Thursday, 26 February 2015

Review of the 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide

I have before me a copy of a book titled simply D&D Dungeon Master's Guide, which is alleged to be the '5e' incarnation of such but says so nowhere in our outside the book. That in itself is rather clever marketing. At any rate, the book was delivered into my hand one cold and rainy night by the very friend on whose suggestion we all got into this D&D mess in the first place. He admitted that I'm difficult to shop for, and gave me his full permission to criticise the book, birthday present though it was. So I preface this by saying I'm truly grateful for the gift and for the thought on my friend's part that it represents. I had been curious to know what 5e was all about, but not curious enough to personally contribute in any way to the august coffers of WOTC, and now that curiousity has been satisfied. Thank you. The review that follows is written entirely in the spirit of gratitude; rest assured that it is written from the point of a view of a most thorough and exhaustive persual of the book's contents.

This is not a book that should be tossed lightly aside. It should be hurled with great force.

If you're the sort of prospective DM whose primary libidinal cathexis is with glossy renditions of poorly conceived fantasy and catalogues of pastiche magic items, and you run a party that doesn't mind being treated the way David Foster Wallace treats his readers, then this book is for you. If, on the other hand, you want to give your players an engrossing experience with a modicum of sense, you might want to ignore the bulk of it and just go read some real books. A smidgin of psilocybin might function as a suitable alternative.

Let's Start with the Tables

Oh emm gee, there is a d20 table for absolutely everything. The book's title should more aptly be Gratuitous Charts for DMS Who Don't Want to Give Their Campaigns Any Thought. Imagine painters being advised to roll a die to determine what colour to use next, or composers to design the next melody line. The creation of Ugly is analagous to the achievement you will have made when you roll a die to choose a 'calamity' with no regard to relevance, believability, or even playability in context.

This is just one of many examples. The book does pay lip service to the notion of a sanbox campaign, but at the same time it condones railroading when it provides tables to determine the goal of an adventure. I'm not exaggerating. Page 73 begins with d20 tables to determine what your party wants to do depending on whether it's in a dungeon or forest. Subsequent pages offer more tables so you can roll for the adventure's introduction and climax. It brings to mind an article in GQ years ago listing 'travel inessentials'--Anusol, Gas-X, and the like--'If you need that stuff, pal, you shouldn't be going anywhere.' If you're so clueless that you can't work out what's appropriate in the context of your world and your campaign, this book isn't going to help you.


Art, Art, and More Art

I don't know how much my friend paid for the book and I'm not going to ask, but I suspect it was a lot more than it could have been without the unnecessary illustations--that is to say, the illustrations. Many of them are done in a Marvelesque watercolour style that mimics the pictures in primary school textbooks, and of course include the obligatory cartoon beholders, in this case frequently featured doing the tango with something resembling Spongebob Squarepants, and the inevitable cascade of implausibly dressed humanoids doing ridiculous things. Granted, the book does contain a few genuine masterpieces, but they're in among a whole lot of rubbish. The overall tone is put to shame by the artwork in the 2e books, and that's saying something. (I mentioned this to my wife. As she is an artist by profession, she's naturally a lot more tolerant of awful art than I am, and she assured me that the publishers simply 'liked that style.' I don't buy it. I'm not expecting them to hire Brian Froud to do their illustrations, but they could concievably go onto and contact any number of the absolutely amazing artists there turning out masterpieces by the thousands for free.) The problem is not necessarily the quality, though, for even when it does show considerable technical proficiency it nonetheless suffers from a dearth of originality.
Lacking inspiration for your fantasy scene? Just put Lucius Malfoy in plate mail and render Deedlit as a man to bring up the rear. Brilliance!

It wouldn't be doing us too much of a favour to skip this sort of thing. It's simply additional filler for a tome that's already thrice too long. 


'New' Magic Items

Have we not had enough of these? Apparently not, because this section, accounting for a good 25% of the book's total volume, features a slick painting of every steampunk monstrosity the executive board could design, ranging from the mildly inspring to the downright retarded. I don't want to spend too much time scanning stuff from this section, but most of it just makes no sense. The functions of the items are insipid enough--many of them do very specific things in response to very specific actions or spoken words that players are somehow expected to know, perhaps because the items come with instruction manuals--but the designs are just a hodge-podge of material culture from different places and epochs smooshed together tastelessly. Trying to provide variety to a fantasy campaign setting isn't a crime, but rehashing stupid tropes that didn't work the first time over and over again for people who can't come up with anything decent, is. Almost none of the items are appropriate for a medieval setting, and almost all look like they belong in a gag-gift shop. The Eyes of Charming give you a good idea of what to expect.

According to the description, this horror casts a limited number of charm person spells on humanoids that see you wearing it. Now, I'm no expert on fashion, but I'm pretty sure walking around in those specs is going to have rather the opposite effect.

My personal favourite, though, is this rusty tin barrel that turns into a lobster:

Get this: It can be maneuvered with levers inside it. There's even a one-paragraph manual listing exactly what each up or down pull of a lever is going to do. I can't speak for anybody else's campaign, but my players know me well enough that the LAST thing any of them are going to do is crawl into an enclosed space and start pulling levers. 


Anything Remotely Useful?

Actually, yes, I quite enjoyed the details on other planes of existence, especially Feywild and Shadowfell, that exist just slightly askew of our world and can be entered through transient portals. Somewhere in my library is a 19th-century book called An Adventure that details the account of two women who claim they slipped through such a portal for a day and met a host of uncanny events and entities. Reading about the respective fairy realm and the realm of darkness gave me a few ideas of how I might mess with my players at some point, as well as introduce some creatures that wouldn't normally fit into any of our campaign settings.

There was also a great deal of common sense interjected that would be useful to novice DMs who haven't yet come up with their own set of house rules and don't have a mentor to get the ball rolling. It has DMs ask themselves such questions such as what sort of campaign they want to run, how much influence the party can be expected to have on the world as it rises in power, and how much should be determined by dice vs. DM judgment. Most of the time, though, where decent advise does exist, it's poorly worded and presented in such a cack-handed manner that its application to DMing as an overall skill is mostly incomprehensible. There's also the problem that the good advice is embedded in an environment of ideas that are mediocre or worse, and novice DMs are in the very vulnerable position of difficulty in distinguishing these from each other. The overall tone of the book is one of careful tiptoeing in an attempt to satisfy all camps, including the least creative, most likely to railroad, and least willing to put for the effort required to run an engrossing and satisfying game.

I can't really fault WOTC for putting this out. It's their living, they found an audience, and they're playing to it. Props to them from a business point of view. Rather, the fault would lie with anyone who takes most of the advice seriously and runs a campaign on its principles. Do yourself and humanity a favour and don't be one of them.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Ebrauc Fleshed Out

Living as I do in Tottori, particularly this time of year, it's difficult to imagine a more dreary, damp, grey and bleak place, but I'm trying.

I'm trying to envision myself into a society in which most people bathed perhaps once in a lifetime, owned but one set of clothes, and had barely any seasoning for a diet consisting primarily of potage and what's technically referred to as 'offal'. They at weevily bread that gave them the runs, and had no toilet paper. No tobacco. No tomatoes. No potatoes. Lots of violence.

Reenactment society Regia Anglorum giving us a taste of Anglo-Saxon life

No inns. If you have connections, or if you're the son of a thegn and can play the lute to keep the eorl of a village entertained, you might be offered some gruel and a patch of straw on which to sleep among the dogs in the eorl's mead hall. The rushes on the floor would be full of discarded food, dog piss, and vermin. Characters would itch. They should suffer combat penalties because of it.

Settlement Information Complete

Overview of all settlements in Ebrauc

This chart provides an adequate summary of each settlement's foundation and products, so that we can see how they relate to each other and, by extension, to other kingdoms. This informs the location of what passed for roads--simply areas of land showing signs of recent hoof, cart, or foot traffic--in addition to the extant Roman roads we can glean from history texts. These would be made of increasingly rough-hewn slabs of stone with grass growing in the cracks, but would make for somewhat easier traveling than the alternative thoroughfares of mud and dung pressed into the earth just because people happened to cross the landscape there.

The screenshot does not show the settlements in Deira or the other surrounding kingdoms, partly because my players read this blog and wouldn't be privy to that information just yet, just in case we do play this setting again. Suffice it to say that in general, the settlements in Deira are fewer in number but more populous, so that military forces are approximately evenly matched. Political tensions are mounting, but even the DM doesn't yet know if or when they will erupt into full-scale conflict.

Dark Ages Economy

In this society people are considered rather well-off if they possess any coin money at all. The players didn't see it because I pre-rolled the characters, but starting wealth is in the form of animals that can be used to trade for goods or coin. The number and type of animals a character possesses at creation depends on the family's status and father's occupation. I haven't made tables for determining precisely how this will function, but when I do it will provide another dimension to the world that the players can find interesting or irritating.

Most settlements govern and protect themselves to the best of their ability. They are usually 'governed' by an eorl chosen by the cyning, and each eorl is a thegn, by which is meant he possesses good weapons and fighting ability, and a little surplus wealth. He lives in a mead hall with his family and livestock. If he's particularly wealthy he might have a two-floor structure, with his family and retainers living upstairs, and the animals, weapons, and farm implements kept below. There is no concept of castles, and creature comforts are minimal. Most people provide for their own necessities, with certain goods traded between villages. There are no stores as such, but with a settlement one might find a few skilled craftsmen willing to sell or barter their wares.

Because we had so few players for this setting, each player controlled two characters at a time. Some had tents, others had blankets, some had swords that break on a 1 in 6 because that's all they could afford. Our richest character, a paladin, had well-crafted weapons, a lute with a few extra strings, and a fine woolen mantle. He was slain by an aurochs in the second session. A moment of silence, please.

The Fallen

Thrydwulf, Son of Caedwulf Son of Wulfnod. Three generations of thegns. The player tried unsuccessfully to finagle his father's suit of chainmail for the adventure, but it actually wouldn't have helped much in the end. First a witch in the forest got the best of him, but merely put him to sleep because she thought he was alone and had other purposes in mind for him. She only tried to kill the others when they came to the rescue. He went hunting with a certain eorl and followed the eorl's injunction to go after an aurochs with his sword. A horn right through the gut and he was gored to -9 HP; he bled to death before anyone could get to him.

Raegenhere the Cleric. I liked having a sword-bearing cleric in the party. This being several centuries before the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 would forbid it, priests can draw all the blood they want. I always found it amusing that D&D rules preclude clerics from drawing blood but allow them to bludgeon people to death with clubs and quarterstaves. A fishhook hit this bloke between the eyes as a child, and he had all kinds of personality. He met his end falling into one of the witch's traps, where he was immobilised while she slowly knifed him to death.

The Reactions

This was another small-group session and thus I still don't have a quorum of votes on this world from the party, but it really is time to move on. One comment was that it seemed the world consists basically of more villages, thegns and mead halls, and primeval wilderness. For the immediate area, this is true; but the entities one could potentially encounter would become more fantastic the further the party moved from home base. The same is true for the Minoan Campaign; in the Medieval Campaign that will be the third of three worlds, it would likely be a matter of increasingly powerful human adversaries, unless the party traveled to very remote locations.

It was a relief to have had enough of the world created that I could adjust to any decision the players made. During the first session I felt trapped and frustrated by not having enough potentially interesting things available in every direction the party might go. I have little more than a week before the next session and have to complete at least this same amount of work on a 14th-century setting, just in case enough players show up to make it wise to introduce it for the next session.

Monday, 9 February 2015

PC-NPC Relations

Perhaps I run a different game from DMs people have played with in the past. It seems I've been confusing players recently and I need to clarify some things; namely, the function of NPCs in the game and what PCs can expect when dealing with them.

It's kind of a classic trope in RPGs that there's something like an old man standing on a bridge just waiting to give the party information. Let it be known now that this is as far from the type of character that will be encountered in my campaign as it's going to get. I would like to clear up once and for all any suspicion that as the DM I am 'communicating with players' through NPCs. I am not. I am portraying NPCs as I conceive of them, as people with ambitions, fears, acne and dandruff, who laugh when they're tickled, wake up with morning wood, enjoy the scent of dog feces, and so on. They are not automatons simply placed there to give the party convenient hints.

As the DM in my campaign I have been inaccurately referred to as 'God'. No. The dice, and the random numbers generated by the Excel spreadsheets, are God. I am simply the world. The world, like John Shaft, is complicated.

The first thing a wise player will do is to stop taking everything NPCs say at face value. This is not to say that most NPCs are dishonest, but as people they have their own agendas and such should be taken into account. Maybe that peasant that you questioned was too proud to say he didn't know, so he made something up. Maybe the constables are testing you with information because they think you might be enemy agents. Maybe the old woman who told you everything she knows was telling you anything she could think of because she was lonely and wanted you to stay longer for tea. You won't know until you act in some way in regard to the leads you've been given, and maybe not even then.

If someone wants you dead, and that someone is smart, it's not going to look deliberate. In some places, of course, NPCs will be a basically friendly and charitable lot; but other places are a hotbed of intrigue, and PCs will have nothing but each other to keep them alive. Part of developing your skill as a player is being able to tell with some degree of accuracy which of those you might be in at the moment. 

What the DM will not do is make it easy for you.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015


One of our players highly recommends this series, but I never managed to get my hands on any full-length episodes. I finally got around to searching for some clips, and found this one particularly pertinent to the period in which our current trial world is set and explores one sort of encounter the party might face. Ignoring for a moment the ridiculous historical inaccuracy of the costumes, this scene is interesting because it provides some insight as to how two the interaction between two groups meeting for the first time might escalate into combat.

Synopsis: The captain of the guard at the shore of the Kingom of Northumbria (referring to himself anachronistically as the 'sheriff') rides up with his men to a party of very obvious Viking raiders to find out what they're doing there. He's the only one communicating with the Viking leader, Ragnar, and his side becomes increasingly tense while the Viking side becomes increasingly bloodthirsty, and eventually they clash.

First, it seems a rather blatant tension-building device to have Ragnar conversant in Aenglisc while the 'sherrif' doesn't seem to understand whatever North Germanic language the Vikings are meant to be speaking. The leader of a shoreline patrol group would likely have been chosen partly for his ability in one or more languages spoken by people likely to land at that shore, whereas a leader of Vikings should probably have been chosen more for his capacity to lead in battle than for his communication ability. Conveniently for our purposes, however, AD&D has a character's INT score tied to both strategic ability and number of languages in which he can communicate.

As the conversation opens, the captain asks if the Vikings are merchants. 'Yes, traders, yes!' Ragnar asserts. Sure. That's why we're armed to the teeth and have no visible merchandise of any kind. Some of the Vikings already have their hands on their weapons, and a particularly eager one nearby, called Rollo (apparently Ragnar's brother, according to Wikipedia), is growing increasingly suspicious of dialogue he can't understand. He soon insists that the sheriff's invitation is a trap.

The idea of the volatile band of ruffians being somewhat beyond their leader's control is probably realistic, although obviously exaggerated for effect here. The degree of hubris the vikings express, and their confidence in their fighting ability, seem far-fetched considering they've just spent weeks at sea and have no armour, while the Anglo-Saxons have some chain mail and helmets, freshly polished weapons, and two horses. Nonetheless, the Vikings are bloodthirsty and bent on doing what they came to do, namely kill people and take their stuff.

One Anglo-Saxon soldier's suggestion to 'offer them money to go away' is a transparent reference to the policy of later Anglo-Saxon kings of bribing the Vikings not to invade--in retrospect, a suicidally stupid tactic, but as Machiavelli wasn't yet around to offer sagacious foreign policy advice, they're forgiven.

As a peace offering, the sheriff gives Rollo an amulet he's wearing, which inspires another Viking to step forward and snatch a cross from another Anglo-Saxon's neck, which act of agression immediately causes the other Anglo-Saxons to draw their swords. As the sheriff tries to tell them to stand down, he is struck down by Rollo's battle axe. All the Vikings, including Ragnar, rush forward and slay nearly all the Anglo-Saxons, leaving only one to escape on horseback.
I've had parties behave in completely lawless ways before, usually with things going significantly less well for them than it went for the Vikings. Generally, local law enforcement has showed up in superior numbers well prepared for a fight, and the PCs have done things ranging from taunting them verbally (when they spoke mutually intelligible languages) to brandishing swords or attacking them outright (when no verbal communication was possible). This has resulted in the untimely deaths of more than one treasured character, and is a strategy generally hazardous to PC health unless, as here, they clearly possess the superior fighting power, and are prepared to meet the consequences when, as here, a survivor among their newly-made enemies has retreated to alert the country of the party's hostile presence.