5E Supplement Review: Traps

For some reason, DMs love putting traps in their adventures. I’m unsure exactly what that reason is. It probably differs from person to person. Some DMs like challenging their players; forcing them to think rather than just hack’n’slash their way through monsters. Some just want to give something for the thief of the party to do. (Remember, the Thief wasn’t included in the original D&D game!) And some just like seeing their players’ characters die in the most gruesome ways possible. Traps. Something for every DM!

A recent release from “Jester” David Gibson of 5-Minute Workday, Traps, offers a selection of 22 new traps with which to kill – I mean entertain – your players. The traps aren’t original – as I’ve seen most in previous editions – but that’s not important. What’s important is that they’re now presented in the 5th edition style, so that they’re easily included in your campaign. Traps takes an extremely professional approach to the descriptions and mechanics of the traps. The results are fantastic: it’s an excellent selection and the traps are extremely well described. The traps are entertaining to use and provide some real perils for the players.

You’ve got the classic crushing wall traps. Corridors that contain poison gas (in a manner that makes sense!) Necromantic skulls. Gravity reversal rooms. The collection covers both mundane and magical traps, and they’re all interesting.

Although there are a couple of phrasing errors in the text, for the most part it is very well edited. The traps do lack an indication of what levels you should use them for, but – unless you want to have a very short-lived campaign – I wouldn’t suggest using some of them with first-level characters without modifications to the damage dice. 6d6 damage, save for half? Yes, that’d wipe out most of a first-level party!

I’m particularly pleased that not all of the traps can be found by Wisdom (Perception) checks; some have their triggering mechanisms better concealed and require Intelligence (Investigation) checks; there aren’t any traps that require Intelligence (Arcana) checks, although detect magic spells can prove of assistance.

This is an excellent product, well worth its extremely low cover price. Traps. They’re how the discerning DM proves to their players that they care!

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5E Supplement Review: 15 New Backgrounds

One of the best additions to 5th Edition D&D is the concept of Backgrounds. Designed to aid you in the creation of your characters’ personalities, the original Player’s Handbook presents a number of iconic backgrounds. Most people would agree that they’re not enough, as they by no means cover all of the potential concepts.

James Introcaso, best known by me for his hosting of The Tome Show‘s Round Table podcasts, has created fifteen new backgrounds for the D&D 5E game and released them as a Pay-What-You-Want product on the DMs Guild. Let’s have a look at them!

As you might expect, the majority of the product describes fifteen new backgrounds, as follows:

  • Cook
  • Cursed
  • Dead
  • Demolitions Expert
  • Doctor
  • Farmer
  • Harvester
  • Legendary Lineage
  • Lycanthrope
  • Parent
  • Polymorphed
  • Possessed
  • Raised by Animals
  • Retired Adventurer
  • Tinkerer

The product also features a selection of Group Backgrounds that can replace your main background’s starting feature with a feature shared with other members of your adventuring group. The groups presented are:

  • Family
  • Military Unit
  • Religious Order
  • Secret Society

Finally, James introduces a few new artisan tools (cooking and bomb-making tools) as well as a few new alchemical items. I mean bombs. The bombs are expensive, but amusing.

So, what are the new backgrounds like? The quick version: Fantastic!

James Introcaso does an excellent job of describing the backgrounds and suggesting new background traits. Each of the backgrounds is brimming with good ideas. Yes, they’re unlikely to all appeal to you, but that’s the point: a product like this needs a wide range of options, and it certainly delivers. I was concerned by the possible similarity of “Cursed”, “Dead”, “Lycanthrope”, “Possessed” and “Polymorphed”, all of which describe something terrible in your past which has now ended, but James manages to make each quite distinct from the others, with different personality traits and mechanical features.

Several of the backgrounds offer a choice between different background features, the one aspect of Backgrounds that intrudes into the mechanics of the game. A couple of these variants are problematic and I would be very careful of using them unaltered in my games, although the concepts behind them are good. For instance, being able to pass on (once) the curse that afflicted you (because it’s dormant, not removed) is an excellent idea, despite all my knowledge of game balance telling me it might cause problems. There are times when telling a really good story is more important than little things like “game balance”!

The writing and editing in the product is mostly good. There are a few awkward phrasings from time to time, and one or two grammatical errors – you have a “cooking job” or a “job as a cook”, not a “cook job” – but these are minor issues. The product includes a number of pieces of public domain art that complement the text well.

As a stylistic matter, I’m not actually that fond of using modern-day vernacular when describing features of a fantasy (D&D) world. Would an inhabitant of the fantasy realm refer to losing his “mojo”? This is something that breaks my immersion when reading a fantasy RPG product; it may not matter to you.

The Group Backgrounds are not as successfully implemented as the individual backgrounds; they have much less detail and the features vary widely in usefulness; I’m really not fond of the Family trait at all. (People outside your family can repay their debts to any member of your family regardless of whom they incurred it from, meaning you occasionally get free stuff… it’s a bit vague and potentially broken).

However, all of my niggles with this product are just minor issues. Overall, it’s a great selection of new backgrounds. They fulfil their role as inspiration for new characters admirably, and they provide a really good selection of new personality traits, flaws, bonds and ideals: exactly what you want from this supplement.

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D&D 5E Supplement review – Player Cheat Sheet

I occasionally need to remind myself that not everyone studies the rules to D&D in the manner in which I do. (Indeed, most people haven’t been playing the game over thirty years!) Rules summaries and clarifications are very useful for people who don’t want to immerse themselves in the minutiae of several hundred pages of rules. And it is for those people that Sean Wicket has created his D&D 5E Player Cheat Sheet, a double-sided page that summarises a lot of useful information for DMs and players.

The Cheat Sheet summarises the following information:

  • Combat Progression (including Surprise)
  • Ranged Attacks (including in Close Quarters)
  • Melee Attacks
  • Opportunity Attacks
  • Two-Weapon Fighting
  • Grappling
  • Shoving
  • Hiding
  • Cover
  • Critical Hits
  • Rests
  • Movement
  • Conditions
  • Attack Roll calculation
  • Saving Throws calculation
  • Spellcasting (including Duration, Concentration, Combining Effects, and Areas of Effect).

The summaries occasionally leave out information, but they also include some often-forgotten details. For instance, the entry for Material Components states that the caster must have one hand free to access the components; this isn’t strictly true if they’re wielding a spellcasting focus (such as a shield inscribed with their holy symbol). The surprise summary says “can’t react until end of turn”, when it really should clarify it as “can’t react until end of your turn”. However, that an unarmed attack does 1 bludgeoning damage is something I wouldn’t know without looking it up in the PHB.

The descriptions of the conditions are very abbreviated; I’ll continue to use the ones on my official DM’s Screen. The images of the spell areas-of-effect are nicely done.

Although not a perfect summary, I’ve no doubt many players will find it helpful.

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5E Adventure Review – DDEX1-05: The Courting of Fire

The fifth adventure of the D&D Expeditions releases, The Courting of Fire, brings the Cult of the Dragon to centre stage, as the party investigates the theft of several papers and tomes from Mantor’s Library.

One of the ongoing flaws of the DDAL adventures is their introductions: many are vague and don’t really give the party a good reason to enter the adventure. Some of the authors are better than others at this; I would prefer a more “in medias res” approach to starting the adventures, but I’m also quite happy to say “You’ve been hired by the Lord Sage to investigate some thefts. He’s gathered you before him, and he’s now explaining your job”. The Courting of Fire has a particularly weak opening with a Black Fist guard posting a “Wanted” poster in front of the adventurers. I guess that’s a clue as to what they should be investigating, but the adventure leaves up to the players even the simple task of visiting the Lord Sage for more answers. This may be appropriate in some home games – and you may find it works for you – but in an adventure that is part of Organised Play, I want a more definite beginning to the adventure.

The first part of the adventure sees the party investigating Phlan, looking for clues as to where the thieves have gone. Depending on the desires of the players and DM, this can be expanded with quite a bit of entertaining role-playing. The major locations and characters are described briefly, and there’s quite a bit of information to be found which can aid the players understand the sort of expedition the thieves were planning. Some of the characters interacted with here will be used again in later adventures.

The second part of the adventure has the party exploring an old temple, now infested with undead. In a nice twist, it’s proved too much for the thieves, who must be rescued by the party. There’s a few tricks and traps to overcome in addition to the monsters.

While The Courting of Fire isn’t a classic adventure by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a pretty fun one. It’s written with 2nd-level characters in mind, but has notes for scaling it to levels 1-4. DDAL play allows tables of 3-7, so in theory it’s playable by 3-7 characters of levels 1-4. In practice, I’d modify the threats more at the extremes of those level ranges.

There’s some very entertaining role-playing possible in the adventure, not least with the thieves. It’s fun seeing the villains realise that they weren’t as competent as they thought they were. The adventure evokes the long history of the Realms quite successfully, and also brings three important factions and figures into the spotlight: the Cult of the Dragon, the Black Fist and the Lord Sage. A single special quest for the Zhentarim isn’t quite as successful. Yes, it’s in-character, but it doesn’t really add that much to the adventure as it’s something the party will do in any case.

While The Courting of Fire isn’t the best of the DDAL range, it is a good adventure that helps continue the overall Tyranny of Dragons storyline in Phlan.

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Book Review: Spellfire

The fourth novel set in the Forgotten Realms, Spellfire, was released in July 1988. It was the first novel of the creator of the Realms, Ed Greenwood, and it would prove to be his only novel for six years, as he was kept rather busy writing gaming material for the Realms. (Since 1994, he’s published quite a few more books…)

Spellfire exists in two forms: the original release, and a revised “expanded” release (which, oddly, is shorter than the original one!) I read the original book when it was released many, many times; I have only just read the revised (2002) edition. It’s a book of immense personal significance to me; the book that really made me fall in love with the Realms.

It’s not without its problems, however.

The book tells the story of Shandril Shessair, a young girl raised in an inn in Highmoon who craves adventure. She runs away from her adoptive father with a band of adventurers to discover it. Unfortunately, while the adventures she finds are certainly exciting, they’re definitely not safe: her adventuring company are slain, she’s chased through several teleportation devices to first Myth Drannor and then the lair of a dracolich, offered as a sacrifice, and is only saved by the intervention of some truly experienced adventurers: The Knights of Myth Drannor and their friend, Elminster, Sage of Shadowdale.

Along the way she falls in love with a young magic-user, Narm, and discovers she has the rare talent of creating and manipulating spellfire – the raw stuff of magic – which she uses to destroy two dracoliches and a large number of other enemies who seek her to control her or kill her. Basically, every power in the area wants her: with the Zhentarim and the Cult of the Dragon being the two major organisations that keep sending men and women (and dragons) to get her. Eventually, with most of them dead and now treating her with caution, she’s able to escape with Narm to the North of the Savage Frontier, far away from her original home, where she hopes she’ll be able to live in peace.

The first part of the book is glorious. In the second half, the constant attacks begin to get wearisome. The picture it paints of the Realms is an unsettling one. One of the criticisms of the Realms by gamers is that there are too many powerful characters in it to allow the heroism of new characters; this is the novel that cleaves the closest to that description. Although the previous three Realms novels had the gods meddling in the affairs of mankind, their actual human servants were typically not too powerful. This novel has many of the most powerful wizards in the Realms dropping in for a visit, and the world it paints is terrifying. There is another tier of power on display here: consider the difference between the threats faced by Daredevil and the threats faced by Thor. That’s the disparity we’re talking about. Can a setting maintain that? Certainly it can – comic book universes like Marvel and DC have been doing it for decades – but we tend not to think of the Realms on those terms.

spellfireDespite the problems in the development of the plot (the problem being that it doesn’t develop enough, with not enough time for Shandril to properly develop as a character), the book is full of entertaining characters and brilliant world-building. The Knights of Myth Drannor were drawn from the player characters used by Ed Greenwood’s friends in his D&D games. There’s an astonishing amount of detail to their history, only some of which we see in the book. Given that Greenwood had been playing D&D since 1975, and running games since 1978, there had been a lot of adventuring in the Realms by the time Spellfire was written. (Ed Greenwood notes that after 20 years of play, the highest level of the Knights had only reached 9th level! There are major differences between the literary Realms and that of Greenwood’s home campaign!) The Knights, at one point, describe themselves as still children – still with that love of play and adventure – and this is very obvious in their banter with each other.

Not all of the Knights get equal time – Torm the thief definitely seems to dominate the pages when he’s around – but you do get to meet all of them, discover their distinct personalities, and understand something of their lives.

To a large extent, the plot of Spellfire is there only to allow the characters to interact. Ed Greenwood has a remarkable gift for characterisation, and Spellfire investigates what it means to be so powerful, as seen from many different viewpoints. The theme of loneliness vs love and friendship is very strong in the book, and some of its most affecting moments come as Elminster comforts a dying sorceress who once was his promising apprentice before she turned to evil.

It was Ed Greenwood’s original intention to have Elminster as mostly a background character in the Realms, but the clamour of the readers’ and his editors’ desire for more Elminster derailed that plan. Ed, if you’re ever looking to see where that plan went wrong, go and reread Spellfire: Elminster is brilliant in it, human in all the best of ways and a character I just want to spend more time with. His powers are immaterial when you consider his interactions with those around him, and it’s in them that is realised one of the best characters of the Realms. Against the glory of Elminster, how can the (relatively) undeveloped Narm and Shandril compare?

Spellfire, for all its faults, is a tremendously important book. It introduces the reader to the heart of the Realms, along with several significant characters and factions that are still relevant today. It’s filled with fascinating detail, much of which I haven’t even touched upon in this review. I don’t reread books lightly. I certainly don’t reread them ten times without there being merit to them. Spellfire deserved those rereads, and it deserves your attention.

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5E Adventure Review: DDEX1-04 Dues for the Dead

duesDues for the Dead
is the fourth adventure released by the D&D Adventurers League and the closest to a traditional dungeon crawl. Designed by Steve Winter, who has written and edited more adventures than more people (including Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat), it sees the player characters asked to investigate the catacombs beneath Valhingen Graveyard in Phlan.

The characters are hired by the priests of Kelemvor who tend the graveyard. In the Forgotten Realms, Kelemvor is the god of the dead, and he hates undead. With several of the priests disappearing in recent days, the remaining priests fear the that undead in the catacombs have risen, and so they need the characters to investigate and discover what is going on. A young priestess of Kelemvor, Cassyt, may accompany the party on their expedition, which allows some interesting interactions, especially if the players want to loot the tombs. For some reason, Cassyt doesn’t think that is acceptable behaviour!

This is an excellent adventure. It contains a wide variety of challenge: there’s combat, role-playing, exploration and various other challenges. Most importantly, there are secrets to be uncovered. There’s a reason for the undead activity, and the players can discover that, as well as other, unrelated matters that are still very interesting.

The adventure, like all the DDAL adventures, has suggestions for scaling it from levels 1-4, and is pitched at a group of five 2nd-level characters. You do have to be a bit careful of the scaling notes – they’re a good start, but actual knowledge of your group trumps generic advice.

For me, the most frustrating thing about the adventure was the lack of a grid on the main dungeon map; it’s beautifully drawn, but the grid seems to have disappeared. (A revised version of the map is available separately, but I’m currently unable to access it).

The map is moderately linear, a function of the adventure being designed to be run in a three to four-hour slot; there are some side-branches, but most of the dungeon lies on one path. For the style of adventure, it actually offers more options than some – there are certainly a few tournament dungeons that are entirely linear!

Ultimately, this is a very fun adventure. You get to interact with some of the important factions of Phlan, and to explore a dungeon. It’s a good one to play. This adventure doesn’t really tie in to the greater storyline of the Tyranny of Dragons, but not less enjoyable for that.

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5E Adventure Review: Alabaster Palace of the Dao

Alabaster Palace of the Dao starts in an interesting way. The universe has ended. Ragnarok has come, and now Chaos reigns.

For many stories, this would prove something of an impediment. Rob Couture uses it in an entertaining manner: the player characters, once legendary heroes, have been resurrected by a Rakshasa and are asked to recover the four Jewels of Perfection, artefacts that will allow the universe to recover from the Chaos that has descended. It’s a great start to the adventure.

The rest of the adventure deals with the recovery of the first of the Jewels, which is held in a mote of Elemental Earth: The Alabaster Palace of the Dao. The map of the palace is a thing of beauty. It is beautifully drawn, and although the design isn’t too complex, it conveys the scale of the dungeon and the features that can be found therein.

Unfortunately, the formatting of the adventure thereafter has one or two problems. Chief amongst them is that the text appears to basically consist of stat-blocks. This is not entirely accurate: there is boxed text, sidebars describing NPC personalities, and descriptions of the areas, but I estimate about 40% of the text is descriptive and 60% is stat-blocks. It’s far, far too much.

One of the results of this is that the adventure doesn’t engage me as it should. It has a great concept, and the palace is filled with dangerous creatures which can be negotiated with or fought; sidebars give personality notes and ideas for player-NPC interactions. The rooms are described beautifully – but it drowns under an excess of stats. They also affect the formatting of the text, so that sometimes the personality notes appear on the same page as the room’s descriptions, and other times they’re separated from the main description by a page (and a lot of mechanics).

Despite these concerns, I can see that the adventure allows for an entertaining adventure. Whether it’s run as a hack’n’slash fight or a more role-playing heavy infiltration, the DM is likely to need to use a lot of his or her own ingenuity to run it, but the basics have been fleshed out enough for the DM to have enough inspiration to take it further. I would have preferred it if there were more cool things for the players to investigate though: there are a lot of monsters, but not so much in the way of tricks and traps.

For those that don’t like the post-apocalyptic setting, it’s quite easy to use some of the other suggested hooks and just have it as a standard earth-palace containing a valuable item guarded by dangerous foes.

Ultimately, I have a mixed reaction to Alabaster Palace of the Dao. It has a lot of good material, although the DM needs to do significant work to to bring it to life, and I’d prefer to have seen more unusual features than just the monsters. There’s lot of promise here and I’m hoping further adventures in the series engage me more. Ultimately, there’s one major problem with it: it doesn’t really bring out the setting. Yes, it makes the palace easy to place into other campaigns, but the post-apocalyptic idea is such a good one, I would have liked to see more done with it.

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