflict with them. Like the other option, this allows greater variation. It also helps to build up Waterdeep and makes it easier to use the other villains in adventures of your own design, or to improvise. What if your players also decide to pick a fight with Xanathar? Well, we got maps for that. However, it does add the potential for more dead pages in your playthrough.
  • The adventure is around 224 pages long, including many 2 page spread illustrations, the Volo's Waterdeep Enchiridion, and the monsters section. This is around what we've become used to for adventures in this edition, but these additions mean that the meat of the adventure is not as much as the page count would suggest. It doesn't feel like a steal, but doesn't feel like getting robbed either, especially since previous adventures are roughly the same length. I would've liked to see more value making it closer to a steal. The value equation changes if you can get the book cheaper than the suggested retail price, which isn't very hard if you look.
Cons:
  • A few of the monsters in the book are from previous books and eat into the page count if you already have them. A necessary evil since needing every book would be unreasonable, but be aware.
  • You'll need the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide to run the adventure (no more supplement PDFs)*
  • No PDF version*
  • No included grids*


* Denotes nitpicking.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Cover
The cover of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.

Introduction

Half a million gold coins are hidden somewhere in Waterdeep. That's the premise for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, a new adventure for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons that takes characters from levels 1 to 5. At the time of writing my players have played through levels 1 and 2, and just leveled up to 3. My opinion is that it's a solid adventure with an interesting touch not present in other adventures in this edition: picking the villain. However, that touch comes with a caveat. I think this is one of those adventures where the “could go either way” will determine if it's an adventure you'll enjoy or not. Without further a due, let's jump into the specifics. I mean, I'm already this late.

The Adventure

New Player Options

There's really nothing here besides loot. Hey, I like loot and don't like broken player options, but be aware going into this one. It's really about the adventure.

New Monsters

There's about 18 pages dedicated to monsters and NPCs. This sounds pretty good on the surface, but it's not quite the whole story. If you have Volo's Guide To Monsters, you'll already have some of the creatures listed here such as the “wizard's apprentice”. Many others are NPCs. Of course they're necessary, but they aren't as reusable as brand new creatures. This is further compounded by the amount of text describing the NPCs in the adventure. This is great for those running the adventure, but again isn't reusable. The nimblewright makes an appearance, and I love these things even though they aren't undead. Otherwise, we have the “Walking Statues of Waterdeep”. It also makes sense that an adventure focused more on intrigue and finding a hidden treasure in an urban area wouldn't have many unique monsters. Just don't expect a mini monster manual out of this one.

What You Need to Play

This is another one of those adventures where you'll need the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Gude. I think you can get by without the Player's Handbook and by using the SRD/basic rules, but the other two would require more creativity. It would also be hard unless you know what the adventure refers to. I think you could cobble together most of the creatures from the SRD, preview pages from when the Monster Manual was released, and the PDFs from adventures when they'd provide the monsters needed on the website. However, I cannot recommend such an exercise and most of the people I've run into playing D&D 5e have the core books at the very least.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Tower Picture
One of my favourite images from this one. I always had a soft spot for the landscape shots.

The Adventure Itself

A half million gold coin stash is a great hook for an adventure. Whether you are the most evil character or most good that kind of money just lying for the taking is a great motivator. And as a great motivator, it's a great way to attract interesting villains. Even if you don't use the book, it's a good enough idea to think about.

One of the interesting aspects of the adventure is that the Dungeon Master can pick their villains. Prefer a villain trying to buy entry into the Lord's Alliance? Great. Evil family trying to get out of an infernal contract? It's an option. I really like adventures that allow for differences and can even be replayed later. Players often don't replay adventures, but it's more likely that a Dungeon Master will run one twice. Having something that can be changed goes a long way in keeping me interested in those cases. However, the flow is quite a bit more complicated than Ravenloft and it's fortune telling. The entire flow of chapter 4 of 5 changes depending on what villain you choose. It's really 4 version of each encounter in a different order, and as such I think it requires at least 2 reads. One to figure out which one you like, and a second to stop you from mixing them up. Oh, and there are also some faction specific mini missions that are included depending on your players too, and they often interact with big NPCs in Waterdeep.

The adventure takes players from levels 1-5, and as such it has a bit of a different feel from those adventures that have a larger level range. It helps make Waterdeep, and the situations feel dangerous. I believe I said it before, but my personal preference is for lower level play. It feels dangerous, and there's plenty of room for players to grow as well as bite off more than they can chew.

However, it brings some deadliness with that level range. For example, your players can run across a intellect devourer and mind flayer at level 1. Now, the mind flayer is trying to run away, but it's still not the easiest of fights for the party to come out unscathed. Anyone who knows of Waterdeep or read Xanathar's Guide to Everything also knows of Xanathar. Having a beholder and its minions running around in a level 1-5 campaign leaves a lot of room for things to go horribly for a party, and saying that the odds of winning against a beholder at level 5 is low is an understatement. New players may not be as cautious with these things and expect things to be better balanced for them.

It's not just creatures that they have to deal with though, it's also Waterdeep. Their is a massive map and a lot of pages devoted to building the city, it's areas, and even giving the players an inn within it. I absolutely love this element of the adventure. Having them own and manage an inn gives them some personal investment and it does feature in some sequences. It's also a godsend for improvisation if your players are into it. I'd love to see more stuff like this in the future, perhaps involving keeps and underground lairs. Waterdeep has laws, and has law enforcement. Interacting and dealing with this complicating factor is part of the adventure and often part of adventuring in cities in general. However, I've seen quite a few players in my time who didn't like this kind of adventure because they found it restrictive. Sure, they could murder someone to try to get what they want, but they also know there will be serious consequences to punish them for it. Your players should understand that getting arrested for breaking the law is a real possibility. There is a nice page detailing some basic legal stuff. I like this for two reasons. It gives players an understanding of the laws they are going to be interacting with, and it also makes it clear from the beginning that this is one of those adventures where law enforcement exists and does their job. This kind of play is handled best when players know what they are getting into.


Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Map
The style of map I mentioned. Not bad, but different and has less colour.


The Art and Book Build Quality

I am happy to say that my copy was flawless build quality wise. There were no quality issues, and the binding was great. It feels good, and looks good. I would still recommend my usual checks when picking out a book though just in case. Flip through the book quickly to look for stuck pages (could be improperly cut or images damaged), and check the binding.
 
The art is what we've come to expect from this edition, keeping a similar style and quantity. The quantity of art has been a consistent high of this edition. That said, the cover isn't my favourite in this edition. Rise of Tiamat still holds that slot for me. I would have liked to see more realistically styled art since it is my preference. Some landscape shots like that would've gone over very well with me. They have some landscape shots that I really liked, but I want more. Especially so when we are talking about a grand city. I do have to note that there are a lot more black and white styled maps in this book. They are good, and if you prefer that style you'll love it. However, if you are used to the coloured style we've seen more commonly it may be a low point for you.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Foldout
One of the two page spreads in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. I hope to see more like this in the future.

Price

It's the usual price we've come to expect. Suggested $49.95 USD or $64.95 CAD, but you can keep your eyes out for a deal.

What I felt was Missing

I think this is one of the adventures that would greatly benefit from a printable version of the Dungeon Master map and player maps of Waterdeep. I want a version I can keep on my side and mark up while my players use the massive foldup map. I also think it wouldn't have hurt to have a code to redeem a digital copy of Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion. Some people prefer to read on a screen and add notes in a pdf and the option would be a good bonus that wouldn't cost Wizards of the Coast much to implement. Then again, they are donating the money to Extra Life.

Free Stuff

Nothing to see here. It's too bad, since I think they could've included a few things free electronically on their website such as the player and Dungeon Master maps I mentioned earlier.

Summary

This is one of those adventures that the “could go either way” elements will be the deciding factor. None of it is outright bad in my opinion, but I can see how the threat of law enforcement can make it more restrictive than a player might want, for example. A small village in the middle of nowhere might be more flexible and even allow the party to convince the circle of elders to get away with something. Like most adventures in this edition, it is one where planning time will be needed for the Dungeon Master to get their hand on the pulse of the adventure. You won't be running this one out of the box. You need to read over it a couple of times at least. Like other adventures like Curse of Strahd, you will greatly benefit by knowing the layout and character of Waterdeep. A good part of the book is exploring and interacting with the city. You could run this with a first time group and Dungeon Master, but it will be harder than Mines of Phandelver. If you love the concept, it could really click and lead to amazing results. My group had a ton of fun running the first 2 levels, and I think many others will too. If you saw my “could go either way” section and thought it sounds awesome, you probably will enjoy it. If you didn't, it'll look less attractive.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Player: Creative Character Backstories

If you are coming into a tabletop role-playing game, coming up with a character is one of the first things you'll need to do. And an important part of that is coming up with a back story for your character. However, it isn't an easy thing to do and can become harder as time goes on and your well of ideas starts to dry out. I know I still occasionally struggle with it but I hope some of what I do helps. If anyone has their own input, I'd be happy to hear it too.

Same Character Problem

It can be hard to play a new character sometimes. If you've played one for a while, it can be hard to switch to a new one. There is also another situation that can come up. If you are the only member of the party who died and your fellow players care a lot about party balance, they might very well want you to play a similar character in combat. This isn't a problem if you can switch from one class to another (wizard to sorcerer) but is one if they want you to play the exact same class. After all, that may be why everyone went with their classes: it created the best party. I won't be talking about the solution here, but felt this problem was common enough that it should be mentioned. Plenty of groups aren't nearly as prescriptive in their approach to forming a group. 5 bards? Sure. Why not.

New Background

Even if you end up making a fairly similar character mechanically, your choice of background can have a large impact on your character themselves. When I say background, I mean the big overarching details before the start of the campaign. It could be their place of origin, their profession or even related to their family. Such big changes tend to cause ripples through other aspects of a character so I find making this kind of change helps me come up with characters that feel different. In a system that lets you pick a background and have it result in a different character mechanically, the usefulness of this kind of thing is amplified because it gives you mechanics as well. I'd also include race in these section. It often comes with ramifications for who the character is in the world. If elves stay to themselves, why is this one radically different?

Prototype

Even if you pick a different background for your character, they might effectively end up acting the exact same. The difference would just be their origin story. Some people I know tend to start off with a prototype of an existing character and change things to come up with their own. I occasionally use it too, though the background technique tends to work out pretty well for me. You can also lift elements from multiple characters into a brand new one. It can result in some characters that aren't too exciting because everyone has seen them before, but it can also result in non-typical characters as well. All it takes is using an obscure character as your inspiration.

One player I had wanted to make a spartan like character using heavy armour, spears and shields. Incidentally he had just seen 300 recently. People usually pick a weapon with a higher damage dice, but the player made it work through clever use of the thrown property and a backup weapon. However, he also wanted to have a character that would make sense in such a background and so they constantly fought against their desire for rigidity in the face of new circumstances.

Flaws vs Quirks

I tend to find that finding real, meaningful flaws for your character is an incredibly powerful tool. Since they tend to be meaningful and large, they tend to touch multiple parts of a character and force you to come up with a differences. However if you want a radically different character, I find it's important that they aren't quirks. Quirks can help make your character unique and memorable in a scene, but they often don't change the fundamental underlying character. Sometimes you don't want something radically different but different enough, and for that quirks can go a long way. I find that some of the best flaws involve thinking of the character themselves, and the problems they would face in such a world. Classic examples are naivety, prejudices, mistrust, greed, apathy, and discontent. The question once you have one becomes why? Why are they like this, or lacking that particular thing?

When you find one, though they can improve and get addressed over the course of the campaign, it is best that they don't all completely disappear. I've seen it before where 5 sessions in, almost all of the flaws evaporated completely. I've also seen where they became less severe, but the character had to agonize in not letting them best them. Having somewhere else to go or something else to address works wonders.

Dungeon Master

I like to give my players a heads up on what the world they will be playing in is like. Many of the Dungeon Masters I played with were the same. Players can even bounce ideas off the Dungeon Master once they know, and get some ideas to be better integrated into the world. It's collaborative story telling, and you shouldn't be afraid to talk about things with your Dungeon Master. Some elements can come up naturally later over the course of the campaign. Doing so makes the character far more tied to the campaign. It can also inspire people to come up with new characters after hearing about where it will take place. Naturally, this is greatly affected by how strong the setting is. That human factor can still often make it easier for people to get the ideas flowing.

As a Dungeon Master, don't be afraid to introduce some new mechanic things to make characters unique. It's can be tough to balance, but little things can go a long way. If your player wanted a character with divine origins, would it be that harmful for them to be able to teleport their weapon into their hand using a bonus action? Or set a minimum armour class if you planned to attack your fighter while they didn't have armour?

Other Players

People in your group don't need to come up with their stories on their own. They can also team up to make stories that cross each other's path again and again. The great thing about this kind of approach is that it gives you someone to interact with and as a result come up with things you otherwise wouldn't on your own. Put another way, it becomes more like improv. This works great for some people can be very intimidating for others. One of the most memorable parties I had in the past involved to players who decided to play as members of the same organization. They were two fighters and a cleric of war on a campaign. Another involved two players who made their character brother and sister halflings.

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.