DungeonScape no more

The folk at Trapdoor Technologies are no longer working with Wizards to create DungeonScape, as per this post.

I am not terribly surprised by this. I received my beta invite about a month ago, only to discover a program that was rather terrible in its implementation. Apparently, the program was better for iOS, but the web version I viewed was awful. It had not improved when I had another look at it a week ago.

There are times when I am greatly saddened by the demise of a project. This is not one of those times.

I am saddened that there isn’t yet a good set of electronic tools for enhancing 5E. Wizards of the Coast has had a poor record with its digital tools; I am sympathetic to the difficulty in providing them, but disappointed that they haven’t yet been able to make something work.

What I do hope is that the demise of DungeonScape opens up the way for pdfs to be provided for the new D&D books. I hope we soon get some clarification from Wizards on what their plans are now that DungeonScape is gone.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E | Leave a comment

Adventure Review: The Fiddler’s Lament

If there is one person I really wish Legendary Games would employ, it would be a competent editor. The Fiddler’s Lament is a short, one-session adventure originally designed to be used as a side trek during Paizo’s horror-themed Carrion Crown adventure path. This version has been converted to the 5E D&D rules and could be easily used as part of another campaign or as a stand-alone adventure. Unfortunately, it’s plagued by incompetent writing.

Alhindri wandered for weeks before finally falling in with a band of Wanderers headed north. In this people of dusken skin and dervish dances, Alhindri had finally found a kindred spirit. They knew the ways of the night song and the dance of the moonlight upon the water; they too could hear the music in the crackle of the campfire and freedom of nature as it flowed through their veins in an expression of purest joy, devoid of thought or artifice. In turn, the Wanderers accepted her as one of their own and allowed her to dance to the sound of their fiddle and tambourine as they traveled the rugged countryside of the North.

The ideas behind the adventure are evocative and, if they were better expressed, would help inspire the DM. As it is, there’s a lot of horrible prose for the DM to work through. Clichés and bad grammar abound – and badly employed clichés at that. The text looks like a first draft.

If you can get past the long (one-page) background and reach the actual adventure, you’ll find a short and mostly competent adventure. An insane elf-maid, Alhindri, has been given a cursed fiddle and, as she plays it, it raises the undead.

The encounters faced by the players are a succession of battles with these undead. The initial encounters take place just after dawn in the village of Raven; the players need to save the villagers from various undead creatures. Eventually, the players need to make their way to the graveyard to defeat Alhindri and the skeletons of her friends. There’s a modicum of role-playing in the adventure, but mostly it’s just one combat after another. Some of the encounters are quite interesting, especially one where the players may choose to defend some moneylenders, despite the disapproval of members of the townsfolk!

There are some problems with the conversion to the new edition, especially with the statistics for the magical fiddle. It gives a bonus to “natural armour”, whatever that might be. The distracted player takes a -4 penalty to Perception checks (surely this would be better as disadvantage?), and can grant temporary hit points as a reaction, “it can do this multiple times per round”. Apart from the definition of reaction being only once per round, being able to grant temporary hit points without limit whenever its player reaches zero hit points would seem to be slightly problematic. How do you defeat its wielder?

The other monsters display occasional problems in their statistics, with bonuses often not being calculated properly (for instance, an acolyte uses Dexterity for his mace rather than Strength). These mistakes are unlikely to have a major impact on play.

Ultimately, it’s not a bad adventure, but its attempt to provide an evocative feel is badly undermined by its writing style. This adventure should be so much better than it is.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Review | 1 Comment

The trouble with unbounded accuracy

My AD&D campaign is in trouble. After three years of play, it’s getting towards the stage of being an elderly campaign and – quite frankly – I need a break from it. Yes, I know some AD&D campaigns go for year after year after year and by those standards this campaign has only started, but this particular campaign is feeling tired.

There are many reasons for this, but it is worth noting that one element that is contributing to the problems is that one of the characters now has an armour class of -8! (In newer editions of the game, this corresponds basically to an armour class of 28). It’s insanely good and most monsters can’t hit that character. This, of course, leads to a lack of tension in the game.

The character in question, a fighter, has an 18 Dexterity and effectively magical platemail +3 and a shield +3. (I could be wrong on the specifics of which magic item has which bonus). Jesse’s magic-user is quite happy to cast the strength spell on all the fighters at the beginning of each day, so they tend to be in the upper percentiles of 18 strength for most fights. This is good play, and this level of equipment can be expected in a long-running AD&D campaign.

Except that it causes problems, especially when other members of the group have normal armour classes (between 2 and -2, mostly).

AD&D is a funny game. The monsters, for the most part, keep their ACs between 2 and 9, with notable exceptions being devils and demons, but there is a certain level of inflation going on with the player’s abilities. In original D&D, the random tables allowed for an Armour Class of 0, with only a 1/3 chance of the +3 shield catching the blow and giving the AC of -3. (Dexterity did not originally improve Armour Class). The Greyhawk supplement gave the game the form it would take in to AD&D: Armour and Shields to a possible +5, and Dexterity reducing Armour Class (albeit for fighters only). Thus, an Armour Class of -12 was possible.

With such armour classes, the chance of being struck drop to 5% or 10%, and only if the greatest (12 HD or more) monsters are attacking. Dungeon Masters through the years have dealt with these problems by making the armour vulnerable – rust monsters being the classic solution, but forcing the armour to make saving throws against attack forms such as fireballs and lightning bolts has also been popular. (Item saving throws are a fascinating topic; exactly when they should be employed differs from table to table. In my case, I prefer not to use them).

The adventure I’ve been running the group through isn’t really built for such high armour classes; it’s certainly for higher-level characters, but not to such an insane degree.

So, what now for the campaign? As I said, this is just one of the problems besetting it, and – eventually – a relatively minor one. I could deal with it if I really wanted to. Rather, I expect that I soon press pause on the campaign until I feel enthusiastic about it again, and instead attempt something different. Most likely Call of Cthulhu, for which I have a number of adventures I’d like to run.

Posted in AD&D, D&D, Design | 3 Comments

Hoard of the Dragon Queen, session 9

This session saw the characters proceeding northwards with the caravan, spending a day in Daggerford, and ingratiating themselves with the cultists. I had a full table this week, with seven players and myself as DM. All in all, we had slightly above 30 players participating this week at Good Games Ballarat.

My session focused a little more on role-playing and story this time around. I used the opportunity of the group arriving in Daggerford to tell tales of the Scourge of the Sword Coast heroes, which pleased Danielle and Josh no end, as they’d played through that campaign earlier in the year. I used Sir Isteval, the patron of that previous adventure, to interact with a few characters who were members of the Lords Alliance (which is about half the table), allowing them to feel that they weren’t alone in this adventure, as well as giving them some much needed support. In particular, Sir Isteval was able to reequip the player characters. As a result, most of the fighters now have plate mail armour and so will be significantly more durable in a fight.

Meanwhile, I properly introduced the gnome who joined them last session as Janma Gleamsilver, a female gnome who proved to be both nosy and charming. She proved particularly interested in what was going on with the cultists’ wagons, and especially in a new traveller who had joined the group, a human male who showed signs of a tattooed scalp he kept hidden beneath a woollen cap. (Which, because it was amusing, I described as a deerstalker). Her primary interactions were with Danielle and Josh, but she was curious about all the group.

Paul and Lewis, who were travelling with the cultists, noted the interest of Janma in the new traveller, but proved no more able to have a civil conversation with him than Janma, although he spent a lot of time in conversation with Cultist Bob.

Was Janma one of the Harpers? She was inquisitive enough for them, although she got on pretty well with Paul (who is a member of the Zhentarim).

Speaking of Harpers, once the group was on the road again, they came across a human man, buried up to his neck in the middle of the road. The wagon masters were all in favour of leaving him there, as they didn’t want to be set upon by bandits (who had presumably buried him), but the group persuaded them that they could learn more about the bandits by interrogating the stranger. So the caravan stopped for a few hours as they dug out the stranger. He proved to be a member of the Harpers. He explained that he’d been buried by his jilted bride’s in-laws, who had proven to be bandits (which is why he didn’t marry the girl). The group invited him to travel with them to Waterdeep, which he gratefully accepted.

Action was provided for the session by the group coming across a merchant’s wagon being attacked by particularly savage gnolls. I played this encounter beginning at fairly long range, which permitted the archers in the party to fully appreciate their skills (even if the gnolls did not think likewise). Lewis, in particular was pretty happy to just cut down the gnolls as they raced towards the group.

I’m quite happy to let the archers dominate the occasional battle. They can have a hard time of it during dungeon crawls when everything is at close quarters!

During this stage of the trip, one of the cultist wagon-drivers began paying a lot of attention to Danielle’s character; it seemed he recognised her from Greenest! A couple of nights later, the cultists attempted to get rid of Danielle in a night-attack, but they were stopped and killed by the group. Their bodies were hidden, and the session ended with Cultist Bob ordering Paul and Lewis to find those responsible. Paul and Lewis were extremely enthusiastic about the order, but proved extremely poor at actually finding the murderers!

The caravan continues north…

EDIT: I am reminded that I completely forgot to mention the peacock. After rescuing the merchant, they discovered he was transporting birds of plumage for sale in Waterdeep. Parrots and the like. Unfortunately, I also mentioned that he had a peacock, which Josh acquired from the grateful merchant. And then proceeded to tie to his helmet. This was very amusing, but it may cause a few problems for Josh later on…

Posted in D&D, D&D Adventurers League, Session Report, Tyranny of Dragons | Leave a comment

Comic Review: Legends of Baldur’s Gate #1

At long last, the first of the new Dungeons & Dragons comics has been release. Legends of Baldur’s Gate #1 sees Jim Zub (writer), Max Dunbar (artist) and Jon-Paul Bove (colorus) telling the tale of Delina, a moon elf wild mage, who begins the story fleeing from gargoyles who have been sent after her for an unknown reason. In her attempts to protect herself from the gargoyles, whom seem little concerned about any collateral damage they might cause, her magic goes awry and summons Minsc, the addled ranger first introduced in the Baldur’s Gate computer game of 1998.

Minsc mistakes Delina for Neera, a wild mage introduced in the Enhanced Edition of the computer game, and immediately starts protecting her. From there, the two are pretty much lined up for more adventures, although this issue doesn’t go all that much further than that.

This is very much an introductory issue, although it hits the ground running and doesn’t bother too much with exposition. We’ve got a mysterious opponent who wants Delina (probably alive), and she’s trying to find out what’s happened to her brother, who is apparently somewhere in Baldur’s Gate and in some danger. As far as first issues goes, all of that is quite sufficient. (I’m aware that it’s actually about 100 years since Minsc was last active in the Realms, but I’m sure that will be mentioned in later issues).

What makes it really worth reading is the depiction of Minsc; Jim Zub has a great deal of fun with the ranger’s speech patterns; although we’re yet to see a “Go for the eyes, Boo! Go for the eyes!”, we do get great Minscisms like “If there is danger, then I shall dange it!” and “We are very halted, good sir.”

The artwork is very good, although the magnification available from my digital copy occasionally displays a lack of detail on some panels (there’s a couple of faceless citizens that really look odd). Delina is drawn especially well, with an excellent range of expression.

The comic is part of the Tyranny of Dragons story arc, which I’m also experiencing through the D&D RPG adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen. It seems likely that there’ll be some connection to the Cult of the Dragon. It’s a pity the comic wasn’t available when my players passed through Baldur’s Gate a couple of weeks ago; I could have incorporated a couple of ideas from it into the session!

One interesting note: upon Delina entering the Wide, the great market square of Baldur’s Gate, I immediately recognised the area (and the stage) from our play of last year’s adventure Murder in Baldur’s Gate. It’s nice when the artwork matches your vision of the area.

All in all, it’s a nice, entertaining start to the series, and I look forward to reading the next issue.

Posted in Comics, D&D, D&D 5E, Legends of Baldur's Gate, Review, Tyranny of Dragons | 1 Comment

Adventure Review: Wanted

The latest adventure product to appear on DriveThruRPG’s virtual shelves for Dungeons & Dragons 5E is Wanted by Assassin Games, subtitled as “A Collection of Short Adventures in an Urban Environment”. The adventures are written for low-level adventurers – levels 1-2 in particular, it seems. There are ten adventures in all. The product also includes rules for chases that a number of the adventures use, as well as a selection of hazards that can be found in the sewers.

The adventures are very short, either one or two pages each, and include the monster statistics as well as a synopsis of the adventure, notes for the Dungeon Master, notes on individual encounters and suggestions for the aftermath of the adventure. They typically require expansion by the Dungeon Master, and some would be better served by role-playing out the investigations required rather than just short-circuiting the process using skill checks. For instance, the first adventure sees the players attempting to find a master thief. The adventure suggests following her as an option, with Perception and Stealth checks being needed, or Survival rolls for tracking her if she evades immediate capture. On a failed Survival roll? There isn’t any suggestion of what then occurs – somewhat of a problem in the adventure’s structure! The James Bond 007 RPG had a set of interesting encounter tables for when the trail went cold in order to get the players back on track; this product would benefit from that, or at least a table of general random encounters for a city.

The adventures are as follows:

  • The Raven – catch a master thief
  • Mrs O’Learys Basement – clear giant rats out of a cellar
  • A Vermin Problem – defeat wererats and their rat allies
  • Dweller in the Dark – defeat a ghoul lurking in the catacombs
  • The Unfinished Tower – a Lord hires the group to deal with an imp infestation in the tower he’s building
  • Grapes of Wrath – hunt down the culprits responsible for stealing crates of wine
  • Farmer’s Lament – hunt down and defeat monsters killing farmers’ cattle
  • Death from Above – seek a mysterious murderer (a gargoyle)
  • Lingering Regrets – help a merchant who is being haunted by a spectre
  • A Knight’s Blade – recover a stolen blade

The adventures present a nice selection of challenges for the players, and are not always as obvious as they may originally seem. They do vary in quality; the weakest by far is Dweller in the Dark where the major part of the adventure – searching for the ghoul – is not detailed. The adventure notes that it could become tedious searching the catacombs, but then doesn’t actually detail any section of them save the final encounter! The adventures are particularly weak on these middle stages – the beginning and end of Death from Above are really good, but there really isn’t enough attention given to the process of finding that a gargoyle is responsible. They work much better when the players just need to turn up and get attacked by the enemy.

The rules for chases are problematic. I’m not entirely sure how they’re meant to work; the rules indicate that everyone makes an initiative check, with characters winning the initiative able to engage with the pursued character. I guess this check is meant to occur each round, although it isn’t stated (and thus goes against how initiative normally works in D&D 5E). Each round, the DM selects an obstacle for the players to overcome – generally by making an ability check of some kind. If everyone fails the check, the pursued character goes free. Honestly, I’ve seen worse systems, although chase rules in RPGs are always problematic. Once more, I come back to the systems used in the James Bond 007 RPG as the baseline that new systems have to exceed. These don’t, especially as the relative speeds of those involved in the pursuit are not counted, and any range between the participants is ignored entirely.

The sewer hazards are amusing, but again have problems. I’m particularly amused by this description of what happens when the players wade through a corrosive liquid: “The PC’s should be alerted to the presence of the liquid by hearing the hiss of their clothing and equipment disintigrating.” (Unfortunately, the spelling and grammatical mistakes are in the actual text; there aren’t too many of such constructions, but there are a few editing mistakes). Only six hazards are given; I would have liked a bigger range of encounters.

The product ends with a small number of player handouts, which are well-presented. In fact, the formatting of this product is pretty good. There is very little art, but that which is used is well executed.

Although the adventures in this product are underdeveloped, the core ideas are strong and there are some excellent suggestions for what might happen after each adventure ends; it’s very good indeed to see these plot hooks – it’s a pity some weren’t developed into full adventures. The product is a bargain at the price ($2 at time of writing) and I could well see myself using some of these adventures in a city-based campaign. So, although Wanted isn’t without some major problems, it’s worth having a look at for inspiration.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Review | Leave a comment

AD&D Review – C3: The Lost Island of Castanamir

The third module in the Competition series was The Lost Island of Castanamir, a 32-page adventure by Ken Rolston for 5 to 8 characters of levels 1-4. As a competition adventure, it gives guidelines on how to score various teams playing through the adventure. I wonder if they were ever used by anyone who bought the adventure?

Ken Rolston is a significant game designer. His work on the game, Paranoia, is influential and well-regarded, and he was the lead designer on both Morrowind and Oblivion, titles in the Elder Scrolls series. The Lost Island dates from his very early days in the industry, and is his first published work for TSR.

It’s also plain weird.

The Lost Island is set in the home of a planar-hopping wizard who went missing a couple of hundred years ago. His island also vanished, but a few years ago it appeared again and a local wizard has hired the party to investigate and loot the place. Unfortunately, they get shipwrecked on the island (and lose most of their supplies). The adventure then concerns them exploring Castanamir’s residence, trying to get enough food to survive, dealing with the monsters, tricks and traps, and looking for the way out.

This is complicated by the wizard having set up his home so that each room so that each door works as a one-way teleporter; going back through the door they just passed through will not lead back to the room they originally came from! The doors are consistent in how they work, so a group can eventually make a map of which door links to which room, but it will likely cause a lot of confusion in the beginning, but eventually the group will be able to map the dungeon.

When you add the contents of the rooms, which tend to the unusual and bizarre, you have the makings of an inventive and enjoyable adventure.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. The challenges feel very tournament-y, which isn’t all that surprising given its original use. A lot of the challenges are just frustrating for the players, based on logic that is opaque to them. The tone of the adventure is also problematic; the juxtaposition of this strange, dangerous residence with a lot of whimsical or downright silly encounters isn’t something I enjoy. The biggest offender here are the gingwatzim, creatures from the ethereal plane that Castanamir was experimenting with, where quite an interesting concept is undermined by the silly naming conventions Rolston used. There are two pages devoted to these creatures, and their use in the adventure is underwhelming.

I guess if you like frustrating the players with the strange (and humorous) behaviour of unknowable creatures, you’ll enjoy them.

The adventure does have good encounters in it, but I find that a lot of the ideas are good inspiration for the DM but not so good in actual play.

Structurally, the adventure is mostly stand-alone challenges, with two ongoing problems: how do the doors link up, and where is the exit? As once the group exits Castanamir’s residence, there’s no way back (something they don’t know), it reads very much a disposable, one-shot adventure: characters have one chance to get as much loot as they can.

The interior artwork is really good, as Jeff Easley provided a number of smaller and larger works to illustrate the adventure. Several of these illustrations got reused in later hardcover books in the AD&D 1E and 2E lines. The maps, by Diesel, don’t come up so well; they’re adequate but they tend to be quite cluttered.

One thing worth mentioning is the entire adventure, despite being in a 32-page book, feels quite short. Eight pages are devoted to eight pregenerated characters, there are four pages of full-page art, and two more pages detail tournament information. Some of the rooms are very detailed – the library gets over one page.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the adventure comes down to a mismatch of expectations. Castanamir was an 18th level magic-user, and his dwelling-place is being explored by a group of apprentice adventurers? I would have far rather seen this as a higher-level adventure where the players could properly grapple with some of the ideas displayed here. As it is, it doesn’t really reach the potential of its ideas. It’s a disappointing adventure, although there are a few encounters that can prove enjoyable for the players.

 

Posted in AD&D, Review | 2 Comments