Review: Shackles of Blood

Thomas-Morus-Nicolas-Gueudeville-Idée-d'une-republique-heureuse_MGG_0351.jpgMy Rage of Demons campaign moved on to DDEX3-02 Shackles of Blood. This adventure continues the theme of “The Deep Threat” in the Rage of Demons storyline. This is a more traditional adventure in which the characters investigate some missing halflings near Hillsfar and run into some complications from the local tyrant’s enforcers. If you run this for a group of friends, this adventure can provide a lot of opportunity to explore important social issues. (Of course, don’t take this approach if you run it for a public group, such as via Adventurers League!)

Spoilers follow, but the bottom line up front is that this adventure is worth the trouble.

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Review: Harried in Hillsfar

As a way of easing myself back into playing D&D “publicly” (i.e. not just for my kids or solo), I set up a couple of mini-campaigns on Roll20 to run according to Adventurers League rules. This way, I would have an easy time finding players and also an excuse for doing so in an episodic, open-table fashion.

DD_Out_of_the_Abyss_Rage_of_Demons_symbolThe first of these two campaigns follows the Rage of Demons storyline. Rather than run Out of the Abyss as I’d initially planned, I decided to run some of the Expeditions adventures from the Dungeon Masters Guild. Specifically, I first chose “Harried in Hillsfar” (DDEX3-01) because Wizards of the Coast had made it available for free via Dragon+.  Also, I’d wanted to check out that particular storyline as it had both the Underdark and demons, with a heavy dollop of madness mixed in.

That particular module consists of five scenarios or “mini adventures”. WotC seems to think each of those should run in about an hour each. In my experience, they take about an hour and a half to two hours each. The setup for the adventure overall focuses on the rantings of a madman. Somehow, the players realize he is actually prophesying, and they turn that into clues that lead to five separate scenarios. That felt really weak, but I ran with it anyway because, with a public group, we didn’t really have time for an in-depth “session zero” to get the group together. I would have liked a better introductory hook.

The scenarios themselves vary. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, the first two felt too much alike: go to a farm and discover a mystery, then halfway resolve it by trying to be heroes. (That first scenario nearly led to a TPK – some of the demonically-affected creatures can present a significant combat challenge!) The third scenario felt even more disconnected from the overall storyline. However, I really liked running the fourth and fifth, and the reactions of the players (especially to scenario four) indicated that they really felt immersed: creepy stuff was happening and they had to work to figure out how to resolve things.

Grabbing it and making it your own will allow you to deal with that rough setup, which is mostly just a problem in the way the AL set up this particular content. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend running this as an adventure. Think of these instead as five encounters (or maybe just the last two) that you can drop into your campaign to foreshadow some great evil stalking the world or just to set the tone with demons and undead and cultists.

Solo RPG Play using Scarlet Heroes

I finally spent some time playing Scarlet Heroes, the old-school D&D-alike from Sine Nomine Publishing and Kevin Crawford. Unusual for these sorts of games, Scarlet Heroes focuses on very small parties (one or two characters) and even provides support for solo play where the GM is also the player.

The system supports existing D&D material with one or two characters by modifying how dice are read. Briefly, NPCs hit points are replaced by their hit dice (so a 1 HD mook is taken out by 1 point of damage). Damage dice instead map a range of rolls to a damage result (so a roll of 2-5 on damage does 1 point of damage, a roll of 6-9 does 2 points of damage, etc.) And heroes get a “fray die”, which allows them to do damage every turn to NPCs at the same or lower HD as the hero’s level.

For solo play, the system provides lots of material for procedural generation. Scarlet Heroes presents three general types of adventures: Urban, Wilderness, and Dungeon. The last two are fairly traditional sandboxes, while the first tends to focus on intrigue and investigations:

These adventures are the catch-all heading for plots centering around urban intrigue, investigation, political machinations, and grim street justice. The “urban” area might be nothing bigger than a village, or even a remote rural villa, but the events that are going on revolve around people and their interactions rather than the exploration of unknown wilderness or the plumbing of ancient ruins. Run an urban adventure when you want your hero to deal with their fellow humans.

This first time I ran through an Urban adventure, which I tracked in a Google Doc. It developed into low-fantasy and (thus far) zero magic in a fake English society, rather than the default Red Tides campaign setting. While I used the procedural generation rules for “scenes” and “foes”, this time around I didn’t use the oracle that much. That would let me ask questions and get variations on “yes/no” answers (such as “yes, but…” with a complication). I didn’t completely follow the rules properly, mostly due to paying insufficient attention, but anyway it was fun.

This will also help my family game where I run some adventures for my kids just because of all the procedural generation to support the GM (even in traditional non-solo play). I am unsure of Sine Nomine’s stance on add-on material such as additional classes, but you could probably backport your favorites without too much trouble once you understand the main changes they’ve made to old-school D&D.

Revisiting Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Plate 8 of 22 for the Macklin Bible after Loutherbourg.Since posting about various retroclone games, I’ve re-examined my opinions a bit. Thus, I decided to revisit Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Something about the design kept calling me back. In part, the layout looks gorgeous, even in the free no-art version. Also, largely inspired by LotFP, I watched the 2009 movie Solomon Kane. I wanted to get a sense of that early-modern dark fantasy, even if it has more than a few plot holes. For an evening’s viewing with popcorn and whiskey, it entertained me quite well.

The simplification of some things like skills and the silver standard also appeals to me, even if I find six-sided dice a bit ho-hum. My only previous complaint about the game itself had to do with saving throws. It takes the standard approach found in the editions of D&D it emulates. Whereas I earlier stated a preference for the approach of 5e, matching saves to abilities, that has started to feel stale to me. That makes saving throws just another form of ability checks. But they don’t reflect, say, the innate resistance to magic of classic dwarves. I haven’t given the older approach a fair shake.

So what does LotFP do better than many other games?

  • Simplified encumbrance rules that take out most of the bookkeeping but retain the resource management.
  • “Maritime Adventures” get an entire chapter
  • “Property and Finance” for those who get into domains and strongholds
  • Magic remains somewhat unpredictable, especially when researching new spells or summoning monsters. Especially when summoning monsters. More on this below.
  • Skills exist, but with a straightforward “n out of 6” system. Only one class, the Specialist (previously known to many of us as “Thief”) gets to improve these skills as they increase in level.

However, I’d like to see some things improved. Hopefully the upcoming referee book includes guidance on monster creation. The philosophy of the game seems to imply fewer but weirder monsters, which makes sense for a number of play styles. But a few tips would go a long way.

Alternatives to the classic pseudo-Vancian system would work very well in this game. In particular, a vitality-based system (similar to what Microlite20 uses) would fit the “weird roleplaying” motif. Casting spells cost hit points, and only rest, not magic, can heal that “damage”. You could potentially reduce max HP until a full night’s rest for a similar effect.

I should not have written the game off so quickly. The next time I run a new game, I will likely give it a try.

Review: Secrets of the Old City from Immersive Ink

I’ve not yet had the opportunity to play an RPG that takes place in an urban environment. I’d really like to do that soon, however. To that end, I’ve picked up a few products to explore the ideas. This includes Vornheim, of course. But it already has a well-deserved reputation as perhaps the high water mark for RPG supplements of any kind, much less city-building, and I don’t need to spend a lot of time reviewing it here.

So this post is instead about Secrets of the Old City (found via OSR Today). It didn’t cost me anything, after all, and hopefully it could provide some inspiration. An earlier version of this dungeon won “Best of the Best” in the first One Page Dungeon competition in 2009.

Secrets of the Old City mapThe new version comes as two very short PDFs, one two pages long and one four pages. The cover has a map that lacks much in the way of organization. The keyed encounters, for example, appear scattered about the map randomly. I don’t recommend printing it, either, considering it’s mostly black and will kill your ink. The PDF does not include a player version such as what you might use in Roll20 or some other virtual table top.

In the encounter PDF, the map legend doesn’t match the map at all. It uses letters and symbols (like “*” or “?”) while the map has actual icons. The legend looks like a holdover from the 2009 version but did not get updated with the map. The urban dungeon itself includes a goblin invasion, a small and incompetent thieves’ guild, and several more significant monsters. Most of the encounters don’t have anything particularly new or interesting: an ogre has been cooking and eating children. The boots of the recently-eaten goblin does go in the right direction, providing a bit of dynamism. One encounter refers to “dungeon level 2”, but nothing else in the document does. I suppose the DM should use this as a hook for creating something else below the Old City.

With a little more effort, this could really shine as a starter urban sandbox. I hope the creators update the map for usability and the encounters for a bit of innovation. Now I’m really motivated to enter the contest this year.

On the 5e core book set

Dialogus creaturarumSo now we’ve had the D&D Fifth Edition core books for a bit. Many bloggers have written many words about their impressions and evaluations, sometimes in great detail. But as I look at the shelf to my right, one of the three stands out more than the others.

The Player’s Handbook covers the core mechanics of the game and does a lot of things well. But, by its nature, the vast majority of the book only applies to this one game. Appendix B, “Gods of the Multiverse”, has some cool material for campaign development. Appendix E, “Inspirational Reading”, does a great job of carrying on the legacy of the original Appendix N. (And if “E” alludes to “E. Gary Gygax”, that’s a nice touch.) I use this book the least, though.

I love the Monster Manual as a general fantasy bestiary and art book in addition to its utility for 5e. The stat blocks tend to run a little long for my taste and could probably have used a slightly more minimalist approach. As a DM, I love some of the actions and special abilities of some of the monsters. “The goblin attacks with its Scimitar” gets old very quickly, but “That zombie keeps going [due to Undead Fortitude]” does not. When I want to enjoy a glass of bourbon in my hand, pore over some fantastic monsters, and read a few words about their mythical backgrounds, this book provides plenty of material.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide has both fantastic art and great non-edition specific advice. Mike Schley and the other artists have provided evocative maps and illustrations. Many of the magic items appear in lots of different editions and even games, so having the illustrations and histories makes up for the fact that they take up about a third of the book. (Those same features probably explain that page count issue, too.) Again we have appendices that we will use many times in the future for creating dungeons. Appendix D, “Dungeon Master Inspiration”, completes the PHB Appendix E.

The Monster Manual is my favorite of the three 5e core books. I will use both it and the DMG even when running other games, but only the MM truly satisfies that non-game reading itch. Open it to a random page and spend 10 or 15 minutes appreciating that one monster. I’d love to find more bestiaries like it and A Practical Guide to Monsters that accomplish that so well.

Initial Impressions: Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Kyle holding his DMG

Happier than I should be

I went down to my friendly local gaming store this morning and picked up the new Dungeon Master’s Guide. (They had a 15% discount on all D&D stuff, which gave a little extra bit of unexpected happiness.)

A full review of this book would take significant time due to the density and amount of material in it. But I wanted to see right away how to build & modify monsters. I also have been looking forward to learning how to distribute treasure (especially magic items). This post mostly discusses those two areas. Other brief impressions include:

  • I see Robin Stacey in the credits. More Microlite20 love.
  • The art matches my expectations and deserves its own post. In fact, it probably even exceeds them. During my upcoming business trip, I could spend hours on a plane just examining the illustrations. I recognize a few of them from earlier products. The goblin illustration on page 107 comes directly from the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure.
  • Yay for “low-level followers” and “hirelings” – torch bearers! This doesn’t contain nearly enough information for me, though. I will need to refer to older DM guides for this sort of thing.
  • Successfully noticing and bypassing a trap should provide XP. I don’t think that the book gives any guidelines for that, or even credence to that idea. I may have missed it, of course, in the brief time since I acquired the book.
  • Reaction rolls on page 244. As a rule, I don’t like to roll for social interaction. But since players “spend” some power to have those skill and ability scores, I can’t just ignore it, either. These guidelines will help a little.
  • HEX RULES!!! I spent many years playing war games, both tabletop and computer-based. So I have a special love for maps using hexagons and the tactical play they create even if I don’t like using D&D as a tactical game itself. Come to think of it, this may help me get into that mode when it fits.
  • The Madness section on page 258 will assist me greatly with the upcoming “Madness of Iliasha” campaign (spoilers?).
  • Appendix D: Dungeon Master Inspiration looks like an “Appendix N” with more specificity. The list largely consists of non-fiction books with a few true classics in the greatest possible sense. For example, in addition to lots of books by Gary Gygax and TSR, it includes Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

Monsters and CR

Page 312 sample mapSince the Monster Manual came out, I have wanted to roll up my own monsters. Other DMs have already started, of course, but they have far more experience at it than I do. The section “Creating a Monster” in Chapter 9 starts on page 273. It discusses reskinning, including minor changes such as adding special traits or switching weapons. The section also includes a table on Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating. For each rating, the table lists the proficiency bonus, armor class, hit point range, attack bonus, damage per round range, and save DC. This table fits those situations where you just need something quick, such as an on-the-fly conversion.

Then it has a procedure for “Creating a Monster Stat Block”, allowing us to brew up a full-fledged monster. That procedure has 20 steps, some of which themselves have several parts. Obviously this requires much more effort than the process for games like Microlite20. But as the introduction to the whole section notes:

Part of the D&D experience is the simple joy of creating new monsters and customizing existing ones, if for no other reason than to surprise and delight your players with something they’ve never faced before.

This zooms in on the abbreviated process described before. It discusses things like damage and special traits in far more detail. We also have a Monster Features table that covers two full pages. Finally the section discusses the mechanics of creating NPCs from scratch (not the preview section on mannerisms and backgrounds and such).

Magic Items

Illustration of an adventuring group reviewing a mapPlayers get excited to see the actual magic items themselves. People like me get excited to see how we can distribute them. Chapter 7 (“Treasure”) should satisfy us both.

The distribution frequency for magic items in this edition in particular has confounded me a little. Page 135 shows a “Magic Item Rarity” table showing the expected character levels per rarity type. For example, common and uncommon items correspond to all characters starting at first level. But rare items typically go to characters at fifth level and higher. Of course the text makes clear that DMs should do as they wish according to what fits their campaigns. The book only makes suggestions, not rules.

For more specificity, of course, the book has several treasure tables. It has four different Individual Treasure tables for different CR ranges. The same applies to the Treasure Hoard tables. Gemstones and Art Objects have several different tables by value. Some of these tables refer to Random Magic Items of various types. You can enhance those with tables on magic item flavor (e.g. What Is a Detail From Its History?). Between this and Appendix A on “random dungeons”, I should have no trouble populating environments generated by Donjon or using maps created by other people.

Time to go tweak tomorrow’s adventure!

Dungeon Masters Rulebook (Red Box version)

Basic Dungeon Masters Rulebook

I picked up the Dungeon Masters Rulebook from the old BECMI D&D edition (aka “the Red Box”) a few days ago. Most of the OSR products I’ve read didn’t have enough guidance for this rusty old DM.  What better source for guidance on running an old-school game than the actual old-school guidance?! The rest of this post consists of my thoughts as I took notes during my second reading. It isn’t really a review in the critical sense but in the “let’s go back over what’s here” sense.

The Most Important Rule: BE FAIR. That fits, since we control everything about the world and universe in which the characters exist. The world itself may not be fair, but our rulings should be consistent and even-handed.

Hewlett-Packard 48GX

“An electronic pocket calculator is helpful.”

Quite a few pages consist of “your first game”. Actually, this game is first for the DM, which comes after the solo game in the players guide that teaches the initial rules. The players go after some magic user named “Bargle“. Most of this doesn’t apply to my games or needs. The map of the dungeon’s second level looked interesting, though, and would make a great candidate for conversion.

The rulebook includes advice on issues like arguments and complaints. That reminds the reader that RPGs are social in ways most other games are not. Given the age and inclinations of the target audience for D&D (especially at the time), I suspect Gygax and even Mentzer felt themselves in something of a fatherly position.  Related to that, the rulebook gives advice on providing clues appropriate for the player skill and experience level, including the admonition that “extreme danger with no warning is not very fair.” ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES! Also, the Deities section obliquely refers to some sensitive issues and takes a diplomatic approach: “The DM should be careful not to needlessly offend players and current beliefs should be avoided.”

For the first time, I finally understand how early editions treated demi-humans. Dwarves consisted of both a race and a class, so that all dwarf characters basically act like Gimli: short, squat fighters all up in your face who know everything there is to know about stones and gems and dungeons. Most modern players probably would not like this. Generally speaking, I don’t either, but there’s a certain mindset where I can see that working.

Experienced dungeon masters may select results instead of rolling dice.

See, the old school includes fudging rolls! I remember reading a quote from Gygax to the effect that the real secret to being a good DM is that the dice are just for show. That perhaps goes a little to the extreme (which could be a product of my faulty memory) but the sentiment is useful.

Reaction rolls seem like a core mechanic in this old edition. I’ve seen these in Microlite20. If the new Fifth Edition DMG doesn’t contain something like this, then I will likely incorporate some version of it in my games. Often I just roleplay the NPCs and “select results” as discussed above, but a little unpredictability in some situations can go a long way.

Lost spell books? Now that’s evil. I wouldn’t do that to a player unless they actively did something that clearly would result in losing the spell book. “I throw my spell book at the fire elemental.” “Um… okay.”

Mapping SymbolsMapping has changed considerably in the last thirty years. I don’t think most groups really treat it as a player skill anymore. Certainly those of us who primarily play online on Roll20 or similar can’t do this effectively without significant restructuring. Perhaps allowing one of the players to draw on the map…? I do like the old-school concept of player skill mattering at least as much as character skill, and this fits into that philosophy much as the clues discussion does.

During the play of the game, a player will eventually try something not explained in these rules… Be sure to write down any rules you create, and apply them fairly to everyone.

If by “eventually” we mean “within the first five minutes”, then sure! Otherwise you could send a self-addressed stamped envelope to TSR with a rules question. Things about the 20th century I don’t miss include SASEs and snail mail.

Timekeeping still presents a challenge for me outside of combat rounds. I’d hoped for some guidance here but it honestly doesn’t help much:

You may simply make notes on the time used during an adventure, or you can create a system (check marks, boxes to cross off, etc.) for keeping track.

Transferring characters remains a touchy subject. I just had a player ask me about it this past weekend, in fact. For some sorts of campaigns, it would feel odd just for narrative reasons. It could also create the perception of fairness issues with other players. But in other cases it might work fine, and so Mentzer gives some guidance on balance considerations.

Then the book goes into some lengthy monster references, including stat blocks and reactions and everything else. The treasure tables, though, really come in handy for me. I frequently find an old-school adventure I want to use that refers to “treasure type H” or something. Now I can cross-reference that.

Dungeon stockingFinally we have some guidance on dungeons, especially adventure motivation. The table on stocking dungeons reminds me of the so-called Barrowmaze method. But now I know the real source, because the method here is to roll 1d6 twice. The first roll tells you what’s in the room (e.g. a trap or a monster) and the second roll tells you whether the room has treasure.

I still look forward to getting my 5th Edition DMG in two days.The material in this rulebook will help fill in any gaps, plus provide additional stuff for my Microlite games.

Review: “A Practical Guide to Monsters”

A Practical Guide to MonstersI recently got a copy of A Practical Guide to Monsters. An in-universe reference volume for apprentice wizards, it lists 53 different monsters by my count. Each of them has a bit of fiction, a fact box (e.g. height, weight, habitat, diet, attack methods, etc.), and an artistic representation. If you think this sounds like a Monster Manual, then you’ve got the idea, but the book includes no game statistics. In effect, you can think of the guide as a monster manual for kids. Some of the monsters even have associated maps and marginalia.

The illustrations bring out the ideas behind each monster without scaring small children. A few of them include a child-like goblin running away or otherwise engaged in some activity. This gives kids a way to imagine themselves interacting with the monster but in a reasonably survivable way. Several intermediate sections list weapons, armor, and equipment that an adventurer might need. My kids and I have had a nice time looking through it and talking about what it might feel like to run into some of the monsters.

A sleeping goblin adventurer

I don’t want to give the idea that the guide only works as a children’s book. The free Dungeon Master’s Basic Guide lists statistics for a little under half of the listed monsters, and the Monster Manual for 5e includes almost 90% of them. Exceptions include the Yrthak, Ormyrr, and Athach, among others. The Microlite20 expanded monster list includes about the same number. A GM could easily convert the exceptions from other editions.

So in addition to the coffee table aspect, this book works well as a way to illustrate monsters to players. A game with children or using a retroclone would particularly benefit. Wizards of the Coast first published the book in 2007, so lots of stores carry inexpensive copies. They published a whole series of Practical Guides (“wizards”, “dragons”, etc.) and I look forward to getting a few more for my home library.

Review: Scenes of Chance

I just received my shipment of Scenes of Chance from Twizz Entertainment via Kickstarter.

This system-neutral supplement basically consists of a deck of cards, where each card is about twice the size of a traditional playing card. Each card has several icons printed on it. I choose a card with an appropriate scene (say, an underground cavern) and reference the icons. Each of the icons corresponds to a reference card with 20 options. Either roll a d20 or pick something that catches my interest, then repeat for each icon on the card. All the cards have at least two versions with different icons except the ship. I chalk that one up to a simple packaging error, but I didn’t mind because two of the cards have iconless versions and of course nothing prevents me from deciding on my own which reference cards to use.

As an example, if I use a card for an underground cavern card that closely resembles how I envision the Underdark, there are icons for Cave, Mountain, and Oddity. When I roll d20 on each of them, this time I get:

Cave: A puzzle of fallen rubble blocks the travelers’ way
A hibernating Yeti camouflaged in the snow is startled awake
 The mad ranting of a thousand voices blows in the wind

In the case of Mountain, I will probably modify the monster slightly to fit my campaign. Maybe I’ll use a Fomorian instead of the Yeti. Rule 0 applies everywhere!

Twisted groveI really love the paintings on the cards. Many have eye-catching little details, like the cave under the island castle or the fossil in one of the caves. The construction feels sturdy and professional; these cards should last a long time.

Twizz Entertainment did a fine job with this and I look forward to seeing what happens with their next project, a collectible card game called Summoners.