SHO 2018

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This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for some time – almost 12 months in fact.

About this time last year I attended a local convention in its inaugural year. Primarily tabletop wargaming in nature, it still featured a small RPG floor wth a few organised games and workshops. The idea was there, but the RPGs were a bit of an afterthought. I saw potential, and approached the Con owners with a few suggestions for the next year. I also attended PAX Aus the month after, and returned with an even more refined concept.

After another conversation with Mike and Emma I was committed to writing a D&D Adventurer’s League CCC for the Con, with the ambition to run it there. Soon I was assisting to co-ordinate the RPGs. Not long after I was committed to running the RPG floor. This is very new territory for me, but thankfully Mike and Emma are now hardened veterans.

Flash forward, and the last month has seen a flurry of activity. My CCC will premiere the Con, and headlines an exciting line up of great games. We now have 24 DMs, panelists and volunteers with more than 170 hours of RPG games and events scheduled across the three days. I’m excited, elated and terrified.

Over the next three days I’ll bring you all the action, ups and downs of SHO 2018. Stay Tuned!

Review – The Midnight Revelry

INSERT COVER ART HERE! (Normally I would, but this adventure doesn’t have one. More on that later).

The Midnight Revelry by Chris Walz is a 17 page adventure for 1st – 3rd level characters. The adventure has been created with an adventure maker (Homebrewery/DMBinder type) and has the clean, standardized look provided by these. What it lacks in unique signature it makes up for in ease of use. It has a couple of inset stock colour artworks and the colour finish you get from the above, as well as two hand drawn b&w maps. It also comes with a (mostly) b&w print friendly version.

SPOILERS

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The characters run across a village that seems to be in the grips of an unnatural desire to party – so much so the place is suffering for the excess.

Following clues or advice from a few disgruntled locals they can determine that there is a local fey presence enchanting the folk from a temple in the woods.

A visit to the ‘party house’ – The House of the Winsome Rose – requires a trek through forests steeped in fey influence, and a selection of similarly styled encounters the DM may select from.

Delving further the characters cross into the Plane of Faerie and sees the characters embroiled in a mild form of fey politics and plots. It seems the “villain” is a satyr being blackmailed into acting in a greater fey’s stead, and would willingly band together with the PCs to slay his tormentor if they are willing, leading to a climactic fight against a powerful creature of cold.

END SPOILERS

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There’s a lot to like about Midnight Revelry, but there’s also some rough edges.

Let’s start with the critiques;

Chris makes an interesting (and deliberate) choice to not include a cover on the adventure PDF. It has a cover, and that cover is used on the DM’s Guild site as a placeholder and advertisement, but does not appear on the PDF. It seems like an odd choice to me, as the cover is one of the few artworks in the product, and it is quite atmospheric. To my mind if gives the product an incomplete feel.

Chris writes like a veteran DM that knows what he wants but is not quite used to writing for others. There is a kind of ‘shorthand’ at work here. Some of the hooks, leads, NPCs and encounters need fleshing out just a little. The Portal Guards encounter is a great example of the shorthand Chris uses throughout the adventure. There is a reward for going unseen, though it doesn’t list the mechanics for passing unseen (no mention of the guards Perception for example). It, like a few other encounters, rely on the DMs experience and/or interpretation to make it work. Similarly, the read aloud text provided is mostly good, but in places it is perhaps a little stilted, and absent in other places where it might be useful. At one point he offers advice on describing the Feywild without providing a description. While this is not an issue for experienced DMs, and some will genuinely appreciate the brevity, it does make it tougher for newer DMs to run this module.

Farleigh’s Well map needs a key in order to determine the location of various detailed locations (the inn, merchant house etc). If a clean player’s map was desired, a second unkeyed version could be provided. Of course you could simply place the key locations to your liking, but it seems like an unfinished detail to me.

There are lots of interesting encounters, but one encounter in particular bothers me as it removes agency pretty thoroughly. The travel portion of the adventure desires limiting resource replenishment, and does not allow Long Rests in the woods. Any attempt to do so sees the characters confronted by elves who wish to eject them from the woods. This is fine in theory, but the text indicates reluctant characters are ‘knocked unconscious’ and left in the outskirts of town. This seems unnecessarily forceful and immediate. If the elves simply harass the characters they will be unable to sleep mechanically, and it lacks the heavy handed and disempowering DM fiat suggested. It may be Chris was trying to be brief, but it seems unnecessarily overbearing.

The final boss is cool (pun intended) but has an ability that, while thematically appropriate, I really don’t think was well thought out. In addition to her own standard abilities she has a legendary action aura that can potentially kill anyone within 10 feet in 6 rounds, each round adding stacking debuffs that will make the fight almost impossible within 3-4 rounds with a melee heavy party. You win fast, or you die.

Lastly, this adventure concerning Fey doesn’t break or even elaborate on the tropes associated with such things – it is a stock tale of the capricious fey acting on their whims, which have consequences for nearby mortals in predicable ways. Most veteran players – or even new players that might have has some introduction to (Greek) mythology – will see the plot coming a mile away. However, even though I place this in the critique section, this is not necessarily a bad thing…

…because…

Despite not breaking the mold, this is one hell of an adventure, especially for newer players, or even jaded veterans. If you are going to create a fey themed adventure and want to hit the tropes, this is the way to do it. Midnight Revelry delivers with style and fun. There are some ‘combat only’ encounters, but almost all the creatures here can be treated with or challenged on a social level. Most of the combats have a plausible non-lethal conclusion if failed. The story flows well and keeps moving. There’s lots of options here to really add flavour and build atmosphere. The Fey Crossing is an inspired mechanic that plays on this adherence to the trope. Finally, and possibly most importantly, the final encounter feels EPIC. It gives low level characters a chance to feel powerful and part of something profound, and can have lasting impact on the setting of the adventure.

 

Regardless of a few imperfections, I highly recommend this if you want a low level fey adventure.

I rate this 3.5 stars for presentation (while clean, it is not groundbreaking from an art or visual layout perspective), and 4.5 stars for content (shaved only because of the few mechanical issues), for a final rating of 4 STARS. An upgrade of cover, art and a Fey theme to the backgrounds and layout would really propel this, but content alone suggests this is a worthwhile pick up.

You can buy this immersive module singularly here on DM’s Guild. It is a pay-what-you-want product, but as always I encourage actually paying the author. A lot of time and effort goes into crafting these.

It is also featured in this collection with a number of other fantastic authors (I also somehow made it in – don’t ask me how).

Review – Minotaur’s Betrayal

cover

The second in a minotaur themed trilogy, Minotaur’s Betrayal leaves off where Minotaur’s Bargain ended. There is an assumption of satisfactory completion of the first part, which makes sense for a part 2. The module does offer a hook in if Part 1 was not completed, but it works better as a continuation of the story.

The PCs are offered Minotaur assistance and return to their town to face the impending orc threat.

Spoilers

Along the way they are attacked, though the Minotaur captain is the target. Reaching the town they find it under assault by an orcish band lead by a troll. The force seems a little light on for a full assault, however and once the invasion is repelled the PCs discover it was a diversion for a traitorous rebellion within the Minotaur ranks. Returning to the Minotaur camp they find the honourable leader slain and a usurper in her place. The usurper has given the orcs a powerful item (Banner of Gruumsh) for their support. The PCs must manage the volatile minotaur in order to be best placed to reclaim the tribe.

Following on from this the PCs are directed to infiltrate the fairly extensive orc stronghold and retrieve the lost banner, potentially hampered again by the social values of the minotaur. The stronghold has a number of interesting features, including amusing orc graffiti, eclectic prisoners to free, and a theoretically overwhelming contingent of Orcs if the players aren’t careful. The alternate route provided through the encampment is possibly just as dangerous.

The Chieftain’s quarters holds the stolen Banner of Gruumsh, and ostensibly the focus of PCs incursion, though there is nothing stopping them from slaying the chief and the priestesses, which would also end the threat from the orc tribe.

End Spoilers

Minotaur’s Betrayal is a very different beast from its predecessor. Players might want to wear neck braces, such is the sharpness of the turn. It might catch some players by surprise if they were expecting another deathtrap dungeon style outing, and instead find themselves in a story driven tale of plot and logic that the first instalment lacked.

Truthfully the adventure is all the better for it. As I indicated in my last review I don’t generally enjoy ‘just because’ trap dungeons, and prefer my adventures to have a plot, NPCs that have depth and motivation and logical details such as “where do they get rid of their waste?”. Not only does Minotaur’s Betrayal cover all of these, it manages to be both concise in language and thorough in minutiae, which is a difficult trick to pull off. The Orcs Stronghold – where the main action takes place – genuinely feels like a tribal home, complete with the kinds of details you’d expect.

On a technical level there are a few minor spelling errors, but nothing egregious, and one of the numerous maps didn’t scan well, but retains enough detail to play from (just probably not hand out).

On a design level I did find it odd that the orc stronghold has 2 separate waste areas that apparently aren’t connected, but again this is more a matter of preference than any real issue. Yes I’m nit picking here. There’s not a whole lot to criticise about this adventure.

The layout is easy to follow, and well defined in terms of information presentation and flow. It is easy to read and run from a DM perspective, and offers adjustment advice for more or less powerful or numerous parties.

Final Verdict

I have to say that I love this type of plot driven adventure, and Minotaur’s Betrayal is a great example of it. Along with the core crunch and action, there’s enough incidental detail to bring the locations and cultures alive without overpowering the goal of a smooth running, fast paced adventure. JVC Parry and Phil Beckwith have created an excellent and evocative module here that strikes a good balance between monster bash and roleplaying opportunities.

I rate it 5 stars for presentation and 5 starts for content, for a total of 5 stars. You can pick up a copy of this adventure here

I definitely recommend this one, and – assuming you can reconcile the differing styles – it should be played as part of the trilogy as intended.

I am really looking forward to the third part.

Review – Archetypes by Travis Legge

A Trio of Archetypes

Anyone who has spent any time browsing the DMs Guild over the last 6 months has probably noted the work of Travis Legge – he seems to be putting out mini products at an amazing rate, along with his videos on his Eberron campaign and interviews with DMs Guild creators.

He has also embarked on a crusade to review as many products as humanly possible, which is laudable.

Today I look at three of his recent mini-products – all PWYW Class Archetypes. All three are short, mostly plain text PDFs, though each has a splash of appropriate to semi-appropriate art to give some visual stimulation. Nothing groundbreaking in design here, but aesthetically pleasing enough and better than many PWYW offerings.

 

Order of the Scarred (A Blood Hunter archetype)  

This is an archetype for the Blood Hunter class developed by Matt Mercer (of Critical Role). While not an official class this shouldn’t put off DMs as it is arguably balanced in comparison to the official classes and not overpowered (though I’d gauge it to be on the upper end). It is basically the Witcher, if you are a fan of such things. It is a reasonably complex class however, requiring a level of resource management, and probably not recommended for beginners.

Travis’ take on the class is intriguingly morbid Continue reading

December Goals – Back in Balance

Its been over a month since my last post – that’s an eternity in blog years.

November was a big month, but despite that – or perhaps because of it – I haven’t found the time to chronicle any of the events of the last moon here on the site.

PAX was a huge eye opener, as I suspected it would be. Not only was it a great experience, but I learned a lot about how these conventions are run, how RPG sessions work (and when they don’t work) in this setting, and about how I can transport some of these lessons into my personal pathway going forward. More on PAX in it’s own post chain.

November became the month I once again overloaded myself on RPG project work – despite my assertion to pace myself and not get in over my head like before. Sigh. Apparently I didn’t fully learn that lesson. I expect come the end of February (my Kickstarter deadline) I will rue my choices. That being said, in RPG development the goal posts are always shifting, and some changes can’t be anticipated or helped.

The first of my problems was not unexpected – print issues again! What a surprise. This seems to be a common theme with me. I updated me 5th edition Campaign Guide for WLBR, and lo and behold, what was once whole became broken. In making internal changes I must have missed a step in PDF conversion, and ended up with an unprintable book (the digital version is fine). Chris Tang from DrivethruRPG (a man with endless patience) has helped me rectify the issue. There are some inexplicable delays between DTRPG and the printer at the moment, but delays are to be expected (always). Hopefully it’ll be resolved shortly and the print version will once again be available.

The second issue was a scheduling problem. What started as a ‘slow and steady’ background group project for DM’s Guild (with Alex Clippinger and Scott Bean) was suddenly moved up the priority list as hints began that other guild producers were working on similar projects. Second to the table will hurt the project, so it’s now become a high priority that WILL interfere with my Kickstarter material production in ways it was never intended too. Hopefully we can clear this out before it really begins to hurt the kickstarter schedule.

Finally, and most excitingly, I was presented with an opportunity I simply could not pass up. The author Richard A Knaak – of Dragonlance fame – wants to turn his new novella line setting – Rex Deraconis – into an RPG line for D&D and Pathfinder. Despite my already overflowing workload, I HAD to jump on board with this. The chance to work with one of my favourite authors could not be passed on. I’m lucky enough to be partnered with Phil Beckwith of PB Publishing (another Perth local) on this. Exciting times set for 2018.

But this rollercoaster is not without cost. Between my day job, various project commitments and gaming responsibilities (DMing is an obligation not easily set aside), family and friends I’m spread very thin right now. Too thin in fact. Continuing in this way is more pressure than I need heading into the holidays. With that in mind, my December goal is to bring everything back into balance. I need to make a better plan than lurching from job to job, crisis to crisis, and most importantly, I need to make time to do a little bit of everything.

And so with that in mind, I plan to put my feet up with a cold one and watch the cricket (that’s the rest of the world’s equivalent of baseball to any US readers). I mean, I’ll still have my laptop and I’ll be working as well, but I’ll be recreating at the same time. That’s a thing right?

Creating a Better Character

AKA – Guidelines for crafting something unique while avoiding the Special Snowflake.

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There is lots of advice on creating better character out there – from mechanical to social aspects and everything in between. I don’t claim this is original information, but I do feel that it is good, simple advice for anyone wanting to build an RPG character in any game.

Everyone wants a unique and fun character to play. Occasionally though, in pursuit of this we get what is known as “The Special Snowflake”. These are the characters that are so overdesigned in their uniqueness (rarest of the rare) that they become problematic for DMs and other players. The Special Snowflake might have a selection of abilities designed to exploit loopholes in the rules, or they might have such an overwrought and inflexible characterization, backstory or personality traits that make them unsuited to team play. Examples include trying to make a character as difficult to hit or defeat as rules combinations allow, trying for the magic combination of statistics that generates the most damage possible per attack, or having them overspecialise to the point where they simply cannot fail at a certain type of task (also called the ‘one-trick-pony’). Mechanically this creates balance issues for the DM because in order to challenge such characters against their strength, it often makes the other characters vulnerable or makes it impossible for them to contribute to overcoming that challenge.

"Piss off Demogorgon. I'm untouchable bro!"

Drizzt is the ultimate ‘Special Snowflake’ because he is the rarest of a rare creature (purple eyed drow) who is so heavily draped in plot armour as to be essentially unkillable.

Possibly worse still are the personality choices that make a character difficult to co-operate with. Again examples might include an inflexible attitude to communication, an extreme phobia or prejudice, or – and my personal biggest dislike – the ‘strong, silent, lone wolf’ anti-hero who is a difficult to be around and won’t play nice because his personality is ‘edgy’ (read ‘jerk’). In rare cases players might actually craft a character that is all ‘roleplay focussed’ and mechanically unsound in the rules system as a way of exploring a concept. These characters generate their own issues as they become an anchor a party that must ‘carry’ as they are simply unsuited to succeed.

Finally, there are the characters that are mechanically sound, and may even be fundamentally acceptable from a general roleplay sense, but are created without a view to the context of the campaign. For example, if the DM has crafted a spy vs spy, shades-of-grey morality thriller campaign, and a player creates a morally rigid crusading knight then no matter how valid the character is, it simply isn’t going to fit with the setting being offered as the environment to play in.

The best way to describe an RPG is a collaborative storytelling experience. It is both collaborative with the DM and with the other players. As such, creating concepts that directly conflict with a communal experience is counterproductive to RPGs. Better characters are built to work with the system rather than against it. This doesn’t mean you have to compromise completely on concept, you just need to work with the rules, players (DM) and setting.

When creating a character, keep in mind three simple guidelines;

 

Create an appropriate backstory

Characters should have a backstory to give them some depth beyond their statistics, but this backstory should be tempered by the ideas of co-operation, flexibility and growth. Characters in books and movies don’t spring forth complete in the first act. You watch them grow and evolve as the story unfolds. This is true of RPGs as well. You are starting at the start, not the end. Give the character enough backstory to define their general values and behaviours, but be flexible enough to change and grow in the campaign. RPGs are all about the journey. Allowing a character to evolve with the story will give you the best gaming experience. You’ll generate better immersion, and encounter less interpersonal conflicts, both in and out of character.

Who is 1

Is this really an appropriate character that’s going to have a meaningful contribution to make?

Ensure mechanical skill without mastery

Everyone likes to succeed and few like to fail. Failures can take games in interesting directions, and should happen in a game, but not too rarely or too often. Building a character to be either infallible or conversely hopeless creates mechanical headaches for a DM trying to balance a game for a range of players and characters. Characters should have mechanical strengths (and weaknesses) but they should save extremes for the end of the campaign. Do you want to be the greatest thief whoever lived and flit from shadow to shadow like a wraith? Great, but that’s a goal, not a beginning. If you achieve it mechanically, and are impossible to discover when hiding (ie maximised stealth) what is left for the character to strive for? Also designing a character to be the “greatest” anything shows a lack of regard for the other players and their play experience. You are part of a team and need to be part of it, not apart from it, in order to get the most from a primarily social game. This goes doubly so for players who feel it is somehow necessary to outdo or show up the other players (see my other post on trying to ‘win’ an RPG).

Laura Diehl

Every great archmage begins as a dreaming apprentice

Connect the character to the setting

Finally, a character should be crafted with a connection to the campaign setting. In part, this is to avoid the massively inappropriate character conflict (for example the dwarf in an elven empires campaign) but also to give the character something to strive for within the story rather than just be carried along by it. Many DMs will run a Session Zero, which is time set aside before commencing to impart the major themes and tone of the adventures to come. If not, go ahead and ask your DM about the setting or world. If a character is connected to the setting the player will have more opportunities to collaborate with the storytelling process, and really that’s what RPGs are all about. If you can find goals within the story rather than in spite of the story, the DM will be able to find more moments to let you shine.

As always, this is by no means a complete list, but it is a great foundation to ensure you get the most out of your character and the game it is in.

Micah

Review – Minotaur’s Bargain

This adventure, from JVC Parry and Phil Beckwith (of PB publishing) is 20 pages, including a cover, 1 page contents and credits, 12 pages of adventure, 4 pages of appendices, 1 page review and 1 page advertisement. It has several colour illustrations and colour maps.

This short, low to mid level adventure casts the PCs in the role of diplomats, representing a local town in an endeavor to secure Minotaur mercenaries against an imminent Orc invasion.

SPOILERS

The adventure wastes little time on story, shanghaiing the characters straight into the action. Negotiations are short, with literally the only outcome resulting in an arena trial to either prove themselves or atone for insult.

The dungeon/arena is a series of deathtrap and skill challenges that must be overcome to progress. Completing 4 unlocks the final arena fight that is a stand up combat against the final boss – a minotaur gladiator. Success or honorable failure gains the aid of the tribe, while abject failure does not.

END SPOILERS

Minotaur’s Bargain is an unapologetic dungeon crawl with a thin veil of story. Each challenge is a HP/Resource sink designed to reduce already limited PC resources (only allowing a single item per character into the challenge). It does however offer several clever ways for pcs to scavenge resources along the way. In many ways this is a team based obstacle course. Mechanically sound, the various encounters are so varied and disparate it would still have many players questioning the logic of such a medley of otherwise unconnected challenges under any other circumstances.

The truly clever presentation of this dungeon is that it fits the stereotypical minotaur maze theme, but dials it up to 11. Realism takes a backseat to ‘cool’ and we’re asked to ignore it much as we forgive the unrealistic elements of an action movie because its an entertaining spectacle.

I am generally not a fan of “just because” or “because magic” deathtrap dungeons, but its honestly hard to dislike this adventure. It gives just enough justification to swallow it, oozes cool, adds stripdown and subtle scavenging to PCs that (by this level) have begun to rely on toys and gimmicks. There’s enough logic, risk/reward and variance in skill checks to keep everyone interested and is thankfully the right length to limit the burnout of oversized dungeons.

This is not an adventure for players or DMs that like roleplay or immersion. There is little here for high Charisma type characters. That being said, this is intended to be the first of a trilogy, so a connecting story is potentially in the works.

Similarly, some players may resent the effective railroad into the dungeon, or try to fight their way out of being pressed into it. The adventure turns on an assumption of success or acceptance of failure.

Final Rating

The adventure has an attractive layout, and makes good use of the sectioned isomwtric maps to break up the text and pad the limited (though appropriate) art. The maps are clean and can double as player handouts.

Minotaur’s bargain is a slick dungeoncrawl that makes the PCs action heroes at the expense of deep immersion. However, it doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice. Its perhaps not the type of adventure you’d want to play every session, but in isolation it is a strong, fun adventure.

I’d rate this 5 stars for presentation and 5 stars for content, for a final rating of 5 Stars.

You can get this very cool adventure here.