Thursday, June 27, 2019

Amazing Adventures brings pulp action to D&D

Amazing Adventures 5E cover
Amazing Adventure 5E is now on Kickstarter!
Before Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, there were modern adaptations of the d20 mechanics for other genres, including action adventure, investigation horror, sci-fi, and supers. Some of the well known adaptations included d20 Modern, True20, and Amazing Adventures.

If you are interested in playing a non-fantasy genre with familiar D&D-like mechanics, you can! Troll Lord Game is Kickstarting its Amazing Adventures 5E (coming in December), which takes its d20-based Amazing Adventures and updates it to include 5th Edition mechanics.

Disclaimer: I have no association with Troll Lord Games other than being a huge fan of their games and adventures.

Class archetypes include the Arcanist, Gadgeteer / Powered, Gumshoe, Hallowed, Hooligan, Mentalist, Pugilist, Raider, and Socialite.The stretch goals are about to unlock the Archer, Gunslinger, and Soldier with the Acrobat, Duelist, and Pirate not far behind. (Just 5 days left!)

An Amazing Adventure 5E preview can be found here!

If you've wanted to play Dakota James, archaeologist and adventurer... or Professor Ann Igma, investigator of the paranormal... or Captain Conundrum with astounding powers of... riddles...? Amazing Adventures 5E has you dialed in. If you've ever wanted to mix magic, psionics, super powers, and super science, Amazing Adventures 5E provides an easy framework to simulate these within a d20-based game.

Mummy risingNeed Pirates with black power weapons alongside sword and shield? No problem. Want mobsters with Tommy Guns? Got it covered. A Gadgeteer hero with a repulsor ray? Sure thing. Amazing Adventures 5E gives you the tools to abstract these concepts into familiar mechanics of 5th Edition.

If you can't wait until December, Amazing Adventures and the Amazing Adventures Companion are both available from DriveThru RPG. The earlier version of AA also uses familiar d20 mechanics and is worth checking out!

Lastly, even if you find you are not interested in Amazing Adventures, Troll Lord Game has several 5th Edition adventure titles for use with D&D. My absolute favorites are A0 The Rising Knight and A1 Assault on Blacktooth Ridge. They are both available in a low-cost bundle!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

D&D Essentials Kit Review

D&D Essentials Kit coverTLDR Summary: The D&D Essentials Kit is essential for your D&D collection... but wait until September if possible.

If you haven't read my preview, you might not know that the D&D Essentials Kit is also set in Phandalin and can be used alongside the adventure in the Starter Set. However, it also stands completely on its own as an introductory box set for new DM's. The adventure within is independent of events occurring in Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Included in the D&D Essentials Kit is
  • 64 page "Essentials" rule book (including character generation)
  • Dragon of Icespire Peak, a new adventure by Chris Perkins
  • 4 panel landscape DM screen
  • Double sided poster map with the town of Phandalin on one side and the local region of the Sword Coast on the reverse.
  • Quest cards, NPC cards, Magic Item cards, cards, cards, cards...
  • Red crystal dice set with 2d20 and 4d6
  • Blank character sheets
  • Includes a key to unlock the adventure content on D&D Beyond and a 50% discount on the digital Player's Handbook.

Wood Elf illustration So is it any good?

In a word? Yes. Solid. The art. The layout. The adventure format... It really hits on all cylinders. There are a few minor foibles, but they can be overlooked (more detail below).

A New Basic Rulebook

The Essentials Rulebook is a boiled down version of the D&D Basic PDF, but with some new art and layout adjustments. It includes character generation rules for the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Bard classes. Spell lists go to level 3.

I love this book as a replacement for the Starter Set rules. I was critical of the Starter Set over the fact that players (and DM) would have to download the Basic Rules separately for character creation. Not including character generation rules was a mistake in my opinion. With this change, this new box set feels very much like the early Basic D&D box sets with enough level advancement to give you the taste for the game.

Happy Little Accidents

The art is fantastic. It uses the same color art style already seen in the Starter Set and Player's Handbook as well as the pen and ink sketches found in the D&D Basic PDF (also seen in the PHB Conditions appendix).

The Sword Coast map lacks some detail, but I understand the need to not put extra details on the maps which would not appear in the adventure. The player map of Phandalin is excellent and will give the players a sense of place.

DM screen adventuring party

The DM screen has an amazing 4-panel illustration of an adventuring party about to walk in on some serious danger. I also love the fact that both the Starter Set and Essentials Kit have utilized a dragon for their cover art, something that recent core books have lacked. Some fans on social media have criticized the fact that the DM screen is a lighter cardstock instead of cardboard like the "reincarnated" screen. This isn't really new. Past editions have used lighter cardstock DM screens. It is true they might not take as much abuse as the cardboard ones, but if you treat them with care, they should be fine. I have cardstock DM screens from AD&D and 3.x that have survived the years.

Accessorize Me

The dice are... dice. Basic red gems. I wish they had been pearlescent red similar to the Starter Set, but that's a personal preference. The set also comes with quest cards, NPC (companion) cards, magic item cards initiative cards, etc.

NPC portraits
I'm a fan of play aids, especially for new players. I use Pathfinder Face Cards often in my home game to give the players a feel for the NPCs they interact with. Physical props also add fun. D&D is very much an ethereal game with so much happening in our imaginations. Physical components can aid our mental images, or at the least, remind us what we have in our inventory.

I am a little surprised that there were no pre-gens included as an alternative option to character creation. It would have been easy enough to include an example of each class. They could have just removed the ideals and bonds from the Starter Set characters. It's a minor consideration, but it does mean new players can't just "jump in and play" without going through the creation step.

Digital Dreams

One other new enhancement is that the D&D Essentials Kit includes an unlock key for the adventure on D&D Beyond. This is the first time a Wizards of the Coast physical product has included a free digital version. This is less easily achieved on a product that is not shrink wrapped (like a hardback) where one-time use keys could be stolen. It also comes with a 50% off key for the digital Players Handbook. I have lots to say about licensing a book through a service (which could go away) versus owning a PDF, but I won't complain here. It is nice to be able to use the D&D Beyond maps for virtual table top software.

There is one foible that I ran into. Their keys use a San Serif font. They also mix upper case "I" with lower case "L" and "1" in the same keys. Similarly the letter O is not distinguishable from zero. I am not the only one who has run into issue redeeming a key where the letters are less than obvious.

The Adventure Begins

The Adventure Begins

The adventure isn't perfect, but it works extremely well for the purpose of teaching new DMs, and is probably better than the Starter Set in that aspect. As much as I like Lost Mines of Phandelver, it has a strongly focused story that channels the players along a largely pre-determined route. Each leg of the Starter Set story is also "heavy" for lack of a better word. It contains a lot of detail for a new DM to digest in order to run well.

The Essentials Kit, on the other hand, is much more loose. It consists of a series of smaller site-based encounters than do not have a strict order of play. Each encounter is generally only 2 to 4 pages. This means the DM has a lot fewer things to consider to prep for any given session. Each scenario is very light and easy to run. This format is quite brilliant for new DMs. The adventure feels much less overwhelming for a newbie.

Polearm fighter
The story hooks start out a bit weak, consisting of mostly step-and-fetch quests. The rewards also appear oddly out-of-proportion for what the PCs are sent to do in the early levels. The PCs will receive a fair amount of money very quickly for what are essentially delivery quests... but that's OK. Given that it's intended for a new DM, it sets up the premise for the players that there are NPCs to interact with and they will occasionally ask you to do errands for some amount of gold or other treasure. This basic RPG trope will already be familiar for new players coming from video games. At least there are no "Collect 10 boar pelts" quests. The first few quests also "unlock" later quests.

The encounters themselves often present non-combat solutions as well as what skills a player might use to achieve a skill test. Scaling guidelines are often also presented as this set can be used in a DM and single PC only mode as well as with a larger party. The boxed text for the encounters usually includes just a few sentences to set the scene, leaving most of the description up to the DM to formulate. The adventure is written to foster a learn-as-you-play experience. There are a few things I might nit-pick, but they are relatively minor and largely subjective to my own tastes.

[UPDATE] After some careful consideration, I do believe Lost Mine of Phandelver is a better adventure overall than Dragon of Icespire Peak... However, Icespire Peak is much better as a D&D teaching tool. From the perspective of a new DM and new players, the Essentials Kit does a much better job of introducing newbies to the game at a pace that doesn't overwhelm. I would certainly recommend it to a newer audience over the Starter Set. That said, both are excellent products.

Final Thoughts

There is little doubt in my mind that this box set is a grand slam. It oozes the feel of D&D as both a game and fantasy genre in all the ways the Stranger Things box set failed to do so. It does a better job of teaching D&D in smaller, easier to digest chunks than the Starter Set did. The design team has learned a lot about the presentation of D&D since 2014 and it shows. It sets out to be an introductory set that can work well for a single PC or a party of five. It basically succeeds at every product goal put before it.

The Bad?  As I noted in my earlier post, I do not like that this is being sold as a Target exclusive through September. I truly think this exclusivity is going to hurt game shops because all the posts I see of people buying it on social media are from long-time D&D aficionados and not new gamers.

If you are not currently running the Starter Set, or not immediately going to start a new campain, I urge you to wait until September and order this from your friendly, local game store. If you were planning on paying the full $25 MSRP from Target, you should use the money to support your local game shop instead. They are the ones who often provide gaming spaces to the community and ways to hook up with other players locally. Please support the local community if you can.

I realize I am a bit of a hypocrite, but a review of this set three months from now would be much less relevant than one posted today. If I weren't running a D&D blog, I absolutely would have waited.

So, the long and short is: Buy this box... but wait until September if you can.

PS - For the curious, there are more pics in the Twitter thread.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

GM 101: How to Focus Game Prep

GM 101, Episode 6 - Game Prep

There is a gray space between world building and game prep... In this video, I discuss the different levels of game prep, and summarize how to get the most from your prep time. Hopefully, I can help you find what works best for you.

Monday, May 20, 2019

D&D Essentials Kit announced at D&D Live 2019

UPDATE: My review of the D&D Essentials Kit is live.

A plethora of product news came out of D&D Live this year, some more or less exciting than others (looking at you, Eberron). However, I think the most exciting in the list is the D&D Essentials Kit.

The D&D Essentials Kit is being published as an "along-side" sister set to the D&D Starter Set. It includes a new adventure (with a dozen or so new side quests) in the Phandalin region of the Sword Coast. It can be played separately or along with Lost Mines of Phandelver.

Included in the D&D Essentials Kit is

  • 64 page "Essentials" rule book (including character generation)
  • Dragon of Icespire Peak, a new adventure by Chris Perkins
  • 4 panel landscape DM screen
  • Double sided poster map with the town of Phandalin on one side and the local region of the Sword Coast on the reverse.
  • Quest cards, NPC cards, Magic Item cards, cards, cards, cards...
  • Red crystal dice set with 2d20 and 4d6
  • Will include a key to unlock the adventure content on D&D Beyond
There are several things to really like about these features. The Essentials rule book includes character generation with the four D&D Basic classes (Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, Wizard) plus the Bard. The rules will also include an edited version of the Sidekick NPC rules from Unearthed Arcana. This will allow a D&D group to consist solely of a single player and DM. The adventure will also support this "lone wolf" play style alongside the more traditional 4 PC party, which is a fantastic idea, because it lowers the barrier of entry to D&D considerably. I have also long argued that an off-the-shelf beginner product should also include character generation rules, even with the existence of the free Basic PDF. 

The DM screen is also a welcome addition. I don't personally use a DM screen, but I still love them as art and a reference tool. This DM screen is less thick than the $10 stand-alone screens. It is made of heavy card stock rather than the thicker chipboard found in board games. If you have seen the DM screen included in the 4th Edition DM's Kit, you'll understand the thickness. It is a weakness in terms of long-term durability, but a relatively minor one.

Quest cards, sidekick/NPC cards and Magic Item cards are a great idea for a starting set. I've always liked the Pathfinder Face Cards for NPCs. I've also used my own system for Quest cards, so these are an excellent game aid for new DMs.

The biggest downside is that this set will be a Target exclusive over the summer (until September). This leaves out the Friendly Local Game Stores who have generally gotten releases a couple weeks ahead of large retail. I understand the move from a marketing perspective, but I'm not terribly crazy about it.

D&D Essentials Kit contents as seen on the D&D Live 2019 live stream.

Final Thoughts

As much as the Stranger Things D&D box set was a bit "meh", there is little doubt in my mind that the D&D Essentials Kit will be a home run. My "perfect" starter kit might also include some PC and monster cardboard tokens, but this comes awfully close to a perfect beginner box set. Hopefully, the MSRP won't be too high, but I expect $25 will be the price point.

UPDATE: MSRP is $24.99

UPDATE 2: The box set contains a D&D Beyond key to unlock the online contents. It also includes a discount key for the Player's Handbook on D&D Beyond.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

D&D: Cheap Village Terrain

A few weeks ago on Twitter, I mentioned some inexpensive terrain options I found on Amazon, specifically some boats and medieval village pieces I thought might go well with Ghosts of Saltmarsh. I ended up purchasing a couple piece and here is my quick review. Below the video are also comparison shots with some Dwarven Forge and papercraft terrain options. You can read my earlier post on paper craft options here. Enjoy!

KERANOVA size comparison with Dwarven Forge
The KERANOVA buildings are little small when compared to the hefty, chunky Dwarven Forge houses.
KERANOVA size comparison with paper craft
The buildings are also slightly smaller than the free paper craft options from Wizards of the Coast,
but not so remarkably that you'd notice a major difference at a distance on the table.

KERANOVA size comparison with D&D miniatures
The KERANOVA medieval models are well detailed and decently sized for miniatures play. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Review: Stranger Things D&D Starter Set

UPDATE 06/28/19: The Amazon price has dropped to $16 on this box. This makes the value of the set a bit better. It is possible it might drop down toward the $12 - 14 range if it doesn't sell well after Stranger Things season 3 starts up.

Introduction & Disclaimer

Stranger Things D&D box cover
In writing this review, I've tried to set aside my biases (which is not always easy). In reviewing the product, I've considered 4 potential consumers types.
  1. Someone who has heard of D&D but never played, and is intrigued by the Stranger Things connection.
  2. Someone who may have played many years ago and is thinking of trying D&D again after having watched Stranger Things.
  3. Someone not as familiar with Stranger Things, but heard of and recognized the D&D brand at a large chain (like a Target, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, etc).
  4. A D&D enthusiast who collects various books, sets,  memorabilia, etc...
Given that I'm more in the 4th camp, I've tried to realign my thoughts toward consumers #1,  #2, and #3 who are really the "new players" that Hasbro/Wizards is attempting to target.

I've read and re-read the Stranger Things D&D Starter Set with the goal of the review in mind: Is this a good introduction for a new D&D player who was attracted by Stranger Things?

I will also compare and contrast the box contents against the original D&D Starter Set for 5th Edition. There will be some mild spoilers in this review and I will further warn the reader of any major spoilers this post may contain.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Amazing Alternatives to D&D

Dungeons & Dragons is the big brand that everyone recognizes, but there are dozens and dozens of other table top role-playing games out there. Here is just a small sampling of fantasy and science fiction games that you might also enjoy.

Shoot! I totally forgot to mention Numenera which is also Kickstarting a source book for 5th Edition, to add some science-fantasy to your D&D!

00:00 Introduction - 45 Years of Dungeons & Dragons
02:15 The One Ring / Adventures in Middle Earth
07:20 Castles & Crusades
09:30 Other Old School Revival Games
     Swords & Wizardry
     Labyrith Lord
     Basic Fantasy
10:35 Runequest
12:00 13th Age
     I didn't spend enough time on 13th Age - Backgrounds and ICONS are awesome.
13:00 Tunnels & Trolls
14:20 Lone Wolf Adventure Game
20:20 Dungeon Crawl Classics
22:30 Mutant Crawl Classics
24:30 Hackmaster
29:00 Mouse Guard
31:30 Savage Worlds 
33:40 GURPS Dungeon Fantasy
36:15 The Expanse
39:00 Paranoia
40:40 Deadlands, Metamorphosis Alpha, Dragon Age, Fantasy Age, Dungeon World, Apocalypse World, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, Dr Who
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